Pioneering in Electronics
Chapter Two - The Base is Broadened
The sage who first observed that one man’s meat may be another man’s poison might have smiled knowingly—though prematurely—at the trend in home entertainment through the 1920’s. The swift rise of broadcasting and the public enthusiasm for a radio in the home appeared to have dealt a body blow to the talking machine as the nation’s favorite home instrument. In spite of radical improvements in the quality of its product, the once-thriving phonograph industry seemed fated for near-oblivion in the economic sense, another hapless victim of technological progress.
The Victor Talking Machine Company, housed in a massive group of buildings in downtown Camden, New Jersey, had been a major factor through the best years of the phonograph and recording boom. It was equipped with unparalleled experience and extensive facilities for manufacturing and marketing high-quality products for which public demand had dwindled sadly with the large-scale advent of broadcast radio. By the late 1920s, the Victor enterprise bore all the earmarks of a fine business, all dressed up, but with no place to go. As it happened, there was a place to go—for RCA, a leader in the new world of radio, was looking for a manufacturing plant of its own. (p. 32)
The happy result was announced in this official communique issued to the press in January 1929:
And so RCA became a manufacturer, equipped not only with the means for producing its own radio receivers, but also with the opportunity of breathing new life into the ailing phonograph industry. The significance of this development was underlined by David Sarnoff as RCA’s Executive Vice-President in the following statement to stockholders at the time of the unification:
The unification with Victor was Step Number One in a rapid sequence of events through which RCA was to emerge full-blown as a research, engineering, manufacturing, and service organization of impressive dimensions. Within the year, two further organizational changes of major importance had been accomplished. By arrangement with General Electric and Westinghouse, RCA acquired the tube manufacturing facilities of the former at Harrison, New Jersey, and (p. 33) the lamp production plant of the latter at Indianapolis. To accommodate these changes, two new organizations were formed—the RCA Victor Company, concerned with the manufacture and sale of home and industrial equipment, and the RCA Radiotron Company, concerned with electron tubes.
The RCA capability in research took a sharp upward turn with these new acquisitions. The assumption by RCA of its own radio and tube manufacturing responsibilities logically entailed the transfer to the new organization of some of the scientists and engineers who had been occupied at General Electric and Westinghouse in developing or improving the equipment that had been marketed through RCA under the previous arrangement.
In this way, a substantial population of outstanding technical specialists moved under the RCA roof. Among them were [Elmer] Engstrom, Vladimir K. Zworykin, and Browder J. Thompson, all of whom were to make a considerable mark on the future progress of the corporation in the direction as well as the active conduct of research.
The consolidation that created the RCA Victor and RCA Radiotron organizations did not include any immediate plans for a general research operation. However, the technical program was given a unified direction for the first time, in contrast to the cumbersome coordinating arrangement that had prevailed in the past. The newly acquired scientific and engineering talents were organized under the general heading of “Advanced Development,” related directly to the manufacturing organizations and channeled into a set of long-range projects extending over virtually all areas of radio and tube technology with the exception of transmitting tube development. (p. 34)
The technical aspects at Camden functioned under the immediate direction of L. W. Chubb, who reported to W. R. G. Baker, the new Chief Engineer for RCA Victor. The development activities at RCA Victor fell initially into three broad categories—electromechanics, radio receivers, and television. At Harrison, a smaller counterpart of the Camden advanced development group was established under the title of Radiotron Research and Engineering Department, directed by J. C. Warner.
Meanwhile, what of the existing RCA research and development activities at Riverhead, Rocky Point, and Van Cortlandt Park? The communications research program directed by Beverage on behalf of RCA Communications, Inc., sailed through the various acquisitions and reorganizations basically unchanged in scope or direction. It was fully prepared to carry on through the coming decade with continuing contributions to high-frequency radio technology, and to lend a strong helping hand in the creation of a successful television service, as will be seen.
The effect at Van Cortlandt Park, however, was total. By the end of 1930, a caretaker remained in sole charge of the Technical and Test Department building, communing with whatever ghosts may populate an abandoned laboratory. The former occupants had all found new quarters. A small group, including Olson and Weinberger, pursued a program of motion picture sound equipment development at RCA Photophone in Manhattan; the majority had moved on to RCA Victor in Camden. Among the latter number was Wolff, who perhaps reflected the general sentiment in observing nostalgically, “We were very happy at Van Cortlandt Park until the day we were told to move to Camden.” (p. 35)
Considering the general status of affairs at Camden in 1930, this attitude is hardly surprising. The Van Cortlandt Park émigrés found themselves to be only one of several contingents converging upon the facilities already occupied in part by engineers of the former Victor Talking Machine Company. The wonder, perhaps, is that the pieces were fitted together as smoothly as they were. Nevertheless, research and engineering personnel were scattered through the various Camden buildings with little semblance of the order and organization that were eventually to prevail. Physically, the conditions were less than ideal, but they were to change within two years.
The 1929–1930 organization involved one more aspect of importance to the technical growth of RCA and the industry. In line with the policy decision to license other manufacturers under patents on RCA inventions, the staff at Van Cortlandt Park had given a certain amount of technical assistance upon request from licensees. Since the Technical and Test Department had now been disbanded, some new arrangement was necessary to carry on with this work.
A first step was the appointment of Ewen C. Anderson as License Administrator for the corporation. In his new capacity, Anderson recognized the need for engineering assistance to RCA licensees. He proposed that steps be taken to provide such help. The result, announced in January 1930, by Otto S. Schairer, VicePresident in Charge of the RCA Patent Department, was the establishment of the RCA License Laboratory. The new organization was (p. 36) assigned laboratory space at 75 Varick Street in downtown New York, and was placed under the direction of Arthur F. Van Dyck, a Van Cortlandt Park alumnus. It was given these responsibilities:
The list forms the birth announcement of a unique organization which was to be expanded ultimately into the Industry Service Laboratory of RCA Laboratories. As a counseling service and engineering facility created to serve licensees, the unit provided a large number of RCA’s competitors through the following years with outstanding technical aid as well as the assurance of maximum benefits from the rights obtained through licensing arrangements with RCA.
The new pattern became evident within a few months, when the new License Laboratory sponsored a symposium to give licensees a detailed briefing on radio circuits developed by RCA. The occasion was the first of many to come, at which RCA passed on to others in the industry an account of the latest developments by its scientists and engineers relating to radio, television, and other electronic systems and devices. (p. 37)
Toward A Unified Research Effort
Thus, as matters stood in 1930, RCA possessed most of the elements of its future research program, scattered among and controlled by the manufacturing and service organizations—RCA Victor, RCA Radiotron, RCA Photophone, and RCA Communications. There still remained the task of bringing these elements under a single unified direction in the corporation. The process was to take some time.
In May 1930, the government had brought suit against RCA and the parent companies—General Electric and Westinghouse—attacking certain features of the inter-company agreements among the three. The action was settled in November 1932, by agreement of the three companies to a disposal by General Electric and Westinghouse of their stock interest in RCA, and a set of modified cross-licensing agreements approved by the Attorney General of the United States on behalf of the government and sanctioned by the court. Thus, thirteen years after its creation as a communications company, RCA achieved full status as a major research, manufacturing, and marketing organization ranging over the entire field of electronics. At its head stood David Sarnoff, as President, and General James G. Harbord, as Chairman of the Board.
The times were anything but auspicious for the first solo flight of any industrial enterprise. In the winter of 1932-33, the national economy was closer to utter collapse than at any other time in American history. Abandoned farms and factories, and lengthening queues of unemployed, were the outward signs of catastrophic depression gripping the country with fear and uncertainty. For the newly-fledged RCA organization, the time seemed (p. 38) most appropriate for a research effort that could lead to the creation of new products and services that might expand and diversify the business of the company.
“Research and development in the further extension of the radio art to uses that might greatly enlarge many fields of industrial activity have been retarded by uncertainty,” said Mr. Sarnoff in his report to RCA’s stockholders following the 1932 settlement. “The amicable adjustment of this suit and the final determination of the principal issues involved should stimulate research, advance the new services of which our laboratories give promise, and pave the way for further industrial progress in radio and allied fields.”
Accomplishments of this order called for a more unified research organization than that which existed in late 1932. In a later description of the conditions prevailing at that time, Engstrom pointed out that the severance of ties with the two parent companies had left RCA “without any research activity except those in the so-called advanced development groups at Camden and Harrison, and in the research group of RCA Communications.”
“Using these as our foundation,” he wrote, “we set out to organize an activity that would be truly a research program.”
A first step was to organize the Camden talent into two groups. The available, personnel comprised some forty-five specialists in radio circuitry, transmitters, acoustics, facsimile, and television, plus the small engineering group that had been operating at RCA Photophone until its transfer at this point to the Camden (p. 39) plant. One of the two new groups, identified as General Research, was placed under Engstrom’s direction. The other, known as Electronic Research, became the responsibility of Zworykin.
Two assignments within these groups are of particular interest in view of later developments. Wolff, who had been involved in acoustical development, relinquished this activity with the arrival of the former Photophone group and undertook, with Engstrom’s support, a significant new line of research in microwave transmission—an area which, he felt, presented “a major opportunity for RCA.” In Zworykin’s group was RCA’s only chemicophysicist, H[umboldt. W. Leverenz, soon to achieve brilliant success in his assigned task of developing improved luminescent materials. It is perhaps typical of the time that Leverenz frequently was called upon to explain the presence of a chemist in an electronics enterprise. He was, in fact, an early symbol of growing interdependence among the various scientific disciplines, fostered in electronics perhaps more than in any other field.
At Harrison, the bulk of engineering activity had been concentrated since 1930 upon advanced development and product design. A certain amount of research had been undertaken, however, by a small group of eight or ten specialists versed in receiving tube technology. In line with the new organization of research activity at Camden, the Harrison complement was now divided also into two groups. One of these, identified as Electrical Research, was placed under the direction of B[rowder]. J. Thompson. The second, under G. R. Shaw, was given the title of Chemical and Metallurgical Research—a name whose first half acquired full meaning after the subsequent transfer to Harrison of Leverenz and his activities. (p. 40)
These steps marked the beginning of an appropriate corporate structure for organized research, but more remained to be done. In order to view the complete background against which the research program blossomed through the 1930s, it is necessary to depart from strict chronology at this point for a glimpse at the further changes that occurred during the next four years.
The changes in 1932 fell considerably short of true unification for research. The research personnel and facilities of RCA Victor, RCA Radiotron, and RCA Communications remained closely tied to the separate manufacturing and servicing organizations. These, in turn, paid a large part of their own research costs. Aside from the obstacles that this raised to the full coordination of research in the corporation, it was viewed with a jaundiced eye by the subsidiaries themselves. From their standpoint, there was little charm in an arrangement whereby they paid several hundred thousand dollars each year for research whose fruits were shared with competitors through an RCA licensing system from which royalties accrued to the parent corporation.
The burning question of research responsibilities and costs was raised emphatically during 1934 by E. T. Cunningham, President of RCA Victor, and by J. C. Warner on behalf of RCA Radiotron. To Mr. Sarnoff, there was obvious need for a determination as to how research costs should be apportioned and how coordination might be assured among the various research activities throughout the corporation. (p. 41)
The solution came wrapped in a larger package. In late 1934, RCA Victor and RCA Radiotron were merged into the RCA Manufacturing Company. At the same time, the parent corporation assumed a large part of the research costs incurred by the subsidiaries. Royalty payments received from licensees with whom research results were shared would help to defray the heavy costs. Added to these in support of research were royalty payments to the corporation from the RCA subsidiaries and divisions, on an equal basis with the other licensees.
The task of representing the RCA corporate interest in the research program was assigned to Otto Schairer, who subscribed to the thesis that coordination could best be achieved if someone in a central position exercised some degree of control over the purposes for which research funds were to be spent.
“I felt strongly that research costs should cover actual research rather than various engineering developments,” he recalled recently. “We didn’t want to assert ourselves too much or appear officious to the people who were directly involved in research, but it was essential at the same time to be sure that we were supporting work of a fundamental character.”
To pull the various threads together, Schairer proposed, and Mr. Sarnoff endorsed, the appointment of Ralph R. Beal as Research Supervisor, responsible to Schairer as Vice-President in Charge of the Patent Department. Beal, former Pacific Division Engineer of RCA Communications, was given the responsibility of “coordinating all research and advanced engineering activities of RCA and its subsidiaries, and correlating them with the activities of the Patent Department.” (p. 42)
Viewed from the top, at least, this step represented, the beginning of unified research. For the first time, budgetary review and the ultimate responsibility for research administration were gathered into a single office. In his function as Research Coordinator, Beal performed a valuable function in promoting a close relationship among the several research activities and in representing the research program at the top corporate level.
Viewed from the working research level, however, these arrangements still left much to be desired. As of 1935, research staff and facilities were still scattered and, at Camden and Harrison, functioning amid the distractions of a manufacturing environment. A hint of this state of affairs appeared in this observation by Beal:
Nonetheless, the new arrangement was in happy contrast to the earlier regime in which each of the major subsidiaries had supported entirely, and somewhat grudgingly, a research activity of its own. In this context, the advent of some central supervision at the corporate level was a long step forward, widening the opportunity for RCA’s management to practice even more actively its philosophy built upon the importance of research. (p. 43)
Partly for this reason, the historically gloomy decade of the 1930s was marked for RCA’s research staff by recognition, growth, and achievement. At the outset, to be sure, the future appeared uncertain in an environment of national economic collapse. In the depths of depression, some retrenchment was necessary—but at no time did it reach drastic proportions. Hence the research staff moved through the worst years virtually intact, commencing by 1936 the growth that has continued uninterruptedly except for the period of non-availability of technical manpower in World War II.
After RCA’s separation from the parent companies in 1932, the research program as a whole penetrated into all areas of concern to the business of the corporation—which is to say all activities related to electronics. While coordination was lacking initially, and remained less than ideal through the decade, there was no question of holding back research. The first corporate-wide research budget, covering expenditures for 1935, allocated some $880,000 for a long list of activities that already were running in high gear. As a general view of RCA research activity at the time, the budget categories for 1935 reveal the impressive distance covered both by the RCA research staff and by the electronics art in general since the initial chaotic gathering of forces at Camden and Harrison in 1930.
The research budget for the RCA Victor Division of the RCA Manufacturing Company during 1935 provided approximately $500,000 for the following activities: (p. 44)
The RCA Radiotron Division was allocated some $240,000 for the following:
The remaining $140,000 was allocated to RCA Communications for continuing work at Broad Street in New York and at Rocky Point and Riverhead in these specific areas:
From these diverse activities there resulted electronic systems, devices and techniques of lasting importance. These range from high-fidelity loudspeakers and airborne navigation equipment to high-frequency electron tubes and pioneer radar systems.
Above all, there was television. . . (p. 46)
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