Updated 31-XII-2018

Dr. Willard A. Roberts

This article was written by fellow lamp engineer and collector Edward J. Covington, and originally appeared on his own website of biographical sketches of persons involved in the lamp industry. Following his passing in February 2017, and with kind permission of his family, Ed's words have been preserved here in the hope of maintaining access to his writings for the benefit of subsequent generations.

Willard Allen Roberts (Oct 19 1889 - Jul 25 1942) was born in Newberg, Oregon and graduated with Bachelor of Science degrees in Physics and Chemistry from Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana in 1911. In 1916 he earned a Ph.D. degree from the University of Chicago. Roberts then served as an instructor in chemistry from 1916-1917 at Iowa State College. He served as a Lieutenant in the Sanitation Division of the U.S. Army during the period 1917-1918.

Dr. Roberts started to work at Nela Park in 1919 where he developed the first "white" phosphor for fluorescent lamps. He also developed phosphors for use on instrument dials with the use of "blacklights". Quoting from Keating1:

"Dr. Willard Roberts, a chemist in the Lamp Development Laboratory, devoted a tremendous amount of work to the creation and selection of suitable fluorescent materials. Dr. G.R. Fonda and C.A. Nickel of Schenectady and Harry M. Fernberger of the Wire Division also aided in this part of the project. In the first few years of fluorescent-lamp production, the most important phosphors used were zinc beryllium silicate and magnesium tungstate, though numerous others were employed.

"As the search progressed over a 10-year period, hundreds and hundreds of different materials were made up in sample batches and tested by Roberts and his associates. There are now more than 10,000 known fluorescent materials."

Dr. Roberts married and had a daughter and son.

  1. US 2,056,621 - 1936/10/06 - Gaseous or Vapor Electric Discharge Device and Its manufacture
  2. US 2,094,848 - 1937/10/05 - Gaseous and Vapor Electric Discharge Device
  3. US 2,132,273 - 1938/10/04 - Fluorescent Material
  4. US 2,196,082 - 1940/04/02 - Method of Preparing Luminescent Material
  5. US 2,245,414 - 1941/06/10 - Fluorescent Material
  6. US 2,298,968 - 1942/10/13 - Fluorescent Coating and Method of Manufacture - with Hannah T. Geissbuhler
  7. US 2,306,567 - 1942/12/29 - Fluorescent Material and Its Manufacture
  8. US 2,312,265 - 1943/02/23 - Fluorescent Material
  9. US 2,312,266 - 1943/02/23 - Fluorescent Material and Process of making Same
  10. US 2,312,267 - 1943/02/23 - Process for Making Fluorescent Material
  11. US 2,312,268 - 1943/02/23 - Fluorescent Material

References & Bibliography
  1. "Lamps for a Brighter America - A History of the General Electric Lamp Business", Paul W. Keating, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York, 1954, p.196.
  2. "Phosphors Have Invaded Your Home", C. E. Weitz, General Electric Review, Vol.58, Jul 1955, pp.25-28.