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  • Writer's pictureGregory Loew

Richard B. Neal, 1917-2012

Richard "Dick" Barr Neal, a key figure in the design, construction and operation of SLAC's 2-mile-long linear accelerator, died Nov. 22, 2012, in Solana Beach, Calif., at age 95.

Richard Neal was born Sept. 5, 1917, in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., a small town 80 miles south of Nashville. After education in local schools, he was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and graduated in1939. While there, he excelled in track events and played football. He then served two years aboard the battleship U.S.S. Pennsylvania until his discharge in 1941 for a defect in his eyesight.

Neal then accepted a position as a field service engineering supervisor for New York-based Sperry Gyroscope Co., which at the time was involved in high-power microwave research, including the development of the first klystron designed at Stanford University. Klystrons later became the microwave power sources to accelerate electrons in linear accelerators.

In 1944, Richard Barr Neal and Gail Annette Nesbitt were married at Forest Hills Gardens, Long Island, N.Y., where they resided for the next three years.

After working on rocketry systems for Sperry at the close of the war, Neal left to attend Stanford as a graduate student in 1947. In this capacity he worked on the development of many systems and components needed for linear electron accelerators at Stanford and in 1953 he published his doctoral thesis, a voluminous technical report about Stanford's 220-foot-long Mark III accelerator project, a precursor to the 2-mile-long accelerator. He became a physics research associate at Stanford in 1951.

As a result of the success of the Mark III machine as a physics research tool, Neal became part of a small group of visionaries who started meeting in 1956 in the home of Wolfgang "Pief" Panofsky, who would later become SLAC's first director, to discuss preliminary plans for building a much larger electron linear accelerator, then dubbed "Project M." The "M" affectionately stood for "Monster" because of its scale. As a result of these plans, the group submitted a proposal in 1957 to several U.S. government agencies to build such a machine on Stanford-owned land. After several years of negotiations, the project was finally approved for construction in 1961 by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. The Stanford University Board of Trustees named it the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, or “SLAC.”

At this point, Neal was appointed associate director of SLAC and became the leader of its Technical Division which grew to a staff of close to 600 physicists, engineers, technicians and support staff. Under Panofsky’s and Neal’s leadership, the construction of the original SLAC accelerator was completed successfully in 1966 within schedule and budget ($114M).

Neal was also selected as a member of the SLAC faculty, a group of professors responsible for steering and discussing the ongoing and future intellectual and scientific programs of the laboratory.

Neal was a superb technical writer, always attentive to detail and style. He chronicled the entire design, construction and early operation of the project as the lead author of a 1,169-page work, "The Stanford Two-Mile Accelerator," that is also known as "The Blue Book." That book serves as a lasting tribute and valuable reference for the innovations and expertise in technology and engineering brought to bear in constructing the linear accelerator, which continues to power cutting-edge research at SLAC.

Neal remained head of the SLAC Technical Division until 1982. During his tenure, SLAC saw many new developments, a gradual increase in the electron and positron beam energies through the construction of more powerful klystrons; the invention of a microwave energy storage cavity system called SLED (SLAC Energy Development); the construction of two successive electron-positron colliding beam rings, SPEAR and PEP; and the award of Nobel prizes to SLAC physicists Burton Richter and Martin Perl. Additionally, Richard Taylor received his Nobel after Neal's retirement, though the prize-winning research was carried out during Neal's time at the lab. During all these years, Neal was recognized as an excellent leader and manager. An extremely hard worker, he truly led by example and was highly respected by Panofsky and other colleagues and staff.

Neal was also renown in the physics and accelerator community at large. During his career he authored close to 100 reports and technical papers, contributed to several books, and participated in numerous national and international committees and conferences related to accelerators. He was a Fellow of the American Physical Society and in 1979 became an elected member of the National Academy of Engineering. He was also a member of the scientific research society, Sigma Xi.

Before retiring from SLAC in 1985, Neal had taken up flying as a hobby, obtained a pilot's license, and would on occasion fly over the lab. His hobbies also included ballroom dancing, ice skating, cycling, hiking, music, reading and spectator sports.

After his retirement, Neal, his wife and his daughter Martha moved to a residential community in Solana Beach in Southern California. In this community, he became a member of the board of directors of his homeowners association, and as secretary and treasurer he put great emphasis on achieving a firm financial foundation for the association, very much in tune with the way he had managed financial affairs at SLAC.

When Neal turned 80, he returned to SLAC for a 1997 symposium honoring him on this memorable birthday. This symposium turned out to be a wonderful occasion to celebrate his many SLAC accomplishments and for colleagues and physicists from all over the country to see him once more and to look into the future of the scientific field he had served so well.

Richard Neal is survived by his wife Gail of 68 years, his daughter Martha “Marti” Neal of Solana Beach, and his son Richard Forrest Neal of Bonny Doon, Calif. If you ever visit SLAC and you stand in front of Building 41 where he had his office, you will see a silk tree he planted to commemorate his retirement in 1982 as director of SLAC's Technical Division.

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