First-Hand:Reflections on an Extraordinary Educational Venture
Submitted by Frank Reintjes
Initially given as a talk at the Reunion Dinner of the Electronics Training Group, MIT Faculty Club, September 12th, 1997
It's good to see you all again. I hope you are enjoying your weekend visit to the Boston area. The town has changed drastically in the past 53 years, so there is plenty to been seen, as you have undoubtedly discovered. It is gratifying to know that the MIT Radar School played a part in forming the bond that has held your group together for these many years. Welcome back!
The Radar school was established in 1941 under the usual veil of secrecy that prevailed at the time. According to Professor Henry Zimmermann, who is unable to join us this evening, it was on Saturday morning, June 21, 1941, that he and Professor William Radford, then an instructor in our department, were invited by Professor Wilmer L. Barrow to take a walk on the Great Court, located about a quarter-mile from here on Memorial Drive. When they reached the center of the Court, where, presumably, no one could overhear their conversation, Dr. Barrow told Henry and Bill that what he was about to say must be held in strict confidence because it was classified information. He then said that on Monday morning, June 23, about 50 Navy officers and 30 Army officers would arrive on campus for a 3-month course on the microwave equipment being developed at the Radiation Lab, AND Zimmermann and Radford were to be instructors in the program! I understand that Henry and Bill spent a sleepless 48 hours that weekend, trying to figure out how to begin. But the program did begin and it continued for four years. When one reminisces about those four years, it is easy to conclude that the school was truly an extraordinary educational venture, and the Army program helped to make it so. Some 8,800 military officers and men completed the Army and Navy programs, most of them on a three-month cycle. Crammed into this short time span was an incredible amount of complex subject matter ranging from servomechanisms at the low end of the frequency spectrum to microwave principles and techniques at the high end. We were continually challenged to present this material to a group of students who came from all walks of life--engineers, scientists, business majors, liberal arts majors, aspiring degree holders--you name 'em, we had 'em. Some had a very limited vocabulary in technology before their pre Radar-school training, but they were an eager, serious group, and they kept us on our toes every minute. We were constantly compelled to sharpen our presentations to make them understandable.
One example of the problems a few students had with the jargon comes to mind. Our practice was to give short, ten-minute quizzes periodically so that students and staff could get a measure of how well we were doing. I recall a question on one of the quizzes was: "Name two ways of supporting the inner conductor of a rigid coaxial line." The answer was : by means of quarter-wave stubs or by means of polystyrene beads--thin plastic insulators that slide over the inner conductor. We were surprised when we reviewed the papers that several students said the two ways were: quarter-wave stubs and polished iron beads. Well, when these replies were discovered, word went out immediately to the staff to polish up its diction, speak clearly, don't slur your words. And to those students who gave us the polished iron -beads reply, we advised them: If you're going to use iron beads, don't bother polishing them, they won't work! Then there was the problem we initially had getting the students to remember the code letters assigned to the five radar-frequency bands--K, X, S, Land P bands. However, someone, somewhere, came up with a string of word associations that solved the problem. We said: "Just remember King Xerxes Seduced Lovely Princess". Everyone caught on instantly. There was no need to ask about the codes on our 10-minute quizzes. We knew ahead of time there would be a 100 percent correct response. The material we presented to the Army officers emphasized basic principles, in contrast to the Navy program which was heavily oriented toward Navy radar equipments. The Army program was really ahead of its time. In fact it can be said with confidence that it had an important impact on post World-war II electrical engineering education. Let me explain why.
From the organization chart of MIT's Radiation Laboratory. which, incidentally, was entirely separate from the Radar School), one could conclude that the 1940s electrical engineers were not among the top leaders in pulse-type communications research and development. At the close of the war, all eight technical divisions of Rad Lab were headed by physicists, 26 of the 34 group leaders were physicists, as were the top leaders. Clearly, EEs were in the minority. It will never be known with certainty whether the reason was that physicists organized the Lab and charted its original course, with the result that EEs were regarded as outsiders, or that EEs were just not qualified for the top jobs. We do know, however, that prewar physicists were well grounded in physical principles and they were good experimentalists, too, so they readily accepted the challenge of applying their abilities to the strange, new technology of radar. On the other hand, some perceived pre World-war II educated EEs as roll-up-your sleeves, elbow-working types who wrote with trowels and did not hesitate to use their fingernails as screwdrivers if the occasion demanded it. An exaggeration, perhaps, but it is true that their education was strong in electric power and electric machinery, and relatively weak in electronics and high-frequency electromagnetic dynamics. It was evident after the war experience that EE educators had to do a lot of catching up, and they had to redirect the profession along electrical science lines.
Now here is where the Radar School had a significant influence, for the kind of material that should be included in post-war EE curricula was already in place there, and it was well tested and well documented. Moreover, since the school closed at war's end, many of its staff members, who had been teaching the material over and over again, now joined or rejoined the faculties of colleges throughout the country. Some returned to MIT or joined our EE faculty for the first time; visiting professors returned to their own colleges; and still other staff members decided to pursue higher education as a career. For example, at least two Radar School colleagues went to the newly established Navy post-graduate school at Monterey, and another, a captain on the Army instructional staff eventually became EE department head of the University of Wisconsin. And there were others among staff and students who took up careers in engineering education. All were well prepared to incorporate into their curricula the basics we expounded at the Radar School. They were all aided by the School's textbook PRINCIPLES OF RADAR, which was eventually declassified and revised and which served as a standard reference text for many years. Of course, there were many others outside the Radar School who made many important contributions to EE education in the 1950s and '60s. They deserve our high praise. In retrospect however, we, the Radar School students and staff, were the pioneers who laid in the bedrock--even though we did not realize it at the time. Our sole goal then was to win the war.
So, thank you for including Mrs. Reintjes and me in your reunion activities. It is indeed a pleasure to spend the evening with you, and we look forward to seeing you again.