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Pioneering in Electronics


An RCA stockholder visiting the David Sarnoff Research Center at Princeton, New Jersey, once distilled into a simple question all of the doubts that assail from time to time the managers of those industries that must support research in an era of complex technology.

The visitor, who operated a small wholesale enterprise of his own, had spent the morning touring the research facilities with a member of the technical staff. Occasionally, he had found signs of familiar activity. But his thoughts were largely upon the succession of laboratories in which the occupants had been sitting in conversation, reading, fingering slide rules, or simply gazing off into space.

Mindful of his own busy establishment and the relationship between feverish activity and his balance sheet, he suffered in silence to the limit of human endurance before turning in desperation to his guide.

“And now,” he begged, “could you show me your shipping platform?”

In simple justice, the visitor should have been transported, a la Scrooge with his Christmas spirits, to the busy shipping platforms of distant factories—to RCA plants in New Jersey, Penn­sylvania, Massachusetts, Ohio, Indiana, and California; to the factories of other radio, television and electronics manufacturers (p. 1) throughout the United States; to production and assembly centers of RCA and other companies in Latin America, Europe, and the Far East.

In all of these locations, he would have seen the thoughts and the handiwork of the puzzling people at Princeton, moving across the shipping platforms before his eyes in the form of television sets, phonographs, radios, radar equipment, electronic computers, broadcast transmitters, electron microscopes, semiconductor devices, and electron tubes of many shapes and sizes. It is true that he would have missed the essential engineering development and production design activities that lay between conception and manufacture, but the illustration would have made its point.

This tale underlines two major conclusions about all industrial research:

— The results of successful research contribute directly to the creation, maintenance and expansion of the production line;

— A high degree of imagination and foresight is required of management in order to envision today’s research investment in terms of tomorrow’s profitable run in the manufacturing plant.

These conclusions bear with particular emphasis upon the electronics industry, whose research efforts have been almost entirely responsible for perhaps the most remarkable case of in­dustrial growth in the American economy. In little more than a single generation, the art and science of electronics have (p. 2) blossomed from a semi-experimental handful of long-distance radio communication facilities to a complex and diversified industry ranking fifth among all American industries in value of goods and services sold. The products and techniques of electronics have at the same time penetrated into most areas of economic, domestic and military activity, running the gamut from home entertainment to the exploration of space.

Many people and many enterprises have contributed to this phenomenal development. But among the many a few must always stand out in sharp relief as pioneers on the grand scale, responsible for the larger part of the scientific and engineering foundation upon which the new electronic technology has been erected.

It is with one of these few—one group of people and one organization—that the following chapters are concerned. They present a story that is at once unique and typical. It is unique in the duration and extent of research devoted to the advancement of electronics. It is typical in its general representation of industrial research as a free combination of scientific and mana­gerial skills, dedicated to the material betterment not only of an enterprise but also of the society in which the enterprise functions.

In the picture of electronic growth and diversification, the research contributions of the Radio Corporation of America have been among the most notable. Like lock and key, RCA corporate policy and research activity have been fitted together to open the long succession of doors leading from limited commercial wireless (p. 3) service in the early 1920s to nationwide television, space communications, industrial automation, airborne navigation and fire control systems, high fidelity sound recording and reproduction, and countless electronic adjuncts to modern living.

This progression has been the result of many factors. The bulk of the credit must go, however, to a consistent management policy of support and encouragement for research, and to the ingenuity and dedication of the hundreds of men and women who have conducted, administered and assisted the research program. These influences have guided RCA research with outstanding success through the hazards and blessings that have befallen the electronics industry and the national economy as a whole through the past thirty years and more.

Behind any effective industrial research program lies the management conviction that research is essential to leadership in a competitive environment. This conviction is founded upon recognition of the laboratory as the source of new products and services that will produce substantial benefits for the enterprise and the economy. Furthermore, there may be the realization that research alone can generate new basic knowledge essential to continued scientific and technical progress in the years ahead.

All of these considerations have formed the RCA concept of research as a function of progressive management. The combined motivation has been expressed in these terms by David Sarnoff, Chairman of the Board of RCA: (p. 4)

There is no security in standing still. Those who rest on the rock of stabilization sooner or later find that that rock becomes their tombstone. There is no security for the future in the mere knowledge of today. There is hope and opportunity in what we can learn tomorrow. That is the greatest asset on the balance sheet of humanity and on the balance sheet of any organization engaged in scientific research.

To General Sarnoff and his associates in the RCA management, the most effective way of steering a course around the “rock of stabilization” has been to support a comprehensive program of fundamental and applied research, and to endow it with ample facilities and outstanding scientific talent. This support has been given in full realization of the fact that research results cannot be scheduled in the manner of plant production, and that there can be no assurance of fruitful results from the majority of projects undertaken. In the final analysis, a principal ingredient of success has been the faith that a competent laboratory organization, adequately financed and given free rein to go about its business of scientific investigation, will turn up with a variety of useful electronic developments.

A succinct statement of this faith was uttered in 1941 by Gano Dunn, a Director of RCA, following a unanimous decision by the Board to invest several millions of dollars in building the new research center at Princeton:

Are we justified in making this expenditure, which, if history repeats itself, is but the beginning of further expenditures which RCA will lavish in the future upon scientific investigations and their engineering applications to useful purposes? The answer is that we are absolutely certain of the fruitfulness of research and that, in building these laboratories, we are only casting bread upon the waters. (p. 5)

While casting bread upon the waters is a somewhat inaccurate description of the RCA research program, the analogy is sound enough in terms of the benefits that have been returned. Through the 1930’s, for example, RCA spent some $50 million on television research and development. The result was a new art and a new industry that has returned the investment many times over, not only to RCA but to the electronics industry as a whole--in addition to providing an important new service to the public.

Television is by no means the whole story. Research has been a major factor in corporate growth and diversification over the years. In 1920, the first full year of corporate operation, RCA’s business amounted to $2,095,000 in total sales, almost entirely in wireless communication. Working capital at the end of the initial year was $3,000,000, and the total number of employees was only 500. By contrast, here are the figures for 1963: total RCA business, $1,789,277,000; net working capital, $510,065,000; number of employees, 89,000. Moreover, the business of the corporation in 1963 ranged over a vastly broadened field of electronics, from high-speed data processing systems and stereophonic sound equipment to spacecraft for weather surveillance and global TV relays. When General Sarnoff observed in the late 1950s that 80 per cent of the products and services sold by RCA were non-existent ten years earlier, he provided perhaps the most practical confirmation of the value of research. (p. 6)

These facts, among many, testify to a management policy that has established and maintained a climate in which research can grow and flourish. It has created a fruitful partnership of research, development and production, encouraging the ready transfer of results from the laboratory to the engineering and manufacturing divisions. It has given a voice to research in the top councils of the corporation through executives moved up from the laboratories into policy-making positions in the corporate structure.

But climate alone does not produce a crop. It is the first of several requisites. A fully effective industrial research effort calls also for an objective, a method, and, above all, a wide variety of individual talents and skills blended into a smoothly functioning team.

The objective set by RCA has been stated frequently, but seldom so comprehensively as in this policy statement of 1947:

The primary aim of RCA Laboratories is to increase the usefulness of radio and electronics to the nation, to the public, and to industry. Its scientists and engineers are devoted to the discovery of previously unknown principles and phenomena, to the revelation and expansion of knowledge, to the extension of horizons. . . . They create and develop new and improved industrial processes and products, and provide new and expanded communication and other services to the public. . .

In striving for its broad objectives, RCA Laboratories is concerned not only with research that has obvious practical applications, but also with research whose usefulness has not yet become evident. Its leaders believe that the difference is only a matter of time, that all additions to our store of knowledge eventually prove worthwhile even from the most utilitarian point of view. (p. 7)

The method by which such an objective may be attained was described by Elmer W. Engstrom, President of RCA, when he was Vice-President in Charge of Research, as “a form of team organization which will satisfy the motivation of creative research people.”

This statement puts the finger upon an especially vital aspect of the corporate attitude toward research over the years. It is the recognition that the research process is essentially a team exercise of individual talents. It follows that the management or direction of research calls for an appreciation of these talents, an understanding of the people who possess them, and the creation of an environment in which they may flourish.

A proper description of these elements might be considered as a Baedecker for any management that contemplates starting its own research program. Recognizing this, Engstrom and his associates in the management of RCA research undertook several years ago an informal survey to determine the character and motivation of the individual research worker, and the essentials of the proper en­vironment for research. The results, contained in a paper entitled “Industrial Research and a Profile of the Research Worker,” included these illuminating points:

1. The effective research organization today comprises teams whose members are creative, well trained in the fundamentals of science, and possessing both vision and energy. Indivi­dually, such people are prodded by scientific curiosity, (p. 8) yet tempered by a practical outlook. They are capable of practicing cooperation, and at the same time make the best use of the freedom of the research environment. All of these characteristics are sought to some extent by the industrial laboratory in its choice of research personnel.

2. The research worker himself is apt to seek an environment in which he can satisfy a set of motivations including in­tellectual curiosity, individual creativeness, financial incentive, ambition, and, frequently, idealism. While variations in personality traits are as great among research scientists as among any group of human beings, the effective member of the research team is apt to be a logical-minded individualist usually equipped with strong opinions, but possessing a tolerance based upon the fact that he has proved himself wrong just about as often as he has proved himself right.

3. The environment in which he functions most effectively is characterized by equal understanding of the nature of research and of these characteristics of the individual. Thus there is tolerance of new staff members and of the speculative nature of the work in which they and their seniors are engaged. There is appreciation, too, of the need for today’s research worker to keep his knowledge and training up to date in a rapidly changing technology, and a resulting tendency to support him in his desire to do this by individual study and outside contacts. (p. 9)

“The research worker is, as a result, in an atmosphere of freedom in the use of his time,” wrote Engstrom. “His direction may be more by suggestion than by specification. This is proper, for experience indicates that research thrives in such an environment.”

One further aspect of modern industrial research must be recognized. The team operation of talented scientists working toward common objectives does violence to the popular fancy for individual heroes to whom we may credit this or that significant development. Who invented television? Radar? Computers? Electron microscopes? No single name will do in any of these cases, or in most examples that might be selected. Even where an invention can be clearly identified with one outstanding scientist or engineer, the discovery rests upon a succession of previous discoveries of fundamental or applied nature. The scientist himself is aware of this: the historian and the reader of history also must recognize it.

Thus, in the pages that follow, it should be understood that the names appearing in connection with specific developments represent those who perhaps were closest to these developments at a particular time, making the contributions which added the final ingredient for success. There can be no pretense at completeness in this respect, for a complete list of all those associated with each given project—or even an exhaustive index of projects undertaken through forty years and more of organized research—would tax the most patient reader. (p. 10)

It should be further emphasized that the total achievement chronicled in these pages is the sum of many individual achievements by hundreds of creative research scientists and engineers from a wide variety of backgrounds, technical and geographical. They have brought with them into RCA an array of talents that has materialized in a wealth of theories and inventions of basic importance to electronic progress. They have found opportunity for their creativeness in an environment that has been fostered by a responsive management through decades of experience in a growing organization, a growing science, and a growing economy. The program employing their talents has moved progressively outward to encompass all major areas of electronics and to open new frontiers through an increasing emphasis upon fundamental research.

Given all of these conditions of management, scientific talent, and creative environment, there is still room for wonder on the part of the non-scientist at the results which follow. The thought was once given expression by General Sarnoff in these words:

Time and again, men in research at RCA have been asked to solve a problem, and they have rarely let us down. It is like watching a magician to see them pull an electronic rabbit out of a scientific hat. My entire business career has been built on my faith in the ability of our men of science to produce the things for which we could discover a public need.

This faith represents a constant amid the variables of peace and war, of prosperity and depression. It has been vindicated in a continuing succession of outstanding scientific and technical accomplishments, many of which will appear in the ensuing chapters. (p. 11)

Several books would be required to encompass the RCA story as a whole, from research through advanced development, engineering, production, marketing, and service. The following account is concerned only with one part of this dynamic and diverse whole—the RCA program of scientific research. But from this one part—from the scientists, the inventors, and the research engineers at work in an environment conducive to original thought and activity—have come discoveries and inventions upon which the larger organization has thrived through more than four decades and will continue to thrive tomorrow. As the story of RCA research alone, our tale has a strange beginning. It all started in a tent . . . (p. 12)

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