Robert E. Finnigan

Born: May 27, 1927 | Buffalo, NY, US

Robert E. Finnigan details his work in instrumentation and engineering, starting at the US Naval Academy and continuing in government and industrial work through the rest of his career.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0227
No. of pages: 115
Minutes: 490

Interview Sessions

David C. Brock
4 December 2001
Los Altos, California

Abstract of Interview

Robert E. Finnigan begins the interview with a description of his family and childhood years in Snyder, New York. Finnigan developed an interest in military service and science while reading The Dave Darrin Series about a new recruit at the United States Naval Academy (USNA) and while building World War II model airplane replicas as a young boy. After entering the USNA in 1945, Finnigan became fascinated with electronics and realized that he wanted to continue his electrical engineering (EE) education at a graduate level, so he enrolled in an Air Force Institute of Technology program, which allowed qualified officers to enter graduate school after three years of service. While in the AFIT program, Finnigan met and married Bette E. Finnigan. In 1952, Finnigan became a “student officer” in EE at the University of Illinois at Urbana. After receiving his PhD in 1957, Finnigan joined the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), formerly the Lawrence Livermore Radiation Laboratory. While at LLNL, Finnigan worked on the development and application of nuclear ramjet reactors such as the TORY II-A and TORY II-C. Subsequent to working on ramjet reactors for five years, Finnigan decided to pursue process controls research at SRI (Stanford Research Institute). At SRI, Finnigan became interested in the prospects for the quadrupole mass spectrometer as an advanced instrument for process control. As awareness of the quadrupole grew, Finnigan and his division were persuaded by EAI (Electronic Associates Incorporated) to leave SRI in order to start a process-systems group and quadrupole development. Finnigan remained at EAI, in the Scientific Instruments Division producing quadrupoles for academic and industrial use, for four years. In 1967, Finnigan resigned after EAI's attempt to sell the Scientific Instruments Division failed and EAI rejected his idea to venture into the GC-MS (gas chromatography mass spectrometry) market. Later that same year, Finnigan formed Finnigan Corporation with assistance from Roger Sant and T. Z. Chu. Via Finnigan Corporation, Finnigan continued to research and develop quadrupoles and GC-MS. Finnigan concludes the interview with a discussion of his hobbies and family, reflections on Thermo Instrument Systems' acquisition of Finnigan Corporation, and thoughts on the Finnigan Corporation of today.


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1949 US Naval Academy BS
1954 University of Illinois at Chicago MS Electrical Engineering
1957 University of Illinois at Chicago PhD Electrical Engineering

Professional Experience

US Air Force

1949 to 1954
2nd Lieutenant, 1st Lieutenant with assignments to strategic Air Command, University of Illinois (student officer), U. S. Air Force Institute of Technology (Instructor), Ph.D. Special Student
1954 to 1959

Lawrence Livermore Laboratory

1957 to 1959
Head, Nuclear Reactor Control Group
1959 to 1962
Senior Scientist

Stanford Research Institute

1962 to 1963
Senior Research Engineer

Electronic Associates, Inc.

1963 to 1967
Director, Scientific Instruments Division

Finnigan Corporation

1967 to 1990
Founder, President, Vice Chairman, Senior Vice President
1990 to 2003
Vice Chairman Emeritus, Consultant


Year(s) Award

Distinguished Alumnus Award, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Illinois


Alumni Honor Award for Distinguished Service in Engineering, College of Engineering, University of Illinois


Pioneer in Analytical Instrumentation-Mass Spectrometry, Society for Analytical Chemists of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry


Winston Churchill Medal of Wisdom


Wisdom Hall of Fame


Instrumentation Hall of Fame, Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Analytical Chemistry Society


Robert E. Finnigan Professorship established at Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences, Clairmont, California, by outside donors to Keck

Table of Contents

Childhood and Early Education

Growing up in Snyder, New York. Parents. Siblings. Extracurricular activities. Early interest in science and military service. Effect of World War II. Decision to attend the United States Naval Academy.

United States Naval Academy

Preparatory school. Curriculum. V-5 and V-12 programs. Hazing. Sports. Decision to join the United States Air Force.

United States Air Force

Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT). Air Tactical School. Strategic Air Command at March Air Force Base. Applying to graduate school for electrical engineering (EE).

University of Illinois at Urbana

EE curriculum. Meeting and marriage to Bette E. Finnigan. ILLIAC I. General Swofford's Special Ph.D. Program. AFIT. Ph.D. thesis on non-linear servomechanism theory. Teaching antenna theory at AFIT.

Career at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories (LLNL)

Herbert York. Ramjet nuclear engine. TORY II-A. TORY II-C. P. Michael Uthe Jr. Herbert York and Harold Brown. LLNL work ethic. Coors Porcelain Company. Decision to move to SRI (Stanford Research Institute).

Career at SRI

P. Michael Uthe Jr. Quadrupole mass spectrometry. Allan E. Lee. Market research survey. IBM Corporation. Phill Wadsworth. EAI (Electronic Associates Incorporated).

Career at EAI

Scientific Instruments Division. Aerojet General Corporation. NERVA Project. Beckman Instruments, Inc. Joseph Lewis. Market research survey. Development of quadrupole for process instruments via SRI funding. Kenneth R. Shoulders. Thomas R. Conklin. Michael S. Story. Richard Greenan. Loren Wright. Ultek System International. Quadrupole's wide acceptance and use. EAI's decision to sell. Hewlett-Packard Company. Syntex Corporation. Roger Sant. P. Michael Uthe Jr. , Richard Greenan, and Loren Wright form Uthe Technology Incorporated. Interest in the GC-MS (gas chromatography mass spectrometry) market. EAI's rejection of GC-MS. Resignation.

Career at Finnigan Corporation

Decision to create Finnigan with financial assistance from Roger Sant and T. Z. Chu. EAI's disapproval. Reflections on P. Michael Uthe's departure. Fate of EAI. Michael S. Story. William Fies. Jonathan W. Amy. GC-MS development. Walter E. Reynolds. Acquisition of Disc Instruments. Model 1015 GC-MS. Evan C. Horning. Systems Industries. Acquisition of Quantamatrix Corporation. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and the Model 1015/System 150. EPA Consent Decree Program. Reasoning for taking Finnigan public in 1972. The "culture" of Finnigan. Roger Sant's departure.


Hobbies and interests. Family. American Electronics Association (AEA). Organization Internationale Metrology Legale (OIML). AEA and the environment. Acquisition of MAT GmbH. T. Z. Chu. Thermo Instruments Systems, Inc. George N. Hatsopolous. Thermo Electron Corporation. Arvin Smith. Gratification from serving on the boards of various small companies. Thermo Instrument Systems' acquisition of Finnigan Corporation. Ian Jardine. The Finnigan Corporation of today.


About the Interviewer

David C. Brock

David C. Brock is a senior research fellow with the Center for Contemporary History and Policy at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. As a historian of science and technology, he specializes in the history of semiconductor science, technology, and industry; the history of instrumentation; and oral history. Brock has studied the philosophy, sociology, and history of science at Brown University, the University of Edinburgh, and Princeton University.

In the policy arena Brock recently published Patterning the World: The Rise of Chemically Amplified Photoresists, a white-paper case study for the Center’s Studies in Materials Innovation. With Hyungsub Choi he is preparing an analysis of semiconductor technology roadmapping, having presented preliminary results at the 2009 meeting of the Industry Studies Association.