First Diamond Synthesis: 50 Years Later, A Murky Picture Of Who Deserves Credit
This year, on Dec. 16, it will be 50 years since the day chemist H. Tracy Hall claims to have achieved the first synthesis of diamond at the General Electric Research Laboratory in Schenectady, N.Y. His reproducible method, which included "seeding" with a catalyst the high-pressure cell in which the diamond was formed, quickly led to commercial production of diamonds.
Although he claims the credit for diamond synthesis at GE, Hall was not working alone. He was part of a research group formed in 1951--known as Project Superpressure--that included Robert Wentorf, Herbert M. Strong, and Francis P. Bundy. "In fact, Hall's breakthrough diamond-making run on Dec. 16 followed a very similar run by Strong a week before in which the GE team mistakenly thought they had made diamonds," says Robert M. Hazen, author of the 1999 book "The Diamond Makers."
"The GE team firmly believed that they had made diamonds on Dec. 8 to 9," Hazen says. "Most people at GE saw Hall's Dec. 16 run as confirmation, not the first synthesis. But Strong's 'first diamond' has turned out to be a natural chip, not synthetic. It was not until decades later, when I was working on the book and pushed for a spectroscopic analysis, that GE finally acknowledged that Tracy Hall was first [on Dec. 16] and not Herb Strong [on Dec. 9]."
When Hall received the Chemical Pioneer Award from the American Institute of Chemists in 1970, he wrote about his patented belt apparatus and his chemical insights about making synthetic diamond in an old GE hydraulic press. For about a year, he attempted many hundreds of indirect approaches, "but to no avail," he relates. "I was becoming discouraged. Then, one wintry morning, I broke open the sample cell ... My hands began to tremble; my heart beat rapidly; my knees weakened and no longer gave support. My eyes had caught the flashing light from dozens of tiny triangular faces of octahedral crystals ... and I knew that diamonds had finally been made by man" [The Chemist, XLVII, 276 (1970)].
"The idea of using the iron catalyst [(FeS) and graphite at a pressure near 70,000 atm and a temperature near 1,600 °C] was the breakthrough," Hall says.
Just one year after his achievement, however, Hall left GE. His departure was not a happy one. He contends that GE improperly credited the Project Superpressure team for the first synthesis of man-made diamond.
Today, Hall lives in Provo, Utah. When he left GE in 1955, he became a professor of chemistry and director of research at Brigham Young University. He invented successors to the belt apparatus press he developed for GE that are used in diamond synthesis today.
The website of the H. Tracy Hall Foundation notes that "GE management was anxious that the success be depicted as a team effort for a couple of reasons. First, obviously the contributions of the team were critical, and it's not likely that any man alone would have been able to finance and complete the project before the many others who were working on it.
"GE had a great deal of money tied up in equipment and scientists and was not willing to dismiss all that lightly," the website continues. "Of equal importance is the fact that GE wanted to convey the message that this was not something just anybody could whip up in their garage. Had the world known that the achievement had been accomplished on a leaky antique press with the invention of a farm boy from Utah, GE would have faced much stiffer competition from the outset."
In his book, Hazen, a senior staff scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C., and a professor of earth science at nearby George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, writes that at GE "the extent to which ideas were developed collectively versus independently is unrecorded, but there was certainly a great deal of interaction" between staff scientists.
There's a darker note to this story, Hazen adds: "In Hall's view, the reason for his isolation boiled down to one simple fact: He was a Mormon, and that didn't sit well with the others. His social life revolved around the church and his large family. Hall is convinced that he was the victim of religious discrimination. GE promotions and pay raises were based in part on peer review; Hall believes that he was penalized for spending too much time with his church. And he remembers the jokes--vicious, distasteful jokes about Mormons and polygamy."
"I thought long and hard about the credit issue, and I tried to paint a pretty balanced picture in the book," Hazen tells C&EN. "Hall, for example, mentioned the Mormon angle briefly in many hours of conversations, and he was certainly bitter about that and other aspects. But the other three main players deny any prejudice, and they suggest that Hall was rather aloof and secretive at times. In short, it's a complicated story of who deserves credit, and I don't think there's any simple answer."