Archives:Jack Avins, The Essence of Engineering



In a recent article, respected historian of radio Hugh Aitken wistfully observed that "it takes controversies and confrontations to get an inventor into the history books." Aitken's comment, unfortunately true to a large degree, is easy enough to understand. History, as the word reminds us, is a story, and dramatic stories are always the most popular.

But this tendency to focus only on the engineering stories that spill out of their technological domain into the courts of law or the corporate executive suites shortchanges the inventors whom it drives out of the limelight, and interferes with a correct understanding of the nature of technological progress. More meaningful and more revealing are the longer sagas of steady research, punctuated by regular triumphs, that characterize the bulk of engineering work. One valuable example of such story is that of a successful engineer named Jack Avins.

Avins, who worked for RCA between 1945 and 1976, patented more than fifty inventions that improved the performance of radio and television receivers. He is best remembered for leading the team that designed, the first integrated circuit used in a television receiver, pointing the way for the current age when those chips are ubiquitous in television sets and other consumer electronics. Yet, before this landmark achievement, he earned the recognition and respect of the engineering world with his wide-ranging work designing radio and television circuits. Described by his colleagues as "Mr. FM," he was central to the development of two generations of circuits that each took their tum as the most popular means of detecting FM radio broadcasts. He applied that expertise to the audio circuits in television receivers, creating a reputation for himself as the master of this often overlooked side of television. He designed a system for broadcasting AM radio in stereo some twenty years before the industry ventured towards it. In the 1930s, he designed test instruments that revolutionized the radio repair business. In the 1970s, it was integrated circuits, with which he reduced whole subsystems of television sets to single modules. In between, he built a legacy of inventiveness and dedication that, augmented by his personal drive and his broad interests in matters of the intellect and the community, made an indelible impression on those who knew and worked with him. Jack Avins' career is a model study of technological innovation, and his accomplishments distinguish him as an engineer's engineer.

Citation and Link to Full Article

Andrew Goldstein, “Jack Avins, The Essence of Engineering,” in Facets: New Perspectivies on the History of Semiconductors, ed. Andrew Goldstein & William Aspray (New Brunswick: IEEE Center for the History of Electrical Engineering, 1997), 133-214.

Jack Avins, The Essence of Engineering (pdf)