The glitter of man-made diamonds is etched in H. Tracy Hall's mind as clearly as if he first made them this morning instead of 45 years ago.
The date was Dec. 16, 1954. Other researchers for General Electric in Schenectady, N.Y., had gone home for Christmas. Working alone in the lab, the Utahn ran a device that he had cobbled together out of an old, leaky hydraulic press. He finished the experiment and looked inside."The sun was shining through the south windows," he said last week from his home in Provo, "and, tiny as they were, I could see these little facets on these diamonds with my naked eye."
Hall had cracked the secret to making synthetic diamonds, duplicating the searing heat and crushing pressure that exists deep within the Earth's mantle.
According to the American Museum of Natural History, New York, an estimated 3 billion years ago the material that became diamonds was crystallized by fantastic forces in the interior of our planet and later carried upward by volcanism.
Scientists had been trying to find a way to manufacture diamonds since the late 1700s, when experiments proved that the hardest natural substance was pure carbon.
When Hall realized he had done it, he recalled, his hands began to tremble, his knees felt weak and his heart beat faster.
The excitement was justified. Today, synthetic diamonds are commonplace and inexpensive, with the stones used for drill bits, electronics, polishing wheels and cutting devices.
Discovering how to make them was a revolutionary advancement. It also was an embarrassment to GE, as Hall tells it, since it resulted from Hall's lone-wolf approach and not the big team effort that GE backed.
"There was a so-called team that had, counting the director of research and underlings and everybody else . . . nine people in all involved." Although it supposedly worked as a team, he said, "everybody was going their own way."
Hall was born in Ogden and raised on a farm. Whenever the family went to town for supplies, he and his brothers would head to the Ogden City Library and read. He became fascinated in the work of Thomas Edison and decided by fourth grade that he would someday join Edison's company, General Electric.
He earned an associate of science degree at Weber College (now Weber State University), Ogden, and his bachelor's degree from the University of Utah in 1942. During World War II he enlisted in the Navy, training at Harvard in radar and electronics.
He received his doctorate at the University of Utah in 1948, then fulfilled his dream of joining the GE research labs at Schenectady. The company had launched "Project Superpressure," attempting to manufacture diamonds, and he joined the work as a chemist.
GE was building an enormous press, a device that looks about 25 feet tall in period photography, to generate pressure of 1.6 million pounds per square inch. It cost $125,000 in 1951 dollars (a fortune in today's figures) and the building to house it was
just as expensive.
But Hall had other notions about how to do it, ideas that also involved chemistry. He began carrying out his own experiments using a device called "the belt," which incorporated a 35-year-old Watson-Stillman press. His total expenditure was less than $1,000.
Meanwhile, GE favored the huge, costly press.
Hall's hydraulic press was so leaky that he had to wear rubber boots when he operated it. He was not able to get time in the GE machine shop for his maverick ideas, but he persuaded a friendly company machinist to help him when he had free time.
Another problem was getting the carbide material that was essential to the device. That took the intervention of his former boss, Herman Leibhafsky, director of GE's chemistry department.
When he opened the apparatus and saw the glitter of diamonds, Hall knew he had succeeded. It was like a Superman cartoon when the man of steel crushes a lump of coal in his hands and produces a beautiful diamond for Lois Lane.
The Monday following his success, Hall had GE technicians X-ray the product. The diffraction patterns they detected confirmed that he had produced diamonds. He made run after run with the machine, producing diamonds. Next step was to get another scientist to replicate the steps.
On Dec. 31, 1954, using Hall's belt apparatus, GE chemist Hugh H. Woodbury also made diamonds.
Hall wrote a report to GE officials on Jan. 6, 1955, "A Successful Diamond Synthesis." Its abstract read, "Diamonds have been grown, using graphite as a source of carbon, at 95,000 atmospheres and temperatures near 1700 degrees C. The crystals grow rapidly, two or three minutes. The process has been duplicated."
But Hall's reward wasn't a big chunk of patent royalties. It wasn't even as impressive as Superman's reward, a kiss from the girl reporter. Patent rights belonged to GE, which he says has made billions on his invention.
"I'm just their slave," he said, recalling those days. "They gave me a $10 savings bond. Big deal. Big deal."
On Feb. 15, 1955, two months after Hall's breakthrough, the Deseret News carried a breathless article by United Press. Datelined Schenectady, N.Y., the report sounded a note of astonishment:
"Men are making diamonds. Up to now only nature has made them."
The article continued with the news that General Electric had opened its scientific research laboratory to reporters earlier that day, displaying diamond-making by scientists who duplicated "nature's hardest and most cherished material." The writer quoted GE vice president Guy Suits as saying that these were not merely like diamonds but actual diamonds.
When GE announced its discovery, it showed off the gigantic press.
Stung by the lack of sufficient credit, Hall began searching for other employment. "I went shopping around: IBM and Carbide and Carbon and DuPont and some other companies."
Word got around that Hall was available. Eager to land the Utahn in hopes of boosting its scientific research effort, in 1955 Brigham Young University hired him as professor of chemistry and director of research.
However, as BYU officials remembered, federal officials considered his belt apparatus such an important invention that the government slapped a secrecy order on it. The restriction kept him from using his own device.
Undaunted, within a year he had invented the Tetrahedral press, which could do the same job. "Then it, too, received a secrecy order," says a BYU summary.
Two years later the orders were dropped and Hall was free to pursue his own research with the devices. He and his colleagues published almost 150 peer-reviewed scientific papers and won more than $1 million in research grants.
Hall's work was cited by many professional societies. In addition, he owns more than 17 U.S. and 70 foreign patents.
His innovations led to the founding of many synthetic-diamond manufacturers around the world, including a host centered in Provo.
GE remains the world's biggest producer of synthetic diamonds, said Hall's son, David Hall. Some GE employees went to the famous De Beers diamond firm, which also joined the synthetic diamond industry as a major producer.
In 1968, Tracy Hall and colleagues from BYU formed MegaDiamond, "probably the first spinoff from BYU," said David Hall.
Other companies eventually formed as employees began their own firms, including a group in Provo. One is Novatek, of which Tracy Hall is chairman and David Hall is president.
Novatek produces what it calls "super materials" such as synthetic diamonds, cubic boron nitride, diamond and other materials created by high pressures and high temperatures.Comment on this story
"There's actually about a $200 million (synthetic diamond) business in Utah Valley here, all spinoffs from MegaDiamond," David Hall said. Worldwide, the synthetic diamond business "is more like $2 billion," he said.
With all those gleaming accomplishments, what Tracy Hall considers his main achievements are not connected with science or industry.
He served as a bishop in his LDS Church ward. In 1981, he and his wife, Ida-Rose, went on a church mission to Zimbabwe. He takes great pleasure in another non-industry aspect of his life: his family.
Meanwhile, the joy of creating a new technology outweighed the grinding work that was required. "It has just been so fascinating that it's enjoyable," he said.