The floods that hit the Northeast U.S. in April nearly wiped out one of the motherlodes of analog history. Thanks to heroic work, most of the documents at the David Sarnoff Library in Princeton were saved. But it took a major effort and donations from the IEEE, the Antique Radio Club of Illinois, and other private and institutional donors.
To really appreciate the library, you have to be an alpha geek like my friend Charlie Osborn. Charlie got deeply involved with the library through his research into the RCA Selectron vacuum-tube memory element. (See http://home.att.net/~thercaselectron/index1.html, and be sure to mouse over the pins at the base of the tube.) That led him to MacGyver a flatbed scanner so Alex Magoun, the library's executive director, could copy ancient bound volumes without cracking the spines (see figure). These books included some of the notebooks of John von Neumann.
Charlie contacted me after the floods, when Alex was seeking donations to pay for the document salvage efforts. He says you can almost sense the ghosts of those pioneer engineers. "The successful and directly observed ‘output' from the labs of RCA are so numerous and all pervasive, it is tough make a list," he says.
"Weather satellites are taken for granted, but Tiros-I was damned near magical," he says. "TV reception direct from satellites is possible because of the traveling wave tubes—semiconductors still can't do the job—beaming the signals back down to an entire continent. Color TV was going to need huge spinning wheels in front of a regular TV except for the engineers—and yes—the attorneys of RCA."
Charlie also notes that the basic CMOS structure used in computer processor chips was developed at RCA, when "Lefty" Leverenz began synthesizing CRT phosphors in the 1930s. "Seventy years later, as Sarnoff Corporation, phosphors for CRTs and plasma displays are still being developed by the scientists in Princeton. Other chemists developed materials and processes ranging from vinyl records to solar cells. And fuel cells. And nuclear fusion," he says.
That sums up the magic that's in the air at the library. Alex Magoun puts it more prosaically: "I won't pretend that this is popular material... But we saved these collections from Dumpsters because they are essential to understanding—and admiring—the innovative spirit that the United States has always enjoyed."
Alex also says these documents represent primary source material for scholars and researchers, as well as electronics restoration experts. As such, they lay the groundwork for popular histories, documentaries, Web sites, textbooks, and movies about our electronic past.
"More broadly, they represent the fruit of intellectual creativity by thousands of engineers and scientists, working at particular times in particular places, and significantly contributing to the shape of our material world and the ways we communicate today," Alex says.
The David Sarnoff Library