Alfred O. C. Nier was born in Minnesota in 1911 to parents who had emigrated from Germany. Having been interested in radios during high school, Nier decided to study electrical engineering when he enrolled at the University of Minnesota in 1927. When he graduated in 1931 he pursued engineering jobs; however, few firms were hiring due to the Depression. Nier earned a master's degree in electrical engineering, though most of his research experience was in physics; he began his doctoral research at a time when quantum mechanics and X-rays were burgeoning fields of study. After much deliberation Nier chose to work with John Tate, head of the physics department. Subsequently, Tate assigned Nier to work on mass spectrometry and in the mid-1930s Nier built his first mass spectrometer. Nier spent the majority of his doctoral research obtaining a precise understanding of how mass spectrometers worked and how he could improve the instruments to enhance his isotopic abundance studies.
After completing his Ph.D. in 1936, Nier was awarded a National Research Council Fellowship. He elected to work with Kenneth T. Bainbridge at Harvard University. By December Nier began establishing more precise isotopic abundances than the ones F. W. Aston produced in 1915. Nier returned to the University of Minnesota after completing his post-doctoral research in 1938 beginning a long career in mass spectrometry at his alma mater. In the fall of 1939 Nier became involved in work related to uranium-235 and UF6/UBr4 (Nier refers to UF6 in the interview but references UBr4 in some publications). Nier, with E. T. Booth, J. R. Dunning, and A. V. Grosse, demonstrated conclusively via mass spectrometry that uranium-235 was the isotope that underwent slow neutron fission. As his research group at Minnesota was the only group capable of analyzing uranium he was ordered to begin separating uranium-235 on his 180¬∞ mass spectrometer. After Pearl Harbor and the United States's official entry into World War II, Nier and his research team worked under the command of Harold C. Urey as part of the Manhattan Project. Nier's mass spectrometry expertise would prove invaluable to the war effort. After World War II, Nier returned to the University of Minnesota where he remained as a Professor. Nier's post-war mass spectrometry research touched on many areas including electrical detection, atmospheric studies and mass spectrometers for rockets, geochemistry, and precise masses. Nier participated in the upper atmosphere Aerobee flights throughout the 1960s, the Viking Project in the 1970s, and the Pioneer Venus project. During this atmospheric work Nier became friends and collaborators with Klaus Biemann.
Throughout his oral history Nier discusses his many publications, the instrument details of many mass spectrometers, his awards, and his interesting career. Nier explained that his short attention span and unique education in physics and electrical engineering allowed him to capitalize on the new field of mass spectrometry when the country needed his expertise most.
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Nier, Alfred O. (Alfred Otto), interviewed by Thomas Krick in University of Minnesota on April 7, 1989. Philadelphia: Science History Institute, n.d. Oral History Transcript 0112. https://digital.sciencehistory.org/works/qj72p828m.
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