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Focus on a Career Engineer

chapter four
The First Working Years [1924-1927]

Early in July 1924, I started my new Western Electric job at 463 West Street, New York City. This location housed the research and development laboratories for AT&T, the growing and powerful complex which owned most of the U.S. telephone systems and was becoming active in radio and talking motion pictures as well. A year later, the 463 West Street group was separately incorporated to become Bell Telephone Laboratories; I usually refer to my employment there by the latter name. My job was called Technical Assistant (TA) and included 6 hours per week of schooling in college-level engineering subjects. The instructors were top-flight, and, because the classes were held all year, at the end of 3 years, the TAs had about the equivalent of 11/2 to 2 years of the standard electrical engineering undergraduate program. Even better for me, there were no subjects unrelated to my interests, such as power engineering and surveying, which one was compelled to take in engineering colleges. The courses I remember taking were analytic geometry, trigonometry, alternating-current theory, physics, calculus, telephone practice, drafting, business law, and English composition. All this was on company time, although the homework, was not.

At that time, I had no idea how fortunate I was to have chosen this job. As an added advantage, I was assigned to the research group working on picture transmission; I soon learned about photocells, light valves, scanning, synchronization and oscilloscopes. Just down the hall was the television group under Dr. [Herbert E.] Ives. Our groups worked closely together. They made the photocells for us and one of my jobs was to experiment on a controllable neon-gas discharge tube for their display. I didn’t succeed in this project but it was the only one in which I didn’t come up with a useful result. Among my most (p. 12) successful projects was a beat-frequency oscillator for frequencies below 200 Hz (which were hard to generate with normal oscillating circuits using in­ductors). I also set up a precision a-c bridge and discovered about shielding, one-point grounds, and the many pitfalls of trying to measure with accuracies to 4 or more significant figures. Another project was a set-up to measure the time-constant of inductors (later called “Q”) which was an early predecessor of the famous Boonton Q Meter of the 1930s.

It was recognized that my home radio experiments provided a valuable adjunct to classroom training, and I was allowed to take home Western Electric electron tubes, wire, telephone transformers, and other useful parts. I had long wanted a 50-watt transmitting tube, which was also made available to me on a more formal basis. As it turned out, I never did use this tube because my radio interests became redirected toward broadcast reception and audio power amplifiers. Thus, when I left Bell, the 50-watt tube was returned, but the other parts remained with me for many years. We were also allowed to buy Western Electric parts at an employee price; I bought one of the earliest high-fidelity cone loudspeakers: the 540-AW. My family was soon able to hear radio broadcasts with tonal quality far better than with the horn-type speakers which were common at the time.

In the fall of 1926, Frank Cowan, a close friend and co-worker, and I came to an important decision. We had been advised that, for a career in engineering, lack of a college degree would be a handicap. Furthermore, at Bell Laboratories, employees who obtained a degree at night school were “looked down upon” by day-school graduates. The two of us agreed to select a school and go full time to college starting in September 1927. After much poring over college catalogs, many from low-cost state schools in the mid-west, we selected (p. 13) the University of Virginia. Tuition there was much more expensive for out-of-state students than other schools, but railroad fare was lower than for the mid-west, and the southern locale was much more exotic. Our greatest problem was financial because neither of us could expect help from our families. We agreed that we could probably get by for the first year with $900, which we would have to save between November 1926 and September 1927. Frank decided he could save that much by staying at Bell, but I didn’t think I could.

At this time, many men were leaving Bell for lucrative jobs in the booming radio industry, in which anyone who could distinguish an electron tube from a light bulb was in great demand. I answered an ad in a Newark paper for a job that would eliminate commuting expense. The employer was an electron tube company, E. T. Cunningham, Inc., whose engineering department had recently moved from California to New York City. The job opening was for an engineer to supervise quality testing of warehouse stock; the warehouse was located in Newark. They offered me $125 per month and I decided that, with no commuting and with brown-bag lunches provided by my parents, I could save the required $900 by September. At first, I did not tell E. T. Cunningham of my college plans; I began to work for the firm on January 2, 1927.

The new job was quite different from my research work at Bell. Cunningham did not manufacture electron tubes, but had an exclusive arrangement with General Electric, Westinghouse and RCA, whereby GE and Westinghouse manufactured radio tubes and RCA and Cunningham did the selling, each-under their respective names. Mr. Cunningham had originally been a manufacturer and decided to build up his new business by maintaining exceptional quality of product. Although GE and Westinghouse tested every tube to rigid specifications in their factories, to make doubly sure, Cunningham decided to re-test every tube and include a very liberal replacement policy on customer returns. My job was to set up test equipment in the Newark warehouse and supervise a team of girls who would re-test every tube in the warehouse. The project was successful and worthwhile, because it was not uncommon to find, in advance, many out-of-limit or defective tubes which, otherwise, would have been returned. Cunningham tubes achieved a deserved reputation for quality over RCA, even though all were made in the same factories.

The Cunningham warehouse was on Orange Street, in the Roseville section of Newark. I was only 19 years old and had never supervised anyone, but I had an understanding of electron tubes and associated equipment. The warehouse manager was an older man, an ex-Pinkerton detective who had hired about 20 young ladies as testers and packers, most of whom had no experience. I showed them how to read the meters and test; I set the limits on the various characteristics. The warehouse workers would bring in cartons of about 100 tubes each; we’d unpack, test every tube, then repack the good ones. The rejects were either shipped back to the factory for credit or, later, when our tests had been confirmed as reliable, the GE and Westinghouse representatives would have us destroy them on the premises.

When, in 1927, I was asked by Cunningham to go to Chicago to institute the Newark testing procedures, I did so with the knowledge that the Cunningham people knew of my college plans and enthusiastically endorsed them. Most important of all, they offered me summer employment during my college years.

Frank Cowan and I were accepted at the University of Virginia. We both chose to take a liberal arts course, majoring in physics. It was a (p. 15) wise choice for several reasons. First, of course, we already had basic engineering training so we didn’t need the compulsory practical work required of engineers. Second, the curriculum in liberal arts was broad and flexible, granting us wider exposure to the humanities. Also, as potential research workers, physics training was more fundamental. Finally, the trimester system at U. Va. permitted us to finish in three years and still have summer jobs. So, in September 1927, Frank and I took the train for Charlottesville, Virginia. (p. 16)

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