History in hiding

By Kaylee Kean

In the depths of the forest, a building crumbles, unused and unknown to the civilization not too far away.

At the edge of campus, where the paved road ends, a trail begins. This trail leads through the trees for less than half a mile, soon reaching a field where there is a small, t-shaped building made completely from non-magnetic materials, right down to the aluminum nails and plastic light fixtures. The door is decayed, the roof is caving in, and weeds are hugging the dirty white walls that have stood for 51 years.

This building is called the Kettering Magnetics Lab, and it’s something that has been a part of Oakland University since nearly the beginning.

What is it? 

“It’s rare, let’s put it this way,” said Dr. Andrei Slavin, chair of the physics department. This department has had control of the lab since it was brought to campus in 1963, when the Kettering Magnetics Lab was moved from its original location in Dayton, Ohio. 

It is named for Charles F. Kettering, the inventor of the automobile electric self-starter and initial director of the General Motors Research Laboratories. Kettering had been extremely interested in magnetics research and was searching for someone to take the reigns on his lab.

After hearing of this, Chancellor Durward B. “Woody” Varner wrote to the vice president of the Kettering Foundation, proposing the lab’s establishment at OU. He found it a great opportunity for “unique types of magnetic research,” as he wrote in the letter.

The foundation agreed to this proposal, promising to fund the lab for five years and hand complete responsibility over to OU after that period. The lab and its equipment was then transferred with a grant of $60,000. Gifford F. Scott of the GM Research Laboratories was also transferred to continue research with OU faculty.

The Kettering Magnetics Lab was, and still is, one-of-a-kind due to its controlled nature. Completely built of non-magnetic material and well-isolated from mechanical vibrations and magnetic disturbances, the lab is located in an ideal spot for a controlled or neutralized magnetic field, which can be created by Helmholtz coils.

These coils are regulated by other equipment that follow the ever-changing magnitude and direction of the earth’s magnetic field, thus compensating for it and allowing for a nearly perfect magnetic vacuum.

These and other conditions make the lab suitable for experiments requiring mechanical stability and a near-zero or accurately controlled, ambient magnetic field, according to Slavin. He said he does not know of any other such facilities in Michigan.

Falling into disorder

In October 1966, Robert Williamson, professor emeritus and then director of the lab, began writing to Varner with complaints. He wrote that he hadn’t figured out how to improve the lab, that the road was becoming impassible for private vehicles and his requests for paving it were being ignored, and that he didn’t have control over the money.

“In short, I am not really director of anything,” Williamson wrote. “GM has more to give us than we have to give them.”

Things have only fallen since then.

“The Kettering Lab has not been used for the main purpose for which it was built for quite a while,” Slavin said. 

In 2009, the physics department found that the lab was in bad shape and needed repairs for the roof and a few other things, according to Slavin. Williamson then wrote a brief history on the lab for the university.

“In addition to serving as a platform for gyromagnetic experiments, the Kettering Laboratory has played a major role in the development of the Oakland Physics Department’s medical physics program,” Williamson wrote. “Scott’s Einstein-deHaas measurements are still the best and most extensive available.”

He referenced work by Professor Norman Tepley on the magnetic fields created by blood flow in students — research that gave him the start needed to launch a successful research program at Ford Hospital. He mentioned other research that “attracted international interest, but not money.”

The department applied to the university, and the decision was to replace the roof and complete basic repairs. Campus facilities soon said that would not be enough, however, and that more extensive repairs would be needed to make the lab operational. These repairs would come to nearly $200,000, according to Slavin. The money was never found.

Since then, there have been several break-ins and acts of vandalism to the magnetic lab. Equipment has been stolen, including the Helmholtz coils that made the controlled magnetic fields possible, and Slavin said the facility is currently unusable.

‘Cautiously optimistic’

The issue of renovations has not yet been presented to the new administration, Slavin said, but he and other members of the department are “cautiously optimistic and hopeful” that the new administration will find it worthwhile to aid in funding restoration.

“We think that it’s just a historic symbol and a valuable space which could be used by not only us, but other departments on campus,” Slavin said. “You would think that it should be restored. We want to attract the attention of the campus community to this place and we think that (the substantial repairs) should be considered.”

Until then, the lab sits in its field in the woods. Its door is broken, its roof caved in and its interior full of scattered and broken equipment. There is an empty space where the Helmholtz coils once stood, and words scrawled across a dusty chalkboard:

“OU campus continues to expand, but this time capsule lays dormant.”

This information was gathered from Slavin, the University Archives and The Oakland Observer archives.

From creation to decay, a timeline:

April 1963: The Board of Trustees approves the lab proposal and a request for an additional $60,000 to sustain a new research faculty member. Building of the lab is completed in December.

A dedication was held at a physics symposium in May 1964, featuring prominent speakers from Rice University, Stanford, Harvard, and Michigan State, among others. Attendants included leading scientists from universities, government and industry. A reception was held afterwards at Chancellor Durward “Woody” Varner’s home.

1965: Dr. Libor Velinsky is added to the Physics department as a research professor. He planned to build an iron-free beta-ray spectrometer, something that would be able to take advantage of the special features of the lab. He died before his program was well underway.

Also, research and adjunct professor Gifford Scott discovers a new effect in rarefied gases and publishes several papers on the anomaly.

1964-65: The lab is featured in numerous publications, including the Oakland Observer, Science Magazine, Physics Today and Detroit Engineer.

July 1968: OU assumes full responsibility of the lab and its funding.

1983: Scott retires from his position at OU and is awarded an honorary doctorate.

1986: Dr. Philip Singer, professor emeritus of health sciences at OU, investigates a “psychic” surgeon who claims he can operate with his bare hands. The surgeon, Reverend Philip Malicdan of Baguio City, operated on eight women inside the lab — several observing experts determined him to be a fraud.

June 1968: Robert Williamson, then chair of the physics department, writes to Varner, calling for installation of a remote fire alarm system after a brush fire almost reached the lab. He also complains about a lack of regular inspections from campus security.

2009: A first push for renovations is made. Movements were made to replace the roof, but after a closer look repairs were estimated to cost up to $200,000, and the funds were never found.

Present: The lab, unusable, sits as Dr. Andrei Slavin and the rest of the physics department waits to see how the new administration will react and whether any plans for renovation will be made.