First-Hand:From War-Time Radio to Peace-Time Television
Submitted by Leslie Balter
I never remember consciously deciding to become an engineer. My father was a mechanic who had attended a trade school. He had the ability to take anything apart and put it together again working better than it did before. I assume, I inherited some of his abilities.
The first thrill of radio I can remember was gathering around the old battery-operated 01A tube set with its monster variable ganged condenser (capacitor) in New York City listening to WXYZ, Niagara Falls, New York. That was a thrill (1928, I think). I knew I was destined to be in electronics when the following day I twirled the knob and burned out three tubes by raising the battery filament voltage excessively high. It used a storage battery for filament power with a series rheostat to limit voltage.
In the Boy Scouts, for the Radio Merit Badge, I learned the pleasure of winding enamel antenna wire around an oatmeal box coil form, constructing a slider by scraping enamel, and hooking up galena crystal with a catwhisker to hear local radio stations. I think, from that point on, I was hooked. I received a short wave receiver for my thirteenth birthday, learned the code, and at age fourteen, passed the code test and received Amateur Radio License W2HRT (a call I hold to this day). At that point in time, I believe I was one of the youngest, if not the youngest, "hams," licensed in the Second District in 1934.
Since I started high school at the height of the Great Depression in 1932-33, thoughts of college were minimal. The "big" goal was to get into Townsend Harris High School, and in three years have guaranteed admission to City College, tuition-free. Being one of the lucky ones, I passed the test and was admitted to Townsend Harris Hall. In those days, Townsend Harris wasn't spoken about much. Today, it is recognized as a prestigious institution with graduates such as Jonas Salk, Herman Wouk (and Leslie Balter).
In high school, I excelled in math and failed foreign languages. I managed to get one hundred on the algebra regents, but had the distinction of failing Spanish (could not remember the vocabulary). This was in spite of having as my Spanish professor, the esteemed Dr. Peter Sammartino, who later founded Fairleigh Dickinson University. His second claim to fame was failing me in high school Spanish.
I secured my automatic admission to City College and, despite the advice of everyone I spoke to, embarked on an engineering career. The engineering profession was a relatively tight,restricted society. There was very little chance a boy from the Bronx could ever break down the religious and the cultural barriers. I had acquired such a love for radio, however, that my father said, "If that's what you really want to do, do it." IDID IT.
As I matured a bit, it became quite obvious that a diploma from City College qualified a person to sell shoes at Macy's (a very good job in those days). I then applied to Columbia Engineering, and was fortunate enough to be accepted. The ultimate thought in my mind was that a Columbia degree might give me a better start than a City College degree. I don't know about the value of the degree, but I did have greater opportunities at Columbia.
In one of my classes, I became friendly with Mal Jennings, who was Chief Operator for Major Edwin Armstrong, the inventor of FM. One of my distinct joys was going up to Alpine, with my buddy Mal, several evenings a week and shutting down W2XMN. Alpine, New Jersey was just a short run over the George Washington Bridge and up Route 9W. W2XMN was the first FM station licensed. At that time, it was conducting purely experimental programs as a method of introducing FM.
The Columbia University Club was active in promoting FM and I worked with a senior student, Bill Hutchins. I recall very specifically putting on a demonstration at Brooklyn Polytech. We coordinated a special demo broadcast through W2XMN to show the quality and interference-free characteristics of frequency modulation.
I was a very essential part of the team because my father was in the garage business, and I had a convertible car at my disposal. The Legacies FM receiver was a monster in a five foot rack, and would only fit using a convertible with the top down.
At that point in time, Columbia Engineering School offered two options in electrical engineering. You were either a power man or a radio man. I was in the radio option and we had a total of thirteen students in the class.
I wound up in a civil service position in the Signal Corps General Development Laboratory at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. We were getting ready for World War II and, at least, the Signal Corps was hiring engineers indiscriminately.
I was looking forward to research and development in the Signal Corps. I soon learned that the military industrial complex we are concerned about today, did in fact, have its roots in those days. The lab was little more than a paper agency which supervised contracts to industry for the actual research and development. The lab's function was primarily testing, supervision of some production testing, and supervising contracts placed with industries such as Bell Labs, Western Electric, and Ferris Instruments.
I was assigned to the Vehicular Installation Division of the Mobile Radio Section. The section chief was a civil service career draftsman who had absolutely no concept of radio communications. He also had no interest in the young college graduates coming into his department. We were concerned with the installation of mobile communications in command vehicles, trucks and tanks, including half tracks and full tanks. My particular job involved what is now known as RFI (radio frequency interference) suppression. In those days, it was taking the radio noises out of the vehicles. One of my assignments in 1941 was to quiet the first data processing installations assigned to the First Army. State of the art automation in 1941 meant using the IBM punch card. The first military use that I knew of was getting updated strength reports for field units. The punch card was used to track field casualties and provide updated strength reports.
They ran into a problem, however, since the data processing systems at that time consisted of the 080 Sorter, 024 Keypunch, 077 Collator, 602A calculator, 402 Accounting Machine, and so forth. All programmed via wired panels and all using electrical contact impulses to read the punched holes. This produced tremendous electrical interference which made radio communications virtually impossible. Since the data processing equipment would always be located at the Army's command center, where of course the communication equipment was located, they had a "big" problem.
In 1942, I was head of a team sent to Endicott, New York to work on MRU #1 (Machine Record Unit #1) assigned to the First Army. Our objective was to suppress the radio interference produced by the EAM (Electronic Accounting Machines) as they were known. We spent about two weeks at Endicott and had the unique experience of residing in the IBM Guest House on the golf course. I won't use the word pleasure, because visiting and being a guest during the reign of Tom Watson, Sr., really was an experience. Guest or not, the doors were locked at ten p.m.-no liquor, and proper decorum at all times.
In that period, every IBMer wore a gray flannel suit, a white shirt, a grey felt hat and towed the mark. They were supposed to do as the signs all over the plant stated, "THINK." And there were "THINK" signs everywhere. No IBMer, in good standing, would be seen drinking in a public bar. Papa Watson ran a “tight ship” and apparently it did good things for the company. Our group did its job and MRU #l went on to First Army Headquarters and did what it was intended to do.
At the war's end, there were virtually no engineering jobs available. The war plants were being shut down and engineers were looking for new fields to conquer.
The big new field was television. I managed to get a job in a private school teaching television construction, service and repair. There were millions of veterans returning home, looking for work and in need of new skills. Schools were springing up all over to satisfy this demand. After teaching TV for about one year, I opened my own school in Jersey City, the “Jersey City Technical Institute,” licensed in May, 1947. We taught television. We taught theory and provided lab experience including building a TV from components. The students learned theory, construction and then servicing to get the TV operating properly. Since we taught electronic wiring, applicants wanted to learn “IBM” wiring. In 1958, I opened the first “IBM School” in the state of New Jersey. We taught control panel wiring for the early electronic accounting machines (602A Calculator, 402 Accounting Machine, 077 Collator, etc.). My order with IBM was the first for training purposes.