About Gustave Shapiro
Gustave Shapiro, an IEEE life fellow recognized in 1961 "for contributions to the development of electronic miniaturization techniques and components," graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School in the midst of the Great Depression. He worked as an electrical wireman, a Test Department troubleshooter at Air King Radio, and then joined the Signal Corps laboratory during World War II. During the war he shifted from being a technician to an engineer, though without a degree. He joined the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) after the war and stayed until he retired in 1977. He was involved with electronic miniaturization programs while at the NBS.
This interview covers Shapiro's education and career, as well as his work with the Symposium on Improved Quality Electronic Components. Shapiro remarks on the working environments of the American Federation of Labor, the Signal Corps, and the National Bureau of Standards.
About the Interview
GUSTAVE SHAPIRO: An Interview Conducted by Robert Colburn, IEEE History Center, 19 October 1999
Interview # 375 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.
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It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:
Gus Shapiro, an oral history conducted in 1999 by Robert Colburn, IEEE History Center, Hoboken, NJ, USA.
Interview: Gus Shapiro
Interviewer: Robert Colburn
Date: 19 October 1999
Place: Ramada Inn in Rockville, Maryland
Childhood, Brooklyn Tech education, independent study
What led to your interest in components in the beginning of your career?
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I was a boy inventor. We were poor and I made most of my own toys. When I went to Brooklyn Technical High School (Brooklyn Tech), only one in ten applicants were accepted. Of those that got in, one in four graduated in four years. If you flunked something there was no way of making it up without staying an extra half year. Quite a few dropped out altogether. A month before graduating, I was walking down the halls and a group of boys (it was an all boy school) were crowding in front of me looking at the list of all the graduates’ standings. When I managed to get to where I could see the list, I started reading it starting at about number sixteen and kept going and until I reach one hundred. I thought, “I wasn’t good,” so I read on through to number 250. Still I didn’t see my name, so I started reading the list all over again, this time starting a number sixty, and read it all the way to the end. My name had to be someplace, so I started again, this time at the beginning of the list. When I reached number seven, and there I was. I never thought that I was a particularly good student, because many times I worried that I might flunk a course. I hadn’t realized that in that school everyone was always worried, because they marked so severely.
My father earned a modest living, but there was no way he could support me through college. In Brooklyn Tech they had four or five terminal courses. The first two years everyone took the same courses. Then in the last two years there were mechanical, electrical, chemical, civil engineering and college prep courses. The latter included taking a language. I didn’t expect to go to college, so I took the electrical course. I came out number one in all the Regents and math examinations, but there were other examinations that I worried about. I was seventeen when I graduated from high school. Cooper Union was the only college into which I could get admitted without large fees and a language.
I graduated in January, but the entrance exams at Cooper Union were not until September. There were strict rules in my family that children should be in bed at 8 o’clock. I was so used to going to sleep at 8 o’clock that when stayed up later I couldn’t function. When I started courting my wife and wanted to see her every night, I couldn’t because I’d fall asleep. During the six-month period before taking the examination at Cooper Union I decided to take a Spanish course at a local night high school. I kept falling asleep in class, so after a month I had to quit. When I took that entrance examination I did very poorly. It’s amazing how much one can forget in six months. That appeared to be the end of college for me.
I was always interested in science and electricity. I remember the first book from which I learned something about electricity. I also liked to read Popular Mechanics. I used to cut out coupons to get free things. I sent a postcard to Union Carbide to obtain a little book with which one could learn elementary theory about electricity. The book used a hydraulic analogy that was easy to understand. From that hydraulic analogy I learned the difference between series and parallel connecting watts, potential and current flow.
When I was four years old we lived in tenement apartment without a living room. The rooms were small, and the dining room had a drop light which had a turn switch. My mother had a friend whose son was in his late teens; he came down one day to change that light socket to one with a pull chain. I was entranced. “If only one day I could do something like that,” I thought. I was always making gadgets. My first telephone was a garden hose. Ads in Popular Mechanics advertised what they called a Svenderken’s button, “Make your own microphone for 25¢.” It was a carbon button that was part of every telephone transmitter in those days. When it was mounted on a flat surface the granule would vibrate when exposed to sound thereby changing their resistance. For the diaphragm I used a Ping-Pong paddle, and I used a pair of earphones for one-way communication.
My father smoked cigars, and at the United Cigar Store he was given little certificates (like Green Stamps) when he bought cigars. For a birthday present he got me a No. 1 Erector Set, which I loved. I made all kinds of toys with it. Today I have 150 lbs. of Erector Set parts that I have been picking up at yard sales. I also have the instruction books. Erector went out of business after many years, and Meccano replaced it. Meccano just has punched strips, and I wanted the Erector Set pieces for my grandchildren. My grandson is not interested, nor was my son, so here they sit. And that’s worth quite a bit of money today.
I really learned useful basics in Brooklyn Tech. I started out with a pattern-making course, shop courses, and drafting courses.
I learned how to make patterns for metal sand casting, and I learned how to use a chisel to make patterns. We had a joke: “Parents send us to school to get an education, and what do they do? They teach us to chisel.” There were gas and coal fired furnaces used to melt their iron. Everyone wanted to use the gas furnace because it was nice and clean and coal was dirty. Using the coal furnace required that we took three-quarters of the period coking the furnace and we get all grimy. If one tried to speed it up, all the coal would be blown out the chimney. I learned to make welded iron rail chains. If the iron was not hot enough it wouldn’t melt, and if it was too hot, the iron would burn. I took sheet metal shop there where I made a sheet metal lamp. It was quite interesting to end up with a three-dimensional lamp from flat sheet metal.
In my first class the teacher took out a cigar box and said, “I want to show you what happened to an unfortunate student in this class last year. We have big metal shears. Don’t ever help someone cut some metal; stand behind it or get your hands too close to the metal shear.” He opened the cigar box and said, “This is what happened to a student a year ago.” In the box was a fake bloody bandaged finger. We understood his meaning. I had bench lathe and engine lathe classes. Those things stood me in good stead. Years later when I was in the Signal Corps Laboratory, I had my own little shop. When I was at the National Bureau of Standards, I had my own shop with all sorts of shop equipment and three machinists working for me. We could melt alloys and do all kinds of things, thanks to my good basic background.
Do you know Lafayette Radio?
Lafayette Radio was the later name of Wholesale Radio, located at 100 Sixth Avenue. They had a mail-order catalog or you could buy parts at the counter. The first twenty pages in the catalog had some very clear radio theory that could be understood by technicians. That was my first exposure to radio and electronic theory. RCA published a 25¢ red-covered book that was a tube manual. The first pages had tutorial material from which I learned about vacuum tubes. I joined the Radio Club at Brooklyn Tech and learned how vacuum tubes worked and about super regenerator receivers.
I had a few tools. My supplies included pieces of wood from orange crates. When I would find a 5-gallon tin can I would bring it home and wash it out. Then I would get out my mother’s can opener and cut the ends off, cut it open and hammer it flat. That was my sheet metal supply. I had a rickety little saw, a little hammer, a screwdriver and an ice pick. If I wanted to make something out of wood, I would take the ice pick, heat it over the stove and burn a hole in the wood. My mother would come home to find the house full of smoke. Then she’d lay it on me. I wasn’t a bad kid, but I was active and got into all kinds of trouble. My parents loved me, but nevertheless I was a bit of a problem, unlike my brother who was a little goody-goody.
The movie houses had promotions to increase their patronage. Admission was only 25¢ in the evening, and they would have a promotion called “Rent Night.” You kept your stub with its number when you came in. If you won you came up on the stage with your rent receipt and they gave you money to pay for one month’s rent. My mother was lucky one night. I think our rent was $35 a month. She gave everyone a gift. She asked me what I wanted, and I said I wanted a radio-engineering book. Up until that time I had just been reading technicians’ magazines (elementary stuff). She said, “Find out how much it costs, and I’ll give you the money.” I went to Manhattan to Barnes & Noble. They had a whole wall of engineering texts. I spent eight hours going through those books. I was looking for something that was written in a way that I could understand but at the same time would be rigorous. I couldn’t handle college mathematics, so I had to be selective. I found a book that was perfect for me, and I read that book from cover to cover. It was the first edition of what eventually ended up being four or five editions. The author was Fredrick Terman. That was his first textbook; Terman was a great teacher. Later when I worked as a technician for an engineer in the Signal Corps, my boss was astounded by how much I knew. I knew things that he didn’t know, and it was because I had worked my way through Terman’s book five times. I became an engineer through self-study. I built up a library, and today I have the largest library of any private individual in the Greater Washington Area. It’s much larger than the libraries found in mid-sized companies in the Washington area. I have theIRE Proceedings going back to 1925, which I bought at the estate sales of deceased engineers.
When I came to the Signal Corps in 1940 and learned about the IRE I became an associate member. Later I became a member and remained a member for many years. I was made a Fellow in 1961, though I was never a senior member.
One day I ran into a friend on the subway on my way home from work. I was reading Terman and he said, “What are you reading there, Gus?” I showed him the book. He said, “You’re interested in this?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Gee. I didn’t think you were interested in anything but dancing and girls.” He thought that because I was always dancing. My whole life people have tried to pigeonhole me: “You’re a microwave man,” “You’re a parts man,” “You’re into miniaturization,” “You’re into medical electronics,” and so on. Now I’m an investment honcho to my friends, because I know more about investing than most so-called financial advisors. If you take one thousand people to invest and include among them financial advisors, maybe only one of them will understand a cardinal principle that I discovered. Then maybe even that one will not understand how to win. You are now trying to acquire an estate. Am I right? You’re saving money for the future. How fast you are doing it is beside the point. You must live on your earnings, but there will come a day when you no longer command a salary. You are faced with a problem. People really don’t understand it. Do you know to what age you will probably live?
I think the statistical average is now eighty-two.
That is an average and you could live much beyond that age. At what age could you no longer be able to earn a living salary?
Right. Will you have much Social Security? No way. Will you have much Medicare? No way. How will you get from sixty-five to eighty-two, seventeen years, in one piece? Medical costs will be high. Every once in a while you hear about someone winning a lottery. They get lots of money and think, “Oh boy, I have it made.” They’re not made. If you have a large lump sum of money when you are sixty-five but don’t continue to save, I guarantee you that you will be a pauper before you are eighty. Do you want to know why? What does the word inflation mean to you? I’ve been thinking I have to talk to you about this subject. Whenever I encounter a young man like you, I get a feeling of missionary zeal. The trouble is, it goes in one ear and out the other. Still I am always hopeful. I can’t get my own son straightened out, and I’ve been working on him for years. He’s going to invest a lot of money from his inheritance; I have a really big estate. I never gambled nor bought stock. How can I have such a big estate? It’s very simple. You know the stockbroker Smith Barney?
They say, “How do we make our money? We work for it.” It’s something like that. My peak salary for any year was when I retired in 1997 from the National Bureau of Standards. My salary was $41,000. That was just that year, and it was larger than the previous year and the year before that. Even my three highest years were nowhere near $41,000. I never earned big money. However I have acquired an estate that permits us to go on cruises three times a year. When I retired I said to my wife, “Forget cooking. We’ll eat out all the time.”
We have no money problems now because in our earning years we lived very carefully. We weren’t stingy, but looked for value. I didn’t buy anything unless it was cost effective. I bought some very expensive things, but they were cost effective. When I worked in the Signal Corps as a technician in 1941 I drew a salary of $1,620 per year. That’s not a lot of money. I’m eighty-two years old. I’m no kid. When I was a kid I worked in the summertime and saved up my pennies. When we were married I had $185 in the bank. We got a furnished apartment in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and once a month we sent some money to my wife’s mother. I was paid every two weeks, and out of each paycheck I gave my wife a dollar and a half and I took dollar and a half. We could do anything we pleased with it, even burn it up. That was our escape hatch. We were very careful with the rest of our money and always saved something. We always lived well under our income. We had a friend, compound interest. It worked for us, and it is still working for us.
When I retired from the Bureau of Standards in 1977 I said to my wife, “Look, we’re getting a pension.” Since it wasn’t a great pension, I said, “We will have to lower our standard of living.” It turned out we didn’t have to lower our standard of living, because our standard of living was already low. Our estate continues to grow. Two weeks ago I bought another $10,000 bill from the Treasury, which makes the fourth one that I bought this year. That’s all on a government salary. I’m lucky because I have a wife who thinks as I do. She saw the Depression and remembers standing in line to get handouts of food for her family. When I was going with her she was nineteen years old and her clothes were all hand-me-downs from her cousins. We learned the hard way.
American Federation of Labor; testing assignment
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During the Depression, I kept studying and studying. Every year, I had only a month or two of work through the AF of L Union B-1010. Jobs expanded for the Christmas rush and I’d get a job as an assembler or wireman. However I noticed that I never was offered a job until it was close to the end of the season. At the end of the seasons, I had pink slips. It was because the Secretary of the Union didn’t like me. I didn’t know that at the time. When I became a member of the Union I didn’t know what unions were all about. When I attended my first meeting, the Secretary gave a report, and, stupid me, I raised my hand. The Chair recognized me and I asked an innocent question. For this I was earmarked as a troublemaker. The Secretary’s attitude was, “This guy must be a Communist.” I didn’t find out until years later. As a matter of fact, I have always known what a false ideology Communism is.
The AF of L was a vertical union – carpenters, blacksmiths and waiters unions. The other union, the CIO, was a horizontal union and was not by trades but by industry. The two unions were competing. There was some Communist influence in the CIO. I was looking for a job along Sixth Avenue where they have many employment agencies advertising for wiremen, et cetera. I was offered a job that sounded good until I found out that the salary was high because the company employees were on strike. It was an AF of L Union shop, but the CIO had come in and signed up all the people there. They said the AF of L Union wouldn’t do right by them and pulled them out. It was a union conflict. When I heard about that my first reaction was that there was no way I was going to cross the picket line since my father was a union member.
Then I found out that the lead man who pulled out all those people was the former AF of L Union Secretary who had been shafting me all those years. I said to myself, “If he’s the guy who is pulling them out, I’m going to cross the picket line,” and I took the job. The AF of L was scouring the pool halls to find people to work at Air King Radio in Brooklyn, which was basically a contract house. They manufactured for Sears Silvertone radios, GE radios, and others. They put some products out under their own brand name as well. My job was as a wireman.
The chief engineer was a German engineer who wore double-breasted vests that I liked very much. When I went to England years later, I found a waistcoat maker who made them to my order and I had him make me a half dozen vests. For years I couldn’t wear them because I was twenty pounds heavier than I am now. I couldn’t wear the suit I’m wearing now. I have suits that I’ve just started to wear that I have owned for twenty years. It is only in the recent years that I have taken off weight, albeit unintentionally.
This chief engineer, Werner Arbough, was coming down the line going from wireman to wireman and talking to them. I wondered why he was doing that. When he came to me he said, “Do you know anything about electronics?” I said, “Sure. I know a lot about electronics.” He said, “What do you know about the superheterodyne principle?” I told him, and then he asked me one or two other questions which I answered. Then he said, “Go report to Frank Belcastro in the test department. You are going to be a tester.” That was a big break. There were two kinds of testers there. One kind aligned the chassis that came off the line. The other testers were the troubleshooters; I was going to be a troubleshooter.
What year was this?
This was 1939. The people in the production lines were a rough crew. The crew was real garbage and rejects from the streets. The test department people were average good guys. I sat down in my test booth on a stool. There was a war between me and the guy that worked next to me, who was a big fat Greek guy. When it was hot he would sweat profusely and shake himself, spraying sweat. I’d tell him, “Don’t sweat all over me.”
On my first day there I asked him how many sets were our quote. He said, “Eight sets.” I had done servicing on the side. It would take me about four hours or so to find the trouble and fix one set. I said to him, “Eight sets a day?” He said, “No. Eight sets an hour.” I said, “What? My God, what did I get into?” I kept my eyes and ears open and learned a practice that I had formerly rejected. I knew men who did radio servicing but didn’t know much theory (so-called screwdriver mechanics). I just sneered at them, because I would reason things out. Then I found that these troubleshooters were not reasoning things out; even though they had the ability to reason things out, they were taking shortcuts. They were being screwdriver mechanics. For example, one thing that is very difficult to fix is an intermittent – cold soldered joint. It was especially difficult because when tested it would work, but it would stop working when it was put in the cabinet. It drives you out of your mind. My second day on the job I heard the man next to me banging and clattering. I looked at him, and he was banging the hell out of a chassis. I said, “What the hell are you doing?” He looked at me so surprised. “What do you mean?” I said, “You’re busting it up.” He said, “That’s what I want to do. It has an intermittent. I want to break the intermittent down.” I said, “Yes, but in the process you’re going to break three other things down.” He said, “So what? It’s fast to fix those, too.” I learned many other practical things there.
The chief tester was a little man named Francesco Dominico Belcastro. He was smart. He had grown up in a very bad area in Brooklyn. He once told me that all of his childhood friends had ended up either dead or in Sing-Sing. His father, a tailor, had an electronic engineer friend who had taken him under his wing and taught him electronics. He took to it like a duck to water, and he was good at it. I learned a lot from him – not theory, but practical things. For example, we had a run of receivers that were oscillating and none of the troubleshooters or testers could fix them. He said, “Put them aside and I’ll sit down and find out the trouble.” He sat down for two days and found the trouble. These were very cheap sets, and the chassis were a piece of metal bent up in the form of a U. He said, “Give me a piece of hookup wire about six inches long.” He soldered one end of hookup wire to one leg of the chassis about an inch from the edge, and he soldered the other edge of the hook-up wire to the other leg. He said, “Okay, now it won’t oscillate.” Sure enough, it didn’t oscillate.
I asked him, “What kind of witchcraft is this? Do you mean to say all you have to do is put that wire there and it doesn’t oscillate? Why?” He told me why, and I learned something new. He said, “The chassis is a ground plane, and everything is in equal potential on the ground play. Right?” I answered, “Yes,” but he said, “Wrong.” He explained that there is impedance from one point on this chassis to another, and no point on a chassis is at the same potential as the next point. We were grounding circuits at different places on the chassis, thereby creating eddy currents in the chassis, which were causing feedback. Soldering the wire to the two legs of the chassis changed the path of the eddy currents and stopped the oscillation. He went on to explain the rest of it and I asked him, “How did you learn what to do with that?” He said, “I tried all kinds of cockeyed things that made no sense, and finally found one cockeyed thing that worked. I took a thin screwdriver that had a long shank and I held at one end of the screwdriver the end of one of the legs. Then I pressed the screwdriver against the other leg and slid it along. I changed to spots I was connecting until I finally I found that if I had a conducting path from a particular point on one leg to the other leg the oscillations stopped.” I learned that a troubleshooter must expect the unexpected and sometimes throw reasoning out the window. Usually even after a fault has been corrected there is no way to reason out what has really been corrected. That is what made a good engineer out of me. Those two years at Air King under Frank Belcastro were marvelous training.
When the Selective Service came along, we knew a war was coming. One day Frank Belcastro announced that he was leaving. He was taking a job at the Signal Corps Laboratories in Red Bank, New Jersey. He said to me, “Gus, why don’t you go on out there? They’re hiring.” I was going out with my wife-to-be then, but I had no hopes of ever marrying her because I couldn’t foresee that I would ever have any money. I encouraged her to date other guys, because I didn’t want to tie her up year after year. Then we would have to either break up or marry and live in misery. I didn’t want to feel that I spoiled her life. I hoped that she would meet someone else that would be able to take better care of her.
That plan was spoiled, because one night when I was out with some friends on the subway to Manhattan she came into the car with her date just before the doors closed. I wasn’t dating any other girls, but I was telling her I was dating other girls. My friends knew she was my girlfriend and always saw her with me, and here she came in with another guy. They couldn’t understand this. Ruth was very embarrassed. The next night when I saw her I asked, “Did you have a nice night last night?” She said, “No, I didn’t feel very good when I saw you, so I told him I didn’t feel good and he took me home.” She said to me, “I don’t care if you are going to date other girls. I am not going to date any other guys.” That’s when I confessed to her that I wasn’t dating other girls. And that’s when, after a year, we began to go steady. However I still had no hopes of ever being able to marry her.
I had every kind of job. I was a Fuller Brush Man, sold vacuum cleaners, and spent one Christmas in Bamberger’s department store running electric trains in the toy department while dressed like an engineer. I had a ball doing that. I would have paid them to do that, but they paid me.
I also worked for awhile as a demonstrator in a five, ten and dollar chain. The company that hired me had a five-in-one kitchen gadget. It was a round dish divided into quarters. In one quarter there was a fine grater, but it wasn’t the kind that would cut the hand. Another quarter had a slicer. The edge had a lip on it so it could be placed on a pot of boiling water. Food could be put on top and steamed and so forth. It cost 25¢. It didn’t take long to find out that it was really a lousy gadget. I had to gaff it. For example, I had to file a sharp edge on the slicer. Otherwise it wouldn’t slice very well. It was a safety grater, so when I demonstrated slicing beets or potatoes I had to be careful not to cut myself while I was talking. If I accidentally sliced a piece off the end of my thumb, which was bound to happen sooner or later, it started bleeding. When that happened with twenty-five people in front of me while I was demonstrating the safety grater, I’d grab a beet and start grating it so that the blood would mix with the beet and they wouldn’t know my finger was cut. Then I would hold the skin flap shut, and when the thing settled down I would put some Nu Skin over it.
I used a bucket of cold water to soak my beets and carrots in so that they would absorb a lot of water that would make them hard and would grate fast. When people went home and to their rubbery carrots and tried to slice or grate them it didn’t work. The gadget wasn’t as good as it looked. I dressed like a French chef, with a hat and chef’s white coat.
I’ve had a mustache since I was seventeen years old. There’s a story behind that too. My wife has never seen me without a mustache, so one day about twenty years ago I said to her, “You’ve never seen me without a mustache. Why don’t I shave and you can see what I look like.” She said, “No, don’t do it.” I said, “Why not?” She said, “Then you won’t look dangerous.” That’s why I’m still courting her.
Back to the kitchen gadget demonstration. There were two highlights to the demonstration. I wore a short-sleeved chef’s coat and gave a health and diet lecture. I would grate carrots and then grab a fistful of the grated carrot and squeeze it so that the carrot juice would run down my hairy arm. It was disgusting but effective. It got their attention. I’d say, “Carotene. It’ll do this, that and the other thing for you.” Then there was the sliced cabbage. I had a great big carving knife, and it was long so that it looked like a saber, a wooden board in front of me. I’d say, “You know how a housewife cuts cabbage? She starts to slice and slice. Then it’s too slow, so she starts to chop.” I used to love to do this in the wintertime on a Saturday when I’d have a crowd of fifty women who were wearing their fur coats. As I’d lift it up I’d twist the blade so that I was throwing cabbage all over the women in the crowd, including the ones in the back. I got the point across.
I could tell you stories. One day the mother of one of my friends was right in front. She wanted to buy it, but I kept ignoring her because I didn’t want her to buy it. I’d serve other people and then stop and say, “There’s more I want to share with you, so don’t go away ladies and gentlemen,” and I’d start another lecture with some little difference. She waited through three of those lectures, and finally she said, “I want one of those. Here’s my quarter. You give it to me,” so I gave it to her. She was mad. What could I do? Later on when she discovered it was a lousy gadget she said, “What a faker you are.” I said, “Didn’t it occur to you there must have been some reason why I didn’t let you buy it?”
The men who did the bookings were mulatto, but to avoid being discriminated against they claimed they were Indian. They ran out of stores to book me in, so they said, “Look, we can get an eight-week run in the Midwest in the Kresge chain.” It was either that job or no job, so I went to the Kresge chain for eight weeks. It was quite an experience, but I was lonely. I had to stay in a hotel downtown. When Sundays came around I’d walk around in the deserted streets, absolutely miserable. At the end of those eight weeks when I got off the bus at 42nd Street I got down on my hands and knees and kissed the ground. I never wanted to go out of town again.
Signal Corps, Transducer Corporation of America
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Frank Belcastro tried to talk me into going to work for the Signal Corps. Getting a job there would mean the possibility of becoming upwardly mobile, so I went to the Signal Corps. Mind you, I did not have a college education. I worked at the Signal Corps during the week and came home on weekends. My grandmother was eighty-four years old. Once a month on a Sunday I would go to see her. She was living with an aunt of mine and was crazy about Ruth. On Saturday nights I would meet Ruth after work. We’d stay out late, so Ruth didn’t get much sleep on those Saturday nights. We were engaged, and we’d go together to see my grandmother. We would eat some cookies and drink a glass of wine to be hospitable, but then Ruth would fall asleep. My grandmother would look at her and say to me, “Oh, the poor girl. She must work so hard.” That has been our big joke ever since, "That poor girl, she works so hard.” She was already half asleep when we got there, and the wine finished her off. We’ve had a lot of inside jokes like that in our life. My grandmother died shortly after I joined the Signal Corps Lab.
Another of my jobs before working at the Signal Corps was working at the company that manufactured electronic parts: plugs, switches, sockets and various types of electrical hardware. I was a shipping clerk there. After I ate lunch I would get very sleepy and I would stretch out on a pile of cardboard cartons to nap. The head shipping clerk would wake me up after a little while to go back to work. I learned routing in that job. At the Signal Corps I was assigned to the procurement section because I had once worked as a shipping clerk and knew something about commerce. When I heard that my assignment was in procurement, I flipped. I went to the branch chief and said, “Look, I didn’t come to the Signal Corps to work in procurement. I came to the Signal Corps to work in the laboratory. If I have to work in procurement, I’m going to have to leave.” I didn’t want to do that, because I didn’t want the boss to think that I would be difficult to supervise. However he was sympathetic and assigned me to an engineer named Aldo Scandura to be his technician.
Aldo and I had something in common. We both liked to ballroom dance. He was a graduate of City College and a sharp cookie and I learned a lot from him. He learned that I knew very much electronic theory. We were short on engineers, so he began to give me engineering assignments. I started to go to attend Montgomery Junior College at night and took courses in “descriptive geometry.” This was possible because after I got married I became used to going to bed later, so I could go to school at night without falling asleep.
After a couple years I had accumulated some college credits and had two years of engineering experience. I had also worked in some other places in the industry such as Transducer Corporation of America. They manufactured a dynamic microphone called a bullet microphone, and I did a lot of testing there. It was not just technician work. I had to know something. In civil service you qualify for a rating on the basis of your experience. Although I had a technician’s grade, Aldo assigned a Ph.D. to me named Julia Herrick. She was a biophysicist from the Mayo Clinic. She was a fish out of water, but a smart woman. She had a lot of mathematics, and that’s why they assigned her to me. She was able to supplement what I didn’t know. I started to work on cavity resonators (what did I know about cavity resonators?) I had the feel, but not the mathematics. Between the two of us, we managed to figure things out.
Dr. Herrick came from a Minneapolis banking family. There were three children, two sons and she was the daughter. When the father died, he left control of the bank to her because he trusted her common sense more than that of his sons. She was a smart gal in her late forties I would say, and prematurely gray. She was an extremely good looking and appealing woman and it was very easy to get along with her. She had the common touch. We once had a Thanksgiving party at our house and played charades. When it was her turn to act out something, she took a long-stemmed flower in her hand and stretched out on the floor facing the ceiling with her eyes closed. She was enacting “Massa in the cold, cold ground.” She was a regular person. She decided she was not going to go back to biophysics and began to study engineering. She joined the IRE and became the first editor for the Medical Electronics Professional Transactions.
Here she was a Ph.D. and I was just a technician. I was due for a promotion and was going to be promoted to the highest technician’s grade. My boss and my boss’s boss got together and decided to move me over into the engineering series. If it hadn’t been during the war, I would not have had such an opportunity and would have remained a technician.
I’m going to tell you a little story. Have you heard of Somerset Maugham.
Did you ever read the short story about the Verger?
I’ve watched it over and over again. I have a recording. Do you know what a verger is?
The guy who makes the financial arrangements for a church.
He’s the sexton.
Okay. Well, it’s about the verger of a church. The parishioners were very wealthy and this verger was an illiterate man. One day the pastor called him in and said, “I hate to tell you this, but I’m going to have to terminate you. It’s not becoming for you, an illiterate man, to be the verger of this church with all of these wealthy parishioners.” He let the verger go, and the verger was at loose ends for awhile. Then he began a little business that prospered and grew. After some years he became a multimillionaire. One day one of his attorneys came in with a document for him to sign. It was a new attorney. When he put an X on the signature line the attorney said, “Put your signature on it.” He said, “That’s my signature.” He said, “Do you mean to say that you cannot write your own name?” He said, “No, I cannot.” The lawyer said, “You have had so much success. Just think if you had an education where you would be today.” Then the verger said, “Yes. Today I’d be a verger.” I think that is a classic. It was the same thing with me, and I rose.
National Bureau of Standards, DOD Advisory Group on Electronic Equipment
The IRE had a spring meeting and used the Hotel Commodore, Grand Central Palace and a few other places for the exhibits. I always went in to see the exhibits. Since I lived in Asbury Park at the time, I commuted. I came home the first night and there was a letter waiting for me from the National Bureau of Standards. It was a letter from Alex Orden. His letter said they had a new electronic miniaturization program and that they had heard I had some skills in that area. The letter went on to ask if I would be interested in a job, and if so they’d like me to come down for an interview. I had never heard of this guy, but I knew that there was a Bureau of Standards Exhibit, at the IRE meeting in New York.
Does the name Cledo Brunetti mean anything to you? He was once my boss, and there was an award in his name, the Cledo Brunetti Award. He was the world’s biggest charlatan, but he knew how to promote himself. Five years previously, he had died. He gave IEEE a sum of money for an awards program in his name, so now he has immortality. Yet the guy had accomplished nothing. I know, because I worked for him. He was a fake, but a genius at promoting himself.
Back to the letter. I went up to the exhibit, and there was a burly guy there with a big, sour looking frown on his face. I showed him the letter and I said, “Could you tell me who this man is?” He said, “Yeah. He’s Dr. [Robert D.] Huntoon’s administrative assistant.” I said, “Do you know anything about this?” He said, “No.” I said, “Is there any way I can get in touch with Dr. Huntoon?” and he said, “Well, Dr. Huntoon is down in the Hotel Commodore at a session there.” I asked what he looked like and he told me, but I had to drag the information out of him. He wasn’t at all cooperative. I started to walk down Lexington Avenue toward 42nd Street. Halfway there I stopped and I thought, “If this guy is an example of the people that work for the Bureau of Standards, why do I want to go to Washington?” Then I said to myself, “Well, I’ll go check it out anyway.” I went down there and found Dr. Huntoon. I handed him the letter, and it was the first he’d seen of it.
He said, “Look, to tell you the truth I don’t know much about this. I know that we have a new contract in from the Bureau of Aeronautics. I don’t know what the contract is, because Alex Orden has been handling it, but why don’t you come down to Washington and we’ll look into this.” I made an appointment with him and went down to Washington. I brought down some samples of some miniature things that I had done and Alex Orden and I talked. My Signal Corps section chief Aldo Scandura and I shared a furnished apartment with three other guys up until I got married. We were concerned with radar and I had some ideas for miniaturizing radar IF amplifiers. Scandura said, “Okay, go ahead.” I said, “Well, what shall I charge my time to?” He said, “Charge it to this number.” I said, “But that’s the number of such-and-such project.” He said, “Forget about it. We’re bootlegging it. Don’t write any reports. Don’t write anything in your project book.” It was a record book for patents because I had many patents. I had two engineers working for me. I don’t know how word got to Washington about my abilities. I have a sneaking suspicion though. The head of our branch, Major Kucera, had a civilian assistant who made frequent trips to Washington. He was the liaison man with the Pentagon and he knew what I was doing. Only he and my boss knew. He may have said something to someone, but how this information got from the Pentagon over to the National Bureau of Standards up on Connecticut and Van Ness Street is beyond me. Years later I was thinking about this. By that time Alex Orden, the only one who could answer that question, was long since gone and I had no way of finding him. I’ve always been unhappy about this, because I would like to know how they knew what I was doing.
They decided hire me at mid-level, a P-3. The highest level was P-5. There were a lot of academic snobs at the National Bureau of Standards. When I came to Washington I decided to enroll at George Washington University and take night courses there as long as it took to get a degree. I knew I had a glass ceiling over my head. I knew I would do well there, but I could go only so far without that piece of paper. When I accepted the job at the Bureau of Standards they told me they were going to send me a letter of intent. Four months went by and I had still not received it.
My old chief, Major Kucera, had become a liaison officer out at San Diego Naval Electronics Lab. Before the war we had civilian heads of branches. When the war started we got military heads, and the civilian heads became their civilian assistants. As a matter of fact, back in 1943 there was even talk that everyone was going to be militarized and the technicians were going to be sergeants and so on. However nothing ever came of that. A lot of us were unhappy at that prospect: “I’m going to have to salute so-and-so? I don’t like his guts.” The RDF branch was deactivated and we were all scattered. Aldo and I and a few other of his people went to Camp Coles, which was one of the satellite laboratories of the Fort Monmouth Laboratories. I was assigned to work under an engineer who was very inept but was a nice guy. He was embarrassed that I was his subordinate and I tried not to rub his face in it. At the Bureau of Standards we hired engineering students, who were juniors as summer employees. Many years later one of the students who I had hired unseen knocked on my office door. I hadn’t even seen him before. He came in and said, “My father told me to give you his greetings.” His father was the engineer I had worked under for six months at the Camp Coles Laboratory.
Another funny thing happened. Another summer student came in to see me. I knew his last name but didn’t find it familiar. One day he came in and said, “Ada sends you her regards.” I said, “Who is Ada?” He said, “Our cousin Ada.” It turned out that we had a mutual first cousin. When I was an infant his mother had given me my first toy. It’s a small world. The beginnings and the ends come together. This makes life interesting.
I forgot to mention something. After I was interviewed by Dr. Huntoon he sent me to Personnel to give them some history and fill out some forms. While I was in there, a very attractive young lady came in and said to the head of Personnel, “I heard that there is a Mr. Shapiro here from the Signal Corps with some miniaturized items. Dr. Brunetti would like to talk to him.” I had heard Dr. Brunetti give a talk about the proximity fuze. I was just finishing, so she escorted me to Dr. Brunetti’s office. He was very friendly. He was a gnome. Wizened, he was a very ugly man but very animated. I showed him the samples I had brought with me. He rang a bell and his assistant came in and he said, “Alice, bring me that new Dick Tracy radio.” She walked out this swinging door, and the door swung out. Then when the door swung back and out again she was back in the room. She was very efficient and had a military bearing about her. At the Signal Corps we had a secretary named Winnie. We used to pamper her to death in order to persuade her to do our typing. If she didn’t feel like it, she didn’t do anything. When I got back from my trip I said to her, “Winnie, you’re a jerk. I saw a real secretary in Washington.”
Months went by, and I had heard nothing from the National Bureau of Standards. Finally I said, “This is for the birds.” I called the head of Personnel at NBS and said, “Look, if you don’t get a letter of intent to me in the mail right away, I’m going to resign from here next week and go to work at the Naval Electronics Laboratories near San Diego,” who want me to work there. Sure enough, the next week the letter of intent arrived. When I came to work at the National Bureau of Standards, I was put in to work with Cledo Brunetti rather than Dr. Huntoon. That puzzled me. I was sent to represent the Bureau of Standards on the DOD AGREE Committee. I don’t remember how often we met, but I met a number of people who became charter members of the professional group on component parts.
Did AGREE stand for something?
Yes. I think it stood for Advisory Group on Electronic Equipment. While I was on that our big concern was components, standards, mil (military) standards. We didn’t write the standards, but we set up the requirements. There were groups in the DOD that were standards writing groups. These were all industry people and there were also some military people from some of the military labs. It was representing NBS.
Components symposium, IEEE
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Play (375 - shapiro - clip 4.mp3)
There is something that occurred halfway between my becoming a member of AGREE and the formation of the professional group. I want you to notice who the sponsors were of the components symposium: RMA, which is now EIA, IRE, AIE and AIEE. “With active participation by agencies of the U.S. government, Department of Defense and the National Bureau of Standards.” To the best of my knowledge, the Bureau of Standards was represented by me and Cledo Brunetti, my boss. We didn’t act together, but we were both involved. I don’t recall anyone else from the Bureau of Standards being involved, but it wasn’t much of an involvement. Really what they were looking for were names. It was a bit of name dropping. Cledo Brunetti didn’t do a damn thing anyway. I didn’t either. Never claimed I did.
The man who was in charge of the Symposium’s yearly publication was an employee of the Sprague Electric Company who was working in EIA. Sprague also supported Leon Podolsky financially.
The Symposium was put together by a number of people from the various sponsoring organizations. Because so many government people were involved, the Department of Interior’s auditorium was made available for that event. It was a very big auditorium and the Symposium was very successful. That very first meeting was called Symposium on Improved Quality Electronic Components. Its emphasis seemed to be on reliability rather than development or anything of that sort. It was a three-day event that was held May 9-11, 1950. After this meeting people became enthusiastic about the idea of having an annual Symposium. There was no symposium in 1951. The next ones were in 1952, 1953, 1954 and 1955.
The first Symposium was of a different nature that those that were to follow. Money was important thing in the running of these things. Most of the people involved were volunteered by their organizations. There were printing costs for the Proceedings and for the mailings that went out. The professional group on component parts absorbed some of the costs because they went out as part of the newsletters and Proceedings. As far as salaried people were concerned, the Symposium editor put together the whole ball of wax. He may have been paid from the earnings of the Symposium. I don’t know. I’m just guessing.
The Symposium was a milk cow. The sponsors, the Institute of Radio Engineers (IRE) which later became the IEEE, and RMA which later became RETMA then EIA were certainly happy to get the money. If there had been no other reason to continue to have an annual Symposium, the money it earned would have been reason enough. However the Symposium was useful.
I had most of the Proceedings of the Electronic Component Symposium, starting with 1950. I didn’t have the Proceedings from 1952 or 1953. They’re missing. In 1954 there was an individual, Alex E. Javitz, who was a tower of strength not just in the early component symposiums but also to me as Transactions editor because of his vast knowledge and contacts in the materials field. His bread and butter came from being an editor of Electrical Manufacturing for many, many years. He was chairman of the Proceedings publication committee for the 1954 Symposium edition. Charles Devey from the Naval Research Laboratory didn’t hang around much longer after the first symposium. Others listed as being part of that symposium are strange names to me, so they couldn’t have played much of a role in the early days of the Component Symposium even though they were on the Proceedings publication committee. Javitz was the sort of guy who may be chairman of a committee but didn’t worry about whether the other guys were producing or not. He just went ahead and did the job. That’s my guess as to what happened here.
Let’s talk about IEEE.
Larry Cumming was on the Symposium Steering Committee for the IEEE, but I know he did not play a vital role. He answered the roll call. So much for the participation of IEEE, and so much for the Institute of Radio Engineers. Larry Cumming is dead now, and I don’t say bad things about the dead, but Larry Cumming was no self-starting organizer. He was a very pedestrian individual. Larry Cumming was the staff secretary of the IRE Standards Committee for a long time, and they were a very sad committee. He was finally relieved of that position when they hired Sava Sher who then built up the Standards Committee. That was at the expense of other committees because Sava Sher was an empire builder. Since Larry Cumming was the first IRE representative on the Symposium Committee, it is clear that there was very little early input from the IEEE. There was certainly no input from the component parts professional group, though a lot of the members and officers there participated in committees.
It’s interesting that we have K. Gillman Reid listed here as representing ACF Electronics. He was my former division chief at the Bureau of Standards. He left the NBS and went on to ACF Electronics with Tinker Toy. Ralph Bachelor was a consultant. I didn’t know Ralph very well. W.R. Clark was with Leeds & Northrup. I didn’t know much about him, but knew he was a sound man. P.H. Cousins was a Radio Electronic Sales & Manufacturers Association representative. Their various names were the Radio Manufacturers Association (RMA), then the Radio and Television Manufacturers Association (RTMA), then Radio Electronics Television Manufacturers Association, then Electronic Industry Association. My former assistant at the EIA told me a few weeks ago that either they have changed the name again or are going to change the name again. This is indicative of the character of the EIA, because it has changed so much over the years.
Virgil M. Graham represented the Radio Electronics Television Manufacturers Association, which of course is now the EIA. He came from industry, from the Sylvania Corporation. I won’t go into anymore detail about him because he was never involved in the Symposium and I’m not sure about how much influence he had. I knew Virgil Graham because I served as a government representative on a lot of the EIA standardizing committees, and all those things were under Virgil Graham.
One of the real workers on the Symposium Committee of 1954 was Alfred Rogers from the Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories. All of the component developments that were funded by the Signal Corps went through Al’s office. He had a very strong hand on what direction component developments in industry went. He had a great influence on the other members of the professional group on component parts because he was right in the middle of the component industry. The Signal Corps was giving development contracts to industry and therefore he had a great deal of knowledge about what was going on in the industry.
Ernst Weber was also on the 1954 Symposium Steering Committee. I believe that at the time he was head of the Electrical Engineering Department at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute. I think maybe later on he became president of Brooklyn Poly, but I’m not sure. Brooklyn Poly has a new name now. Ernst Weber was a very busy guy. You’ll have to double-check this, but I think Ernst Weber was a member of the AIEE and the IRE at the time that they merged. I think he was the first president of the IEEE. This has nothing to do with a professional group, but there were people like Don Fink who had joint membership in both organizations. There were quite a few high level people in both organizations who pulled the two together into one organization. That was no small feat, especially since those two organizations were competing with one another. If they hadn’t been pulled into one organization the two organizations would have grown apart and feuds would have developed, so it’s a good thing that they merged into one organization. They merged in 1963.
Then there was A. M. Zarem from the Stanford Research Institute. I don’t know who he is, but I have known some people in Stanford Research Institute. What I’ve known about those people, including one of the directors and one of the associate directors. Cledo Brunetti went there after he left the Bureau of Standards one step ahead of the sheriff. He left the Bureau of Standards and went to Stanford Research Foundation, but didn’t last very long there. He ended up at General Mills after that. I don’t remember where he went from there.
Back to the committee people, there was Paul S. Darnell from Bell Telephone Laboratories. He was a giant. I don’t have to say anything more, because there’s lots about him in the record that I think you know very well. I can’t add anything to that. He was a great asset.
There was the Darnell Report.
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Play (375 - shapiro - clip 5.mp3)
Yes, lots of things. He was good. Then there was W. D. George with the National Bureau of Standards. I doubt that he did very much on the program committee. I knew John Griemsmann from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn only by reputation, which was good. J. N. Hall from the Bureau of Ships was very hardworking. He was head of the component section of the Bureau of Ships. Keith Harding, also from the Bureau of Ships, was a very sound engineer. I respected Lou Kahn of Aerovox Incorporated very much. I can’t comment on G. T. Kohman of Bell Telephone Laboratories. I didn’t know him very well. Vincent Kublin of the Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories was one of the stalwarts up at the Signal Corps Labs. He was one of the real producers and a reliable guy. I think that Jesse Marsten of the International Resistance Company, IRC, was the president or chief engineer of that company. I understand that he is highly respected in the industry. I think H. L. Owen from the Signal Corps Engineering Laboratory was a true man, but I’m not sure because the only Owens that I knew in the Signal Corps Engineering Laboratory may have been a different man.
Leon Podolski was the best asset that the IEEE ever had – not just in the Components Professional Group, but in anything having to do with standards. There is an awful lot about him in the records. Leon Podolski is the man who convinced me that international standards were very, very important and vital to the United States. He was so convincing that I decided that what I was doing at the NBS was important, but that of equal or even greater importance to the United States was the IEC. I had a large section at the National Bureau of Standards and began to delegate more and more authority to my lab chiefs. I oversaw the whole section but freed myself from the nitty-gritty work. In the last few years I spent 80 percent of my time on international and IEEE standards activities.
There was a subcommittee of the Standards Committee for which I was the chairman or secretary. You see, there was only one person in the committee, and that was me. The Life Member Fund Committee had money they wanted to use to benefit IEEE. I think it was Leon Podolski – though I’m just guessing here – who persuaded the Life Member Fund Committee to give the IEEE committee $10,000 a year to increase IEEE member participation in IEC activities. The idea was also that in the process of doing so, the goal of international adoption of IEEE standards would be promoted. This was important, but still it was not PHP or the Professional Group on Component Parts. I mention this because I think Leon Podolski should get recognition. A number of people should get more recognition. Leon Podolski, Alex Javitz and a few other people never got as much recognition as they deserved. I have been given enough recognition. Everybody knew who I was and what I was doing. As a matter of fact, there were many times I was perfectly satisfied to work in the background as a king maker when I felt that I was putting the right man in the right place. That was enough for me. Sometimes it sounds like I’m blowing my own horn, but really I’m not.
I don’t think J. Gilmann Reid gave very much to the committee. W. G. Tuller had a tremendous reputation. He worked for Melpar Incorporated. It was a terrible tragedy when he died on an overseas trip. The plane went down and all the passengers stood out on the wing. When the rescue boats came all the passengers were there except Tuller. No one ever knew what happened to him. He was a rising star in Melpar.
What was Melpar?
Melpar was an electronics company stationed in Virginia near the Pentagon. I think they handled military contracts exclusively. There were into an awful lot of things. All the electronic engineers in the Washington area back in those days knew of Melpar. I don’t know whether Melpar merged with another company or they changed their name.
Floyd E. Wenger was a stalwart. He was on our committee for many years. He worked in the Wright Air Development Center at Wright Patterson Air Force Base and was in components. He was a rotund little guy; when he spoke he usually made a lot of sense. He was a steady member of the Administrative Committee. The finance officer for that committee meeting was Art Zdobysz. He had retired from the Bureau of Aeronautics and was apparently a paid consultant. Cousins was probably paid for his role by the Radio Electronic Television Manufacturers Association.
Would you tell me a little bit about how that Symposium grew? Once it had gotten started and on its feet, how did it develop and move?
It was on the calendar and every year it happened, so people would put it on their calendars and make arrangements to be there. There was a new chairman every year, including for the Technical Program Committee. I don’t know how the membership of the steering committee was put together each year, but it kept changing. The technical programs also kept changing of course, and that was a healthy thing. A lot of new papers were submitted. The various chapters packaged bids to try to get the program for their city. There are a limited number of chapters, and a preferred location was the place where they had the WESCON Symposium. Those people had to be there. It began to rotate between east and west to accommodate attendees on both coasts. A lot of the people on the west coast didn’t come to events on the east coast and vice versa, so adjustments were made. I thought that the EIA did most of the leading, but I’m not sure of that. I parted company with the IEEE and Bureau of Standards in 1977. That’s almost twenty-two years ago, and a lot has happened since then. I’m drawing a complete blank for that whole lapse of time except for a couple of times when they got in touch with me. One time was to be sure I would attend and bring my family because I was going to be presented a plaque. Another time was when I was nominated for a Fellow of the IEEE, it was called Parts, Hybrids, and Packaging. I had heard through the grapevine about two years earlier that I had been nominated. I don’t know which professional group nominated me, but nothing came of it. I knew at the time that I couldn’t make Fellow, although a lot happened in that two-year period that made me a strong candidate.
- 1 About Gustave Shapiro
- 2 About the Interview
- 3 Copyright Statement
- 4 Interview