By Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
H. Tracy Hall, 88, who earned a place among America's scientific wizards as a principal figure in the creation of artificial diamonds, died July 25 at his home in Provo, Utah. He had Alzheimer's disease and diabetes.
On Feb. 15, 1955, the New York Times reported on its front page that Dr. Hall and three colleagues at the General Electric Research Laboratory in Schenectady, N.Y., had "for the first time created exact duplicates of the diamond."
By transforming everyday materials into the dazzling stuff of dreams, Dr. Hall and the others matched the magic of nature, stirred the scientific imagination and opened the way to the development of new technologies and new industries.
Among other things, the development of synthetic diamonds has made available diamond cutting, grinding and shaping tools for scores of applications. These include drilling for oil in the most inhospitable environments and preparing slabs of granite to serve as kitchen countertops.
Purists might argue that true alchemy, of the sort pursued during the Middle Ages, required changing one distinct chemical element into another, preferably lead into gold.
But for many others, the accomplishment of Dr. Hall and his colleagues, while involving different forms of a single element, carbon, was alchemy enough.
By employing the proper catalysts, and by generating on the surface of the Earth the kinds of pressures and temperatures found deep underground, Dr. Hall and his colleagues reproduced the process by which nature makes diamonds.
They started with so common a substance as graphite, a form of carbon used for such things as pencil lead.
Within stronger and stronger chambers they ratcheted pressures higher and higher, to more than 1 million pounds per square inch.
Ultimately they emerged with the same element with which they began -- carbon. But it was carbon in a form that was more compressed, more compact and far more coveted.
When Dr. Hall unsealed his apparatus in Schenectady on Dec. 16, 1954, he recognized that he had made a breakthrough. As he later recalled the moment, his reaction was appropriate to the occasion.
"My hands began to tremble; my heart beat rapidly; my knees weakened and no longer gave support," he wrote. "My eyes had caught the flashing light from dozens of tiny . . . crystals."
"And I knew," he added, "that diamonds had finally been made by man."
The diamonds Dr. Hall made at GE could be measured in thousandths of an inch. Larger diamonds were eventually made.
Although Dr. Hall never received it, the work was worthy of the Nobel Prize, according to Robert M. Hazen, an earth sciences professor at George Mason University and a research scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, who wrote a book about the development of the synthetic diamond industry.
"Tracy Hall is justifiably called by some people the father of synthetic diamonds," Hazen said in an interview.
It was a century-old scientific goal, Hazen said, and Dr. Hall was "the very key person" in the team that after three years of work made "an earth-shaking discovery."
According to Hazen, Dr. Hall "is the one who developed the process with his colleagues in GE" that gave rise to today's huge artificial diamond industry.
Howard Tracy Hall was born Oct. 20, 1919, in Ogden, Utah. As a child, he was a reader and tinkerer, who took inventor Thomas A. Edison as a boyhood hero.
He received bachelor's and master's degrees in chemistry from the University of Utah, and after serving during World War II as a Navy ensign, he went back to Utah for his doctorate. Two months after receiving it in 1948, he started work with GE.
After returning to Utah in 1955, Dr. Hall became research director at Brigham Young University in Provo, inventing apparatuses to continue his work in chemistry at high pressures. He and two fellow professors set up a company to make diamonds and high-pressure equipment.
He was active in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and he and his wife, Ida-Rose, served on a mission in Zimbabwe and South Africa. After retirement, he was a tree farmer in Payson, Utah.
His wife, whom he married in 1941, died in 2005.
Survivors include seven children; four brothers; 35 grandchildren; and 53 great-grandchildren.