Pioneering in Electronics
Chapter Five - A Home in the Country
On December 7, 1940—exactly one year before Pearl Harbor—[Otto] Schairer and [Ralph R.] Beal stood together on a grassy knoll near an elderly farmhouse in central New Jersey. Peering through a grove of gnarled apple trees, they could see the towers of Princeton University, a mile or so to the northwest. Through the middle foreground of the scene ran a highway, U.S. 1, bearing traffic between New York, Philadelphia, and points south. From behind them came the occasional rumble of a train rushing through the Princeton Junction station of the Pennsylvania Railroad main line a mile to the southeast.
“A fine piece of ground,” said Schairer. Beal agreed. Three days later, RCA had secured an option on the land—195 acres of it. The research program was about to get a new home at Princeton.
In retrospect, there were so many compelling reasons by 1939 for reorganizing and relocating RCA’s research program that it is logical to wonder how so much could have been accomplished under the prevailing conditions.
It was largely the accelerating pace of research and technology that dictated the need for a change. Administratively, physically, and philosophically, the technology was outgrowing the environment of the 1930s. (p. 115)
Several specific considerations now led to a management reassessment of the research organization and its surroundings. In the first place, the electronic art was developing rapidly in the technical sense, bringing about an ever closer relationship between the tube research at Harrison and the circuitry aspects centered in Camden. In the second place, there was sharp awareness throughout the corporation that research might better thrive in an environment divorced from manufacturing activity. Finally, there was growing sentiment in favor of a single administrative unit for all RCA research, as opposed to the existing arrangement under which various administrative responsibilities were carried by the manufacturing organizations to which the research groups were attached.
Reflecting on the research environment of the prewar period, B[rowder]. J. Thompson observed in 1939 that a large amount of unnecessary red tape resulted from the division of administrative and research functions among the different manufacturing and operating companies. He concluded with a heartfelt statement:
I hope that RCA will someday have a research laboratory with personnel, working conditions, and a reputation so attractive that it can compete on favorable terms with any academic or other industrial research institution for the services of any outstanding scientist or engineer.
Seldom has so ambitious a hope been fulfilled in so short a time. The fact is that Thompson was expressing a sentiment that was current not only among the research personnel, but within the corporate management itself. Two years before, in fact, RCA President David Sarnoff had suggested that thought be given to the possibility of setting up a separate research organization to be known as RCA (p. 116) Laboratories. After consideration under the circumstances existing in 1937, however, the suggestion had been laid aside as being perhaps premature.
By late 1939, however, the time had clearly arrived for such a reorganization. The various pressures that have been indicated were hard at work, with results that began to appear within a few months and reached a climax within two years.
The first move was closer coordination of responsibility for the two areas of research at Harrison and Camden. On April 16, 1940, this was achieved with a new arrangement described in this official corporate organization notice:
As a bridge across the gap that existed between the direction of tube work at Harrison and the systems and circuitry work at Camden, this was a long step in the right direction, But it still remained short of the idea to which Thompson had given expression—a place of its own for research, away from the manufacturing activities surrounding the laboratories in both locations. Yet the trend was now in this direction, hurried along by events outside RCA.
As defense activities were intensified following the outbreak of war in Europe, the manufacturing plants were under increasing pressure. By late 1940, this pressure had reached the point where G[eorge]. K. Throckmorton, head of the RCA Manufacturing Company, relayed to Schairer a proposal that research facilities be moved out of (p. 117) Camden and Harrison in order to provide more working space for the overloaded manufacturing organizations.
Aware of the advantage to be gained for research by providing a new environment, Schairer was in a thoroughly receptive frame of mind. He recalled later that “no more welcome idea was ever submitted to me,” Immediately, he penned a note to President Sarnoff, reviving the proposal for establishment of RCA Laboratories as “a service of the Radio Corporation of America,” and adding a further proposal for a main laboratory in a central location, with a payroll comprising all research and development personnel currently employed in other branches of the corporation.
The memorandum pointed out that the previous organization of RCA research in the manufacturing divisions had indeed produced excellent results and had been “prudent and economical” under the existing conditions. But, Schairer went on, “it has long been recognized as only a step in the evolution of an organization and facilities for research, and its defects and inefficiencies have been apparent.” He continued with a summary of the weaknesses:
These were compelling arguments—but the situation at the same time was one in which very little persuasion was required in any quarter. Having sent off the memorandum and received an enthusiastic reaction, Schairer instigated a series of discussions and explorations bearing upon an appropriate location for a central laboratory.
Thus it was that Schairer and Beal made their way to Princeton to enact the scene with which this chapter opened. The area itself was attractive because of its central location on main railroad and highway communications between Camden and Harrison, and because of its academic environment, ideally suited to research. Armed with authority to select a suitable construction site, they eyed approvingly the tract belonging to a Miss Sarah Olden, adjoining U.S. 1 where it passes by the edge of Princeton—and the option was secured.
Before the final purchase, it was essential to make certain that RCA Laboratories would be welcomed by the community, and particularly by Princeton University. To this end, Schairer visited Dr. Harold W. Dodds, President of the University, to describe the type of installation that would be erected, the characteristics of the RCA research staff, and the nature of the work that would be conducted. After a discussion of these details with his Board of Trustees, Dr. Dodds responded with a hearty welcome, noting in particular the enthusiasm of the University’s engineering and science departments. This initial reaction marked the beginning of a cordial and fruitful relationship between RCA Laboratories and Princeton University. (p. 119)
The actual location of the new research center was to be not within the corporate limits of Princeton itself, but in West Windsor Township, adjoining the Township of Princeton on the southeast. Here the initial word of RCA’s plans aroused a fear that the complexion of the community would be altered by the entry of a manufacturing plant, and that an influx of new pupils would strain the limited school facilities. Schairer and Joseph V. Heffernan of the RCA Law Department attended a special meeting of the West Windsor Township Committee to explain publicly the nature and purpose of the new research center. The community responded enthusiastically when all of the facts were reported, and zoning regulations were promptly altered to assist in the project.
The plans now moved swiftly ahead. On the basis of construction estimates for the most modern electronics laboratory, the RCA Board of Directors unanimously approved an appropriation that would permit completion of the project. On March 20, 1941, a construction contract was awarded to the H. K. Ferguson Company, of Cleveland. Ohio, on the basis of designs by Harry L. Porter, architect, incorporating suggestions of Engstrom, Zworykin, Thompson, and others of the research staff.
Work on the new center began with brief groundbreaking ceremonies on August 8, 1941. On November 15, the cornerstone was laid by General Harbord, who expressed the hope that “the pioneering results which will be accomplished for the first time in these laboratories shall serve greatly in the defense of our country, and in the rebuilding of a stronger nation in the years to come.” (p. 120)
David Sarnoff, participating appropriately by radio from the Hawaii-bound liner Matsonia in the Pacific, called attention to the threatening international atmosphere in which the new organization was making its debut. He pledged “the unremitting efforts of RCA Laboratories to the national defense of the United States”—a pledge that was to be redeemed with striking effectiveness.
The New Research Organization
Even before the star of construction, the corporate management had tackled the problem of organizing the program and the staff that would function at Princeton. The results were incorporated in General Order 1-56, issued by President Sarnoff on March 5, 1941:
The personnel to which this referred comprised some 435 people, among them about 200 scientists and engineers at Camden and Harrison, and 135 members of the RCA Patent Department at those locations and in the New York offices. (p. 121)
The general order went on to designate the executives of the new RCA Laboratories organization:
In general, this organization continued through the war years, altered only slightly by an order of October 11, 1943. At this point, Beal was appointed Assistant to the Vice-President in Charge of RCA Laboratories, and Engstrom was appointed Research Director. At the same time, E. C. Anderson, who had been Manager of the RCA License Division, was appointed Commercial Manager in charge of commercial activities of RCA Laboratories, including licensing.
Building the Laboratories
Following the distribution of General Order S-56, RCA Laboratories was in business—at least on paper. The physical plant was yet to be built. The job was far more than just the construction of another industrial building. The Princeton center was a highly (p. 122) specialized installation which would be, upon completion, the world’s largest radio research laboratory, incorporating complete facilities for creative research in radio, television and general electronics. There were few, if any, precedents for such a research facility, and the RCA management was unanimous in its agreement that no corners should be cut in providing whatever might be needed for an effective program.
For the directors of research, the period of construction was a hectic one. Besides directing a research program at Camden and Harrison, Engstrom and his staff were called upon to give substantial time and thought to specific questions that ran the gamut from laboratory color schemes and special machine tools to the matter of housing in the Princeton area for research personnel. Many of these matters were handled through Gerald D. Nelson, whose effective disposition of innumerable problems during the months of construction and installation provided a solid background for his subsequent activity as Director of Laboratory Services at Princeton.
The question of housing appeared at the outset to be so acute that serious consideration was given to the construction under RCA sponsorship of a garden apartment development on property to be purchased from Princeton University in the heart of the Borough of Princeton. Negotiations for the project had advanced almost to the point of a firm commitment before it became evident that the housing problem would solve itself in due course without hardship to the laboratories personnel.
Along with the Olden property, RCA had acquired two farmhouses and a collection of ancient apple trees. The houses, one of them on a site now covered by the West Wing extension of the research (p. 123) center, were torn down shortly before completion of the main building. The trees, suffering from years of neglect, were revived by pruning and remained on the premises until construction of the West Wing extension in 1955–56. They provided the first fruits of the move to Princeton—in a most literal sense. At the instigation of Edward T. Dickey, the apples were gathered in the 1942 season and converted into a quantity of applesauce for distribution to various members of the research staff. Beal, acknowledging the gift, wrote that the applesauce “established high standards of quality which we hope may be attained in future products in other fields.”
By September 1942, the great new research center was completed and equipped with some 300 tons of equipment moved in during a six-week period from Camden and Harrison. By the end of October 1942, the research and patent staffs had taken over their new quarters. RCA Laboratories was in business in a home of its own.
This business by now had become a matter of meeting the needs of a nation at war. Security restrictions on the work of RCA scientists prevented the ceremonial opening that the new center deserved. Instead, the occasion was marked with a simple dedication ceremony on September 27, 1942, with General Harbord presiding.
Brief and simple as it was, the occasion underlined both the immediate and long-range implications of the new laboratories. Two of the participants—Major General Dawson Olmstead, Chief Signal Officer of the Army, and Commander A. M. Granum, Senior Officer of the U.S. Navy Signal Service—spoke of the contributions that would be made by the laboratories to victory over (p. 124) Germany and Japan. Two others—President Dodds of Princeton University, and Dr. Frank Aydelotte, Director of the Institute for Advanced Study—welcomed the new research organization and its staff as partners in the pursuit of knowledge for the long-range benefit of mankind.
The security bars were lowered long enough for an inspection tour of the new premises. The guests discovered that the first-rate research staff had been endowed with a first-rate research center. Built into the T-shaped three-story main structure were scores of special facilities and services to meet every conceivable physical requirement of a broad and expanding electronics research program.
There were 150 laboratory bays, containing lab benches supplied with almost any phase of electric current, AC or DC, and at various voltages—and adapted for easy alteration whenever it might be desirable to change the size of an individual bay. (p. 125)
From the basement, 104 vertical shafts rose at convenient points to carry wires and pipes to the 420 individual laboratory benches—a unique feature making for rapid servicing and extreme flexibility. Architecturally, the building had been planned so that large windows in each bay provided a broad view across the rolling green landscape.
These were basic accommodations, supplemented by a variety of special facilities designed for specific phases of the varied research program. For television studies, there was a complete control room, adjoining a two-story studio. For acoustical research, an echo-free environment was provided by a three-story free-field sound room in which a steel-grate floor was suspended on heavy rubber pads and surrounded above, below and on all sides by ozite-baffled walls. For the fabrication and study of phosphors and other ultra-pure materials, special air filtering and conditioning equipment ensured a dust-free atmosphere in a group of laboratories. For optical studies, one section of adjoining laboratories was connected by apertures in the intervening walls to provide a long visual path across and through several rooms. For special electron tube work, a number of bays had specialized equipment including hydrogen furnaces and large-capacity exhaust pumps.
On the roof was a penthouse of special design for high-power transmitter and antenna work. A short distance from the main building stood small field laboratories for antenna studies and for underwater sound experiments in an adjoining outdoor pool 15 feet deep. (p. 126)
There were extensive facilities, too, for the essential services that support research. At the base of the “T” on the ground floor was a large model shop equipped with scores of machine tools ranging from punch presses working at pressures measured in tons to gauges accurate to five-millionths of an inch. A cabinet shop offered special woodworking facilities, and other nearby accommodations provided for painting and electroplating. Apart from these central facilities, small tool shops throughout the building were available for minor operations that did not require the most elaborate attentions of the main shop.
Rounding out the supporting service facilities were a large drafting room, a modern photo studio, a meter room maintaining and servicing a complete line of calibrating equipment, and an extensive technical library. Finally, a large kitchen and cafeteria provided sufficient lunchtime facilities for 180 to 200 persons at a time.
In the words of an RCA Department of Information brochure published for the dedication, the new environment was designed to provide the research worker with an opportunity to “think quietly and undisturbed.” As an illustration of the contrast between the previous conditions and the new surroundings, the choice of words is probably an apt one. However, quiet and undisturbed thought was to remain a rare commodity at the new research center during the next several years. A more appropriate note, perhaps, was sounded by General Harbord as he invited the visitors to inspect the new facilities:
So it was that the dedication ceremony was a prelude to locking the gates as 200 research workers and their associates in the patent, administrative and laboratory services turned to the urgent task of developing new electronic tools and techniques for victory.
It should be noted that this was not a case of segregating the RCA research staff to work in splendid isolation. The process was rather to be one of blending a new and potent research facility into the total war effort already under way in the other RCA research establishments in New York and on Long Island, and in the great engineering and production plants of RCA and the electronics industry across the nation. From here on RCA research was fully at war . . . (p. 128)
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