In 1951, in a tiny corner of North Carolina, geologist Mason K. Banks filed a patent on behalf of TVA for a new method of mining mica and feldspar. His discovery—long story short—would lead to the development of the microchip.
Mason K. Banks never lived to see smartphones, the rise of global social networks or buy anything on Amazon. But the late World War II bomber pilot and geologist is the TVA inventor who made electronic technology possible.
For more than 60 years, Banks’ extraordinary achievement remained hidden, concealed by his own humility and a life led in service to others. Choosing family over his engineering dreams, Banks lived quietly in his hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina, until he died in the summer of 1992 at the age of 72—neither he nor his family knowing that the entire digital world would one day trace its roots to his legacy.
To the family’s surprise, the discovery followed Vince Beiser’s August 2018 Wired magazine article that linked a group of TVA engineers to the remote Appalachian mountains where the key ingredient for the earth’s high-grade electronics—pristine quartz sand—is still being mined.
“To be honest, it’s kind of overwhelming to think of the impact,” Mason Banks Jr. says. “It’s just a wonderful feeling knowing my father’s work was this influential.”
In the late 1940s, the elder Banks invented a process called froth flotation, which unlocked feldspar and mica from large deposits of quartz. In 1953, TVA patented Banks’ invention and made it freely accessible for mining companies to help build the struggling industry. Banks’ work revolutionized the mining business, created thousands of jobs, brought wealth to destitute communities and eventually lead to the creation of the microchip.
Banks Jr. remembers the way his father’s occupation captivated him as a child on their family camping trips into the backcountry of Appalachia.
“Sometimes Dad would prospect at night with certain lights that would identify specific minerals,” Banks Jr. says. “He would take my brother and I, and we’d go off to places like Clingmans Dome and the Devil’s Courthouse. It was absolutely beautiful.”
But for the Tennessee Valley and much of rural Appalachia, what came out of the Banks’ private camping trips would affect the region for generations to come.
“The froth flotation patent was the beginning of it all. Because of this process, two local industrial mining companies opened new mines in the area during this time,” says Pat Ezzell, TVA historian. “This bolstered economic activity in the region and drastically improved the welfare of those living there. But like much of TVA’s work, it’s still paying dividends today.”
Banks was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1920. He became interested in geology the summer after graduating from Greensboro Senior High School. It was during these short months that Banks left home and hitchhiked across the Southwest United States with a high school friend.
According to the younger Banks, the West’s rock formations and exquisite beauty enthralled his father and ultimately lead to the would-be inventor’s enrollment into North Carolina State University’s geology department in Raleigh.
At the same time, the North Carolina Department of Conservation and Development and TVA formed a partnership to begin a cooperative investigation of mineral resources in the rural and impoverished areas of North Carolina’s mountains. Banks’ professor, Dr. Jasper Stuckey, served as the state geologist on the project, creating an opportunity for Banks and four other student aides to work in the field.
The mission of the joint effort was to discover a scientific process to release mica and feldspar minerals from the large deposits of quartz in the area. If successful, the team would be able to create an entire mining industry that would spur the stagnant mountain economies that relied almost solely on farming.
But before this dream could be realized, the young geologist graduated and volunteered to serve in World War II.
Banks joined the Army Air Corps and volunteered for combat training. In his three-year tenure, he attained the rank of first lieutenant and served with the Sky Scorpions—567th squadron, 389th bomb group, 8th air force. He was a B-24 Liberator bomber pilot, and flew 20 combat missions over Germany during the last seven months of the war.
During the war, more than 40,000 U.S. airmen were killed and another 18,000 were wounded in the European and Pacific theaters combined. Aircrews flying over Europe had only a 25 percent chance of surviving just 12 missions, and it was statistically impossible for bomber crews to complete a 25-mission tour in Europe.
Banks never considered himself a war hero, but he received three air medals for his service—each awarded after successfully completing a block of six missions.
In 1948, Banks returned home as a decorated veteran and went back to work in the mountains under the direction of Dr. Stuckey and North Carolina State College. Together, they worked at the new Minerals Research Laboratory in Asheville, where Banks Sr. held the position of chief engineer. Although the state of North Carolina provided the new $85,000 research facility, TVA equipped the building and paid the salaries of the staff working in the mineral dressing lab where Banks developed froth flotation.
One Feb. 1, 1951, Banks filed the patent for his invention on behalf of TVA. The process quickly turned a small-town mining community into a global industry.
“TVA was working throughout the Valley to develop processes for utilizing the region’s mineral deposits for industrial and national defense purposes,” Ezzell says. “Coming out of WWII, TVA’s research created new ways of manufacturing aluminum with locally mined natural resources and helped wean the country off its reliance on imported metal.
“Things like Pyrex bowls, roofing shingles, paint pigments, and lubricants were all products that job creators were able to mass produce because of the work Banks and other employees did in the mineral dressing labs in Asheville and across the Valley.”
Like Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs, Banks Sr. was an extraordinary innovator whose passion for the unknown helped build the foundation that now drives the age in which we live.
“Very few people can claim their discoveries changed the course of human history,” says Gary Brinkworth, TVA director of Research and Technology Innovation. “Mr. Banks’s innovation efforts did just that and continue to help us achieve our 85-year mission of improving the lives of the 10 million Tennessee Valley residents we serve.”
When asked what his father would have thought about the current global prominence of the froth flotation patent, Banks Jr. chuckled: “I think Dad would just have been absolutely floored.”
Though the acknowledgement and accolades for his achievement are long overdue, Banks never would have wanted recognition to overshadow his most-prized legacy—a life lived in true service to family and others.