Oral history interview with James S. Murday

  • 2007-May-29

James S. Murday, at a young age, decided he wanted to be a second Einstein; he wanted to bring important change to the world. In school he always did better in the sciences and math, so he liked them more. He was most interested in the physical sciences, though he liked biology well enough to consider biophysics for a graduate program. He entered Case Institute of Technology, working with Arthur Benade. Case was across the street from Severance Hall, where music offered scope for the practical application of physics, and Murday wrote his senior thesis on the acoustics of flutes. William Gordon, Murday’s other major mentor, introduced Murday to nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). Fascinated by solid-state physics, Murday entered Cornell University, where he was research assistant for Robert Cotts. Murday’s interests expanded to include diffusion. At the time, chemistry’s new pulse techniques provided greater impetus for NMR, and Murday exploited the growing interface between chemistry and physics. When he finished his PhD he was recruited by Henry Resing into the NMR lab at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL). Resing was working on protective chemistry and needed a diffusion person. Later, Murday became head of the new surface chemistry branch, an event he regards as a turning point in his career, the first step to nanoscience. Murday discusses his early experiences in the NRL, beginning with the relationship between NRL and the Office of Naval Research, where he was drafted to survey the state of surface science. He describes how he liked being a decision-maker as well as a lab worker, and further describes his experiences as the man who could see the big picture and could find reasons for various agencies and departments to join the American Vacuum Society (AVS). Murday joined the AVS, which united chemistry, materials science, and electronics. He helped organize AVS’s applied division and established the Mid-Atlantic chapter of AVS, thus enhancing his own position there and eventually being elected to the board of directors. When scanning and tunneling microscopes came along, clearly nanostructures were next. AVS officially became the first home of nanoscience. Murday influenced the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation, both of which had funding in abundance, to get involved in nano. Usefulness of nano for unmanned aircraft drew in the Department of Defense, and all then came up with the Interagency Working Group, which hoped to promote nano to the President and Congress of the United States. It took a couple of years and two presidents, but finally Nanometer Science and Engineering Technology (NSET), a subcommittee of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), was born and Murday was named Executive Secretary. Murday was also appointed Director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO), set up to support NSET. NSET has continued to expand its membership as well as to change its purpose. The character of nano has changed with this expansion and with new technology. Murday felt he was getting stale as Head of the NRL Chemistry Division and that new blood was needed, so he accepted the position of Associate Director for Physical Sciences with University of Southern California’s Office of Research Advancement in Washington, D.C.

Access this interview

Available upon request are 1 PDF transcript and 3 audio recording files.

After submitting a brief form, you will receive immediate access to these files. If you have any questions about transcripts, recordings, or usage permissions, contact the Center for Oral History at oralhistory@sciencehistory.org.

PDF — 193 KB