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Focus on a Career Engineer

chapter eight
The War Years [1942-1945]

The new RCA Laboratories was a great improvement for research work. When we were at Harrison or Camden (RCA’s other manufacturing plant), the research staff had always played second fiddle in getting service from the machine shops, purchasing, and personnel, because we were such a small part of a very large manufacturing operation. Suddenly, in the new laboratories, the service departments had no one to work for but us. We were now the majority bosses instead of minority subalterns. The set-up was good for the war effort, everyone worked hard, and the productivity was high. In my own case, I was put in charge of the beam-deflection tube research, particularly for Navy radar reception. At the time, radar receivers used a crystal mixer which had a poor signal-to-noise ratio and, worst of all, radiated a weak but continuous signal which the enemy could use to detect and locate a ship which was trying to maintain radio silence. Our new tube promised to overcome both problems and we were successful. However, the war ended before any production of our research design had started. Although we had put in many, many hours of research, enough for a dozen research papers, everything was classified “secret” during the war and, in fact, only one paper was ever published, in 1949, plus the release of my Thesis work for publication. Also, some of the basic principles were disclosed in my U.S. Patent 2,294,659, which was issued before secrecy was imposed. Our work on beam-deflection devices continued for a short time after the war, but was superseded by traveling-wave tube research and work on transistors.

In May 1943, I was awarded membership in the honorary research society, Sigma Xi, by both the Princeton Chapter and the one at Polytechnic. Because my earned M.Sc. degree was at Polytech, I (p. 36) accepted there and was inducted in a ceremony on May 31. To me, without a doctorate, the honor was important because it recognized my acceptance in the world of research which was populated mainly by Ph.D.s.

One very unfortunate casualty of the war was my boss, B. J. Thompson, who was killed when over enemy lines in Italy while on a reconnaissance mission in an aircraft. At the time, the laboratory was under Elmer Engstrom, as Director, and three associate Directors, of which B. J. Thompson was one. Lloyd Smith (a Cornell professor) was assigned as Acting Associate Director, although he was also commuting one day a week to Ithaca to keep up his academic responsibilities. The war changed many aspects of industrial and academic life in that there was more interchange of knowledge among those with secret clearances (most of us). We often visited the MIT Radiation Laboratory, to meet with men from universities, other industrial companies, and government scientists. Past rivalries were put aside, although there was still technical competition in that each of us was eager to have our own ideas accepted. For Don North and me, we took great pride in emphasizing North’s “noise factor,” which was a correct concept, over a rival incorrectly formulated “noise figure” expounded by the Bell group. Later, all came into agreement and North’s concept was adopted, but the name that came into general use was the Bell name: “noise figure.”

The one part of the war effort which was kept secret from those of us in electronics was the nuclear bomb, then called the atomic bomb. I took a short course in nuclear physics at Princeton during the war, and I should have suspected that something was going on by the involvement of so many Princeton physics professors in work of which there was no talk whatever. But nuclear phenomena were new to me—my physics course had pretty much (p. 37) ignored this field—and, when I first heard of something remarkable which had taken place at Alamogordo in July 1945, even then I had no idea of what it was. Thus, when the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in August, I was as surprised as anyone.

After V–J Day in August 1945, some of the University participants in the “Manhattan Project” (the bomb development) could now talk about the significance of the nuclear breakthrough. Even so, I did not fully grasp the import of nuclear fission until later that year when Professor H. D. Smyth of Princeton published his famous book Atomic Energy for Military Purposes. Today, the proliferation of these horrendous weapons threatens the entire world future. In 1945, the joy over the end of the war overcame most of our moral scruples about the first use of the new bomb.

The formal ending of the war did not suddenly end the war’s effects. The change of manufacturing from military to civilian products seemed to be interminably slow. RCA did move as rapidly as possible to return to television manufacture and, in research, we diverted our attention toward television application of our war-related work. (p. 38)

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