The Scientist Who Got $10 For A World-Changing Invention

By Jeff Kelly on Thursday, January 16, 2014
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In A Nutshell

H. Tracy Hall is probably not a name you’re familiar with, but he came up with one of the most important scientific advancements of the 20th century when he conceived of a way to actually create diamonds. A chemist who worked for General Electric, he and his colleagues somehow created a method that resulted in synthetic diamonds that were, by all accounts, exact duplicates of the real thing. The results led to billions for GE as they found numerous uses for his man made diamonds, so GE naturally rewarded him with a whopping $10 savings bond. Being a very intelligent man, he recognized this as a terrible insult, so he left the company and found another way to create synthetic diamonds for which he would hold the copyright.

The Whole Bushel

If you’ve ever heard of H. Tracy Hall, you’re either a chemistry major or simply an aficionado of General Electric’s 1950s employee roster. But while you have likely never heard of Dr. Hall, he’s responsible for the low cost of many of your everyday devices.

That’s because in 1955, Hall and his colleagues came up with a way to create synthetic diamonds that were virtually identical in every conceivable way to the real thing. This technology has been used to supply the very diamonds that, for example are so frequently used in things like DVD players and computers and various other things that we take for granted in this day and age, including high-tech and life-saving medical equipment. The man-made diamonds that he helped pioneer in the 1950s led to billions upon billions of dollars not just for General Electric, but also for every other company that copied his life’s work for their own financial gain.

Surely, he must have made out like a bandit for this incredible discovery, right? After all, we’re talking about a chemist who made one of the greatest, albeit little known, discoveries of the 20th century. There’s no way he wasn’t rewarded handsomely and given every scientific prize on the planet, right? Unfortunately for Hall, that was not the case. Instead, his bosses at GE gave him a shiny $10 savings bond for this staggering scientific breakthrough that would literally change the course of technological advancement.

So why was he shortchanged? The folks at GE had just spent more than $125,000 on a fancy new machine that was put to use in its labs, and they gave virtually all of the credit to that machine and, by extension, the company itself over Hall, who had been working toward this discovery for years. They naturally ignored the fact that Hall had been able to duplicate his process without the use of their expensive equipment, because sometimes you apparently just have to justify spending that much money to your shareholders who might otherwise wonder why on Earth you needed to buy the machine in the first place when your lead chemist was able to duplicate the process on his own equipment.

Because getting a $10 savings bond and a little pat on the back wasn’t nearly the credit that Hall deserved, he left General Electric almost immediately after the whole fiasco and took a research job at Brigham Young University. However, his previous work had been patented by GE, so he actually came up with yet another way to create synthetic diamonds. Of course, that method was almost immediately deemed classified by the government, at least for a few months when they presumably realized he had been screwed over enough already and let him finish his research.

Ultimately, Hall helped found his own company that to this day remains one of the leading manufacturers of synthetic diamonds. He died in 2008, though we like to imagine it was in a giant, Scrooge McDuck-like vault filled with mounds upon mounds of synthetic, happily non-GE diamonds.

Show Me The Proof

LA Times: General Electric chemist invented process for making diamonds in lab
The Washington Post: H. Tracy Hall, 88; Scientist Created Artificial Diamonds