George E. Valley Jr.

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George E. Valley Jr.
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BornSept. 5, 1913
New York City
DiedOct. 16, 1999
CitizenshipUnited States of America
EducationSB in physics
Alma materMassachusetts Institute of Technology

George Edward Valley, Jr. (Sept. 5, 1913 - Oct. 16, 1999) was an American physicist who developed the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment air defense system, worked to found the MIT Lincoln Laboratory and started the MIT Experimental Studies Group. Valley’s eclectic career included 7 years at the MIT Radiation Laboratory during World War II that resulted in a novel H2X radar bombsite (Buderi 1996), and his editing 4 books in the Radiation Laboratory series including the popular Vacuum Tube Amplifiers (Valley and 1948). He then spent 4 years at MIT as assistant/associate professor studying cosmic rays on the top of Mt Evans in Colorado. In 1949, the Soviets exploded their atomic bomb which prompted Valley to consider air defense against Soviet bombers. As Valley (1985) documented, one thing led to another and he rapidly found himself in the middle of founding a national laboratory, MIT Lincoln Laboratory, to develop an air defense system. Valley left Lincoln Lab in 1957 to become Scientist to the US Air Force. He returned to MIT in 1958 as Professor of Physics where among other duties, he reorganized the Junior Physics Lab, studied the freshman year at MIT, and started the Experimental Studies Group.

Early years

Valley was born in 1913 in New York City to Edith Ringold Cummins Valley and George Edward Valley. His father was born in Ogdensburg, NY in 1875, and his mother was born in New York City in 1881. Valley Sr. was an electrician/electrical engineer who ran his own shop repairing large electric motors in New York City and was said to have learned his trade in Nikola Tesla’s New York Laboratories.


Valley went to Flushing NY public schools where he received a gold medal for excellence in mathematics and then to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he graduated with an SB in physics in 1935. His Bachelor’s thesis was “Development of White Standards for Use in Colorimetry” with Prof. Arthur C. Hardy. After graduation he worked as a lens designer for Bausch and Lomb Optical Co. for a short period of time and then enrolled as a graduate student in physics at the University of Rochester where he obtained his PhD under Prof. A. DuBridge in 1939; his thesis, “The Determination of the Energies of the Radiations from Artificial Radioactive Elements”, involved development and applications of the new Rochester cyclotron.


Valley went to Harvard in 1939 as a Research Assistant and National Research Council Fellow in Prof. Kenneth T. Bainbridge’s group. He built a thermal ionization, magnetic sector, mass spectrometer to compare the iron isotope ratios of Earth with those of meteorites. Unlike the instruments of today, this involved assembling a room full of lead-acid batteries to generate a stable 800-V source and breaking/re-blowing of glass chambers for each sample change. Much to Bainbridge's annoyance, Valley detected no difference between the Earth and the meteorite isotope ratios. This research was interrupted by events in Europe and not published until after World War II (Valley and Anderson 1947). The field of Fe-isotope geochemistry, pioneered by Valley, lay dormant over 50 years, but has now blossomed with development of new more-sensitive mass spectrometers (Teng et al. 2017).

World War II

Valley was recruited to join the Radiation Laboratory in Cambridge MA by DuBridge in 1940. At the Rad Lab he led development of the Dual Lobe Gun-laying System (1941-42) and then developed the first radar-guided bombsight (, H2X, “Mickey”), which was used by USAF Nov. 1943- 1945. After the war, he remained at the Rad Lab until 1947 to edit 4 books in the Radiation Laboratory Series, which summarized the unclassified knowledge developed at the Rad Lab in a wide range of fields. Vacuum Tube Amplifiers edited by Valley and Wallman (1948) became the best seller of the series and was used as a textbook well into the 1960s despite the prevalence of transistor technology.


In 1947 Valley joined the MIT faculty as assistant professor of physics and his research was concentrated in nuclear physics, cosmic rays and high energy particles. He built and operated a high-pressure cloud chamber at Summit Lake (elev. 13,200 ft.) on Mt. Evans, Colorado in collaboration with Prof. Bruno B. Rossi. This research, also, was cut short by world affairs.

MIT Lincoln Laboratory and the Air Force

The world changed dramatically August 29, 1949 when the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb. The threat of Soviet bombers coming across the north pole into the United States ended US complacency following World War II. Valley wrote a letter on Nov. 8, 1949 to Theodor von Karman and General Hoyt Vandenberg, Air Force Chief of Staff proposing formation of the Air Defense Systems Engineering Committee ( to study US air defenses. Valley chaired the ADSEC committee from 1950 to 1952 (Valley et al. 1950). This led to Charles, Project Lincoln and to the establishment of the Lincoln Laboratory. He was assistant, then associate director of Lincoln Laboratory from 1951-1957 and was head of Division 2 from 1951-1956. Valley played a leading role in developing the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) air defense system at Lincoln Lab that required installation of remote radar stations (Distant Early Warning, Line) and development of magnetic-core memory and the digital computer technology (Valley 1985).

After leaving Lincoln Lab, Valley served as Scientist to the U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff. (1957-1958). Although not likely one of his main assignments, one of the most cited outputs of this period is his brief report on UFOs, “Some Considerations Affecting the Interpretation of Reports of Unidentified Flying Objects” reprinted in an appendix to the Condon Report.

Return to MIT

Following his assignment as Chief Scientist of the Air Force, Valley returned to MIT as full professor (1957). During the 1960s he made an intensive study of the freshman year. This study was motivated by concerns that MIT at that time was flunking out an unacceptably high percentage of its freshman, who were chosen from the some of the best applicants in the country, valedictorians, straight-A students, etc. Valley spent one full year participating in every activity that an MIT freshman participated in and summarized his experience with a report to the MIT Board. This work led directly to the creation of the Experimental Studies Group (ESG), an alternative learning option offered to all incoming freshmen (Valley 1974) that is still going strong 50 years later.

Post MIT

Valley retired from MIT in 1974 but he continued to follow his passions including what we now call high-performance computing. He bought a DEC PDP-11, put it in his basement and essentially had an 800-lb personal computer before there were personal computers. As the PDP became obsolete in the early 80s, he put together his own machines from the fastest components available. He also did what many retired physicists long to do, go back to old textbooks and relearn and recalculate the problem sets using the techniques and tools of the present. He did calculations of fractals, magnetic fields and many other subjects that interested him. He also wrote a science fiction novel entitled “Two Souls” (unpublished), frequently contributed to Concord MA town meetings and often said retirement was the best job he ever had. In 2002 the American Physical Society awarded the first biannual George E. Valley, Jr. Prize "To recognize an early-career individual for an outstanding scientific contribution to physics that is deemed to have significant potential for a dramatic impact on the field."

Selected publications

Blackburn, JF ed. (1949) Components Handbook, editorial staff: GE Valley et al., Radiation Lab. Series, v. 17. Soller, T, Starr, MA, and Valley, GE, eds. (1948) Cathode Ray Tube Displays, editorial staff: GE Valley et al., Radiation Lab. Series, v. 22, McGraw Hill, N.Y. 746p. Valley, GE (1940) Abundance of Molybdenum Isotopes, Phys. Rev. 57:1058A. Valley, GE (1941) The Stable Isotopes of Nickel. Phys. Rev., v 59, n. 10, p. 836-837. Valley, GE (1941) Internal Conversion in Rhenium. Phys. Rev. 59:686A. Valley, GE (1941) Internal conversion in Mercury. Phys. Rev. 59:167A. Valley, GE et al. (1950) ADSEC Final Report Valley, GE (1974) My Years at the MIT Experimental Studies Group: Some Old Facts and New Myths. 58 p. Valley, GE (1985) How the SAGE development began. Annals of the History of Computing, v. 7, p. 196-226. Valley, GE and Anderson, HH (1947) A Comparison of the Abundance Ratios of Terrestrial and Meteoritic Iron. J. Am. Chem. Soc. v. 69, p. 1871-75. Valley, GE and McCreary, RL (1939) The Internally Converted Gamma Rays of Several Radioactive Elements. Phys. Rev., v 56, no. 9, p. 863-871. Valley, GE and Wallman, H, eds. (1948) Vacuum Tube Amplifiers, editorial staff: GE Valley et al., Radiation Lab. Series v. 18, McGraw Hill, N.Y. 743p. Van Voorhis, SN, ed. (1948) Microwave Receivers, editorial staff: GE Valley et al., Radiation Lab. Series, v. 23.


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