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First-Hand:Tube Manufacturing at Sylvania

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W. A. Dickinson

During the war, we made a variety of tubes for use in radar, loran, and so forth. Radar designs, including the display tubes, progressed rapidly with the whole industry cooperating and working with the Radiation Laboratory at MIT, the Navy Research Laboratory, and others. Our production reached twenty thousand tubes per month, all pretty much handmade, and at terrible scrap figures-thirty to forty percent as I recall. None the less, Sylvania was awarded the Navy "E" late in the war.

When the plant opened I had little concept of what we were getting into. Western Electric, which built radar, was my first visit to a customer. We had supplied them with sample five-inch oscilloscope tubes, which they had rejected. We didn't understand why and it was my job to find out what the problem was.

When I saw an RCA tube in the unit compared with ours, it was immediately obvious that RCA had made a new tube with a smaller spot size, which greatly improved the resolution and appearance of the display. From that day until my retirement, tube spot size and focus quality were the paramount concerns of my professional life.

A more successful project to which I contributed was a small (70 mm) tube for aiming radar in the British Spitfire. The display was very small-a bright spot on the tube face represented a target. The pilot maneuvered the aircraft to bring the spot to the center crosshairs on the tube face, which indicated that the target was dead ahead, so the guns were aimed.

Our first requirement was that the tube be able to withstand severe shock and vibration. I designed a new U-shaped mount "snubber," which enabled the tube to pass shock and vibration specs. After we adapted one of our mount designs to meet the electrical specs, we received approval and promptly began filling orders for it.

We failed to file a timely patent application on the snubber, so it was never patented, but the Sylvania Parts Department sold millions of them. The principle of its design has been used widely since.

I (and many others) worked hard during the war-six day weeks with little time off. However, I didn't make any of the big money we heard about in other industries. The company kept me deferred from the draft, so I was practically frozen in my job. I regret that I never fought for my country, but I believe I contributed the most where I was.

I also worked in the Civil Defense Control Center and helped with Red Cross fund drives and blood banks, and bought savings bonds. Gasoline, sugar, shoes, and other commodities were rationed, but we "got by." Emporium was a good, safe place to spend the war. Also, it became known as Girls' Town (from the Colliers magazine article) for the three thousand or so (mostly young) women who worked in the tube plants. Maxine was one of them-we were married in May, 1945.

My college mentor, Dr. Percy H. Carr, referred me to his friend and former student, Dr. Robert M. Bowie, who was director of a laboratory developing television picture tubes, at Hygrade-Sylvania Corporation in St. Marys, Pennsylvania. This lab reported to the Receiving Tube Engineering Department at Emporium, Pennsylvania. It was set up at the request of Philco Corporation, Sylvania's major radio tube customer, and worked closely with Philco Engineering. At the time, televison seemed "just around the corner." Dr. Bowie made me an offer to start as a junior engineer, in July, 1937, at sixty cents per hour. I accepted at once and spent the next forty-two years in the Sylvania's organization, working in design and development of cathoderay tubes. (Hygrade-Sylvania became Sylvania Electric Products, Inc. and was later bought by GTE.)

But television didn't get started commercially as promptly as we expected. England, which had taken the lead in development and in broadcasting, got involved in World War II and shut down television activity. United States radio manufacturers turned their attention to FM radio, which promised quicker return on their investments. So, early in 1940, our laboratory closed. I felt fortunate to be retained on the payroll and was transferred to the Receiving Tube Engineering Department in Emporium, Pennsylvania.

As color televison expanded, monochrome televison declined. We had renewal business and sold some tubes for various displays, including coin-operated electronic games. We were saved, however, by the computer market which developed in the 1970s. We made a variety of tubes, primarily twelve-inch and fifteen-inch sizes for computer displays. These tubes were similar to monochrome picture tubes, but used longer persistence flourescent screens and traded brightness for improved resolution. The general goal was to display legibly on the tube face, an equivalent of an 8.5 by 11-inch page of typed material.

We sold tubes to the computer industry. The competition among computer makers-or those who built the display units for them-was so intense that all were very demanding on quality, especially glass, screen defects and focus. Each customer also wanted us to supply him with something unique which would give him the advantage over his competitors.

While we had many customers over the years (I worked with engineers at a number of them), my all-time favorite customer was IBM.This company did long-range planning, knew what they wanted and were willing to pay for it. They also had knowledgeable people who worked closely with us on new developments. It was no accident that the best computer display tubes we ever made were the fifteen inch, seventy degree rectangular types developed for IBM. They bought many thousands of them. I joined the Emporium Section of IRE (later the IEEE) when television was the prime topic for section meetings, conventions, and papers in Proceedings. (I later served a year as Chairman of the Emporium Section.)

My work experience was unusual. I stayed with one organization and worked on one product line for the entire time. Meetings are often important, but I sat through too many which I considered a waste of time. A meeting at which decisions are to be made requires a string chairman, freedom of honest participation by those involved, and written record of conclusions. I believed in putting things in writing; nobody put out more one-page memos than I; they prevented misunderstandings. I also believed in good, complete manufacturing specifications, and in adherence to them.

The designer starts with something that exists, then modifies it to improve it, or makes a new product. He or she must understand the principles behind the operation of the product and work with, not against them. The designer should observe how a thing "wants to work" and make it that way. The more he or she knows about materials, manufacturing processes, and the intended application, the better the designs can be. The product should be as simple as possible, reduced to its essentials, and made the easiest way.