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Focus on a Career Engineer

chapter ten
The Years 1952-1959 [1952-1959]

At RCA, 1952 was another momentous year for me. The work my group had done on the alloy junction transistor came to fruition in late 1951, after we had shown that, by alloying a small piece of indium on each side of a tiny germanium wafer, we could produce an extremely good junction transistor of the PNP type. At Bell, where the first junction devices were made, they were using a complex and expensive process of “growing” the junctions. The devices they made were so few in number as to be essentially unavailable for extensive circuit development. We decided to embark on a “crash” program to make large quantities, and I asked Dr. Russell Law to head this. By May, we had already made over 500 good PNP units and had designed complementary NPN units as well. Such quantities were distributed to circuit groups throughout RCA so that inventions and new applications came forth rapidly. The most important of these was the famous “complementary symmetry” use of PNP and NPN together, an invention of George Sziklai in the Princeton television research group.

Although RCA had rights to license others under Bell patents, our licensing management was eager to show RCA’s own prowess in this exciting new field. We were asked to organize a major symposium in the fall, to which the hundreds of RCA licensees would be invited. As the producer of the key ingredient, the transistor, my group and I became directly involved; the November 1952 demonstrations were an outstanding success. We demonstrated 24 different applications, covering just about every conceivable type of electronic device using transistors, even including the first all-transistor television set (except for the picture tube). For our licensees in the device field, we even set up a small transistor production (p. 47) line to show exactly how they were made. I think it’s fair to say that, in practical application of transistors, we were far ahead of anyone else in the field. RCA’s Electron Tube Division, at Harrison, was chosen to exploit our lead; D. Y. Smith, a friend and former colleague in my Harrison days, was in charge of that Division and asked me to head the new semiconductor organization. However, I was more and more convinced that my talent was in research. I made a counter proposal that the job be offered to Russ Law, who had so successfully headed the transistor work in my laboratory. The Harrison people didn’t know him as well and didn’t follow my advice, much to my regret. One result was that Russ left RCA in December of 1952 and we lost a really good man. Some years later, after RCA had lost its leadership in transistors by failing to pioneer in the silicon planar process, I wondered whether it would have been different if Law had headed the operation. By that time I was no longer with RCA and didn’t have first-hand knowledge.

After the successful symposium, RCA decided to impress its foreign licensees by sending over a team of four scientists for an extensive tour of European laboratories. I was to represent the transistor work, Lefty Leverenz the work on electronically active materials, such as phosphors and ferrites; Al Rose the work on photoconductivity; and Bob Janes (of RCA’s Lancaster operation) represented camera tubes and photo devices. We left in mid-August, 1953, with our wives and spent two months presenting papers at the annual meeting of the combined German and Austrian Physical Societies, at the Sorbonne in Paris, the Royal Society in London and at several European industrial laboratories. Together, with time for vacation, my own trip lasted three months. (p. 48)

We returned to Princeton on November 12 and I was soon back at work. I then probably broke all RCA records for report writing when I issued a dozen technical reports, totaling 100 pages or so, in which I covered all the details of my visits. My colleagues, who were each covering different technical areas and had visited different groups from the ones I saw, did a good job in write-ups also, but none came close to my output. However, there is no question that RCA recouped our travel cost many times over in the information we provided.

After one of the other directors at RCA laboratories, Dr. V. K. Zworykin, retired in 1954, his subordinates were reassigned among the remaining directors and many were added to my laboratory, so as to double the personnel under my direction to about one-fourth of the laboratory. At the same time, my group inherited the name, Electronic Research Laboratory, which was the name used by Dr. Zworykin. Many at the Laboratories saw these changes as an indicator of another future step up for me, to occur in 1959 when Dr. Wolff was due to retire. It appeared that way to me, particularly after I accumulated data on the performance of my laboratory group for the 5-year period of 1952–1956. The data showed that my technical staff (on a per-person basis) published over twice as many technical papers, wrote twice as many patent disclosures, and nearly three times as many technical reports than did the other three-quarters of the laboratory. I attributed this to my philosophy of operation which was to employ only the very best and most innovative of scientists, pay the top performers much better than the median, and make sure that all were properly supported with apparatus and technician help. Because the best and most innovative people are usually the most difficult to supervise and administer, many of the other laboratory directors did not adopt this approach. In one case, the director did all the inventing and innovating and (p. 49) used his staff only to carry out his ideas. However, even though I believe I was considered the best research director at RCA, events transpired which prevented any advancement in my career and led to my leaving RCA in August 1959. The intervening events follow herein.

About 1955, I was approached by a recently appointed Director of the Physical and Chemical Research Laboratory, Dr. Douglas H. Ewing, a younger man, relatively new to RCA with whom I had been friendly socially as well as technically. He proposed to me that, if we two collaborated and maneuvered the internal politics of the laboratory properly, we could displace our boss, Dr. Wolff, long before his retirement and, to use Ewing’s words, “we’ll run these laboratories.” I was dumbfounded, because I admired Dr. Wolff and was very loyal to him; from that point on, I viewed Ewing as not only ambitious and aggressive but also, above all, totally unprincipled. I gave him no response but broke off friendly relations with him. Unfortunately, others did not see Ewing in the same way and, much to my dismay, he succeeded in his machinations. In 1957, he was appointed Vice President of Research and Engineering, leap-frogging over Dr. Wolff and all of us in the Laboratories. He immediately began to make changes. Even though Wolff was almost three years from retirement, Ewing announced that he had chosen [Humboldt W.] Lefty Leverenz as Wolff’s successor. This certainly told me where I stood.

Shortly thereafter, RCA and the Allis Chalmers Company started negotiating a contract with Princeton University and the Atomic Energy Commission to design and build the world’s largest facility for controlled nuclear fusion research. I was asked to direct the RCA part and surrender my position as a Laboratory Director. The project was of great scientific interest, but I could not see a permanent position in it for any RCA executive, so (p. 50) I agreed to make the move but on a temporary basis only. (My judgment was correct and, after the facility was complete, it became exclusively part of Princeton University’s research establishment.) I appointed one of my associates as Acting Director of my laboratory and moved my office to the Forrestal campus of Princeton University in August 1957. Our new operation was called “C Stellarator Associates” (after the ionized gas device called the Stellarator which was the basis of the Princeton work, and of which small A and B models had already been built). The project involved about 25 million dollars and was to be complete in two years. The work was classified Secret by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) so that although I had Top Secret clearance from the Department of Defense, I had to apply all over again to the AEC. A year later, however, most of the work was declassified and I was even permitted to publish several papers on controlled nuclear fusion which, up until 1957, had been a new field to me. By the end of 1958, the technical aspects of the project were essentially complete; I resumed my job as Laboratory Director at RCA. The equipment we designed and installed remained in use over the many years since, although the Stellarator concept has been abandoned in favor of the Tokamak concept on which Princeton University is currently at work (1982).

There were several other important events in 1958. In connection with my membership in the Department of Defense Advisory Group on Electron Devices, I was asked to join a small group to visit the French and British military electronics industry. The visit to France was scheduled for June, the one to Britain for October. Our group flew to Paris on June 14 where we were met by a U.S. Embassy car and given diplomatic privileges. Initially, we met with a number of French military officers giving me my first taste of international diplomacy. We had no skill in the French language, (p. 51) so our spokesman used English, which was then translated into French by an interpreter. The spokesman for France was an army general who used only French which was then translated for us into English. The procedure was cumbersome; it took a long time to cover the agenda. When our hosts took us to lunch, we were surprised to find that the general and his colleagues spoke perfect English. As soon as we went back into conference, we returned to the bi-lingual system, with no hint that our hosts knew any English. For the next two weeks, we visited all the important French companies and laboratories, mostly covering work classified as Secret by our two countries. We did have a few days for sightseeing: our group was flown to the Brussels’s World’s Fair in the U.S. Ambassador’s plane. There we spent an interesting day, mostly at the tremendous U.S.S.R. Exhibit, which far outstripped anything we’d ever been exposed to in Soviet technology. All of us were surprised at the sophistication of the electronics shown, and impressed by the model of the Sputnik satellite and the large display of machine tools.

The next visit on behalf of the government was scheduled for October, in England. I arranged to combine the trip with attendance at the 1958 Atomic Energy Conference to be held in Geneva from August 31 to September 13. Our Stellarator project was declassified by then; a large model was on display, along with British and Soviet, exhibits on their controlled-fusion work. The Air Force also asked me to visit the University of Madrid. I spent a day, there, where I found some enthusiastic researchers with totally inadequate equipment. As a poor country, Spain could not afford the sophisticated and expensive equipment necessary to do good research in electronics. The U.S. Air Force had been induced to give them a contract in view of the low cost per hour of research talent. In my report, I suggested that, unless a very large proportion of future funding was earmarked for (p. 52) capital equipment, research results comparable to those in the U.S. would not be achieved. I believe some funding was made, but Spain has never been a major contributor to electronic research. On our visit to London, I made a formal presentation to the British military advisers on the status of semiconductor technology in the U.S.

Upon my return, I learned that RCA had signed a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice which would radically affect research funding. As I mentioned earlier, RCA had been collecting royalties on a vast array of patents for many years and these were credited to RCA Laboratories, greatly exceeding our costs. In the consent decree, RCA was required to license about 10,000 or so existing patents free of royalty, thereby virtually wiping out most of the past patent investments. In my view, the agreement was not only bad for RCA, but bad for others in the industry. The reason is that, up to 1958, any manufacturer could obtain an RCA license and be assured of patent protection on every major patent, including those of the Bell System and the many other domestic and foreign companies with which RCA had cross-licensing agreements. Furthermore, RCA allocated large sums to provide engineering and technical help to licensees, so they did not require a large research and development expense. Also, RCA had never used the monopoly privilege of the patent law to prevent someone from entering the field. Worst of all for the industry, the decree provided that future inventions had to be separately licensed; i.e., a manufacturer might have to take out separate licenses with 50 or more patent owners, instead of the simple package agreement with RCA. Fortunately for RCA, profits from color television were so high by 1958 that any effect might well be far in the future. Nevertheless, there was now an additional factor for me consider with respect to my own security at RCA. (p. 53)

I remained at C Stellarator Associates for a few months more to phase out my participation and returned to the Laboratories in January 1959. Although I had genuinely enjoyed my work as a director, my confidence that this could continue was shaken, primarily by the rise of Dr. Ewing who, by now, could only be seen as an enemy. Over the past decade, I had often turned away outside job offers, but I now became more receptive. The first one I took seriously was offered me by the Raytheon Company — that of a position to head their new Percy Spencer Laboratory outside of Boston. However, I had reservations about the financing of the operation because it would have been almost 100% dependent on government contracts.

One of my former RCA colleagues, Lou Malter, had left RCA to join Varian Associates in Palo Alto, California. He wrote me several letters and telephoned me as well, about joining Varian to head their Central Research Laboratory. Negotiations went on for several months. The salary plus Varian stock I was offered was only about 25% more than at RCA but, as Vice President, Research, I would be a corporate officer, an important inducement. I agreed to start at Varian in August.

My announcement at RCA that I’d be leaving after 29 years was something of a bombshell. Elmer Engstrom, who was Senior Executive Vice President of RCA (he became President two years later) and to whom most of the other Executive Vice Presidents reported, came from his New York office to Princeton to see me. He offered to equal or better any financial inducement Varian had made and to let me select any open executive assignment in any RCA Division (or, of course, to stay where I was). I told him that my decision was final and not made because of the financial inducement. I said that my primary reason for leaving was the treatment I had received from Dr. Ewing and that I did not, as a matter of principle, believe in bargaining for (p. 54) position by use of an outside offer. From Ewing, I heard nothing of consequence so it did not seem to me that he was at all displeased by my leaving. During the following year, two more highly regarded directors and the top financial manager resigned with the result that Ewing was replaced, to the great relief of all who remained at RCA. The events followed my own prediction of the result of corporate mismanagement: eventually, enough good people leave to make the situation obvious, after which it is corrected, to the benefit of all who have the patience to wait. Had I been a younger man (I was nearly 53 when I left RCA), I might have waited myself.

FOOTNOTE: During the years 1952–1959, my daughter graduated from Oberlin College with a major in English Literature, married an Industrial Management major from Yale, and gave birth to twin sons on October 9, 1955. My grandsons, Peter and David Johnson, are both electrical engineering graduates from Cornell and Brown, respectively, and both work as engineering managers for firms located outside Boston—not far from Raytheon. (p. 55)

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