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Grinnellians you should know (or know about): Grant Gale

Part of a series of essays about the wondrous people who have inhabited our College.

When I think of the faculty members who have had lasting impact on Grinnell, one of the first names to come to mind is Grant Gale, Professor of Physics. I still remember seeing Prof. Gale [1] at my first Grinnell college faculty meeting in Fall 1997. If I recall correctly, he stood up and said This is my sixtieth first faculty meeting of the school year. Sixty years at one institution is an amazing amount of time, and covers a huge number of changes at Grinnell.

Prof. Gale may be best remembered as Robert Noyce ’49’s mentor at Grinnell. As a Physics professor and mentor, Prof. Gale did two incredibly important things for Noyce: He introduced Noyce to the transistor, and he prevented Noyce from being expelled for stealing a pig and holding a hog roast. Since the Noyce hog roast is part of Grinnell mythology, I don’t think I need to write more about that. But you may not know as much about the transistor. Prof. Gale actively read the literature. And so, when he saw an article about AT&T developing this new thing called the transistor, he wrote to the inventors to see if he could get a few to experiment with and to show his students. The inventors graciously sent some along [2]. And so Noyce learned about the transistor from Prof. Gale, and the transistor is what set Noyce on his way to developing the integrated circuit. If I recall correctly, when Noyce went on to graduate work at that TLA school on the Charles River [3], they had not yet gotten their own transistors to experiment with. Prof. Gale must have been pretty damn persuasive. But I guess we knew that, given that Noyce was able to complete his undergraduate degree at Grinnell.

But Prof. Gale should be known for many other things, too. At Grinnell, he developed the Physics Museum, an awesome collection of interesting artifacts. I believe he was also Herbie Hancock ’60’s advisor, before Hancock made the leap from Physics as science to the Physics of vibration of percussively played piano strings. Gale also invented the 3-2 program, an approach to undergraduate education in which students do three years at a liberal arts college (like Grinnell), and then two years at an engineering school (like WashU), and receive both Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Engineering degrees [4].

My other primary memory of Grant Gale is at the dedication of the Noyce Science Center. At the dinner associated with that dedication, Prof. Gale gave a wonderful speech about Noyce, bringing up not just the anecdotes I mentioned above, but many more [5]. I remain furious that our Communications department didn’t think that the speech was worth recording or preserving.

Grant Gale passed away toward the end of my first year at Grinnell, so I never really got the chance to have a deep discussion with him. But I see the lasting impacts he’s had on this institution, both direct and indirect. We were lucky to attract and retain a faculty member of that caliber. I know that I’ll never make it to sixty years at Grinnell [6], but I hope that I can even a fraction of the impact that he had.

[1] I’m not sure how to refer to him. I call most colleagues by first or last name. But I didn’t know Grant Gale well enough to talk to him more than once or twice, and it seems inappropriate to refer to him as either Grant or Gale. I’m going with Prof. Gale.

[2] How things have changed. I’m pretty sure that many companies would consider the transistors IP not appropriate for sharing with a small college (or anyone, for that matter).

[3] Em, eye, tea.

[4] I’ll admit that I’m not a huge fan of 3-2 programs, since I think students are much better of with a 4-2 BA + ME program. I also worry that the expectations of many of the engineering schools are such that students aren’t able to take full advantage of their time at Grinnell. But I can see the benefit of 3-2 programs for some students.

[5] Gordon Moore also gave a speech that afternoon. The only thing I can remember from the speech is Moore saying If Grinnell had just held on to the Intel stock that it bought at Intel’s founding, its endowment would be even larger. But Moore did not account for our need to take money from the endowment every year to pay the bills.

[6] I’m eligible for Senior Faculty Status in ten years. Unless SFS changes significantly [7], or our financial situation changes significantly [8], I’ll probably start SFS then, making only thirty years of active teaching. But I’ll probably stay in Grinnell after that, so maybe if we include time as SFS and Emeritus, I’ll make it at to at least 2/3 of the first faculty meetings that Prof. Gale made it to.

[7] And there are rumors that it will.

[8] Definitely possible, given the state of American politics.

Version 1.0 released 2016-11-16.

Version 1.0 of 2018-05-25.