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A medal from Truman, a pardon from Trump: The remarkable life of a South Dakota scientist

Zay Jeffries
AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives
Physics Today Collectikon
Zay Jeffries

A simple demonstration was a life-changing moment for Zay Jeffries.

It was 1926. He was at a research lab in Cleveland. A colleague sliced through a piece of metal with a new material called “cemented carbide.”

Jeffries was amazed. No other tool cut hard metal alloys so well.

He knew cemented carbide could revolutionize metalworking. So he fired off a letter to General Electric.

The new cutting tool, Jeffries wrote, “is at least twelve times as good as the best tool we have tried before, and probably is more on the order of one hundred times as good.”

“I would urge,” he continued, according to a letter reprinted in a biography, “that the patent situation be cleared completely for the United States, because there is immediate business of considerable magnitude available.”

Jeffries and GE set out to monopolize the cemented-carbide business in America.

Their efforts caught the attention of a federal prosecutor, who turned one of Zay Jeffries’ greatest achievements into his worst humiliation.

World-leading metallurgist

Jeffries was born in Dakota Territory and grew up on a Fort Pierre ranch. He rode a ferry across the Missouri River to high school in Pierre, and a horse across the plains to college in Rapid City.

“It took like five or seven days for him to cross the countryside to make it to the South Dakota School of Mines,” said his grandson, John Kittredge.

Jeffries earned a degree in mining engineering and worked for Black Hills mining companies. Then he moved east to teach at the Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland. He got a Ph.D. from Harvard and made groundbreaking discoveries in the science of metals.

"He would be among the top half-dozen metallurgists of the first half of the 20th century in the world."
Stanford Professor Emeritus William Nix on Zay Jeffries

William Nix is a professor emeritus of engineering at Stanford. He said Jeffries was a remarkable scientist.

“He would be among the top half-dozen metallurgists of the first half of the 20th century in the world.”

So when Jeffries told General Electric that cemented carbide was the next big thing, the company listened.

An 'extraordinary machining tool'

Cemented carbide was the answer to a new generation of metal that was too hard to cut. Newspapers of the day said tools tipped with the material could “carve steel like cheese.”

William Nix, the Stanford professor emeritus, said Jeffries was one of the first to see the new composite’s potential.

“Using cobalt to sort of glue these particles of tungsten carbide together made for a really extraordinary machining tool that was way better than anything,” Nix said, “and he recognized that.”

GE executives set up a new company to sell cemented carbide and made Jeffries the chairman. They scooped up all the patents they could find. They bought out competitors, set mandatory prices for dealers, and threatened to sue dealers who rebelled.

GE worked with a German company, Krupp, that controlled the overseas market. But when tensions rose between the U.S. and Germany during the leadup to World War II, the partnership between the two companies came under scrutiny from the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Presidential Medal for Merit recipient

The Justice Department indicted GE and several executives, including Jeffries, for conspiring to monopolize and fix the price of cemented-carbide.

Eighty years ago today, Oct. 27, 1941, Jeffries pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The case was put on hold after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the military pressured the prosecutor to let GE focus on war production.

Jeffries threw himself into the war effort. He came up with a substitute material to make pennies that saved enough copper to make more than a million ammunition shells. Jeffries also advised on the Manhattan Project that produced the first nuclear bombs.

Jeffries’ grandson, John Kittredge, said Manhattan Project physicist Arthur Compton had a deep respect for Jeffries.

“That was the primary motive why Dr. Compton reached out to Dr. Jeffries, because of his known ability to be a problem solver, to put personality differences aside for the accomplishment of the common goal and objective,” Kittredge said.

President Harry Truman recognized Jeffries’ wartime service with a presidential Medal for Merit in 1948.

It was a great honor, but Jeffries still carried a great burden. Federal prosecutors resumed the monopoly and price-fixing case and took the defendants to trial.

A judge found the defendants guilty on all five counts. Jeffries’ attorney asked for lenience and cited Jeffries’ wartime service and scientific achievements. The judge fined Jeffries $2,500 – equivalent to about $30,000 today.

'Why don't you do something about that?'

As far as his grandson John Kittredge knows, Jeffries never appealed his conviction or asked for a pardon.

“And General Electric wanted to appeal and he said no,” Kittredge said. “He just didn’t want to deal with it. He did not want an appeal, so he paid the $2,500 fine, and that was it.”

About seven decades later, at an American Society for Metals event to honor Jeffries’ scientific legacy, Kittredge said the conversation turned to the criminal conviction.

“And then someone said, ‘Why don’t you do something about that? People that do really bad things get a pardon.’ And it just put the bug in my ear.”

Kittredge was in a position to do something. He’s a justice of the Supreme Court of South Carolina, appointed by the state’s Republican Legislature.

After Republican Donald Trump won the White House, Kittredge wrote a letter to the federal Office of the Pardon Attorney.

“The day they got it, they sent me a form email that we do not grant posthumous pardons,” Kittredge said. “And I was livid.”

He knew some presidents had overruled the policy. So he contacted his Republican U.S. senator, Lindsey Graham, and his Republican U.S. representative, Trey Gowdy.

“They jumped on board,” Kittredge said. “And they started writing letters to the counsel at the White House to please consider this, please look at this.”

Trump issued a full posthumous pardon to Zay Jeffries in October 2019.

Jeffries is one of only six people in history to receive a posthumous pardon from a president. Four of those pardons were granted by Trump.

Conviction remains on record

Trump’s pardon message said Jeffries was convicted because of a legal precedent that did not exist when the prosecution began – in other words, a technicality.

Spencer Weber Waller is an antitrust expert at Loyola University Chicago. He does not agree with that characterization of Jeffries’ case. Waller said Jeffries was convicted on precedent that was well-established at the time.

And Waller said the crimes Jeffries committed are viewed more seriously today.

“It’s been a felony since the mid-’70s, and if he had been convicted today, he almost certainly would have done substantial jail time, the average being in the two-year range,” Waller said, “and obviously the fine in modern times would be much more substantial.”

Waller does appreciate Jeffries’ redeeming qualities.

“He sounds like an interesting guy,” Waller said. “It's just that he was a convicted price fixer.”

And that’s something even a presidential pardon does not change.

Pardons can help living people get jobs and overcome other problems associated with their past. But the conviction remains on their record.

Seth supervises SDPB's beat reporters and newscast team. He works at SDPB's Black Hills Studio in Rapid City.