About Norbert Adler
Norbert Adler was born in Vienna in 1924, and after receiving a degree in physics, worked in the patents department of Siemens. From 1960 to 1985, he managed "brown goods" – that is, consumer appliances for the living room, as opposed to the "white goods" of the kitchen – for Philips. He discusses the advent of FM radio and television in Austria, the uncertain property laws that made innovation difficult in the postwar years, the social partnership managing the economy, and the arrival of the consumer protection movement in Austria.
About the Interview
NORBERT ADLER: An Interview Conducted by David Morton, IEEE History Center, July 24, 1996
Interview #284 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:
Norbert Adler, an oral history conducted in 1996 by David Morton, IEEE History Center, Hoboken, NJ, USA.
Interview: Dr. Norbert Adler
Interviewer: David Morton
Date: July 24, 1996
This is an interview with Dr. Norbert Adler, taking place in the office of the Austrian Association for Electrical and Electronic Industries. We are the guests of Mr. Ing. Erich Bartoschka. Dr. Adler, could you tell me something about your early life?
I was born in Vienna in 1924. From 1945 until 1949 I studied physics as a major subject and philosophy was my general subject. In '49 I received a Doctor of Philosophy. My first job was at Siemens Austria in the Patent Office from 1950 to 1959. From 1960 to 1985 I was at Phillips, Austria and retired in 1985. I was in the product management for brown goods. When consumerism started in Austria about the beginning of the '60s I was a delegate of the Austrian brown and white goods manufacturers in the local committee concerning standardization of product operation and test procedures for comparative product tests. From 1972 to 1985 I was the Austrian delegate in the European committee of manufacturers of electrical domestic appliances, concerned with the same topics on a European basis. In 1977 I was a vice chairman in this organization, and from 1983 for two years I was the chairman.
Postwar Austrian Society
Now I, as a "time witness," would like to give a report of my memories of the first impact of consumerism on durable electric consumer products in Austria. At that time, there was widespread poverty that affected all aspects of daily life. The public infrastructure was heavily damaged. Austria was not split as was Germany. We were an undivided state with a democratic constitution but occupied by the Allied troops including the American, British, French and Russian military. The government was based on the coalition of the two great parties — the Christian Social Party, a conservative one, and the Social Democratic Party. To solve the disputes occurring between employers and the employees, there was a so-called Social Partnership installed, functioning even today. There are four partners: economy, chamber of workers, trade union and chamber of agriculture, cooperating on all levels from top management to experts in many commissions, governed by an advisory board for fundamental economic and social questions concerned with looking for solutions for all the economic and social problems. And they found solutions, so that the ratio of strikes per employee per year was counted only in seconds or at most, minutes. In our country social peace is existing.
Industry was mainly engaged in restoring buildings, the supply of energy, of traffic, post offices, telephone networks and radio broadcasting. Who would get ownership of German properties and how much reparations we would have to pay to the victors were open problems. Therefore the industry had to invest mainly to enlarge existing production according to the real demands of the market. Due to the indefinite conditions of ownership, large investments in fundamental research and development were much too risky. The significance of the invention of the transistor in the United States in 1948, and its use as a new element in revolutionary electronic technologies was fully recognized by engineers in higher positions. However, money for further research and development for commercialization was not available in Austria at that time. These circumstances improved, but only slowly, year after year. The big step forward occurred after the so-called state contracts in 1955 in which the problems regarding German properties and the reparations were solved and so the occupation ended.
I started my first job in 1950 at Siemens in Vienna in the patent department.
Research & Development at Philips
No, at that time they weren't able to produce that. They had only a laboratory and a production area for electronic tubes.
Was there any possibility of research opportunity at Siemens at that time?
Yes, for daily market demands, but not for background research and development because ownership was too open and the conditions were not very good for investments. I changed in 1959 to the product management of brown goods at Phillips.
"White" and "Brown" Goods
Remind me. We no longer use those terms, white goods and brown goods, and I have forgotten what that means.
Oh yes. It means the color of the boxes. Brown were supposed to hold furniture and white is a color of items which go into the kitchen. It is used now in England. Maybe you are American? In England the use of "white goods" and "brown goods" is so common. I didn't think there was difference in the United States.
It's not used much. I've heard of it, but not a while.
Television sets, radio sets, phono sets, hi-fi equipment, all the things that you use in the living room are brown goods, and white goods are all what you need in the kitchen, household appliances. But now they get colors too. They are yellow and have other colors, but they are called white goods for historical reasons.
In the product management of Phillips it was my task together with the technical department to lay down the specifications and appearance as well as the operation of these products for the practical use by laymen.
Penetration of TV & FM Radio
Many people wanted to own a radio set, and from 1960 onwards, to own a television set also. The penetration of households of such sets increased rapidly.
A question. You mentioned television was becoming available. What about FM radio? Was AM, long wave, declining? What was that situation like?
FM officially started broadcasting in the middle of the 1950s, I think it was 1956 or 1957. At that time experimental transmissions occurred for black and white television. The official start of TV was 1959 or 1960, and some sets were beginning to sell on the market. This was the beginning in Germany and then other European countries they were a little bit earlier.
Is there a government agency or an organization that determined when these new services were put in place? Were there communications between the manufacturers like Phillips and the communications administration. Was there any difficulty in introducing FM?
No, there are no difficulties, because the office we are in now, the Austrian Association for Electrical and Electronic Industries has contacts with the official authorities. For instance, with the radio operation and broadcasting associations and also with post offices, and a very important contact is of course the consumer organizations. And there are open discussions when the industry will start and we are well prepared. The time when these things come is really well organized. We have a fair in Austria twice a year. At the fair in September the industry offers all new products. And when television sets started to be sold, of course broadcasting authority had to send transmissions, and these must be combined in accordance, and this functioned very well in the task of the industry association.
The penetration of households as I said increased rapidly. Enterprises which had been starting to produce radio sets in the '30s, because beginning of radio transmissions was in 1924 in Austria. Therefore some enterprises produced already before the Second World War sets for radio reception. These enterprises had of course to produce other products during the last war, and after the war they started again industrial production of these sets. And these brands or these industries had of course to use the basic patents for circuits, for instance the superheterodyne circuit.
It was the duty of the central office to manage the patents and to pay the licenses to the owner of the patents. This was Mr. Bartoschka. He was a central person who had contacts with the patent owners and he discussed licenses with them and he collected payments and had contacts with the owner of patents. It functioned very well. Furthermore, dealers had to be encouraged to sell and give service for these sets as close to consumers as possible. To achieve this aim Austria was a closed market by law. There were no imports allowed. Besides the international companies, Phillips and Siemens, there were about 10 or 12 brands producing radio sets and later on, television sets. To stimulate the development of a compact net of service shops, every dealer had to know in advance how much money he will have available to invest in his shops. Because at that time after the Second World War nobody had much money in the bank. The money had to be in cash. Therefore the dealer had to know in advance what he can spend to build up a service shop.
Technological Change in Closed Market
In the United States it was the case that radio repair shops found it difficult to make the transition to television because so much new equipment, unfamiliar equipment was required and all kinds of new training was needed, so it was a big investment to get into television repair. Was that the case in Austria?
Well, we found a specific way to stimulate the investments for the dealer on the dealer's side. Namely, the producers fixed the discount of prices of all sets. The amount of discount was prescribed in a cartel. The set prices for the consumers were fixed by each producer freely. These market conditions were useful and successful for many years. Is this understandable, how it was managed here in Austria in a closed market and to stimulate dealers to invest for service shops?
There was no opposition to this?
No, no. I said before, we have a so-called social partnership. In these committee there are only competent people, and they have to find a solution and they did find it by discussion and not by fighting always. So, I do not like to go into details how far the new technologies, i.e. printed circuits, transistors and integrated circuits influenced production methods and prices of brown goods. The service technicians and dealers shops had to be instructed and trained in the new technologies. As soon as the closed market had fulfilled its intention, imports of restricted numbers were allowed. At that moment the restructuring had to start as well, at industry and dealers. Different companies emerged and new forms of selling, like trading chains, came up. This product sector was therefore prepared well for joining the European Economic Community very early.
Consumer Protection in Austria
Now I should like to mention another important problem. What I have said is the background for what comes next. And this problem appeared at the beginning of the '60s when information about consumerism came from the United States connected with the famous name of Ralph Nader. I suppose you know his name.
Absolutely. The members of the social partnership recognized very well that this movement will gain a foothold in the countries of Europe. In Austria due to the above-mentioned social partnership, it was possible to establish the Union of Consumer Information. Members are: the Chamber of Commerce representing all of the employers, the Chamber of Agriculture representing the farmers, the Ministry for Consumer Policy, the Chamber of Workers and Employees, and the trade unions. The social partnership was a reliable foundation for handling all this problems of consumerism. For example, the first tests done by a consumer organization in Germany were related to an advertising announcement for cars and ended in trials between industry and consumer organizations. In Austria such things could not happen. We were expecting comparative tests for durable consumer products. The results of these tests are influenced by reproducible measuring methods and by evaluating the utility of certain specifications as well.
For instance, an FM set in our mountain area should have not only a high sensitivity but also strong suppression of signal reflections. The same is valid for the synchronization circuitry in television sets. As far as I remember, the first reproducible measuring procedures of technical parameters for television sets were laid down in Austria. They were important and understandable for consumers as laymen and agreed upon in common groups of representatives of industry and consumer organizations. There is no reason for a fight, they found.
When you say technical parameters for television sets, it's surprising that you say that they were described in ways that laymen could understand. Could you give me an example of one of these parameters?
I expected your question, I must say. And but it is now more than 30 years.
What kinds of things?
Product declarations. There were three parts. The first part was the technical parameters for reception conditions, such as sensitivity. Sensitivity is a word which every consumer, every layman can understand. And then he sees in the product declaration a figure and he can compare the product declarations of the other competitors, and he must only get the information that for a certain technical parameter, a higher figure is a better set and the smaller or lower figure is not as good, or vice versa.
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And we tried to find words that were so self-explanatory that every layman could understand them. Of course at that time, the television broadcast transmitters were only in the big towns, and we trusted that the first buyers would be the more informed or higher educated persons, and when a more educated person understands it he can explain it to his mother or other persons in his family, and this functioned very well. So, yes, it was important and understandable for consumers. A very important performance specification is of course the suppression of distortion and especially the suppression of the adjacent channels. And this specification was explained in very simple, very self-explaining words, not technical words. And then it gave a figure with an arrow. So, to avoid wrong advertising announcements, reproducibility of measuring methods is also important for so-called product declarations. Urged by consumer organizations in many European countries, the most important parameters for satisfactory use by laymen should be given on a label fixed on the set. This label gives help to the buyer to decide the right buy independent of exaggerated advertising. The foundation of a European testing institute for product declarations like the testing institutes for safety science were in various European countries in discussion. The money for this institute should come from industry, and some industry firms were open for this. Austria was able to go another way. The measuring procedures for the technical parameters of durable consumer goods for the use of laymen were laid down together with the consumer organization. On the basis of these procedures the consumer organization was able to make comparative tests. The contents of the product declarations were also laid down in agreement between industry and consumer organizations. But the figures announced in the declaration were measured by the manufacturer and were his own responsibility. The product declaration itself was protected by law against unfair competition. If a producer had the opinion that a figure declared by a competitor was wrong and caused a disadvantage it could go to court. It was a simple, non-bureaucratic solution. Because there was a closed market for radio and television sets in Austria the principle of comparative testing and later on for product declaration were first applied on these sets. White good appliances followed. The Austrian manufacturers exporting their sets to other European countries hoped that the simple Austrian solution would be accepted in these countries as well. To take over our system of manufacturer responsibility for declared figures on product declarations presumes existence of harmonized measuring methods that every nation will agree to. The work in the international standardization committee IEC TC-59 started under the participation of industry representatives of various countries. In 1985 when I retired I also ended my participation in standardization committees. As I learned, it was not necessary to change the principle of product declaration and comparative testing. Only the form of presentation had to be adjusted. It is now used in the prospectus for other goods, too. So that the consumer can make the choice when he compares the technical information and figures in the prospectus. That's all that I can say. Morton: Has it been more difficult to get the kind of cooperation that you came to expect in Austria in Europe? Adler: Yes. It was very difficult to come to an agreement, because of the competition between the different firms. They are very big. It was hard work simply to come to an agreement on technical measuring methods to come to other principle agreements — it lasted very long. There were very long discussions and work to convince the others. So I see Mr. Morton it's 12 o'clock now. Morton: Okay. Adler: And we are on a schedule, yes? Morton: Why don't we wrap things up, as we say. Thank you very much. Adler: Yes. I hope that this interview is a little bit help for you and is interesting for your plans or your program of interviews. Morton: I'm sure it will be.
- 1 About Norbert Adler
- 2 About the Interview
- 3 Copyright Statement
- 4 Interview