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Pioneering in Electronics

Chapter Seven - Reshaping for Peace

Hundreds of residents of the Princeton area flocked to an “open house” evening at the RCA Laboratories research center in the fall of 1957. Guided by members of the staff and special route markers, they made their way individually and in groups from one laboratory to another, viewing the facilities and latest results of RCA research. Many of the visitors asked penetrating questions, and all of them were highly interested in what they saw.

In one of the last laboratories on the route, a young lady gave keen attention as a staff member explained and demonstrated an important microwave study then in progress. She held her silence until the other questioners in the group had had their turn. As she cleared her throat, her earnest expression led the staff member to brace himself mentally for a final tough question.

“I just wanted to know,” she said, “Don’t your feet get tired running around a place as big as this?”

By 1957, this was a logical enough question. The research center, a large installation at its opening in 1942, had just about doubled in size a decade after the war. Equally striking, but less apparent to visitors from outside, were the growth and change in the research program itself. All of the postwar expan­sion in plant and program was based upon careful planning. (p. 177)

In the midst of the all-out war effort, it had been evident that the pressure of wartime requirements would advance electronic technology in a matter of months over ground that would normally require years to cover. Moreover, it was just as apparent that the return of peace would generate new pressures upon the electronics industry to supply a variety of new goods and services to a public ready and eager for change after several years of war-inspired austerity.

Both management and the research staff of RCA, in the habit of peering some years ahead, were acutely aware of the need for postwar planning while the war effort was still in progress. As President Sarnoff told the RCA stockholders in 1943, “although we must first serve the present, lest there be no future, it is our duty to look beyond the horizon of war to survey our task in helping electronics to meet its postwar responsibilities.”

Accordingly, a summary of postwar prospects was assembled by the research staff in the spring of 1943. Based on the phenomenal progress of wartime development in such areas as UHF communications and radar, the list was incorporated in a document that struck Mr. Sarnoff as both “stimulating and challenging.” But there was general recognition that little could be done to implement the various ideas for peacetime application until the war had been won.

By early 1945, it was apparent that the war was moving toward a conclusion. Engstrom now prepared for the corporate management a comprehensive account of the research projects that the Laboratories were prepared to undertake, contingent upon the course of the war and allowing for military priorities. Besides a number (p. 178) of objectives in high frequency tubes, television service, aviation electronics, facsimile, acoustics, and other areas, this 1945 prospectus advanced a proposal of considerable significance. This was the projection of fundamental research on a broader scale than ever before. As Engstrom put it:

The time has arrived when technological advances can no longer be based solely on the scientific knowledge acquired from research done in universities over a large number of years in the past. Technological advances have been rapid, and have now reached the point where further progress is being materially held up because of lack of knowledge of basic phenomena.

He pointed especially to an embarrassing dearth of knowledge about thermionic electron emission from composite surfaces, one of the phenomena “so basic to all tube research and development and to the electronics industry in general that we cannot afford to overlook it.”

As to the value of more extensive fundamental research to a commercial enterprise, Engstrom pointed out that “by doing work in this field of a quality which will command the respect of scientific investigators in universities, we will stimulate work there which will, in effect, enlarge the scope of the work done within RCA Laboratories and thus bring about more rapid progress.”

The thesis advanced here constitutes early recognition of the need for industry support in helping to rebuild the war-depleted inventory of basic scientific knowledge. By 1945, electronic science had advanced in many fields up to the limits of such knowledge. Furthermore, the war had eliminated, at least temporarily, many of the European institutions from which much basic information had been drawn in the prewar era. (p. 179)

Fundamental research had been included in the prewar RCA program, as we have seen—particularly in the tube development program of the 1930s. But the 1945 proposal went considerably beyond this prewar effort in the philosophical sense to advocate the assumption of a broader responsibility—the conduct of fundamental research in order to advance electronic technology as a whole, rather than simply to improve a specific product or service. The acceptance of this new responsibility by RCA Laboratories and by other industrial research organizations in the postwar era was to bear rich fruit, both in the electron tube art and in new fields of electronic technology soon to be opened by discoveries relating to the behavior of electrons in solid materials.

New Talents for Research

The end of World War II in the summer of 1945 cleared the way for a reduction of the military research aspects of the RCA program, and the introduction of projects inspired by the peacetime interests of the corporation and the industry. For the rest of the year, and through 1946, commercial programs were reshaped and given a new emphasis. For example, research in broadcast radio receivers was re-activated under W. L. Carlson following a stretch of total inactivity in this field during the war. New stress was given to the development and improvement of phonographs and records. Refinement of the television system, including the addition of war­time advances, became the objective of an intensified program. Attention was given, too, to commercial application of several interesting by-products of the war program. Among these were radio­frequency heating techniques developed by George Brown and his (p. 180) associates, and a process for making reflection-free glass, developed by Nicoll. The electron microscope, which had proven indispensable in many wartime research tasks, was earmarked for future improvement.

In a sense, however, these were all interim steps designed to fill immediate needs while a new forward-looking research program was drafted for the changed postwar environment. In laying out the new program, several questions immediately came to mind. What, for example, should be done about the staff and facilities of RCA Laboratories after five years of hard driving? What sort of peacetime relationship should be established between the research organization and the RCA manufacturing divisions? How much of the research effort should be allocated to continu­ing defense needs?

Taking these points one at a time, a first requirement was the restoration of the normal growth process that had been stifled by the war. During the years from 1941 to 1945, there had been virtually no additions to the research staff. After completion of the research center in 1942, there had been no further additions to the physical plant. Recruiting and new construction were urgently needed. Of the two, the first was a more complicated matter than the second—but it was solved by an approach that has proven its effectiveness over the ensuing years.

Reinforcements for the research staff were not easy to come by in 1945–46. Millions of young men had gone into the armed services or had found other war assignments. Thus, by the end of the war, there were very few who had been able to complete graduate training or gain experience useful to an organization specializing (p. 181) in advanced research in electronics. The RCA Laboratories answer to the dilemma was a new and expanded college-recruiting program, together with a Research Training Program to provide on-the-job experience and indoctrination to those new research workers who could benefit from it.

As a part of the effort, Engstrom brought in Douglas H. Ewing, who had been directing an engineering group in the development of the Teleran air navigation system at Camden. Among other duties in his new post at Princeton, Ewing was charged with establishing an RCA Laboratories Ph.D. recruiting program and with strengthening relationships with college faculties. Moreover, by 1953, an expanded personnel function was set up within the RCA Laboratories, under the direction of Edward Schulz.

With the start of the postwar personnel program, interviewers from the research staff returned with new vigor to the process of college recruiting. They looked not only for technical quality, but also for a desirable combination of interest and attitudes. The objective was to secure young research workers who were most likely to remain for a long time as enthusiastic and energetic members of the research staff. The approach paid, and still pays, an excellent return in the consistently low rate of departure from the RCA Laboratories staff by research workers attracted to other organizations.

The recruiting brought in young men at various levels of training and experience, among them those who had earned their doctorates as well as others who had completed only their undergraduate training. Under the Research Training Program, those of less technical maturity spent approximately a year in a series (p. 182) of temporary assignments as members of various research teams. In this way, they gathered experience that enabled both the trainees and the research directors to determine what regular staff assignments, if any, might best suit the particular tastes and talents of the new men. The program worked well from the start, opening a path followed by scores of young men to become highly productive members of the research staff.

As the recruiting program developed, new features were added with the dual objective of inducing promising students to join RCA Laboratories, and of providing members of the research staff with opportunities for further graduate study.

In 1947, a cooperative program was developed with Princeton University, involving a combination of research at the laboratories and graduate study at the university. The plan was designed to meet the special needs of the younger staff members who had been unable to take graduate courses because of the war. At the same time, Max Knoll, of the RCA Laboratories technical staff, undertook to teach a graduate course in electron tube techniques at the University’s department of electrical engineering—the first of several annual courses taught by RCA staff members on such subjects as electron optics and vacuum tube design. Knoll’s services were contributed by RCA Laboratories. The University reciprocated by admitting qualified RCA staff members to take the course without a tuition charge, providing an opportunity for further study by those who wanted it. (p. 183)

Steps were also taken with other leading universities. In 1949, for example, grants were made by RCA Laboratories to Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Rutgers University to support fundamental research and the training of graduate students. The activities of the college recruiting program also were expanded to include more institutions each year.

By these various means, and by additions to the number of technicians supporting the work of the research staff, the roster of technical personnel increased steadily after 1947 at a rate close to actual requirements—even through the period of scarcity that followed the outbreak of hostilities in Korea. By 1955, the research staff had reached a total of 270 scientists and engineers, on a rising curve to meet the needs of the new technical environment that was starting to unfold.

The full requirement for new staff members might have been met far more rapidly in the postwar era but for an attitude later described by Engstrom:

We have held the view that research is successful only when it is directed by the best research brains. For this reason, we refused to lower our standards for the sake of obtaining a larger professional staff.

Room and More Room

New people and new projects have to be put somewhere. Where to put them was a knotty problem at the Princeton Laboratories in 1945. The end of the war meant that construction could be resumed (p. 184)—but adding to the special facilities needed for electronics research is not quite as simple as adding rooms to a house or assembly space to a factory. First, a master plan had to be prepared, based on the probable direction to be followed by the research program.

Early in 1946, the firm of Shreve, Lamb and Harmon was commissioned to do a thorough architectural study determining the type of accommodations that would he needed for a growing research effort in such fields as television and high-frequency communication, and for an expansion of personnel in the technical, patent, and administrative groups.

The fruit of the study was a tidy conception that served, with some modification, as a guide for the construction activities of the next decade. There was one prominent exception. The 1946 plan featured a slender tower looming 250 feet over the surrounding landscape. This was the proposed solution to a need for laboratory space with 360-degree exposure and plenty of altitude, desirable for antenna and signal propagation studies. The tower never was built, for the eminently logical reason that its cost was not justified by the intended use. The plan as a whole aban­doned, once and for all, the concept of a Y-shaped extension toward U.S. 1. This had been conceived as a second stage in the original design of 1941 to serve as a main entrance to the research center.

By 1947, the architectural plan was in hand, the general course of the long-range program was laid out, and the recruiting effort was in full swing. The expansion of the physical plant (p. 185) now began energetically. With a few pauses, it continued in various directions during the next dozen years in the following order:

1947Laboratory 3, a one-story brick building detached from main research center, to be used for government contract projects. Segregation of these activities would permit relaxation of security restrictions in the main build­ing as well as better control of classified work.

Patent Department Annex, consisting of two prefabricated frame houses hitched together as temporary accommodation for patent attorneys coming to Princeton from Camden. In this case, “temporary” was something of a euphemism. The building stood and was used for eleven years.

West Wing Extension, a three-story ell extending toward U.S. 1 from the southwest end of the main laboratory building, providing laboratory space on its ground floor and Patent Department offices upstairs.

Cafeteria Extension, a one-story enlargement to boost the capacity from 160 to 280 persons.

All of these projects were completed by the fall of 1948. The dust was allowed to settle for fifteen months before the next round began. And then . . .

1950Model Shop Addition, a 60-foot extension running the full width of the one-story model shop, doubling the open area for large machine tools and providing indoor space for such activities as grinding and. finished parts storage.

Tube Assembly Shop, a one-story extension toward U.S. 1 from the center of the main building, providing new dust-free air-conditioned quarters for tube assembly and processing facilities previously located in laboratory bays. Beneath this new extension lay a full basement providing an assembly and recreation space large enough to hold the entire Princeton staff for general meetings.

Garage and Maintenance Building, a separate structure east of the main building, providing heated storage and service space for laboratory vehicles, and a wait­ing room for drivers on call.

These projects were completed during 1951, along with an important but less prominent addition. A hurricane during November 1950 had deprived the Princeton area of electric power for more than a day, (p. 186) bringing laboratory operations to a full stop. To avoid a recurrence, two 60-kilowatt diesel-electric generators were installed in the powerhouse in early 1951. These provided a source of stand­by power sufficient to run all essential building services and to continue important life tests in which experimental equipment is operated continuously to determine how long it will run without failure.

After completion of the Tube Assembly facility in 1951, the quiet of normal research was re-established for another two years. Then a new round of buildings began, continuing in this order:

1953East Wing Extension, a one-story addition running out from the east end of the main building to provide more space for research in kinescopes, television receivers, and display devices. A full basement provided room for an important new computer laboratory servicing the research staff. This was completed in 1954.

1955Laboratory 3 was more than doubled in size, permitting transfer of all classified government work from the main building into which it had infiltrated with the increase in government work after completion of the original Laboratory 3. The enlarged premises were occupied in 1956.

1956West Wing Extension and Demonstration Room, stretching outward from the 1947 addition, and ending in a decorative glass and aluminum facade facing U.S. 1. The three-story structure incorporated a modern library for the research staff and additional office space for the Patent Department, which relinquished part of its old premises for laboratory space. Extending southward from the new extension, a one-story demonstration room provided the Princeton center for the first time with a suitable hall for talks, demonstrations and film showings to visitors and members of the research staff. It incorporated the most advanced acoustical design, planned by Olson and his group. This addition was completed in the fall of 1957.

In ten years, the size of the research center at Princeton had approximately doubled. Besides providing more space, the building program endowed the research staff with a wealth of new facilities (p. 187) to expedite research. By 1957, the establishment had completed its initial postwar expansion to become once again a thoroughly up-to-date research center. As we shall see in a later chapter, the construction crews would soon be recalled to help meet the need for more advanced facilities for research in a swiftly changing technical environment.

Organizing the Postwar Program, 1945-1955

The recruiting and plant expansion programs were thus off to a satisfactory start after the war. Also to be considered at the same time were the organization of RCA Laboratories itself and the relationships between the research arm and the rest of the corporation. These matters had to be determined against the background of a new postwar climate for industrial research as a whole.

The technological demands of World War II had generated a phenomenal increase in all industrial research, and particularly in electronics. Before the war, RCA had been one of relatively few companies conducting its own broad research program as a source of new products and services. In 1945, this was no longer true. During the war, the government had poured vast amounts of money into the support of research in industrial, university and government laboratories. Many established companies entered the field of research for the first time. Many new enterprises were established to conduct research in specific areas, some of which corresponded to certain aspects of the RCA program. These new research efforts within industry, added to the greater activity of university and governmental laboratories, spurred the rapid advance of technology as a whole—and this advance in turn called for ever greater research and engineering efforts. The pattern (p. 188) established during the war thus set the stage for widespread and accelerated research in the postwar era. (p. 188A)

Under these circumstances, a new kind of competition had arisen in research itself. In the postwar environment, the advantage fell to the organization best equipped to operate with speed and flexi­bility, able to take advantage of new discoveries as they appeared and to advance them most rapidly from laboratory to market.

The RCA Laboratories that entered this new environment in 1945–46 was considerably different from the research organization that had functioned so effectively through the 1930s. Then, it had been physically divided into several parts functioning within the manufacturing divisions; now it was collected into a new research center of its own, away from the plants. Furthermore, the research organization had followed its own course through the war, frequently working on products that did not involve RCA’s own manufacturing facilities.

Two requirements were apparent, then, for the postwar era. The first was to assure that the RCA Laboratories organization was capable of the flexibility and speed demanded by the newly competitive research environment. The second was to reestablish the intra-company relationships that had been weakened by the physical move to Princeton and by the somewhat divergent course of the research program during the war.

As for the laboratories organization itself, research activities had been directed during the war by Engstrom, assisted by Zworykin and, until his death, by Thompson. At the corporate level, the research group had been represented by Schairer, who was assisted until 1943 by Beal. With Schairer’s retirement from RCA in 1945, Jolliffe was elected Executive Vice President in Charge of RCA Laboratories Division, functioning at the corporate level, while Engstrom became Vice President in Charge of Research. (p. 189)

Within the laboratories, there was no radical alteration of the prewar structure. Since the early 1930s, the research staff had worked most effectively on the basis of team operation, organized largely according to function. Thus it had been possible to concentrate as desired upon the development of electron tubes, acoustical equipment, radio transmitters, or other individual components and devices, and at the same time to bring all necessary talents to bear upon the development of a complete system, such as television.

This principle of organization contained the flexibility needed in the new postwar environment. In detail, however, the functional breakdown needed revision to keep pace with the broadened scope of research and the general advance in electronic technology. By the end of 1947, this had been accomplished, and the organization chart of RCA Laboratories looked like this:

- Radio Systems Research, under Beverage;
Radio Tube Research, under Wolff;
Electronic Research, under Zworykin;
Acoustical Research, under Olson;
Physical Research, under L. P. Smith;
Contract Projects, under R. S. Holmes;
Industry Service, under Seeley;
Laboratory Services, under Nelson.

Associated with these activities were Patent Operations, directed by C. D. Tuska, and commercial and licensing activities, under E. C. Anderson, Vice President in Charge of the Commercial Department. (p. 190)

Except for certain changes in personnel and in functional titles, this is basically the structure that was retained through the next decade. In 1953, the Physical Research Laboratory was reorganized and strengthened in response to growth of activity in electronically active solid materials. It acquired the new designation of Physical and Chemical Research Laboratory. In 1954, the retirement of Zworykin was followed by dispersion of the Electronic Research Laboratory staff among the various other laboratories, and the transfer of the name itself to the Radio Tube Research Laboratory. 

Restoring the Relationships

In the meantime, other steps were being taken to widen and smooth the channels of communication between the laboratories, on one hand, and the corporate management and engineering and manufacturing activities on the other.

In 1951, Jolliffe was elected Vice President and Technical Director of RCA, while Engstrom was named Vice President in Charge of RCA Laboratories Division. The immediate direction of research fell to Wolff, who was elected Vice President, Research, in 1954. For Engstrom, this was the first in a succession of executive promotions that involved increasingly broad responsibilities related not only to research, but to all engineering activities and many of the manufacturing services throughout RCA. In 1954, he was elected Executive Vice President, Research and Engineering, and a Director of RCA. A year later, he became Senior Executive Vice President, and in December 1961 he was (p. 191) elected President of RCA.

These successive promotions were important in at least two respects to RCA’s technical activities through the 1950s and later. First, research, as represented by Engstrom, became even more closely involved in the establishment of corporate policy. Second, a unified direction was established for many of RCA’s technical operations from research to product development. In early 1957, this coordination of research and engineering was further strengthened by the election of D. H. Ewing as Vice President, Research and Engineering, to assist Engstrom in his complex assignment. Ewing had succeeded Engstrom as Vice President, RCA Laboratories, a position that now went to James Hillier. Subsequently, to leapfrog momentarily into the 1960s, Ewing became Vice President and Technical Director, while the post of Vice President, Research and Engineering, was taken over by George Brown.

The effect of these executive changes was to further the growing cooperation between research and the engineering and manufacturing functions. Already, a great deal had been done at the operating levels to build a strong bridge between them.

Immediately after the war, it was recognized by the research directors that the research program could become more effective if the product divisions could carry on the bulk of advanced (p. 192) development activities—defined generally as the transition area between research and product design, although no sharp distinction may exist. Such a move would leave the laboratories free to work more extensively on the more speculative long-range projects. To bring this about, steps were needed to build up strong development groups in the product divisions.

This need was the genesis of the Applied Research Program, initiated by the laboratories and the product divisions in 1948. Under this program, RCA Laboratories undertook to support certain product division activities including applied research and product development projects related to research or of interest to RCA licensees. These were to include activities that would take advantage of specialized equipment, personnel and know-how of the engineering groups within the product divisions. The projects to be supported by RCA Laboratories under this program were to be determined by a committee of the top research and engineering executives of the laboratories and the divisions concerned. The arrangement was designed to benefit not only RCA, but also its licensees throughout the industry, to whom advances made in the supported projects were to be made available on the same basis as advances achieved in research work conducted physically at RCA Laboratories.

The program was highly successful from the start. Confined initially to laboratory-sponsored projects at Camden, Harrison and Lancaster, it was broadened later to include work at NBC, at other manufacturing plants, and at the RCA Victor Company in Canada. Among the projects were several relating to such developments as ultra-high-frequency equipment, semiconductor devices, and special electron tubes.   (p. 193)

A feature of special value, encouraged by Wolff, was the opportunity of bringing together research and advanced development groups on a regular basis to review progress and to exchange ideas. By this means, the research organization itself acquired a new awareness of the specific needs of the manufacturing divisions. At the same time, the divisions became familiar at an early stage with many new projects in research.

By 1955, Wolff was able to report that the goal of blending the Applied Research Program and the regular research program at Princeton into a single integrated whole was in sight. Furthermore, he noted, cooperation between laboratory and product divisions under the program had exercised “a profound influence on other areas of our activity in developing a better understanding between research and product design.”

Many of the new devices, materials and techniques resulting from research called for a type of know-how that was not immediately available outside of the laboratories. Under the circumstances, the research organization became a source not only of ideas and inventions but of technical personnel who could guide these innovations through the stage of advanced development. After 1954, a number of outstanding research staff members were transferred to the product divisions for this purpose.

These steps went far to cement working relationships that had been weakened with the physical separation of research from RCA’s manufacturing divisions. Yet they would prove inadequate in the changing technological environment, and the links would therefore be strengthened further in the 1960s by the large-scale establishment of divisional applied research groups at the Princeton center. (p. 194)

Working with the Government

When the research program was revised in 1946–47 to meet postwar conditions, it had been recognized that a certain proportion of the total effort should be given to the continued needs of the armed forces for advanced electronic techniques and equipment. About 20 percent of gross RCA research expenditures went into this area of military work until the acceleration of defense activity resulting from the Korean crisis in the summer of 1950. The government contract work was administered through the Research Contracts Department of the laboratories under R. S. Holmes, extending to a variety of projects carried out within the different functional groups.

During and for some time after the Korean hostilities, much of the research and development for the government was handled within a Special Projects Research Laboratory established for the purpose under Vance. This group specialized largely in electronic computer and fire control systems. Functionally, the work bore a somewhat closer relationship to the advanced development activities of RCA Defense Electronic Products than to the long-range research program of RCA Laboratories as a whole. In 1957, therefore, the group was transferred from the laboratories organization into a new Special Systems and Development Department of RCA Defense Electronic Products under the direction of Jolliffe. Carl Zeinke, who had been Director of Administrative Services for RCA Laboratories, went with the new department as Manager, Finances and Services. (p. 195)

While it was not evident at the time, the group stood at the threshold of an exciting career. Within two years, it had acquired a new identity, reinforcements, and a challenging task as the nucleus of a new organizationRCA’s Astro-Electronic Division—established and initially directed by Engstrom to develop electronic systems for space.

Removal of the Special Projects Research Laboratory did not affect the substantial amount of government contract work being carried on in other parts of the laboratories. In fact, the proportion of military work to the total research effort, having risen to some 22 percent of gross expenditures during the Korean crisis, rose again to approximately 25 percent by the end of 1957. (p. 195A)

It is noteworthy, however, that the total contribution to defense has amounted to considerably more than this percentage. It has been estimated that 75 percent or more of the RCA-sponsored research activity at the laboratories contributes indirectly to the support of the government-supported projects through such means as the original development or basic improvement of materials and techniques through long-range scientific studies.

Government contract research through the postwar decade produced many outstanding technical results and included a number of consulting services by RCA Laboratories specialists. Among the technical achievements were advanced computer facilities, high-speed facsimile systems, missile antennas, airborne radar systems, infrared detecting devices, high-temperature semiconductor materials and devices, low-noise traveling-wave tubes, and fundamental advances in such areas as solar energy conversion and transmission techniques. Some of these results will appear in more detail in the subsequent account of the fruits from the postwar research effort.

On the New Course

The postwar readjustment was, as we have seen, a complicated process involving expansion of program, staff and research facilities. The results, however, were more than worth the effort. After ten years, RCA Laboratories was concentrating once more upon its primary objective of forward-looking research, supported by a highly productive staff working in a thoroughly modern research environment. By 1955, the product divisions were actively carrying (p. 196) on a large part of advanced development work, speeding the transfer of research results to practical application, while the research staff itself bent its full effort to the achievement of further major advances.

By this time, too, there had been a further change in the environment—a change of symbolic and historical importance in the life of RCA Laboratories. The Princeton research center, anonymous since its establishment in the early war years, had acquired a new identity in keeping with its stature as one of the nation’s leading electronics research installations. It came about in 1951. . .

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