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Lewi Tonks Papers, 1921-1967

Description of Collection


American Institute of Physics. Center for History of Physics.

College Park, MD 20740

Papers created by

Tonks, Lewi, 1897-1971.

Size of collection

5.5 linear feet ; 9 sound discs : 8 analog, 78 rpm., mono. and 1 analog, 33 1/3 rpm., mono ; 12 inch discs.

Short description of collection

This collection consists of correspondence, both personal and professional, research notes, drafts of papers and completed research papers. The materials span the 1930's to the 1960's, with the bulk of it between the 1940's to 1960's. The collection documents Tonks' research at General Electric laboratories on plasmas, ferromagnetism, surface thermodynamics, magnetrons, reactor theory, fusion, and lasers.

Language(s) of collection


Unit ID

AR 255

Biography of Lewi Tonks

Lewi Tonks was born in New York City in 1897. He attended Columbia University and graduated with a B.S. degree in 1918 and took his PhD in 1923. His doctoral work included extensive e training in mathematical physics.

During World War I, Tonks interrupted his studies to conduct research for the U.S. Government at the New London Connecticut Naval Station on a sonar device for submarine detection. Again during the Second World War, he served the government by heading a General Electric research group on jamming magnetrons.

Joining the staff of General Electric as a research associate in 1923, he was assigned over the years to various projects at the General Engineering Laboratory in Schenectady, the company's Knolls Atomic Research Laboratory in Niskayuna, New York and its Atomic Power Equipment Department in Vallecitos, California. At these various locations, his research included studies in thermionic emission, ferromagnetic and magnetrons from microwave generation. In 1963, after forty years with G.E., he retired.

During his early years at General Electric, Tonks worked under the Nobel Laureate Irving Langmuir, the associate director of the Research Lab. It has been stated that Tonks' mathematical-physics skills linked with Langmuir's great physical insight made them a particularly successful research team. In 1929, Tonks and Langmuir coauthored two papers, one on plasma oscillations and the other on a general theory of a plasma. The two works have become part of the foundation of modern plasma physics.

Tonks' life was not totally taken up by scientific research. Always a man of principle, he was deeply concerned with social problems. For him it was the individual's freedom above all else that mattered. It was this line of thought that led Tonks on several occasions, to speak out and act against injustice as he saw it. Many time he would put up bail money for those who could not afford to do so themselves. And he also provided counseling for the poor in areas such as employment and education. After his retirement in 1963, Tonks was a volunteer worker for the Schenectady Human Rights Commission; he was also a member of the Clergy and Layman Concerned About Vietnam.

In July of 1971, Tonks died of a heart attack at the age of seventy-four. Lewi Tonks was a man who was truly concerned with his fellow man's lot in life. He did not isolate himself in an ivory tower, but rather threw himself into all aspects of human affairs.

Scope and Contents of Collection

The papers of Lewi Tonks is a collection that consists of correspondence, both personal and professional, research notes, drafts of papers and completed research papers. The materials span the 1930's to the 1960's, with the bulk of it between the 1940's to 1960's.

Restrictions on Use and Access

No restrictions.

Use of primary source material in the Niels Bohr Library requires prior approval through an Application for Access, which includes a statement of research purpose and the names and addresses of two scholars as references. Access applications can be obtained by contacting the Library (telephone 301-209-3177; or e-mail The application can also be printed from our website.

Selected Search Terms

These papers have been indexed in the International Catalog of Sources for History of Physics and Allied Sciences (ICOS) using the following terms. Those seeking related materials should search under these terms.


Conference on Plasma Physics and Controlled Nuclear Fusion Research.
General Electric Company.


General Electric Science Forum.

Subject terms

Fusion reactors.
Microwave tubes.
Nuclear energy.
Nuclear reactors.
Plasma (Ionized gases)
Research, Industrial.

Genre terms

Laboratory notes.
Phonograph records.
Sound recordings.

Arrangement/Organization of Collection

These papers are organized into twelve series: I. Biographical Materials; II. Chronological Correspondence File; III. General Subject Files; IV. Research Notes and Draft Manuscripts of G.E. Lab Reports; V. Final Manuscripts of G.E. Lab Reports; VI. Final Manuscripts of Published Articles for Physics Journal; VII. G.E. Internal Technical Reports by Tonks; VIII. Publications; IX. Publications by Lewi Tonks; X. Materials not by Lewi Tonks; XI. Sound Recordings: General Electric Science Forum WGY Radio, Schenectady, New York

Provenance and Acquisition Information

After Dr. Tonks' death in 1971, his papers remained in the hands of his wife, Mrs. Edna Tonks. Shortly thereafter, between October and November 1972, the collection was deposited at the Niels Bohr Library.

Bibliography: Scientific Contributions of Lewi Tonks

1. Characteristics of Iron in High Frequency Rotating Magnetic Fields, Phys. Rev. 23, 221 (1934)

2. The Flow of Ions Through a Small Orifice in a Charged Plate With H.M. Mott-Smith, Jr., and I. Langmuir - Phys. Rev.28, 104 (1926)

3. On the Surface Heat of Charging With I. Langmuir - Phys. Rev.29, 525 (1927)

4. Space Charge as a Cause of Negative Resistance in a Triode and Its Bearings on Short Wave Generation - Phys. Rev. 30, 501 (1927)

5. Note on Thermionic Emission - Phys. Rev. 32, 284 (1928)

6. Two Energy Types in Wave Motion and Their Relation to Group and Wave Velocity - Phys. Rev. 33, 239 (1928)

7. Oscillations in Ionized Gases (No. 473) with I. Langmuir - Phys. Rev. 33, 195 (1929)

8. General Theory of the Plasma of an Arc with I. Langmuir - Phys. Rev. 34, 876 (1929)

9. Propagation of Large Barkhausen Discontinuities I, II, III, IV with K.J. Sixtus - Phys. Rev. 37, 930 (1931); 42, 419 (1932); 43, 70 and 931 (1933)

10. The High Frequency Behavior of a Plasma - Phys. Rev. 37, 1458 (1931)

11. Plasma-electron Resonance, Plasma Resonance and Plasma Shape - Phys. Rev. 38, 1219 (1931)

12. On the Increase in Surface Area Due to Crystal Faces Developed by Etching - Phys. Rev. 38, 1030 (1931)

13. A Note: Further Experiments on the Propagation of Large Barkhausen Discontinuities - with K.J. Sixtus - Phys. Rev. 39, 357 (1932)

14. Impedance Characteristics of Loaded Lecher Systems - Physics 2, 1 (1932)

15. A Note: Strain and Magnetic Orientation with K.J. Sixtus - Phys. Rev. 41, 539 (1932)

16. Electrical Discharges in Gases, Ionization and Excitation. Electric Engineering - Feb. 1934 (reprinted in "A Science Series for Engineers" A.I.E.E.)

17. The Pressure of Plasma Electrons and the Force on the cathode of an Arc Phys. Rev. 46, 278 (1934)

18. The Momentum of Ions Leaving a Region of Ionization Phys. Rev. 47, 621 (1935)

19. A Theory of Liquid Surface Rupture by a Uniform Electric Field - Phys. Rev. 48, 562 (1935)

20. On Anchoring the Mercury Pool Cathode Spot, Physics 6, 294 (1935)

21. On the Motion of Electrons in Crossed Electric and Magnetic Fields with Space Charge, Phys. Zeits. der Sowj. 8, 572 (1935)

22. On the Instability and Rupture of Droplets and Bubbles in Strong Electric Fields Journal Franklin Institute - May 1936

23. The Force at an Anchored Cathode Spot, Phys. Rev. 50, 226 (1936)

24. The Complete Equation of State of One, Two and Three-Dimensional Cases of Hard Elastic Sphere - Phys. Rev. 50. 955 (1936)

25. The Drift of Ions and Electrons in a Magnetic Field - Phys. Rev. 51, 744, (1937)

26. Plasma Electron Drift in a Magnetic Field with a Velocity Distribution, With W.P. Allis - Phys. Rev. 52, 710 (1937)

27. On the Determination of an Integral, Phil. Mag. 24, 206 (1937)

28. Theory and Phenomena of High Current Densities in Low Pressure Arcs Presented before Electrochem. Soc. Oct. 15, 1937

29. The Rate of vaporization of Mercury from an Anchored Cathode Spot, Phys. Rev. 54, 634 (1938)

30. A New Form of the Electromagnetic Energy Equation when Free Charged Particles are Present, Phys. Rev. 54, 863 (1938)

31. The Electromagnetic Levitator, G.E. Review 42, 246 (1939) (with B.D. Bedford and L.G.B. Peer)

32. Theory of Magnetic Effects in the Plasma of an Arc, Phys. Rev. 56 (1939)

33. The Lack of "Sucking" Action by the Cathode Blast of Mercury Vapor in a Pool Rectifier Jour. Appl. Phys. 10, 654 (1939)

34. Theoretical Isotherms for Absorption on a Square Lattice, Jour. Chem. Phys. 8, 477 (1940)

35. Note on Earnshaw's Theorem, Elect. Eng. March 1940

36. Influence of a Longitudinal Magnetic Field on an Electrical Discharge in Mercury Vapor at Low Pressure with C.S. Cummings, Phys. Rev. 59, 514 (141)

37. Transmission of an Electron Density Disturbance along a Positive Column in a Longitudinal Field, Phys. Rev. 59, 522 (1941)

Administrative Information


Finding Aid to the Lewi Tonks Papers, 1921-1967


This finding aid has been encoded by the Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics as part of a collaborative project supported by a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities, an independent federal agency. Collaboration members in 2003 consisted of: American Institute of Physics, California Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northwestern University, Rice University, University of Alaska, University of Illinois, and University of Texas.


American Institute of Physics. Center for History of Physics.

One Physics Ellipse
College Park, MD 20740

January 31, 2003

Encoding Information

Machine-readable finding aid encoded in EAD 2002 by Clay Redding on January 31, 2003. Any revisions made to this finding aid occurred as part of the editing and encoding process.

Series I. Biographical Materials, n.d.

Box 1 Folder 1 Biographical File - Obituaries and articles
Folder 2 Awards and Certificates

Series II. Chronological Correspondence File, ca. 1930's - 1960's

This series contains miscellaneous Correspondence, 1932-1967 (1:II:6). In this folder, one can find several pieces of correspondence that reveal the character of Dr. Tonks. One is a draft of a letter (ca. 1954-1955) to be sent to a General Electric administrator explaining his reasons for wishing to appear before the McCarthy-Army hearings. For him it was a moral obligation to set right the accusations made against scientists by the McCarthy committee.

Also in the same folder is a letter (9-23-56) to Dr. Leland Haworth, Director of the Brookhaven National Laboratory, concerning Tonks' possible resignation from General Electric.

Box 1 Folder 1 Fifth International Conference on Ionization in Gases - Letters concerning preparations, 1958-1961
Folder 2 Fifth International Conference on Ionization in Gases - Letters abroad to colleagues also attending, 1961
Folder 3 General Business Letters (with Index) - Outgoing, 1960-1962
Folder 4 General Business Letters - Outgoing, 1962-1963
Folder 5 "100 Correspondence": Letters and reports, 1960-1964
Folder 6 Miscellaneous Correspondence, 1932-1967

Series III. General Subject Files, ca. 1930's - 1960's

Letters, clippings and reprints on varied subjects.

This series has two folders on "Ball Lightening," 1959-1966 (1:III:3 and 4). Here is a subject that seems to have fascinated Tonks for several years. A natural phenomenon that interested many scientists, Tonks seemed to have kept it as a pet project of investigation. Included are several reports and papers on the subject.

In 1921, Albert Einstein came to New York and gave several lectures on physics at C.C.N.Y. Lewi Tonks, then a young doctoral student at Columbia University, attended the lectures and wrote some articles explaining them for the New York Times. His notes and the articles are contained in the folder entitled, "Einstein Lectures, C.C.N.Y., 1921" (1:III:6).

Over the years Tonks seems to have been asked how Langmuir came to use the term "plasma" for highly ionized gases. In the folder entitled "Birth of Plasma," 1964-1967, (1:III:5) there is a letter explaining the story and also an article that was published about the event.

In the 1960's, the Department of the Interior began a program in which nuclear reactors would be used to desalinate water to irrigate arid lands. Between the years 1962-1965, Lewi Tonks was part of the Office of the Scientific Advisor to the President and conducted a study on the desalination project which was a part of the Research and Development Program of the Office of the Department of Interior. A rather extensive set of folders converts the three years of investigation (2:III:19 - "Saline Water Conversion," 1962-1965).

Box 1 Folder 1 Advanced Engineering Program, 1946-1947
Folder 2 Anti-Friction Bearings, 1962-1963
Box 2 Folder 3 Ball Lightning I, 1959-1960
Folder 4 Ball Lightning II, 1960-1966
Folder 5 "Birth of Plasma" - Article and letters, 1964-1967
Folder 6 Diffusion Across a Magnetic Field, 1960-1964
Folder 7 Einstein Lectures, C.C.N.Y., 1921
Folder 8 Formulae, 1959-1962
Folder 9 General Electric Science Forum, WGY Radio, 1938-1953
Box 3 Folder 10 Irving Langmuir Reprints, 1958-1960
Folder 11 Logarithmic Pressure Measurement Scale, 1964-1965
Folder 12 Martin Company, 1966
Folder 13 Mathematics, 1937-1959
Folder 14 Non-scientific Articles of Tonks, 1932-1948
Folder 15 Robert Oppenheimer, 1954
Box 4 Folder 16 Patents, 1932-1963
Folder 17 Patent Applications, 1938-1956
Folder 18 References, 1957-1964
Folder 19 Saline Water Conversion (19a - 19b), 1962-1965
Box 5 Folder 19 Saline Water Conversion (19c - 19g), 1962-1965
Folder 20 E.I. Urasakow, 1967

Series IV. Research Notes and Draft Manuscripts of G.E. Lab Reports, 1924-1966

There are nine sound recordings (23 in., 78 rpm) that cover the years 1948-1953. Tonks was involved with the panel that appeared on the broadcasts, bringing the public up to date with current scientific facts. Complementing this set of recordings is a folder containing drafts of the scripts presented on the program. Entitled "General Electric Science Forum, WGY Radio," 1938-1952 (1:III:9). The file includes draft scripts, correspondence and an article ("They Stick Their Necks Out Weekly") on the program that appears in the G.E. Monogram (December, 1944). There is little overlap between the scripts in this series and the sound recordings in Series XI. One should especially note the script "Breeding of Nuclear Fuel," since it is one of the talks recorded.

Box 5 Folder 1 "Photons and Drawings of Instruments", 1924-1945
Folder 2 Numerical Calculations for Intermediate Free Path Case in Plasma Theory, by H.S. Wiltsen and Lewi Tonks, 1930
Box 6 Folder 3 "Immobilized Plasmas", 1950
Folder 4 Notebook, Untitled Calculations (oversized, stored separately, 2.4), 1954
Folder 5 "Kinetic Theory of Gases", 1960
Folder 6 "Stability of Electromagnetic Suspension", 1962
Folder 7 "Photon Avalanches", 1962-1963
Folder 8 "True Signal", 1966
Folder 9 "Titled Mirror Mode Conversion", 1966
Folder 10 "General Electric Laboratory", n.d.
Folder 11 "Iris Susceptance of Pins in Wave Guide", n.d.

Series V. Final Manuscripts of G.E. Lab Reports, 1925-1948

Box 6 Folder 1 "Report of Experiments on Oscillations in Magnetrons", 1925
Folder 2 "Report of Some General Considerations in Regard to the Small Absorption Type Refrigeration Process", 1925
Folder 3 "Report on Approximately Ohmic Resistance Up to and Above 10 Ohms", 1927
Folder 4 "Report on the Vacuum Tube Ammeter for e Minute Currents", 1932
Folder 5 "Report on the Collection of Ions or Electrons Emitted by a Cylindrical Cathode to an External Accelerating Electrode Under Conditions Where Space Charge is Important", 1932
Folder 6 "Report on the Variation of Count in a Geiger Counter", 1933
Folder 7 "Report on Self-Excited Oscillations in Gas Tubes", 1933
Folder 8 "Report on an Improvement in Spot Welding", 1933
Folder 9 "Report on the Stabilization of the Cathode Spot of a Hg Pool Arc", 1934
Folder 10 "Report on Various Methods of Quieting the Cathode Spot", 1934
Folder 11 "Report on an Attempted Explanation of the Length of the Cathode Line (Stabilized Cathode Spot) Based on Probability", 1934
Folder 12 "Report on the Effects of Admixture of Metals to Mercury in Relation to Stabilized Cathode Spots", 1934
Folder 13 "Preliminary Report of the Effect on Arc-Back of Fixing the Cathode Spot", 1934
Folder 14 "Report on the Use of Cathode Spot Stabilization in a Starting Device for Hg Pool Arcs. I", 1934
Folder 15 "Report on Spark Starting of a Mercury Arc II", 1935
Box 7 Folder 16 "Report on Heat Shielding for High Temperature Radiation", 1935
Folder 17 "Report on Capillary Feed through Molybdenum Carbide Wick for Hg Arc Cathode", 1936
Folder 18 "Report on a New Constant Heat Abstractor", 1936
Folder 19 "The Analytical Relations in Two-Component Films Between Absorption Isotherms and Equations of State", 1936
Folder 20 "The Effect of Circular Magnetic Field on the Behavior of an Anode Arm of a Mercury Arc Rectifier", 1936
Folder 21 "Report of a Theory of Large Urgent Arcs", 1937
Folder 22 "Report on Positive Resistance Characteristic Positive Large Column Arc", 1938
Folder 23 "Survey of the Possibility of Generating Powerful Electromagnetic Waves of 5 cm. Wavelength", 1939
Folder 24 "Wear of Electrodes When Sparked in Air Using a Square Voltage Impulse," with Eugene Hunsaker, 1941
Folder 25 "Oscillation Modes in Certain Magnetron Structures", 1941
Folder 26 "Pulse Tail Clipping with Sparks", 1941
Folder 27 "Electromagnetic Wave Patterns in a Model Magnetron Cavity," with J. Drecher, 1941
Folder 28 "Precision Sparking at 400 Cycles with as 2-Stage Marx-Type Circuit," with M. Davis, 1942
Folder 29 "Report on High Power Precision Timed Sparking" with M. Davis, 1942
Folder 30 "Theoretical Resonances of a Cage Type Magnetron", 1942
Folder 31 "Resonance Behavior of a Tuneable Cavity to a Short UHF Pulse of Constant Amplitude", 1942
Folder 32 "Report on Voltage Multiplication by Spark-type Circuit with Precision Timing," with M. Davis, 1942
Folder 33 "Resonance Behavior of 10 cm. Megnetron Cavities," by S.N. Crawford, 1942
Folder 34 "Measurement of Dielectric Loss in Microwave Region, with LeRoy Apker, 1942

Series VI. Final Manuscripts of Published Articles for Physics Journal, 1931-1939

Box 8 Folder 1 "The High Frequency Behavior of a Plasma", 1931
Folder 2 "The Momentum of Ions Leaving a Region of Ionization", 1935
Folder 3 "A Theory of a Liquid Surface Rupture by a Uniformed Electric Field", 1935
Folder 4 "On Anchoring the Mercury Pool Cathode Spot", 1935
Folder 5 "On the Instability and Rupture of Droplets and Bubbles in Strong Electric Fields", 1936
Folder 6 "The Force at the Anchored Cathode Spot", 1936
Folder 7 "The Complete Equation of State of One, Two and Three Dimensional Gases of Hard Elastic Spheres", 1936
Folder 8 "Drift of Ions and Electrons in a Magnetic Field", 1937
Folder 9 "Plasma Electron Drift in a Magnetic Field Using a Velocity Distributor Function," with W.P. Allis (MIT), 1937
Folder 10 "Theory and phenomena of High Current Densities in Low Pressure Arcs", 1937
Folder 11 "Vaporization of Mercury from Anchored Cathode Spots", 1938
Folder 12 "The Lack of 'Sucking' Action by the Cathode Blast of Mercury Vapor in a Pool Rectifier", 1938

Series VII. G.E. Internal Technical Reports by Tonks, 1953-1964

For G.E. Advanced Technology Laboratory:
Box 8 Folder 1 a) Proposal to ONR, Parts 2 and 3, 1964
b) Active Mirror Laser: I. Amplification II. Scattering Avalanche Losses, 1964
For G.E. Knolls Laboratory (KAPL):
Box 8 Folder 2 a) The Thermal Test Reactor of the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, 1953
b) Theory & Engineering Application of a Practical Thermoelectric Electromagnetic (TEM) Pump, KAPL #1367, 1955
For G.E. Vallecitos Laboratory:
Box 8 Folder 3 a) Determination of BWR Plate Uniformity by Counting, revised, VAL #7, 1957
b) Transmission of Acoustic Waves through Boiling Water, VAL #40, 1957
c) The Determination of Fuel Uniformity by Counting, 1958
Folder 4 For G.E. on NASA Contract: "Space Craft": Notes for technical report on NASA contract, 1963
Folder 5 General Technical Report: Median Plane Safety Sheet in Slab Reactor: Two-Group Diffusion Treatment, ALP #1, 1956

Series VIII. Notebooks, 1956-1957

Box 8 Folder 1 Basic IBM Course Notes, Lecture by Dr. William A. Michael, notes by L. Tonks, 1956
Folder 2 Consultant's Notebooks for G.E. Advanced Technology Laboratory, 2 volumes, 1964-1967

Series IX. Publications by Lewi Tonks, 1926-1968

Folder listing available in the library

Series X. Materials not by Lewi Tonks, n.d.

Reports Written for G.E. Company:
a) Progress reports of General Engineering Laboratory, 1961-1962
Box 10 Folder 1 1. "Objectives & Goals for 1961," draft
2. "Study of Aerospace Anti-Friction Concepts," G.E. Engineering Laboratory quarterly progress reports. Reports 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. 1962
b) G.E. Technical Reports (alphabetized by author), 1961
Box 10 Folder 1 1. Hurwitz, H., Jr.; Kilb, R.W.; and Sutton, G.W., "Influence of Tensor Conductivity on Current Distribution in a MHD Generator." 1961
Papers Presented at the Conference on Plasma Physics and Controlled Nuclear Fusion Research, Salzburg, 1961
Box 10 Folder 2 a) Hintz, E., "Effects of Amplitude and Polarity of Internal Magnetic Field on Fast Compression of a Highly Ionized Uniform Plasma."
b) Jordan, H.L., "Methods for the Production of High Density, High Temperature Plasmas by Magnetic Compression Under Controlled Initial Conditions."
c) Schindler, Karl, "A Perturbation Method for Hydromagnetic Stability Problems."
Miscellaneous Scientific Reports
Box 10 Folder 3 a) Chirikov, B.V.; "The Kinetics of Induced Mossbauer Radiation.", 1963
b) Fay, Hermann; Hintz, Eduard and Jordan; Hermann, L.; "Experiments on Shock-Compression of Plasmas." Reprinted from the Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Ionization Phenomena in Gases.
c) Gabor, Denis and Andre; "An Essay on the Mathematical Theory of Freedom.", 1954
d) Jordan, H.L.; "The Boltzman Equations.", n.d.
e) Jordan, H.L.; "Fast Circuit Techniques and Experiments with Fast Magnetic Compression Devices.", n.d.
f) Jordan, H.L.; "Hydromagnetic Shockwaves, I and II.", n.d.
g) Jordan, H.L.; Hever, H.; and Schindler, K.; "Notes on Fast Magnetic Compression of Plasmas." Reprint from Nuclear Instrumentation and Methods, Volume 4. 1959
h) Lax. M., and Waller, I., "The Influence of Local Phonon Damping on Mossbauer Spectra.", n.d.
i) National Bureau of Standards, U.S. Dept. of Commerce, "Test of a Battery Additive by the National Bureau of Standards.", 1952
j) Pekarek, Ludek, and Krejci, Vaclav, "The Physical Nature of the Production of Moving Striations in a d-c Discharge Plasma." Reprint from the Czechoslovak Journal of Physics, 1960

Series XI. Sound Recordings: General Electric Science Forum WGY Radio, Schenectady, New York, 1948-1953

(Stored separately. Location is 2.4)

Folder Container 1 General Electric Science Forum, August 25, Parts 1-4, 2 records, 1948
Folder Container 2 General Electric Science Forum, Aug. 31, Parts 1-4, 2 records, 1949
Folder Container 3 General Electric Science Forum, April 19, Parts 1-7, 4 records, 1953
Folder Container 4 General Electric Science Forum, July 29, Parts 1-2, "Breeding of Nuclear Fuel," 1 record, 1953