Bay Journal

You probably don’t know Mark Olson, yet he affected you just the same

  • By Kent Mountford on July 01, 2011
Carl Oscar Olson, far left, served as a footman in the home of Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, shortly after immigrating to the United States in the 1880s.  (Olson Family) Years ago, a plant to extract titanium from ilmenite bearing sands eroded from Calvert Cliffs to the north was built just north of this lighthouse at Cove Point MD.  (Kent Mountford)

Let me introduce you to Carl Marcus "Mark" Olson, who moved to Solomons, MD, in 1996. You may think you don't know him, but he has touched your life deeply and the impact of his work has extended worldwide and into the life of every person in modern society.

His home stands just a few miles from the Calvert Cliffs, which date to Miocene times (11 million to 14 million years BC). These formations underlie all of Southern Maryland. As the Chesapeake region was inundated by rising sea level at the end of the last ice age, wind and waves cut into the landscape, exposing high cliffs along the Bay. They were observed by Capt. John Smith when he explored the Bay in June 1608. He named this reach Rocky Point.

Iron oxides coat these normally "white" quartz grains, coloring the sandy ramparts orange. Rain leaches away some of the iron impurities and chemically deposits them in layers of "limonite" ore deep underground. As these layers are exposed by erosion at the cliffs' face, they protrude until weight fractures them and they tumble to the beach.

These ores were mined for their iron throughout the mid-Atlantic to help start the U.S. Industrial Revolution.

Washed alongshore with prevailing currents, the sands from the cliffs have accumulated for thousands of years at a promontory called Cove Point. Wind and currents have sorted the sands - like gold panning - and separated out one class of sand, the mineral ilmenite, which is heavier than nearby grains and forms black layers on the beach. Ilmenite is one of the modern sources for the metal titanium, and an integral part of Mark Olson's story.

His story begins in the Kalmar region of Sweden, which bred tough, intelligent stock, from which emerged a band of settlers who sought to colonize parts of the Delaware River Estuary, just out of the reach of the English colonies of Virginia and later, Maryland. The square-rigged ship Kalmar Nyckel brought the first of these settlers in 1638. (The Nyckel's accurate replica is a frequent visitor in Chesapeake waters.)

While a Swedish colony did not succeed on the Atlantic Coast, these people were the first in a great river of Swedish immigrants who settled here, and most notably in the Midwest. Oscar Olson was a young boy when he arrived in the United States in 1880, and like many of his countrymen, did not speak English at the time.

Up until European settlement, forests were the dominant land cover around Chesapeake Bay and, while they were a great resource in growing the United States, the abuse heaped upon them in this region was immeasurable. It wasn't until late in the 19th century that thoughtful observers began making inroads in forest protection to change the practice of brutally harvesting a woodland before moving on to the next stand.

One of these observers was Gifford Pinchot, confidante of President Theodore Roosevelt. Pinchot was the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, and while he recommended forest harvest, he was for having this done by small private loggers and at the forest edge, preserving the core. Pinchot, who influenced the future of forest conservation, served two terms, though not successive, as governor of Pennsylvania.

Oscar Olson, upon arriving in the United States, became a footman in Pinchot's Pennsylvania home.

He became a clergyman, married and fathered a daughter and a son, Carl Marcus "Mark" Olson, born in September 1911.

Mark Olson was educated at Augustana College in Rock Island, IL, where he met his future wife, Loraine. He earned his Ph.D. in physics at the University of Chicago where, before graduation, he was recruited by a DuPont Chemical Company scout. He began working at the Delaware Krebs Pigment Laboratory in 1936. He also married Loraine and they had three children.

(Chesapeake Bay Program adherents know his daughter Marcia very well. She was most prominently involved as a contractor for, and later an employee of, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration where, until her retirement, she was senior statistical analyst. Her constant work and loyalty to the project produced effective analyses and strengthened the modern Chesapeake monitoring database, now stretching 27 years.)

Part of Mark's work at the Krebs Laboratory was developing white paint. "White paint" in the 19th and early 20th centuries was pigmented with white lead, which was vaguely cream-colored, and not true white. White lead, and lead paint in general, was also toxic for children, who experiment with eating loose, faintly sweet, lead paint chips.

Titanium dioxide, in its purest state, was the gold standard for true white, and DuPont's Krebs Pigment and Color Plant was seeking ways to efficiently extract it from glauconite sands and purify it in commercial quantities. Olson successfully researched the chemistry that achieved this pure product from natural sands, and it is today the primary brilliant white pigment in coatings worldwide.

Whatever the brand, look at your paint can: There is no lead, only titanium dioxide. The same goes for many brilliant plastics.

Mark once joked to me about his and his colleagues' work, describing himself as more of a mechanic than a theoretician. But, this efficient purification process for titanium dioxide also led to efficient means for extracting metallic titanium from various ores.

Colleagues in Olson's modest lab at Du Pont, along with much of the United States, knew that World War II was sure to interrupt shipments from large international titanium sources like those in India. Thus, the search for practical domestic sources was important.

A plant, Titanium Ore Corp., was established at Cove Point in Southern Maryland to mine the ilmenite sands that naturally accumulated there. (See "Past is Prologue," November 2001.)Cove Point was not a wildly successful commercial venture, and Olson told me that significantly better deposits were found in Florida at inland low country sites where barge-dredged material is still successfully extracted. Titanium, one of the lightest, strongest metals in the periodic table, is invaluable to the military and for space flight gear. It now appears in the highest quality camping, eating and cooking ware for backpackers.

Olson next turned to purifying silicon. Silicon - think sand - is, next to oxygen, the most abundant mineral on Earth, but impurities mask its remarkable properties.

Jons Jacob Berzelius had prepared crudely purified silicon in 1824, but the containers used in the process reacted to the necessary aggressive chemistry and created problems. A solution eluded chemists for 120 years, until Olson found an answer.

Olson described this achievement in a summer 1988 memoir published in the magazine American Heritage of Invention and Technology: "It was my good fortune to find the untrodden path that led to an answer." His skill with his hands and inventiveness as a self-taught glass blower - he made pure quartz reaction chambers - were the best tools for solving this problem.

Children in Mark's youth experimented with the cat's whisker crystal radio, where by fiddling carefully, one could touch a tiny wire to a "sweet spot" on a lead ore crystal that converted the high frequency of radio waves in the air to a direct current that could make a voice signal audible. It was, in truth, the "first solid state device." Making this work on an industrial scale, however, required something way beyond the child's play exercise.

Hot, glass vacuum tubes filled the innards of early radios. Only the oldest among us will have any memory of vacuum tube radios, with their array of glowing glass creations - often short-lived - plugged into a big metal chassis. And, all listeners got for this was scratchy AM reception.

Olson said that in 1940, "truly pure silicon was unavailable at any price." But purity was the goal and was required for producing a reliable rectifier that, like the erratic lead crystal, would change current and enable what we class today as "electronic" devices. Both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Bell Telephone Laboratories were working on the problem.

Impurities of any sort mask silicon's elemental properties. In nature, silicon comes combined with oxygen in sand, essentially silicon dioxide. Olson noticed that it could be liberated with 99 percent purity in an electric furnace using carbon to combine with the oxygen and drive it off. This was fine for general industrial purposes but the purity required for the creation of electronic devices required extraordinary measures.

During the World War II, the need for airborne radar was critical. Need became reality when super pure silicone (99.999%) became available. This made possible silicon diodes (rectifiers that allow electrons to flow only in one direction).

University of Pennsylvania Professor Fred Seitz, then a consultant to DuPont, knew of this national need, and hearing of Olson's discovery, made the connection. DuPont was almost immediately in the midst of a silicon production program which over the ensuing 50 years led to the development of radar, silicon transistors, semiconductors and the information technology superhighway.

I remember looking with wonder in the late 1940s at an advertisement showing a couple on the beach with a small portable radio listening to music. My dad's radio in our living room stood 4 feet high, 2.5 feet wide and 18 inches deep. Never make it to the beach, I thought.

The extraction of these highly pure products led Olson beyond his original intent and into a truly world-changing application.

The war years shaped many lives, not always in ways we might like. In 1943, Olson was loaned to the Federal "Manhattan Project," at the University of Chicago, to work with Glen Seaborg's team purifying element 94 on the periodic chart –plutonium. He told me years ago that he had mixed feelings about his role in this work, but in 1944–45, he and his family moved to Hanford, WA, where a large-scale industrial facility was being built, which culminated in the first atomic bombs.

Returning to Du Pont in 1945, after the war ended, Olson's career continued, ultimately resulting in 25 patents assigned to DuPont. Mark retired in 1971 after a 35-year career.

He and Loraine lived in Newark, DE, for a while but later moved to Southern Maryland in 1996 into an apartment at the Asbury Solomons Retirement Community overlooking the Patuxent River and its sunsets. They led active lives which included dancing to "Hot Jazz Saturday Night" on National Public Radio. He and his wife started an ongoing political discussion group among the many intellectually vital residents that has existed for more than 26 years. Loraine passed away in 1998, but Mark carried on, including the dancing, although now with his daughter. In 2008, alumnus Olson received Augustana College's Outstanding Achievement Award for his life's work.

Recently, in his late 90s, Marcia found him closing in somewhat, perhaps contemplating where this old mind and body would be headed next. Last year and this, his family made special efforts to visit and touch base more often.

One morning his beloved caregiver, Darlene Long, went in to greet him and, when she forced him out of sleep he said: "Don't bother me, I'm dead." "Oh, Mr. Olson!" she rejoined, "you can't be dead you're talkin' to me."

"I guess you're right" he replied, and began to muster his resources for another day.

All this year, he considered himself to be "a hundred," but in fact, he was two thirds through his 100th year on the planet, headed for that signal birthday.

I planned this column to end: "Mark Olson dines each Wednesday with Marcia and two woman friends jokingly called 'the Marys.' He remains a loving father to his daughter, son Nicholas Olson, who's a San Francisco businessman, and proud grandfather to Siri Olson, now a student at Brown University."

Mark passed away quietly, May 16, 2011, his hands held by Marcia and Darlene. A man who influences our lives each day, and whom I was honored to know almost 30 years, has moved on.

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About Kent Mountford

Dr. Kent Mountford is senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Program in Annapolis.

Read more articles by Kent Mountford

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