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Across the Tracks

Harry Fair has lived in many parts of the U.S. and spent considerable time abroad. He has worked with world-renowned scientists and advised statesmen and military figures at the highest levels.

His early forays into the world were much more confined. When Fair started school in the early forties, he didn’t have far to go. He simply left 221 College Avenue, crossed the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks that ran in front of his house, and walked a few steps to the recently opened John A. H. Keith School on the Indiana State Teachers College campus.

Harry Fair

Named for his father, Fair had five older sisters. Everyone called him “Bud.” For eleven years, from kindergarten to tenth grade, he was a student at Keith. By the time he left the school, his family had moved into the countryside. But after two years as a student at Indiana Joint High School (where he later did student teaching), Fair returned to the college campus as an undergraduate.

Initially, he majored in chemistry and mathematics. But then, the late Physics Department faculty member Daniel Reiber offered him a job as a lab assistant. Eventually, he says, he availed himself of virtually all the chemistry, math, and physics classes ISTC offered. And, his association with Reiber shaped his life.
“Dan Reiber and my dad were my heroes,” he said. “They always will be. I had no one in the Army, no one in science. My father had a blacksmith business and sold farm equipment. Dan Reiber became my academic role model, and my dad was my ‘life’ model.”

In the early fifties, freshman ROTC courses were mandatory for male students. Fair took courses all four years and, he said, “did well. The corps commander was working on me to make the Army my career.”

Dan Reiber had other ideas. He took the ISTC upperclassman to the University of Delaware to visit his college roommate from Franklin and Marshall. “F. W. Van Name lived in a big Victorian house in Newark,” Fair said, “and was chairman of the university’s Physics Department.”

Van Name invited Reiber and Fair to a colloquium led by Columbia physics professor Charles Townes. The subject was masers, precursors of lasers. Less than a decade later, Townes received the Nobel Prize for this work

Delaware offered Fair a graduate fellowship for study after he received his ISTC degree in 1958. The graduate work “turned on a fire in me,” Fair said. “I’ve been fascinated with physics ever since.” His master’s thesis explored nuclear magnetic resonance.

Like other American males of the fifties, Fair had a two-year military obligation to fulfill. (As things turned out, he would indeed spend two years in the Army, retiring with the rank of first lieutenant.) After a few weeks at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, the Army sent him to Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey. “I was in my early twenties,” he said. “I was given a state-of-the-art nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer and a group of German chemists for mentors and colleagues. It was awesome!”

The Army hired him as a civilian and sent him back to Delaware to obtain a Ph.D. Now, there was a new Physics Department chairman—Ferd Williams, who brought with him a strong foundation in fundamental research from the General Electric Research Laboratory in Schenectady, N.Y.

Fair’s doctoral work was in solid-state physics, and when Fair went back to Picatinny, Williams signed on as a consultant, an arrangement that lasted decades. All told, Fair was associated for twenty years with the facility, from 1960 to 1981, building a solid-state physics group that expanded after Philadelphia’s Frankford Arsenal closed in the mid-seventies. Group members held doctorates from schools like Princeton, New York University, and Lehigh.

In 1973, Fair received a Secretary of the Army Fellowship for research and study. First, he went to the University of Paris, where he worked with Minko Balkanski, a Bulgarian emigré who was, Fair said, “one of the most famous physicists in Paris. He received the Légion d’Honneur, and he also became a good friend.”

In the second part of his fellowship, he studied in London with the recently knighted Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, George Porter, director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain. The R.I. dates from 1799 and bills itself as the oldest independent research body in the world. Even during Fair’s time there, the R.I. bore the influences of the legendary Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday (whose father, Fair points out, was also a blacksmith).

In the basement of one of the R.I. buildings (this year closed for refurbishment) is the Faraday Museum. There, Fair said, a visitor can still see Faraday’s experiments written in longhand. (Because Faraday was not schooled in mathematics, the experiments contained no equations. Faraday had, though, once been apprenticed as a bookbinder and so bound all his research notes in beautiful leather bindings.)

Each day at 4 p.m., Fair and his two fellow visiting researchers went from the Davy-Faraday Research Laboratory to the library for tea with Porter. One of the others on hand was Mary Archer, whom Fair describes as “a brilliant chemist.” Archer’s husband, politician and author Jeffrey Archer, happened to be writing his first best-seller, Kane and Abel, at the time.

Fair loved the history and the small-group interaction afforded by the big, old houses of the R.I., a scant two blocks from Piccadilly Circus. “The same furniture was in the dining rooms as when the Faradays had eaten there,” he said.

Upon returning to the U.S., Fair accepted a project at Picatinny to develop new propellants for artillery. A few years later, he was asked to give a talk before a high-level audience on what he described as “the next generation of  propellants.”

“They shouldn’t be chemicals,” he theorized. “They should be electrons.” The Secretary of Defense, who was among the listeners, asked him to prove it. 

He was named director of a national program and initially funded and directed three groups that worked on the problem: Picatinny, the National Magnet Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “All three were successful,” Fair said. From their work came a proposal to pursue seriously the first electromagnetic railgun through a team led by Ian McNab at Westinghouse in Pittsburgh. 

Railguns can accelerate projectiles at velocities far beyond those attainable by chemical powder propellants. In 1981, Fair joined the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which, with the Army, was instrumental in building big demonstration projects in connection with the railgun. But a speech made by President Ronald Reagan in March, 1983, in which he called for a defense strategy against Soviet long-range ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads, pushed the research forward even faster.

The federal government began looking at all sorts of technology, Fair said, from defensive missiles to electromagnetic railguns. DARPA loaned him to the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization under General James Abrahamson to lay the foundation for the “star wars” effort. Fair later also worked with the Defense Science Board, examining “East-West capabilities in armor/anti-armor, the details of which are still classified,” he said. He headed a joint program office that incorporated DARPA, the Army, and the Marine Corps.

By 1987, Fair said he “had three sons to educate and was living in Washington, D.C., on a small salary.” He decided to leave the government and start his own company. But the late Texas Congressman Jake Pickle persuaded him to “come to Texas and create his [Pickle’s] national ‘laboratory’ at the University of Texas.”

Fair arrived in Texas in August, 1987. What would eventually become a federally funded research and development center began with Fair, a secretary, and a home computer. In 1989,  the Institute for Advanced Technology was created by the University of Texas at Austin, and in 1990, it gained Army and Congressional sponsorship. Today, according to Fair, the institute “has grown and is housed in a beautiful, state-of-the-art facility” in North Austin, near the J. J. Pickle Research Campus.

Thanks to his long experience with the Army and with federal research, Fair could identify “the best people and the best equipment” for the IAT. “I knew all the players,” he said. “I could cherry-pick the best and the brightest.”

Among the cherries he has picked are Ian McNab, who deals with electromagnetic systems, and Stephan Bless, who specializes in hypervelocity physics. According to Fair, Paul Funk, a retired three-star general who commanded the Third Armored Division in Operation Desert Storm, “has expanded the education division substantially,” and Steven Kornguth’s area “studied chemical and biological countermeasures long before 9-11.” Robert Fossum, former DARPA director, heads the brand-new fMRI Imaging Center, which houses a powerful 3 Tesla functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scanning machine, other imaging technologies, laboratories, classrooms, and offices.

Each year, Fair said, the Army’s top twelve lieutenant colonels come to the IAT’s educational division. Most generals rotate to and from Baghdad through Fort Hood, about an hour away. The institute has about 150 research scientists and about thirty-five students (from universities ranging from Rice to Stanford, Fair said) at a given time. Only top students are considered for employment (two recent hires had scores of 1580 on the SAT).

Fair himself now has a daughter—in addition to the three sons—and seven grandsons. Two sons live outside Washington, one lives near Anchorage, Alaska, and his daughter is a student at the University of Texas. Two of his sisters still live in the vicinity of Indiana, Pa.

Much about the campus and town Fair left behind has changed. His childhood home on College Avenue was torn down and is now the site of the Hadley Union Building. The railroad tracks he crossed each day are gone, and Keith Hall has been a college classroom building for more than three decades.

But, Fair remembers, “Keith School was awesome. And, Dan Reiber made an incredible difference in my life.” In other words, it all began here.