Last Updated: 11/22/11

John McNerney
Email: mcnerney1939@gmail.com

Time period at ASU: 1971

Peter Buseck comments

John McNerney came to my attention during my sixth year of teaching at ASU. He was a bright guy who both challenged and stimulated me and the other students in my mineralogy class, several of whom went on to distinguished careers.

John was different in his unconventional style, which extended to the activities described in the following essay. Although he never received a B.S., he performed and acted like a graduate student in his research activities at ASU. Not only did those activities end in his forming a company (Jerome Instrument Company or JIC) that allowed him to retire in his early forties, but his work also resulted in papers in Science, Economic Geology, and The Gold Bulletin.

Since "retiring" (on an annuity through donation of his JIC earnings to The Nature Conservancy), he has been active in environmental causes as well as becoming a master furniture craftsman.

My family and myself

I arrived at ASU in the second semester of 1969 to pursue an undergraduate degree in geology. My academic background was in liberal arts, although I was short of any degree requirements. My science background consisted of one course in 10th grade biology and one in high school algebra.

 I was 27 years old and had spent nearly three years prospecting for gold in Nevada and copper in Australia. I could run geochemical and geophysical surveys and knew the rudiments of field geology as it pertained to mineral exploration. I loved my work, not for any great passion for rocks, but because people paid me well to hike and travel the world!

In Australia, I worked for Selection Trust, an English mining Company that was expanding into the states. The company hired me to pursue the newly discovered micron gold deposits located near Carlin in North Central Nevada. Moving from a tent camp in the desolate fly-ridden center of Australia to holing up with topless dancers in a casino in Elko, Nevada was a unique transition.

My boss and mentor at the time explained that while I was good at what I did, my future with the company was limited because of my lack of formal scientific training in geology. They offered a scholarship and I enrolled in ASU.

My first year was so dismal that it was nearly my last. Course work consisted in endless memorization. The course in Historical Geology was taught by a professor that rubbished continental drift (perhaps he was a creationist). You get the picture. 

Perhaps it was Peter's first year teaching at ASU when I took his mineralogy course. I loved it. We had a lot in common. We had beards, frowned on by the Department Head, and rode bicycles, a rare sight in those days. But most of all, Peter showed me how learning science could become an ever-expanding inverted pyramid of knowledge. I explained to Peter that I had no interest in an academic career but merely wished to quickly get a degree and get back into the field. I asked him to be my guide.

Peter informed me that although he could probably get me out of the paleontology requirement, I had to take physics and chemistry to get a geology degree. I wasn't happy, but off I went and was surprised to find the whole new world of science opening up to me. I was hooked.

My English sponsor contacted me and asked if I would return to Nevada for the summer and try experimenting using mercury (Hg) anomalies to find micron gold deposits near Carlin, Nevada. With Peter’s help, we designed a method for demonstrating the feasibility of this novel prospecting idea, although we were not the first to have thought of it.

Elemental Hg is strongly present in these types of gold deposits. In theory, diurnal changes in barometric pressure and the heating of the soil would cause Hg vapor to rise through overburden and appear as an anomaly, particularly where there were high concentrations of Hg in the soil overlying gold deposits. We wanted to design a field method for measuring these concentrations, rather than taking myriad soil samples and using chemical digestion and a sophisticated laboratory for results.

I took some 80 mesh stainless screen discs, had them plated with gold, hooked them to the exhaust of a portable car vacuum cleaner run by a motorcycle battery, took air samples over the hot summer soil, collected the Hg vapor on the gold screens, then heated the screens which would release the accumulated Hg, without interferences, into my UV detection system. The method actually worked, and we began to be able to outline known Au deposits, buried deeply beneath accumulated overburden. However, the UV instrument had very marginal detection limits, just barely able to distinguish signal from noise.

Since I believe all invention is mostly serendipity, here is how the first field-portable unit for accurately measuring mercury was designed for use at ASU and tried out in the field during the following summer.

By chance, I met an entomologist who was studying bug concentrations in Northern Nevada. He did this by driving around with a large tube stuck out the window of his truck, at the end of which was an electrified screen, one resistive end of a wheatstone bridge. The bugs increased the screen’s resistance so that he could measure their concentrations. Who knows where he got this novel idea.

As I got to thinking about it, bugs became Hg atoms in my mind. Maybe their adsorption onto a gold-plated screen would cause interference in the conduction electrons flowing through the gold-plated wire. At least that was my idea, using simple freshman physics and chemistry. 

After some more desert vacuuming, much to the amusement of some local cowboys who happened by—try explaining that to a couple of grizzled cow hands—I returned to ASU and talked to Peter about my idea.

He sent me off to Roland Hanson in the Physics department who immediately informed me it would never work, although a thin film of Au, high-vacuum deposited, say in the range of 200 angstroms, would conduct the majority of the mercury electrons on or near the surface. Fifteen minutes later we were in his lab, etching a stainless mask in a resistive pattern to cover a glass slide. We put it into his high vacuum system, pumped it down and evaporated a thin layer of Au onto the glass slide. A half hour later, we removed the glass slide, which has a resistance of about 200 ohms, and hooked an ohm meter to the terminals, which could read 1/100th of an ohm. I loaded a syringe up with Hg vapor, a technique that I used to calibrate the old UV system, directed the vapor over the Au film and watched the ohm meter shoot up, maybe a 1/10 of an ohm, an enormous change considering the ppb level of Hg vapor adsorbing on the Au surface. Simple heating of the glass slide reversed the process. After a couple of hours in his lab, we had an Hg detection system. That’s how the Gold Film Mercury Detector was born.

This could only have happened because two young professors had the imagination to look beyond the normal academic process. In my opinion, following the rules and correct procedures is a guarantee to mediocrity.

When I contacted the English mining company to tell them our results, Dr. Nichols, their chief geochemist, showed up a few days later, saw the demo, and instructed the company to begin filing for patents. They offered me a research grant of $75,000 to perfect the idea at ASU.

Now some interesting problems arose. I was an undergraduate with a grant that was quite large in 1970, no position, and, of course, no lab space. John Holloway, my physical chemistry professor, solved the lab space by giving me a spot in his lab. I think Peter took care of the rest of the details and made it possible for me to be hired with some sort of research title. I paid the money into the university, they took a cut as their overhead, and I went to work.

The university was filled with skilled technicians and craftsmen who build and service all the apparatus needed to carry out experiments. These unsung heroes became my moonlighters, helping me build circuits, flow systems, cases, everything needed to create an instrument around a thin gold film on a glass slide. 

By the end of the next semester, Peter and I had a working prototype. We published the results in Science magazine.

Worldwide patents were applied for by Selection Trust and eventually granted.

I was sent back to Australia to test the instrument. The instrument performed marginally and needed a great deal more refinement. The best result was finding my wife Iris who is my companion to this day.

Selection Trust, the English mining company that financed all of this, was about to be bought out by British Petroleum. Being the incredible company that they were—most of the directors seemed to be ex-spitfire pilots from WW 2—offered me the patents to sell and/or the rights produce the instrument with the stipulation that I pay them a modest royalty if anything developed financially. Can you imagine this happening in today’s corporate culture!

I left ASU for Jerome, Arizona and began making custom furniture, a skill I had learned in Boston years ago. Meanwhile, I contacted various analytical instrument companies to see about selling the patent. I was invited everywhere from New Jersey to Japan, getting the royal treatment. Then the 'not yet invented syndrome’ set in. Silence. I would hear nothing further. I just let it all slide until a few years later Skip Matlick, another student of Peter’s, contacted me and asked if could build him an instrument that he could use for prospecting. I did so, drawing on my old resources at ASU. 

Once again Peter showed up in my life with John Holloway and suggested that we start a company to build Gold Film mercury detectors. They offered me venture capital, the grand sum of $10,000, to get started, and we incorporated as Jerome Instrument Corporation.

I'm sure that many of you who have visited Jerome in those days or even heard about it, thought of it as the hippie capital of Arizona. But let me tell you about the people I found there to help start my company. Jamie Moffett, early renegade computer wizard who had a prototype PC long before Steve Jobs, designed the circuits. Earl Bell, founder of Spectra Physics and inventor of the ion laser, rented me a small laboratory for $50 a month, in an old mining building that he had used for some of his early research. I hired jewelers that had done electronic assembly for Motorola in Phoenix. Diane Rappaport, artist manager for the famous rock promoter, Bill Graham in San Francisco, did our brochures and promotion. Barbara Blackburn, former vice president of the Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco, set up the business structure and helped manage personnel. Paul Nonnast, a sculptor whose was one of four semi-finalists for the Washington D.C. Vietnam War Memorial design competition, designed our instrument cases. And so it went—all this talent in a town of 400 hundred people, with sweeping views of the red rocks of Sedona.

My first instrument was sold to Eastman Kodak in Rochester, NY, which needed to insure no Hg interfered with the silver nitrate in their film process. Since I was out of money, I marched into the local bank, waving my purchase order for $5000 from Kodak, and asked for a loan so I could buy the parts to finish the instrument. I came away with a loan. More orders followed, mostly from mining companies. The company moved into the Old Mingus Union High School, a three-story structure, maple floors, and enormous windows overlooking the Verde Valley. The rent was cheap in a building that had become quite dilapidated and which we gradually restored as needed into a unique and beautiful place to work. No concrete bunker along the freeway for our company.

The market quickly showed us the need for small portable air analyzers for Hg in work places where Hg was used in various industrial processes. Eventually, we secured a large order from the US Navy to equip every ship and submarine in the US fleet with one of our Hg detectors. We turned our only major interference—hydrogen sulfide (H2S) into a second line of analyzers. 

In 1988, after 10 years, we sold the company to Arizona Instrument, a company that was located in Chandler, AZ (http://www.AZIC.com). They still manufacture the Jerome Hg and H2S analyzers, incorporating the same sensors and flow systems we designed over 20 years ago.

Today I live happily in Todos Santos, a small Pacific costal town in Baja California Sur, still making furniture and actively engaged in local environmental issues. I'm on the board of directors of a Mexican environmental group, Niparaja (http://www.niparaja.org) and consider my greatest recent accomplishment spearheading a grass roots protest against the opening of a Canadian-owned large open pit gold mine, which was to be located over the watershed of the Sierra Laguna. See http;//www.calycanto.com/blog/mexico-denies-gold-mining-permit-to canadian-company/  A video from U Tube: SOS humana 5000 personas Playa el Tule los Cabos , further demonstrates this grass roots effort. Our slogan is “Auga Vale Mas Que Oro” (water is worth more than gold).

Sad to say, the Jerritt Mine, which I helped discover in Nevada in a beautiful canyon that was filled with beaver dams and trout streams is now filled wall to wall with tailings causing serious mercury contamination of the local Owyhee River. The world needs metals, but mined responsibly. No one needs any more gold. 

My current scientific interests are confined to evolutionary biology. The best book I ever read was The Origin of the Species, the worst The Book of Revelations. My current scientific hero is E.O Wilson.

I wrote this piece not only to tell my story but more importantly to salute my friend and life-long mentor, Peter Buseck. Without his stoic stare, demanding excellence, I'm sure I would have bailed out of ASU out of sheer boredom. Peter brought science into m life, showed me the wonders of it's logic, and guided me through academia. And then of course there was JIC, something I probably would have never done if it were not for Peter's quite patience even in the face of my many doubts. What an adventure that was!

I think there is no greater legacy to leave behind than that of a teacher and for that you can be proud. Keep your eye peeled for for other misfits, it is one of your great talents. As you wll know following the rules will guarantee mediocrity, safety, but never greatness. The one rule Peter never compromised was excellence, perhaps the most important. Thank you Peter for being my mentor and taking me into your family. John J. McNerney


7 * M Research Group at Arizona State University