Pioneering in Electronics
Chapter Thirteen - Research in a New Era
Industrial research, especially in so complex a field as electronics, is analogous in Hillier’s view to certain aspects of oil prospecting. He has cited strong similarities in the exploration of new terrain, the rising cost and sophistication of tools and techniques, and the mounting competition for productive results.
“But especially,” he adds, “there is the risk—as there always must be in a search for what is not known to be there. The laboratory project, like the test boring, will more often than not leave us with a dry hole rather than a producer. But the real strike, when it comes, more than compensates for any number of unproductive or marginal borings.
“Given the skills and resources for the search, the overriding need is for readiness to accept the risk as a necessary condition for achieving the end.”
While these considerations had been taken into account from the start of RCA’s career in 1919, they had acquired new meanings in terms of cost and reward with the transformation of electronics in the second decade after World War II. (p. 337)
In an odd inverse relationship, the exploration of infinitesimal effects occurring in diminishing specks of material has called for increasingly large, complex, and costly tools of research, and for ever more highly specialized knowledge and skills among the research staff. This has added substantially to costs and thus to the risk of exploration, but the potential rewards have become even greater because of the swift advance of the technology and its broadening application to large and lucrative markets. As examples, color television and electronic data processing were both virtually non-existent in the commercial pattern of 1950, yet both had rocketed by the early 1960s beyond the billion-dollar-a-year level in total sales and were clearly headed for multi-billion-dollar status.
Both the organization and the emphasis of RCA’s research effort changed visibly after 1955 in adapting to the requirements of this new era. To begin with, the greater concentration upon basic studies and experiments brought a pronounced shift in the relationships of the research organization both within and outside the company.
For the operating divisions of RCA, the laboratories became more than ever a vital source of useful knowledge, materials, and processes, rather than of prototype apparatus or systems. Beyond the company, the laboratories assumed a more significant role in the total scientific community through which many laboratories, public and private, strive to increase the store of fundamental knowledge essential to all technical progress. (p. 338)
Within this larger community, RCA Laboratories functions today as a substantial contributor of basic scientific information communicated by its staff through technical papers delivered at professional meetings or published in technical journals. During 1962, for example, more than 350 such reports were distributed by these means to scientists and engineers throughout the country and abroad, on subjects ranging from automatic theory formation in self-organizing systems to certain properties of plasma in a magnetic field. Conversely, basic information contributed in similar fashion by thousands of scientists in hundreds of other laboratories was added to the common supply upon which RCA could draw in its own research effort—as illustrated earlier in the specific case of the tunneling effect that suggested the possibility of the tunnel diode.
The give-and-take in fundamental research has been accompanied, however, by steadily mounting competition among industrial laboratories in applying new knowledge to commercial objectives. This aspect of the new environment has tended to accelerate further the rate of discovery and to generate rising pressure for the swifter translation of basic knowledge to practical application in order to retain a competitive advantage in the marketplace.
In its adaptation to this aspect of the new environment RCA Laboratories has moved effectively to enhance its usefulness as a central source of technical innovation that can lead to new products or to major improvement in existing product lines, and as a vital support for RCA’s extensive and diversified government business. The principal changes (p. 339) after 1955 encompassed realignments in the research organization, strengthening of ties with the product divisions, extensive additions to the research facilities, and a series of steps to assure continued supply of outstanding research talents to carry on the program.
The end of an era was formalized in February 1961, with the announcement by Hillier that RCA Laboratories would close its facilities on eastern Long Island and transfer their technical staff and functions to the research center at Princeton and to appropriate other parts of RCA. The Rocky Point laboratory, for so long a productive source of invention and innovation in radio communications, could no longer serve a useful function as a separate installation in an era of team research and development in far more complex fields of electronics.
This was the symbolic aspect of an organizational pattern that was changing significantly in response to the new emphasis in research. For example, there were the moves to open new channels of communication with the scientific community in fields of basic research. A major step had been taken in 1955 with the dispatch of Albert Rose to Zurich to open a small research laboratory for basic studies in the European scientific environment. Five years later, Martin Steele left for a similar errand in Tokyo, the center of an increasingly productive Japanese scientific community. (p. 340)
Both of these branch laboratories, established in cooperation with the RCA International Division, now function as parts of the Materials Research Laboratory at Princeton. Staffed by scientists recruited in Europe and Japan, they have specialized in studies of photoconductive effects, semiconductor characteristics, plasma phenomena, and related fields. At the same time, they have established a fruitful rapport with large and increasingly important elements of the world scientific community.
Back at the David Sarnoff Research Center, the transformation of research functions in the new solid-state era called for organizational shifts in a staff that had long been divided along functional lines. At least two of these principal divisions had become cumbersome with the growth of activities within their jurisdiction, and a realignment was indicated. The consequence, in 1961, was a pair of splits and two new main laboratory groupings. From [Allen A.] Barco’s Systems Research Laboratory came a new Computer Research Laboratory, while [William] Webster’s Electronics Research Laboratory relinquished a group to form a new Microwave Research Laboratory. The new units were placed under [Jan] Rajchman and [Leon S.] Nergaard, respectively, as Laboratory Directors.
The new direction of technology led in 1963 to an entirely novel organization within the laboratories. The broad trend typified by epitaxial, thin-film, and integrated devices raised a new kind of problem for research—the study of processes that might best adapt these and related future developments to large-scale manufacturing. To answer (p. 341) this need, a Process Research and Development Laboratory was established at Princeton under C. Price Smith. Its assigned function was to work on basic processes and techniques for mass production of new materials, components, and assemblies, and, where necessary, to design and build new types of automatic equipment. The eventual goal was to provide a central research facility that would do for manufacturing processes what was already being done by research for RCA’s products and services.
The new process laboratory represented also a further link in a strong chain that had been forged to join research more closely with the engineering programs of RCA’s product divisions. The Applied Research Program that had been started in 1948 continued to produce fruitful results in divisional projects financed by the laboratories. In 1962, a typical year, the program included 42 projects in 22 different engineering groups of seven product divisions, including RCA Victor, Ltd., in Montreal. Through this channel flowed such significant developments as practical new thermoelectric power converters, niobium-tin superconducting magnets, and improved silicon transistors.
Beginning in 1956, an even more concerted effort was launched to widen the road from research to divisional engineering with the establishment at the laboratories of an affiliated applied research group of the RCA Electron Tube Division. This Microwave Applied Research Laboratory, under Frank E. Vaccaro, was the first of eleven such divisional groups established by the product divisions at the David Sarnoff (p. 342) Research Center to work directly with the RCA Laboratories technical staff in the smooth transfer of research results to divisional projects. In quickening succession came these others:
Some of these were temporary groups, established for specific and limited projects, but the majority continue as long-term divisional adjuncts to the research program.
Another form of cooperation flowered between the research organization and the RCA product divisions in major programs of a scope that demanded a (p. 343) full range of RCA’s research, engineering, manufacturing, and administrative talents.
One of these was Project Lightning, the Navy program for a new computer technology incorporating system speeds of 1,000 megacycles—a thousand-fold gain above the speed of contemporary systems. The program was carried on successfully at the laboratories over a five-year period from 1957 through 1962, phasing during its latter stages into hardware development at the RCA Electronic Data Processing Division. During much of the program, basic and applied research and engineering development proceeded side-by-side, with technical participation by the laboratories, the RCA Semiconductor and Materials Division, and the data processing organization.
An even more imposing example was Project Pangloss, a classified study program covering command communications techniques for the Navy’s Polaris weapon system—the missile-submarine complex. To handle the ambitious project at its inception in 1958, a large research and engineering team was recruited in the laboratories and from several product divisions, and established at Princeton under Ralph Holmes, as project manager. As various phases of the project advanced at different times to the production of hardware, substantial manufacturing efforts were undertaken in the product divisions. The transition was smooth and rapid, owing to the intimate cooperation between the research and product groups at all stages.
A third example, and the most dramatic, was the far-reaching research and engineering program in which RCA and the Allis-Chalmers (p. 344) Manufacturing Company developed and built for Princeton University an immense research facility for experiments in controlling thermonuclear fusion. The heart of the facility was a massive device known as the C Stellarator, a “stellar generator” designed to raise heavy hydrogen (deuterium) plasma to temperatures in the region of 100 million degrees.
Development of the Stellarator and its associated equipment was completed in a five-year program from 1957 to 1962. The electronic requirements of the system involved unprecedented applications of high-vacuum technology, power tube development, and complex automatic controls. The RCA portion of the project drew upon the RCA Electron Tube, Electronic Data Processing, and Broadcast and Communications Divisions, as well as upon the technical and administrative resources of RCA Laboratories. Among the laboratory leaders in the program were Edward W. Herold, Philip Smith, and Orville Dow.
The Stellarator was put into operation by Princeton University’s Plasma Physics Laboratory during 1962 in a long-range program sponsored by the U. S. Atomic Energy Commission. As perhaps the most powerful instrument for probing controlled fusion, the system already has shed new light upon the fundamental problems that will require solution before fusion power can be achieved in practical form.
An important sidelight to the Stellarator program is the degree to which it has enabled RCA scientists and engineers to become familiar with a new technology of vast potential importance, involving advanced forms of electronic instrumentation and major systems in both its (p. 345) experimental stage and its eventual application as a source of practically limitless energy. To maintain liaison with the university experiments and to help sustain the flow of information relating to this new and promising field, RCA Laboratories in 1962 assigned one of its physicists, John O. Kessler, to work with the Plasma Physics Laboratory at the Stellarator installation.
The multiple efforts to re-direct the research program into more basic channels and to strengthen ties between the laboratories and the product divisions included appropriate changes in the laboratory management itself. In 1961, shortly after Engstrom’s accession to the RCA Presidency, he named George Brown as Vice President, Research and Engineering, and placed him at Princeton to supervise the technical activities of the corporation as a whole, including Hillier’s research organization and the engineering staffs of the RCA divisions.
With the expansion of activities at the research center, including the influx of divisional applied research groups, Hillier moved to strengthen the administrative machinery. In 1961, he appointed Arthur N. Curtiss to the new position of Manager, Administration, RCA Laboratories. Curtiss, who had been General Manager of the West Coast Missile and Surface Radar Division of RCA Defense Electronic Products, established a new and effective administrative structure designed to keep pace with an expansion which, if not the most extensive of RCA Laboratories’ career, was without question the most complex. (p. 346)
New Instruments, More Room
Five miles from the David Sarnoff Research Center at Princeton is the most powerful of RCA Laboratories’ research tools, housed in an aluminum-sheathed “beehive” that towers 87 feet over the landscape. The tool is a 5 million-watt nuclear reactor, owned jointly by RCA and nine non-competing industrial companies participating in Industrial Reactor Laboratories, Inc. (IRL).
The multi-million-dollar reactor, completed in 1959, is a pioneering venture in joint ownership by a group of companies of a valuable research facility whose total cost would be excessive for any one of the groups alone.
RCA’s use of the reactor illustrates in extreme form the mounting need for costly and complex instruments to probe the sub-atomic universe in which modern electronics obtains its most useful effects. The function of the reactor is to provide a source of radiation for many experiments in which neutron and other particle bombardment influences the performance of materials and devices. Used in this way by RCA scientists, it has opened the way to significant advances in the analysis and understanding of various electronic effects, and to a new insight into the harmful and beneficial effects of radiation upon materials and devices. For example, radiation from the reactor has been used to alter certain characteristics in rare-earth laser crystals as a means of increasing their efficiency.
The laboratories also administer the use of the IRL facilities by RCA’s product divisions to study radiation effects upon components and equipment, including apparatus used in missiles and space vehicles. (p. 347)
The IRL reactor stands at the head of a large and growing family of sophisticated research tools used by the RCA technical staff to probe within the atomic structure of materials, to influence the action of electrons, and to calculate the results of highly involved experiments. Joining the family in recent years have been a 1-million-volt Van de Graaff particle generator for studying radiation effects; an unbelievably sensitive mass spectrograph that can detect one foreign atom among more than a billion other atoms in its study of material structures; a covey of large electromagnets needed for many types of experiments, and, most recently, a major new RCA computer installation incorporating medium and large data systems for solving complex theoretical and applied research problems.
These advanced facilities have been added to a broad earlier array of instruments and experimental fabrication equipment to form a total complex of research tools whose operation and management is a substantial job in itself. Since 1958, this key function has been performed by a Research Services Laboratory under [Jerome] Kurshan.
The perennial problem of space for people and equipment rose again in acute form in the late 1950s. The construction crews who had been dismissed at the completion of the West Wing of the research center in 1957 were recalled a little over a year later to enlarge Laboratory 3 for the third time in order to accommodate the new Advanced Military Systems organization, Project Pangloss, and other growing government research and development programs. (p. 348)
The next operation was a new three-story Northeast Wing, adding forty new laboratory bays with the special equipment needed for physical and chemical research activities that involve high temperatures, extreme purity of materials, chemical reactions, and other complexities. This was completed in 1962.
Hard on the heels of this project came yet another—a neat one-story wing at the east end of the building to house the new computer center, and providing viewing space for visitors as well as room for future expansion of the equipment. Into the wing in 1963 went an RCA 601 scientific computer and a smaller 301 system, with sufficient information-handling capacity to meet not only laboratory needs, but also the mathematical requirements of the various divisions faced with engineering and manufacturing problems.
As the computer center was
completed, work started at the other extremity of the main laboratory
building on a 3-story Southwest Wing. The opening of this latest
addition—the first stage in a contemplated larger
design—added in 1964 another group of modern laboratory bays
for the product division applied research groups as well as the growing
technical staff of the laboratories.
The Creative People
Revised organization, new research tools, and added working space have kept RCA Laboratories in step with the new era of electronic science into the 1960s. These things have meaning, however, only to the extent that they create an environment for the activities of people.
The interaction of people and environment is the key to any (p. 349) effective research program, and the RCA view was summarized usefully by Engstrom during a talk to a visiting group at the David Sarnoff Research Center in 1955. He pointed out, first, that RCA’s corporate policy regarded research as a vital function with long-term benefits to the corporation and the industry, and that work at the laboratories was organized and supported with an eye to the need for satisfying the motivations of creative research workers, and he went on:
Of special interest here is Engstrom’s emphasis upon freedom of operation for the people who do research. The caliber of these people, and the motivations which lead them to the exploration of new frontiers in electronic science, also remain constant through an era of radical change in that science. Individually, there are strong points of resemblance between the productive young research worker of today and any one of the pioneering group of electrical engineers who assembled in the tent on Long Island 45 years ago. This is evident in both a deeply inquiring mind, a stimulation in the challenge of the unknown, a devotion to the scientific method, and a warm satisfaction in attaining an objective. (p. 350)
Yet while individual characteristics may remain basically unchanged, there are profound differences in methods of work, in the extent of individual specialization, and in relationships. Today’s RCA Laboratories staff embraces a wide array of special skills and areas of knowledge, backed by long training or experience, and assembling within a single organization a number of scientific disciplines that formerly worked in isolation from one another.
With the advance of materials research and the application of new solid-state and related effects, the balance has shifted sharply from the former preponderance of electrical engineers to a majority of physicists and chemists in the research staff of the 1960s. Many disciplines also are now represented which were absent or insignificant in the research programs of twenty years ago—among them mathematics, organic chemistry, metallurgy, ceramics, and mechanical engineering.
The rising demand for special knowledge and skills has generated a continuing increase in the percentage of RCA Laboratories technical staff members holding Ph.D. degrees. With more than half of the total staff already in this category, the number is being increased both by recruiting and by a program of financial support that enables staff members to study full-time for doctoral degrees. A partial support program introduced in 1958 has helped an average of 15 technical staff members annually to earn M.S. degrees after their recruitment from undergraduate colleges with only their B.S. or B.A. degrees. (p. 351)
Amid these general changes in the makeup of the research staff, individual creativity, the hallmark of the effective research worker, remains as important as it ever was—although it is less frequently exercised in solitude. As George Brown wrote in 1962 for the 20th anniversary issue of the Laboratories publication, Radiations:
One of the objectives of research management has been to provide the type of environment in which both individual and team accomplishments are encouraged and recognized. A notable example has been the establishment of a new position carrying the title of Fellow, Technical Staff, as a means of recognizing continued outstanding individual achievement in research in the same manner that recognition is extended by title and position for administrative achievement. Since the announcement of the move in 1959, the list of Fellows has grown to include Alda Bedford, Herbert Belar, Leslie Flory, Harold Greig, Clarence Hansell, Ray Kell, Harold Law, Nils Lindenblad, Charles Mueller, Dwight North, Edward Ramberg, Albert Rose, and Alfred Sommer.
Another step has been the establishment of David Sarnoff Outstanding Achievement Awards, conferred annually for individual and team accomplishments in research and engineering. The awards, made each (p. 352) year to one scientist, one engineer, and one team in each of the two broad fields, were originally conceived to commemorate General Sarnoff’s 50th anniversary in radio. The RCA Laboratories scientists who have received the individual award up to 1964 are Rose, Lindenblad, Nergaard, North, Kell, Weimer, and Sonmer. The team awards were started in 1961 and have been conferred upon groups ranging in size from two to eight members whose cooperative work has resulted in outstanding contributions.
With all of the transformation in the science itself, the people remain much as they have always been, and the result is an informal atmosphere quite unlike the still popular conception of the typical laboratory as a rarified and an impersonal environment. The notion does not seem to die easily, as witnessed by an episode in the spring of 1959 at the David Sarnoff Research Center.
A motion picture crew invaded the laboratories to film various research activities for a television broadcast. Clad uncharacteristically in white coats at the insistence of the film director, a number of research staff members simulated experiments in acoustics, crystal growing, electron microscopy, and other standard functions. To round out the picture, a physicist was enlisted to simulate a lecture before a blackboard inscribed with impressive mathematics. Accustomed to giving such talks to laboratory group, the scientist went through a quick rehearsal in his usual businesslike fashion. The film director watched critically, then called for a rerun. (p. 353)
“That’s fine, doctor,” he said. “Now let’s go through it again—and this time, could you look just a little more scientific?”
The implication is apt to be accepted with a certain resignation by most members of the RCA research staff, including the many who have appeared briefly in these pages and the greater number who have not. The truth is that no quick visual way exists of distinguishing between the scientists and any other group of active, intelligent people who find stimulation in their work and in a full spectrum of community activities, sports, and hobbies.
Another characteristic of the research staff is its youth. In the early 1960s, even with the more demanding educational requirements for research, the average age of the research scientists at the David Sarnoff Research Center is only in the mid-30s. In such a group, equipped with diversity, skill, curiosity, and relative youth, perhaps the one common trait is that which Irving Wolff once described as “a strong tendency to look forward enthusiastically to the next new field that is ripe for investigation.”
This characteristic of the RCA Laboratories staff has endured through years of growth and radical change in electronic science. It continues to flourish with the encouragement of a research-minded management which always has recognized the importance of creating an environment in which talented scientists might apply themselves to long-range objectives without feeling compelled to fill prescriptions for hardware in order to qualify for continued support. Yet at the same time, the enthusiasm and understanding of the scientists has continually led them (p. 354) to specific achievements not only of a long-term nature, but also of more immediate application for development by the manufacturing divisions into new products and services for RCA’s business.
Out of this environment in the past have come the present-day television systems in color and black-and-white, major contributions to radar, fundamental advances in electron tube technology, new solid-state materials and devices, the commercial electron microscope, advanced acoustical equipment and theory, and an unending flow of new knowledge whose utility will become apparent in future years.
In recent times, the trend to more fundamental research has caused the output of the laboratories to flow increasingly to RCA’s semiconductor and electron tube divisions for their development into building blocks for the apparatus produced by other manufacturing units of the company. There has been correspondingly less activity at the laboratories on projects that go directly to the divisions producing home instruments, broadcast and communications equipment, electronic computers, and military hardware.
There also has been a rise over recent years in the percentage of government-supported research at RCA Laboratories, ranging from theoretical studies to specific device programs. In the early 1960s, however, the peak government research contracting appears to have been passed for the moment throughout the industry, and the relative rise in projects of potential commercial interest has inspired a policy of narrower selectivity in defining research objectives and allocating tasks. (p. 355)
These are symptoms of a ceaseless ebb and flow affecting both the technical and economic aspects of research, contributing further to an environment in which the only constant is continued change. And therefore this review of highlights in the career of a group of people and an organization devoted to pioneering through research must have an open end, recognizing that the productive results will continue to pour forth this year and next, and on into the indefinite future.
The most eloquent spokesman for this view of endless accomplishment is the man who has exercised a major influence upon the growth and success of the RCA research organization through his determination to avoid running upon the “rock of stabilization.”
Speaking at the great research center that bears his name, David Sarnoff voiced the philosophy that inspired consistent support of far-ranging research into all major areas of electronics:
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