Ralph Landau

Born: May 19, 1916 | Philadelphia, PA, US
Died: April 5, 2004 | New York City, NY, US

Ralph Landau begins his oral history by discussing his childhood and education, including his time as an undergraduate in chemical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania and as a graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Landau recalls his time at Kellex Corporation-where he worked on the Manhattan Project-as well as M. W. Kellogg Corporation, Scientific Design Company, and Halcon International. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0086
No. of pages: 69
Minutes: 162

Interview Sessions

James J. Bohning
18 December 1990
Listowel, Inc., New York, New York

Abstract of Interview

Ralph Landau begins the interview with a description of his childhood and high school years in West Philadelphia. He then describes his undergraduate education in chemical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, emphasizing a strong background in chemistry. In recounting his graduate years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he focuses particularly on the indispensable benefits of the Practical School as well as on the extremely high caliber of the chemical engineering program and faculty there. After describing his initial work at Kellogg, Landau summarizes his role with Kellex on the Manhattan Project. Next, he reviews the history of Scientific Design and its development into an international business, eventually to become Halcon, recapitulating significant discoveries and innovations. Finally, Landau describes his new career in the Economics Department of Stanford University, inspired by his frustration with the effects of macroeconomic policies on technological development. He concludes the interview with a brief account of his personal life and leisure activities. Please note: This oral history is currently sealed, though will become free access on 17 June 2017.  


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1937 University of Pennsylvania BS Chemical Engineering
1941 Massachusetts Institute of Technology ScD Chemical Engineering

Professional Experience

M. W. Kellogg Company

1941 to 1943
Process Development Engineer
1945 to 1946
Process Development Engineer

Kellex Corporation

1943 to 1945
Head, Chemical Department

Scientific Design Company, Inc.

1946 to 1963
Executive Vice President

Halcon International, Inc.

1963 to 1975
1975 to 1981
Chairman and CEO


1977 to 1987
Member, Board of Directors

National Academy of Engineering

1981 to 1990
Vice President

Stanford University

1983 to 1991
Consulting Professor of Economics and of Chemical Engineering

Harvard University

1984 to 1991
Research Fellow, Kennedy School


Year(s) Award

Elected Member, National Academy of Engineering


Petroleum and Petrochemical Division Award, American Institute of Chemical Engineers


Chemistry Industry Medal, Society of Chemical Industry (American Section)


Winthrop-Sears Award, Chemical Industry Association


Newcomen Society Award


Perkin Medal, Society of Chemical Industry (American Section)


Chemical Pioneers Award, American Institute of Chemists


D. Sc., honorary, Polytechnic University of New York


Founders Award, American Institute of Chemical Engineers


D. Sc., honorary, Clarkson University


Designated Eminent Chemical Engineer, American Institute of Chemical Engineers


D. Sc., honorary, Ohio State University


National Medal of Technology


John Fritz Medal


Foreign Member, British Fellowship of Engineering (to become Royal Academy of Engineering)


Othmer Gold Medal, Chemical Heritage Foundation

Table of Contents

Childhood and Early Education

Takes education very seriously from early age, working hard to graduate first to receive Penn scholarship. Grows up in Philadelphia, moving numerous times. Attends Overbrook High School with fine teachers. Facility in mathematics leads to interest in science and engineering.

University of Pennsylvania (Penn)

Enters chemical engineering program in 1933, at age sixteen. Enjoys laboratory work. Takes advantage of strong English Department as well as courses in philosophy, astronomy, and foreign languages. Studies chemical engineering under well-reputed Norman W. Krase. Very demanding engineering curriculum. Despite extremely high aptitude in mathematics and physics, prefers practical aspects of engineering.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

Receives Tau Beta Pi Fellowship to attend any university. MIT is "natural" choice due to unquestionable superiority in chemical engineering at the time. First experience away from home. Practice School offers tremendous practical experience. Very rigorous program and stimulating environment—the best and brightest. Completes thesis virtually unsupervised.

M. W. Kellogg Company

Begins work with catalytic cracking and picks up other chemical projects that emerge. Asked to transfer to subsidiary, Kellex Corporation.

Kellex Corporation (Manhattan Project)

Works with highly skilled engineers to design and run plant to produce highly concentrated uranium-235. Very little understanding of fission or the project as a whole. Works with Eyring, Urey, Groves, and Rehnberg. Actual diffusion plant controlled by Union Carbide which did not wish to involve engineers.

Scientific Design Company (SDC)

Starts company with Rehnberg by proposing construction of monochloroacetic anhydride plant to former boss, then vice president of Stauffer. Although initial project never completed, both take advantage of contacts to expand worldwide. Work in England leads to further contacts in Europe and Japan.

Halcon International, Inc.

As SDC expands and petrochemical industry becomes saturated, Halcon created as holding company for SDC (for engineering licensing) as well as Catalytic Development Corporation (for manufacturing) and SD Plants (for construction). Pioneers in many chemical production processes, including ones for ethylene oxide, terephthlalic acid, maelic anhydride, Oxirane, and acetic anhydride. Recession of early 1980s forces sellout. Receives several awards for research and industrial development.

Stanford University

Frustration with the macroeconomic atmosphere leads to new career in academe—in the Economics Department. Publishes a great deal and teaches seminar on relationship between economics and technological development. Contact with government officials.

Thoughts on Development of Chemical Engineering

Great opportunities of post-war era no longer available because majority of industry sustained by huge corporations. Practical experience in industry necessary to facilitate progress and innovation. The field has become so theoretical that the gap between academe and industry has widened, making the Practice School concept increasingly critical.

Leisure Activities

Enjoys swimming, opera, travel, wine, art, tapestries. Maintains numerous contacts throughout industry.


About the Interviewer

James J. Bohning

James J. Bohning was professor emeritus of chemistry at Wilkes University, where he had been a faculty member from 1959 to 1990. He served there as chemistry department chair from 1970 to 1986 and environmental science department chair from 1987 to 1990. Bohning was chair of the American Chemical Society’s Division of the History of Chemistry in 1986; he received the division’s Outstanding Paper Award in 1989 and presented more than forty papers at national meetings of the society. Bohning was on the advisory committee of the society’s National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program from its inception in 1992 through 2001 and is currently a consultant to the committee. He developed the oral history program of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and he was CHF’s director of oral history from 1990 to 1995. From 1995 to 1998, Bohning was a science writer for the News Service group of the American Chemical Society. In May 2005, he received the Joseph Priestley Service Award from the Susquehanna Valley Section of the American Chemical Society.  Bohning passed away in September 2011.