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James D. Cobine

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Biography

James D. Cobine was born in 1905 in Oklahoma City, and grew up there. He began preparing for his career as a physicist and electrical engineer at the University of Wisconsin, where he received a BS in electrical engineering in 1931. He then earned a MS and a PhD in Electrical Engineering and Physics from the California Institute of Technology, graduating in 1931. He then went to the Graduate School of Engineering at Harvard, where he served as instructor and assistant professor. While at Harvard he wrote his classic book, “Gaseous Conductors,” which first appeared in 1941 and was a standard of the field for decades.

During WWII, Dr. Cobine remained at Harvard, teaching Army and Navy officers in the Cruft War Course and conducting research as part of the Radio Research Laboratory. His group devised methods for creating noise as a radar countermeasure. Out of this work the discovery was made that a magnetic field enhances the noise output of a discharge through a gas, which led to his development of a powerful source of wideband noise that was in use in most radar jammers by the end of the war. Dr. Cobine served as part of the Pulse Transformer Committee of the Radiation Laboratory at MIT during the war and as a consultant to the psycho-acoustic Laboratory of the National Defense Research Committee at Harvard. For his many wartime contributions, he was awarded the Army-Navy Certificate of Appreciation.

In 1945 Dr. Cobine joined the staff of the General Electric Company’s Research Laboratory, where he remained for the rest of his career, winning dozens of patents and publishing many scores of professional papers. With a wide range of interests and talents, Dr. Cobine turned his attention to such disparate topics as inert gas welding, light amplification, magnahydrodynamics and the acceleration of mass to a velocity. His most recognized work was his development of high-power vacuum interrupters, which replaced earlier oil-based current interruptors. The new invention proved highly effective, cost efficient and widely applicable, and therefore had far-reaching consequences for power transmission and distribution. For this work, in 1969 Dr. Cobine was awarded the IEEE’s Lamme Medal “for his contributions to the knowledge and development of gaseous discharge devices and their adaptation to the development of high-power vacuum interrupters.”

In 1952, taking stock of the developing technology, Dr. Cobine was convinced that the time had come to mount an all-out assault on the electrode problems, and GE agreed. There ensued an intensive nine-year program culminating in 1961, when GE was able to announce the world’s first high-power vacuum recloser—one that was rated in the distribution range. And in 1962, Dr. Cobine’s many contributions to this enormously significant development were celebrated at a special switchgear session of the winter general meeting of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE, now IEEE).

Dr Cobine was a fellow of the IEEE, a member of the National Society of Professional Engineers, the American Society of Engineering Education and the American Institute of Physics. He died in August of 1980 in Schenectady, NY.