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Pioneering in Electronics

Chapter Eight - A Birthday Milestone

September 27, 1951, was a notable day at the Princeton laboratories. The occasion was a birthday party given by Jolliffe, Engstrom, and their associates for David Sarnoff, celebrating his completion of forty-five years in the field of radio and electronics.

During World War II, Sarnoff had been promoted to the rank of Brigadier General during active service with the Signal Corps both in Washington and in the European Theater. Two years after the war, upon the retirement of General Harbord, he had been elected Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of RCA. He continued at the same time as President of the corporation, holding the office until the election in January 1949, of Frank M. Folsom, who had been Executive Vice President in Charge of the RCA Victor Division.

In his new position as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, General Sarnoff maintained the strong faith and interest in research that had marked his leadership since the founding of the corporation. Mr. Folsom, his associates in management, and the directors of the research program, mindful of his persistent and enthusiastic support of the research effort, devised a most appropriate means of honoring him on the forty-fifth anniversary that had now arrived. (p. 198)

The party began with a luncheon at the Laboratories, where Jolliffe read off a packet of congratulatory messages. Then, following remarks by Gano Dunn, a senior member of the RCA Board of Directors, General Sarnoff was escorted to the main entrance to attend the unveiling of a bronze plaque bearing these words:


Commemorating the forty-fifth anniversary of David Sarnoff1s entry into the field of radio on September 30, 1906, this plaque is dedicated by his associates in the Radio Corporation of America as a symbol of their esteem and admiration.

As a pioneer of wireless, he has contributed immeasurably to the development of radio, television and electronics as new services to the nation and to the American people.

A creative crusader of progress endowed with penetrating vision, David Sarnoff has continually led the way across new frontiers in science, art and industry to make the universe vibrant with international communications.

These laboratories, the RCA Victor plants, the RCA world­wide radio circuits and the NBC radio-television networks, symbolize his faith in science, his constructive planning and enduring achievements.

David Sarnoff’s work, leadership and genius comprise radio’s preeminent record of the past, television’s brilliant performance of the present, and a rich legacy in communications for the future.

This laboratory of RCA is named

Among the many congratulatory messages received on the occasion, one came from the President of the United States. It read:

The White House, Washington, D.C.

September 26, 1951

Brigadier General David Sarnoff
Chairman of the Board
Radio Corporation of America
Princeton, N.J.

Congratulations on your forty-five years of great achievements in the field of radio, television and electronics. Through your leadership in American industrial life and in science, you have contributed immensely to the growth of America and its preeminence in communications. It is most fitting therefore that RCA Laboratories at Princeton be named the “David Sarnoff Research Center,” and I extend to you and your staff of scientists my warm good wishes for continued progress.

Harry S. Truman

General Sarnoff’s extemporaneous response is particularly relevant to this account of RCA research, for he emphasized clearly the RCA management view of research as the basis for industrial and social growth in the modern world. But first, he requested three “birthday presents” which were to occupy a certain part of the RCA research effort over the ensuing five years, with highly interesting results that will be treated in due course. Here, in large part, is what he had to say:

I have not prepared a speech for this occasion, but there is much in my heart that I would like to say to you. I do not wish to reminisce about the past. I would rather chat with you informally about the future. First, I wish to express, from the very bottom of my heart, my deepest thanks to those whose thoughts conceived this event and this ceremony, and to all those who have had a hand in its execution. . .

As you know, it is not regarded improper in the intimacy of one’s own family to make a suggestion occasionally about the kind of a present you would like for your birthday or your anniversary. . . . I would like to do this today.  (p. 200)

I hope you may all be with us, and that I may be with you, at my fiftieth anniversary in 1956, only five years away. I would like to ask you now, particularly the research men, the scientists, the physicists, and the engineers of RCA, for three presents that I wish you would give me some time between now and my fiftieth anniversary in radio.

You have been very kind to ask me to visit with you today at the forty-fifth milestone of the radio road we have traveled together so long—a road not always free from obstructions and hazards, but always thrilling and exciting. At every milestone, something new appeared. I want a few new things to appear at my fiftieth milestone.

One of the presents I would like to have you invent is a true amplifier of light. I have been talking about that for some years, and I can get into very animated technical discussions with scientists and engineers as to whether there is such a thing or not, as to whether this or that is an amplifier or a converter or something else. But I think we can all agree that, while we have learned how to amplify electricity, we have not yet learned how to amplify light.

That may sound a little strange, particularly on a day like this, yet I ask both the technical men and the laymen present to consider what the broadcasting industry would be like if we had to throw away the loudspeaker and if the only thing we could have in our home was a radio set with headphones. Suppose you had to put telephones on your ears to listen, and every member of the family had to use separate headphones to hear the faint sounds that come from a radio circuit. Under such conditions, I doubt whether radio would be the great industry it is today.

A loudspeaker, by itself, is not regarded by scientists—or for that matter by others—as the great invention of the age. Loudspeakers have been known for years. Nevertheless, the fact that we can amplify electricity and thus make the voice speak loudly or softly so that people in their homes can adjust the sound to suit their auditory senses, has made radio broadcasting the industry that it is today.

Now I should like to have you invent an electronic amplifier of light that will do for television what the amplifier of sound does for radio broadcasting. Such an amplifier of light would provide brighter pictures for television that could be projected in the home or the theatre on a screen of any desired size. An amplifier of sound gave radio a “loudspeaker,” and an amplifier of light would give television a “big-looker.”   (p. 201)

A true photo-amplifier that could produce bigger and brighter pictures in fine detail would greatly advance television in the home. It is also needed for theatres and industrial purposes. The presently known optical systems cannot accomplish it. We can, of course, enlarge pictures optically, but in the process light is lost and the pictures become dimmer instead of brighter. What is needed is a true amplifier of light itself. . .

Another present I would ask from you also relates to television. I would like to have you invent a television picture recorder that would record the video signals of television on an inexpensive tape, just as music and speech are now recorded on a phonograph disc or tape. Such recorded television pictures could be reproduced in the home, or theatre, or elsewhere, at any time. . .

Today, when a television program is recorded, the pic­tures pass from the camera through the major portion of the television system and first reproduce the picture on the face of the kinescope, Another and special camera placed in front of the kinescope photographs the program on motion picture film. But that technique is costly, time-consuming and limited. The pictures pass through all the possible hazards of the television system, and then through the photographic process with its possible degra­dations. As a result, the recorded picture suffers in quality.

In contrast with present kinescope recordings on film, the instantaneous recording of the actual television picture signals on tape would be more economical, would save time in processing, and would simplify certain problems of distribution. Also, it would solve the national time-zone problems in telecasting. Any number of copies of such tapes could be made instantaneously, and copies would be preserved for historic reference or other use, The device would be a new instrument that could reproduce television programs from tape at any time, in the home or elsewhere, in much the same way as the present phonograph reproduces the music you want when you want it.

After all is said and done, television is just a lot of “electrical dots” coming through the air. These dots strike the antenna, start electrical currents in it, and these go through the various circuits of the receiver until they appear as a picture on the face of the kinescope. (p. 202)

When such dots are used in telegraphy or in facsimile, or in ultrafax, or in any of the other printed forms of communications, they are recorded. As you know, we recorded the whole book, Gone With the Wind, by ultrafax in less than two minutes, So why can’t we record a television picture?

What I would like to have you devise and produce is a recorder that would record the picture elements on a simple and inexpensive tape at the instant when the dots reach the antenna, and before they go through a lot of complicated circuits and photographic equipment. The tape should serve us in the same way that a phonograph record does. We should be able to reproduce the picture from the tape as and when we wish, just as we can now get music from a record when we want it. An inexpensive tape that would take the place of the film would be a real contribution to the television art and industry. Will you please let me have this before 1956?

The third present I would like to have you invent is an electronic air-conditioner for the home that would operate without tubes, or possibly through the action of electrons in solids, and without moving parts. It should be small, noiseless, inexpensive, and should fit into any size room.

Perhaps you may feel that this item is a little out of your line, but I am sure you will agree that if we can create a new product that will serve a useful purpose, it is not foreign to our activities. And a really good electronic air-conditioner for the home would be a very useful product indeed.

I realize that such a device does not exist at the present time. However, generally speaking, anything that the human mind can conceive can ultimately be produced.

Certainly, I do not regard this task to be as formidable as many of the tasks you have already performed. For example, worldwide communications, radio broadcasting, talking pictures, microphones, phonographs and records, public address systems and electronic industrial devices have been developed and advanced by RCA research and engineering.

From our RCA Laboratories have come the kinescope—now the universally used television picture tube—and the famous Image Orthicon television camera tube. The electron microscope—the basic invention in the micro­wave radio relay—ultrafax—are the products of your genius.   (p. 203)

Your research and inventive skills have produced the present system of all-electronic black-and-white television and the compatible color television system. The tri-color tube, which I consider to be a scientific marvel of this age, has been created and developed by RCA.

Through your explorations you have extended the radio spectrum for more and more useful purposes. Through scientific research in our laboratories and by experimen­tation at our Bridgeport [Connecticut] station, you have pioneered and opened up the ultra-high frequencies to practical use. These achievements will extend the service of television to all parts of the nation.

RCA scientists and engineers have made marvelous con­tributions to the advance of science and industry, especially in the realms of radio, radar, television and electronics. So will you please let me have an electronic air-conditioner before 1956?

The three presents I have immodestly asked you for are essential inventions for which there is a basic public need. They would expand existing industries and create new ones. I recall a statement by my good friend, the late Professor [Michael] Pupin, whom Dr. Gano Dunn and I knew very well. The Professor once said that to discover the need for an invention and to specify it constitutes fifty percent of the invention itself. Well, I shall make no claims whatever to any part of the fifty percent which states the problem; all I ask is that you provide the remaining fifty percent which will give the answer.

Naturally, I look to the scientists and engineers of RCA to be first in solving these problems. But it is in the American spirit of competition under the private enterprise system that I call attention, publicly, to the need for these inventions. Whether it be the lone inventor in the attic, or the scientists in competing industrial laboratories who will produce these inventions, the results will spell new opportunities for service and progress for all.

I realize the challenge to your ingenuity, but I know that you can solve the problems I have posed because you have an enviable record of accomplishment in science and invention.

Having said all this, I shall now look forward eagerly to my fiftieth anniversary in radio, and thank you in advance for the presents I hopefully await. (p. 204)

My friends, the wireless I knew forty-five years ago is not the radio of today. The television you know now as pioneers will not be the television of tomorrow. Indeed, we have only turned page one, Chapter One, of the Electronic Age. I can see no limit to the possibilities for electronics. So I bid you study well the past and to achieve in the present by creating for the future.

Now that you are working with electrons in solids, I see on the horizon almost endless possibilities for further new developments. Many home appliances which now operate electrically or mechanically can be made to operate electronically. You have succeeded in throwing away the spinning wheels in television, and I am sure you will also succeed in discarding the wheels and noise in air-conditioners and other home appliances. . .

Electrons in solids offer tremendous possibilities. The tiny transistors now being developed for use as detectors and amplifiers in radio, wire and cable communications hold much promise for the future.

As I look back upon the development of the radio art, it seems to me that it might be likened to an automobile going at a very fast speed and passing some of the scenery along the road. Suddenly it is halted by an unexpected vision. The clutch is put in reverse and you go back. In retrospect, you see all the things that were there before but missed while you were driving at a terrific speed.

When I started in wireless we did not know about long waves. We used the short ones—150 meters to 200 meters. Then we went to great big towers 400 feet high, and long waves of fifteen to twenty thousand meters. We used big alternators of 200 kilowatts power each. We occupied ten square miles of land for our buildings, towers and transmitters.

Suddenly someone cried, “Stop and take another look at the short waves”—really short ones, well below one hundred meters. We recalled that we had operated short waves twenty years before, but had not tried to use such short ones. So we tried them. What happened? We dismantled the tall towers and put up short poles in their place. We abandoned the alternators and put vacuum tubes in their place. We stopped using long waves and used short waves instead. We moved in reverse gear, but this time we looked and paid attention to what we saw on the road. We learned how these short waves really behave in the spectrum. We learned their characteristics and found that different wavelengths used at different times (p. 205) of the day and night could cover great distances better than long waves, and that they were practically free from “static” interference.

The old hands who are here, like Gano Dunn and myself, can remember the days when we worked with crystals called carborundum, silicon, perikon, galena, and cerusite. These crystals were the radio detectors of those days that enabled us to receive wireless signals. When the Fleming Valve, the DeForest audion and the high vacuum tube came to replace these uncertain and unsteady crystal detectors, we hailed them as rniracles. We thought then that we had really found the answer for all time of how to detect and amplify radio signals, and how to deal with these infinitesimal bits of energy. And now, a little late in life for some of us, but at the beginning for you younger people, we speak again of crystals for radio. This time it is the germanium crystal. This crystal may, one day, even eliminate the use of tubes as detectors and amplifiers, and who knows what else? So we are going back to crystals again, but this time we are not guessing—we are patiently researching to learn the limits of their capabilities.

Such is the unending possibility of this fascinating art that even a return to yesterday’s performance may point the way to the accomplishment of tomorrow. . .

To me, it is always a treat to get away from the competitive struggles of the day and to find myself in the company of men of your intellectual achievements, and to dream with you about the possibilities ahead. Such dreams open up new horizons and make one wish to live longer so that he can do more. The challenge of tomorrow fascinates me much more than the achievement of yesterday.

In RCA, we do not fear or resist change. The ghost of obsolescence that some folks see stalking around the corner of their industry does not frighten us. To those who believe, as we do, in research, invention, and pioneering, obsolescence often means progress rather than decay. Instead of a wicked ghost that threatens extinction, we see a beneficent wraith whose proddings stimulate opportunity, advance prosperity, and raise the standards of living.

Only as we make yesterday’s devices obsolete, have we the opportunity of replacing them with new and better devices tomorrow. In our organization, I have no fear of anything you can make obsolete. If you told me today that in the future germanium crystals will replace elec­tron tubes, I would not be fearful, even in the face of (p. 206) our present investments in plants and machinery which manufacture tubes. For such a change would open up vast new opportunities in many fields of industry.

Let the Chairman and the President and the Commercial Vice-Presidents of the corporation worry about obsolescence. You keep on researching and inventing. Their job is to develop and fit the new products and the new services you create, into the stream of public use.

Go on and research, discover, and invent to your heart’s content. Pitch your mental tents in the field of the imagination. In this blessed country of ours, where man is free to think, to speak, to discover, to invent and to develop, the field of imagination and creation is wide enough for everybody. And when you are in this field, inhaling the fresh air of liberty, basking in the sunshine of freedom, and enjoying the priceless privileges of our blessed land, say to yourselves what I have said to myself repeatedly: God bless America.

In these remarks, General Sarnoff touched upon the main points of postwar research and offered a challenge to which the RCA scientists responded with remarkable results that we shall meet later. To set these in their context, and to follow the broadening field of the postwar research program, it is necessary to move back once more to 1945, picking up first a thread that had been broken by the advent of World War II. . . (p. 207)

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