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Focus on a Career Engineer

chapter seven
A Career Modification [1938-1942]

About 1933, a research group had been formed at RCA in Harrison under the leadership of an outstanding man from GE, Browder J. Thompson. In 1938, I was asked to transfer to this activity, which was heavily endowed with Ph.D.s. Thus, if I accepted the change, I would be competing with men of proven research ability who also possessed a much more advanced scientific education than I. However, a) it was what I really wanted to do, b) my inventive ability was proven and c) I hoped that I could make up for any educational deficiency by working harder than my associates. So, I accepted the challenge and made the transfer early in the year.

My last paper with colleagues from the development groups at Harrison was published in July 1938 and described a new converter tube which I had invented (U.S. Pat. 2,146,016) and which went into production as the 6K8. From this point on, I associated with a different and distinguished group of new colleagues, B. J. Thompson, A. V. Haeff, H[arley]. Iams, G. R. Kilgore, R[ussell]. R. Law, L[ouis]. Malter, N. Marcuvitz, L[eon]. S. Nergaard, D[wight]. O. North, A[lbert]. Rose, and P. T. Smith. Many of these men remained my associates throughout my years at RCA.

Starting early in the 1930s, RCA was investing heavily in the development of television and, at Harrison, had already started a small production of picture tubes. My new associates were doing advanced research on tubes for generating and receiving the high frequencies required for television, on camera tubes, on picture tubes, and on the theory of high-frequency operation and what was called “noise” (the random fluctuations of electron tube currents which limited amplification of weak signals). I studied the principles of television and, in August 1938, published a paper (p. 31) on circuit theory for wide-band amplification, needed in television. With the help of Don North, our expert on electron tube noise, I used my superheterodyne converter experience to write a paper on the best converter system for television receivers. By the end of 1938, I started to design my own television receiver, although the only transmissions were experimental ones by the RCA/NBC teams who had a transmitter atop the Empire State Building in New York City.

Because my financial status was somewhat improved, I resumed graduate work by enrolling at Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, in the evenings. I had a rough schedule involving travel to Brooklyn two nights a week (from Harrison) and then a return trip to my home in Verona, getting me there about midnight. Although I was in the Physics Department, I took several courses under the most outstanding engineering teacher at Polytech, Professor Ernst Weber, whom I had previously known through some lectures he gave at Harrison. For a Master’s degree, a thesis was required and, by 1940, I had already started on some novel ideas for frequency converters which I eventually used for the thesis. In retrospect, I can see that my thesis was fully the equivalent of a doctoral dissertation, although some parts of my work could not be included because, by early 1942, World War II had imposed secrecy. In any case, I was awarded the M.Sc. degree in June 1942. My association with Prof. Weber and with the Polytechnic Institute, was very rewarding; much later, after Prof. Weber was President of Polytechnic, they conferred on me the honorary D.Sc. degree.

In the spring of 1939, I finished my television set design and accumulated the parts, including borrowing a picture tube from RCA (the most expensive item). The high-voltage supply was put in an old bread box as a safety precaution, and the rest of the set was scattered on the floor of (p. 32) the living room. RCA began telecasting a few hours each day starting with the opening of the N.Y. World’s Fair in April. By July, my set was working and I was getting good pictures. Soon my design was copied by about half a dozen other engineers at RCA and I was given more credit as a television pioneer than I probably deserved. During the same period, RCA manufactured a number of sets for distribution to executives and for complete field testing. The new sets made obsolete an older group of sets which had used older standards and were no longer operative. In 1940, I was allowed to borrow one of these older sets which I used for a cabinet. It provided for a vertical 12” picture tube viewed by a mirror on a hinged lid. My set was now more presentable for display in our living room. A year or two later, I made one more change in cabinet, to an empty console radio which permitted direct view of the picture tube, but had to be placed in a corner to accommodate the long tube neck protruding in the rear. This last set served us throughout the war and wasn’t replaced until 1947. We were among the very few families in the country who had television in our home continuously from 1939 on.

In my research work, I was becoming more conscious of military uses. Once war in Europe had started, we had increasing contact with the U.S. Army and Navy research establishments and their need for better radar equipment. My own work on improving signal-to-noise ratio led to an analysis which showed that the conventional impedance-matching of antenna to receiver was not the optimum for maximum sensitivity. Along with my colleague, Don [abbreviated from his initials] North, who had developed the concept of noise factor, we made an important contribution to radar receiver design. Our two papers were presented in January 1942 before the IRE. and published together in the last pre-war issue of the RCA Review in January 1942 (the RCA Review suspended publication for the war years). Another (p. 33) of my technical papers gave a complete analysis of frequency converters and mixers and was published in the Proceedings of the IRE in February (the Proceedings did not suspend publication during the war). By this time, I had set up measuring apparatus for signal-to-noise measurements at the higher frequencies used for radar and began working with Ross Kilgore, another colleague, on the development of an entirely new type of electron tube using deflection of an electron beam instead of a grid for control. The new type of tube was ideally suited for the new concept of frequency conversion which I had devised and which was the subject of my Master’s thesis. Publication of my work and that in the thesis was withheld until after the war.

The U.S. military, well before the actual entry of the U.S. in the war, was encouraging much greater participation of radio engineers in work on ultra-high frequencies and microwaves. To that end, funds were provided to finance special evening courses for working engineers. I was asked to organize a series of lectures on ultra-high-frequency reception; I asked another colleague, Lou Malter, to share the lecture burden with me. The series consisted of five lectures, of which I gave three and Malter gave two. We gave them in about 4 different locations in New Jersey during the winter of 1941–1942. The five lectures were then published in the Proceedings of the IRE. in 1943. Because this group of papers was very popular, the reprints were rapidly exhausted. I believe that they made an important contribution to the war effort which followed, and the preparation I put in greatly improved my understanding of antennas, transmission lines, and microwave techniques.

In March 1941, RCA announced the formation of a new subsidiary, RCA Laboratories, to be located in Princeton, New Jersey. All the research staff at Harrison and at Camden were to be transferred (p. 34) when the facility was finished. We were all invited to a dinner at the Princeton Inn where the plans were unveiled. RCA had purchased 260 acres of farmland, just outside Princeton, and would build a new laboratory for about 125 scientists and engineers. We were all assured that our housing and moving problems would be taken care of and the merits of the Princeton locale were emphasized. Ground was broken in August 1941, and the reality of the move became evident. Once again, I had to make a decision, because my reputation was such that the Harrison development people wanted me to stay with them. However, my love for research and the greater freedom it offered to work on new ideas prevailed and I agreed to make the move.

None of us foresaw how suddenly the U.S. would enter World War II as a result of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The effect, if anything, on the building of the new laboratory was to speed it up. The date for completion was set for September 1942 and the date was met. Many of us in research had already been consulted on advanced military problems, and even the television work we were doing was generally applicable by a slight change in direction. The camera tube research was directed to military application, picture tubes to radar displays, and transmitter and receiver work shifted to radar transmitters and receivers. The new laboratory was given a high priority with the aim of making it an important asset to the military. (p. 35)

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