First-Hand:From Radio Engineering to War-Time Research


Submitted by Sidney Bertram

I was born Sydney Abramovitch in Winnipeg, Canada; the name was changed when the family moved to California in 1923.

I took a vocational electrical course in high school graduating in February, 1930. The only job I could find was on a radio assembly line where I worked on as many as two hundred radios a day at three cents a radio.

By fall, tired of this work, I enrolled in the semi-professional electrical engineering program at the Los Angeles City College (LACC). I graduated in 1932, with an Associate of Arts degree, an excellent foundation for my future work, but with no job and decided to continue my education. I entered Cal Tech as a junior (by examinations in math and physics) but left after about two weeks because of money problems and difficulty in registering for freshman chemistry. (I hadn't planned to go on to college from LACC.) I returned to the junior college in 1933 to make up the chemistry, but a course in radio altered my plans.

In the fall of 1933, I entered the Radio Institute of California in Los Angeles. I was soon offered a part time job as a laboratory instructor and later, when the theory instructor left, I was invited to teach beginning radio theory which gradually became more advanced. I stayed there until the fall of 1936 when I left to re-enter Cal Tech where, in 1938, I obtained my BS (with Honors) in electrical engineering. After a year with a small geophysics company, I enrolled as a graduate student at the Ohio State University (OSU) where I received my MS degree in 1941. My thesis on the "Calculation of Axially Symmetric Fields" was published in two papers that have been referenced in the literature on electron optics. (My advisor offered to let me use it for my Ph.D. dissertation, but I was then too far from being able to satisfy the language requirement.)

Following the war, I worked for one year at Boeing primarily on the guidance elements for a "ground to air pilotless aircraft." I left there in 1946 when I was offered an assistant professorship in electrical engineering to teach at the Wright Field Graduate Center of OSU with the opportunity to finish my Ph.D. I completed it in physics in 1951. In 1942, with the Antenna Laboratory off to a good start and WWII in progress, I joined the University of California Division of War Research at San Diego. There I was given the job of converting an experimental FM "fire-control" sonar to a "PPI Scanning Sonar." During the summer of 1945, nine submarines used the sonar to penetrate the mine fields. They also entered the Sea of Japan where they sunk many Japanese ships. They also aided the surface fleet by mapping other mine fields. I received a Bureau of Ships Citation for the invention of the scanning switch that made the outputs of the twenty range filters sequentially available to the PPI display.

In 1957, with the training program running, I joined Ramo Wooldridge (later the Bunker Ramo Corporation). In 1960, I became involved in a program to automate the extraction of topographic data from aerial photographs. This culminated in 1964 with the delivery of the first Universal Automatic Map Compilation System, or UNAMACE.

Each UNAMACE had two identical precision tables, each capable of holding up to nine-by-eighteen inch diapositives (glass positives). These were computer controlled, with the positioning commands going to both the table servos and the flying spot scanners used to examine the diapositives so that, for the small motions required during automatic operations, the images of the scans move instantaneously to their computer-commanded locations on the diapositives. The system therefore operates at the two micrometer table accuracy "on the run." The computer also controls the size and shape of the scanning rasters, making operations with unconventional photography possible.

Using conventional vertical aerial photography (six-inch focal length), the equipment measured ground elevations to about 1/10,000 of the altitude the photographs were exposed at. The equipment made about fifty measurements per second except in very steep areas. The original equipment had two additional, tables that were used to prepare new photographs, with the detail of the originals but with the parallax distortion removed, and altitude charts; the altitude data is now stored digitally allowing the outputs to be prepared offline by simpler equipments.

I am quite blase with respect to newspaper stories of high priced toilet seats because I have seen more significant problems with the military procurement system. For example:

We were the only qualified bidder for a fullmap-sheet size table for UNAMACE, but lost out to a low bidder; the military never got a table that worked.

Following a request from the user agency when the UNAMACE became operational, I applied for the clearance required to work with them. I never received it, although I previously had other high-level clearances. I am certain it was because a company doing mathematical work related to UNAMACE for the agency didn't want me to have it; their president had been with the agency.

We had another problem with classification: I presented a paper on the operating principles of UNAMACE in Portugal in 1964, and a second paper on its operation in Switzerland in 1968. Both papers were published in the International Archives of Photogrammetry and in Photogrammetric Engineering, so they were readily available. The customer and user agency also presented papers on the results of their operations with UNAMACE. When the equipment became operational in 1964, the customer apparently realized that it was much more effective than anticipated and classified certain aspects of the instrumentation as "confidential." As a result, I was allowed to give out copies of either paper, but not both together! (The second paper referenced the first.) I continued to be notified about continued classification until about 1980, though a friend who was working with the agency insisted that UNAMACE had been declassified earlier!

I became an Associate of the IRE in 1936 while with the Radio Institute of California. I have not been active in either the IRE or IEEE except as a contributor to the publications.