Marshall Jones of Glenville will be inducted Thursday into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Washington for his pioneering work with industrial lasers.
It’s a profoundly thrilling moment for a man who lived his early years on a Long Island duck farm, and a rare honor, for there are only 547 members of the Hall — only about 100 of whom are still living — out of an estimated 2 million engineers working in America today.
When the ceremony is over, Jones will make his way back to General Electric’s research campus overlooking the Mohawk River in Niskayuna, where he has worked since 1974, earning 55 patents so far, with more pending.
For at age 75, he has no plans to retire. He has more work to do, as he helps shape what has been called the next stage of the Industrial Revolution: Three-dimensional printing, in which lasers fuse metal powder into objects that would be difficult or impossible to create with conventional manufacturing techniques.
“If I stop getting ideas I probably would retire,” Jones said Wednesday. “That seems to be my knack, solving problems. That’s what you’re doing for the most part, solving problems.”
NOT THE ORIGINAL PLAN
Problems have presented themselves throughout Jones’ life.
Growing up in Aquebogue, in what was then an agricultural area of eastern Long Island, he developed a speech impediment that required him to repeat fourth grade, but this allowed him time to improve his speech and hone his already-sharp math skills.
After becoming a standout high school athlete, he blew out his knee and lost his promised college scholarship, but that put him on the path of academic achievement rather than athletics.
Heading north to Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica, he found the state’s best two-year program in mechanical technology and also his first real taste of racial prejudice — the owner of the house where he was to live refused to let him stay because he was black. But he went elsewhere, and Jack Fogarty, the white Navy veteran from Saranac Lake who roomed with him, convinced him to continue his education to the bachelor’s degree level at the University of Michigan. The two remain best friends today.
“Did I have a plan to go to Michigan? No,” Jones recalls. “My plan was to get a job after two years.”
Jones later earned master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
His undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and his first job, as a draftsman at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, had little to do with the amplified light that would become his life’s work.
“When I worked for Brookhaven I was in the high-energy physics group,” Jones said.
His horizons broadened when he went back to school. His adviser at Amherst was a materials scientist rather than a mechanical engineer, and Jones gained his first exposure to lasers as he took a wider range of courses.
Arriving at General Electric’s R&D facility in Niskayuna, a different kind of problem set him on the path that would eventually lead to the Hall of Fame: His manager had a laser that had been made in-house and quit working, and asked Jones to fix it. That was a stretch for him in some ways, but not in others.
“The key was that I understood the theory,” he said. “But I was a lab rat. I felt very comfortable in the lab. It went on from there.”
He got the laser working again. And he used that very same laser to weld copper to aluminum, a difficult feat that earned him his first patent.
EVOLUTION VS. REVOLUTION
Invention can be evolution — refining something that already exists — or it can be revolution, creating something entirely new. Jones said he has done both in his career. The copper-aluminum weld, for example, was a case of looking at research already done by others and then going in a different direction.
Another GE scientist in Niskayuna was working on the same problem, and had written books that Jones read in school. But he was taking a different approach to the copper-aluminum challenge.
“There I was, studying his books, and he was looking at a different technique of joining materials,” Jones marveled. Happenstance put a high-energy laser in Jones’ hands, and he solved the problem first.
“Whether somebody else would have thought to do that is unclear to me,” he says, decades later. “Any metallurgist would be able to understand why it would be very difficult to weld those two materials.”
The lineage on another invention — combining high-energy lasers and fiber optics — is all Jones. Low-energy lasers were being used with fiber optics for communications purposes when Jones changed the rules.
“I was the first one to do that,” he said.
The Inventors Hall Of Fame highlights one invention for inductees. For Jones, it is that one.
The inventors enshrined at the Hall have thoroughly shaped modern life, and include such luminaries as Thomas Edison, George Eastman, Nikola Tesla, and Alexander Graham Bell.
One of the inductees that Jones has long admired has several parallels with Jones, who was born a century later.
Lewis Latimer, the son of escaped slaves, grew up on a farm, started out as a draftsman, and was later associated with General Electric. He went on to improve the filament used in Edison’s light bulbs and worked to protect the company’s patents in court.
“I sort of looked up to him even though he passed away many, many years before I came along,” Jones said. “He did so much.”
Jones got to make an actual connection when he met Latimer’s 80-something granddaughter.
Jones didn’t face the same racial barriers Latimer did, but his life has not been entirely free of racism either — and not just with his short-lived housing crisis in Utica. To help address the hurdles that exist for minorities, he has reached out through the years to help them along. Among his work has been mentoring and encouraging minorities to go into the science, technology, engineering and mathematical fields. He was was honored in 1999 with the National Society of Black Engineers’ Golden Torch Award for his work in this regard.
Looking around what is now known as GE Global Research, he sees a much more diverse workforce today than in 1974.
“It has changed, and I love it,” Jones said. “You look around the team, you don’t know where they’re from, backgroundwise.”
Jones and his wife, Annie, live in Glenville. They have two grown sons, Kevin and Alan. Kevin is a supply chain leader for GE Healthcare.
THE PATH FORWARD
Not every path of research has been productive for Jones.
Forming glass parts with lasers was one such project. It worked, but it wasn’t economical.
“That was something that I had demonstrated to one level and it was something that just would not have been cost-effective. Even though I was able demonstrate it, for a business to implement it, it never would have flown.”
Another project, involving what would be known as face-pump lasers, had a rocky start.
“We ran into problems where we were fracturing laser crystals,” Jones said. “I got my hand slapped a few times.”
Along with the technical problems, General Electric simply wasn’t interested in the project. So Jones pitched it to another company, which made what was then the biggest-ever investment by an outside firm in a project at the GE R&D center. The project GE wasn’t interested in suddenly had to be done quickly and done well. But the team made it work.
Jones got involved in three-dimensional printing nearly a quarter century ago, when he and fellow GE researcher Bill Carter looked at the work being done with 3-D plastic printing and started thinking about the potential of printing metal parts. They built one of the first prototypes of a machine to do this.
“He was the materials guy, I was the lasers guy,” Jones said.
In 2017, their instincts have been proved right: GE and the rest of the business world have invested heavily in 3-D printing. Jones and Carter have adjoining offices and remain closely involved in pushing additive technology forward.
Three-dimensional printing is called additive manufacturing because it starts with nothing and adds material until the final product is complete. The process is revolutionary, allowing parts to be made lighter and more intricate than possible with previous techniques.
In the race to improve additive manufacturing — a lot of researchers are doing a lot of work for a lot of companies — the common goal is increasing the maximum size of the object that can be printed and the speed with which it is printed.
“One of the main challenges right now is being able to produce a part maybe an order of magnitude faster than you’re able to do currently.”
Jones said additive manufacturing today is nowhere near its full potential.
“Are we 10 percent there, 50 percent there? If I had to guess I’d guess we’re 25 percent there,” he said.
“Five years from now, a lot of those challenges will be addressed.”
Look for his name on a few more patents related to lasers in additive technology.
The following inductees to the National Inventors Hall of Fame were associated with General Electric:
Thomas Edison 1973
Charles Steinmetz 1977
Ernst Alexanderson 1983
Irving Langmuir 1989
Edith Clarke 2015
The following inductees were associated with GE’s research laboratories:
William Coolidge 1975
Robert Hall 1994
Katharine Blodgett 2007
Nick Holonyak 2008
Francis Bundy 2010
H. Tracy Hall 2010
Herbert Strong 2010
Robert Wentorf 2010
Bantval Baliga 2016
Marshall Jones 2017