Oral-History:Robert Briskman

About Robert Briskman

IEEE Life Fellow, Robert Briskman, received his undergraduate engineering degree from Princeton University. A member of Army ROTC, he trained for the U.S. Army Signal Corps and conducted intelligence work during the Cold War. Much of his career has been devoted to satellites, radio astronomy, and military, space, and civilian communications.

About the Interview

ROBERT BRISKMAN: An interview conducted by Michael Geselowitz for the IEEE History Center, 17 December 2018.

Interview #823 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.

Copyright Statement

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Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to Oral History Program, IEEE History Center at Stevens Institute of Technology, Samuel C. Williams Library, 3rd Floor, Castle Point on Hudson, Hoboken NJ 07030 USA or ieee-history@ieee.org. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

Robert Briskman, an oral history conducted in 2018 by Michael Geselowitz, IEEE History Center, Hoboken, NJ, USA.

Interview

INTERVIEWEE: Robert Briskman INTERVIEWER: Michael Geselowitz DATE: 17 December 2018 PLACE: IEEE-USA office in Washington, D.C.

Introduction

Geselowitz:

This is Michael Geselowitz from the IEEE History Center, and I'm at the IEEE-USA office in Washington D.C., and I'm here to interview IEEE Life Fellow Robert Briskman. Would you like me to call you Robert?

Briskman:

Rob is my nickname.

Geselowitz:

Rob, for the sake of the interview? Fine. So, Rob, I was wondering if you could just start by telling me a little bit about your early life, and how you got interested in engineering.

Briskman:

Well, I actually was not that interested in engineering. I was very good at arts, sciences, mathematics in high school, but I always was interested in literature, and I had intended to be a journalist.

Geselowitz:

Okay.

Education and Princeton University

Briskman:

Back in 1949—so you, now you have a date—the only Ivy League school that had an English course with a sub-course in journalism was Brown. So, I applied to Brown and got in. But I played lacrosse, and the prep school I went to, Poly Prep in Brooklyn, at that time was so good in lacrosse we only played freshman teams from universities. And so in one of our games we played Princeton, and they whipped the ass off of us, and I went back to my advisor and said change Brown to Princeton. That's how I got to Princeton. But again, I was not particularly interested in engineering, but my roommate from prep school, a guy named Billy Beards—now dead—called me and said hey, Rob, you read all this junk that Princeton's been sending? I said nah. He said there's an early two-week free course that the engineering school puts on. Why don't we go—get our room all set up, and get the lay of the land before everybody comes? I said, that sounds great. So we went to the engineering school pre-school. It was mainly surveying and other stuff like that, and a lot of partying. And after one party, I remember we staggered into the room and they had these forms, and you signed the forms, and I became an engineer. And that's how I got into it.

Geselowitz:

Now is that you really enjoyed it, or you're just, at that point, still sort of going with the flow of your roommate. Or did you say to yourself, hey, this is for me?

Briskman:

I actually liked science. I liked physics. I did very well in them. So it felt very comfortable. The only problem is that I could not take humanities courses. I took two in my total four years at Princeton, because I had enrolled in engineering/physics. I was both an engineering and a physics major, and I was in ROTC—the Korean War was going on then. And we'll come back to that, unfortunately. And then I had athletics. So I really had almost no time to do anything. I had one English course, which I got an A in my freshman year. My senior year, I talked to a professor called Von Wagerman in the Woodrow Wilson School, and they let me attend his course on essentially the United Nations, the founding of the United Nations, which had just taken place. But I'll have to say that the engineering school was very small at that time at Princeton—it’s now humungous. In fact, I know well the last dean, Dr. Vincent Poor.

Geselowitz:

Okay.

Briskman:

And they have a new one now, a lady, Emily Carter.

Geselowitz:

Right. Vincent, of course, is very involved in IEEE and in the IEEE Foundation. And I'm sure we'll come back to that. Awesome.

Briskman:

Well, he's a very good friend of mine, a personal friend. You know he's had a—

Geselowitz:

A loss.

Briskman:

A loss of his wife, so—but he's over it completely. And I sent him an e-mail—he was in Shanghai a week ago, but he took care of what I wanted. So it was a small school, and very well run, and very personalized. Well, by the way, there were no computers. We were—I should have brought it as a prop—

Geselowitz:

A slide rule.

Briskman:

A slide rule strapped to our waist. I still have mine. Keuffel and Esser.

Geselowitz:

K&E, of course.

Briskman:

Right. And one of our professors moonlighted at the Sarnoff Laboratories about oh, three miles down the road. It was the RCA Sarnoff Laboratories. It's still in existence. It's called something else now.

Geselowitz:

No, it's still called the Sarnoff Labs, but it's owned by SRI.

Briskman:

Yeah. Geselowitz:

The Stanford research people.

Transistors and Early Experiences with the IRE

Briskman:

Anyhow, they used to do cutting-edge work. And this professor who consulted with them would come back and show us these funny things, which were called transistors. He said that they were going to make a tremendous difference, and he actually told us how they worked, and all of that. Prof. Johnson was the electrical engineering department head. He was a wonderful person. He'd usually have us out once every few months at his house for a backyard barbecue or so. And he taught a course that probably has been fundamental in my development, and it was “Principles of Engineering.” It tried to lay out how to approach problems, the logic of it. And since you are interested with my first intersection with the IRE, the predecessor to IEEE, it was at school, I think my sophomore year—wait, it was my junior year—call me a liar—that I joined the IRE as a student member. So, I think I am a member, if you count back that far, since 1952. There’s a statistic for you! But, unfortunately or fortunately, other than normal IRE student programs, there wasn't any particular nexus with the organization. Obviously, one of the great IRE attributes was their literature. So, we used to be able to get the transactions, and at that time and later IEEE Spectrum, which was a really great magazine. It's a little different now, but at that time it used to publish really good technical articles.

Geselowitz:

How about Proceedings of the IRE? Did you read that also? That was the other flagship journal of IRE.

Briskman:

Yes, very good. Both publications were great.

Geselowitz:

Yeah.

Army ROTC, US Army Signal Corps, and Intelligence Work

Briskman:

I mentioned Spectrum, but I know there were transactions with a whole suite of publications. But that was my main interaction with IRE. There weren't any other activities other than the occasional local meetings. So, I mentioned I was in ROTC. In Princeton, it was Army ROTC. It was almost eliminated during the Vietnam War by protesters, but now it's back in full force. In fact, I convinced Petraeus, General Petraeus, to come down, do a talk to the cadets there and challenge them for a Sunday morning run, and he beat them all at that run. The unit was a very decorated and honorable unit. It was a field artillery unit, and they were forward observers, trained for that. And the reason they had so many medals is that when you got into trouble, you're being overrun by the enemy, you called for fire on your position, and hunker down. If you lived through it, you got a medal. As I said, I was very busy, so I never paid a lot of attention to paperwork, stuff like that. And I should have. My junior year everybody went down to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for field artillery training. My orders were to Camp Gordon, Georgia, for Signal Corps training. I mean, there were other electrical engineers, but I was picked

Geselowitz:

You were the only one sent down to the Signal Corps?

Briskman:

Yes. And I had a girlfriend at the time and I kept saying, you know, I think we're being followed. And she said, oh yeah, you're getting schizophrenic. It turns out I had been chosen for a special intelligence unit. This is a thing Eisenhower set up. He was dead-set against the CIA and NSA, which is funny, because he sounds like Trump now. But he thought they were really losing the cold war, and he wanted a unit to turn it around. And somehow I was chosen.

Geselowitz:

So it was in the military, within the DOD he wanted a military intelligence unit?

Briskman:

And then turned out I ended up heading one of the units. I don't know how many they are in this type of work there. They're separated—there’s another word…

Geselowitz:

Compartmentalized?

Briskman:

Yes. And, so you know, if one unit goes they can't tell anything about the other unit, because you don't know anything about it. So I'm not sure how many units there were. There was at least one other unit, and probably more. I had Europe, and then the Near East. And forgetting various exploits because of classification, the only one I can tell you about is that I was involved in digging a tunnel from our site in West Berlin, right near the Wall—in fact, under the Wall, into East Berlin—and tapping all the cable circuits from Berlin to Moscow. In fact, after reunification the Germans had dug up that tunnel and restored it. I don't know how they had figured out how we had built it, but they restored it. It's in a museum in Berlin called the Allied Museum. And I recommend that museum to you. You'd really love it because, if you like history, there are two buildings. One building is totally on the Berlin airlift. It even goes into how the U.S. and the British would fight each other on how to bag coal. They had to bag coal and fly it into Berlin. And the other unit in the museum is on spying, and they have my tunnel with a little plaque explaining it—but no names. Anyhow, in this job, which I did a lot of other things, one of the things was essentially spying on the Russian space program. At that time there was no real USA space program, but really we were spying on their development of launch vehicles, which were ICBMs and stuff like that. And of course they morphed into a space program. So that's how I sort of got into space. Going forward from that—I'm going to get back to the IEEE again—my wife never liked this spying stuff, killing people and all.

Geselowitz:

Had you met her in school? Or at what, at what point did you get married in this?


Professional Activities, Space, Satellites, and NASA

Briskman:

I got married. I was in the service. I got married in 1957. Met her about 1955, I suppose. 1953—no, met her in 1954. Met her in 1954. For my home base we took over a girls school in Arlington called Arlington Hall Station. Our field station was out in Virginia, a place called Vint Hill, where we could develop things for the field. In any case, she didn't like this sort of killing stuff. So there was a guy I had to throw out of my unit, because he married a German. In my unit, that was cause for immediate dismissal, but we stayed friends. And by the way, we're still friends. So, they used to come over for dinner, and one day he came over, and he had gotten a job with the government accounting office, GAO. And he came over and said he just got a great new job to set up a new unit of the government to do a commercial—or civil, really—civil space satellites, called NASA. And my wife said get him a job. Next day the phone rings. Smith was his name, introduces himself, saying he's trying to set up an engineering organization, NASA. They're looking at Langley Air Force Base and the Naval Research Lab. They really need more people and, you know, would I come aboard?

Geselowitz:

NASA was built somewhat on NACA, right? The old aeronautical group.

Briskman:

Yes.

Geselowitz:

But they needed to really build it out if they wanted to do space, right, is my understanding.

Briskman:

Exactly. Besides outside people, which there were very few, the only other inside ones working on space were at NRL. We drained a lot of people from them, and then started training our own. In any case, around that time I started to get involved again with IEEE efforts. And particularly I was very involved in something called PG-SET, Professional Group on Space Electronics and Telemetry. Obviously, we did a lot of the early work, including standardization. I did the IRIG—Inter-Range Instrumentation Group—standards, for instance. And I did military stuff. So it was just perfect for me. And just as an aside, eventually I came to head PG-SET, and I became friendly with some of the allied groups. There was PG-Mil and PG-ANE. PG-Mil was basically a group of military systems/equipment engineers.

Geselowitz:

Well, my understanding was the military folks stayed separate, initially, because they wanted a forum where they could talk about military secrets, you know, classified material.

Briskman:

Yes.

Geselowitz:

And the PG-SET people were really doing civilian NASA, more sort of civilian stuff. Is that more or less right?

Briskman:

Yes.

Geselowitz:

Okay.

Briskman:

Which wasn't really correct at NASA, but that's what they said. And there was PG-ANE, which is Professional Group on Aerospace and Navigation Electronics.

Briskman:

I got familiar and pretty friendly with them all. I actually started to run a convention in Washington, which was the cat's meow, called Eastcon. It was just on space, and it was both military and civilian. Having joined with them—and I do want to mention one in particular who was fundamental, Sven Doddington, another professional group president—we decided to merge these three groups into what would be PG-AESS, Professional Group on Aerospace Electronics. And later I was president of that too. So I will stop there and go back to my career.

Geselowitz:

I guess they needed to add electronics because the PG-ASS acronym probably wouldn’t go over well, so they made it AES, instead of ASS.

Briskman:

Yes. A-S-S wouldn't be good. So anyhow, as I said, I joined NASA, and as you have gathered, my career has always been one of innovation. I ended up being responsible for all of the tracking, telemetry, communications, and command of most NASA satellites. This involved, among other things, putting earth stations all over the world. I did personally the Gemini and Apollo networks, and my biggest station for that was Carnarvon in Australia, and became very involved with the Australians. Still am. I went back last October, to Adelaide, to be inducted into the International Astronautical Federation Hall of Fame. And the widow of my real cohort down there is still alive, and drove down all the way from Canberra, and we had several days together.

Geselowitz:

Oh, that's great.

Briskman:

Yes. In any case, the other large earth stations were the deep space network. And it's very tied to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; in fact, it was responsible for their efforts in tracking, command and telemetry. That part of JPL’s effort was headed by Dr. Eberhardt Rechtin, again, another IEEE person who was very respected. In any case, that required putting up roughly 200-foot large diameter antennas. Now when I had originally joined NASA, we were losing communication with one of our first planetary probes, and I went over to Jodrell Bank Observatory in the UK, which had actually a 300 foot antenna, and convinced the Director there, Dr. Bernard Lovell, to let me use it to communicate with the probe.

Geselowitz:

Now what were they using it for prior to that?

Radio Astronomy, Communication Satellites, and NASA

Briskman:

Radio astronomy. This was in, oh, I think 1960, 1961 year timeframe. But the large antenna sort of got me, and when Rectin said, you know, we really got to get a network of them, I said you know, when I was at Jodrell, Dr. Lovell was talking about a guy who was building one in Australia. A guy named E. G. “Taffy” Bowen was building one in Parkes, Australia, and it sounded a lot better. Rechtin and I got on a plane and looked at it, and then we built one at the JPL site called Goldstone in the Mohave desert. Then two others were built, another one in Australia at Tidbinbilla, and one outside of Madrid. They're still there. In fact, they've been upgraded recently. Another thing that might be interesting for the archives—I used to play ping-pong with Wernher von Braun. And as an aside for history, if you were a government person in those days, and you went on a field trip—if you were going to be there for two or more days—for one of the dinners you'd be invited to home of one of host engineers, because government per diem was very low. When von Braun did it, he had a rule. Nobody could speak German. Which was fine. All his German engineers could speak passable English.

Geselowitz:

And you probably spoke German from your military intelligence days.

Briskman:

Yes. But it was very awkward for the companions. The women would be sitting there mute for the whole thing. It was very awkward.

Geselowitz:

Uh-huh.

Briskman:

But he insisted on that. Anyhow, he pulled he pulled me aside one day and he said, hey Rob, look. Look at all those antennas you have on the Gemini capsule. Yeah, yeah. All right, HF, VHF, UHF, S band, and L band. You know, with Apollo, and my Saturn, I can only give you only one antenna. Make it happen. As you know, I like innovation. I came up with an idea of how to do all that at one frequency—one radio frequency, with one antenna. And everybody thought it was really great. I went out to our vendors and they go, oh, we can't build that, we can't build that. And then I remembered a military spy equipment manufacturing organization that Motorola had in Scottsdale, run by a guy named Knudson. He's dead now, I'm afraid. And I gave him a call and I said you know, you've been doing stuff like this, is there somebody could rearrange this military electronics, take care of that? He said, Let me think about it, and a day later he calls back. Yeah, I think we can do it. Well, they built it. It's called the Unified S-band system. Believe it or not, it is still in use today by the military. But it's a system that obviously combines all the telemetry, communications, uplink command, and can put it all through one antenna. I received the Apollo Achievement Award for that. So getting back to my wife, she was getting unhappy with government, and I was too. It was getting bureaucratic. NASA in the old days was great. But then, you know, they introduced all sorts of new forms, and extra procedures and so forth.

Geselowitz:

I don't want to justify all the bureaucracy, but at some point you do need more bureaucracy to manage a larger organization, I guess. You disagree. Okay, I'm sorry.

Briskman:

By the way, that's the real part of the problem.

Geselowitz:

Right.

IEEE Activities

Briskman:

Not the solution. But the answer is one of the guys who was actually head of communication satellites at NASA, a guy named Mort Stoller—again dead—walked into my office one day and said hey, Rob, you know, I'm working on something really interesting. I'm working with Congress to help write what was then called the Communications Satellite Act of 1962 that would set up a semi-commercial organization to do communication satellites. And I said, you know, that sounds interesting. And he says oh, I'll tell the people who are organizing it of your interest. And I got a call from again, another—and I should have brought his picture—another long time IRE stalwart, a guy named Sidney Metzger. And he was very active in IEEE, or IRE at that time, and then IEEE, and he offered me a job. And so I went to COMSAT, and worked there for 26 years. Probably the most interesting things were, one, I was responsible for launching the first commercial communications satellite. It was called Early Bird, and later renamed Intelsat I. I was responsible for the early Intelsat l operation. And, during my period at COMSAT, I was very active with IEEE. And as I mentioned on the phone, I really don't know what's in the archives but there were some really great presidents of IEEE during that time that I really think should be recorded in the archives for their contributions. One is Joseph Dillard. He actually came from the power side of IEEE. Remember IEEE was from a merger of IRE with AIEE, which was the power side. And he was from there, and he was at Westinghouse. He did a lot of very good things to properly organize IEEE and move it forward, because there were a lot of problems that needed to be addressed.

Geselowitz:

So you're saying that when they did the merger, they hadn't worked out all the kinks, and by the early 1970s some cracks were showing, and he was one of the people who sort of moved it forward. Is that it?

Briskman:

I, yes, I think that's a fair statement, Mike, yes. The—and of course, as I mentioned, there were also Ivan Getting and Robert Saunders.

Geselowitz:

Uh-huh.

Briskman:

And of course Dick Damon. I have these artifacts of that—those days. The outgoing president would always give a token of his appreciation. I haven't brought them all along, but Dick Damon gave this very nice knife.

Geselowitz:

Wow.

Briskman:

With an IEEE symbol, and of course, they're not very useful in airplanes any more. Dillard gave a very good letter opener, which still works, if you have a letter to open.

Geselowitz:

By the way, also not useful on an airplane anymore.

Briskman:

No.

Geselowitz:

Please hold it up. I just want to make sure we have a good look at the knife on the video. Perfect. Or it should I call it a letter opener, not a knife?

Briskman:

So anyhow, I became quite active, in the IEEE. Besides being president of AESS, I was the head of the IEEE Standards Board. This is my token.

Geselowitz:

Ah. How did you get involved with the standard side, as opposed to the space side?

Briskman:

Well, I had been, as I told you, involved with the telemetry standards, and I was sort of known for my patents and papers. And they were looking for somebody and picked me. So anyhow, I spent a lot of time on IEEE work. But just going back to these presidents and some of the things they did. One of them was to put in a code of ethics. There was great concern that engineers were not appreciated sufficiently in society, as compared to lawyers and doctors. And there were efforts, not all good, but there were efforts to rectify that. And one of them, which I think was good, was to have a code of ethics. In those days—I don't know how it's done now—they used to, in your yearly renewal, when you signed it, the code of ethics was below it, and your signature box would say you agree to abide by this code of ethics. Is that still done, Mike?

Geselowitz:

I believe so, yeah. Do you know a gentleman named Walter Elden?

Briskman:

Yes.

Geselowitz:

Okay. So you'll be interested in this. Aside from your interview, we've been working with Walter. He felt very concerned that the history of ethics, to which you're now contributing, was being lost. And so our archivist has been working with him to assemble a subset of the archives just on the history of the ethics in IEEE. So you'd be interested in that, I think.

Briskman:

I would be, but the important thing is make sure that IEEE pursues that with its members. Because a professional person should have a code of ethics. I was on the Board for six years, as a Director. I was then elected as a Vice President—I was Vice President for Technical Activities and then two terms as Secretary-Treasurer. And as an aside, I see you have all those pins up there. And I brought three of them. I have whole sets of them. There's the Active Director pin. I'm wearing a Retired Director pin

Geselowitz:

Past Director pin?

Briskman:

Past Director pin.

Geselowitz:

Right.

Briskman:

And here's a Vice President pin. So these pins are all perfectly made, and they have little holders so they don't rotate. And the reason they were made was because of one director, a guy named Brereton, Don Brereton. And he designed all this stuff. He made sure they were meticulously made. He was a regional director, and I believe he may have passed away. I have lost contact with him. So there's an aside.

More is not better at IEEE. And one of the problems that was not well addressed is people participating in IEEE activities at the Board level really needed support from corporations. Now little things like money for travel, etc., wasn't really the problem. The problem was time away from the job. And because of that, a lot of the governance of the IEEE has fallen to academia. And some of us feel that this is a problem.

Geselowitz:

We like to call it a challenge. And it remains a big challenge for IEEE.

Briskman:

Yes. And so, anyhow, it's what they were not successful in doing. Another last aside. President Saunders got invited to a big celebration of the Popov Society. I don't know whether it was a 100-year anniversary. It was a big anniversary. And they held the World Electro Technical Congress—this is 1977—in Moscow. The IEEE gave these, this plaque with the Lucite bar with embedded postal stamps. I'm not sure your camera can get the stamps, but they are all stamps involved with early electrical engineering.

Geselowitz:

Uh-huh. So we actually have, without the extra commemorative inscription, one of these Lucite plaques in the archives. And there's one here in this office.

Briskman:

Yeah.

Geselowitz:

So, so we can get a better image of those for the website. So it says on the plaque actually, that you were actually the IEEE representative to the organizing committee

Briskman:

Yes. I led the delegation, although the first day I wasn't there. We get off the plane—I had obviously checked before with my intelligence friends whether there would be any problem. Oh, you've been out for five, six years, they've forgotten you. And then we get to Russian immigration, and everybody is passed through and sent on a bus to the only hotel that at that time Americans were allowed to stay in. It was called Rossiya Hotel. I say that because they knocked it down two years ago. And they said oh, Mr. Briskman. We have a little problem with your reservation there. Could you wait in this nice lounge and we'll solve it. About an hour later a guy comes in and says well, we have solved it, but we have to put you in the Ukraina. And of course, in my day, I knew that was for the undesirables.

Geselowitz:

It was more thoroughly bugged then the Rossiya, you think?

Briskman:

So we go to this thing, it's hardwood floors, big matrons ruling each floor. He showed me my room, which was Spartan at best. And I'm sitting there. There's a telephone and a radio. And I have my little penknife. Those days you could carry knives on planes. And I wonder if they still used tubes? And I take the little screws off the back, and of course there's a microphone. So I put the screws back and wait. Well, a half-hour later the phone rings and this very sexy lady—oh, wrong number, and she goes on and on. You know, I'm at the bar, you know, won't you come down and have drink with me? And I said, tell your handler that that line went out a decade ago. So in the morning, knock on the door, a nice guy in civvies, a crew cut. Mr. Briskman, we have a short journey we'd like to take you on. He takes me down to this car, a private car, zooms in the fast lanes in Moscow out to a military air base and puts me on a plane to Novosibirsk, which is in Siberia. While flying there, I teach him how to play gin rummy. We became very good friends. He apparently knew my history very well. And we get off, there's a car, and they take me to an earth station. And he gives me this bundle of keys. He says, these keys should open every door. Please go through it at your leisure, and if you there is anything that doesn’t open, or if you can't see something, come back and I will take care of it. So I spent an hour or two going through it, come back. Now have you seen everything, Rob? Oh yeah. Sure there's nothing you missed? You have any questions? No. I go back, and they put me back in the Ukraina.

Geselowitz:

Did they let you rejoin the conference?

Briskman:

Yes. And the reason for this whole episode, it turns out, this was during the time of START and other treaties, and our intelligence people said this earth station and its counterparts were part of a military complex. But they had built it for Molniya, a civilian communication satellite system. And they figured the best way to convince our intelligence is to have one of their top guys tell them what it was.

Geselowitz:

That's a great example. Plus, I imagine with your background, they thought you would be more believed by U.S. military, than if they picked somebody, some engineer who was very technically savvy, but they thought could be duped politically and showed him around. They knew you were, that you would go back and say I saw everything there and it's clean.

Briskman:

Yes.

Geselowitz:

That's fascinating. Wow, that's a great story.

COMSAT

Briskman:

So anyhow, getting back to COMSAT, it was a great organization. It's unfortunately gone, even though somebody has now taken its name to continue. We built the first international communications satellites called Intelsat, a whole series of them. I mentioned Intelsat I, which is Early Bird. We built II, III, IV, and V and I helped on these, and the first maritime communications satellite. It was called Marisat, and it’s successor is now called Inmarsat. And I helped them with the satellite, and I built for them the United States earth stations that are still used. One in Santa Paula, California. And the other in in Connecticut. And we actually designed and never built an aeronautical satellite with ESA.

Geselowitz:

The European Space Agency?

Briskman:

Yes. Hasn't changed. It would have allowed pilots to communicate seamlessly across the Atlantic. And we had an agreement with ESA. I actually put four engineers at Noordwijk, which is their R&D center in the Netherlands. And when it came time to build the satellite, and we asked for some money, the FAA said well, we don't have any, we'll get it from the airlines. The airlines said hell no. So I almost, you know—in fact, I didn't almost—I told the Vice President of COMSAT, a guy named John McLucas…

Geselowitz:

I'm sorry?

Briskman:

McLucas.

Geselowitz:

McLucas, okay.

Pioneer of Domestic Satellite Systems

Briskman:

He had come from the FAA. I told him, I think we ought to sue the FAA. And he convinced me not to do that. So anyhow, my next innovation was that the satellites were international. I thought they could also be used for domestic services. In fact, one of my early inventions or patents was something that the CATV guys used. The CATV station was just receiving many videochannels, and it allowed you to seamlessly switch without having rollover in a person's television set between various video channels. Any case, so I became a pioneer of domestic satellite systems. And I finally built the world's biggest and best one. It was called COMSTAR. And I sold all its capacity to AT&T and GTE. At that time, AT&T was going to use it for a new service that was going to overwhelm the public—Picturephone.

Geselowitz:

So you're trying to tell us about AT&T's brilliant picture phone idea.

Briskman:

Unfortunately, it never came about. Anyhow, it was such a cat's meow, this satellite system. I innovated a frequency plan for 4 and 6 gigahertz that is still in use today. The FCC was gaga on it. And I was able to double the capacity of the satellite by using cross polarization. AT&T went to Bell Labs, who said it was not possible. So I actually rigged up an experiment on the ground showing them it was. Bell Labs never liked me particularly, because, as you know, they had devised Telstar. And one of the big first challenges at COMSAT was deciding just what was the satellite system we were going to build. There was the Telstar system, and one that TRW had proposed, that had many lower satellites. Telstar had a lot of medium orbit ones. And then of course there was a geostationary one. We chose the geostationary one, and Bell Lab never has forgiven us. As one of the choosers, I am still…

Geselowitz:

On their black list?

Briskman:

Yes.

Geselowitz:

Well, Bell Labs isn't really Bell Labs anymore, anyway.

Briskman:

Well, it isn't, but some of the people that helped me there are still with Lucent.

Geselowitz:

Uh-huh.

Briskman:

And Lucent went through a bad patch, and is back in action. Michael Rauchwork always helped me—I saw him just last month. And a guy named Porter who helped me with some of my RF equipment. Any case, getting back. So they said COMSTAR was the cat's meow. It was so good that the Mexican government came to me and hired my organization, and me, personally, to build their domestic satellite system called Morelos. And it was the only system ever built in Mexico on time, and worked to spec, and the money was paid back. I raised the money from banks, and I made sure the Mexicans paid it all back on time, which they did. Then the Arabs came to me. I shouldn't say they came to me. It was competitive.

Geselowitz:

So they put out an RFP for their project?

Briskman:

Yep.

Geselowitz:

How many organizations were capable, besides yours, of doing that?

Briskman:

There were three bidders. Europeans, particularly, had a consortium doing it, Thales. And in fact they came to me and said Rob, you might as well withdraw. You know, we paid all of these agents the bribes, and we have it locked up. So I went to our president—COMSAT had a subsidiary, to do all the domestic and non-Intelsat work—Johnny Johnson. Johnny, by the way, and I were the only two people that came from NASA to COMSAT when COMSAT opened. He was a lawyer, actually. He was assistant general counsel of NASA, and he became president of COMSAT General. And I said, John, what I'm going to do, they say I don't have a chance? Why don't you try the white knight approach? I said what the hell is that? He goes, well, just go and tell them flatly hey, you know, we, we're the best, we don't pay agents, and we won't pay agents. And that won it. And we built it for them. I was over in Dubai a few years ago and they still remembered me, and even my wife. Anyhow, COMSAT then hit a very bad patch from—I suppose it could not think of other satellite innovations. Intelsat had now gone off on its own to build the international service, and INMARSART went off on its own to build the maritime service. Direct-to-home video, which I was very interested in, was a failure at COMSAT. It was too early. We had everything right except technology, and the technology we did not have at that time was digital video compression. So we actually built two satellites—we never flew them—that were cat's meow, except the user could get only eight channels. And everybody went, that's nutty, you know. Obviously compression, that raises it to almost 60 channels. So I had nothing really interesting to do. I sort of looked around, and one of the firms that decided they needed me was a company called Geostar. And it was a formed by Dr. O'Neill, at Princeton. Gerard O'Neill. He is a very famous person. It was a navigation satellite like GPS, but had a return channel to it. And I suppose my big innovation there was the Commerce Department had come to me, because they saw transceivers that I was making were very small for automobiles. And so they had a real problem with drug smuggling interdiction. So I make an anti-drug transceiver. Something they wanted so that, down in South America, their agent would put it in a bag of heroin or marijuana. The contraband would be loaded on a boat, and Commerce (its Drug Enforcement Agency, DEA) would get the tracking data wherever it went. Once they knew that boat was in international waters, the Coast Guard would come up and seize the boat. And I said you know, developing these transceivers are expensive. Okay, come back next week. I came back next week. Here's a check for $1 million. Well, I tried to figure out how to do it, and again, I said hey, there were this military equipment manufacturer in Scottsdale who had done the NASA Unified S-band. I gave Knudson a call, told him what I needed. Yeah, we could build that. You know, it was smaller than this. It would work forever, except for batteries. From the time it was turned on and thrown in the bag, it had to work for, for at least a week or two. We solved the battery problem, and it was a very successful program. The DEA was very happy with me. Unfortunately, the company actually eventually went into bankruptcy. The reason is that the main feature was obviously location, and GPS now was in operation, and it was free. You know, our satellites would cost something like $300 million bucks. And so we'd have to charge, and so that's why it went belly-up. So anyhow, moving on. The next step I told you I was very interested in direct-to -home. And there's a guy named Eddy Hartenstin, and he's alive. He's actually still on the Sirius XM board, but was the founder of DIRECTV. I was helping him with some technical stuff. Then one day we were drinking at night and hey, Eddy, why don't you add radio to the TV? Oh, good idea. But you know Rob, people in the home really watch television. They really listen to radio in the car. Yeah, right, Eddy. Why don't you do it to the car? He said oh, that's technically not possible. And to me that's a—

Geselowitz:

That's your red flag in front of a bull.

Briskman:

That's it, yeah. So I spent my remaining time working on how to solve that. There was a guy who I worked with who innovated satellite radio, a lawyer, now a head of a pharmaceutical company, named Rothblatt—Martin, now Martine Rothblatt. At that time Martin Rothblatt. He and I eventually teamed up with my co-founder of Sirius, a guy named David Margolis. He was the business type, and I was the technical type. But it took me probably seven, eight years to solve the technical problems. At least five patents, satellite spatial diversity, satellite time diversity, satellite frequency diversity, how to build the little antenna that goes in the car, how to put the radio signals from the satellite into the car radio, etc. So I have a slew of patents that cover that—many of them now obsolete, or run out. There is a patent limit of 17 years. So I spent the next quarter of a decade with Sirius XM, and actually I'm still helping them through my consulting company with some technical matters.

Geselowitz:

But you're not on the board or anything anymore, like?

Briskman:

Correct. One of the nice things about stepping back, you can pick what you're interested in, and I'm interested in different things, particularly innovation. I sent you my recent paper I gave in Bremen.

Geselowitz:

Uh-huh.

Briskman:

On uplink interference. And in fact, there will be a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking issued today by the FCC on it. Uplink interference. And then I hope to go to the ITU and create an international criterion on it. So I pick things I'm interested in. I mentioned the other thing, which I do have a patent on, is orbital debris. I have a patent that shows how to build a satellite that looks around for orbital debris. If it sees a piece that's going to hit it, it automatically moves itself out of the way, and then it automatically moves itself back again. It's totally autonomous. And I'm trying to get that implemented, which is harder than it sounds. But it's again, one of the things I've picked of interest. I am also helping a Singapore firm with a great idea on all these low satellites. If you try to build earth stations to get the data, since the low satellites are not visible to the earth station more than maybe 10 minutes a day, you need a lot of earth stations. Rather than that, the satellite sends its signals up to a geostationary satellite, which collects them and sends them down, called IDRS. So anyhow, I'm going to stop there and let you ask questions.

IEEE

Geselowitz:

I'm going to say you just mentioned toward the end there still being involved in the development of an uplink interference criterion. Are you still involved in general with IEEE, and particularly with IEEE standards?

Briskman:

No I'm not. One of my problems with IEEE is that over the years it's moved out of satellites—communication satellites, aerospace. It's almost bequeathed that to, in the United States, the AIAA—I'm sorry, yeah.

Geselowitz:

The AIAA, yeah, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Briskman:

Yes. And the IAF, which is the International Astronautical Federation. So to be honest with you, I have less involvement with IEEE than previously.

Geselowitz:

Uh-huh. And so this coming July is going to be the 50th anniversary of the first person to walk on the moon.

Briskman:

Yes.

Geselowitz:

And there's going to be a lot of publicity and celebration and veneration around that, which we'll also plan to get involved in, because IEEE members like you were integral. And also, I love astronauts, they're great heroes and all that, but we wanted—it’s our job at the IEEE History Center—to make sure that people remember that it's actually the engineers who get it done. You can take any test pilot and stick him in the tin can, but the engineers have to get the guy there and get the guy back with navigation, guidance telemetry, biometrics.

Briskman:

And also build the tin can.

Geselowitz:

Right. So anyway, I was wondering if you had been approached, or if you're involved in any of the, you know, if you've been interviewed by any major news organizations.

Briskman:

No I haven't, although I am very involved with the National Space Society, which is part of the Smithsonian, believe it or not.

Geselowitz:

Uh-huh.

Briskman:

So I used to go to some of the John Glenn lectures. He doesn't go there any more, unfortunately, but he did for many years. And I donated one of my satellites to the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center so they like me quite a bit.

Geselowitz:

Uh-huh.

Briskman:

One of the few real satellites. Most of the exhibits there are models.

Geselowitz:

We talked before about the challenge of people in the industry versus academics, and getting involved in IEEE. Do you have any further thoughts on IEEE members? So when I, soon after I became director of history center, one of the chairs of the history committee became—Arthur Stern, you know Arthur?

Briskman:

Yes, very well. He, unfortunately, passed away.

Geselowitz:

Yeah, he passed relatively recently.

Briskman:

By the way, he was also a wonderful president of the IEEE.

Geselowitz:

He was, I'm told—that was before my time. I'm told he was a great president. I knew him later as Chair of the IEEE History Committee. He had some great cold war stories by the way also. Because, because he was a Jewish refugee from Hungary, and he got a chance to go back there with an IEEE delegation, and that was also interesting, in terms of the intelligence agents and how they reacted. But anyway, he was president of a large company.

Briskman:

Magnavox.

Geselowitz:

Yes, he was president of Magnavox while he was president of IEEE. Twenty years later when he was chair of the IEEE History Committee, he was promoting the fact to me that it wasn't possible anymore, you know, for a person that involved in an industry to have enough release time to be involved in IEEE activities. And I wonder if you had any thoughts on how IEEE might address that, you know, in the 21st century? It's a challenge.

Briskman:

Well, the answer is you can't. Life has changed. Obviously, fortunately, what you could do is to have their subordinates, vice presidents, executive vice presidents, division vice presidents, involved. So there are levels where I think people can still spend a reasonable amount of time—but that gets back to my point on bureaucracy and making things complicated. You know, like, the splitting of the secretary treasurer. Now, the secretary job really you know, took almost no time, and just another person has to be coordinated with, and this and that. You have to figure out—and that's why I did it, it was very good—how to run this place efficiently. Efficiently means minimizing the time and travel, so that it becomes possible for people to do it. And I think that can be done. You know, it's not very popular. Everybody wants a title.

Geselowitz:

And they want to travel.

Briskman:

Yeah.

Geselowitz:

And because one of the challenges is folks thought that the new technology of you know, video teleconferencing and so forth, that they could just hold all meetings virtually. But you've just mentioned some stories about going to the bar right after a meeting, and that's where the real work is done, right? There's a feeling, despite the 21st century, and IEEE members being responsible for, like yourself, for many technologies. People need to be face to face together in a room sometimes to get certain things done, you know?

Briskman:

Sometimes, yes. Definitely. But you—so you're not going to replace it all, but you can do a lot with teleconferencing and you know, web and stuff like that, WebEx. I got to tell you, industry does it within industry. So there's no reason why the IEEE can't do it. Now I'm not saying eliminating all the travel, but minimizing it.

Geselowitz:

Right. I wonder if you, had because I mentioned that Walter Elden has been working on the history of the ethics code, if you had any other thoughts. I mean, we only talked about that briefly. If you had any thoughts you wanted to share about the early development of, of ethics codes within IEEE?

Briskman:

No, I think the management and the presidents, vice presidents, most of the directors, they all agreed that that was something that should be done for the profession. Obviously the wording went through a lot of iterations. But that's you know, sort of normal. And that's good. And then, after we got it how we wanted, then we had to get it through the lawyers, who changed it some more. But that you know, is the price of progress. So I really think that went very well. I recall there were almost no negative reactions—there were a few, but almost none from our membership. We were worried how members would look at it. They could have felt that there might be some sort of conflict of interest or they didn't want to be bound by something that, you know, would be enforced by a professional organization. But the answer is, that was not true.

Geselowitz:

And part of it you just alluded to is that there's always a little bit, I think, of tension in IEEE of being a professional organization versus a scholarly organization, right? So a lot of the people say this is where I publish and where I edit, and where I subscribe to, to journals, and I go to conferences. But my university deals with ethics or, you know, that's not what I go there for. And does an industry need a professional association? But that's, in part, why there’s the IEEE-USA office, and that's why they spun off IEEE-USA as a separate office. If you're a German engineer, you belong to IEEE for the publications, and you can still belong to VDE, which is the national electrical engineering association. If you're an American engineer, you have nowhere else to turn for professional issues. But you know, more like continuing education and ethics, and that, that sort of thing. So I think that's always been a tension for IEEE.


Briskman:

Well, I suppose so. But you're better judged by the number of complaints. And I think there have been very few.

Geselowitz:

Right.

Briskman:

Have, have you gotten a lot of complaints?

Geselowitz:

No, though I know that one of the reasons that Walter undertook this project is, there is now the ethics committee which became the ethics and member conduct committee at some point. And there is talk of revising it again. I don't know the details, but that's why Walter came and said you know what? You’re talking about a big change again, but you don't know the history. I was there, you know, in the, in the early days on a lot of these committees. So he came to us and said could you help me get my stuff and the stuff you already have in the archives and, and put it up on line, you know, digitize it all? Which we did for him. And we have now a separate collection on line called the IEEE Ethics History repository. We've brought everything together so if they—you know, because one of the challenges with big bureaucracies and, and it happens IEEE is reinventing the wheel.

Briskman:

Well, that's true, and it’s good

Geselowitz:

And they say, they said, let's try this. And well, when you tried that 20 years ago you got such and such a result.

Briskman:

Exactly. But it still is good to re-look at things. Like, I don't think the original one had anything to do about gender.

Geselowitz:

Uh-huh.

Briskman:

And I think any ethics we have must have that.

Geselowitz:

They would have to address that.


Briskman:

Should address that. So you know, life changes, and I think that's good. So re-looking at things is not bad, but you're right. When you relook at it, you shouldn't reinvent the wheel. I'm sorry, I'm agreeing with you.

Satellites and Technical Societies

Geselowitz:

Finally, it's been only an hour and 20 minutes. So that's really something—this has been a fascinating interview. I've learned so much. So I'm content, unless you have something else now that occurs to you at the end that you didn't mention, that you'd like to mention for the archival record.

Briskman:

I suppose, yes. I mentioned the conversion of the PG-SET groups to societies. I'm very, pleased in general, with the society structure. I think it's been good for IEEE—most of the societies are performing very well. As I mentioned, I'm an innovator, and almost all of them are at the edge of innovation, and keep pushing it. So I think that has worked extremely well. And I think it should be encouraged—as I said, I'm unhappy that communication satellites sort of dropped out. I think—but we'll see, maybe they'll come back in a different form.

Geselowitz:

Well, that's the thing about the society structure, right? It was borrowed from the PG structure of IRE.

Briskman:

Yep.

Geselowitz:

They wondered why was IRE more successful than AIEE at the time of the merger? And one of the reasons was, members could identify new technology and form a professional group around it. And so the society model was modeled directly on that. And I agree with you, I think it's been great—see, I'm agreeing with you.

Briskman:

But that's the only thing I really wanted to add, because I, I started down that road and I got sidetracked.

Geselowitz:

Okay. So that's it? That's the only thing?

Briskman:

Yeah.

Geselowitz:

Okay, well thank you very much, I really appreciate your time. Signing off.