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With a crucial decision in the early 70s, visionary Hajo Meyer paved the way for the development of the compact disc and ASML’s wafer stepper.
With chip lithography, in the end, it all comes down to precision and optics. Sixty years ago, these two disciplines were separate worlds. The laser interferometer still had to be invented. At the Philips Natuurkundig Laboratorium (Natlab), however, the knowledge of precise movement and light was already united in a special research group at the beginning of the seventies. This seemingly simple decision laid the foundation for Philips’ two biggest successes in the 80s and beyond: the compact disc and the wafer stepper. It took vision to merge the two research topics into one group. The visionary wasn’t a Dutchman but an immigrant, the brilliant Hans Joachim – Hajo – Meyer.
When he was fourteen, Meyer heard that he could no longer attend high school in his hometown of Bielefeld because he was Jewish. It was November 1938, shortly after the Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany. In the panic that followed, Meyer’s parents put him on a train to Amsterdam in the Netherlands, which wasn’t yet occupied. He would never see them again.
Young Hajo arrived at Bergen aan Zee and passed through five refugee centers. Bored to death, he found work at a smithy, but the police sent him away. Refugees weren’t allowed to work. His mother, who spoke Dutch well, lent a helping hand from Germany. She wrote to the Dutch Committee for Jewish Refugees, after which her son was admitted to the Jewish Work Village in Wieringermeer, a vocational training center for refugees. There, the fourteen-year-old decided to learn to machine.
It was heaven for the inquisitive teen. Most of the center’s residents were adults, among them many intellectuals from Germany and Austria. They were learning a trade so they could emigrate elsewhere: America, Australia, somewhere far away. Meyer befriended a math student from Vienna who tutored him, evening after evening. He also studied physics.
A convoy of buses disrupted the apparent peace in 1941. A year earlier, the Germans had invaded the Netherlands, and now they were closing down the work village. They sent most of the residents to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. Meyer, now sixteen, was miraculously spared and allowed to go to Amsterdam, where he could attend the Jewish vocational school after acing its technical admission exams. By then, he was a committed atheist, and he didn’t really fit in the orthodox environment that surrounded him. But the young man’s eagerness to learn stood out, catching people’s attention, and a loving foster family took him in.
Through friends, Meyer gained admittance to the Jewish Montessori high school in Amsterdam. There, he received afternoon lessons from the crème de la crème among Dutch intellectuals, all of them Jewish professors fired from their university positions. His foster parents arranged for a well-to-do Amsterdam family to pay his tuition. Amazingly enough, the Gestapo decided the private Montessori school was allowed to hold final exams. After passing them, Meyer went into hiding in the tiny town of Blaricum. The Germans eventually caught him and put him on a train to Auschwitz.
After a few weeks of backbreaking work in the concentration camp, the Germans sent him to the Gleiwitz I railroad labor camp. They needed skilled labor, and because Meyer had experience as a machinist, he was ordered to repair train cars. It was his salvation. The eighteen-year-old worked alongside German and Polish craftsmen – in a prisoner’s uniform, but the factory was heated. As a Jew, Meyer’s diet was restricted to the meager and tasteless Auschwitz rations, but now and then, local Polish girls snuck him some extra bread.
Meyer escaped the gas chamber twice. The first time, the Germans overlooked him during selection. The second time – in January 1945, ten months after his arrival – the advancing Soviets forced the SS to flee, but not until they’d marched the camp’s residents all the way to the Oder river. “If it hadn’t gone the way it did, I’d be glue, or fertilizer, or shoe polish now,” Meyer later writes.
At the end of the war, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration ordered everyone to return to the country where they’d first been taken. And so a grievously ill and pencil-thin Meyer endured an arduous journey through Odessa and Marseille back to the Netherlands.
After the war, Meyer’s excellent final exam scores won him a scholarship to study physics at the University of Amsterdam. Because there was no money to pay for further study after he graduated, his professor told him to apply for a job at Philips’ Natlab.
A few years later, Meyer went on to lead the lab’s gas discharge group for some time. In 1964, he was asked to succeed Eddy de Haan as the director of the vacuum tube research section. In addition to vacuum technology and electron guns, he also became responsible for optics.
As a section director, Meyer was exposed to the turmoil surrounding Hendrik de Lang, one of the few optical engineers at the Natlab. De Lang studied under Frits Zernike, the inventor of the phase-contrast microscope. He was an exceptionally bright and creative researcher. His specialization was the conversion of optical signals to electrical ones, a crucial step in signal processing and signal-based measurement and control.
De Lang wasn’t an easy man. At the lab, he was known for being infinitely stubborn and difficult. By the time Meyer had become his boss, fifty patent proposals were stacked on De Lang’s desk. None of them had ever been submitted because the rebellious engineer was on fighting terms with everyone in the patent department.
Eddy de Haan had been De Lang’s manager for years, and the problem weighed heavily on him. It was one of the first things he brought up while training Meyer to take over. “This fellow, De Lang, is a very bright kid. But he picks a fight with everyone. See what you can do with these because they’re important,” De Haan said, handing Meyer the patent proposals.
One lovely weekend that summer, Meyer settled into his patio chair to peruse the pile. He was deeply impressed by the work. He was interested in optics, but it was his experience as a craftsman and machinist that made him realize that machines using De Lang’s inventions could achieve much greater precision. He was determined to safeguard this treasure trove for Philips. His understanding of the optical patents earned De Lang’s respect. All of them were ultimately filed.
A few years later, Meyer created a research group that combined optics, precision mechanics and photochemistry. It would turn out to be a crucial decision, paving the way for the development of the video long-play disc – the predecessor to the compact disc – and the wafer stepper.
As the sixties progressed, Meyer and De Lang developed a friendship. On a personal level, they shared a love for music. Both played the violin. Meyer discovered De Lang to be a talented violin maker. I bet I can do that, too, he thought. His experience as a machinist served him well. After retiring in 1984, he immersed himself in the craft and made some fifty instruments, so good he was even able to sell them to professional concert violinists. He also published scientific articles on acoustics. Many a Natlab researcher still refers to Meyer as “the violin maker.”
I strongly believe the Dutch high-tech is open-minded, tolerant and welcoming to creative minds from abroad. To a certain extent, it’s also diverse, despite the unequal distribution of men and women and the dominating white males. Apart from that, it’s good to keep emphasizing how the exchange of cultures can enrich societies. Especially in these days of polarization and mudslinging.
Recently, a study from George Mason University commissioned by FWD.us pointed out that the number of immigrants entering the country each year needs to rise substantially if the US is to grow its competitive advantage and expand its future workforce. The report states that America risks losing its status as the world’s largest economy to China by the end of the decade if it doesn’t increase legal immigration. “Immigration has basically become the fulcrum of nativist and nationalist politics, which is really about a concern for putting America first,” Bloomberg quotes Justin Gest, the study’s co-author and associate professor at George Mason University. “If you look at the numbers here, the best way that we can put America first is by welcoming newcomers.”
One thing we can learn from Hajo Meyer is that we should be kind to each other. If you can put yourself into someone else’s shoes, and especially if you speak the other person’s language, you can become friends with the most obstinate of individuals. The cheerful way Meyer stepped through life after all he’d been through was a small miracle. It helped him bridge many gaps.
Piet Kramer, who was asked by Meyer to lead the first optics group at the Natlab, told me that among De Lang’s patents was the invention of the laser interferometer, which, some five years later, became a crucial part of the wafer stepper. That patent was eventually granted to Hewlett Packard. Philips missed it by a hair.
In his later years, Meyer became politically active, serving as the director of “A different Jewish voice.” He wrote a book accusing Israel of abusing the Holocaust to justify crimes against the Palestinians. Meyer passed away in 2014 at the age of 90.