Interview with John C. Green
22 August 1951 , The Eleanor Roosevelt Show
[Eleanor Roosevelt]: This is Eleanor Roosevelt speaking. Our program is coming to you from my living room here at the Park Sheraton Hotel in New York City. I am very happy to have this little while with you each day and I hope you enjoy the guest we've invited to be with us today. And now for a moment, I'm going to turn the program over to Elliott.
[Elliott Roosevelt]: Have you got a good idea for a method of effacing tracks in the snow, lightweight equipment that can translate speech into written words, or a personal sub-zero heating system? If you have, Washington would be interested in hearing from you. Mr. John C. Green, director of the Office of Technical Services of the Department of Commerce, is Mrs. Roosevelt's guest today, and he has many unusual things to tell us about inventions and inventors. We'll meet Mr. Green after Mrs. Roosevelt and I tackle a question sent in by a listener. Now let's listen to our announcer who has a few words for us.[BREAK]
[Elliott]: Today our question deals with the matter of the behavior of our troops abroad, Japan in particular, and it comes from Mrs. Ruby Watts of New York. She suggests that I read the article in the New York Herald Tribune written by Dave McConnell before you give your comments. Here is the article. [paper rustling] Japan has no more learned the ideal of Americanization from the occupation than have cats learned to live with dogs. The American occupation has in general been superior in conduct. But in the words of one observer, "you don't teach democracy with whiskey, fire arms and the rest of what goes with a garrison nation." The GIs have on the whole have been gentle, good-humored, often homesick, but rarely misbehaved. They have brought all the physical evidences of how the American youth lives when in the Army. Typical American youths seek the companionship of Japanese women. As the number of girls of their own age from the United States is naturally very small, it is said that the influence of the magazine cover type of young American lovers has encourage jitterbugging, casual hand-holding and even unabashed kissing. This means that something new has been added to the ways of the country. Young Japan has carefully watched the behavior of the GIs of their own age and copied their habits. The older generation on the other hand has disapproved, to the point of open resentment, of the fact that the young Japanese are too often copying the worst features of the behavior of American boys, who in many cases are away from home for the first time. Only recently a great upswing in the number of classical Japanese musicals and plays has appeared in an apparent effort on the part of the older generation, now anticipating completion of the peace treaty, to return to the old customs and traditions of their country. Many of these older Japanese unjustly identify the degeneration of public morals with democracy. Despite the fact that so-called nightclubs existed before the war and Japanese men have always been in the habit of leaving their wives at home while they toured the town, many conservatives have fixed the blame on democracy for the upsurge in entertainment spots. Pre-war Japan did not tolerate large numbers of women, whether alone or in pairs, walking the streets late at night in search of companionship. The copying by Japanese youth of the worst social behavior of the GIs on their night off has led to many of the older generation to conclude: "If this is democracy we want none of it." On the surface the Japanese have, temporarily at least, Americanized themselves in many ways. Many men and women still dress in the old costumes, but a greater number have adopted the Western style of dress. Women have entered politics, although at home the man is the still the lord and master. Male supremacy is still so firmly grounded in Japan that the best way to upset an American dinner party in Tokyo is innocently to admire the system. Such an assertion is guaranteed to send all American women within hearing distance off into apoplectic retorts. Only recently were Japanese women allowed for the first time to enter the Imperial Theater to see what correspondents in American music, what corresponds to an, an American musical comedy. It is not unusual now to witness the affectionate displays between girls and boys in the movies, although such behavior was learned from the GIs. Thoughtful Japanese are afraid that the reaction of the older generation against what the younger believes to be Americanization will lead to a flashback to pre-war customs. The chief problem is that only the material action and possessions resulting from the free American way of life have been shown to the Japanese by the occupation forces. One Japanese student who had been in America for a long period asserted: "Most Japanese view democracy as consisting of getting into a large new automobile, driving to the Post Exchange and buying enough at one time to last the ordinary Japanese three months and then returning with the loot to an overheated house." The chief problem is that many Japanese dress and act the part of what they think is a typical American, but they have not the slightest knowledge of the basic concepts of what has made the United States great. After the treaty they may continue to kiss, hold hands and jitterbug, but most people here believe that the Japanese will return to their own culture. And perhaps as the younger generations grow, they will improve upon it. Also, Mother I seem to remember that some time ago you had a letter which deplored the behavior of our troops in Great Britain, so I'd like to get you to comment on this particular article.
[ER]: Well it's quite obvious that you don't teach democracy with an occupation army, that is not the way you teach democracy. I think probably the occupation army has a hard time. The boys are boys, are homesick, they do console themselves on their days off by having as good a time as they can have. They probably drink too much; they probably play around with the young Japanese if they can get hold of any of them to join them. And that may be very bad for the old Japanese customs and civilization. I don't wonder the old people are probably worried about it, just the way the American older generation would probably be worried by the behavior of the American boys [laughs] on their days off.
But I, I think that you cannot expect any nation whether it's Germany or Japan, to really grasp the principles of democracy through occupation. That is not possible. It's something that has to come slowly, and it has to almost be a discovery of the country itself. And when they discover that certain things can be accomplished, in the way that they are told democracy would accomplish it, and that is a good way to do it, then you're on a firmer foundation, but you can't alter the habits and the customs and the thinking of a people quickly. Now it's true that the Japanese women's position has been changed by the Constitution which MacArthur insisted should be written, but that obviously doesn't mean that it has changed the feeling of every Japanese man or every Japanese woman. [laughs]
[Elliott]: No, well I was thinking and as we were reading this article, what about the, uh, these same habits which the older generation of Japanese object to, wouldn't we almost say that those same habits were true of right here in this country and that there is just as much objection on the part of the older generation in the United States?
[ER]: Why of course, that's what I was trying to, to get across.
[ER]: But you can't, um, these are not, uh, its quite, quite conceivable that to the Japanese these have become a part of democracy because they are a....
[ER]: demonstration of from their point of view of the way the United States lives. But um as matter of the fact it isn't anymore. The way it lives then, then it really is a symbol of democracy.
[Elliott]: Well do you think that we in this country should think more of training our troops in so-called psychological warfare for occupation? So that they'd be trained in behavior to depict democracy when they go abroad.
[ER]: Very difficult to do, you are not functioning in an occupation period actually in a democratic way because you are ordering people to do things you are not asking them to decide whether they will to do them or not. So fundamentally...
[Elliott]: So fundamentally they are not living democracy.
[ER]: They are not living democracy, and it's very difficult for an occupation army to make them appreciate democracy. What I think we should do, not because it will teach democracy but because it will increase the understanding and the goodwill between the occupied and the people who are doing the occupation, is I think we could do much more orienting of troops by telling them about the country they are going too, by telling them something of the customs and habits of that country, by helping them to learn the language of that country, and by generally telling them that their own behavior will affect the idea that people have, not of them as individuals, but of the country which they represent. Therefore they are ambassadors and they should behave like ambassadors.
[ER]: And they should attempt to create a better understanding of American life; a better understanding of what we think is a democratic attitude towards life. But I don't think an occupation can teach democracy, it just doesn't go together.
[Elliott]: Do you think that our occupation troops would do a better job if there were a more even balance of men and women, American nationals, in the occupation groups that we send over?
[ER]: Yes, yes always.
[Elliott]: So that we maintain the more of an even light of our own American nationals.
[ER]: Yeah, oh yes.
[Elliott]: Well then we should go on to a more driving program to enlist the services of more women in the armed services or occupation.
[ER]: Or occupation, I think that would be a very good idea. Of course there are there are only certain things that women are expected to do, but I think it's better for our own soldiers if they had more of their own women with them in an occupation period.
[Elliott]: Right. Now, now that we have answered the question by Mrs. Watts, I believe that what this question does point up is that we, in our approach to occupation troops, should think on a different basis from those that are not occupation troops, those that are trained to be combat troops. Don't you think so?
[ER]: Oh quite. It's quite a different thing, absolutely different.
[Elliott]: All right, well I see that our time is up and we have to go to another part of the program, but I think that we have thoroughly cleared the, the entire attitude that you have towards occupation troops in other countries.[Pause]
[ER]: Thank you Elliott. Mr. John C. Green is the director of the Department of Commerce Office of Technical Services, of which the National Inventors Council is a component part. I am happy to present to you Mr. Green.
[Mr. Green]: Thank you Mrs. Roosevelt, I am equally happy to be here today.
[ER]: Mr. Green, first I'd like to ask you what facilities exist in the government to foster and apply the ideas and inventions of our citizens?
[Mr. Green]: Over a year before Pearl Harbor, your husband, President Roosevelt, asked Dr. Charles Kettering, our most eminent inventor, to create a National Inventors Council, which agency would be located within the Department of Commerce and would foster the inventive talent of the American people for defense. Since then Dr. Kettering has functioned in this capacity, and we have an advisory group of seventeen men of the caliber of Dr. Buckley, the president of the Bell Laboratories, Dr. Coolidge of the General Electric Company, and men of comparable of qualifications. This group constitutes a friendly open door to the inventor in Washington and a place where his problems can be integrated into our defense picture.
[ER]: Well, now is the government interested in only weapons of destruction, or in all inventions?
[Mr. Green]: Well definitely not, I should make a clearance, that we are interested in things that will help the public welfare. We are not interested in strictly industrial or commercial devices. But if it is something that the Voice of America might use in order to penetrate the Iron Curtain, a new idea, we will like to know about it and see that it reaches the right people. If it's lifesaving device, we'd also like to hear that.
[ER]: Well that gives you a very broad field. I'm just wondering about all the people writing to me with new ideas at the moment, and are so afraid that if they tell anyone about them they will be, uh, lose all control of them and perhaps if it should become a commercial success they would lose all chance of success. How do you safeguard people who come to you with a new idea?
[Mr. Green]: We are very careful about that, and I think the best evidence that such a situation won't arise is that in World War II we actually dealt with three hundred thousand inventors and there has been no suit filed against the government for a misuse of an invention.
[ER]: That's remarkable. Well, is any tangible assistance offered to the man who has made an industrial or commercial invention and is unable to finance it himself?
[Mr. Green]: Not by us. We are strictly concerned with matters of national defense and welfare. However the United States Patent Office does maintain a register at which an inventor who has an idea that he is unable to develop may place it on this register and the Patent Office will circulate it to interested manufacturers. Thereafter the manufacturer and the inventor get together directly.
[ER]: Get together on it-
[Mr. Green]: Yes.
[ER]: Well now we hear a lot about vast expenditures by our government for research, how is this distinguished from invention?
[Mr. Green]: I think that is a question that isn't really understood even by scientists, but the basic distinction is that in order to have progress of a scientific or technical nature you must have original seed ideas. And it isn't enough to create a team of competent scientists and give them the tools of research and tell them to attack a problem unless there is someone with the inventive faculty there. Dr. Kettering says it much more simply; he says that you have the warp and the woof. And the research is the warp, which goes down in straight lines and the woof goes back and forth and crosses fields, and he doesn't want to have a hammock which is all warp and no woof.
[ER]: [Laughs] I see that is a very wise plan. But since research is so complex these days and scientific investigations require such elaborate and expensive equipment, do you think the independent inventor has had his day? In other words can we expect anything more than glorified gadgets from the private inventor from now on?
[Mr. Green]: I think we must have something more, although it's getting much more difficult every day for the private inventor. The cost of development of an idea has risen tremendously, and unfortunately our courts have had a tendency to, to disparage invention by throwing patents, which are one of the marks of invention out and indicating that they are rather unimportant. And inventors are just like anyone else; if they are to make a profession of invention it has to be remunerative, and the patent is their technique for recovering some compensation. I think we need a real national educational program as to how inventions are made and the problems of the inventor.
[ER]: Well that's a very good idea, because I have heard even doctors who do research in medical things say that it's important to have the benefit of other minds and yet unless patents in that field, unless patents were respected you would hardly-an inventor would hardly dare talk to other people.
[Mr. Green]: It's a very delicate problem and we must have that cross fertilization of knowledge between people.
[ER]: Well what about the claims the Russians have been making to all basic inventions?
[Mr. Green]: Well there are several ways of looking at that. Of course it does have its ridiculous side, but there are two other factors that I think should be considered. One of what you might call the nationalism of invention. I remember several years ago when the Commissioner of Patents and I visited the British Science Museum and saw several exhibits indicating that the British had made a large number of important inventions which we thought were American concepts. And I do believe it's true that you have inventions springing up-what you might call simultaneous thinking in several countries. Someone goes ahead a little faster than the other fellow, but there is that type of thinking, and therefore there are multiple claims. Perhaps the most famous case was in our own telephone. The art of telegraphy had advanced to a certain degree and seemed that the next natural step was the telephone. And a man named Grey and Alexander Graham Bell were working independently and unknowingly to each other on the same things. And Grey filed his patent application two hours after Bell and lost the priority and what has been said to be the most valuable patent that our country has ever issued.
ER: That's very interesting. Well [clears throat] Mr. Green, with the gradual rehabilitation of industry abroad do you think we can expect important inventions to arise outside this country in the future?
[Mr. Green]: Oh very definitely. We have a pardonable feeling that we have a monopoly on brains but of course it isn't so and there are some marvelous individual thinkers in Europe who are hard at work today and we can always hope that we will be able to borrow the knowledge of Europe, and I sometimes think of that as a sort of a reciprocal Marshall Plan to be able to take ideas of Europe because they are a fertile field for new and original thinking.
[ER]: Yes in the old days we did, once upon a time think of Germany, when they were allowed to think before the Hitler days [Laughs] of them as very good scientific research people and inventors. And I know that the French have always had a certain feeling of pride in their ability to invent. So I suppose perhaps if these-I, I think it's largely a question of remaining free, because I have a feeling the Russians will lose if they do not have freedom. They will lose their power to, to do honest research and therefore to have inventions.
[Mr. Green]: I think that's exactly right. You must have that concept of freedom, original thinking to be able to go down diversified channels and do things in a unconventional way or what seems unconventional, in order to really have scientific progress.
[ER]: Which is the more fertile field for inventiveness: a new fundamental invention or an improvement of an existing item?
Mr. Green: There is a good deal of controversy on this point. My own opinion is that the improvement of the existing device is the one that you can bring into use much quicker and easier. A new fundamental idea only comes along occasionally and you have a very difficult educational problem with people, with people who are not accustomed to it, whereas where you have a device which has some defects and you are trying to improve it it's much easier to introduce those improvements, they're demonstrable.
[ER]: Yes I suppose that would be true. But you must, I should think, have both. I don't see how you could limit yourself to either one. Its quite evident that naturally one, when you are developing something where the fundamental principles are already known you could hope to go faster, but if you didn't have fresh thinking on new principles you, you would I think lose a great deal.
[Mr. Green]: You're exactly right that's a very helpful clarification of my statement.
[ER]: I, I would be-I sometimes think that perhaps in the United States too many people think of themselves as inventors. When they send me in letters explaining some new thing that they're quite sure is going to revolutionize the world, I'm quite sure it isn't as a rule. [laughs] Do you get an enormous number of people sending you in drawings and ideas all the time?
[Mr. Green]: Indeed we do and I personally consider them as amateur inventors; not in the sense of a professional man with considerable background in the field which he is discussing. And whereas from the public relations point of view it is necessary to examine their ideas very carefully, and occasionally you do find a helpful suggestion there, iIt has been our experience that good ideas come from people who understand the basic problems and have some practical experience.
[ER]: Well that is what I have always supposed one would find was true. But I'm glad to hear it from you because I've never dared turn anything down. I've always felt it had to go to somebody at least that I'd thought had more knowledge than I had, so I'm glad to hear you say it's not often that you find things in that sort of, of outpouring. And now our announcer must have a word and then we'll come right back to our interview.
[ER]: Now we return to our interview with Mr. John C. Green, Director of the Department of Commerce Office of Technical Services. I'd like to ask you Mr. Green if there are any perceptible trends, which tend to stifle or impair inventive thinking today?
[Mr. Green]: I believe there are three, and I touched on two of them earlier. The first is the fact that the courts and other bodies disparage the product of invention, the patent. And since there is no incentive, or the incentive is diminishing to take out a patent, the incentive to become an inventor is diminishing. Second, this cost of development, which is getting so high, makes it very hard for a man after he has his concept to reduce it to a practical demonstrable device. And third is the public feeling concerning the inventor. So many people think of an inventor as an unrealistic impractical individual and tend to disparage him and therefore competent engineers are almost ashamed of being inventors, and that's something we must reverse.
[ER]: Well that's something I have never thought of. I suppose it's true that the popular idea of an inventor is a long-haired eccentric moving in an atmosphere of mystery or secrecy, but naturally that isn't so at all and I don't believe that idea coincides with your idea of what a really good inventor would be.
[Mr. Green]: Oh definitely not, that is the fraction of one percent of what I sometimes say of the amateur, the pseudo, the would-be inventor, the man that the cartoon strips likes to portray and the stories tell about, but those people are on the fringe of invention and the sound inventor is the man who studies the problem, analyzes all the possible solutions and then comes up with a new, original feasible way of doing it, and he's really a hardheaded citizen.
[ER]: And a man who would do that would, would need the background of training, it just doesn't happen to people it's the result of training and work isn't it?
[Mr. Green]: Ordinarily yes, occasionally you have the near genius who can enter a field in which he has no qualifications and come up with a revolutionary idea but it's a needle in a haystack proposition.
[ER]: It's a rare thing.
[Mr. Green]: Very rare.
[ER]: Well now for the benefit of those who don't live in Washington, I'd like to ask how people outside of Washington can find out about our defense needs and the various areas, since you said that it was not just in defense needs but also in anything which benefited mankind, where you were anxious, or the government was anxious to get ideas. How do people find out in what areas ideas, inventive ideas are most wanted, and where do they get the necessary information?
[Mr. Green]: Well we strive to do that at our office in Washington and I'm sure it's quite imperfect. One technique, which we use, is to seek from the technical branches of the military those problems that they are now facing on which an inventive solution would be helpful. Then we are faced with the task of compiling those problem in a form, which is non confidential, doesn't violate secrecy, and we release that. Again we have in cooperation with the patent office a master list of competent inventors, men who are inventing today in all fields, and we feed to them directly the problems, which we are informed that fit their specific qualifications. We would very much like to broaden our contact with competent people, particularly the ex-GI, who in World War II used military equipment and knew its defects and is now back in civilian life perhaps with additional engineering experience and knows how to make it better.
[ER]: That's something I would be interested in also in the industrial field. I remember in going through plants in England and Scotland in the last war in 1942, having the head of one of the plants show me a system by which any worker in the plant could put in a suggestion and the plant people agreed to try that suggestion out. Now it was of course not limited to inventions on the machines they were using, but where it was a question of the way you used a machine or a change to make the machine better, they agreed to try it out and they did, and they told me that many of their workers had been responsible for ideas that had saved them time and made it possible for them to do things during the war, which perhaps they could never have achieved in any other way.
[Mr. Green]: That is very true, and our industry, particularly the more enlightened sectors, practices the beneficial suggestion scheme as well. It has a byproduct value in that the worker's morale is increased and his chance of advancement in the company has strengthened through that type of technique. During World War II the War Production Board attempted to centralize and exchange beneficial ideas of this type industry to industry.
[ER]: And uh did that work?
[Mr. Green]: Very well, very well.
[ER]: It did work well. I should think that might be one of the difficult things that an industry might be jealous of sharing it with another industry if they, one of their employees made a discovery.
[Mr. Green]: In normal peacetime yes, in an emergency where we are all in this together, it is not the same situation.
[ER]: Then it doesn't come up. Well what reward can a citizen hope for if his idea is adopted and used?
[Mr. Green]: Well if he has a patent and his device is developed the services are prepared to make a contract for him. If he has merely an idea on which the services must spend a considerable amount of money to reach a test device and determine themselves whether it is of use, it's a very difficult situation and at the present moment at the request of the National Inventors Council, General Marshall has a committee of an Air Force general and Navy admiral and an Army general making a restudy of the philosophy of the services toward payments to the inventors to introduce a liberal sympathetic concept. I'm very hopeful that we will be able to say shortly that an inventor who has anything of use to the services even if he isn't fortunate enough to have a patent can hope for a just adequate compensation.
[ER]: Well that would be encouraging I'm sure to a great many people. And I wonder if you can tell us on this program what are some of the most essential needs today?
[Mr. Green]: Well it's difficult to generalize, but I think most of us can see that our troops may have to face arctic warfare. Now in arctic warfare you are faced with problems of transportation over snow, comfort of the man, to keep your internal combustion engine running satisfactorily for long periods of time under severe operating conditions. If the competent inventor would attempt to transform himself to the arctic, he might be able to think better than we on the inventive need. Again we're very eager in the field of ideas to find out about how we might pierce the curtain with good ideas of our way of life. And I'm sure the people in the Voice of America, no matter how confidant they are, know that they need original thinking in this field.
[ER]: They, and then you must, you must need some way for instance of meeting the jamming of the radio and all that sort of thing.
[Mr. Green]: Oh definitely, we have, we are attacking that problem in a very interesting way. We have brought together sixty of the young men who worked on counter measures in radar in World War II, and they are an informal working panel advisory to the Voice of America in this field, and the Voice is very happy and tangible results are already being seen.
[ER]: Well that's very encouraging to know. Well now some very famous people have submitted inventions to your group haven't they?
[Mr. Green]: Yes, and of course we've had some very famous inventors in the group. I think Orville Wright of course, the father of the airplane, who I should of mentioned earlier. He's dead now; he's replaced by Dr. Dryden. But I would say in the field of famous people we're always asked about is Hedy Lamarr. And Miss Lamarr had an idea of a controlled torpedo, which in general principles was quite sound, although it was not an advance on the art. And I remember her collaborator in the field, a Mr. George M. Field telling me "please give them an answer quickly" because his wife was suspicious at why he and Miss Lamarr were collaborating in the evening.
[ER]: (Laughing) Oh that's very amusing. Well now, how many of these inventions that famous people have submitted to you have been accepted?
[Mr. Green]: That's a difficult question, I don't believe the percentage is in their favor or against them. There is a uniform factor that we find that in about every hundred inventions submitted about ninety-eight percent of them cover ideas that have been thought of before. About two percent of them are worth very serious investigation, and a fraction of one percent actually find their way into production. That may be a discouraging statistic; I hope it isn't, because we look at every one very carefully.
[ER]: I don't think that's discouraging because I think most people do not expect to have their inventions accepted without very careful consideration, and unless they are people who are constantly working in that field, and naturally find new things much more frequently, I think it would be astonishing if the percentage was much higher.
[Mr. Green]: Dr. Kettering tells me that our percentage is advance of the percentage in industry.
[ER]: It is?
[Mr. Green]: It is.
[ER]: Well that's very, that's very interesting. Now is the major part of this done by industry in this country or is the major part done by you?
[Mr. Green]: Well it is a sharing of effort. We have a staff in Washington, which undertakes the initial work, and we have liaison arrangements in all of the technical branches, and we are backstopped by our council and their special subcommittees. We have some two hundred men on the subcommittees. It's the usual technique of enlisting competent people voluntarily within their field of specialty.
[ER]: So you really cooperate?
[Mr. Green]: We hope we do.
[ER]: [Laughs] Well that's very nice to hear at the close of this program and I want to thank you very much Mr. Green and I'm sure what you've told us will be of great interest to all of our listeners. Thank you
[Mr. Green]: Thank you. Thank you Mrs. Roosevelt.