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Focus on a Career Engineer

chapter nine
Career Advancement [1946-1951]

At the war’s end, RCA Laboratories was headed by Elmer Engstrom, an RCA Vice President, and had established itself in the world of electronics as a major contributor. Wartime publication of technical papers was minimal, but the apparatus and electron devices developed by the RCA staff had received wide recognition. RCA’s President, David Sarnoff, had been given a top military rank and, inside the company, we now called him General Sarnoff. He was an enthusiast for research and he considered our laboratories as RCA’s most important asset. Even more significant, General Sarnoff saw the close relationship of patents and patent licensing to research. Sarnoff’s policy was to offer a license to anyone at a reasonable royalty; the licensee was then allowed use of any of RCA’s 10,000 patents. The post-war expansion of electronics, particularly television, was tremendous, and so were the royalties. RCA Laboratories was directly financed by these royalties, which greatly exceeded the operating expense. In summary, in 1946, RCA Laboratories was perhaps the only research laboratory in the U.S. which operated at a profit. For the next ten years, it was a great time to work there. (In 1957 a consent decree was entered into with the U.S. Department of Justice which changed the conditions radically.)

In 1946, I was promoted to Section Head and given responsibility for research on small-signal and low-power electron devices, such as traveling-wave tubes, wide-band amplifiers, gaseous plasma devices, and solid-state devices. The transistor had not yet been invented, but we were actively working on crystal diodes and exploring possible ways to achieve amplification in solids or liquids. Under me were about 15 engineers and scientists, and my whole group reported to (p. 39) Dr. Irving Wolff, who was the new Director of the Radio Tube Laboratory. Lloyd Smith had returned to Cornell, but was retained as a consultant and continued to visit once a week.

At this time, I was approached by the editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica to write an article on electron tubes for the 1948 printing. I accepted and my article was used by the Britannica for the next 26 years, although it was slightly reduced in length in 1959.

RCA’s main interest was now television, particularly in color. Black-and-white standards had been adopted and commercial receivers put on the market in 1947. My former colleagues at Harrison, some of whom were now in a new plant in Lancaster, PA, considered me an expert on television; so I gave a series of lectures on the subject in each location during 1945–1946. At the laboratory, my group worked on wide-band tubes and tubes for ultra-high frequencies, which we believed necessary for color television. We also had a strong team working on microwave tubes for relays, another television need. RCA had a competitor in color, CBS, who advocated a system which used a (p. 40) large rotating color disc in front of a black-and-white picture tube. This CBS system was incompatible with the black-and-white standards and would have greatly slowed down the growth of both kinds of transmission; thus, it was opposed by RCA. At our laboratory, the systems people demonstrated a color system in 1946 which used three separate channels and was completely compatible with black-and-white standards. However, there was one major flaw: the picture display, because there was no equivalent to the single picture tube used in black-and-white. This became a critical issue in 1949 when the Federal Communications Commission opened hearings on standards for color. By then, RCA had developed a major new systems approach, a color-multiplexing method which used black-and-white (p. 40) standards, a truly remarkable advance. However, without a satisfactory color picture tube, it had no chance.

I was called into-this situation in September 1949, after the group normally responsible for displays had failed to produce anything of value. I have told this story in a 1974 publication, History and Development of the Color Picture Tube.” (See Appendix IV.) My role was to organize and direct the effort, which utilized about 70 scientists and engineers, and many technicians, in all branches of RCA. We were not only successful, but also we did it all in only six months. As of 1982, when I write this, the so-called shadow-mask tube which we demonstrated in March 1950 is still the basis for color television display throughout the world. My reputation, and that of Dr. Harold Law (who invented the most important principles of the tube), soared both within RCA and in the industry. (See Appendix.)

A sidelight of the color-tube project is that the only color pictures taken of the March 1950 demonstrations were my personal 35-mm color slides. There were many black-and-white pictures used by RCA for publicity, but none in color. RCA had a policy of taking no pictures in color, lest someone find a deficiency which could be alleged to be in the color tube, whereas it could well be in the photographic technique. I kept my pictures throughout the years. In 1966, when an important patent controversy, arose in which I became an expert witness, my original slides became evidence that RCA had color quality far exceeding that of a later development by Philco. However, because the slides became exhibits in the trial, I lost control of the originals. I borrowed them once for several talks I gave, and used them for the published paper in 1974; some time after, they disappeared. They are no longer with the trial exhibits, nor have I been able to trace them. I do have copies, but the colors are not as vivid as on the originals. (p. 41)

An outgrowth of my involvement in the color display was to take me on several trips to California. There were two outside inventors of color picture tubes, a Prof. E[rnest]. O. Lawrence at the University of California at Berkeley and Prof. C. W[illard]. Geer of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Lawrence already had some support, but our relations were amicable. RCA, to prove its impartiality in advancing color, joined the Technicolor Company in financing Geer’s invention by paying for its development at the Stanford Research Institute. By so doing, RCA gained additional support in the clash with CBS. I was in charge of this outside program from its inception to its conclusion in late 1951. At RCA our own tube looked so promising that I didn’t think we’d get any return on the Geer-tube work, and this is how it turned out. The Lawrence tube was also dropped by its supporters. Because I made several of the California trips with Elmer Engstrom, head of RCA Laboratories, and later President of RCA, they were probably more important to me, personally, than they seemed at the time.

I return now to some of the other activities at RCA during this period. In January 1948, RCA was approached by an outside syndicate representing an inventor who was alleged to have invented a radio which needed no electron tubes. I was sent to Philadelphia with the head of RCA’s Patent Department to witness a demonstration, which was very impressive. However, we refused to negotiate without a full disclosure of the principles involved. The alleged inventor refused to do this unless a million dollars was paid first. I returned to Princeton and satisfied myself that it could have been a hoax, but on a second visit, no tests which I could devise proved conclusive. We dropped the matter and, about a year later, the syndicate discovered that they, too, had been deceived: it was a hoax. The reason the incident is important is that we, ourselves, were trying to (p. 42) devise a non-tube amplifier and there were rumors that something along these lines was about to occur. Later, we learned that, at Bell Laboratories, the point-contact transistor had been discovered in December 1947, but it was kept secret until the public announcement in July 1948. So the rumors turned out to be true and the new discovery (in a completely altered form) revolutionized electronics.

At RCA we first heard about the transistor from the July 1 issue of The New York Times. Shortly thereafter, the July 15 issue of the Physical Review described the device more completely. We already had set up equipment for measuring amplification in any new type of device and it took Dr. [Jerome] Kurshan of my group only one day to cut open a germanium diode, add a second point contact and confirm the Bell result. The Bell description used the emitter as input; I saw this as a disadvantage and invented the base-input circuit, the only one in use today. My patent disclosure is dated July 21 and is evidence of the rapidity with which we embraced work on the new amplifier. However, my case was dropped after we found that the Bell group had filed a similar idea before mine reached the Patent Office.

In July 1949, Dr. [William B.] Shockley of Bell published a description of an even more novel device, the junction transistor; it was a theoretical idea only, i.e., none had ever been made. We saw this as a challenge, but both Bell and a group at GE beat us in building the first devices of the new kind, which they described in June l951 at a meeting I attended. I was so persuaded of the advantages of the junction device that my group dropped all work on the point-contact transistor, turning over any further development to our Harrison subsidiary. It was a correct decision because the point-contact device has disappeared altogether. Having been outdone in making the first units, I organized a (p. 43) crash program to find a new approach for quantity production. By the end of 1951, we had succeeded so well that 1952 became a revolutionary year in transistor work at RCA.

In 1948, I was elected to the honorary grade of Fellow in the Institute of Radio Engineers. Such an honor was bestowed on only about 1% of the membership yet, strangely enough, when it came to me, I had no great feeling of elation because I thought I had deserved it at least five years earlier! It appears to be a common occurrence in man’s history that rewards come late. A person is lucky if they come at all, and particularly lucky if they come before, instead of after, death.

In the spring of 1949, I was given a special assignment: to be an expert witness in a patent litigation. A British inventor, J. H. O. Harries, had been granted a patent on an electron tube which he alleged was being infringed by one of the most popular tubes in the U.S., the beam power tube. RCA. was the largest supplier of this tube, but Harries chose to sue a smaller and weaker company, Air King, which bought many of its tubes from RCA. The ploy did not work because RCA paid for, and conducted, the defense. I worked with the outside attorneys, Mr. Stephen Philbin and Mr. John Farley, and prepared for trial in the Eastern District of New York, whose court is in Brooklyn. We decided to attack the invention on all fronts, and my old friend and brother-in-law, George Elston, was asked to help me make up experimental tubes to prove our case. George, who had worked at E. T. Cunningham after I left it in 1929, had transferred to RCA Harrison and was now a highly skilled tube engineer. In court, I described the results on our special tubes and convinced the judge that the beam power tubes RCA made did not use the principles claimed by Harries. Harries versus Air King was decided in our favor and the decision was upheld in the Circuit Court of Appeals. (p. 44)

Although I had twice served as a juror, Harries v. Air King was my first experience in patent litigation, which is seldom carried on with a jury. Court trials are like war: one goes all out, spares no expense, and there’s no compromise. The trial, in May 1949, lasted about two weeks and I stayed in a New York hotel. We worked every night and weekends, reading testimony and preparing direct and cross-examination questions. As things developed, later in my life, I was to be involved in several more patent trials, and I consider them to be the most exciting events in my life.

Another activity which was to remain a part of my working career started in 1950 when I was appointed as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Defense and a member of the Advisory Group on Electron Devices (AGED). The function of AGED was to review all device research and development proposals to the government and to recommend approval, modification or rejection. Meetings were held about once a month, so it didn’t take too much time, and I became privy to most of the work going on in all parts of industry involved in government contracts. Top Secret clearance was required, and I had to keep all information from my employer, RCA. However, RCA was most happy to have me serve because it tremendously improved my judgment in making normal decisions on RCA affairs. I served on AGED until 1976, with only one 5-year gap.

In supervision of my section at RCA, I introduced a major innovation in personnel evaluation by using a peer review system. Each scientist was asked to give me, privately, a rank-order selection of all his colleagues, in terms of research ability and value to RCA (omitting his own name, of course). By combining the results and adding my own judgment, I was then able to develop a multi-category, bell-shaped, distribution list, which Dr. Wolff and I then used (p. 45) for merit salary increases, and career decisions for my subordinates. It worked so well that some years later the entire laboratory adopted the system and, so far as I know, it is still in use. I consider the method to be a major advance in the direction of research because there’s no better judge of research ability than one’s peers. I used a related approach for selecting new Ph.D.s for employment in that I downgraded the interview and relied almost exclusively on the rank-ordering given me by the faculty of the person’s school. My interview with a prospective employee was used primarily to “sell” our laboratory as the best place to work.

In November 1951, when Dr. Wolff was promoted to head the RCA Laboratories research, I was given his job as Director of the Radio Tube Laboratory. The advance was a major step up for, me, in that my new group consisted of about 40 research scientists, about one-seventh of the Princeton Laboratories.

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