H. Tracy Hall, who died Friday at 88, was the first to synthesize diamonds in the laboratory, in 1954, fulfilling what scientists sought for at least two centuries.
These weren't gem-quality diamonds, and the world is in no danger of being overrun with lab-generated Hope Diamonds. But the tiny, super-hard crystals he produced found a multitude of uses in industry in drill bits from oil wells to dentistry, as well as in diamond-tipped saws and polishing tools.
A charter member of General Electric Corp.'s Project Superpressure in the early 1950s, Hall specialized in designing components for the high-powered presses needed to make diamonds. While other members of Project Superpressure worked with a new, three-story-high press, Hall worked with a leaky, older press but found success by designing an elegant carbide belt that held the sample cell of graphite and other materials, subjected to 70,000 atmospheres of pressure.
When he broke the cell open on December 16, 1954, he later wrote, "My hands began to tremble; my heart beat rapidly; my knees weakened and no longer gave support. My eyes had caught the flashing light from dozens of tiny triangular faces of octahedral crystals ... and I knew that diamonds had finally been made by man."
Born in Ogden, Utah, and raised a Mormon in rural Marriott, Hall was a bookish child whose ambition was to follow in the footsteps of Thomas Edison. After serving in the Navy in World War II and finishing a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Utah in 1948, he moved to Schenectady, N.Y., to work at General Electric, a company Edison founded.
Project Superpressure was a team effort, and it was many years after Hall's success before GE acknowledged that he deserved primary credit.
When Hall departed GE just a year after his discovery, it was not on the best of terms. He later blamed his colleagues for anti-Mormon sentiments — "vicious, distasteful jokes about Mormons and polygamy," he told the historian Robert Hazen, the author of "The Diamond Makers" (1999). Hall also felt that GE had a commercial interest in keeping his contribution obscure, as he wrote on his Web site: "Had the world known that the achievement had been accomplished on a leaky antique press with the invention of a farm boy from Utah, GE would have faced much stiffer competition from the outset."
Hall became a professor of chemistry and director of research at Brigham Young University, where he designed an entirely new press for diamond production, thus avoiding any patent infringement for the designs he'd created for GE. In 1966, he co-founded Megadiamond Inc. The company was later sold to Smith International Inc., one of the largest producers of oil drilling equipment.
Industrial diamond consumption grew rapidly after Hall's invention. In 1954, some 14 million carats of industrial diamonds were used, all of them from natural sources. By the mid-1990s, that had grown to more than 500 million carats, 90% manufactured, according to the Industrial Diamond Association.
Hall had seven children, and his Mormonism continued to be a central factor in his life. He served as a bishop for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and went on a mission with his wife to Zimbabwe and South Africa. In later years, he retired to a farm in Payson, Utah, where he grew trees.