First-Hand:Electrophysiology and Defense, EKGs, Electroshock Therapy, and Antisubmarine Weaponry


Submitted by Franklin Offner

In 1934, I went to the physics department of the University of Chicago. I started work in microwaves building magnetrons. After a few months, I found the professor in charge to be completely incompetent, and was going to shift to work with Professor Robert Mulliken in quantum mechanics. However, I ran short of money. When I was offered a job with Shure Brothers Company as an engineer to work on microphones I accepted.

I started at twenty dollars a week (fifty hours), because the president of the company said he "didn't know if I was capable of handling the job." After a month, the chief engineer, Ralph Glover, said I was obviously better qualified to be chief engineer than he was, and that I should take over his job and he'd shift to sales. I told the president that since I was obviously capable of handling the job, I wanted a ten dollar a week raise. He refused and I immediately quit. (This was the only job I ever held in industry.)

This turned out to be the best thing that ever had happened to me. I had been advising one of my radio amateur friends at the university (where I continued to live) on how to build an amplifier for biopotentials for the laboratory of neurophysiology. My friend was trying to help Professor Gerard, a prominent professor of neurophysiology. When I returned to the university that evening, my friend told me they had expected me to quit and that there was a job waiting for me as a research associate under Professor Gerard. I soon got the amplifier working and for the first time saw nerve action potentials. No one understood their origin at that time, so the field immediately attracted me. I resolved to get my doctorate in biophysics and find out how nerves work. (A problem on which I would work, with some interludes, for the next fifty years!)

My own research was what led me to the field: to find out the physical basis of nerve conduction. It was known that cell membranes, and therefore presumably nerve fibers, had both resistance and capacitance. Also, that the membranes were semi-permeable to K+ ions resulting in a negative internal potential.

I had the hypothesis that nerve conduction resulted from the development of a voltage-sensitive "leakage" conductance across the membrane. I solved the partial differential equation for such a system, and showed that it would in fact result in a propagated impulse. The predicted impedance change was found by Cole and Curtis in squid axons; fifteen years later, Hodgkin and Huxley made a complete experimental and theoretical analysis of the phenomenon, with my model as their starting point, work for which they received the Nobel Prize.

In my Ph.D. work, I was sponsored by the great physicist, Carl Eckert, who gave me full support and counsel. He was a man of probably the broadest intellect of anyone I have ever known, and also the most helpful and unassuming. After receiving my Ph.D. in 1938, I went to New York City for nine months to assist a company which had taken a license on my EKG (electrocardiograph) patent.

I then returned to Chicago, and formally started my company, Offner Electronics, intending to primarily manufacture electrophysiological equipment, such as the EEG (electroencephalograph); in fact, I had received a request from Denmark for three such instruments even before I had decided to start the business, for which I had five hundred dollars capital.

Besides the EEG, I had been asked by a psychiatrist to build an apparatus for giving electroshock treatments. Although I was very dubious about the value-and the safety-of such therapy, I consented to develop such an apparatus, which was then not available in the U.S. I developed an apparatus which permitted the physician to provide the treatment with maximum safety to the patient. This apparatus became widely accepted in the Americas and Europe; and contrary to my initial belief, proved to be a highly effective treatment.

With the fall of France, I turned my efforts to defense, essentially to the exclusion of all else. In the summer of 1940, I proposed to the Navy (through the NDRC) a method of locating submarines by dropping buoys with sonic pickup transducers, which would transmit the signal to the over-flying aircraft. I received a reply stating that my suggestion was very important, and that I should disclose it to no one else. This was the origin of the Sonabuoy, still our primary antisubmarine weapon.

Concurrently, the Heat Research Laboratory of MIT was attempting to design a heat-homing high angle bomb. But the lab was unable to develop a heat seeker having either sufficient reliability or sensitivity. The Air Force suggested that I attack the problem. I redesigned their seeker, again using the technique of cross-correlation. In two weeks, I produced a seeker that was far simpler, reliable, and, according to the tests of the Heat Research Laboratory, at least ten times more sensitive than their design. Their bomb was then put into production. After the war, the Sidewinder IR guided air-to-air missile used, and continues to use, the same principle in its seeker. My company also developed and produced most of the Geiger counter electronics used in the Manhattan project, as well as a number of other developments for the Air Force and Navy.

When experimental Ge (germanium) junction transistors first became available in 1952, they were said to have many problems. Nonetheless, I purchased three transistors from RCA (they were tightly rationed), and started developing circuits, based on their characteristics, not on vacuum tube technology. Within a few days, I had concluded that vacuum tubes would soon be obsolescent.

Accordingly, I told the engineers in my company that we would stop all development work on new vacuum tube-based instruments, and start a program on transistorization of our full product line.

The first instrument we attacked was probably the most difficult we could have chosen: the EEG, because of the high sensitivity required (down to 1 mV), with a frequency response down to 1 Hz or less. The completed instrument, designated the "Type T" EEG, was portable, with eight recording channels. The Type T revolutionized EEG, not so much because of its portability, but because of its unprecedented reliability. It won almost immediate acceptance around the world; the British manufacturer of EEG's left the field, being unable to compete. In 1961, Offner Electronics Incorporated merged with Beckman Instruments, which I left in 1963 to return to academia.

I believe there should never be an ethical dilemma for an engineer or scientist. The only acceptable course is complete honesty, without reserve. When I found that the company promoting my EKG was less than completely honest in its representations, I immediately left. I found it necessary to do the same after having merged my company with Beckman. I have found that the most ethical companies are usually the most successful.

I have always worked either independently or as a team leader, though the objective of my work may have been dictated by others (my development of the EEG for Professor Gerard's laboratory at the University of Chicago, for example). For the projects which were under my control, I had the full cooperation and back-up of United Aircraft and the Air Force and, of course, I always had the facilities and personnel of my own company at my disposal. However, this all changed radically when my company merged with Beckman. Innovation became almost impossible.

When I joined Beckman my new ideas were almost all automatically rejected. For example, when I invented the tunable monochromatic laser for spectral analysis they considered the idea worthless; I later sold the patent to another company, from whom Beckman must now purchase the lasers.

I joined the Institute of Radio Engineers when I was a student. Then it was a technical and scientific society second to none. I opposed its union with the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. I believe it has resulted in the Institute becoming too industry oriented.

Boss, mentor, and peer relationships. My only "boss" in industry was Sid Shure. He helped me greatly by refusing to give me a ten dollar a week raise.

In education, I was fortunate to have an excellent science teacher in high school, as well as good courses in drafting and manual arts. (In those days, using your hands as well as your brains was not considered demeaning.) These high school courses served me well later in life. At Cornell, my course in electricity and magnetism by C. C. Murdoch served as the basis for my work in electronics.

At CIT, working with Linus Pauling and his colleagues made me aware of what constituted real intellectual greatness, as did my later contacts with Carl Eckert at the University of Chicago. In contrast, another professor at the University of Chicago exerted a strong negative influence on me, as well as others working under him.