Willis Whitfield invented the clean room in 1962 at Sandia National Laboratories. To solve problems of dust particles causing reliability and quality issues with nuclear weapon components, Whitfield devised rooms that blew air in from the ceiling and sucked it out from the floor with the air moving at a constant, steady rate. Filters scrubbed the air before it entered the room and gravity helped any remaining particles exit. When he tested the clean rooms, particle detectors started showing numbers so low – a thousand times lower than other methods – that many did not believe his claims.
Whitfield patented the clean room through Sandia, and the government shared it freely with manufacturers, hospitals, research centers, and other organizations. Within a few years, $50 billion worth of clean rooms had been built around the world.
At NASA, clean rooms became important fixtures as work was conducted to build spacecraft during the 20th century space race and beyond. Clean rooms are instrumental in the research and development programs that have produced the technology that surrounds us today and they are essential in the manufacture of many modern devices.
Clark, Heather. “Willis Whitfield, inventor of modern-day laminar flow clean room, passes away.” Sandia Lab News, 64.22 (2012). Sandia National Laboratories. Web 7 May 2013.
Dr. Willis Whitfield. (nd), retrieved May 7, 2014 from Hardin-Simmons University Website: http://www.hsutx.edu/hol/bio.php?i=52
Singer, Neal. “Sandia engineer Willis Whitfield, whose invention made possible the modern electronic age, revisits Labs.” Sandia Lab News, 4 Feb. 2005. Web 7 May 2014. http://www.sandia.gov/LabNews/LN02-04-05/willis.pdf
Willis Whitfield. The Telegraph, 12 Dec. 2012. Web 7 May 2014. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/9740330/Willis-Whitfield.html
Willis Whitfield. (nd), “In Memoriam.” Institute of Environmental Sciences and Technology, (nd). Web 7 May 2014. http://www.iest.org/Membership/In-Memoriam
Yardley, William. “Willis Whitfield, Inventor of Clean Room That Purges Tiny Particles, Dies at 92.” The New York Times 5 Dec. 2012: B17 Print.
The son of Texas cotton farmers, Whitfield was born in Rosedale, Oklahoma, while his family was temporally working there. It wasn’t long until they returned to Texas, where Whitfield grew up. Since a young age, he was fascinated with electronics.
He attended Eola High School from which he graduated in 1937. He completed his two-year college course in electronics at Brantley-Draughon College in Ft. Worth. After graduation, from 1940 to 1941 he owned and operated an electrical contracting business in San Angelo, Texas.
Whitfield worked with the U.S. Signal Corps from 1942 to 1944, where he served as a ground radar crew chief. He joined the Navy in 1945, where he developed experimental electrical systems for aircraft at the Naval Proving Grounds in Dahlgren, Virginia. After his discharge, Whitfield decided he needed more education and began attending Hardin-Simmons University, from which he received a B.S. in Physics and Math in 1952.
It was at Hardin-Simmons University that he met Belva Wiggins, who would become his wife. According to recounts from Hardin-Simmons University, Whitfield was one of few students who owned a car on campus and he drove Belva to church often. They married and had two sons, Joe and James, who both grew up to become engineers.
Whitfield began his graduate studies at George Washington University in 1952; the same year he took a position at the Naval Research Lab in Maryland, where he supervised research on solid rocket fuels and motors until 1954.
He started his work at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque in 1954, where he remained until 1984. It was at Sandia that Whitfield conceived the idea for the clean room. There, he was a project leader for the advanced development studies of microwave propagation measurements and contamination control, which led to his work on clean room development. Overseen by the Atomic Energy Commission, Sandia was involved in making parts for nuclear weapons at the time and Whitfield’s responsibility for contamination control was key to Sandia’s continued success.
Whitfield has been quoted as saying that he felt as though he was behind his co-workers and that he needed to do something to catch up to them. When Sandia asked him to solve a manufacturing issue in 1959, the idea of the laminar-flow clean room was born. According to his son, Jim, interviewed by Sandia Lab News in 2012, someone once asked Whitfield how long it took him to come up with the idea to which he responded: “Five minutes; I just did the obvious thing.”
Whitfield publicly spoke about the general idea behind the clean room and its simplicity. With the goal of keeping a research lab free of dust particles, he proposed to let air work as the janitor and to filter the air before it enters the room, removing any particles before they could potentially contaminate microelectronic components and compromise quality. His invention made it possible for breakthroughs in other fields including biotechnology, nanotechnology, health sciences and healthcare.
Whitfield determined that the air had to circulate fast enough to avoid “aimless whirling” but slowly enough to move imperceptibly. According to Sandia Lab News, “the air was circulated at a rate of 4,000 cubic feet or about 10 changes of air per minute.” It didn’t take long until he established that the air needed to be supplied through a unidirectional flow. When checking for contamination in the initial clean room prototype, a particle counter indicated that the room was about 1,000 times cleaner than it had ever been and the dust counters measured near zero. He patented the Clean Room in 1964.
More than a few researchers were astonished by the results and some doubted the accuracy of Whitfield’s results. But despite the skepticism, Sandia patented the clean room and the government shared it with those wanting to implement the idea. The process allowed for microelectronic and mechanical components to be built in contamination and particle free laboratories, which is essential to technology, pharmaceutical manufacturers and many other industries to this day.
It didn’t take long until the idea spread and new applications for Clean Rooms began to appear. In the medical field, surgical infection rates dropped after the introduction of Clean Rooms and pharmaceutical manufactures became able to guarantee sterile products. RCA and General Motors were some of the early adopters of the new technology.
A fellow of the Institute of Environmental Sciences and Technology, Whitfield is honored by the IEST through the annual J. Whitfield Award, which is presented to individuals for substantial contributions to the field of contamination control. He was also recognized by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and by CleanRooms Magazine, which named Whitfield its first Hall of Fame inductee. He was also inducted to Hardin-Simmons University’s Hall of Leaders.
Whitfield also worked with NASA in the planetary quarantine efforts for the moon and Mars missions and to develop spacecraft sterilization techniques.
After he retired in 1984, Whitfield and his wife remained in Albuquerque, where the two were active in the Hoffmantown Baptist Church of Albuquerque. According to Hardin-Simmons University, while working in the church, he served in many capacities including department superintendent, teacher, chairman of teacher training, deacon, chairman of personnel and church photographer. According to the university, he also worked with the Royal Ambassadors and the church’s Boy Scouts pack.
A bronze statue of Whitfield currently stands at Sandia, featured at the institute’s new Microsystems and Engineering Science Applications Laboratory courtyard. Whitfield was 92 when he died in Albuquerque. He holds two other patents: a second for the laminar flow bench and another for a sludge irradiation device.
DID YOU KNOW?
After he retired from Sandia National Laboratories in 1984, Whitfield dedicated his time to the Hoffmantown Baptist Church of Albuquerque, where he served in several positions including deacon and church photographer.
Electronics Course, Brantley-Draughon College; BS in Physics and Math, Hardin-Simmons University, 1952. He attended George Washington University and the University of New Mexico. He received an honorary doctorate in science, Hardin-Simmons University.
BEST KNOWN FOR:
Whitfield is best known for inventing the modern clean room, which allowed for air to be completely replaced in the room every six seconds in a cycle that was fast but not noticeable to workers. His invention helped combat dust and germs, creating a quality environment for microelectronics research and medical procedures.
“I thought about dust particles. Where are these rascals generated? Where do they go?”
“Mr. Clean” (TIME magazine)
EXAMPLES OF HOW INVENTION IMPACTED SOCIETY:
Clean rooms have been instrumental in the research and development of much of the technology that surrounds us today. A few examples of modern devices built in clean rooms include iPhones and artificial hearts.
Born: December 6, 1919 in Rosedale, OK
Died: November 12, 2012 in Albuquerque, NM