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Focus on a Career Engineer

chapter six
The Depression Years [1930-1938]

In early July 1930, along with a small number of other new college graduates, I started in my new job at RCA Radiotron, where I met an entirely new group of people. Some were experienced GE tube engineers from either Cleveland or Schenectady, and others were Westinghouse tube engineers from nearby Bloomfield. They all had been transferred to the RCA operation a month or two before my arrival, when GE and Westinghouse ceased all receiving-tube manufacture. The change did not mean a loss of profits for either company because they each owned a substantial part of RCA.

My technical progress was greatly accelerated by the new associations. In particular, an exceptionally brilliant engineer, Bob Ferris, took a personal interest and taught me the major principles of electron-tube design, as he had learned them at the GE Research Laboratory, famed for its scientists and inventors. Similarly fortunate was association with my immediate boss, Terry M. Shrader; though by no means a basic scientist, Terry was exceptionally inventive and, by his example, showed me that inventions were made by not following the logic of the known art. There were times when, with use of sophisticated mathematics and physics (which Shrader didn’t really understand), I would “prove” that an idea of his couldn’t work. Of course, as soon as we tried the idea, and it did work, I was among the first to explain it by the same basic principles which I had previously used to prove the opposite. It was quite a lesson in the difference between book learning (analysis) and the world of invention and innovation (synthesis).

Although I made my first invention in November 1930, it was not my first issued patent. That came (p. 26) from a second invention of April 1931. RCA did not always file applications in chronological order and, because the second invention was immediately used in a commercial tube, it was the first to be filed and the first to issue. It was issued in 1935 when, by that time, I had submitted 18 patent disclosures and was becoming expert in evaluating the ideas which would be useful to RCA as against the ones which might be novel, but have too little commercial interest. My first ten years at RCA led to over half of my 47 issued U.S. patents because, as I became more and more involved in leadership, I learned to stimulate my juniors and subordinates to invent, rather than to do so myself. Again, I credit these early years at RCA for giving me the judgment and wisdom to recognize innovative people and to make sure that they would be supported and given maximum credit.

RCA, which had substantial income from licensing patents as well as from the sale of tubes, encouraged both invention and publication of technical papers, which were often the best way to call attention to an invention or a new product. My first published paper appeared in Radio Engineering, December 1932. It described my design of a new triple-grid power tube capable of operation in any one of three different modes. My next publication appeared in 1935 in a more prestigious journal, the Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers, an organization which I had joined in 1930. Entitled “Negative Resistance and Devices for Obtaining It,” my study became a standard reference on the subject and was used as long as 25 years later, when new solid-state devices were supplanting electron tubes as a means to achieve negative resistance. Writing technical papers became an important part of my career and continued even after retirement, when my 54th publication appeared in 1981. I also wrote about 150 internal reports and memoranda during my RCA career. (p. 27)

By 1938, I had personally designed, developed, and put into production nine new types of electron tubes and had contributed ideas to a number of others. This also gave me experience in cost, uniformity and reliability of product and production yield; later, in my research career, these assets enabled me to understand better and to solve the problems of technology transfer, endowments often lacking in research scientists. Our tube development group at Harrison was remarkably productive. Consisting of only a dozen or so engineers, most major advances in receiving tubes at that time came from our work; we added about 35 new tube types to the RCA catalog in seven years. The Bell Laboratories/Western Electric tube group had three times as many engineers, yet, by 1938, application engineers at Western Electric were insisting that they must be permitted to use our designs in order to achieve their objectives.

My formal education was augmented by two evening graduate courses in 1930–1931 which I took from the Physics and Mathematics Departments of New York University, at Washington Square. I wasn’t impressed with the quality of the teaching so, in the fall of 1931, I was given permission to take one afternoon off for a course at Columbia University, which was outstandingly better. I had to pay my own tuition and, for financial reasons, I didn’t start graduate work again until 1938.

By 1932, unemployment had climbed to 20% (it reached 25% a year later and stayed above 20% for several years more). At RCA, those of us who weren’t let go by mid 1932 were daily in fear. So far as I know, RCA never did actually operate at a loss, but there were three cuts in salary, two 10% across-the-board cuts and one 12 1/2% cut when we stopped working Saturday mornings. Fortunately, my performance was sufficiently exceptional that I was secretly given enough raises in the 1932–1934 period to keep my salary nearly constant. (p. 28)

I was married in August of 1931 and became the father of a daughter in December of 1932. At RCA, we worked with some GE engineers to design an entirely new line of electron tubes using metal envelopes instead of glass. An interesting aspect of invention occurred at that time which is worth recounting. Electron tubes had always been a replaceable component, i.e., they were plugged into sockets. Up to that point, we had been using 4, 5, and 6 contact pins and there was always difficulty rotating and adjusting the tube so the pins would fit in the socket openings. Our new line was to use 8 pins and my boss, Terry Shrader, devised a new way to overcome the problem. He designed a tube base with 8 pins in a circle, but with a central molded lug which was longer than the pins and had a key ridge molded in it. By putting a matching central hole in the socket, it was simplicity itself to insert the lug in the hole, rotate the tube until the key ridge fit the keyway, and the pins were automatically correctly positioned. We called this the “octal base” so RCA filed a patent application. My fellow engineers and I thought it was a clever idea but, because it could have been invented by someone with a grade-school education, and could never be the subject of a scientific paper, we considered it a very minor contribution. We thought it couldn’t compare with the new tube designs and circuits which we highly trained engineers were making. Years later, a study was made of all the RCA inventions in the field of electron tubes—in the order of thousands—to see which had produced the greatest returns in patent royalties. Terry Shrader’s octal base turned out to be the leader! Thus, I was given another humbling lesson in the difference between book learning, alone, and truly innovative thinking.

In the new line of tubes, I became a specialist in superheterodyne mixer and converter types. One of my designs was put into production (p. 29) by Charley Nesslage; some applications work was done on it by Bill Harris, another engineer. We gave a paper on the new tube in 1935 which was published in February 1936, my third technical paper. I also worked closely with two other applications engineers in using the same tube for an entirely different purpose — as a new type of audio amplifier for phonograph records. The principle was to restore the volume changes which were compressed in recording and to expand them in playback. Popular music, which is relatively constant in volume, needs no such embellishment, but the effect on classical music was striking: crescendos and diminuendos now had the effect intended by the composer. My work on this entitled me to a better record player and several albums of classical music. I built the expander circuit to go along.

RCA accumulated models of their current line of radios in our laboratory for trying out the new tubes; these were sold to employees after about a year. I obtained both a console and a table model all-wave radio in this way and, by 1936, we had excellent quality radio and phonograph music at home. Another employee benefit was sale of phonograph records returned by broadcast stations, who used them only once. We could buy black-label Victor records for 10 cents each, red-seal ones for 25 cents. The selection was large; I soon had many semi-classical and classical records. (p. 30)

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