Charles W. Tobias

Born: November 2, 1920 | Budapest, HU
Died: March 3, 1996 | Orinda, CA, US

Charles Tobias begins with a description of his family in Hungary and education at the University of Technical Sciences in Budapest; he compares the US and Hungarian educational systems. Tobias explains his wartime experiences in Hungary and the struggle to reach the US. He spends a large portion of the interview discussing the Electrochemical Society. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0146
No. of pages: 62
Minutes: 275

Interview Sessions

James J. Bohning
15 and 16 May 1995
Orinda, California

Abstract of Interview

Charles Tobias begins this interview with a description of his extended family in Hungary and their interest in engineering. He remembers his early childhood and education in Hungary and the influence of his family and high school chemistry teacher in his selection of chemical engineering as a career. Next, Tobias discusses his education at the University of Technical Sciences in Budapest. Throughout this section he points out the strengths and weaknesses of his education and compares the US and Hungarian systems. Tobias continues by recalling his initial desire to join his brother in graduate research in the US and the intermediary time spent in wartime Hungary as a chemical engineer and, later, as a researcher. Next, he describes the legal and logistical problems he faced in leaving post-war Hungary to join his brother at Berkeley. In remembering his initial visits to Berkeley, he fondly remembers the help of John Lawrence, W. M. Latimer and others. He discusses his early research interests and contact with students as a teacher and research advisor. He finishes the first day of interviewing with an overview of the changes within his department during the 1960s. On the second day of interviewing, Tobias starts by describing his initial attraction to The ECS through student readings of the society's journal. He recalls his interest in reviving the local Berkeley section and meeting colleagues who would play a role throughout his career. As he describes his leadership in reorganizing the tone and structure of The ECS and the Theoretical Division, he emphasizes the roles played by others who joined with him. Moving on to his presidential activities, he touches on several changes within the society and the emphasis he placed on both professional conduct and attracting and supporting young society members. He also discusses the development of electrochemical engineering as a field, and the roles played by him, his students, and the society within that development. He finishes the interview with a brief comment on the role of intuition in science. 


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1942 Technical University of Budapest Diploma Chemical Engineering
1946 Technical University of Budapest PhD Chemical Engineering
1948 Postdoctoral Studies (completed in 1948)

Professional Experience

United Incandescent Lamp and Electrical Company, Ltd.

1942 to 1947
Development Engineer

Technical University of Budapest

1945 to 1946
Instructor of Physical Chemistry

University of California, Berkeley

1947 to 1960
Instructor of Chemical Engineering
1960 to 1991
Professor of Chemical Engineering
1967 to 1972
Chair, Chemical Engineering Department
1991 to 1996
Professor Emeritus

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

1954 to 1978
Principal Investigator
1978 to 1991
Faculty Senior Scientists
1991 to 1995
Senior Faculty Scientist/Chemical Engineer


Year(s) Award

Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science


Acheson Award, Electrochemical Society


Honorary Member, Electrochemical Society


Henry B. Linford Award, Electrochemical Society


Alpha Chi Sigma Award, American Institute of Chemical Engineers


Vittorio De Nora Diamond-Shamrock Award, Electrochemical Society


Berkeley Citation for Distinguished Achievement, University of California, Berkeley


Honorary Member, Hungarian Chemical Society


Founders Award, American Institute of Chemical Engineers


Golden Diploma, Technical University of Budapest


Honorary Doctors Degree, Technical University of Budapest


Honorary Member, Hungarian Academy of Sciences

Table of Contents

Family Background and Education

Grandparents' and parents' origins in Hungary and tradition of engineering careers in family. Memories of education, primary and secondary, and Hungarian school system. Musical training. Influence of high school chemistry teacher in selection of chemical engineering. Education at University of Technical Sciences: emphasis on memorization, influence of various teachers, analytical lab work, oral exams. Comparison of Hungarian and US chemical engineering curriculums.

Post-College Career in Hungary

University graduation, desire to go to the US, brother's scholarship to Berkeley. WWII, initial military deferral work at Tungsram company, military service as chemical engineer. Post-war social and working conditions. Teaching; research at University and Tungsram.

Initial Contacts with the University of California, Berkeley

Contact with Berkeley through brother. Legal and logistical complications leaving Hungary. Arriving at Berkeley and meeting with John Lawrence, W. M. Latimer, Bill Gwinn, and Robert Rosenthall. Securing of appointment.

Early Research Interests

Early research on radiation conductivity. Interest in conductivity of suspension of odd-shaped particles. Hydrogen peroxide and ozone production research.

Early Graduate Teaching

Development of first courses. Influence of Latimer. Changes in 1960s: financial support, more students, first-rate colleagues. Teaching style and graduate advising.

Introduction to The Electrochemical Society/Pre-presidential Activities

Origins of interest in ECS. Revival of local Berkeley section. Contact with Dick Bechtold. First national ECS activity in early 1950s. Contacts at early meetings: Bob Burns, Norman Hackerman, Ralph Hunter. Leadership in ECS: reorganization of meetings and the slate of the Theoretical Division. Revitalization of divisional program and activities; divisional growth, invitation of foreign speakers. Appointment as editor of journal. Editorial activities and committee work.

Presidential Activities

Six years of influence as vice president, president, board member. Change of meeting dates and professionalization of procedures. Adding to ECS awards. Student activists in the Society. Acheson memorial banquet. Attracting students to ECS.

Views of The ECS

Industry's and academia's relations to ECS. Committee structure. Roles played by the Society. Society as a forum. Future of The ECS.

Other Activities and Views

Book series with Paul Delahaye and Heinz Gerischer. International activities. Development of electrochemical engineering and influence of Tobias and his students within the field. Consulting in industry and view of academics who consult.

Closing Statements

Development of Chemical Engineering department at Berkeley. Competition for department within the University. Influence of Charles Wilke and Theodore Vermeulen. Tobias' influence on students and youth in the Society. View of role of electrochemical engineers. Role of intuition in science.

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.