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Oral-History:Harold Wheeler (1991)

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About Harold A. Wheeler

Harold Wheeler at radio, 1920.
Harold Wheeler at radio, 1920.

This interview covers Wheeler’s entire career. Wheeler received his BS in Physics from George Washington University in 1925, then spent three years at the graduate Physics department at Johns Hopkins. He joined the Hazeltine Corporation as a part-time employee in 1923 (Prof. Hazeltine’s first employee), full-time from 1928. His first assignment was to design test equipment, and he became head of Hazeltine’s Bayside Laboratory in 1930. He began to work on automatic volume control for radio receivers in 1925, with patent issued in 1932. In 1936 he stepped down from management of Bayside and began television research. He left Hazeltine in 1946 and started his own independent research laboratory, Wheeler Laboratories, in 1947. Wheeler Labs often worked as a sub-contractor for Bell Labs. At Wheeler Laboratories he initiated the Wheeler Monographs series. Hazeltine acquired Wheeler Laboratories about 1959, but it remained autonomous for another decade. Wheeler rose to become chief executive officer and chairman of the board of Hazeltine in the 1960s, but reluctantly, since he felt no vocation for management. His main achievements were morale boosting: installing air conditioning (!) and setting up a defined-contribution pension plan. He remained as chairman of the board of directors until 1977, and as chief scientist at Hazeltine until 1987.

Hazeltine Co. spent the 1920s and 1930s working on various aspects of radio and TV technology. The corporate culture fostered cooperation, and encouraged research even when it wasn’t immediately profitable. Employees largely had (engineering) undergraduate degrees; PhDs were fairly rare. In the 1920s radio science was primitive, and a PhD of little value; but during the 1930s the value of a PhD rapidly increased as the scientific basis of radio work improved. Wheeler now credits some of his early success to his then-unusual level of graduate training, and thinks he might have benefited by sticking around to receive a PhD. Engineers at Hazeltine could publish their results earlier than most of their peers, and get more public recognition, since Hazeltine got its money more by licensing technology than by producing hardware itself. From 1965 to 1971 a series of egregious judicial decisions relating to television patents, Zenith vs. Hazeltine, almost bankrupted Hazeltine.

During this period Hazeltine Co. received considerable revenue by licensing its radio receiver patents to various manufacturers. During and after World War II this revenue source dwindled, partly due to several court decisions invalidating and/or restricting its radio patents, Detrola vs. Hazeltine, and Hazeltine switched to manufacturing military equipment as its main source of revenue. During World War II Hazeltine worked to develop a mine-detector, then worked on Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) systems. After the war it worked on a wide variety of military technology.

Wheeler is proudest of his invention of automatic volume control for radio receivers. Other inventions of note include the neutralized TRF amplifier, the amplifier for heart-action currents, the piston attenuator, the VTVM operating half-wave square-law, all-wave antenna circuits, and a vertical antenna made of transposed sections of coaxial cable. He also did research on level amplification of circuits, maximum flat bandwidth attainable in an amplifier with shunt capacitance, the skin effect, the fundamental limitations of small antennas, the use of Maxwell’s spherical coil as an inductor shield or antenna, radio propagation in the earth’s crust, the logical date code, designing a radar array as an element of an infinite array, phased arrays, and surface-to-air missiles. Wheeler enjoyed figuring out simple formulas for engineering questions; e.g., computing the inductance of a conductor, formulas for strip lines, transmission-line impedance curves. His research after the war focused on antennas, microwaves, and strip lines.

Some miscellaneous items: Wheeler talks about the need for design handbooks, and their appearance in the field. Related to handbooks, he makes reference to Fred Terman’s textbook, and his friendship with Terman. He talks about the value of laboratory notebooks. He also talks about the differences between and the growing closeness of engineering and physics. He mentions his involvement with the IRE from 1926, including service on the board of directors from 1940 to 1945, on the Radio Receivers Standards Committee, and on the Board of Editors for many year. He talks about the effect of grants, positive and negative, on technological innovation. He talks about various famous engineers, scientists, and inventors he has known.

See Also: Harold A. Wheeler Oral History (1985)

About the Interview

Harold A. Wheeler: An Interview conducted by Rik Nebeker, IEEE History Center, 29-31 July 1991

Interview # 117 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.

Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center.

Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, IEEE History Center at Stevens Institute of Technology, Castle Point on Hudson, Hoboken, NJ 07030 USA. 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:

Harold A. Wheeler, an oral history conducted in 1991 by Rik Nebeker, IEEE History Center, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.

Interview

Interview: Harold A. Wheeler

Interviewer: Rik Nebeker

Place: Ventura, California

Date: 29-31 July 1991

Education and Founding of Hazeltine

Nebeker:

Could you briefly describe your background and education?

Wheeler:

I was born in St. Paul MN on May 10th, 1903, so I am now 88. After a couple of years in Brookings, SD, we moved to Mitchell, SD when I was four. In 1916, when I was thirteen, we moved to Washington DC, where I attended the new Central High School and then George Washington University. In 1925 I graduated with the degree of B.S. in physics, the first to receive that degree. The next three years, I studied in the physics department of Johns Hopkins University in nearby Baltimore MD. In 1926 I married Ruth Gregory.

Nebeker:

What were your first jobs?

Wheeler:

In the summers of 1921 and '22 I worked as laboratory assistant in the Radio Laboratory of the Bureau of Standards, near my home. Then I met Professor Hazeltine, the head of the EE department at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken NJ, across the river from New York City. The following summer I worked in his laboratory.

Then Hazeltine Corporation was organized on February 1st, 1924, to manage the professor's patents on a neutralized tuned RF amplifier. It was named the "Neutrodyne" and captured the high quality market of broadcast receivers in 1923. The company started a laboratory in the attic above the professor's office. I was the first employee — part-time while I continued college. From the summer of 1928 I was employed full-time. In 1929 the laboratory expanded on the top floor of a loft building on West 52nd Street in New York City. In 1930 a second laboratory was located in Bayside on Long Island, and I was put in charge. In 1939 the Bayside Laboratory was superseded by the Little Neck Laboratory located in a new building nearby on Long Island. Where were the principal developments before World War II. They are covered in my book, The early days of Wheeler and Hazeltine Corporation.

Career Highlights

Nebeker:

As you look back on a long career, what are proudest of?

Wheeler:

If I were to select one accomplishment that stands out in my career, it would have to be the invention of the automatic volume control for radio receivers, that we came to call "diode AVC." It was the subject of the eighteenth of my 180 U.S. Patents, number 1879863, issued September 27, 1932. It was later revised and reissued as number Re. 19744 on October 29, 1935. The latter was declared invalid for want of invention by the U.S. Supreme Court on May 12, 1941. My views on that decision will be the subject of some later comments.

In the summer of 1925, just after graduating from George Washington University in Washington DC, I went to work a third summer in the Hazeltine corporation laboratory. It was located in a few rooms in the attic of the Electrical Engineering building of Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken NJ, across the Hudson River from New York City.

I was impressed with the amount of RF amplification in the latest designs of tunable receivers for radio broadcasting. Connected with an outdoor wire antenna, the sound level on local stations was so great that a "volume control" was needed to reduce the sound to a level suitable for listening. There were two tuning dials for antenna circuit and RF amplifier so a "third hand" was needed for the volume control. I perceived that an automatic control was needed to set the sound volume at a desired level for all stations. Then the volume control knob could be set once for all stations within range. I soon decided that the automatic control should be applied to the RF amplifier ahead of the detector and AF amplifier. I aimed to do that by developing from the detector a bias voltage sufficient to control the gain in the RF amplifier if applied to the control grid of one or more of the RF amplifier tubes.

It was customary to operate the detector with a rather small signal voltage because it was difficult to design a large amplification ahead of the detector in the TRF amplifier. I investigated various circuits for amplifying the small rectified voltage in the detector, but these circuits were complicated and required critical adjustments.

In the fall of 1925, I entered the graduate school in Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, near my home in Washington. I planned to make a receiver with automatic volume control, during the Christmas holidays, in my basement laboratory at my home. I decided on a super heterodyne circuit to obtain sufficient RF amplification ahead of the detector. It was my first because that type of receiver was not in common use outside RCA (they refused to license its use by other companies). My design was an advance over others because I used a neutralized intermediate-frequency (IF) amplifier at a frequency only slightly below the broadcast band (550-1600 MC). This was a preview of later practice when the super heterodyne went into universal use a few years later, in 1930.

I built this receiver on a worktable. It was later preserved for exhibit in litigation so a photograph is available. It is now preserved in a showcase at the Hazeltine Corporation headquarter in Greenlawn on Long Island NY. It incorporated a modular design on eight small wooden bases. I had accumulated the necessary parts before the holidays. There were tunable circuits for the antenna, local oscillator, and four IF circuits. The construction of the receiver took only a few days and its operation was spectacular.

Then I approached the problem of obtaining from the detector a bias voltage for automatically controlling the amplification in the first one or two of the IF stages. I had entered in my notebook some rather complicated circuits using the usual triode detector. One problem I recall was the unavailability of resistors of values intermediate between wire-wound (up to 1000 ohms) and graphite "grid leaks" (around 1 mega-ohm). I needed some around 10-100 kilo-ohms. Also, those circuits required a floating "B battery" in addition to the common grounded B battery for all amplifier stages. For a few days, I was making little progress.

Then it occurred to me that I had enough amplification to use a diode rectifier as the detector, operating at 10 volts of IF signal. The diode would be made of the available triode with grid and plate connected together. This was heresy, to sacrifice the gain of one triode, costing about $5 apiece (about $100 in today's currency). However, the greater RF (IF) gain made up for the customary gain in a triode detector, so I still needed only two audio (AF) stages to drive the loud speaker. I quickly connected the diode with resistors and capacitors to provide separately the audio (AF) signal voltage and the bias (DC) voltage for control of the first one or two IF stages. I got around to entering the theory of these connections in my notebook a few days later (January 2, 1926). This was the date we established later for "reduction to practice".

The next day (January 3rd) was Sunday, when we had a party at my home. Among the guests were three of my Hopkins classmates (who later became famous in the fields of radio and electricity). I took them to my basement laboratory to see a demonstration of my receiver with automatic volume control. They witnessed this page of my notebook, which was later accepted as my date of disclosure of this invention.

This receiver had no manual volume control. The circuits were designed to provide nearly the entire available power to the loudspeaker, which in that day was a comfortable loudness. Gradually I appreciated that this diode detector was an efficient peak detector, which faithfully delivered the modulation envelope of the signal. This linear detector proved to be a great advance over the weak-signal "square-law" detector. It enabled the transmitters to use complete modulation. Previously the high-quality stations had been restricted to about 50 percent modulation to avoid excessive distortion in the square-low detector.

To this day, we have not learned of anyone else who independently devised this circuit for a radio receiver, either before or after my demonstration.

Diode AVC

Nebeker:

When did diode AVC appear on the market?

Wheeler:

It was slow to be adopted because the prevalent TRF receivers did not have enough amplification to drive that circuit. In the summer of 1927, I was invited by Howard Radio Company in Chicago (one of our licensees) to visit their plant and build an elaborate receiver using diode AVC. I designed a receiver with four stages of uni-control TRF amplifier, requiring neutralization and elaborate shielding. Its performance was spectacular with a loop antenna.

Nebeker:

You soon published a paper on AVC.

Wheeler:

Yes, in the fall of 1927, I prepared a brief paper for the IRE, presenting diode AVC and referring in general terms to the Howard receiver. The circumstances of its publication are remarkable in contrast with the delays, which became common in later years. The paper was brief, with only four simple figures. Here is the sequence of events:

September 22: I called on Bob Marriott, the secretary of IRE, at his office in NYC, and described the subject that I would like to submit for publication. He liked the subject and said he would schedule it for the November meeting of the NY Section (the principal IRE meeting in the world).

October 1: I completed the paper and obtained company approval for its publication.

October 6: I delivered my paper to Mr. Marriott, and he sent it to the printer.

October 15: I received and approved proofs. At the same time, Mr. Marriott had ordered preprints and mailed them to the members of the NY section for comments preparing discussions.

November 2: I presented the brief paper before a well-attended meeting. There were two prepared discussions. Neither had any "future".

January, 1928: My paper was published in the IRE proceedings. It was sandwiched between two major articles by Armstrong and Marconi.

The time between the idea of the paper and the world publication with discussions was only four months! The good old days!

Nebeker:

Wasn't there an earlier form of automatic volume control?

Wheeler:

Yes. The first marketed radio receiver with any kind of AVC was the Radiola 64 in 1928. It had a triode detector and AVC. It had the benefit of a super heterodyne circuit and was an advanced design by current standards, but its performance was inferior to my lab model of January 2, 1926.

Nebeker:

Could you describe the "tuning meter" that you invented for use with a receiver with AVC?

Wheeler:

Well, the usual procedure of tuning by the sharp peak of loudness was dulled by the AVC. I immediately perceived the problem and noted that the automatic gain variation would be a useful indicator for tuning. I connected a DC meter to show the current variation in the first IF amplifier tube. This feature was published in my paper in early 1928 and was featured in the RCA set later that year. It is the subject of my U.S. Patent 2080646 (May 18, 1937). The late date of this patent reflects a controversy in the Patent Office, which said it was not an invention. (Does that have a familiar sound?) We appealed to the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals. Unlike the Supreme Court, they were competent in patents and instructed the patent office to issue a patent. This is the only one of my U.S. Patents to be finally adjudicated in the courts.

Nebeker:

What difference did the introduction of the screen-grid tube have on your work?

Wheeler:

In about 1926, the "screen-grid tetrode" was announced by GE and soon became available from RCA as the UV-224. The fourth electrode was a screen interposed between the control grid and the plate. It permitted the passage of electrons but eliminated the capacitive coupling. This avoided the need for neutralization and the Hazeltine patents on that feature. They had had a useful life of five years from practical application to obsolescence. Fortunately we had made other inventions (patents pending) and had built a clientele of manufacturers who placed a great value on our engineering design provided with the patent license. Some of our inventions were equally applicable to the screen-grid amplifier, including the diode AVC.

About 1927, there was another major development, which did not directly affect the use of our designs. RCA introduced the indirectly heated cathode so the cathodes could be heated by AC instead of a 6-volt storage battery. Also a rectifier was replacing the "B battery" of 90 or 135 volts. The principal supplier of storage batteries was the Philadelphia Storage Battery Company, known as Philco. The radio market had far exceeded their automobile market, so their production capacity far exceeded the future need.

Philco Receivers

Nebeker:

Approximately what year was that?

Wheeler:

Probably 1927. So they thought about it and decided that they should go into the manufacture of radio receivers, which is where the money was going that previously went to buy their batteries. They inquired around, and they were well advised that our company, Hazeltine Corporation, was the outstanding independent source of receiver designs. We were designing receivers for many radio receiver manufacturers at that time. So they came to us, and by our standard formula, took a blanket license under our patent portfolio, which was accompanied by engineering services to design receivers. So probably early in 1928 we became acquainted with their engineers, whose background was chemicals, and they were quite quick to catch on to what was needed to manufacture radio receivers. I was second or third in charge of our laboratory at that time, and the design of the Philco receivers was assigned to me. We were then located in a loft building in New York City.

Nebeker:

Did Philco come to you with the idea that they would manufacture several models in different price ranges?

Wheeler:

I guess we would say one at a time. Their first year they only had the Philco-76. Designing one model from scratch was enough of a challenge. I guess they had several different cabinets for it, but it was the same chassis. So we conferred with their engineers and lined up a receiver design that seemed to be attractive for their purpose.

Nebeker:

Did they tell you that they wanted to reach a certain market? That they wanted a hundred-dollar receiver, say? How was it that they told you what they were interested in?

Wheeler:

That was the usual approach: Talk to the manufacturer to see what he wanted, and then we adapted our engineering knowledge to it. So I came to work with one or two of their principal engineers to design a model that would be attractive for their production ideas. The outcome was the Philco-76, and this was soon after the advent of screen grid tubes, which were the first easy way to make tuned RF amplifiers. So this receiver was to have a TRF amplifier and the ordinary detector and audio amplifier. It was not particularly unusual — naturally we'd had some practices that were pretty common in the receivers we designed. But it gave them a good start in organizing a marketing system and competing, which they did very well. And the reasonable success of that first receiver led to our considering what design they should make the following year. In this intercourse we suggested several innovations. The principal one was diode automatic volume control, which I had invented early in 1926 and was not yet in use anywhere. In fact, there was only one receiver with automatic volume control (and that was a kind that became obsolete) in an RCA receiver. So I designed the Philco-95 as the first receiver to incorporate our automatic volume control, which we called diode AVC.

Nebeker:

May I ask why earlier designs hadn't incorporated that if you invented it in '26?

Wheeler:

It was difficult to get enough RF amplification to operate the diode at a high enough level to use it for control. The screen-grid tube had partly alleviated this problem. That was the reason at happened in this point in history. But it's interesting that none of our other licensees were ambitious enough to incorporate it yet.

Nebeker:

That was because it added considerably to the expense of manufacture?

Wheeler:

Yes. There was an additional challenge to the receiver design. And incidental to that the Philco-95 included two stages of tuned RF amplifiers and an additional stage of untuned RF amplifier, which became feasible only with screen grid tubes. So with that amount of amplification we had a high enough signal level to operate a diode detector and to derive a control bias needed for AVC. There wasn't anything particularly difficult in that design, but there was some innovation and mainly the first popular receiver to utilize automatic volume control.

Nebeker:

Were you part of a team designing that or was it largely your own design?

Wheeler:

I had the benefit of team experience, but the actual design of the receiver I worked out directly with the Philco engineers. Looking back, it was crude in many respects, but that's the usual reaction to earlier designs.

Nebeker:

And the 95 had, I understand, great success.

Wheeler:

Yes, it became famous overnight. And in all fairness, it was partly the marketing efforts of Philco. But they emphasized the automatic volume control, which no other receiver — except in a high-priced RCA set — could advertise at that time. And that, I might say, was an automatic volume control that wasn't very good.

Nebeker:

It was a different design?

Wheeler:

Yes. It lacked some fundamental advantages that were offered in the diode type.

Nebeker:

Did you have any part in the marketing of the 95? Did you suggest that these are the really special features of this that they should push?

Wheeler:

They had frank conversations with the leaders in our laboratory, who were able to give very helpful advice on marketing and features. I was mostly involved with the engineering.

Nebeker:

What connections did you have with Philco after that?

Wheeler:

Naturally we had a very close relationship after introducing them to the radio broadcast field. In later years we were particularly active in designing low-cost receivers during the Depression, where Philco really excelled. By today's standards their cathedral table models are pretty weird, but they were good in their day, and they enabled the manufacture of a rather impressive receiver without too much money.

Nebeker:

Was lowering the price the main thrust of development in the 'thirties?

Wheeler:

Yes. And the cathedral table model was very popular, partly because it was large enough to carry a fairly good loudspeaker. So it left plenty of room for the receiver design, which then could be — by today's standards — rather crude but easily manufactured.

Nebeker:

Was that a prime consideration with other sets — that you had to keep the spatial volume down?

Wheeler:

Not so much, because size was cheaper than electronics. And size was impressive. And the table cathedral model was very popular.

Nebeker:

Did Hazeltine have any financial interest in how well Philco did?

Wheeler:

Only the amount of royalties.

Nebeker:

So they were getting a royalty on each set manufactured?

Wheeler:

Yes. We had a package license and that was the only way we could have achieved the results we did during the 'thirties. So there wasn't any dickering about which patents — or which features. They were immediately immunized from any infringement claims from our company. And that made it simple, and there was enough to support our engineering staff to give very good service. Our engineering staff was maybe half a dozen at the time they entered the field. And during the 'thirties it built up to maybe 50 engineers, which was a big staff in those days.

Nebeker:

What was the subsequent history of the connection between Philco and Hazeltine?

Wheeler:

The next major development was TV. And during the late 'thirties, there were several laboratories experimenting with TV. I've forgotten how much Philco engaged in those experiments. And I think, as I remember, not very much.

Nebeker:

What were the subsequent radio receiver designs?

Wheeler:

Presently came the war, and materials were clamped down.

Nebeker:

And after the war?

Wheeler:

There was an entirely different world, and our method of operation was out of favor in the courts. The net result was that after the war licensing was very difficult, and the company — as I may have mentioned — had emphasized manufacturing equipment for the military. From a staff of about 200 at the end of the war, they gradually built up to about 2500 employees, mostly manufacturing equipment for the military with a sizeable research laboratory and developing such equipment.

Early Work at Hazeltine

Nebeker:

What was the nature of your work at Hazeltine before World War II.

Wheeler:

Well, first the company started in a few rooms in the attic of the Electrical Engineering Building at Stevens. We had a half-time secretary, gradually afforded a machinist, and from 1924 to '29 our laboratory did not exceed three or four engineers. We had a good start in the designing of the heterodyne receiver, which was very common from '23 to '27. So we emphasized testing equipment. I was working part time during that period, and when I went to full-time employment in 1928, my first assignment was to develop better testing equipment. That's something that I enjoyed, and it was a very powerful challenge. So between 1928 and 1929 we developed by far the most sophisticated testing equipment that existed anywhere in the radio industry including RCA General Electric, who specialized in testing equipment.

Nebeker:

What was the motivation for that?

Wheeler:

We were designing receivers systematically at a time when most of the designs were slipshod. And the principal test was to turn it on and listen to it to see if you could get KDKA in Pittsburgh first, and then see if you could get West Coast stations at night. It was very crude, and GE and then RCA were leaders to the extent that progress was being made outside of our company. But I think it's fair to say that our company passed their level of testing — rather gradually, but rather substantially — before 1930.

Nebeker:

I'm curious about those early years with Hazeltine, after you began full-time work in '28. Were you given specific tasks to work on? Who was it who was your immediate supervisor?

Wheeler:

Our chief engineer was MacDonald, and he was a very remarkable leader. And his choice was haphazard; he was a friend of our patent attorney. Well, I've forgotten the details, but our patent attorney could not have evaluated his talents. And, in fact, they hadn't really matured. And he lacked a college degree. He'd been a radio operator, and then he was in the Signal Corps in the latter part of the war, attached to the famous group in Paris headed by Major Armstrong. And I had better mention here that Armstrong was the most inspired inventor in the radio field by any standards. And so MacDonald and Taylor, people I became friendly with later, were on his staff. And after the war MacDonald went to RCA and was attached to their Long Island laboratories, which became RCA Communications. He had a home in Little Neck on Long Island, and the patent attorney had a home in Bayside. And they became acquainted through Armstrong's patents that were handled by our patent attorney.

Nebeker:

I see.

Wheeler:

So his choice was not competent, but it worked out very well. So then we have a picture that I was a shiny young college student, and MacDonald was a very practical man from the "school of hard knocks." And it took us a little while to communicate. But he made many very intelligent decisions. And one was that when I came to work at the laboratory, I had some familiarity with the company's work, but he assigned me primarily to testing equipment that they needed very much to support the quality of their engineering.

Nebeker:

So he asked you to work on specific kinds of instruments that needed to be developed?

Wheeler:

Yes. And there wasn't much mystery what we needed. Anything we didn't have was what we needed. And the technology of designing test equipment was fragmentary at that time. So that as much invention went into designing test equipment as went into the actual receiver designs. And I liked that kind of a challenge, partly because you didn't have to worry about the market price as you did in receiver design.

Nebeker:

Was there any thought of marketing some of these test instruments?

Wheeler:

I don't doubt we talked about it, but there didn't seem to be an opportunity. We were better off using them in marketing our designs.

Nebeker:

Did you have a fair amount of autonomy in your daily work?

Wheeler:

Yes. I had a marvelous opportunity to exercise my ideas and with some assistance and enough moral support to be very effective. And my work was appreciated.

Director of Bayside Laboratory

Nebeker:

In 1930 you became director of the Bayside laboratory.

Wheeler:

Yes. Between Hoboken and 1930 we added a laboratory in a loft building in New York City. That was from '29 for some years. And here again MacDonald very thoughtfully decided that working for our licensees was less of a challenge than innovation. Not that it didn't involve innovation. But he decided we needed to separate our engineering staff pretty much into two groups, one of which would cooperate with our licensee manufacturers and be primarily, concerned with the economics and the other of which would have freedom for innovation. So he wisely chose me to head up the laboratories in Bayside which were the center of innovation during the 'thirties. To be put in charge of that operation at age 27 was a great opportunity.

Nebeker:

How large was that laboratory?

Wheeler:

We started with perhaps three or four engineers from the New York laboratory and then hired new engineers from various quarters. And the Depression was coming on, so that we were able to hire outstanding engineers with a salary level we could afford in our staff. And a few of them had wide experience beforehand, and the others were directly from college or with little experience. So there was a gradual increase in our staff from 1930 to 1939.

The circumstances of the Bayside Laboratory are an interesting part of the story. First, our principal patent attorney lived in Bayside out on Long Island, and MacDonald lived in Little Neck. And they spotted an old mansion that was no longer livable. And they bent the zoning enough to occupy that as a laboratory. And so we could make holes in the wall or whatever we wanted. And while it was not comfortable in the summer without air-conditioning, it was a very good location for a growing laboratory organization. And that included machine shops and later on what we needed for television tubes. So that was the beginning of the Bayside lab: In anticipation of that, I built a nice new home in Great Neck, which was about five miles from that laboratory location.

Nebeker:

I'm wondering about the nature of your work in those years. How much of it was at a desk where you're thinking through designs or coming up with designs, and how much of it involved actual work with devices?

Wheeler:

My principal contribution was innovation by thinking what was possible and what could be improvements. And our staff was extremely competent in carrying out my ideas, making experimental receivers, testing and cooperating with me. So I was working mostly on paper, except I was very close to the laboratory work. And I was a severe critic of the designs they were developing. They had a common reaction that whenever I walked into the room, something didn't work. [Chuckling] But we found solutions. During the Bayside laboratory period in the early 'thirties and middle 'thirties, we developed some extremely sophisticated broadcast receivers with automatic controls, most of which never reached the commercial market. And we have publications of receivers in which we controlled the bandwidth of the receiver in accordance with the requirements. You wanted a narrow band for long distance and a wider band for local. If there was an adjacent channel causing interference, it would shift the tuning away from that channel but still get a good signal. And some of those most advanced receivers are covered in my patents but never went into commercial use.

Nebeker:

Do you think in a more favorable economic climate they might have?

Wheeler:

It's hard to say. The history of commerce is that the highest quality seldom prevails. But who can say? So, many of my patents are directed to those refinements which never saw the light of day. We had many demonstrations in our laboratory — the world beat a path to our door to see the things we were doing. And it was impressive, and it was encouraging to us; but putting them into production at a profit was a different matter.

Nebeker:

If we take that period when you were directing the Bayside laboratory, did that continue until 'forty?

Short-Wave and Antennas

Wheeler:

The Bayside laboratory continued until '39. But in '36 I was removed from the responsibility of management so I could spend full time on television developments. Then my associate who was then chief engineer, Dan Harnett, took over the direct supervision of the Bayside laboratory.

Nebeker:

And you continued to work at Bayside?

Wheeler:

Yes.

Nebeker:

Can you summarize the areas of your work on radio receiver design, then of test equipment, and still later, television development?

Wheeler:

Yes. The nature of broadcasting was changing. In 1930 the industry was belatedly licensed under the RCA super heterodyne patents. Before, the RCA very shortsightedly had encouraged competition by refusing to license under those patents. But they saw the light of day, and beginning in 1930 we didn't have any fetters to restrict the development of the best receiver we knew how. So in 1930 our laboratory rapidly became the most progressive designer of super heterodyne circuits. Now originally they were feasible only in expensive sets. But we took the super heterodyne into the inexpensive table model. So that was maybe the first event. The next was transatlantic broadcasting on short waves; that was something you couldn't have dreamed of a few years sooner. And there was some market for receivers, which could receive the broadcasting from Europe. So we had a period when we designed the so-called all-wave receiver. It received mostly the broadcast band and short-wave transatlantic broadcasting.

Nebeker:

Was that coded transmission?

Wheeler:

No, that was phone. And the frequency band was about 6 to 30 megacycles. And that was high enough to involve technology far beyond the broadcast band. So we were very active in designing receivers that would receive both bands. And with the high frequency bands there came new challenges for antennas. Up until 1930 the broadcast receiver usually had a long wire connected to it. By long I mean something like 50 feet long — maybe outdoors, maybe supported by tree. And the portable set was unheard of. Well, there wasn't much antenna design challenge in the broadcast receivers before 1930. The short-wave receivers, on the other hand, presented a challenge to antenna design.

Nebeker:

Was that because in the broadcast band — one can't do a lot better than that kind of a simple antenna?

Wheeler:

Yes. The largest antenna you could use was still a makeshift. So we made receivers that were tolerant of a wire of some length; and it worked pretty well because the wire picked up a big signal. But then came all-wave receivers and short-wave receivers, and there you could make scientifically-designed antennas, the horizontal dipole type which was maybe 30 feet long strung between two high points. So antenna design became a new field of expertise, which I embraced immediately. And in that field we were shortly designing the best antennas and the best circuits for short-wave reception. But they did not achieve a very wide acceptance, especially in the sense of profit.

Nebeker:

Did you patent certain designs?

Wheeler:

Yes.

Nebeker:

Did you succeed in getting licensees?

Wheeler:

Well, you see, our licensees automatically we had a license to all of our developments. Some of our designs in that field were made in moderate quantities. But that introduced me to the antenna field, which during the war more — and after the war even more — became my specialty. The antennas we made for short-wave receivers were definitely the most advanced designs available in those days. And we were competing with men in RCA Communications where they needed fancy antennas at times, but they didn't have to worry about installing them in various locations.

FM and Television

Nebeker:

You were summarizing the different areas in which you worked in this period.

Wheeler:

Now along with the short-wave receivers, our existing test equipment became suddenly inadequate. So we had to design new test equipment for short-wave, which was a very different challenge. And one of the principal events of my exposure to that problem was the piston attenuator that we'll be talking more about and which was one of my most remarkable inventions — almost without competition. And so we began making test equipment for several frequency bands instead of just the broadcast band.

Then in the middle 'thirties there were rumblings of wideband FM and television. Wideband FM was not a difficult challenge in receiver design. The real contribution of Armstrong was the concept. So, well, we found ourselves designing receivers for FM in the latter 'thirties. The challenge there was mainly that that brought in another frequency band. Gradually we began using higher and higher frequency bands. So late in the 'thirties the higher frequency band of FM was a challenge to design. But then came the war and interrupted that development. The main development in the middle 'thirties was TV. It became apparent that it was over the horizon. And I must confess I was sort of apathetic toward TV at first because I had enough projects designing receivers for AM radio. But one of my associates, Harold Lewis — a little older than I who, also, incidentally, had worked with Armstrong in Paris — was more aggressive in his thinking and fortunately steered our laboratory into TV development in the early 'thirties. To the extent that that was a different frequency band, it was a new challenge to our testing equipment. I can't overemphasize the theme of testing equipment as being a real limitation on the rate of progress — and an area where we made outstanding contributions. So by the latter 'thirties we were active in FM, which was not a great challenge, and became active in TV, which was a great challenge. So our TV progress in the late 'thirties is a different story that I will enlarge on whenever you like. And that became my principal interest in the late 'thirties.

Nebeker:

I'm wondering about how you moved from one of these areas to another. Was that in consultation with MacDonald? Was it his decision or partly your decision?

Wheeler:

Well, MacDonald and Harnett and myself were the leaders. And then I mentioned Lewis who became a prime mover in TV. We had a very informal relationship. MacDonald would spend a day now and then out at the Bayside laboratory. And we'd get together — either in the New York laboratory or in Bayside — occasionally and talk over what we were doing. It was very informal, but I must say that the initiative of MacDonald and Harnett were far greater in influence than mine because my nose was so close to the grindstone that I was thinking about improvements rather than radical new lines of development.

Nebeker:

Did you feel personally, in those years, that there was a tension between what was most interesting to you and avenues you wanted to pursue and what was likely to be most profitable to the company?

Wheeler:

There wasn't any tension between those at all. First, all of us were interested in some degree in both avenues. And I was consulted often on problems for the New York laboratory. And they cooperated in various ways with our work at the Bayside laboratory. But we had a very healthy atmosphere of reasonable support by the company and encouragement. I might say MacDonald was our buffer with the board of directors and funding, and he had his problems because the board of directors were not familiar with this field, really. And he managed to work with them remarkably well. And during my work in the Bayside laboratories I have to say that I got fully adequate support from management — both in staffing and in freedom of my own operation. It was a very remarkable opportunity. And some of the men I was working with were geniuses, too. Gradually I came to appreciate them. [Chuckling]

Radio Innovation and High Fidelity

Nebeker:

I'm curious about the radio market in those early years. Was there a lot of pressure to come up with innovations almost for the sake of innovations for the latest new model the way that happened in the automobile industry?

Wheeler:

Well, there were two or three periods that were well defined. The period of early broadcasting was a free-for-all. There was a great amount of effort expended in making your own sets. In the early 'thirties the Herald Tribune had a Sunday supplement every week and the latest ideas on how to make your own set. Sears Roebuck had a catalog of parts for making radio sets, including amateur transmitters. And during that period, before the Depression, there was enough money to go around. So that cutthroat competition did not develop. And that was healthy for the industry, and there was a reasonable support for innovation. But most of the innovation was rather low-level. It was how to make a good receiver with reasonable complication.

Then came the Depression, which, incidentally, was just the time that Philco was getting underway. And then the price of the receiver became the most important factor, not its performance. And in that period we — and especially Philco among our various licensees — designed and sold some pretty good receivers at prices that the market could afford. At the same time, we were increasing the emphasis on cheap receivers — not so much smaller, as cheap. And I should mention that in the middle 'thirties was the birth of high fidelity as a name and as a concept. So we were very much conscious of that, and we advertised our designs as leading the way in high fidelity, which pretty much they did. That involved not only the receiver design that had been my specialty, but also loudspeaker design. So in the early 'thirties-in Bayside, we had very ambitious projects in making better loudspeakers. What we actually did was to take the best that we could find manufactured by other companies and evolved methods of testing [by means of] which we were able to select for our licensees the better types of loudspeakers. So in the middle 'thirties "high fidelity" was a buzzword.

Nebeker:

Did that have any clear technical definition?

Wheeler:

No. There was the impetus to design receivers with more complete audio bandwidth. And there were methods of detection and amplification that could preserve the quality. And we were leaders in that field.

Nebeker:

Was that more development in the loudspeaker than in the receiver?

Wheeler:

The actual loudspeaker developments were mostly done by a specialized company and we tried to become familiar with them and select the best and find ways of evaluating their performance.

Hazeltine: Personnel and Unique Atmosphere

Nebeker:

You've already mentioned that Hazeltine was special in its emphasis on test instruments and its development of that. How else does Hazeltine differ from other companies?

Wheeler:

Mostly more advanced and more freedom. An engineering staff of a manufacturing company had very severe constrictions, and we didn't have those. We could make something before we decided whether it would make a profit. And that was the real opportunity of leadership.

Nebeker:

How about the training and education of the engineers at Bayside labs and at Hazeltine generally? Were they typical of engineers at the time?

Wheeler:

In the period of the New York laboratory that was not an active subject. We were tagging along with current ideas pretty much and developing novelty where it was needed. In the Bayside laboratory where we were less under pressure for day-to-day deliveries to our licensees of designs, I soon started classes for engineers where I would introduce them to my latest thinking and the latest thinking in the profession. And to have classes like that that were attended by all of our engineers — young and old — in company time was very unusual in that day. The Bell Laboratories even were not outstanding in that respect — yet.

Nebeker:

Were these mainly your instruction?

Wheeler:

Yes. I invited others to lecture to some of the classes where they had particular experience or knowledge. But mostly I was developing the knowledge needed. And as I developed it in my own mind, it was a good time to spread it. So that's what happened.

Nebeker:

What about the formal education — the school education — of these engineers? Did most of them have just a Bachelor's Degree?

Wheeler:

Yes.

Importance of Graduate Training

Nebeker:

When did it become common to hire people with a Master's in electrical engineering?

Wheeler:

Common only after the war. It's interesting for me to recall that I had just a very few Ph.D. graduates on my staff, but we didn't make a big fuss over it. They were typically educated less in the practical engineering as the engineering degree seldom went to a Ph.D. And so we didn't call them "Doctor." Two I remember as early as 1929 went to classes with me when I was at Hopkins in graduate work. They were valuable additions to our staff, but they had to be converted to engineers. Whereas I was an engineer beforehand. So whatever education I got in graduate school built on engineering. You might say one of the great mistakes of my life was that I didn't complete the requirements for a Ph.D. after three years studying at Hopkins. It would have been rather easy for me to complete the requirements. But, what did the poet say? "The world is too much with us; late and soon. Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers." And I was just more interested in practical work.

Nebeker:

Would it have been useful to you to have had the Ph.D. Degree?

Wheeler:

It didn't mean very much in the engineering profession because there were not many. There were some brilliant scientists who were also engineers; they were mostly in the big laboratories like GE and Westinghouse. So the fact that I didn't have a degree was never really a handicap. But I'm sorry I didn't appreciate more my engineers that did have the degree.

There was one instance in the middle 'thirties when we became very conscious of higher education. In the early days of television experiments Zworykin developed the iconoscope, which was the only good television tube for picking up pictures and transmission. And they jealously guarded the iconoscope so you couldn't buy one. About 1935 we perceived that if we were to progress, we had to have a complete demonstration equipment which only RCA had at that time. And so by fortunate circumstances one of our engineers had been acquainted with a Ph.D. from Cal Tech who had excellent preparations of the type required to construct a television picture tube. And in the 'thirties we didn't have any trouble employing people. So we employed him in 1935.

Nebeker:

Who was that?

Wheeler:

His name was Hergenrother. And starting from scratch in our Bayside laboratories, he developed a chemistry laboratory and glass blowing facilities to a level that he was able to produce a year later an iconoscope that was the best that we ever experienced. And that was the keystone of our television demonstration equipment.

Nebeker:

And that was possible because of his training at Cal Tech?

Wheeler:

Because he had a basic Ph.D. training at Cal Tech that involved chemistry and physics and glass blowing. And so we really profited from the higher level of education at that stage. Afterward some of our engineers were Ph.D.'s but it wasn't universal.

Nebeker:

I'm wondering whether, because of your own advanced training in physics, you were more interested in engineers who had more academic training than other companies were.

Wheeler:

No. I tried to evaluate them on their competence, which did not require Ph.D. level. And some were physics majors, and more commonly they were engineering majors at a time when engineering was rather elementary as it was taught.

Nebeker:

Was there a great difference in the knowledge of physics that an engineer had from that of physics major?

Wheeler:

If you're talking about basic physics, yes. But if you're talking about application to branches of engineering, no. They developed.

Nebeker:

So you didn't have any rule of thumb that you preferred the physics majors over the engineering majors.

Wheeler:

No. I'm a little embarrassed that some of our best educated engineers — We had one Ph.D. from Stanford that had a breadth of background that I didn't have. By that time Stanford was strong in engineering. So I didn't really appreciate them except in the degree in which they were able to talk our language, where they soon became competent.

Details of Educational Background

Nebeker:

Well, let me ask about your judgment about the value of your graduate physics training in your work in those decades.

Wheeler:

First, my father advised me to take physics degree — Bachelor's Degree — instead of engineering. He was wiser than he realized because engineering in the early 'twenties was largely cookbook science. And I think he perceived that. He, incidentally, had a Master's Degree in horticulture, which was more science than practice. And which he put to practice very well in his early days. So he advised me to take physics degree.

I should give you a little introduction to my education at those levels. We had moved to Washington, DC just before I was entering high school. So in Washington I had what you would regard as a good high school education, including some subjects that were supposed to be required for engineering — like mechanical drawing and some things like that. But my high school education was very good except for a dearth of general subjects such as physiology and Latin. German, incidentally, was outlawed during World War I.

Nebeker:

So many of your classes were in physics and math?

Wheeler:

Many? I don't know. Of course we had English and math, which was good by the standards of those days, which meant a high school didn't teach calculus. One of the benefits of my high school education's low intensity, was it left me lots of time to do other things. The only course in which I ever got 100 was plane geometry. It just came natural to me. So on the educational ladder, I graduated from a high school in Washington D.C. which was good by the standards of high schools in those days.

Our family was struggling to say the least. My father had a government salary, and five children to support. So when it came time for college, we had a rather easy choice and that was to go to George Washington University so I wouldn't have to go away to school. Now your first reaction might be that it was a handicap to stay home during school. But at home I had my basement laboratory where I spent more time than I did studying. That was the beginning of my later career. So George Washington University offered seven four-year paid scholarships by competitive examination in the Washington high schools. And the tuition was $175 a year. That was significant in that day. I scored third out of the seven on the competitive examination. Incidentally, my sister two years younger scored second, and my sister four years younger scored first. They went to George Washington, too.

The University had a mediocre engineering department. It was, shall we say, embryonic. I entered the school during the first year they offered a B.S. in physics, so I was their first student. The curriculum was under development. That meant they had a very small staff, and I was their first student. So I was very close to the head of the physics department had freedoms that I wouldn't have had in a larger school. * As an unexpected byproduct, the physics course was oriented mainly to Masters Degrees for government employees; in physics that meant the Patent Department and the National Bureau of Standards. So the same physics courses that were developed for those seeking Masters Degrees, I took as undergraduate physics courses. So when I got a B.S. in physics, I had the preparation for a Masters Degree.

I should go a little further on George Washington. I was so close to the department head that he was very lenient, and I usually could make good grades just by listening in class; I didn't do much homework. He appreciated my talents and got me help as a laboratory assistant. So I had much more freedom — including my home laboratory — than I'd have had if I'd gone to MIT. I often wonder what would have happened if I'd gone to MIT and been under pressure constantly during those years. The net result however was that I graduated at the head of my class — largely as a result of lenience on the part of my physics professors. I was a little bit embarrassed to graduate at the top. I knew I hadn't done as much work as I should, but I took it in stride.

Nebeker:

Then you had three years of graduate work at Johns Hopkins in physics.

Wheeler:

Yes. As I was doing well in George Washington my father looked for something near home, and Baltimore was near home. Johns Hopkins was an outstanding academic institution in physics and even more so in chemistry. So my father and I went over to talk with the department head, Dean Ames, who was later president of the university. He and I got along fine, so we set up a physics course for me to continue after graduating from George Washington, which didn't offer graduate physics courses of any standing.

Life at Hopkins was a very leisurely experience. They had a small dormitory for graduate students where I had two rooms that I shared with one of my friends. Meals were served inexpensively. So I was in direct contact with the graduate students mostly in physics and chemistry. The quality of education however was not that great. They had qualified professors — some were famous — but the science of education hadn't permeated colleges yet. So the method of education was not terribly good. Nevertheless by attending Johns Hopkins I did gain: a broader perspective on physics; at a leisurely pace.

Nebeker:

Were you very busy with these other activities in those days?

Wheeler:

Yes. I was commuting to New York at least once a month and doing summers. I was able easily to keep up with the pace and continue these outside activities.

Interestingly, one of these outside activities was the building of a pulse transformer. Among my colleagues and friends as graduate students were Breit and Tuve, who became famous in later years for their work with the ionosphere. [With] Tuve I had a particularly close affiliation because he also came from Minnesota. One evening after dinner they cornered me, and they said, "We've got a problem. We're making a transmitter for high-powered pulses to send up to the ionosphere and reflect back again. And we need a transformer, and we don't know how to make a pulse transformer." Well, during the summers I had worked with Hazeltine one of the projects he was working on involved what was then unknown—a pulse transformer and I was familiar with its workings. I translated that knowledge to Breit and Tuve's requirement, and I designed the first radar pulse transformer. It worked in their experiment. Incidentally, during the war the word "pulse transformer" was classified "Secret" because it was still a new concept.

Nebeker:

What does a pulse transformer do?

Wheeler:

In radar pulses you have to deal with power at various levels of current and voltage. The pulse transformer develops the current and voltage needed to drive the power tube to send pulses. It was a new world designing circuits for pulses where the peak power and not the thermal problems were foremost. So Breit and Tuve's had that problem in making their ionosphere experiment.

Nebeker:

You said earlier that you didn't properly appreciate the training that some of the Ph.D.'s on your staff had. Does that mean that you later came to think more highly of physics training?

Wheeler:

Well, in the three years before 1928 the level of education in graduate courses had not advanced nearly as far as it did later. It was in the 'twenties that Ph.D. education in the most prominent colleges was evolving. It had advanced very far by 1930. And the force that I was employing in the 'thirties had the benefit of that advance. The most prominent professor of radio engineering in the 'twenties was German. Zenneck had written one of the first really inspired textbooks on radio and then radio measurements in the 'twenties. So our Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins was educated far in advance of any of the rest of us.

Nebeker:

Did that make a difference in the work that was to be done?

Wheeler:

His confidence did. I didn't pay much attention to the fact that he had a doctorate at first. I was used to lots of Ph.D.'s around Hopkins, and that's the way it was. I did get the benefit of that advanced education. It wasn't until the 'thirties that you could take Terman's courses at Stanford and come out with a really advanced knowledge of radio technology.

Nebeker:

Was a broader view and understanding of physics useful in your engineering work?

Wheeler:

Not very. I had a particular handicap. In that that period was a transition from analog science to quantum science. I didn't like quantum theory; I resisted it. So I got a less complete education in the pre-quantum physics, and that was a confusion in my educational history.

"Cut-and-try" to New Radio Science

Nebeker:

I'd like to ask you now about the transition of radio from the "cut-and-try" era to a new radio science.

Wheeler:

The transition period was just beginning in the two summers that I worked at the Bureau of Standards. That was a great opportunity to become a little acquainted with radio. The one event that I remember was probably the first outstanding radio textbook in the English language, written by a Professor Morecraft at Columbia. It was terribly primitive by today's standards, but it was a fairly massive volume. One day at the Bureau of Standards the librarian came around and said we're taking a club order for Morecraft. Of course everybody bought Morecraft on the club order.

Nebeker:

What does "club order" mean?

Wheeler:

Well, he made a deal where we got approximately two dozen volumes at a reduction in price. Morecraft was struggling to make a science out of experiments where people just didn't know what was going on. They knew that a crystal detector rectified, but they had no idea if they were using a doped single crystal of silicon. And so that was a good transition from amateur radio to a pretense at professional level. And there were a couple of more advanced textbooks in England and Germany before Morecraft that we came to use as references later on.

In the American arena typically a radio engineer was someone who worked as an operator — usually on shipboard — and went to radio school, where little teaching of science and much tinkering occurred. Armstrong was a tinkerer, but he was an inspired tinkerer in that he could visualize what was going on without being able to put it down in terms of differential equations and physics. But he was a giant of that period. Then gradually physicists were becoming engineers, and a few names in General Electric were outstanding in that field: Coolidge of the x-ray tube; some others whose names were less famous and don't come to me right away. But the science of radio was developed more in those laboratories than in the colleges. Union College, for example, was good because it was next door in Schenectady. So it was only in the 'thirties that radio became a science. That's why I could play a leading part in the 'twenties because I was able to take the scientific approach to it. That was partly from my education at Hopkins and partly from my indoctrination personally by Professor Hazeltine.

Nebeker:

So that your design work was more from an understanding of the physics and the components and the effects you wanted to achieve.

Wheeler:

Not very deep. An understanding of it often superficial but adequate.

Nebeker:

Did the employment of people at Hazeltine change in that higher education was valued more in the 'thirties and later?

Wheeler:

I wouldn't say valued as much as available. Typically the well-educated scientist did not usually go into engineering — he went into research.

Nebeker:

I wasn't thinking only about physics training; in some fields of engineering it became more and more common, and a Master's Degree came to be expected.

Wheeler:

That was after the war. I think we were progressing from the rudimentary status in the 'twenties to the real growth in the 'thirties. That was partly motivated by the advent of TV. But it was in the 'thirties that we began to have really inspired textbooks. I mentioned Professor Terman's textbook in the middle 'thirties. I should mention two more advanced textbooks. One was Stratton at MIT. He wrote the most advanced textbook on electromagnetic theory published in '39 in the days when microwaves and waveguides were on the horizon. And another was Professor Smythe at Cal Tech whose book was much parallel to Stratton's but Stratton graduated to MKS units, and Smythe did not. So Smythe's textbook never sold. That was the period when MKS units were taking hold, and I cannot overemphasize the higher level of engineering that was possible when we abandoned the old physics units — CGS.

Nebeker:

When did that happen in your own work?

Wheeler:

In the late 'thirties, and Stratton's textbook was the turning point.

Nebeker:

Is that something that happened throughout Hazeltine relatively quickly?

Wheeler:

Not all the Hazeltine men were as deep in basics as I was. And some, guided by me even, were struggling with more practical engineering than science. But Stratton's textbook was a turning point in the scientific level of engineering. Incidentally, it was preceded by a physics textbook by Harnwell — who was later president of the University of Pennsylvania — which was very good. And it was broader than Stratton's and did not go as far into some areas. I used Harnwell a good deal. Incidentally, I think he was the first one to publish a physics textbook with MKS units.

Nebeker:

How would you explain to a layman how a change of units, the MKS, could make a great difference in radio science?

Wheeler:

That's easy. The CGS units-had two systems: electromagnetic units and electrostatic units. And a totally different evolution, totally different viewpoint in practice. And it was just a constant dichotomy when you went to electromagnetics, which was electrical engineering, and were handicapped by constantly having to convert between the two sets of units. The MKS system was based on an electromagnetic unit, but it was expanded to include all units and in addition went to the meter standard in a context that was practical. And we already talked about wavelengths in meters. The electrostatic system was totally foreign to that. In fact, both CGS systems were foreign to that. So that was the turning point where science and engineering merged, and the MKS was suitable for both.

I became a close friend of Stratton's, understandably, during the war after his book came out. And later he was president of MIT. Very charming gentleman with a brilliant mind. Now if I'd gone to MIT in those later years, I'd have been better educated, but that wasn't the time that I was confronted with the problems.

One invention that we'll be talking about which I called the piston attenuator was a waveguide beyond cut-off in the days before there were any waveguides. And the waveguides later on came from MIT and Bell Laboratories. And I'd already used waveguides....

Important Early Inventions

Nebeker:

I'd like to ask you about some of your most important inventions, and we'll use this list that's generally chronologically arranged. The first on here is the neutralized TRF amplifier. I know you've written about that in your book, and the very interesting story of your meeting with Hazeltine.

Wheeler:

That is described very well in my book, Hazeltine, the Professor, and also in Early Days.

Nebeker:

You were the first to actually make such a device?

Wheeler:

Yes.

Nebeker:

Were there features of yours that were not in Hazeltine's?

Wheeler:

Mostly his approach was more general because he knew principles that I wasn't familiar with. Perhaps the most interesting thing was the method I used for adjusting the neutralizing capacitor. Here what I did was to turn off the vacuum tube, turn off the filament, and adjust the capacitor so I got no signal through. And he gave me credit for introducing that method of adjustment. Big deal!

Nebeker:

You spoke this morning a bit about this pulse transformer for Breit and Tuve. Did you continue to do work along that line?

Wheeler:

Well, first that wasn't published at all, and I don't know how they approached that subject in what they did publish. And that was something I didn't have a need for again until during World War II.

Nebeker:

The next thing on the list is an amplifier for heart-action currents. I know that's also somewhat described in your book.

Wheeler:

That was published when the doctors who were working on those subjects published their results. They asked me to write a short companion article describing the equipment. I guess that's listed in my publications. I don't recall whether that was really covered in my book, Early Days.

Nebeker:

How was it you came in contact with these people doing the heart research?

Wheeler:

Dr. Andrew and Dr. Carter in heart research called on Dean Ames and asked him for a graduate student who might design an unusual amplifier for heart action pulses. Dean Ames said he had "just the man" and directed them to me. They described their needs very clearly. I built for them a pulse amplifier, which was unusual at that time. It was based on my experience with Professor Hazeltine, that I have already mentioned. It served their purpose very well. I demonstrated it in a talk to the JHU chapter of Sigma Xi, using electrodes in contact with the human body. It was the forerunner of the electronic electrocardiogram in common use today. It superseded the cumbersome string galvanometer.

Nebeker:

I'd like to ask you now about the piston attenuator that you just mentioned this morning — how it is you came to do that work.

Wheeler:

That story is one of our most completely documented, and that's chapter 8 in my book. Wheeler Monographs No. 1. Incidentally, that is one of my favorite inventions.

Nebeker:

Why is that?

Wheeler:

Because it was just totally new — new concept, new everything. And logically arrived at. There was a need, and I solved the problem.

Nebeker:

Was there some special preparation that you had that made it possible for you?

Wheeler:

Only my method of approaching these problems. That is, nobody had said you should make something like that. And when I got to working on the subject of designing an attenuator, I very logically came up with that result in several steps.

Nebeker:

Is the significance of that talked about in what you've written up?

Wheeler:

That article is extremely thorough because, as I said, that's one of the developments that is best documented.

Nebeker:

Next on the list, dated 1929, is the VTVM operating half-wave square-law.

Wheeler:

That has been documented nowhere. It was a small thing but very important in our day-by-day operations. It was customary to measure our voltages when measuring amplification or something in what we called a vacuum-tube voltmeter, which was essentially a triode vacuum tube turned on to a level of DC, and then the signal increased the amount of DC. The typical operation was to obtain the greatest increase in average current without regard for the amount of current that had to be balanced out in order to set to zero. The conventional method gave an increase in current very small compared with the amount that had to be balanced out so that the balancing was a critical operation. I found there was a way of operating the vacuum tube biased near cut-off so that the increase in current was still square-law, but there was very little current to be balanced out. The result was that the balancing operation was much less critical, and this became the most practical method. I suspect that that has never been used in any other laboratory.

Nebeker:

But it was used in Hazeltine?

Wheeler:

We adopted it universally.

Nebeker:

Why is it that you didn't publish a description of that?

Wheeler:

Lots of things didn't get published.

Nebeker:

The next on the list is 1932, all-wave antenna circuits.

Wheeler:

And that's pretty well covered in my book, Early Days.

Nebeker:

The same year, wideband multi-transformer filters.

Wheeler:

That was part of the same development that we used in connection with the all-wave antenna circuits.

Nebeker:

Was this part of the short-wave antenna development?

Wheeler:

Yes. Well, it was all-wave. It was incidental to using one transmission line from antenna to receiver to handle both medium wave and short-wave signals. Incidentally, it was no mean problem making a transformer that would cover that frequency range and would operate between a balanced line and a receiver that was essentially unbalanced, meaning it had one terminal grounded. And that transformer performed that function.

Nebeker:

Did you seek patents on most of these antenna innovations?

Wheeler:

Yes.

Nebeker:

Do you think that these innovations were widely used?

Wheeler:

No. They involved a high degree of refinement, which was not generally afforded.

Nebeker:

A lot of people were working at that time on antenna designs?

Wheeler:

Yes.

Communication among Engineers

Nebeker:

How good was communication among the engineers working on this topic?

Wheeler:

Well, I think most of us published in some journals what we were doing. I published a paper on this subject, and the people at RCA and some other laboratories published related work. In most cases I had gone much further in refinement and level of operation.

Nebeker:

What's the principal motivation for engineers in industry working for GE or RCA or Hazeltine for publishing their results?

Wheeler:

That's not an easy question. In industry there was some thinking that things should remain confidential so as not to give the competition equal time. We were fortunate in that respect because first, we did not have an income that would depend on confidential work. And secondly, we were releasing most of our results and ideas in reports to our licensing companies. Here I should mention that here, and all through my career, there is a pattern of careful reporting and informative reporting that was unusual — and still is. One reason was that our business was conveying information to other companies.

Nebeker:

I can certainly understand that conveying information to the licensees; but if these things are published in the open literature, then everyone has the benefit.

Wheeler:

Well, anything we published to the licensees was sure to get around. But I think also it would be only fair to say that the selfish desire for having your work put on the record was a large motivation. I say "selfish"; I don't know, but I think an important motivation was having your work would be recognized.

Nebeker:

Did you have the feeling at the time in the early 'thirties, with this antenna work, say, that the leading engineers were making known their results?

Wheeler:

I don't know how to answer that. This subject was a live one, and I think there was not any pattern of large organizations encouraging their men to publish. Perhaps it was most common in an organization like Bell Telephone Laboratories who were not in a competitive, profit-oriented operation. But more I think it was the case where the whims of the leaders were controlling rather than any logical sequence of thinking. And I think being brought up in the scientific community where publication probably influenced my attitude, although I was always anxious to tell people what I was doing.

Nebeker:

And I take it you encouraged other engineers at Bayside and elsewhere to publish their results?

Wheeler:

Yes.

Nebeker:

Would you say generally that the environment at Hazeltine was more like an academic environment than most research in industry?

Wheeler:

Well, "academic" is not clearly defined. I don't think the answer is clearly "yes."

Nebeker:

Two things that distinguish academic research in contrast to a lot of industry research is that in academia there's more freedom to pursue particular questions and more openness in making results known.

Wheeler:

That is a fair inference, but confidentiality has had a great influence on releasing a lot of scientific information. So there isn't a clear answer.

Papers: Amplifiers and the Skin Effect

Nebeker:

The next item on this list is a study of circuits for level amplification. What brought about that?

Wheeler:

First, this problem arose in the neutralized TRF amplifier. The ordinary tuned circuit had a large variation in the coupling impedance as it was tuned over the broadcast band, which was a 3 to 1 ratio that was difficult to cover with one tuning adjustment. So there were many attempts made to cover the band more uniformly. And that was the subject of this item. That is very well covered in my book, Early Days, and in 1930 I published a very long study of various kinds of circuits for obtaining uniform gain in a TRF amplifier.

Nebeker:

This seems to be an example of what some people might think of as freer research. That you're stepping back to survey a whole class of circuits rather than working on a particular circuit.

Wheeler:

Well, those are not really distinct. The problem was widespread, and there were numerous approaches to it. And people were familiar with it. I think it's fair to say there was no other laboratory made as extensive a study of that problem as we did because it was a very serious problem in the heterodyne receivers and in later receivers using screen grid tubes. It was peculiar to the TRF amplifier as distinguished from the super heterodyne.

Nebeker:

Can you tell me about this description of the maximum flat bandwidth attainable in an amplifier with shunt capacitance?

Wheeler:

That was the subject of a study in a paper I published in 1939. It was one of two papers that were responsible for my award of the Morris Liebmann Prize of IRE.

Nebeker:

Is that described in full?

Wheeler:

Incidentally, it was the subject of quite a number of patents for different variations. And the ultimate refinement was seldom afforded; it was a theoretical concept more than a practical design. Because people had found makeshift methods of getting enough bandwidth without going to the circuits required for the maximum result. There was also another factor there and that is I learned gradually that in television a uniform gain over a wide band was not the only objective. Also we had to have what we called linear phase. And the circuits with the maximum uniform gain had what we called phase distortion, which meant that the pulses in television were distorted. And the picture had peculiarities as a result. Incidentally, that subject is thoroughly treated in chapter 11 of my monographs.

Nebeker:

In 1941 was a paper on the skin effect, which you called your second most famous paper.

Wheeler:

It had been known from the early days of radio that high frequency currents in a wire concentrated on the surface because there was a delay in the currents reaching the inside of the wire. And I guess somewhere around 1910 that subject was recognized by the theoretical giants in the field, and it was named the skin effect because the currents traveled in the skin on the wire. So that was a well-known subject. My paper accomplished two things: One, it described the behavior in more understandable terms than the complete mathematical treatment of the theoretical giants. And, two, from the implications of this study, I perceived a simple way for computing the skin resistance of wires of various cross sections.

Let me give an example of one of the challenges that was recognized. A pair of round wires fairly close together had the current distributed very unevenly, concentrated on the facing sides of the wire, and some mathematical giants went through elaborate computations to predict what the resulting resistance power loss would be. But the incremental-inductance rule, which I devised, said if you know the formula for the inductance, you can, by simple differentiation, derive the formula for the resistance. So the elaborate mathematical treatises by the mathematical giants like Carson at Bell Telephone Laboratories were immediately bypassed if you knew the formula for the inductance. Which we usually did. That led to what I called the "incremental-inductance rule." That received very little attention for some years. But when we began to utilize lines of very unusual cross sections like strip conductors, then it became a determining factor in the amount of loss in a transmission line. And then it got to be recognized so that any article today on the resistance losses in a strip line would refer to that article.

Nebeker:

And it wouldn't have been practical to compute that in the theoretical way?

Wheeler:

That's a loaded question because some of the properties of a strip line are difficult to compute regardless. But at least this can be said: if you know the inductance of the line, then you have a simple procedure for evaluating the resistance. The inductance always had to be computed anyway because that was a factor in the line wave impedance. So once you knew that, you had a shortcut to the resistance.

Nebeker:

This a theoretically derived rule?

Wheeler:

It was so simple it was embarrassing. I don't know why the giants didn't see it. I might emphasize that too much education is as bad as too little. I was not adept in the procedures used by the mathematical giants. So I took what they said for gospel, but with the reservation that I'd like to know how to compute it myself. So that's where it ended up.

Formulas and Computation in Engineering

Nebeker:

I know that you've had a hobby of inventing empirical formulas based on your understanding of the phenomena that allow you to compute the values you're interested in.

Wheeler:

This is a subset of the phenomenon that I've sometimes described. I've been known to say that the secret of my success has been that I found problems that had simple solutions and thereupon exploited the simple solutions. And some problems, you might say, just don't have them. So I was constantly on the watch for problems having simple solutions. And then when I did, I rode them to death. [Chuckling]

Nebeker:

But your principal motivation was to arrive at something that is useful in engineering practice.

Wheeler:

Yes. A practical solution, which often meant a formula, that was not too difficult to be interesting. Here I might comment. Today the people who are geniuses in computation by digital filters too readily abandon the concept of simplicity because the power of the digital computers is so immense. And they will write a long program that can be utilized in a few minutes, and they call that a simple solution. Well, I don't!

Nebeker:

That's because you think one should have some understanding himself?

Wheeler:

Some physical intuition about what was going on. If there's any one thing that is lost more than any other in the computer era, it is that. That has been lost along with the motivation to find a solution that doesn't require a million operations in a second.

Nebeker:

I'm very interested in the question of computation in engineering practice. It seems that a number of your published articles have dealt with ways of calculating things such as this 1950 article "Transmission Line Impedance Curves." Your main objective was to reduce the labor required to get answers from engineering theory?

Wheeler:

Both that and improving the understanding of the phenomenon. There was a day, for example, when to compute the inductance of a conductor, you referred to a table that someone had derived by very laborious computations. And when I devised the simple inductance formula that I mentioned, it was assumed that you would refer to one of those tables which, as you know, is very laborious and you have to interpolate. It's a labor-wasting device. By means of that formula I perceived, by graphical representation, that the table had some properties, and I accumulated quite a number of tricks for perceiving what kind of a simple formula might be useful. Like, if you have a formula that looks like a hyperbola, if you invert it, it becomes a straight line. And I used that principle to devise my first simple inductance formula. It was surprising how most of the workers resisted that approach and were wedded to the table because it was a habit — that's what they were taught. They were not taught how to compute; they were taught to refer to the table. But the ones who shared my approach seemed to appreciate the value of that formula.

Nebeker:

So even when there was an appropriate table, you would prefer to devise some formula that would give you the answer.

Wheeler:

Yes, the formula gives you a picture of the phenomenon, and the table just doesn't.

Nebeker:

The table is equivalent to someone having a computer program that will give the answer.

Wheeler:

Yes. My first simple inductance formula was very easily derived, and Hazeltine had also devised some simple formulas for multi-layered coils, on which I patterned my formulas. They were restricted to coils in a range of shapes; they were not universal. But my formula was universal enough to cover practically all the single-layer coils anybody was using. Then in later years — I mean, much later — I honed these techniques in various problems and went back to the inductance formula in order to devise a formula that would cover all shapes, from short coils to long coils. I devised methods of working on those approximations where I would find one sort of empirical formula, which would handle one extreme and another that would handle the other extreme. Then I became very proficient in devising mathematical tricks for merging one into the other. I don't know of anyone who has adopted that hobby [Chuckling] other than myself. That's some feeble approach, as you might imagine. But the later inductance formulas that I derived were a rather extreme application of those principles combined with intuition.

Nebeker:

The final formula you would come up with is not only, I take it, something that has been put into a single formula, but gives you some understanding of the whole range?

Wheeler:

Sometimes. You have to understand if you devise the formula, but the formula isn't necessarily clear as to its implications. But there's one feature of my early simple formula that was appreciated by some of the people using it. And that was that it was reversible for analysis or synthesis.

Nebeker:

By, analysis you mean understanding a given device, and by synthesis designing something with certain properties?

Wheeler:

Yes. In engineering design almost always the motivation is synthesis. And almost all the formulas that you find in the literature are expressed in a form where there isn't an explicit solution to the inverse operation. My early inductance formula had that reversibility, and quite a few people perceived that and used it by reversing it to synthesis terms, which I did not do in my first paper. And so in later years, as I derived more sophisticated formulas for analysis, I also arrived at a sense of what kind of formulas could be reversed so that the synthesis could be computed by slide rule and not by trial and error. That was the most advanced result of my various exploratory works in that field. That reached a peak with my formulas for strip lines, which no doubt we'll be talking about separately. But other people have been able to compute strip lines only from the analytical viewpoint and usually with very complicated computer programs. I found programs that I described as slide-rule level for computing either the analysis or the synthesis. Since you mentioned slide rules, I should digress for a moment. The saddest moment of my life was when I put away my slide rule.

Nebeker:

When did that happen?

Wheeler:

With me it happened when I first acquired the Hewlett Packard — was it Model 73? — personal calculator, which was in the early 'seventies. The problems that we were doing on a slide rule to maybe three significant figures then we were able to do to ten significant figures. And I didn't mind the precision, but what the calculator lost was the — what I call the — analog sense of working on a slide rule. You could see where it was going, and with the computer that's all done in the dark.

Nebeker:

Also you have some kinesthetic appreciation of the magnitudes with the slide rule.

Wheeler:

And how difficult it is to get precision beyond a certain point. As you may have noticed, one of the articles in my book of monographs is on the operation of a slide rule. I devised procedures for the slide rule that were far beyond any that were available in instruction books. So at the time I wrote that article it would have been extremely valuable to one class of engineers. Now here I'm referring to the difference between different classes of engineers. One engineer is motivated wholly to get a result. And the other is motivated to get the result by the simplest process. So my studies of the slide rule enabled procedures that were not in the instruction books and were very helpful at solving some typical problems. I want to emphasize the difference in approach between the two categories of engineers because some are satisfied to get a useful result, perhaps by an excessive amount of effort, but some way so that it works. While I always stressed the need for getting a procedure that has wide application so that it doesn't just apply to the problem at hand. So you may have run across the title of my invited editorial about 1950 entitled "The Real Economy of Engineering."

Nebeker:

I have a copy of that.

Wheeler:

That was expressing my accumulated wisdom on that subject. The day after it was published, I got a letter from Westinghouse in Pittsburgh saying they wanted 50 reprints to distribute to their engineers. [Chuckling] The punch line in that article was that you should work hard to find the easy way. And that's what I've always done.

Nebeker:

This relates very much to the question I wanted to ask. When I was thinking of the study of high-energy physics in the last couple of decades, I was surprised to find that graduate students — they're the ones who do most of the work on the experiments in high energy physics — they spend perhaps 75% of their time at a computer terminal. Programming these days is done at the terminal, of course. Which is to say that 75% of their time they're trying to just carry out some calculation that has been thought out in advance; so that it's a kind of calculation, rather than being especially demanding in terms of physics insight. I'm curious about engineering practice at this time period we've been talking about. How much just sheer calculation was involved in the engineering work?

Wheeler:

There are two levels of engineering: One is innovation, where you're finding results that nobody found before. The other is just cookbook design. And I emphasized the innovation angle, which from one viewpoint means simplification of the cookbook design and an appreciation that simplification is possible and available.

Nebeker:

Do you have any estimate of how much of the work being done at Hazeltine was more or less straightforward calculation?

Wheeler:

In the earlier days of broadcast receivers usual methodology was trial and error. The people who had some insight or some computing power reached the end result by a shorter process. But the circuits and the configurations were usually complicated enough so that they could not be entirely computed. And I think that is typical in science as well as engineering.

Nebeker:

I was prompted to that question by the fact that you'd written this monograph on slide rules and that some of your other writings deal with calculating devices and shortcuts, as if that's important in engineering practice.

Wheeler:

Yes, it is. There has been on the average too little attention to simplifying the methods as distinguished from doing something that will work.

Limits of Small Antennas

Nebeker:

We've just been talking about the incremental inductance rule. In '47 you published "The Fundamental Limitations of Capacitance or Inductance in Small Antenna."

Wheeler:

Yes. That study had very interesting consequences. First, I was confronted with a problem of designing a small antenna to drop in a drill hole — like an oil well — for measuring the behavior of radio waves in the hope of finding some help in prospecting. That pretty much didn't materialize, but in working on that just after the war for the Seaboard Oil Company —

Nebeker:

Did they approach you? I know that you had begun work as a consulting engineer about that time.

Wheeler:

Yes. What happened was that one of my closest associates — Professor McIlwain of the University of Pennsylvania — was acquainted with the head of Seaboard Oil Company. He thought there might be some way of utilizing our radar experience in prospecting. And he interested the oil company in financing a project for us to explore the behavior of the ground. I might anticipate the end result in oil prospecting: it did not yield anything that appeared to be useful.

But one of the problems I had was making a small antenna that could be dropped into a drill hole. So I naturally considered the two principal types of small antennas, which I designated as C or L. Getting to work on that, I discovered an extremely simple formula that was common to both types of antennas. The capacitive antenna, the C type, was commonly a wire or some grid of wires, and the inductive or L type was commonly what we call a loop, a large coil. In the handbooks and in all the theoretical work, they call it two separate kinds. I guess that might have been an offshoot of the scientists having electromagnetic and electrostatic theories that were entirely separate. Here I had a limited amount of space, so I said, Which one would do best in a limited amount of space? I discovered what shouldn't have been so surprising but was an entirely new concept, that if they were the same size, either type could be designed and you'd get about the same result. And so I published that in the paper called "The Fundamental Limitations of Small Antennas." The cookbook family in the profession resisted that approach. They said, "You can improve one or the other; there isn't any limitation." And it was hard to prove or disprove. One character in the Air Force Laboratories spent a million or two million dollars in grants to people who said they could beat this limitation.

Nebeker:

Without success?

Wheeler:

It was a matter of definition. They did not properly define the limitations, and after a while this character succumbed at an early age. The next year the annual symposium by the Air Force invited me to present the key speech, showing the soundness of this concept.

Nebeker:

So this was a very important paper?

Wheeler:

Yes. And my concept was important, but in retrospect it was so nearly obvious that it's hard to imagine that the intellectual giants in the field missed it.

Nebeker:

And it's interesting how you came to the question.

Wheeler:

So we say, How was I able to define how the two were equivalent? Because they looked different, had different configurations. I did that by evoking a concept that was common in my early work with Professor Hazeltine. He defined the losses in an inductor or a capacitor in terms of power factor, which was a well-known term from power engineering, which was his background. The difference being that in power engineering you wanted the power factor to be large, and in radio circuits, like inductors, we wanted the power factor to be small so that we could treat them more like pure inductor or pure capacitor. So the power factor as an expression of losses, I inherited from my early contacts with the Professor. What I discovered when I went to work on these two antennas, that if I defined each one by a volume, that you could not make an antenna that would exceed a certain power factor of radiation if it was confined within certain dimensional volume. That was a very radical concept, and it wasn't until I tackled this particular problem that the relationship became clear to me. It had never become clear to anybody else, and it was used before everybody accepted it.

Nebeker:

I take it there was some direct opposition to it?

Wheeler:

Well, the hotshot engineers didn't like to be told you can't do anything beyond a certain point in a certain volume. And I think they knew it, but it was not easy to define. So my contribution was defining the limitation in terms of a volume, which contained the antenna.

Charts, Formulas and Handbooks

Nebeker:

In 1950 you published a set of charts?

Wheeler:

I was always accumulating formulas and graphs, which I found useful for design. There were some cases where a chart is more useful than a formula. Well, you can see the trends, for example. A chart is most useful for estimating where you don't need high precision but you want to see trends. So I had developed for my own use some interesting charts, and I published three of them in one article — in one issue — of the IRE Proceedings. One was the so-called reactance chart. Are you familiar with that?

Nebeker:

No.

Wheeler:

That is a chart that relates inductance, capacitance and reactance on a peculiar grid. I don't just know the origin' but I do know that General Radio Company had published some charts of the type that were found very useful. And there my contribution was mostly in providing the skill and work of drawing up a chart covering a very wide range of values, and also emphasizing some utility of the chart which was not commonly recognized. That was basically a matter of having an engineer who was skilled in drawing these charts. If you've ever tried to draw precision charts, you know that that requires a particular skill far beyond what ordinary drafting requires. So my contribution there was getting the more-advanced chart drawn and then writing some instructions for its use, which were not generally familiar, so as to make it most useful.

Then the second part of this series was the transmission-line impedance curves. Understandably, as people explored different cross sections of transmission lines, for each one they would draw a chart of its impedance — sometimes in a range that could be computed, sometimes not — and so over the literature there was a smattering of charts of this nature, but usually very restricted in their application. I was particularly interested in transmission lines, which involved a circular cross section of conductor near a shield of planar or rectangular configuration. Typically it would be a single wire above the ground or a pair of wires. Or a single wire, for example, in a square shield. All of these things have become very useful in various applications. There were only a very few cases where even the mathematical giants been able to write a formula that would cover dimensional over the entire range from a small wire to a large wire near contact.

So I had become interested in that, and I made a study of analyzing the two extreme cases. That is, not only the small wire, which was the thing usually computed, but also a large wire near contact, which in only a few cases had been computed at all. And by computing the extreme cases, I was able to draw curves merging from one extreme to the other, so these curves were the result of that exercise. As you'll see, one set of curves is for wires near contact. There was almost no information available on those cases, which I was running into in my daily work. So, as I say, it was not too difficult to devise formulas for the small wire. But for a large wire near contact, nobody had done it for most of the cases. So I wrote formulas for the two extremes and then merged them graphically and intuitively. Later on I learned how to cover some of those regions more accurately. But this was the first publication of design curves for round wires, which were both small and large. So we get to this point. I submitted these for publication, and I guess I can say they were sent to the wrong reviewers. The reviewers they were sent to clearly had no experience addressing this problem, and they rejected the paper because they said everything in this paper was already known. Well, first, that wasn't correct. And secondly, what was known was not presented in the most useful form.

Nebeker:

That was particularly this on transmission line impedance?

Wheeler:

Yes, that was the extreme of these considerations. So just at the time I was rejected by editorial reviewers, I was sitting across the table in a committee meeting from the editor-in-chief. Dr. Goldsmith was one of the founders of the IRE and taught at City College, New York. And he was the head of their laboratory, which was utilized by the RCA for some years. At any rate, he and I were good friends, so across the table he said the reviewers had turned down this paper because they said there wasn't anything new. First I showed their ignorance because if they had been confronted with these problems, they would have known the dearth of formulas and graphs that were available. And secondly, there wasn't any presentation which was anywhere nearly as comprehensive as the graphs that I was showing. He said he suspected that, so he passed the papers for publication. Well, after that came up, the IRE got a letter from a reader out in the sticks somewhere that said, "This is the kind of papers we want in the IRE Proceedings!" [Laughter] I never knew who the inept reviewers were — maybe it was just as well because I would have shown them that letter.

Nebeker:

Do you think these various curves were widely used?

Wheeler:

Some of the things that I was working on were not what many people were working on. So in that respect the use was not all that wide. But I had them reprinted for handing out in our laboratory; and, here again, an engineer working on similar problems had a copy of these curves on his desk.

Nebeker:

Were there many such curves in the literature?

Wheeler:

That's a loaded question when you say "such." There certainly were many design curves, and it was very exceptional for design curves to cover the entire range of dimensional ratios, which mine did. It was typical that somebody, by some ingenuity perhaps, was able to draw some curves that were valid for a range of values but not the complete range. Incidentally, often these curves were the result of measurements. And measurements, as you know, can never be exact.

Nebeker:

The response of that one reader that was pleased with this article suggests that it wasn't something that IRE published all the time.

Wheeler:

That's correct. More often design curves — or analytic curves — such as these came out of handbooks. So that for the state-of-the-art you would look in a handbook. It was there that you would find the extreme deficiency that I was addressing. The handbook would show a few cases, but nothing comprehensive. While we're talking about handbooks, which were subject all by themselves, I might digress. When I was making amateur equipment in the 'twenties, the usual handbook was a radio catalog that collected a few formulas in the rear so that you'd keep their catalog on your desk. [Laughter] And I was always intrigued by those formulas, some of which I could see their weaknesses and others of which I used when I had need. But one of the earliest publications in radio was a German publication entitled, "The Handbook." And I've forgotten whether that was the book by Zenneck or another name. But it's interesting because someone in Germany had — earlier than in this country seen the need for a design handbook. In this country there were not many collections of what you would call handbooks. And so in my notebooks you would find my do-it-yourself handbook. I'll show you one that I have at hand. This little notebook I started when I was in high school and continued in my early college years. Whenever I saw a formula that I thought might be useful whether it was in the back of a catalog or wherever I would enter it here.

Wheeler:

This was my do-it-yourself handbook. Compared with the knowledge of, I would say, many engineers in those days, this was more advanced in concept.

Nebeker:

At that time did you try to understand the physics behind these formulas or were these mainly tools for design?

Wheeler:

I had some concept of the relations involved, but I was mainly motivated to find ways of computing things before you went to measurement. So I copied from various sources formulas that appealed to me. There wasn't any logical common denominator; they appealed to me when I saw them. And the fact that that was already when I was in high school is remarkable.

Nebeker:

I see. Here we have, for example, range of stations.

Wheeler:

Yes. And that probably came from Bureau of Standards publications, which I became familiar with in the early college years. There were a few people now and then jotted down a simple formula like a range of transmission that was more or less valid. When I saw one, I copied it down.

Nebeker:

Is this something that you used a lot?

Wheeler:

Some. Most of these were beyond my needs.

Nebeker:

Did you continue to use this after your college years?

Wheeler:

When I learned more about the subject, those became largely obsolete.

Nebeker:

Since there wasn't such a handbook that you could buy, you compiled one.

Wheeler:

Yes. So let's see what happened in the area of handbooks. Professor Terman is one of the most remarkable of all members of our profession. He died rather recently. He published the best textbook for radio engineering in the early 'thirties. His name was immediately famous. In the middle 'thirties he published a very comprehensive book on radio measurements. Then he decided to make a handbook. He collected material for this handbook from the middle 'thirties until it was published, I believe, in 1941. But in collecting material, he didn't sit at his desk and read magazines. He went to visit the people who were working on the subject. He was on the West Coast, and I was on the East Coast. But he heard of the work being done at our Bayside laboratory, so in 1935 he arranged to pay me a visit to see what we were doing, and we were always glad to show it. So I met him at the Bayside station. And I saw someone I thought was Professor Terman, but he didn't seem to be paying any attention to me. But I approached him, and it turned out it was, and I was who he was looking for. In later years he told me that the reason he didn't contact me quicker was he was expecting an elderly man with a beard.

Nebeker:

Because you'd been a name in the field for some years.

Wheeler:

I was 32. We were immediately attracted to each other, and I visited him off and on, too, as long as he was working at Stanford. Well, the first real inspired radio handbook was his handbook published in 1941.

Nebeker:

There were earlier ones?

Wheeler:

Of a sort. They were not what I would call inspired. But they were of some use. But the handbook he published in 1941 became the bible of radio engineers during the war. His publishing company timorously released a lot of — I think — 10,000 volumes and never thought they'd get rid of them. And the day after the war started, they released another order for 10,000 because all the agencies working on war work were relying on this handbook. He told me how many were published once, but I've forgotten the number; it was near a hundred thousand. And this was an expensive book in an expensive binding.

Nebeker:

Did you make a lot of use of that book yourself?

Wheeler:

Yes. And a lot of contributions to it. On his visit to me, he told me what he was trying to do, so I released many of our reports that were unpublished for him to include in his handbook. So if you look at the references in the back of the book, I'm the one who has the greatest number of pages of references.

Nebeker:

Oh, I see. There's some design curves in the endpapers of the book I can see.

Wheeler:

Yes. He was inspired when it came to presenting the subject. Under my name there are two rows of numbers of pages where my articles were abstracted in his book.

Nebeker:

How long was this in print? Do you know?

Wheeler:

I wouldn't be surprised if it still is. I don't know, but it may have been reproduced in paperback.

Then soon after the war Federal Telegraph, which became IT&T, they had some brilliant engineers, and they were motivated to start an accumulated handbook. So they published the first small edition of the Federal IT&T Handbook. I have in my hand a rather thin handbook but not all that small, which says "Reference Data For Radio Engineers by Federal Telephone and Radio Corporation." It has my name engraved on the front, and it was presented to me by Haraden Pratt, the head of their laboratories, who was very prominent in IRE in those days. We became very good friends.

Nebeker:

Did you contribute also a good deal to this?

Wheeler:

Not overtly. I think it has perhaps a few things taken from my articles but not many. That was a very good start on their project, and it was difficult affording the effort it took for a profit-motivated company to develop this kind of information. But in some degree they found that it was paying off by making their own engineering more efficient. And I think that might have been the motivation in Federal as they had experience with it.

Nebeker:

Was this also used at Hazeltine?

Wheeler:

Yes. Everybody became familiar with it, and this project has continued over the years. Terman's handbook was a one-shot proposition. Federal's came out in the war in 1943. The fourth edition came out in '49. And incidentally, it's remarkable that this progress was mostly made during the war.

Nebeker:

So it went through four editions in that decade the fourth edition in 1949 and the first in '43.

Wheeler:

Yes. Then in recent years there have been several subsequent editions so it's not Webster's Dictionary status. But it was motivated by a few people who were active and perceptive like Haraden Pratt. He was one of the giants of the early engineering profession. IT&T was different in that their activities were based over a wide international base rather than just the United States. And some of their engineers were Frenchmen. That, I believe, is the only handbook that has continued to be built over the years, that went through the transition from vacuum tubes to transistors and from ordinary waves to microwaves.

Prewar Input from International Engineers

Nebeker:

You've raised an issue that I wanted to ask about, and that is in the pre-World War II period whether, in your experience, engineering science and practice had a large input from outside the United States.

Wheeler:

That does not have a simple answer. First, it started with Hertz, who was outside. And I was very sorry I couldn't accept an invitation to deliver one of the invited speeches at his 100th anniversary. He wasn't there at the time. And the French were probably ahead of us at the time of World War I, and of course Marconi was Italian. The Germans up until World War II were consistently leaders in engineering of all kinds.

Nebeker:

I'm wondering, for example, whether you or others at Hazeltine read German articles.

Wheeler:

First, I should have been proficient in German when I was studying for the Ph.D. Did I mention that the government in its infinitesimal wisdom [Chuckling] outlawed German during World War I? So I didn't get it in high school like I was supposed to. Anyway, the German developments in later years were largely transported into the English literature.

Nebeker:

In the form of direct translations — or less direct?

Wheeler:

Yes, either direct translations or the equivalent. And the language difference there was unfortunate because the Germans were leaders in so many things before Hitler destroyed the nation.

Nebeker:

What about English radio engineering?

Wheeler:

There was, of course, affiliation. It's interesting that the first electrical engineering society in this country was called the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. When IRE came along, they called it The Institute of Radio Engineers. And while it was started in this country, it has solicited members all over the world. The British had a separate organization, which was national called the Institution of Electrical Engineers, of which I am also a member. The IRE was probably one of the first world-based organizations, and with that circumstance the monthly meeting of the IRE in New York City in the 'twenties when I was developing was really a world meeting of radio engineers. And at those meetings I heard personally Marconi and others whose names I don't recall right away. Worldwide figures. And while I was going to school in Washington, working with the company part time, I seldom missed the monthly meeting in New York.

Nebeker:

Would you make a trip — I suppose it wasn't just for the meeting because you had other work.

Wheeler:

Usually I would arrange so that I spent two or three days working at the laboratory at the same time.

Nebeker:

But you definitely made a point of trying to attend IRE meetings.

Timeless vs. Transient Inventions

Wheeler:

Incidentally, the paper I published on automatic volume control incidentally — which is about three pages — was sandwiched between two monumental papers by famous authors. I think one was Marconi and the other was Armstrong — something like that. And they were long papers that had less permanent implications.

I should mention sometime that I have come to evaluate inventions as to one category that I say are timeless and another category that are transient. In general you can say that an invention typically is aimed at solving a problem. Some inventions are makeshift solutions and have a short life. The Hazeltine neutralizing invention was a perfect example; it was very active for five years, and then the screen grid tube came along and removed the problem. The diode AVC invention is going strong today sixty years afterwards and survived the transition to transistors. I rate that as a timeless invention. So when you're thinking about an invention, that’s a very interesting question. Armstrong, for example, his first invention that made him famous was the regenerative receiver. Have you ever operated one?

Nebeker:

No, I haven't.

Wheeler:

It's an experience, because you can tickle it with a coil — and they called it tickler — to the point of very high sensitivity by critical adjustment. That was the prevalent radio receiver before the heterodyne came along. And if the RCA had licensed under Armstrong's invention, the heterodyne receiver probably wouldn't have been designed. Then the most radical of Armstrong's inventions was what he called super-regenerations. And you've seen some papers of mine on that subject. That was a typical Armstrong invention; he more or less accidentally came to observe some conditions of extreme sensitivity. And he perceived why it was and made receivers using that principle such that in those days a loop receiver would receive transcontinental stations with one or two tubes. But it had very serious deficiencies. So it never achieved wide service with the one exception of IFF during the war that I worked on.

Then his second major invention was the super heterodyne, which he invented in France. That appears to be a timeless invention. I don't see any trends away from the super heterodyne receiver. So he had in one career, both. Not only the FM service that he was completely responsible for. That seems to me to be a timeless service, whether you call it an invention is a question that's been argued no end.

Nebeker:

What you're saying is that if one looks at the distribution of longevity of inventions, that there is bimodality.

Wheeler:

Yes, they're two pretty definite categories. When I was thinking about these things, I thought of the zipper. That seems to be something that won't ever come out of style.

Nebeker:

It may be that Velcro someday will displace it entirely.

Wheeler:

Probably they'll supplement each other.

Nebeker:

But it's certainly lasted a long time. An invention may meet a need that is specific to the time context.

Wheeler:

Usually it means it's not a real solution to a problem. That is, usually the invention that dies a natural death is one, which is not a real solution to a problem. The Hazeltine neutralization was one example. The real solution came to be the screen-grid tube. That is the most common temporal restriction on inventions.

Nebeker:

It may be that in the realm of possible inventions that there are best ones, or ones that are hard to improve on.

Wheeler:

Yes. You naturally think of Xerox. If anything was an invention that is one. And while it's not the same today as it was when it was introduced, the sample principle seems very long-lived.

Nebeker:

To return to your inventions, may I ask how widely used these charts were that you had published?

Wheeler:

It's hard to quantify. After we reprinted them and distributed them more or less to anyone who wanted them — to all of our engineers — the engineers who had use for them made a lot of use. Many engineers weren't confronted with the same kind of a problem.

Vertical Coaxial Cable Antenna

Nebeker:

In 1956 you published a design of a vertical antenna made of transposed sections of coaxial cable.

Wheeler:

Every topic has a story behind it. Wheeler Laboratories engaged in work on engineering problems for various companies. One little company in New Jersey came to us with several problems. One of them was that they wanted a vertical array of linear antennas for base stations in the moderately high frequency ranges. There was a problem making a vertical array of antennas because the transmission lines feeding the antennas for the higher ones would interfere with the lower ones. So I devised a construction that enabled the upper antennas to be fed through the lower antennas, so that there was no interference in the radiation. What I did was rather simple but, I would say, not obvious. So we designed vertical arrays of up to eight or so dipoles fed from one end all in line. It was something that just wasn't available. And this company named it the Stationmaster antenna for use at base stations. They had two different models for different frequency ranges. Some years ago they clocked a quarter of a million sales, and everywhere I go around I'll see one of these antennas on these stations and public works.

Nebeker:

You introduced that type of antenna. What was the involvement of Wheeler Labs with that company?

Wheeler:

Well, they got us to design some products that they wanted to. This was one of them. We just charged our usual engineering fee. We did not get a royalty or anything. Naturally they wanted to patent it — wanted us to patent it — so as to protect them from competition. That leads to another interesting story.

This antenna in its basic concept was invented a year earlier by a famous television engineer in England. They had vertical polarization, so they were interested in this thing. But he used air dielectric inside; it did not become immediately obvious how that was good or bad. I used dielectric cables for the construction of the antenna; and when we filed our patent application, by that time the British patent had been issued in the United States and Britain. So the examiner said they were the same thing and denied our claims. Then we did a deeper study and discovered by experiment that the British antenna without dielectric in it wouldn't work. The secret of our success was that we had dielectric-filled cables for the antenna. So we made a test to prove that, showed the test to the examiner, he ignored them. He said they were the same thing, and he denied our claim. What did he think he was? The Supreme Court? That was one of the few cases in which I've been the victim of arbitrary action by patent examiners.

Nebeker:

What recourse do you have in that situation?

Wheeler:

Theoretically to the courts, but the courts had been so antagonistic that was not a real remedy. So we let it go with commercial competition. Another company did copy these, but our client company fared very well.

Nebeker:

You didn't have to pay royalties to the British inventor.

Wheeler:

No. I guess because his invention expired in the time that these were becoming widely used. And also I might guess they just didn't bother. But you might say that his claims of earlier date should have entitled him to royalties. Then you might say he didn't make the invention because his didn't work. It was a great success, and it was a real invention.

Nebeker:

And your work was independent of the work of the Englishman, is that right?

Wheeler:

Yes. I never heard of that until I saw a copy of his patent, which was after I'd made the invention.

Study of Maxwell's Spherical Coil

Nebeker:

The next on the list is a 1958 study of Maxwell's spherical coil as an inductor shield or antenna.

Wheeler:

That was largely an exercise in collecting the various properties of that particular kind of a coil. A spherical coil is not easy to make so it has been used very little. So this was largely a paper of academic interest except that it led to inferences as to how big you had to make some things and how some things work. So it was very interesting and involved a lot of concepts, which were new. Maxwell's spherical coil was the only kind of a coil that had a simple formula for its inductance. Incidentally, the reason is that the field inside of a spherical coil is uniform. That appealed to Maxwell, and he wrote the formula. For that reason it appealed to me also. But he never thought of using his coil, for example, as a shield for a smaller coil. And it turns out it would have been a very good shield. Of course it turns out it was better to use a solid sphere, but that's a different question. The use of a spherical coil as an antenna: It wasn't easy to make so nobody would normally do that. But in my theories of a small antenna, that became one of the textbook examples of a small antenna. So I had many collateral interests in this subject and I put them all in one package that was very interesting for its implications even if you didn't use it for design.

Nebeker:

Did this paper attract any attention?

Wheeler:

Not much. Mostly it was a useful reference in my articles about spherical antennas. And incidentally it was passed by the reviewers very generously at a time when that amount of space was in short supply. Of course it was 1958. The IRE lost its name in '63, just shortly before.

Radio Propagation in Earth's Crust

Nebeker:

In '61 you published a new concept of radio propagation in the earth's crust. How did you come to be thinking about radio propagation in the crust?

Wheeler:

Another subject that we'll probably be talking about is my work on what's called VLF propagation in antennas. That's very low frequency — an arbitrary designation of a low-frequency range from 3 kilohertz to 30 kilohertz. It's used very little in radio because the longer waves require large antennas for efficient radiation. And so at some point I'll be talking about the very large antennas on which I was a consultant.

It happened because I was thinking about low frequencies, and I was working on large antennas, where the ground was one electrode of the antenna, and studying the ground. In that connection, what I learned about the earth suggested to me that there was available in the earth's crust, parallel plate waveguides. First the top layer is conductive because of moisture. Then there's a layer where the moisture is forced out, and it's almost pure silica, which is nonconductive — pretty good insulator. Then below that the high temperature of the silica made it a conductor again.

So I was the first one to perceive that there was in the earths crust a parallel plate waveguide. I presented that at a VLF Conference in Boulder, Colorado, around 1950. You could hear a pin drop [Chuckling] when I pointed out that there was probably a channel for radio waves to go long distances in the earth's crust and then come out deep in the ocean, because we had found no method of getting radio waves to a submarine deeply submerged. So what happened: they clamped a secrecy order on my patent after the paper had been published. The patent didn't issue until 20 years later. The Navy has a project, which is exploring that possibility in recent years. Did you ever hear of what's called the ELF Project in the Navy? The initials stand for Extra Low Frequency, meaning frequencies below 3 kilohertz. And most people who refer to it don't know that. I don't think it'll work very well.

Nebeker:

It's a current project?

Wheeler:

The Navy has spent millions of dollars in the past one or two decades exploring the possibilities on the basis of my 1950 paper.

Logical Date Code

Nebeker:

You published an article on a logical date code, which I've gotten to know in your writings. What started you in that work?

Wheeler:

Well, first, that's one of my greatest contributions and the slowest to be adopted. Sometime before World War II a friend of mine for a short time used what I call the "logical date code," a six-digit code for writing the year, month and day as one number. I took note of it but I didn't pay much attention to it until after the war when I was starting my independent operation. In patent practices dates become extremely important, so that among other things motivated me to adopt a way of writing the date that was efficient and logical. And then I came to appreciate the extreme confusion in writing dates in every form except what I perceived was the one logical form. The French would write a date with the day and then the month and then the year, which is putting the smallest thing before the largest. And when you're writing the date with the day, they would put the tens before the ones, which was the largest before the smallest.

So it had no semblance of logic. And that's what I perceived and decided that my way of writing the date code was the only logical way. I dreamed that it might prevail. Well, everybody fought it almost everybody, or for years except in my laboratory we used it consistently. And my engineers came to like it. But they were mostly shot down when they went to other companies. Just now it's approaching its ascendancy. The prevalent ways of writing the date are so many and so confused that people are beginning to appreciate the need for a unified logical order. And then with the computer, that was the order where you could catalog dates numerically. In my article I point out that this numerical representation is not the only logical one; it would be logical also to say: 1931 July 27. That meets all the requirements of my logic. So I sometimes use that plan in correspondence where the other party would not recognize my date code. That is at least a substitute that is not susceptible of misinterpretation.

That is an example of how I've always tried to perceive an orderly or logical approach where there was one. And here, you might say, nobody ahead of me had perceived that there was one.

Nebeker:

And you say that in recent years in the data-processing world this is becoming fairly common?

Wheeler:

Yes. You might be interested; there were numerous unrelated examples where somebody came to appreciate it. In getting a money order recently, I discovered that the post office had written the date in my code. So I wrote to the Postmaster General and asked him — I said I'd be interested in knowing the name of the man who made that decision. And he said — I got a nice reply, a personal reply from one of his staff. Said they'd be interested, too, but they'd lost track of him. It was maybe 17 years ago, and they didn't know who did it. All they knew was that for 17 years money orders had been using that code. I didn't even know that. My article was in Journal of Industrial Engineering, which very few people see.

Phased Array Radar

Wheeler:

After the war, I might say in general terms, my specialization became antennas and microwaves and strip lines. Strip lines were closely related to microwave waveguides. And antennas, of course, galloped off in all directions. I specialized in some directions.

First, during that decade, by far the greatest part of our work was brought to us from Bell Laboratories in Whippany. The first projects were simple introductory exercises. One was the microwave X-band plumbing for the NIKE missile, which was the first guided missile engineered by Bell Laboratories. It was a ground-to-air guided missile. Rather primitive by today's standards but very well planned and well executed. Well, our first work on the microwave circuits gave us introduction to that frequency band. The next was to design an antenna feed — a feed for a lens-type antenna for that system — the so-called monopulse feed, which was a type of guidance for guided missiles.

That worked well, so their next project, which was called NIKE Hercules, was in a lower frequency band. I guess it was called the C-band. It had much larger antennas, more power, and higher range. On that project we did much of the microwave design work, including the antenna. The antenna was one of the jewels of our experience because it had such inspired leadership from Whippany. We were able to respond in a way that was very effective. The net result was that we invented a new type of reflector antenna — a double reflector antenna — which was used in the Hercules system. When I say we designed it, essentially we did the design innovation and experiments, and it was made by Goodyear for Bell Telephone Laboratories. Incidentally, that antenna is still in use today for instrumentation of some radar ranges. It was the star antenna of the guided missile field in its day. And then came the days of anti-ballistic missile radar, and that introduced a whole new family of antennas including the phased array. Are you familiar with the concept of a phased array?

Nebeker:

Generally.

Wheeler:

Essentially it is a large array of small radiators, and a beam is formed by phasing all the radiators to steer it in any direction you want. Instead of steering a mechanical device, the steering could be done rapidly in electronic circuits.

Nebeker:

What's the origin of that technology?

Wheeler:

During the war a few of the Signal Corps and Navy radar antennas were arrays that we would have said had a large number of elements. A large number in those days meant maybe 3 by 8 or something like that. Those arrays were designed from very primitive rules. They served their purpose, but they were not phased arrays; they were mechanically steered. One, incidentally, was the radar that they ignored at Pearl Harbor. But these Signal Corps radars soon had one of my IFF antennas mounted on top. And it was associated with the IFF equipment we designed for them. With regard to the phased array, some people — very few, I think — began thinking in terms of electrical steering of the arrayed beam. One was one of our leading engineers — Arthur Loughren — who is retired and lives in Hawaii right now. He invented one kind of steering circuit called a frequency steering. That was not used very much. One of the leaders in the Hughes Radar Group later invented the same thing, and Hughes made just a few of these frequency-steered phased arrays. The significance in our program was that our patent was issued just about the time they were making the last one, and we got royalties on the last one, after which they went out of style. I might mention that the inventor of that — named Begovich — was one of the stars in the Hughes Engineering organization that was becoming one of the most prominent in the world. So just after the war I became interested in the crude arrays that had been made and in the design problems. That led to one of my principal innovations.

I published a paper proposing that the ray element he designed by a technique that treated it as an element of an infinite array, that was one of the many concepts that the engineer at the bench was not attracted to. The idea of an infinite array was not natural. It happened that it was closely related to the behavior in waveguides where an infinite array of images was produced by inner walls. So in 1948 I published the first paper that was written about designing an array element as an element of an infinite array. It did not immediately attract much attention.

Nebeker:

Were there other groups working on phased arrays at the time?

Wheeler:

Yes. The real intensive activity on electronic steering hadn't yet matured. But in the next few years it became one of the primary activities in the field of guided missiles and radar. So gradually the workers in the field embraced the concept of a phased array. One of the Hazeltine leaders sort of independently worked on it a little later. And that was the beginning of the scientific design of array elements in the next two or three decades. It wasn't long after that when Bell Laboratories came to us with their problems in phased arrays; and as you can imagine, a big array of hundreds and thousands of elements was not something you managed in a small laboratory. They managed it though, and they brought to us the problems that we could work on most effectively. One was the design of an array element suitable for a large array, which we designed on the principle of the infinite array.

Nebeker:

What was it that made you particularly interested in arrays?

Wheeler:

I was unhappy with the crude method of design of the small arrays that were in use during the war. They were, as you can imagine, sensible engineering designs — General Electric, Bell Telephone Laboratories, the Naval Research Laboratory. But they were crude, and they couldn't accurately predict the behavior of a radiating element in a moderately large number of others. So I was dissatisfied with what I saw.

Nebeker:

Tell me a bit about publication of results and patenting of results?

Wheeler:

You might read between the lines that they couldn't hold me down. [Chuckling] Not that anyone tried to, but the routine supervision of projects that we had were just a springboard from which I got all kinds of ideas. And I was free to publish — more free, you might say — than if I'd been in a large organization. And I was more able to than if I had had no organization at all. So that accounts for the rather large number of publications attributed to me in the next couple of decades. But mainly when I saw a problem, I was motivated to explore the nature of the problem and find a solution.

Nebeker:

What about the patenting of the results of these concepts?

Wheeler:

First of all the concept of an infinite array had no patent status. That was true of about half of my publications. We were not relying on patent royalties, but my prior experience placed some emphasis on patents. Bell Laboratories were interested in having some things patented. That was not a major impetus in the period after the war.

Wheeler Labs: Patents and Reports

Nebeker:

You would seek patents perhaps to protect yourselves as much as to gain royalties?

Wheeler:

We did it just because it was considered the thing to do. I had been disillusioned on the value of patents but I still recognized that the patent system was a very active medium for disseminating new ideas. Also it was encouragement to my engineers when they were able to obtain patents.

Nebeker:

But the patents would be held by Wheeler Laboratories?

Wheeler:

When we were working for another company, that company was the assignee and the owner.

Nebeker:

And Bell Labs sometimes asked you to patent a certain thing.

Wheeler:

Yes. The outstanding antenna that I mentioned was the subject of a patent to one of our brightest young engineers, who, incidentally, is still in the laboratories, and someone that I recruited from Stevens; he was a student of Professor Hazeltine.

Nebeker:

How was this long series of Wheeler Labs reports, distributed?

Wheeler:

First, we made a practice of adequate reporting of our current activities and results. That was one of the things that impressed our contacts at Bell Telephone Laboratories. So we developed an unusual technique for planning and preparing reports, which was a little laborious but yielded an excellent result. By and large our engineers welcomed the training and profited by it.

Nebeker:

How did you encourage the people to write up work? It was understood that whoever worked on a project would also write it up.

Wheeler:

All of us — including myself — started from a very rudimentary base in writing reports in our early days. But we managed to get the engineers to work together in a way that motivated the group and the individual. It accomplished two ends: Our clients were delighted with our reports and the quality of them, and our engineers became known by signing the reports.

Nebeker:

Were these reports made available to anyone who wanted them?

Wheeler:

No. Just to our clients.

Nebeker:

Were they eventually circulated more widely?

Wheeler:

No. Usually they went to an ad hoc requirement of a specific group.

Nebeker:

Weren't the Wheeler Monographs coming out during that same time?

Wheeler:

Yes. It was in this period and about the time that I was writing about the infinite array that I made several studies, which would require a rather lengthy paper to present adequately. The IRE didn't have the capacity for publishing lengthy papers but so I didn't let that stop me writing the papers. Then I thought: how could this knowledge be disseminated in a way that would be a credit to me and a contribution to the profession. Well, I had thought of approaching some large laboratories to subscribe to a series of monographs at a very nominal fee. My friends welcomed the opportunity, so that several large companies automatically received the monographs as they came out and circulated them among their groups. That proved to be a very effective way of utilizing these studies I was making. After a few years the subscription fee became trivial, and we distributed them free of charge to our original friends and also others who were interested.

Nebeker:

About the same time, the Rad Lab series of books was coming out. Was that something that made a big difference to Wheeler Laboratories? Did you use those much as sources?

Wheeler:

Several of the volumes were directly related to the work that we had specialized in during the war and soon after. Those became textbooks and handbooks to everyone in the field. It was one of the most ambitious and most productive publication efforts in history. Anyway, it's interesting that in the fields where I had specialized, the Rad Lab reports were sometimes primitive. They had different problems, and in some areas they had advanced as far as we had. But of course I'm not talking about some years later than their actual work. There's no question their actual work was pioneering at the time it was done.

Wheeler Labs: Growth, Buyout, Contracts

Nebeker:

Did you like heading your own laboratories as opposed to working at Hazeltine?

Wheeler:

I liked the freedom of making decisions without any restrictions outside of my own providence. It was a new experience. I involved my engineers in management of our activities rather than financial management. That developed them very well. It was a miracle in providing opportunities and a degree of freedom with a minimum of counterproductive restrictions because of the fact that Bell Laboratories was a leader in the field, and they could obtain support from the government in a way that no other organization could. That support included our work.

Nebeker:

When did Wheeler Labs approach 100 engineers?

Wheeler:

In 1959. The 'fifties was a period that we'll never see again and never saw before, when the Pentagon was spending all the money they could on innovation. That wasn't the name of the game in the government generally. But that period after the war, which meant especially the early days of guided missiles, was a period unprecedented and that'll never happen again. So that was a fertile field for innovation. But then at the end of that decade in 1959 happened what you wouldn't have thought possible. The Air Force sent a letter to the contractors, which said money was getting scarce, and they couldn't expect to be paid on time.

Well, that was one of many events, which started to inhibit the full range of innovative activity. It among other things reduced the Bell Laboratories load to a point where they gradually had less need for our services. I might say that from some viewpoint their contracting our services should have been frowned on by their organization because essentially they were building up engineering talent to compete with their own group. But in the climate of the 'fifties, that was not an important consideration. Later on the people who had introduced us in their group became less involved — either higher management positions or retirement. The successor group was less personally involved in our activities, and the work for them was tapering off.

It was just at that time that MacDonald came over to see me. He said, "Shouldn't we get together again?" Well, the circumstances left me receptive to that approach so Hazeltine acquired our company at a nominal price in stock and very thoughtfully continued our activities for another decade, semi-independent. We still operated under our name, and we still had opportunities for contracts with various other organizations.

Nebeker:

So it continued administratively separate?

Wheeler:

Yes. But management of our laboratory was no big deal compared with the large company. We also naturally had Hazeltine as a client. So several of their problems we tackled during that decade.

Nebeker:

You didn't have them as a client before '59?

Wheeler:

No.

Nebeker:

I also wondered if maybe it was frustrating for you as Wheeler Labs became larger and larger to have to spend more and more time as manager and less time with engineering work. Is that the case?

Wheeler:

No. I was very fortunate in that our contacts with Bell Telephone Laboratories brought us in direct contact with their contracting leaders. Essentially they relieved us of the burden of obtaining contracts and managing the government interface, which was not inspired during that period.

Nebeker:

What about the work for Raytheon that Wheeler Labs did?

Wheeler:

I think that originated in the late 'fifties and built up during the 'sixties. They probably came to us because they became aware of our work for Bell Telephone Laboratories and perceived that they had some similar problems. Perhaps they were understaffed for the amount of ambitious work they were undertaking. During that period we designed for them a phased-array element for the radar for the "SAM D," Surface-to-Air Missile Project. That's what matured into the Patriot during the war, and one of our engineers and some of our designs of that period were active in the Patriot development.

Nebeker:

Was that a large contract?

Wheeler:

Not compared to our work for Bell Laboratories. It might have occupied a few of our engineers for a period of a few years. It was not minor. There again our contacts with Raytheon were very productive. It didn't hurt that I was a personal friend of Tom Phillips, who became the head of Raytheon, from getting acquainted with him in the early days of guided missiles when he was working at the bench. He is one of the inspired engineers and leaders of all history.

Nebeker:

What type of work did Wheeler Labs do with Communications Products?

Wheeler:

Communications Products was a small company in New Jersey whose primary product was antennas and transmission lines related to antennas. They became acquainted with some of our work. Their engineer who was a very bright amateur and very active leader came to us with several problems, which were of varying importance. One, for example, was method of testing transmission lines where the requirements were becoming increasingly severe. So they brought to us this ambition of theirs to make a vertical array of vertical dipoles to provide omni directional coverage with radiation gain, meaning the radiation concentrated toward the horizon, and one that was suitable for base stations. That is what led to my invention and our development of their most famous antenna, which was dubbed the Stationmaster.

Nebeker:

What was this antenna used for?

Wheeler:

It was used for base stations in the moderately high frequency ranges. Roughly the same ranges as used by amateurs. The chief engineer was an active amateur. And so this design was inspired — if any design ever was. We ended up in a very short time with a design that was very effective.

Nebeker:

Did you actually test it with a physical model?

Wheeler:

Yes we used our latest concepts of array design, which were required only in a small degree in that small antenna, but were very helpful. We gave them this design, and they exceeded their fondest expectations in economy of production and in performance. They wanted to patent it naturally, and we had no objections. So the patent application proceeded through channels, and the examiner called to our attention a similar vertical array in the slightly earlier invention by a famous British inventor named Blumlein. Many of his inventions were my inventions a year earlier because the British had a head start in TV. So the examiner said we didn't have any invention over that. Our first reaction was to agree with him; on further study however it turned out that Blumlein's invention used air dielectric in the coaxial lines, which fed the power through the lower into the higher dipoles. And ours used a dielectric cable. Well, as we began to make experiments, we discovered that ours worked, and his didn't. There was a basic deficiency in his design that was corrected by our design. We made conclusive tests, showed the tests to the examiner, and he ignored them and refused to issue a patent on ours.

Nebeker:

What is the usual procedure there? For example, if someone has, let's say, basically the design that will work but misses some crucial point, is he generally accorded the patent anyway?

Wheeler:

Well, nobody knew that Blumlein's paper patent wouldn't work. So it was presumptive — that the competence of its preparation and the competence of the inventor was presumptive — that it would work.

Nebeker:

But working models are not required?

Wheeler:

No.

Nebeker:

One might argue that although but a lot of things would be corrected, in the process of implementing on invention the patent is valid nonetheless.

Wheeler:

Assuming that the thing described in the patent would work, then the inventor is allowed quite a little leeway in interpreting the applications of it. It's very seldom that you have a clear case as we had here, where we built the basic invention according to the patent, and it didn't work.

But the examiner wasn't impressed. He had issued the Blumlein patent and he didn't accept our proof that it wouldn't work, and he didn't accept our proof that we had a patentable improvement. Which would have been clear to anyone else except him. We did not pursue that conflict because it would have been more expensive than we chose to afford. And we meaning both ourselves and the manufacturer.

World War Two

Nebeker:

At the time of the outbreak of World War II in September of '39, your principal activity then was the development of television?

Wheeler:

Yes.

Nebeker:

Was it that Hazeltine became involved in wartime work or military work?

Wheeler:

As the war activity became more active in Europe, it became apparent that the U.S. would become involved before long. Government agencies were established to initiate activity and development toward this end. About that time, materials for civilian radio manufacture were curtailed so that our management began exploring opportunities, which the company might have toward war work. There was a short period of a year or two when they were mainly development activities sponsored by government agencies like National Defense Research Committee NDRC and its successor, Office of Scientific Research and Development, OSRD.

Nebeker:

Had Hazeltine had any previous contact with the military?

Wheeler:

Very little. Nothing that materialized, really. So we became acquainted in some committees — or some subgroups — of those activities. That led to contracts for a few military projects. By all tests, the most important one was the mine detector, the detector for buried metallic mines, an anti-tank weapon. And we were selected as the one organization to develop that device.

Nebeker:

What sort of mine detectors were already available?

Wheeler:

None in the military, but the so-called treasure-finders, which were very similar and were used by bounty hunters for buried wrecks and on the beach. So we explored the existing technology in that field — not too efficiently, I might say — but we kept in close contact with our NDRC advisors. The principal one was Dr. Molnar, who later became an officer of Bell Telephone Laboratories. He was at MIT, and he steered us into a less ambitious program of making a practical design of an existing treasure-finder.

The treasure-finder was some coils on a long pole, and the coupling between the coils had to be critically balanced out in order to detect the reaction of a buried metal object. Their principal defect was that the balancing was so critical that even exposure to daylight would cause expansion and upset the balance. So I tackled that problem in order to develop a practical design on the same principles. I invented a triple-coil assembly.

Nebeker:

The others were double coil?

Wheeler:

The others were just two coils, which were either concentric or offset. In the triple-coil assembly — the inner and outer coil was the transmitter, and the intermediate coil was the receiver. The balance with it was obtained by the geometric relations among the coils, which happened to be very simple. So we designed this triple-coil assembly, and true to prediction, it was entirely insensitive to heating in the balance and became practical.

Nebeker:

Was there any of your previous work that had been at all similar?

Wheeler:

Not really. We were floundering, I would say, among various options, and we hadn't got to the point of something that looked like a practical design when Molnar urged us to concentrate our effort on something that existed which, was very wise counsel. In a very short time this design was made into a highly effective mechanical assembly. In this work my engineer in charge was an older engineer named Leslie Curtis. And to him goes credit for the inspired mechanical design of this assembly, and much of the credit for the amplifier and controls that enabled it to be practical. About the time this was maturing was the campaign in Africa. So we rushed to completion one working model, which was flown to Africa and immediately put in service in the anti-tank operations. From that time on it was soon in quantity production and was used widely in Italy and in France.

Nebeker:

You mentioned in your book that another company got the contract with the quantity production.

Wheeler:

Yes. The Signal Corps supervisor of this work was a captain who had been with the Horni Company, which made traffic signals. And in a phony competitive bid, the job went to his company and not to us. I might say the company did a good job, but it was kind of sad because they would call us up when they had problems, and we couldn't talk to them because it was secret. But that mine detector was a great success and was still in use in Korea, and the Signal Corps didn't have any other versatile mine detector. It went out of style with the advent of plastic mines. And to this day we have no good way of detecting plastic mines.

Nebeker:

Did your involvement with that end when the contract went to the other company?

Wheeler:

Yes.

Nebeker:

Except that the Horni Company would call and ask for help.

Wheeler:

Yes, and we pursued some avenues directed toward a more elaborate and improved design, but nothing useful came of it.

Nebeker:

Was that Hazeltine's own initiative or under contract?

Wheeler:

Under contract. Continuation of the same NDRC and OSRD committees.

Nebeker:

What was the next major wartime project?

Wheeler:

There wasn't anything else really significant before the war. There were some very interesting experiments. One particularly interesting was a television-guided bomb. The first exploration of that possibility. We made crude demonstrations that were very convincing, and that was the beginning of the television-guided missiles which the U.S. acquired many years later. The other jobs were small jobs that were inconsequential until the war increased in intensity.

The British were then developing radar. And as we know, that saved their lives in the Battle of Britain. And that brought to their attention the need for identification of a radar target so you know shoot or don't shoot. So a very inspired group in Britain under Sir Robert Watson-Watt developed what they called IFF, interrogation Friend or Foe. The first model, called Mark I, went into use, and the second model, called Mark II, and was some improvement. Both one satisfied them, and they developed a third model called Mark III. And Mark III's principle was an interrogator signal similar to radar but separate from the radar, which triggered a response in the target aircraft if it was friendly. That's what gave it the name "Interrogation Friend or Foe." So in England they faced the dilemma that they had an inspired design in the experimental stage and were fresh out of talent for further design and manufacture. That was the time when U.S. had a contract with the British for work anticipating war activity.

Nebeker:

Was this before Pearl Harbor?

Wheeler:

Yes, shortly before. So our chief engineer, MacDonald, was exploring possibilities, and he became acquainted with some of the leaders in the Navy. And they identified this project as one that Hazeltine was uniquely qualified to undertake. Meaning that we had engineering talent — one of the best radio engineering groups in the country — which was available. And we had license manufacturers who were now idle who were uniquely qualified for making this kind of equipment. So he negotiated. Well, first we had some dealings with the Signal Corps. Then he negotiated with the Navy a prime contract for Hazeltine to undertake the design and production of all the IFF equipment the Navy needed. That became our war project to the exclusion of everything else.

Nebeker:

When did that start?

Wheeler:

The contract was negotiated just before Pearl Harbor and signed quickly — like a few days later. [Chuckling]

Nebeker:

What contacts did you have with Rad Lab?

Wheeler:

Very little. There were a few occasions when they wanted an IFF system uniquely adapted to one of their radars. So we went to Rad Lab and visited Navy vessels to adapt that equipment to their needs.

Nebeker:

So the IFF system that you were working on before that was for pre-existing Navy radars?

Wheeler:

It was adapted to whatever radars were contemporary. It's interesting that the first test war by the Signal Corps with the old SCR-268 radar, whose purpose was to identify a target so that they could steer a sound detector to locate it accurately. To the extent that that radar was used for a while, it had our IFF equipment on it. But our dealings with the Signal Corps were less than satisfactory because they still had the old-fashioned notions of contracting and competitive bidding, which were not well adapted for that project. So the preliminary designs we made for the Signal Corps were copied by their contractors during the war. And they continued to use our first-generation designs while we made a much-improved second-generation design that was used by the Navy.

Nebeker:

The difference is that the Signal Corps would insist on each project being put out to bids?

Wheeler:

Sort of. The important thing was that they held the management close to the vest with all the limitations of government contracting; whereas the Navy had the foresight and the freedom to give us a great deal of freedom which enabled efficient design and manufacture. So that that was one of the star projects during the war.

Nebeker:

And was that a series of devices, IFF devices?

Wheeler:

Yes. What I call the second-generation designs for the ordinary IFF equipment were the main part of that project. The second-generation design involved major improvements in the circuit equipment and particularly the high-frequency technology, which was not too familiar yet. The frequency range of that system was 157 to 187 megahertz. That was one of the frequency ranges that was just maturing at that time. So we had to become expert in this new frequency range. With that came a whole new list of antennas required. My limited exposure to antennas in the middle 'thirties gave me a very good springboard to tackle these antenna problems. So I set up an antenna group in a shack near our company headquarters in Little Neck. And that was one of the most famous groups in the view of the Navy during the war. So three or four bright young engineers in my antenna group were responsible for one after another-innovative antenna to meet specifically the needs of the Navy for IFF.

Nebeker:

You would design an antenna for a particular ship or plane?

Wheeler:

No. For types — one shipboard and one airborne, and for ground-based landing beacons. All of those things were involved. The largest quantity of equipment was the transponder, which was carried by potential targets; in the Navy that meant surface vessels, military and civilian, and all Navy aircraft. So at the end of the war our equipment and antenna designs were carried on every Navy potential target.

Nebeker:

Aircraft and surface vessels?

Wheeler:

Yes. Also submarines, since submarines when they surfaced were radar targets. I have a patent on each of maybe half a dozen different types of antennas for these specific purposes.

Nebeker:

These patents, I'm guessing, were not applied outside of the Navy?

Wheeler:

That is true. And because they were patents and not publications in the literature, they were not well known after the war. Some were too specific to have general application. Others were reinvented by other engineers after the war.

Nebeker:

How large was this antenna group of yours?

Wheeler:

Three or four engineers were typical.

Nebeker:

Was this a fairly well understood branch of engineering science? That if you had certain requirements, you could calculate what sort of antenna would be best?

Wheeler:

There were very few antenna experts in our industry. One reason was the largest quantity of equipment was home receivers, which did not use specialized antennas. So the specialists were in RCA Communications where they had very different requirements. So I was in a virgin field designing small antennas, meaning antennas you could carry around for specific purposes that did not exist before the war.

Nebeker:

Were you hampered much in those years by classification of information?

Wheeler:

Yes. It inhibited free communication between companies. But since our company had all the responsibility for this system, that was not a serious handicap.

Nebeker:

So you couldn't typically call somebody at Bell Labs and ask if they had done something similar?

Wheeler:

Typically their work was more or less published and directed in different directions that were not parallel to ours.

Nebeker:

Well, that's perhaps a poorly chosen example. If you knew that at Rad Lab or Columbia related work had been done, could you contact those people and ask about it?

Wheeler:

Mostly we just knew enough to know that the antennas needed for our requirement were not then common knowledge.

Nebeker:

So the IFF and all this antenna work was the bulk of your wartime activity?

Wheeler:

Yes. And we should say it was mostly IFF but included the early days of transponder beacons for plane landings.

Nebeker:

How did things go then when the war came to an end for Hazeltine?

Wheeler:

I should have mentioned that about the middle of the war our IFF system had been sort of compromised, and the need was recognized for a more advanced system. So in parallel with our immediate needs, a project was initiated by the Navy as a leader of all agencies, both in the government and civilian, to work on a successor IFF. After the Mark III there was one designated Mark IV that didn't go anywhere. The next was designated Mark V, and that is the one that was the subject of intensive developmental activity in the latter half of the war period.

The Mark V was developed under cognizance of the Naval Research Laboratory located in Washington, DC. That project involved cooperation of all the government military agencies and several companies with ambitions to manufacture the equipment. It was designated the Combined Research Group — CRG — with headquarters in a new building at the Naval Research Laboratory. I and our group spent a great deal of time on location. Our responsibility in the new project — the immediate responsibility — was to provide by quick reaction new equipment that they perceived they needed. And so we had a shuttle between our headquarters in Little Neck and NRL in support of that activity.

Nebeker:

Who else was involved in CRG?

Wheeler:

It was a very ambitious group. It involved representatives from England, some of whom had been involved in the original IFF. The principal government agencies and some subsidiary government groups and a number of manufacturers, including some of the most prominent manufacturers who were anxious to cooperate in the war effort and who were interested in having a part of the pie when it went into production.

Now this CRG design designated Mark V was mainly distinguished by a higher frequency band, the so-called L-band, around 1 megahertz. So that involved a new set of technical problems. In the antenna area and in the area of high frequency circuits, I was a leader. So I have some patents in that field. That project came to a screeching halt when the war was over, by which I mean the ambitious program was reduced to a holding operation. It shortly resulted in a new simplified IFF, which became the keystone of our postwar IFF equipment. It was designated Mark X.

You would naturally be curious what happened to the intervening numbers. One of the leaders in the government, Gene Fubini, was at the blackboard one day and talking about the next generation of equipment. He wrote down Mark X [the letter X, indicating an unknown number], and that was transcribed to Mark Ten.

Nebeker:

So there were no VI, VII, VIII and IX?

Wheeler:

None. And Hazeltine became the leader in both development and manufacture of Mark X and successor equipment. In the decades after the war there was one individual whom I hired just before the war, who had continual activity in our wartime IFF work and all the IFF work of the company until he retired a few years ago. And so that was the long-term story of IFF.

Nebeker:

So that became a large part of Hazeltine's successive work?

Wheeler:

Yes. It was one of two or three principal activities. And there wasn't any question that Hazeltine was the leader. But they encountered all kinds of nit picking in contracting and delays as we resumed civilian activities after the war. It was much less efficient.

Nebeker:

Did you stay pretty much full time on that?

Wheeler:

No. After the war when I left the company for a while, I was separated from that activity. And when I rejoined the company, I participated in some degree, but I was never immersed in it to the extent that I was during the war.

Postwar: Founding Wheeler Labs

Nebeker:

Was it in '46 that you left the company?

Wheeler:

Yes. Shortly after VJ Day. I elected to pursue another kind of career for a while.

Nebeker:

I'd like to hear about that decision of yours.

Wheeler:

First, the opportunities for war work were outstanding, and none of us would have thought of breaking loose during the war. But the company had some limitations. MacDonald, the leader, was not an inspired manager of engineering talent, although he made excellent use of it during the war. A few of us perceived that the opportunities we'd had before the war and during the war might be curtailed after the war in favor of production management and engineering. That did happen. The chief engineer, Harnett, and myself embarked on separate paths at that time.

Nebeker:

So he left the company at the same time?

Wheeler:

Yes.

Nebeker:

For the same reason?

Wheeler:

Sort of. He did not go into independent work. He found jobs in other large companies.

Nebeker:

Why did you decide on the independent work?

Wheeler:

I am not pretending that I had a plan. It was mainly negative, but I felt there should be opportunities better outside than I perceived in the near future of the company. And I was very well known, so once it got around that I was independent, the world beat a path to my door. [Chuckling]

Nebeker:

So you didn't have trouble working as a consulting engineer.

Wheeler:

No. I had very good opportunities. And I didn't aim to acquire a great financial gain, which was attractive to my clients. So that's what happened in the years after the war.

Nebeker:

And when was it — in '47 — that you set up Wheeler Laboratories?

Wheeler:

I should give you the background of that. When I broke loose in '46, various people came to me for consultation. One you'd least expect was Bell Telephone Laboratories. Their military center at Whippany, New Jersey, was overloaded by the avalanche of postwar military developments, largely in the new field of guided missiles. And so it just happened that the head of those laboratories was a close friend of mine from the first summer I worked with Professor Hazeltine. That was Robert Poole.

He was an instructor at that time, but shortly he went to the telephone company. And the Whippany Laboratory out in New Jersey was started as a field station for the development of the first scientifically designed broadcast transmitter. It was the first one that was water-cooled. I used to visit him out there. Then shortly before the war that was identified as the military center of Bell Telephone Laboratories and all their classified work. When he heard that I was free, he and his right-hand man gave me a call. Said they had more work than they could handle, and he gave me the choice of three topics for him to steer development work to my group. My group then was three people. That was the opportunity which mushroomed in the next decade and which gave my group and me an opportunity that would seldom be equaled in history, if ever.

Nebeker:

Had a couple of engineers left Hazeltine with you?

Wheeler:

After I was established in a base of operations, some inquired and others I solicited who might be interested in joining my staff. The end result was possibly half a dozen engineers from Hazeltine came to my staff. One became my chief engineer and the greatest moving spirit in our organization. That was David Dettinger. The others were very helpful. Shortly we started to recruit new graduates. Almost all of our engineers were new graduates who weren't yet spoiled by bad habits in other organizations.

Nebeker:

Was that the hiring policy of Wheeler Laboratories?

Wheeler:

Yes. We had recruiting and interviewing activities performed by our leading engineers, not by a personnel department. Every engineer who was interviewed by our group was impressed, thought he was really being tested. The brightest ones we hired. So that's the way we built up our staff to near a hundred engineers in a decade.

Nebeker:

It was in '47 that you got a contract with Bell Labs, Whippany?

Wheeler:

Yes. In '47 it became apparent to me and my attorney friend who was helping me that it would be desirable to incorporate, so we did.

Nebeker:

What were the main reasons for that?

Wheeler:

So that we would have an operating base to be more business-like than just doing it in my office. So it was done in my office, but it was done on an orderly basis from the beginning of 1947. And I didn't have any large staff, but I naturally had to have a small staff to run the business aspects.

Nebeker:

Did that work grow very rapidly?

Wheeler:

Yes. Bell Laboratories was simply delighted with the work we did on their first assignments. They were particularly impressed with the quality of our reports, which first I wrote and then I was joined by the other members of the staff. They were increasingly short of the amount of talent being called for. So they fed us additional projects as rapidly as we could assimilate. And they were just delighted with the work we did and gave us excellent support. The most important thing was that they subcontracted to us on contracts which were large projects and which we couldn't have tapped if it hadn't been through their management. So we enjoyed the luxury of having the primary management handled by Bell Laboratories, and we could devote almost all of our attention to creative work.

Small and VLF Antennas

Nebeker:

Let me ask you now about other consulting work that you did in the 1950's: the VLF antenna for DECO?

Wheeler:

Before that the first consulting job that I look back on with some pride was a small one. My associate chief engineer was employed for a short time at Emerson Radio. They had a military contract for a proximity fuse for a small rocket. He was aware of my growing interest in small antennas, and they needed a very small antenna to put in the head of that missile. So he directed their engineer to me for help. Incidentally, that engineer later became a prominent engineer on the Hazeltine staff.

Nebeker:

Who was that?

Wheeler:

Seymour Berkoff. So he brought to me a very good prescription for their needs. An example of how their engineers were applying textbook rules to try and make a small antenna. I was just in the middle of my work on small antennas and small antenna theory, so I was able to tell them they should use a very much simpler design that would make better use of the space and be more efficient. They used a multi-turn loop antenna in the nose of the missile. That was a conventional approach to a small antenna. I designed one which was a single-turn loop made of wide strip and self-tuned — I mean, tuned at the terminals — which was very much more efficient than the multi-turn loop they had been using. So I immediately became famous in that area, and that was the first design that I made which profited from my studies of small antennas. So I was very much excited about it.

Nebeker:

This was a case of your sort of general study of a type of antenna being applied.

Wheeler:

Having an application, which was simply an ideal test of my theories. That we used on the missile. I don't have a good idea of what the subsequent history of the missile was. It was under supervision of a section of the National Bureau of Standards. So that was in itself a small project by any standards, but not trivial.

Then about that time a friend of mine from the Navy days during the war, Lester Carr, heard that I was available. His laboratory, Developmental Engineering Corporation, or DECO, located in Leesburg, Virginia, had the electrical design responsibility for the largest antenna the Navy had made. Incidentally, he and I soon recognized that as an example of a small antenna because it was small compared to the wavelength. He immediately engaged me to do a great deal of consulting work on the problems they were having related to this big antenna.

So what was the antenna for anyway? One of the problems of the Navy was long-range communication and communication to submarines, either surfaced or slightly under water. The properties of radio waves under water made it impossible to transmit a signal to any great depth in seawater. But the Navy was doing the best that was known by making high-powered, long-wave transmitters.

Nebeker:

What depth could be reached?

Wheeler:

A few meters. Nothing spectacular but useful. Incidentally, those stations provided worldwide coverage in code signals, which was generally useful. So the Navy was in the course of designing its largest antenna to date, which was to be located in Cutler, Maine. And that was chosen as the site in the zone of interior, which is closest to the North Sea, which is where we might be engaging Russian submarines.

Anyway, I worked very closely with this group of engineers who were very competent and well educated but not specialists in antennas. So collectively we soon became specialists in this type of antenna. Their design ended up with the largest antenna in the world, a grid of wires supported on thousand-foot towers covering about two square miles. The mechanical and electrical requirements of that antenna were beyond anything in experience. I might mention that previously the most efficient antenna for long waves had been an antenna that the Germans made during the war, which was remarkable in view of their problems of personnel and materials. We had knowledge of their antenna by that time. The Russians stole it immediately at the end of the war, took it to Russia.

Nebeker:

Were there other examples of very advanced German work that you found out about after the war?

Wheeler:

This was one of the extreme cases. I think other than this we would look to jet aircraft. If the war had lasted a year later, their jet aircraft would have defeated our aircraft. And the war would have stopped in their favor. It's interesting that the U.S. had been disinterested in jet propulsion. But that's a long story in itself. Those are the things that I think of anyway. And of course in guided missiles they had the V-1 and the V-2 before we had any guided missiles.

Nebeker:

Would they qualify as guided missiles?

Wheeler:

Yes! They weren't guided in the sense of steering to a target by signals reflected from the target. But they were guided by inertial guidance, which is one of the most prominent types of guidance used after the war for missiles and submarines. Those were the beginnings of guided missiles, and the V-2 is very similar to some of the most advanced guided missiles that you read about in the paper. It was supersonic — the first one, I guess. The V-1 was subsonic. And it was accurately steered by guidance to targets like London and other areas of special interest. It was a real problem at the end of the war, but it did not advance far enough to influence the course of the war. It's interesting that it had mobile launching sites like the scud. So that was another area where we had kidnapped the German engineers responsible and brought them over here.

But to go back to the VLF radio. Their station was no secret; you could hear it all over the world. And we were aware of it, but we were not aware of its design. So for this large antenna, I was the scientific consultant to their engineering group, and my function was to bring a scientific approach to areas, which had been textbook engineering. The result was quite effective. They were a competent engineering group, and I was able to work with them very effectively. That was, shall we say, exciting, to be working on that antenna. And we also worked with the construction contractor, which was Continental Electronics in Dallas, so I had close contact with them also. My principal contribution was translating the concepts of a small antenna to the practical application in this "small antenna," which was the biggest antenna in the world. It was commissioned late in the 'fifties.

Nebeker:

Did it work up to expectations?

Wheeler:

Yes. In some of the areas the Navy had been over-cautious, and the antenna was over-designed. It exceeded its design objective, which was remarkable at the time, of radiating one megawatt from a two-megawatt transmitter at a frequency as low as 15 kilohertz. The antenna was small compared with the wavelength, 20 km. Their solutions to several design problems were outstanding and were vindicated in the performance. After the war even this big antenna could only send very slow code signals, but it could be received with a pocket radio anywhere in the world.

That initial design was then taken to the next stage of development. VLF signals, as is well known today, are guided by the ionosphere as the second plate of a condenser. They go around the world easily. When the signals arrived at the antipode from all different directions however, the paths were enough different so that the signals were a bedlam of confusion. It soon became apparent that we should have another station to handle the hemisphere opposite from this station.

So another antenna — similar in design — was constructed at Northwest Cape, Australia with Navy cooperation, and direct activity of Australia. The two stations had the call letters NAA, which were the call letters of the key station of the Navy network, and NWC for Northwest Cape. Between them they have more than adequate coverage of each hemisphere. And I'll resist the temptation to tell you the stories about those developments.

Missile Committee and Defense Board

Wheeler:

The Pentagon in the days of spending for progress had established the Guided Missile Committee as an overseer of the many missile projects, which were proliferating in various areas. At that time the committee was headed by Pat Hyland who died recently, who was the genius behind the Hughes build-up of electronics activities. He was then the head of the Bendix Research Laboratories; it was before the principal activities in Hughes. The Guided Missile Committee had subcommittees one related to propulsion, and one was related to guidance and control. Those were two entirely separate problems. Because of our current work for the Bell Laboratories on their guided missiles, I was appointed chairman of the Subcommittee on Guidance and Control.

Nebeker:

Were you also on the full committee?

Wheeler:

Yes. I was a member of the full committee; I was chairman of that subcommittee. And I must say that I was not terribly well prepared for that responsibility because of my nose close to the grindstone in technical progress as distinguished from the overall development picture. But I was supported on the panel by representatives of Army, Navy and Air Force who were young officers or civilians who were extremely competent and who did much to fill in for my deficiency in the outside world. So our subcommittee was rather well regarded. We were active, visiting the development sites of all the guided missiles under our jurisdiction.

Nebeker:

What were you expected to do?

Wheeler:

We were expected to give an overview to the main committee of the state of progress and problems in guidance and control, giving some recommendation as to our views of the projects that were deserving of primary attention. It is interesting to mention that one of our babies was the Sidewinder missile, which was under development at China Lake against the advice of the Navy management. That was a bootleg development, which later became one of the stars in their arsenal. So we got the early progress reports on that missile. It had elements of innovation that were extremely ingenious and impressed us very much.

Nebeker:

That work at China Lake continued from '50 until '53.

Wheeler:

Yes. That was the work of innovation proceeding under forced draft. Incidentally, Bell Laboratories were naturally one of the principal contractors in that field.

Nebeker:

Then in the early 'sixties you served on the Defense Science Board?

Wheeler:

Yes. That was a board of a rather nebulous responsibility, exploring some problem areas under the guidance of the Pentagon. I was appointed because I'd been active in the Guided Missile Committee. I think I did not contribute a great deal in my service on that board. My activities and knowledge never exceeded the critical mass in the overall picture. It was very interesting, and it was a real compliment that I was appointed.

Role at Hazeltine after Acquisition

Nebeker:

You said that in '59 Hazeltine Corporation acquired Wheeler Laboratories, but that for the next decade or so Wheeler Labs continued fairly independently. Were there big changes in your activities in that decade?

Wheeler:

The principal activity of the Laboratories still was continuing projects like we were working on for Bell Laboratories and others like that. I remained active in those projects. We made numerous innovations, which went into the preliminary designs for ABM radar and missiles. Those were unfortunately handicapped by topside policies from the Pentagon and the Executive Branch. It was their disgrace and affliction when we abandoned our activities on ABM. Disgrace because there is no substitute for it; an affliction because Russia was not abandoning their activities. At any rate some of our designs went in: the phased-array radars that were carried forward.

Nebeker:

Also in '59 you became a director of Hazeltine.

Wheeler:

Yes. MacDonald had had ambitions of my carrying on after him. He was not very good at evaluating people and their motivations. And he was disappointed at that time that I was not motivated to head the management of the company. He had a deficiency of evaluating men by imagining that they were able to do what he wanted them to do. In that respect I was a disappointment. And it was shortly after then in 1961 that he died, I think by suicide because he was overburdened by the stress of the company management. His deficiencies in personnel evaluation became apparent in his successor team.

Nebeker:

How did things change after MacDonald's death?

Wheeler:

The research laboratory, which was an outstanding group of innovation, continued during the period and after to grow and make contributions in developmental contracts for the government. It was not adequately guided or supported, but enough so that it was a healthy section of the company and became quite famous. Outside of that, the company's work was mainly design and manufacturing. The talented group in that field were not terribly handicapped by the deficiencies in top management. The company continued as the principal contractor for IFF, radar and in some other areas. That was disrupted mainly by things like the Zenith crisis and the problem of profitability in the company. The company never achieved a real stature of profitability. It would be temporary and then die a natural death.

Nebeker:

At the zenith crisis in '65 you became chief executive officer.

Wheeler:

Yes, then I continued as chairman of the board. Understandably, I was highly regarded in the company, and so I could be helpful.

Nebeker:

How active was the board in direction of the company?

Wheeler:

About like any board. It is difficult to define the function of a board in a company riding on technology because the board is not technologically competent. Our board supported MacDonald and his successor team. They did some things right. They welcomed my leadership as far as I could provide it as chairman of the board. The board of directors is not typically an inspired leadership, but they were good citizens.

Nebeker:

You remained active as chairman of the board of directors until '77?

Wheeler:

Yes. Chief scientist at Hazeltine until '87. That became essentially a recognition of my seniority and of what I could contribute in some areas. I did not contribute over the board to all of the different projects, which had developed faster than I had.

Nebeker:

But when you reached 65 or 67, you certainly didn't retire. Did you cut back much in your work?

Wheeler:

The then head of the company, Westermann, was a lawyer. So he finally followed the "rule of age 65" and to no hardship to me removed me from executive management. I had been president of Wheeler Laboratories, but he gave me other opportunities that were suited for my talents. So I retired a couple of times after that. But somehow, someone decided that management still wanted me handy. I had some real opportunities in that area. Incidentally, one of the principal factors was that when our laboratory had shrunk somewhat in the decade of the 'sixties and then was merged in the research laboratories of the company in 1970, quite a number of our top men continued at Hazeltine. One of them is still one of the top executives in the company, and several of them are active in various areas.

Nebeker:

Can you characterize the decade of the late 'sixties and early 'seventies also?

Wheeler:

It was a period of disaster for innovative engineering in the military. More nit picking and contracting, and so-called competitive bidding.

Nebeker:

Did that work to the disadvantage of Hazeltine?

Wheeler:

Yes. It was a constant obstacle that you had to find ways to circumvent. Recently, for example, a major Air Force project was given to the low bidder after we had clearly prevailed in the technical evaluation. The project was still sorely needed, but the penny-pinchers obstructed it.

Nebeker:

What type of work did you do in the seventies?

Wheeler:

I worked as a support to engineers who were confronted with the type of problem that I could help with. They were extremely appreciative. They communicated very well with me. It's hard to point to anything of great significance in that period.

Nebeker:

Were you working full time?

Wheeler:

I worked full time until the early eighties, and then I cut down to three days a week. In the 'seventies I was full time. The Wheeler Laboratories had a field laboratory in Smithtown, Long Island, and as our work decreased, our activities concentrated in that laboratory. So in 1970 I moved to Smithtown. I had been living in Great Neck, which was close to the headquarters. And I had an office in the Smithtown laboratory. I moved out there in the 'sixties when our work was shrinking and concentrated in Smithtown. And in the 'seventies our laboratory was continued at a reduced level at Smithtown, which became mainly testing facilities for our antennas. The laboratory was merged into the research laboratories in Greenlawn. That was not too far from Smithtown. So it was still convenient for me to commute there. And I continued full time for a while and then part time until I retired in '87.

Surveillance Radar

Nebeker:

Would you please give the history of and describe your last invention?

Wheeler:

Immediately after the war Hazeltine demonstrated at the Air Force activities in Indianapolis an altitude-coded beacon, which was an offshoot of IFF. That demonstration set the stage for the altitude-coded beacons that are universally used today and with no credit to Hazeltine. The fact that they made the first demonstration was ignored in later developments. So the surveillance radars in airports gradually were adapted to altitude-coded beacons. That could be either a response to the radar or a response to an interrogation signal transmitted in conjunction with the radar. Around 1980, it was recognized that a surveillance radar should have a separate antenna for transmission of the interrogation signal. We were active in that field, so we tackled the problem of making this radar that was to be attached to existing radar without overloading the mechanical stresses. The new radar was to be a flat bedspring mounted on top of the rotating radar for surveillance. The first thing they ran into was wind loading. They were very apprehensive about the wind loading of an extra screen tacked on top of the radar farthest from the bearings.

We tackled that problem. The first approach was a conventional array radar. The main radar was not an array. A conventional flat array of many elements was suitable for that purpose. It was not a phased array. It was a mechanically rotating array. So we designed a first-cut at solving that problem, and they said that the rods in the array were too much wind loading. The rods were used as a reflector, and there were more reflecting rods than there were excited rods for radiating the signal to the reflector. With the support of my group, I invented a way of reducing the number of reflecting rods to one half. And the Air Force was quite excited about that improvement. So we — with the techniques that were peculiar to our laboratory — we designed these rods to have a large reflection without a large diameter. I devised a way to tune the rods so that they looked bigger than they were. The Air Force was very much pleased and excited about it. So we made models to prove the design. Then they put it out for competition. We applied for a patent on the improvement, and I must say I think it was a prime candidate for a patent; it was a definite improvement.

Then they put out for bids. We did have a realistic price to manufacture a number of flat antennas according to our design. Our design by that time was open information in the FAA, and Texas Instruments, a giant, bid on the manufacture. I suspect they bid at a loss to get the contract. And the nit-picking contracting mechanism of the FAA, which is notorious; and it gave the contract to Texas Instruments. Then my patent issued, and we planned to have the patent tested in the courts. It was tested in a court in Washington, DC, which was not one of the usual federal court structures.

Nebeker:

You were charging Texas Instruments with infringement?

Wheeler:

Yes. I'm not sure whether the suit was against the company or the Air Force but the case was tried. I testified as the inventor. The court completely ignored the level of innovation that was involved and decided that it wasn't an invention. The contest was not carried further. The case was complicated by the fact that there was a question of whether we had made that invention under contract to the FAA., In which case they would get a free license. I think we had a valid case that it was not. At any rate the patent was not adjudicated.

It's interesting that that was filed as early as 1973, which is quite a while before it went into common use. It was issued in '74. The examiner, incidentally, was sympathetic. It was only the court that threw sand in the bearings. So this reflector was used in the altitude-coded beacon that is universal in commercial aircraft today. It had to be installed on the top of the existing surveillance radar. So when you look around a large airport today, you'll see rotating radar and on top is a little bedspring, which is this antenna.

Nebeker:

Is it essentially your design that's still being used?

Wheeler:

Yes. The design was applying my invention by my engineers. So I get a great satisfaction out of looking around and seeing it in use even though our company was denied the profits from it.

Important Patent Cases

Detrola v. Hazeltine

Nebeker:

I want to ask you now about patent law — in particular two very important cases that you and Hazeltine were involved with: Detrola v. Hazeltine and Zenith v. Hazeltine.

Wheeler:

To introduce the subject, in the 'thirties I was awarded a large number of patents, and our company was very much aware of patents, because our income was royalty from patents which included engineering services to the licensee manufacturing companies. The company thrived in the 1930's because we had a package license to manufacturers, mostly small manufacturers, who were manufacturing home radio receivers. In order to compete with the large companies, they utilized our engineering services and benefited very much from them. They were a part of the package license deal.

Nebeker:

Was it the usual case that a licensee would also call on your engineering services?

Wheeler:

That was the pattern, and all of them did. So whatever happened during the 'thirties enabled us to thrive and expand during the Depression, which was very fortunate. At the same time, the patent licensing situation was becoming confused.

Here I should introduce the subject by pointing out that the patent statute provides an offer and acceptance by the government and the inventor. In return for the inventor disclosing his invention, the government promised the inventor a monopoly for the period of 17 years. I shall not dwell on the rationale of that period or the rights and wrongs of that kind of a statute. That is what existed. Then at the turn of the century, the government became obsessed with the subject of monopolies, and I suppose some monopolies were an abuse of the power of large companies. Gradually the courts confused the situation by reading this as an opposition to the monopoly granted by the patent statute. Now let me emphasize that the statute provided an offer and an acceptance. The acceptance implied the grant of a monopoly. In the 'twenties and 'thirties the courts began to dilute the consideration offered by the government by objecting to the monopoly accorded by the patent statute. However, the government continued to make the offer to the inventor. The inventors continued to accept the offer. And the consideration promised by the government was gradually diluted. This situation had not reached a disaster level in the 1930's, but it was approaching that. Our company survived in the 'thirties on royalties on a package deal which was entirely lawful by the terms of the patent statute.

Nebeker:

Now do you think that the changed climate, the unwillingness on the part of the government to enforce patent rights, was perceived by companies that therefore decided not to pay for the use of patents?

Wheeler:

It is not quite as clear as that. What happened, however, is that the company using a patent owned by somebody else became bolder in infringing. And that got a lot of support from some of the courts in violating the patent statute. It is very sad that the government made an offer that the inventor accepted and then reneged on its part of the deal.

Now so we go back to the 'thirties. Our company profited by the patent situation in the 'thirties, and that was our entire income. During that period the Supreme Court was increasingly antagonistic toward patents, and out of about 15 patents that reached the Supreme Court during that period, the Court invalidated all but one. Now here we have to realize that only the important patents ever reach the Supreme Court because it is an expensive process.

Nebeker:

Were the usual grounds for denying the claims of the patent-holder that no invention was involved?

Wheeler:

That was a common basis for the decisions. Whether there were other technicalities, I don't recall.

Nebeker:

It seems that that might be something that the patent examiner would decide at the time the patent is granted.

Wheeler:

That is the philosophy that is stated in the patent statute.

Nebeker:

But a patent examiner can decide that this is an invention, and then years later in court the judge can decide that no invention was made.

Wheeler:

Well, the statute did not anticipate the abuse of the patent situation such as happened over the years. Now I'm not commenting on whether the enforcement of patents was subject to abuse because that is a loaded question that's hard to answer in some cases.

Here I should mention, in all of my many patents, there was one that was outstanding in its importance. That was one of my earlier patents issued in 1932 on a subject we called diode automatic volume control for radio receivers, or AVC. This invention came into universal use in the 1930's and shows no signs of obsolescence. It seems to be what I call a timeless invention, which has been adapted to changes in technology — for example, from vacuum tubes to transistors. And is still used in every AM radio receiver. AM means amplitude modulation, and it was amplitude modulation that used a diode detector.

Now in the 1930's the industry appreciated the value of this particular invention, and almost all the manufacturers took a license with Hazeltine Corporation for the use of that and the rest of the patents in their portfolio. One exception was RCA — the giant in the field. So they contested our patent when we filed suit for infringement. In 1938 that case was tried in Wilmington, Delaware in the Second Circuit. It is interesting that the case was so overwhelmingly in our favor that RCA accepted a license without waiting for a decision by the court.

Nebeker:

When RCA did that, it wasn't possible for Hazeltine to get a court decision — is that right?

Wheeler:

It did deprive Hazeltine of a much needed court decision following that trial.

Nebeker:

Could Hazeltine have declined to grant them the license in order to get the court decision?

Wheeler:

I doubt it. I think the court would have rejected that position. The court was not anxious to make decisions, and it probably was very much relieved when it was relieved of that burden. In any case, that was a climax of almost all the manufacturing companies paying royalties to Hazeltine with just one or two exceptions. In order to maintain our patent position, it appeared necessary to prosecute these exceptions, and one was the Detrola Radio Corporation in Detroit. This was not a major manufacturing company. We sued Detrola, the case came to trial in 1939 or 1940, and the District Court in Detroit awarded us a decision in favor of our patent on validity and infringement. Their attorney was a very ambitious trustbuster, and like many attorneys did not have much regard for the truth in his briefs. However, the lower court surmounted his diatribe.

Then he appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals doesn't hear testimony. It takes the record of the lower court and invites argument. In the argument of that case it was very clear from the Court's questions that they had no sympathy with the claim by Detrola. The decision by that court was unanimous — that means three justices — in favor of the validity and infringement of our patent.

Then the attorney appealed to the Supreme Court. Now it's the usual practice that the Supreme Court takes cases to resolve conflicting opinions in the lower courts. Here there was no conflicting opinion on this patent. There was a slightly related opinion by the Second Court of Appeals in an earlier case, which was confused by a poorly planned presentation. So that was followed by a reissue of the patent in order to meet the objections of that court. So the patent as it appeared to the Court of Appeals had no adverse decision as a conflict.

The defendant, Detrola, when it was a defendant, argued in the Supreme Court that they should accept this case because there was a conflict. I think in an ordinary situation the Supreme Court would have rejected that argument, but they were already on the record as opposing patents. So they gave the benefit of the doubt to the infringer. So we had to argue that case in the Supreme Court, and there was an unfortunate circumstance in the argument. The chief attorney of our firm had been involved in negotiating labor disputes, and the night before the argument he came to Washington in a state of exhaustion. I mention that because he was definitely not at his best in arguing the case before the Supreme Court. Whether that had any influence I doubt because it seemed in that session that the Court had already made up its mind. So one justice wrote the opinion. And when I say "wrote the opinion," I have a picture that he gave some notes to his law assistant and told him to write up an adverse decision. I cannot prove that.

Nebeker:

Who wrote the decision?

Wheeler:

The name of the justice escapes me at this moment. He was a senior justice on the court. But the decision included mistakes of fact, which should have been clear. They were clearly covered in our brief so there was no excuse. But the opposing counsel didn't mind stretching the factual situation, and the Supreme Court embraced his arguments. They should have been ashamed. So in 1941 the Supreme Court invalidated the key patent of our entire portfolio.

Nebeker:

What did that mean for Hazeltine's revenues? You certainly didn't then collect from Detrola, but did it have any immediate effect on the other licensees?

Wheeler:

No, for several contributory reasons. One, most of our licensees — by then including RCA — were supporters of the company as an outstanding engineering organization and they were benefiting by the company's work. Secondly, a large factor was the fact that our licensing included not only patents but engineering. So there was no immediate reaction. It is notable that the Supreme Court did not say we had to return all the royalties we'd collected.

Nebeker:

Is that sometimes the case in such decisions?

Wheeler:

I think it may go either way. But to a layman it seems axiomatic that if the patent isn't valid — the licensor should return the royalties. Well, the situation was more complicated than that, and it was very fortunate they didn't require that. Now the effect in Hazeltine was that the key patent in our portfolio had run nine years out of the promised 17-year monopoly. So the least effect would have been to destroy that monopoly for the remaining eight years.

The war was becoming more and more intense in Europe, and that greatly detracted from the manufacturing operations in our country because the government was beginning to crack down on materials. If it hadn't been for that situation, I am afraid the cumulative result in a year or two would have been the destruction of our patent situation. We can't prove what would have happened, but it was fortunate for the company that the wartime activities of the government placed a great demand on the engineering skills, which were the foundation of our organization. So during the year or two before Pearl Harbor, the preliminary efforts of the government toward war activities yielded for us a few contracts that were of varying importance — only one that was really important — and introduced us to the practice that was a new experience with us; that is, contracting with the government and especially in a nebulous activity like development.

Nebeker:

Could we try to separate the factors there? I know, of course, that World War II and the approaching entry of the U.S. into that war changed the situation for Hazeltine. But after that decision, was there discussion within Hazeltine that maybe the approach of the company should change?

Wheeler:

Yes. That was a natural result of that experience because this decision was not an isolated case. But the question became moot for a few years. Now here I might say in view of the fact our company survived the next few years and I had good employment, the reduction in the value of the company caused by that decision was not immediately obvious because of the war situation. I was too tolerant of that decision in my thinking at the time. And as I shall be mentioning in connection with other incidents, it's only with the passage of time that I've thought through and considered the seriousness of some of these mistakes in the Court.

Nebeker:

But there was no recourse then. Is that right?

Wheeler:

That is correct.

Nebeker:

You just had to accept that decision.

Wheeler:

Now someone on the outside would have said, "Well, go ahead and collect royalties on your other patents." It was a tremendous effort and a tremendous expense to litigate any one patent. And the others of lesser importance were quite numerous — maybe a dozen. So it was not a simple case if we had been required to rearrange our pattern of operation to litigate every patent. This decision, incidentally, did not refer to patent licensing. The briefs by the plaintiff did, and I have no doubt that that was a major influence on the decision. There was no merit in the technical position of the decision. That is my biased view, and I think it's correct. So then after the war the activities of Hazeltine had changed very much, and they could see the writing on the wall in the denial of the government to enforce patent rights. So they relied less and less on patent royalties. There are some interesting sidelines there, but I'll bypass them at the moment.

Zenith v. Hazeltine

Nebeker:

Maybe we should move then to the other Supreme Court decision that affected you.

Wheeler:

Yes. In the years after the war Hazeltine developed a powerful patent situation in the field of television and in the natural course sued some companies for infringement of a few of the earlier television patents.

Nebeker:

Were most manufacturers paying licensing fees to Hazeltine?

Wheeler:

The pattern was not clear after the war. Some did, and they all benefited from the work that we did that was made public. So there was a need for obtaining decisions of infringement if we were to continue our patent income at any substantial level. So on one television patent, which was not in itself terribly important, we sued Zenith for infringement. Zenith was one of the largest companies who did not then have a Hazeltine license. They did at one time.

The Zenith case escalated beyond anything we could imagine. The attorney, who was a very aggressive, unprincipled advocate, escalated the case into an anti-trust counterclaim. Knowing the views of the courts on trust matters, that was a very smart thing to do. But it occurred in an environment that was disastrous. You have here a picture of an extremely aggressive and unprincipled advocate appearing before a judge who was incompetent and had no strength of his own. It became apparent that this District Judge in Chicago was totally dominated by the personality of this attorney. Everything the attorney said, the judge accepted. Everything he wanted, the judge did. Now what does that mean? First, when the attorney escalated the case to an anti-trust claim, the natural thing was for the court to give us time to prepare for what is legally known as a "surprise." Litigation is supposed to be immune from surprises.

Nebeker:

But I'm also surprised myself that that can be part of the original case. It seems to me that first the matter of whether Zenith infringed on the patent should be settled, and then the claims against Hazeltine's practices should be a second case.

Wheeler:

I have all sympathy with your reaction. But it is frequent practice to file a counterclaim in any dispute. And too often the counterclaim is intended to confuse the issue, as it was in this case. So our attorney, who was not experienced in anti-trust, petitioned for time to prepare a defense to the counterclaim. On the admonition of the other attorney, the court refused this petition and went to trial on a claim on which we had had no time to prepare.

Nebeker:

Can the denial of that petition be appealed?

Wheeler:

It should have been — right then and there. Our attorneys were not astute in that area. And they made the mistake of proceeding with the trial without resolving that conflict. I might say between us we couldn't imagine any court being so subservient to a lawyer's pressure as was this court. So the case went to briefs, and one day in 1965 a decision was rendered which accepted in its entirety Zenith's counterclaim.

One thing at which this lawyer convinced the court — he just told the court, and the court accepted — was the principle that our gross receipts were our income. And therefore we were a giant picking on poor little Zenith. There was no factual, no logical basis for it. So the decision by the court did what Zenith requested: awarded Zenith damages of $16 million. Now I'll tell you a little bit more about the details when we get to the subsequent proceedings. So in the paper the next day the headline: "ZENITH AWARDED $48 MILLION" because damages were tripled in that area.

Nebeker:

Is that automatic?

Wheeler:

Yes, but the judge didn't know that. He was shocked when he saw that headline. He didn't even know that the damages had to be tripled. But that was $48 million, and the company's net worth was $20 million. In other words, he casually handed the company to Zenith. And he didn't even know he was doing that. In fact he wasn't a bit concerned.

What that did to the company's stock and our business in the next few months you can imagine. It was very fortunate that one bank did not withdraw our line of credit on the basis of that decision. They took a chance that it would be corrected. And that was one factor that saved the company from total disaster. Now here, in order to appreciate his decision and the aftermath, we have to look into the nature of Zenith's claims. Zenith's two top officials testified falsely that if it hadn't been for Hazeltine's licensing practice, they would have made millions of dollars of profit in exporting to Canada, England and Australia.

Nebeker:

But they didn't seem to be restrained within this country?

Wheeler:

No. The counterclaim was not based on those receipts.

Nebeker:

But they were saying that they refrained from marketing in those countries because of Hazeltine's patents.

Wheeler:

Big Zenith was intimidated by Hazeltine.

Nebeker:

But it's strange that they weren't intimidated in this country yet claimed that they didn't dare export.

Wheeler:

Well, that question did not come up. The counterclaim however was totally absurd. After the decision naturally we had hearings, and we obtained the assistance of a prominent anti-trust attorney who was much more skilled than ours. In the period of hearings after the decision, several things were brought out. We had time to prepare, and it turned out that in England, Zenith could not have imported sets from the United States during that period. There were statutory bars.

Nebeker:

England wasn't permitting the importation of that kind of device?

Wheeler:

Yes. So the Zenith claim to damages in England was totally false. Then it turned out that in Australia they couldn't have imported any receivers for technical reasons. So their claim in Australia was totally false. In Canada their claim was based on the licensing practices there. The licensing practice in Canada was a patent pool. That is a very sensible approach when one industry is confronted with many patents. So in Canada the legal way to collect royalties was to join the pool and take a proportion of the pool's returns, which was evaluated in accordance with the patents you had in the pool. Now that kind of a pool, which incidentally is entirely consistent with the patent statute, had been outlawed in the United States under monopoly provisions. So Zenith said because the pool was illegal in the United States, Hazeltine was violating United States law by licensing according to the law in Canada. This was absurd on a logical basis, but that was brought out in the hearings after the decision. In the final arguments after the decision, the judge casually remarked that the testimony by Zenith's officials was unbelievable anyway — on the basis of which he had awarded Zenith tremendous damages. He relieved us of any obligations in England and Australia. But he still left intact the counterclaim in Canada.

Nebeker:

Did he reduce the amount of damages?

Wheeler:

Proportionately to about one third. Here I cannot overemphasize that there was absolutely no violation of U.S. law by United States companies licensing in the pool in Canada. And, as a matter of fact, we knew that the Department of Commerce was encouraging that. That of course didn't come out as an argument in the case. We just knew it. So the claim was not withdrawn; the claim with regard to Canada was left on the books. The District Judge had no concept of what was lawful and not lawful, and that had no influence on his decision. Then that reduced the damages to, I think, $16 million after tripling. That was even a little less than our net worth. So we appealed the decision to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which convened in Chicago. In the arguments before that court, it was quite apparent that the justices were incensed at the irresponsibility of the lower court. They totally rejected the decision and returned it to the lower court for revision. Now I'm not familiar with all the technicalities of that procedure. It's a little surprising that they didn't just reverse the decision. But at any rate, they were on our side, and they did the unusual procedure of convening the entire panel of, I think, nine justices in the Second Circuit to a final hearing on this appeal. They unanimously returned it to the lower court. Well, that didn't phase our opposing counsel. He said all we have to do is to bypass the Court of Appeals. So he connived to make an appeal to the Supreme Court.

Nebeker:

Before it went back to the original court?

Wheeler:

Before it went back to the Court of Appeals. And as a matter of common sense you would imagine that the Supreme Court would send him home empty-handed. Instead, they accepted the case. Now you might wonder how that could happen. One justice on the Supreme Court was Byron White, who is still sitting. He had been aggressively anti-trust in his views and was very anxious to make some new law that would settle all the questions on anti-trust relating to patents. So I can picture the Supreme Court in a discussion as to whether they would accept the case and who would write the decision. And Byron White enthusiastically raises his hand and said he would write the decision, because it was an opportunity to air his prejudices. Now I would think the court would have been sensitive to that situation. All I can say is they weren't. They accepted the appeal, and he wrote the opinion, and here we run into technicalities that I won't pretend to comment on. The net result was that he wrote some new law and applied it retroactively.

Nebeker:

Did he express it as making new law instead of interpreting?

Wheeler:

Yes he wanted credit for it, and in his own view he deserved credit for taking this initiative. I think in an objective view you would still arrive at the conclusion that he wrote new law and applied it retroactively. If there's anything unsound in legal practice, it's applying new law retroactively. So you would imagine that some of the other justices wouldn't go along. Well, they were against patents in general terms. They went along, and no one took the trouble to challenge Justice White's opinion. Now I think I didn't emphasize in the previous case the same thing happened that no justice challenged the opinion written by one justice.

Nebeker:

They were both unanimous decisions?

Wheeler:

Yes. And unanimous reversals of the unanimous position of the Court of Appeals without a conflict. Just completely different from what we conceived as the function of the Supreme Court.

Nebeker:

I would it's fairly rare, that a unanimous decision of the Appeals Court can be reversed unanimously by the Supreme Court.

Wheeler:

Especially if there's no conflict. The typical case is a conflict between Appeals Courts. I've done two generations of thinking since my first experience and one generation since the second experience. And I've crystallized my views a great deal beyond what they were immediately after the occurrences. And so I would like to know how many decisions there are which are unanimous. And how many of those decisions reversed the Court of Appeals. I suspect the number is near zero, so I was the victim of what I expect to learn more was a very exceptional situation even more irresponsible — than some other Supreme Court decisions.

Nebeker:

What effect did this Supreme Court decision have on Hazeltine Corporation?

Wheeler:

In the intervening period our management, headed by an attorney Westermann, had done a good deal of planning as to how we might escape from this disaster. After the Supreme Court decision they were able to negotiate with Zenith officers, not the attorney. The attorney, I imagine, had gone off with his million-dollar fee and was very happy about the whole thing. But in the negotiation a final settlement was arrived at which preserved the company at approximately half the value it had had before. But it did prevent Zenith just taking over the company.

Nebeker:

What damages were actually paid by Hazeltine?

Wheeler:

That's complicated because it involved a confusing set of accounting, and Zenith accepted some royalty responsibility. So it is impossible for me to state in a few words the basis for the final settlement. The company had naturally shrunk during that period of adversity. And it was six years from the original decision in 1965 until the final opinion in '71 that we were in limbo.

Wheeler:

It had naturally diluted the efforts of our management very much. It is remarkable that we were able to continue a fair level of activity during that period. It's hard to understand how it could happen, but it involved the goodwill of many parties outside the company.

Nebeker:

What was your role at Hazeltine during those years?

Wheeler:

At the time of the first decision the company was in shock. MacDonald had died three years before, and his successor team was not too strong. The company was saved by the emergence of their principal corporation counsel, Westermann, as a competent leader during this period. The first question was how could the company continue against this adversity? Some of the directors resigned because they were fearful of financial responsibility. The employees were naturally demoralized.

Nebeker:

What part of Hazeltine revenues in this time were licensing agreements?

Wheeler:

I'm uncertain because there was a period where royalties on color television patents were a major income to the company, and I've forgotten just what years those were.

Managing Post-Zenith Crisis

Wheeler:

Now in conferences within management someone — probably Westermann — brought up the possibility that the employees would have complete confidence if I were in the driver's seat during that period. That had some validity because I was well known; I had been employed the longest. So Westermann called me into the management deliberations, and on the advice of the company attorney I was made chairman of the board. There was not a chairman before that, because they did not wish to upset the existing management titles; they were trying not to upset anything in that situation. So the executive committee became the de facto management team in the company. I was chairman, but I guided the management more than assuming the primary responsibility because I wasn't familiar with the business at the management level.

What I did do was to inaugurate some practices that the previous management had delayed or rejected. The first was installing air-conditioning. By 1965 air-conditioning was presumptive in major operations, and MacDonald had had a blind spot there. The successor management had been timid. So [that was] the first thing I did that was bold. And it was wise in one respect because it lifted the morale of the employees very much. The ones who stayed for years always remembered that day. Secondly, the company had no retirement plan and we in discussion in the executive committee perceived that a retirement plan would greatly increase the morale. So we decided that we should consider some retirement plan. Well, I was in the driver's seat, and we called in the best advice that we could corral for ideas as to the kind of a retirement plan. And one by one I reviewed them and rejected them. They were what you might have called "business as usual," and I didn't like them.

Nebeker:

What were the main objections to the retirement plans? They didn't amount to very much?

Wheeler:

Well, the main objection was that they relied on the unsound practice of promising a lot that the company maybe couldn't afford. That was the so-called "defined benefits structure." And I could see that it was unsound, so I put together a plan which was essentially a savings plan with the company sponsorship and the company protecting the accumulated savings — pending the time that they became payable. My plan, which did not exist in any large company at the time, has come to be called the "defined contribution plan." The distraction is that mine is essentially a forced savings plan that does not place a burden on the company. They contribute to it at the time the employee's benefits accumulate, but not beyond that. And so it's a pay-as-you-go plan. Our employees were not fussy about what kind of a plan they had. Some critics said, "Oh, that plan is no good." But we installed that plan, and it also contributed much to boosting the morale.

Years later something happened which is called ERISA. This was passed statute that regulated the responsibility of employers and pension plans. The "defined benefit plans" almost universally had to be redefined to meet the requirements of this statute because otherwise the companies were assuming obligations that they might not be able to meet. Our plan didn't have to change a single word. So a decade or two before ERISA, I complied with its requirements.

Nebeker:

This was in the period '66 when you were chief executive officer?

Wheeler:

Yes. And it is not all that great, but when you boil it down, there are very few pension plans that are all that great. But it was a responsible retirement plan. And it has survived over a period of time. So those were my two principal contributions while I was heading the company. And I think it's fair to say I contributed very much to maintaining the morale until the case was finally settled five, six years later. I did not particularly enjoy management. I tried to give good advice to the other officials who were conducting the day-by-day management. I think my advice or giving them a free rein was fairly thoughtful and fairly effective.

So after a year as chief executive officer, at the end of '66, I turned the management over to Westermann as the new president. By that time the situation had settled down enough so that our advisors felt we were free to reorganize the executive team. During that period I continued some activity in Wheeler Laboratories — as I still had an office there — I also had an office, of course, in the corporation headquarters. The headquarters were then in Little Neck, and Wheeler Laboratories was in nearby Great Neck. They were both near my home. In that respect I was very fortunate. It's only with years that I've become totally convinced of the irresponsible action of the courts in the Zenith case. It was less extreme in the earlier case because the earlier case involved a small company. And on the face of it only involved one of many patents, albeit the key patent of the portfolio. But in the case of Zenith the Supreme Court decision on its face handed the company to Zenith, and it destroyed the value of the stock. And destroyed the employment of the employees. And to those factors the Supreme Court seemed to be totally oblivious.

Nebeker:

What was the reduction in employees at Hazeltine as a result of the decision?

Wheeler:

At the bottom during that period of stress, about half what it was at the beginning? At the beginning it was inching toward 3,000; at the bottom it was around 1500.

Nebeker:

And the stock value also fell?

Wheeler:

It fluctuated a great deal. On the face of it the stock should have been worth nothing, but I don't think there was a universal reaction to accept the irresponsible decisions that were involved. You just couldn't imagine the government acting so arbitrarily.

I would like to comment on the other eight justices. I mention in passing that by the time the case started in the Supreme Court, Warren was Chief Justice. And by the time it ended, Burger was Chief Justice, and he abstained in the final decision. We have here, I think, a clear case where the justices who did not write the opinion were totally negligent in their obligation to understand the case. Now how can I rationalize that very radical view? The cases we read about in the paper, I don't remember a single one being unanimous. Sometimes only a couple of justices will make a faint objection, but never unanimous. So I don't really know whether there were any substantial number of decisions that were unanimous. Then suppose we found two or three. Then I would inquire, were they reversal of a unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals? More likely they were resolving conflict. But I would like to know the facts, and I would like to have someone work with me who had the resources to research the facts.

Troubles with Patent and Anti-trust Law

Nebeker:

I wanted to ask you more general questions about how in your career patent law has worked in practice. The theory is certainly to encourage invention, encourage technological innovation, development, by rewarding the people who do that. How well has it served that objective in your experience?

Wheeler:

Well, if you say that the monopoly is outlawed, then the answer is that it hasn't in any degree served the intention of the statute. It wasn't as simple as that. It was almost that simple by the end of the 'thirties. If a company contested a patent monopoly on the grounds of anti-trust, it was presumptive that company would prevail. It's my impression, that in the recent few examples of major inventions which were patented and the users paid royalties, I'm not clear as to all the circumstances. Some questions arise: Was it easier for the users to pay royalties than to challenge a patent in the courts? Was it less expensive? Because patent litigation was extremely expensive. So the overall question does not have a simple answer. All I know is that in our case the intent of the patent statute was ignored in both cases.

Nebeker:

Something you said about Hazeltine Corporation at the end of the 'thirties and in the 'forties suggests that if patent law had been rigorously enforced, Hazeltine and presumably other companies might have more vigorously pursued patents, published, applied for patents, assured that they'd be getting some revenues from that.

Wheeler:

For reasons you might query, people are still aggressive in obtaining patents. More often than not, it's for personal aggrandization. I wouldn't ignore that motive in our cases, but we at least had a wider view and a wider experience.

Nebeker:

It seems that, in both of these cases you've described, Hazeltine might have fared better with very good legal counsel. Were these some shortcomings in the legal counsel.

Wheeler:

Yes. The slight chinks in the armor in the first case were the result of very inept actions by our attorneys. They were unrealistic and inexperienced. The first case conceivably would have come out in our favor if it hadn't been for those chinks in our armor. In the second case, it was clear that our attorneys were totally incompetent after the anti-trust claim.

Nebeker:

So they were patent law attorneys and not specialists in anti-trust?

Wheeler:

Yes. And they were incompetent in the sense that they didn't know enough to halt the case until they had time to prepare. So you can easily rationalize that no attorney's perfect, and each attorney has his areas where he's more competent. That doesn't help the defendant much if the case goes against him.

Incidentally, the attorney managing the second case was extremely competent as the head of our patent department in the years before the war.

Nebeker:

But it may be one lesson that people at Hazeltine drew was that one should spend more money on legal counsel and get specialists for anti-trust law.

Wheeler:

In the period before the war we spent plenty of money. We were hiring the most expensive attorneys, but the firm delegated our patent prosecution to a junior member of the firm who was a bright chap with engineering education, but he did not recognize the realities of the situation. And both the patent applications and the prosecution of the cases relied too much on, shall I say, lay talent? They listened to me a great deal. I had my ideas as to what could be adequate, and my ideas were not based on any legal competence.

Typically, on approaching any new area, I was immediately interested in what had been done, what had been accomplished, and what was the state of the art. I mean that in the popular sense, not only in the legal sense. In working with my engineers, where much of my time was spent on one-to-one education, I've always emphasized the historical background. They were fascinated, and it gave the work much more reality and much more interest in their view.

Nebeker:

So you would look in the literature for earlier work in that area?

Wheeler:

I was not terribly well informed by reading. I have read much less than I should have, but from incidental reading here and there and from incidental reports on what was happening, I usually had some incidents to tell them that were interesting about the problems at hand.

Historian of Engineering

Nebeker:

So throughout your career you've had this interest in the history of the engineering?

Wheeler:

Yes. And it was natural because it was paralleled in my experience, the experience of engineers going through the same formative stages.

Nebeker:

I suppose there's a great difference between someone doing electronic engineering as you have done from the 1920's, say, to the present and someone who is in a mature area of engineering, say, mechanical engineering or certain areas of chemical engineering.

Wheeler:

It's a little hard to put in a few words a reaction to that point. I have said that I was born at a very fortunate time in history when major inventions were in their infancy and where I could follow their development over my lifetime. And in radio and electronics that was true until the recent years where the rate of development exploded. Now otherwise it's a little hard to generalize because you really have to take it case by case. So let's imagine a couple of cases.

Armstrong was a radio amateur, one of the early members of the Radio Club of America. Here I might mention that in 1909 it was the first society carrying the word "radio." The Institute of Radio Engineers was three years later. So he was interested in putting things together and making them work. And just how he learned most of what he knew, it's hard to describe. It wasn't just taught in the schools, and he was not a highly educated individual. So there was just some knowledge that spread by osmosis among the people that were interested, with very little formal publication.

It's hard to describe. I learned about radio from radio catalogs, which told you what to buy and how to put it together. And it wasn't until I was working at the Bureau of Standards that I had any exposure to the real technology. So these are questions that are hard to define and hard to answer. To take a related case, you might ask how Chester Carlson learned about the principles of Xerox because they were largely rejected by the science fraternity. And I think that was an extreme case where the inventor had to evolve his own views and his own principles.

Nebeker:

It was in 1978 that you published Hazeltine, the Professor and four years later The Early Days of Wheeler and Hazeltine Corporation. What is it you hoped to achieve in writing those books?

Wheeler:

In the first one I felt a real obligation to put on the record a view of Hazeltine that was not on the record. He was famous, yes. But there were very few things that you could trace to his invention or innovation. His principal innovation you would say was in his teaching in later years. I wanted to put on the record the things that I regarded as the reasons for his becoming famous and achieving what he did.

Nebeker:

Now you wrote that principally for engineers to read?

Wheeler:

I guess so. But I was equally interested in bringing his accomplishments to the attention of his family and friends. You see, he died in 1964, long before that. And he didn't write very much. So there wasn't much in the literature relating to his accomplishments and particularly to his intellectual genius. And that I tried to bring out. I hope I was successful. I know his family liked it.

Nebeker:

I think it's a very eloquent book. The book on the early days of Wheeler and Hazeltine Corporation, what were your main objectives there?

Wheeler:

Autobiography. Why does one write an autobiography? And as you can imagine there are conflicting motivations. I won't pretend to say why. A lot of people do, and some people are totally oblivious to that opportunity.

Nebeker:

What value would you say history of electrical engineering has today for engineers today or for others?

Wheeler:

I think no man is educated unless he knows history. And so you might say, one, the history of civilization in which we are seldom well educated, and history as a profession, and the history of his particular specialty. I think the people who are outstanding in their accomplishments recognize that the history of their development is relevant, and it should be put on the record.

Nebeker:

What historical books have you particularly enjoyed or found valuable?

Wheeler:

I'm hesitating because there were rather few, distributed over a period of time. And I'm embarrassed because I should have read much more so that much of my knowledge of history and evolution has been by osmosis rather than reading a book.

Nebeker:

Of course there isn't very much literature in the history of electrical engineering to begin with.

Wheeler:

Well, don't say that because there were outstanding volumes published in rather early days. And I don't mean mainly autobiographical. They're autobiographical because one author wrote them. And if Hertz had written a book — I believe he did write quite a few articles — those become his autobiography. And the same was true of some very prominent scientists in radio — Zenecke in Germany is one I naturally think of because he was ahead of this country. I think we might say that the classical education in Europe was more encouraging toward writing and putting subjects on the record than it was in this country. I'd like to debate that sometime, but I think that is true in some degree. It is interesting that the things that originated in France or Germany that you would expect to originate in England or U.S., and the things that originated in England that you might expect the greater activity in the U.S. would have generated. For example, the word "radio" started in France. It was a French word reflecting radiation.

Nebeker:

I don't quite follow your argument there. I understand that in Europe generally it was much more common to have a classical education with Greek and Latin and so on. And I can imagine that that might make these people maybe a little bit more inclined to write autobiographies. But I think you're making a larger point.

Wheeler:

Well, that's a large part of what I was saying. The thing that's interesting to me is to point to specific instances. The word "radio," as I said, came from the French. "Wireless" was a negative term, and "radio" reflected radiation. And radio waves weren't originally called "radiation." They were just waves going from here to there. Then I think the higher education in Germany and France was more selective, and by that circumstance it was more intense. I've talked with many of my British friends; they're better educated by any standard than the engineers that I would associate with in this country. And I always enjoyed talking with them.

Nebeker:

I know that the French receive a good deal more mathematics in their education than even the English.

Wheeler:

And this was related to the dominant position of those countries in the history of their periods. But there's no question that the British education system educates fewer people and better. Incidentally, Marconi is an enigma. He was outside that system, outside the German and French axis. And Italy in itself was not all that dominant in science.

Education and Training of Engineers

Nebeker:

Although I think that their educational system is close to the French in form. I read in something that Hazeltine had written where he gave you great credit for the training of young engineers at Hazeltine Corporation. I wonder if you could explain your philosophy and approach in the training of young engineers.

Wheeler:

It was selfish motivation. If we wanted to get results, we got the results best by engineers who were better trained and who were more interested in their work, which comes with training.

Nebeker:

You've mentioned yesterday some of the instruction that you arranged in Hazeltine.

Wheeler:

We carried the development of engineering in two periods far beyond what was current experience. One was in the Bayside laboratory, and that was in Hazeltine directly under my guidance. The second was in Wheeler Laboratories which was not in Hazeltine and which Hazeltine wouldn't have afforded. But it was under my guidance, and I had the luxury of affording it.

Nebeker:

Something else I wanted to ask you about was your participation in IRE activities.

Wheeler:

I'd like to go back just a minute to training engineers. Often I've been told that I should have been a teacher. I am bored at talking in front of a group — at them. My satisfaction has come from one-to-one education where I read the engineer's mind and interfaced directly with one mind instead of a group or instead of a textbook. I still think I would not have been outstanding as a teacher of classes.

Participation in IRE

Nebeker:

I know that you joined IRE at a very early stage in your career — 1927, I believe it was. And much later you helped found the Long Island section of IRE, and you were chairman of that. Can you say what values you saw in IRE for you and for the electronics engineers?

Wheeler:

First thing I should mention is that I should have joined much sooner. In 1927 — I think that's the year of my joining — I had been exercising initiative in the field since 1922, five years, and I had hardly heard of the IRE. It was negligence that my seniors in the company didn't put an application blank in front of me and say, "You should join." As soon as I really heard about it in 1926, I did join. And here it's interesting to recall that my membership number is 6000. Today the membership numbers are running around a million. There were about 3,000 members in the profession. They were almost all in the United States, and the leaders all knew each other. I soon came to know the leaders because they all made speeches in the New York section.

Nebeker:

Was there a Washington section at that time?

Wheeler:

Yes, but it never had the stature of the New York section.

Nebeker:

The value for you derived from these meetings where you'd meet people and hear talks and from receiving publications and publishing yourself?

Wheeler:

Yes. That was a great education to me as to how important things had happened.

Nebeker:

That was a monthly meeting of the New York section?

Wheeler:

Yes.

Nebeker:

Did you go to annual meetings?

Wheeler:

Yes. As soon as I was aware of the Society, I very seldom missed an annual convention, and usually I made speeches there.

Nebeker:

Did most of the Hazeltine engineers join IRE?

Wheeler:

Yes. I might say that today there are two reasons that engineers are less inclined to automatically join IEEE. One, it's so big that they feel lost. The other is that the diversification within IEEE dilutes the communication opportunities of one engineer with the entire Society. The specialized societies, which are nearing a hundred, I guess, were a partial solution to that problem.

Nebeker:

But even some of those are huge.

Wheeler:

They're too big. A typical membership is a hundred thousand today, I guess.

Nebeker:

In 1934 you were an IRE director. What did that involve?

Wheeler:

That was a freak. The president in 1934 came from Minnesota and was a close friend of my family, and he had watched with great interest what I was doing. And so he evaluated me much higher than most of my colleagues, and he exercised his privilege of appointing one or more directors. So I was an appointed and not elected director. I contrast that to 1940 when I was elected by a large plurality, along with one or two of the real long-time members in the Institute, and I was only 37.

Nebeker:

And you served as director for six years, is that right?

Wheeler:

Yes, 1940-45.

Nebeker:

Did you find that rewarding?

Wheeler:

Oh, yes. I was really excited about the board of directors and the caliber of their members.

Nebeker:

Was that also a time when IRE was growing rapidly?

Wheeler:

Yes. During the war the increased attention to technology caused an explosive growth. And early in the war I introduced several innovations as a member of the board. One interesting note in passing: Before that time the IRE had sections and then had "no man's land" in between. I perceived that every engineer should be identified with a section, and I initiated that practice. I was the youngest member of the board; the older members hadn't been as perceptive. Then in the area of awards, the "Fellow" grade of member was awarded on application before 1940. You reached one level of experience and became a "Senior" member and paid more dues. You reached another level of experience and applied for a "Fellow" member and paid a higher level of dues. And I watched my ages — each one was age keyed — and I watched my ages so I could apply immediately to each higher grade as soon as I reached the age. And so in 1935 when I was 32 I reached the age that I could apply for a Fellowship. And I'm one of the few Fellows today who dates that far back. Very few, I might say. But that was not so much an honor as it was a matter of your personal conceit.

Nebeker:

If you'd been in the profession long enough and were willing to pay higher dues.

Wheeler:

So in the 'forties when I was on the board, we had committees that deliberated on these areas. I was just delighted in that Society. Among other things we talked about the awards. There were two awards at that time. One was the major award, Medal of Honor, which had been inaugurated soon after the Institute was formed, and was presented first in 1917. Then somewhat later around the end of World War I, a member of the Institute was killed in action, and in 1919 his family contributed a fund to deliver an award in his name. That was the Liebmann Prize. Unlike the Medal of Honor, which was awarded only in the form of a medal and a diploma, the Liebmann Award had a small cash award along with it. It was a less pretentious award than the Medal of Honor, awarded typically to younger men who were responsible for innovation or remarkable results in some field. For example, the initial work on waveguides was rewarded by the Liebmann Prize. Whereas a wider sphere of activities and contribution carried the Medal of Honor. For years the Medal of Honor went to giants in our growing profession. The first one given 1917 went to Armstrong. That gives you some idea of the stature.

Nebeker:

Alexanderson, Marconi, Fessenden, De Forest, Hammond and Southworth received it. You, of course, received it in '64.

Wheeler:

Yes. Hammond was one of the inventors of all time, and Southworth was more the engineer like I was.

Nebeker:

You also served on IRE's Board of Editors for many years.

Wheeler:

Yes. Around the time I was on the Board of Directors. Usually the Board of Editors was headed by a more experienced engineer in the profession, and by that time I qualified.

Nebeker:

You helped establish the Long Island.

Wheeler:

Yes. As we said, during the war the membership had increased very rapidly. After the war there were enough members in each of a number of areas to justify an identified organization. Yes. At that time my work on Long Island was in an area with a very large activity of the profession. There was a New York Section but it was not ideally located for those on Long Island to have access. So three of us independently perceived the need for a Long Island section. Two of the founders worked for Sperry, so they were close together, then by accident in conversation with me they discovered that I also was thinking along those lines. So the three of us founded the Long Island section. One of them, I might say, was already a director and a leader in the New York section, and the other two of us were relatively new and we became the first and second chairmen of the new Long Island subsection of the New York section. It wasn't long before the number of engineers and the growth of engineering in our area justified making Long Island an autonomous section, which held its own regular meetings.

Radio Club of America

Nebeker:

I wanted to ask also about your membership in the Radio Club of America. Do you recall when you joined that?

Wheeler:

It must have been around 1935. Incidentally, that was the year that Hazeltine received the Armstrong Medal from the Radio Club. Also around that time he was president of IRE. At any rate, the Radio Club, as the name implies, was mostly men with radio amateur background. Some had lost their amateur standing, but they were still amateurs at heart. That's still true today. Armstrong was one of those. I was not very active in the Club because my amateur activities were very early and very limited.

Nebeker:

Did you cease your amateur activities when you went to work for Hazeltine?

Wheeler:

Before that time I was pretty much out of that field. I liked it, but it was just playing around. I was going for the gold. I nevertheless joined the Radio Club, because the amateurs became — a powerful community in the technology of radio.

Nebeker:

What did you gain by joining the Radio Club?

Wheeler:

They published papers. They could not compete with IRE but it was a good avenue of publication.

Nebeker:

They were useful to you?

Wheeler:

Hazeltine published his first paper on the heterodyne in the Radio Club largely because he was acquainted with the members. Some of my papers were presented to the Radio Club where they were received well. Then its membership included many famous men in the field. I guess I was made a Fellow of the Radio Club very early, but I won't try to remember the year. In the year that I received the Medal of Honor from IEEE — the new merged organization — Radio Club also awarded me the Armstrong Medal, which Hazeltine had received many years earlier. I considered that also a very great distinction.

Nebeker:

Did you often attend meetings of the Radio Club?

Wheeler:

Not really often. Their meetings were not as often nor as organized as the IRE. But I enjoyed the ones I did attend. I enjoyed affiliating with the men who were amateurs at heart.

Participation in AIEE and Merger

Nebeker:

Why did you join the AIEE?

Wheeler:

The progress of communications was very strong in AIEE, largely in the field of the telephone company. In the IRE that was the main topic of the organization. Well, as communication technology developed, for example, circuit theory, there was a large interplay between power technology and communications. Incidentally Professor Hazeltine had his introduction through the power field. I don't know as a matter of fact, but he was probably a member of AIEE before he was IRE. Maybe before IRE existed. But anyway as I became more and more active in circuit theory, I saw that it was a very active area in the AIEE; they were holding meetings, and some meetings I contributed to.

Nebeker:

Were these telephone engineers?

Wheeler:

Largely. And of course telephone engineering matured long before radio. So that was a very powerful organization in the communications profession, but it was diluted by the fact that it was also power oriented. It was that interplay that influenced me to join the AIEE, and I was shortly made a Fellow.

Nebeker:

Did you often go to meetings of AIEE?

Wheeler:

Not very often. Usually meetings where I was participating.

Nebeker:

Did you find their publications useful?

Wheeler:

In my area of interest, much less so than IRE. We were talking about Beverage earlier, and his classical paper on the Beverage antenna was published in AIEE. That reflected the fact that in General Electric they had a wider base of power and technology, and AIEE was the more common avenue for membership in their group of engineers.

Nebeker:

Given that you were a Fellow in both societies, I imagine you were pleased with the merger in '64.

Wheeler:

I had mixed reactions. I objected mainly because the people promoting the merger were not honest as to one of its real motivations. IRE had a lot of money, and AIEE was broke. One selfish motivation in promoting the merger was to help AIEE survive. I didn't like the merger to be advertised on grand altruistic motives when I knew that the immediate motivation was not being publicized. Now other than that, I think I was a little jealous of IRE's ascendancy in the field. They had become the stronger organization, and maybe I was a little jealous of that predominance. But as time went on, I fully realized that it was a good thing.

Nebeker:

At the time of the merger your staff gave you a button?

Wheeler:

Because I was less than enthusiastic about the merger at that time, I threatened to get my engineers an IRE pin made with the left-hand rule instead of the right-hand rule. So they quickly got an AIEE button to avoid disgracing the laboratory. Over my lifetime I have made many indiscreet remarks — some of which I deeply regretted later on, and some of which I merely wrote off as growing pains. And I guess that was one such remark.

Relationship of Physics to Engineering

Nebeker:

You were also a member of the American Physical Society?

Wheeler:

Yes. That was automatic for graduate students in the physics department at Johns Hopkins, in the physics department of any university. So I tracked their proceedings, and this was in the day before the explosion of quantum developments and atom busting, so I was interested. Some of the principal inventors in radio were primarily members of the American Physical Society. For example, the screen grid tube was invented by people who were primarily Physical Society members. So my first talks were before the American Physical Society. And some of my first and only publications were abstracts published in a program of the American Physical Society.

Nebeker:

How long did you maintain your connection with APS?

Wheeler:

Not long after I left Hopkins because I became completely immersed in the IRE.

Nebeker:

Did people working in vacuum tubes migrated to IRE rather than stay in APS?

Wheeler:

Yes. That was because the applications became dominant. The division between science and engineering is a fascinating one from many angles. It's interesting that in the Department of Physics at Johns Hopkins I don't think they had the Proceedings of the IRE. I think that was in the Engineering Department, and I hardly saw it until my later years.

Nebeker:

I wouldn't be surprised if that situation is not so changed today. It seems that the physicists are not that much aware of what's going on in engineering. Although I think communication in the other direction is quite good.

Wheeler:

They accede to the many opportunities in engineering quite frequently.

Nebeker:

One generalization I've heard is that the connection between engineering science and physics is closer today than it was. Do you agree?

Wheeler:

It's hard to distinguish between them today. Engineering papers involve highly-involved physics theories, quantum developments, all those things. In the days of the vacuum tube, the physicists contributed to filaments with greater emission, methods of evacuation, things like that, which the engineer then took for granted. But when it came to transistors, there was a complete change from that situation because transistors could not be understood without basic physics. Here I can't resist a comment I make frequently: In the development of transistors it became clear that the prime workers in that field were unfamiliar with vacuum tubes. Sure they used them, they'd heard of them. But when it came to describing the transistor as an amplifier, they invented a new series of terms. And the result was great confusion in the initial absorption of transistors into communications.

With time it appeared clear to me that if they had adopted the terminology of vacuum tubes that they would have avoided the necessity for many textbooks. [Laughter] They were directed to teaching the engineer a new terminology. And more and more they found they could make transistors that behaved like vacuum tubes. The first ones were enough different so that it wasn't a natural realization that they could be described like vacuum tubes. So the adoption of transistors might have been a good deal faster if the terminology had been taken from vacuum tubes. The first thing I had to do in appreciating the behavior of transistors was to translate it to a similar behavior in vacuum tubes. That was not easy because the transistor behavior was not the most common behavior we used in vacuum tubes. But today we have transistors that behave very much like vacuum tubes. And if anything, they are the more common. But it took a long time to realize that. It's as if two psychologists developed a new terminology, each one to suit himself, and the student had to learn both because the natural innovation in terminology is not the same in two different people.

Engineering and Academia

Nebeker:

What connections have you had in the course of your career with engineers doing research in academic settings?

Wheeler:

That question confuses me a bit because I remember a time when graduate students in engineering were almost as proficient in mathematics and some other areas of science as the physicist. One incident stands out during that period. Fred Seitz, onetime head of National Science Foundation, wrote a book in the late 'thirties on the physics of solids. And that was right smack on the area of crystal detectors that had been common in radio twenty years earlier. It was, I think, the keystone of transistor development. Now he was a professor — an outstanding professor, an outstanding scientist — and he had good engineering sense. All I know is that book was a milestone in the direction of transistors. That was an area where engineers were not well informed and I think he brought a higher level of education in engineering circles as a result of that book. I guess one would have to say the book was written primarily for physicists, but I'm not sure about that because he had good engineering sense.

Nebeker:

Did you often find the articles written by the people on the engineering faculties at MIT or Hopkins useful?

Wheeler:

We shouldn't mention them in the same breath. Hopkins engineering was an incident in their curriculum, in their institution. Whereas engineering was basic in MIT. The Hopkins engineering was rather superficial; it was power oriented even more than communications; and it wasn't very well attended. I would have been out of my element in that engineering school. I think I was in my element in the physics department. I just couldn't keep up with it in the days of quantum theory. So they were entirely different. MIT however was an engineering institution from the origin, and very different from the institutions like Princeton and Harvard that emphasized basic physics. Harvard graduated many inspired engineers, but their engineering education was not in a class with MIT. They just had a few geniuses in the department. So that demarcation has blurred over the years because the physicists found themselves impelled to use advanced technology in their experiments. You couldn't be pure physicists anymore such that you could do your own glass blowing and set up an experiment in your laboratory.

Then on the other extreme the engineers became more and more reliant on basic physics, and the transition I would say occurred in a small way in the early days of television when television tubes were far different from ordinary vacuum tubes. But then it developed during the war when the super heterodyne receiver used crystal converters. Now why crystal converters when they had tubes that would do the same job? Well, they didn't. The tubes did the same job for lower frequencies, but in higher frequencies they were impelled to make things smaller and smaller. So the crystal converter in wartime performed a function the tubes couldn't perform. That was the beginning of transistors. As I can remember when I first discovered in a crystal converter that they were non-reciprocal — that's like an amplifier — and that it would deliver more power in one direction than the other. That was the beginning of transistors when people more aggressive than I perceived that and became more competent in solid state. So solid state really had a boost in the converters used in radio sets during the war.

Nebeker:

Along those lines what are your views on research by grants.

Wheeler:

I think it's fair to say postwar development probably had its origin in developmental contracts by the military. Those contracts had a mixed history. It was difficult in the military to define forward-looking developments. The military organization did not make it any easier. So that during the war the military people came to appreciate the need for subsidized developments to meet military needs. Immediately after the war that was done in the form of development contracts. Some of those had much freedom, and some very valuable information was accumulated on contracts like that. In the case of Bell Telephone Laboratories, they had the stature and the resources to make developments without a subsidy. But outside the smaller companies and even the larger companies hesitated to make that investment without any return that they could identify.

So the government development contracts in the 'fifties became a much wider-based system of grants. Grants were more liberal than contracts, which tended to insist on some result [wanted at a particular tune and oriented to a purpose] which meant automatically a restriction of innovation. The system of grants as we know it today, I think it's fair to say, is not keyed to any particular technology, any particular science or any particular motivation as to practical results. The results of many of the grants — although a minority — have been outstanding contributions to science and technology. More and more the universities came to rely on grants to support graduate education with very little reliance on the value of the result. So you see many graduate thesis papers where it's hard to define any objective toward a useful result. That has filtered a very large amount of money into the universities, which was spent on thesis advisors and scholarships. It had the very unfortunate byproduct of evaluating professors in terms of their ability to obtain grants. I think that's one of the most degrading phenomena in academia today because it is not linked to useful grants; it's linked to prying money from government agencies into the academic coffers.

Nebeker:

Yes. But a professor's ability to win grants is generally related to his perceived success in research, and that may be shown in the publications that he writes and perhaps in other ways. Are you saying that the work that gets done under these grants is not particularly valuable in many cases?

Wheeler:

Not in the terms of the grant. If you're going to indulge in innovation, it can't be described in advance. The grants insist on a level of description, which is supposed to be followed, and let's say it's honored in the breach. But it's supposed to be followed toward a predictable result, and a predictable result is not innovation. So it would be better if the money were spent supporting talented people to innovate as opportunity allowed.

We ought to say: How did progress in technology grow? And the first thing we see is that before World War II there weren't any grants. I think that's literally true. And that meant that a powerfully motivated innovator had to scrounge for support and for students to help him. And you could say that that inhibited a growth of technology. And I can't give you an argument on that. Certainly there were opportunities for more investment in innovation. And before the war those were almost entirely in the research laboratories of large companies, not in the universities.

Nebeker:

Doesn't the fact that we now have a large number of engineers and graduate students doing engineering research in universities mean that innovation is taking place at a much faster rate?

Wheeler:

Sometimes it's hard to define what you mean by innovation; sometimes I would rate it very low. In my experience reviewing papers for IRE, numerous ones are the result of a grant where the student promised to do some work, promised to publish it. A professor promised to encourage him. Their two names appear on a paper, which is useless. That's all too common. And then reviewing papers, I have been unkind enough to give that reaction at times when I'm sure it was very disappointing to the people involved, but I'm going to say, usually deserved.

Nebeker:

How might that situation be improved?

Wheeler:

That's the $64 question. In many areas, like the Supreme Court, I am extremely critical. I have, I think, a constructive approach to the evaluation, but to solve a problem is very difficult. How can you get enough money into universities so as to support the degree of freedom that we took for granted before World War II?

Nebeker:

Of course one of the things is that the research itself is so much more expensive.

The cost of materials and other expenses that have to be met. A professor in 1925 could — even if there was no a budget — could scrounge the materials to do his experiments.

Wheeler:

Yes. A physicist in the 'twenties would do his own glass blowing. And the result was much progress made by crude devices and advanced concepts. But then when the concepts matured into very critical evaluations of the results and the equipment, the days of amateur science disappeared. I think Land is an example of achieving the results with the least support and encouragement and a maximum result. But there are very few opportunities for a Land, and there are in any profession some examples that are beyond belief. In the area of electronics and engineering, Harold Edgerton is one of those. In school with very inexpensive equipment, he demonstrated his flash photography. He started at a time when he was young and ambitious at a time when technology was available. And he made a few experiments, which attracted very much attention. Then there developed a demand for it in technology so he began to make more sophisticated equipment. And by concentrating now in this one field over a lifetime, he exceeded the critical mass a few times. And, yes, he became prosperous, but it was a perfect example of someone following a restricted course in which the restrictions were largely removed by the rapid expansion of his applications. He wouldn't have thought of his organization as being called on to analyze the atomic bomb. But he had the technology that was more and more in need. By sticking to that one path, he accomplished miracles in one lifetime.

Family Life and Parental Influence

Nebeker:

In your book you describe your early years in Mitchell, South Dakota, and the move to Washington, DC. At what point did you marry and establish your own home?

Wheeler:

First I want to emphasize that whatever success I've had in my career was very largely indebted to my parents and my wife. Without that support, I'd have been severely handicapped. Now in my book Early Days I cover my childhood in Mitchell, South Dakota, and my high school and college in Washington, DC. In college I met Ruth Gregory whose father was a career naval officer just then promoted to rear admiral as Chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks. He was in the Civil Engineers' Corps. So that's how she happened to move to Washington and go to George Washington University. We went together during the latter years of our university work, and then afterwards I was studying at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. And the year after she and I graduated we were married and moved to an apartment in Baltimore where our first child was born. From then on the family was close to me in my career.

Nebeker:

Was it considered inappropriate at that time for a woman to marry and continue to go to college? Is it for that reason that you waited until she graduated?

Wheeler:

No, I don't think there was any inhibition there. It was unusual, but there was no objection. It was mainly so that it wouldn't interfere with her education. She was a marvelous wife and support and a perfect hostess in our home for our many visitors, including my professional visitors. Many of them remember their luncheon or dinner at our home as one of the high spots of their contacts with us during the war. So we enjoyed sixty years of happy married life before she died five years ago.

Nebeker:

You built a home in Great Neck, New York?

Wheeler:

Yes, when it became apparent that I was going to be working on Long Island. Then we were living in Jackson Heights, and we found a lot in Great Neck and built a nice new house which we occupied for 40 years and in which we raised our three children.

Nebeker:

You were happy with that community?

Wheeler:

Yes, in those days, but not today.

Nebeker:

Where did you move when you left that house?

Wheeler:

At that time our company, Wheeler Laboratories, was shrinking, and we concentrated our duties in our field station in Smithtown, Long Island. So I found a new home near there, and that's where I spent the remaining 17 years before I retired.

Nebeker:

Why did you decided to retire to the West Coast?

Wheeler:

One of our two daughters had a large family, which was based first in Santa Barbara and later in various locations on the West Coast. So we had always intended to retire to that area to be near her family.

Nebeker:

I wanted to ask you about the influence of your parents on your career.

Wheeler:

My parents were, let us say, the perfect couple for raising a family and giving them every opportunity. My four younger sisters and I were cared for very well, first in Mitchell, South Dakota and then Washington, DC. And I cannot overemphasize the advantage of that healthy family environment in all my career and in giving me an opportunity to develop my talents and to pursue my activities.

Nebeker:

I suppose that your father's being a scientist may have influenced you in that direction.

Wheeler:

It certainly gave him a better opportunity to advise me because he early recognized that I was headed in that direction. And he gave me excellent advice at various stages. I remember when I was about twelve, I ran across his college physics book in a bookcase. So I sat down one morning and learned everything in the book. By that time the technology had advanced so far beyond that the book was elementary.

Nebeker:

Did any of your sisters go in the direction of science or technology?

Wheeler:

My second sister, Margaret, taught science in high school and later in university. She went to George Washington University like my other sisters and was very close to the physics department where she was teaching at some times.

Testing and Measuring Equipment

Nebeker:

I would like to ask you about the great deal of work that you've done in the area of test equipment and development of measuring devices in electronics.

Wheeler:

Very early I perceived that all the work I was doing was subject to testing, and there was very little testing equipment available. So typically I had to devise tests to meet the immediate requirements. The testing and measuring equipment that I had in my home laboratory was very rudimentary, but I found ways to utilize it.

When I went to work full time with the company in the Hoboken laboratory in 1928, all of us perceived that the design work we were doing needed testing methods and equipment, which were not available. So my first assignment on reporting for work full time was to develop a new standard signal generator for testing radio receivers. We made one that was far in advance of anything available in those days or anything in use in other companies. And it was a great help. The greatest need was for a standard signal generator for use in testing the RF sensitivity and the audio performance of a receiver. The success of the design that we worked out was largely due to my assistant mechanical engineer, who actually designed the equipment with my guidance where there were electrical problems.

Incidentally, in component design or in the design of individual RF stages, there were lots of incidental tests that had to be made. And I worked on the specialized equipment for those tests. Then continually throughout my experience in the 'twenties and 'thirties, it was just one parade of new test equipment involving much innovation and much ingenuity on my part and on the part of my colleagues.

Nebeker:

And this is because you felt the design work that you were doing would greatly benefit from these measurements and special test devices?

Wheeler:

Yes. Design efficiency required test equipment that was both adequate and efficient, that was easily operated and gave quick results. And those were not the common characteristics of test equipment in those days.

Nebeker:

Because that was a new area of technology, I would imagine there were no companies producing specialized test equipment.

Wheeler:

And I think it would also be fair to say that most test equipment had been designed very casually without any real ingenuity. And that was a handicap in engineering. It's very different from today when you look in the Hewlett Packard catalog and if you can afford it, you immediately find the equipment that's very efficient.

Nebeker:

What was the dissemination of information about test and measurement devices in those days?

Wheeler:

There was something in the textbooks and handbooks. The General Radio Company had made some test equipment that was the best available. You might say they carried on in radio what the Leeds Northrop Company had performed in the earlier electrical engineering. But they had to design to a price, and the equipment was usually rather simple — some ingenuity, but not efficient to use many times.

Nebeker:

These innovations, which you describe in your book Early Days, that you and others at Hazeltine were responsible for, were those described in publications or patent applications?

Wheeler:

In the case of our standard signal generator which was our first monumental achievement, the answer is no. The only records were our company reports on the design and operation of that equipment. In later days some equipment reached the public press — not all. It was not in the category of engineering advances in terms of applications and use, so it was less interesting in that respect.

Nebeker:

And the field was not large enough that there was a real market, say, for the signal generator?

Wheeler:

We were not oriented to distribution. I think we considered now and then whether we should duplicate the equipment for sale. We weren't too anxious to equip other laboratories to compete with us. And the equipment was highly specialized, expensive, and I think there would not have been much market.

Here I should mention one exception to these rules. During the 'twenties and 'thirties, of course, we were designing to other companies that were competing with each other and with outside companies. In the latter half of the war when we were active in the Mark V program, that was opening up a new frequency band for which there was no available test equipment. We not only made the necessary test equipment, but in one case I'll mention at least a hundred of these sets were made and distributed to the participating companies in that program.

This was what we called a slotted line. The slotted line refers to a method of measuring impedance by connecting the unknown impedance at the end of a transmission line and measuring the standing-wave ratio on a slotted line. That was a very laborious process with makeshift equipment. Here again, the mechanical engineer who had helped me before designed an inspired mechanical design for that purpose. Immediately the project ordered about a hundred of these sets for use everywhere that they were opening up this new frequency band around a thousand megahertz.

Nebeker:

Do you think that Hazeltine put more effort in this direction of test and measurement than other research establishments in those years?

Wheeler:

Yes. A principal effort outside the company was only in large companies, notably General Electric. They made some ingenious equipment for testing they wanted to do, but they didn't go anywhere near as far in making test equipment that would save time and effort.

Nebeker:

Were you well informed on what GE was doing in that area?

Wheeler:

Yes. I was active in the IRE standards area, and some of the people working on that were members of our committees.

IRE Standards Committee

Nebeker:

When did your work with the IRE Standards Committee begin?

Wheeler:

In the early 'thirties Professor Hazeltine was active on the Standards Committee. I think that was a factor, which led to our interest in it. So in the early 'thirties when we became well known for our measurements and design of radio receivers, I was made chairman of the Technical Committee on Radio Receivers under the IRE Standards Committee. It was the 1938 report of that committee that disseminated our ideas on testing and which became a bible of testing radio receivers, which is still in use today. And the most remarkable incident was, that became the first standard that was translated into a foreign language. It was translated into Spanish for use in Argentina. It was notable at the time because my philosophy of testing differed from the time-honored philosophy of the Standards Committee. They had taken as their mission, the recording of existing testing methods. I also took as our challenge the introduction also of new methods where they were needed. That met with mixed reaction on the Standards Committee, but my ideas prevailed. That became a monumental achievement in the Institute.

Nebeker:

Does that mean that there's a good deal more work on the committee to reach agreement?

Wheeler:

Not necessarily. I was recording tests that we were making in our laboratory that no one else was making at that time. It's notable to remark on the difference today when Hewlett Packard has equipment specifically designed for efficient operation in all these fields and using the latest technology, but unfortunately it is very expensive.

Nebeker:

Did that come to be the usual philosophy on IRE Standards Committees after that?

Wheeler:

I hesitate to answer that because after the war things became complicated, and I think there might have been less attention diverted to the Standards Committees.

Nebeker:

When did you become chairman of the Standards Committee?

Wheeler:

After our famous report from the Radio Receivers Committee, I was elected to the board of directors and a natural choice for successor chairman to the Standards Committee. I served from 1940 to 1945. I had illustrious predecessors in both of these positions who became close friends, naturally. In the Receivers Committee it was Dickey of RCA. In the Standards Committee it probably was one of the outstanding men in the telephone company.

Nebeker:

Was it difficult to be chairman of the Standards Committee given that it was wartime?

Wheeler:

During the war, the engineering talent was largely preempted by World War II so the activities of the Standards Committee were curtailed. After the war I lost contact, and I think a different philosophy prevailed. There were many new standards needed, and I did not follow those very closely.

Marketing Testing Equipment

Nebeker:

Did your concern for test and measurement continue in the decades after the war?

Wheeler:

Yes. At Wheeler Laboratories we paid much attention to ingenious and efficient methods of testing. In those days even without invention the testing required an inordinate amount of time and effort because we were opening up new fields of frequency and methods.

Nebeker:

Do you recall when the marketing of test equipment began?

Wheeler:

I think the early days of television gave much impetus to that. During the war the work on radar and other military projects was a great impetus to test equipment. The Rad Lab, for example, must have innovated a great deal in that field. And after the war with the advent of Hewlett Packard, the design and marketing of test equipment entered a new era, giving it importance enough so that it was a major investment in research.

Development of Television

Nebeker:

I'd like now to turn to the topic of television. Hazeltine was, of course, one of the most important companies in the early development of television. Could you summarize how you came to be involved in that and your particular contributions?

Wheeler:

Well, in the early 'thirties our laboratory initiated a major effort in the development of vision receivers. We were the first company, outside of RCA, to have a television signal generator for testing receivers. I became one of the leaders in analyzing the circuit problems of television receivers, notably wideband amplifiers and circuits for scanning. It came to a halt with the war. After the war, of course, the principles remained valid. The main event after the war was transistors where half the problems of amplifiers didn't exist anymore. Before the war much of my effort was devoted to using vacuum tubes to cover our frequency band. With transistors that became easy. I was not engaged in that kind of design at that time.

Nebeker:

How did a standard arise for all the features of the television system?

Wheeler:

That's a long story. Before the war we became aware of the problems and developed only makeshift solutions. After the war, outside of my work, which was along different channels, the same line of development continued until transistors changed the whole picture.

Nebeker:

Did Hazeltine have contact with RCA in arriving at standards or was IRE active in trying to establish standards.

Wheeler:

I don't doubt all the major companies were involved in that activity right after the war, but I was not. Before the war there was little joint activity. Mostly it was regarded as competitive. We were developing knowledge of a subject. The problems of television were not common knowledge before they were met in the television development. In the late 'thirties the principal concern was in improving the technology and in getting a system that would work and not so much concern that the entire industry arrive at a standard.

Nebeker:

Is it because of the work that Wheeler Laboratories undertook after World War II that you didn't stay in the television field?

Wheeler:

Yes.

Nebeker:

You mentioned in your book that with regard to the early work in television that there were some other innovators — whose work paralleled yours in certain respects: William Percival, Blumlein and Walter Roberts. Could you comment on this?

Wheeler:

Most of these were British inventors who had a head start in television in England. The ones in this country were contemporary, and a few worked on the same problems I did and came up with similar answers — notably in the RCA laboratory (Roberts).

Nebeker:

It's not surprising to hear of nearly simultaneous — independent invention.

Wheeler:

It was a unique situation in history that Great Britain had a year head start and that I often ran into inventions made by a British engineer a year before I did. I didn't know of it at the time of my invention. That was a result of the British government subsidy of television, which gave it the year head start over our laborious process. That gave them a head start when radar was needed and was literally was responsible for defeating the German Air Force in the early days of the war.

TV, Radar and the Draft

Nebeker:

What was the connection between television development and radar?

Wheeler:

Both utilized what we came to call pulse techniques. In television, pulses of current made spots on the picture that built up the picture. In radar, pulses were the transmitted radar signal and the received reflection. So there was a great deal of commonality in those two fields. So as soon as the British recognized the need for radar, they drafted their engineers not in the army but in the laboratories to work on these subjects. That was after the inventions I'm talking about. Our government, on the other hand, drafted engineers for the firing line. We had continual dilution of effort in trying to save our engineers from being drafted.

Nebeker:

They were drafted and in some cases served in ordinary capacities as soldiers?

Wheeler:

More typically they were sent to boot camp, and then in the meantime, the wheels were set in motion to bring them back into creative work, sometimes at the salary of a private, working along [with] engineers which were paid civilian salaries. One bright engineer, whom I was particularly acquainted with, was sent to boot camp just when we needed him worst. When he returned, and he worked alongside of commissioned officers assigned to our project from the Army and Navy; usually he was telling them how to do it.

Nebeker:

So that was a real problem for Hazeltine.

Wheeler:

Yes. It was one of the many examples of shortsightedness on the part of the government.

Nebeker:

Now of course Hazeltine did very important work with IFF. Was it common for the engineers elsewhere working on development of television to contribute to the radar effort during the war?

Wheeler:

Yes.

Nebeker:

So one could recruit from those also:

Wheeler:

Well, usually it was the same laboratory; we just reoriented the work of the laboratory. Rad Lab was a special case, of course, where they recruited brilliant scientists and engineers from all professions and gave them a new set of problems. Some of them were scientists who had to learn engineering from scratch; and they were very quick to learn.

Popular Image of Engineer

Nebeker:

How has the popular image of the engineer changed over your lifetime?

Wheeler:

That's not easy to answer. I think there may have been a period that I would find it hard to identify when the propaganda rated pure scientists higher than practical engineers. I think there were also periods when the reverse was true because the engineers were doing things you could see while the scientists may have been working on theories. So the popular view of those things, in my experience, was all on the part of the layman at the things that they were seeing and using as a result of engineering.

Nebeker:

I would guess that in your youth, Thomas Edison was celebrated as a great engineer.

Wheeler:

Yes. The first phonograph I ever heard was in Mitchell around 1913 when one of my friends who had a little more money than the rest of us purchased an Edison phonograph with the cylinder record. I don't recall to what extent Edison's overall prolific contributions were a matter of common knowledge.

Nebeker:

Was he something that youngsters look up to and perhaps seek to emulate?

Wheeler:

I think there was not so much knowledge of the current history, so it's hard to answer that question.

Nebeker:

His light bulb invention must have been celebrated, and of course the kinescope and phonograph.

Wheeler:

Yes.

Nebeker:

I know that right after World War I there was a worldwide enthusiasm for physics, largely because of Einstein's general relativity and confirmation of one prediction of the eclipse. That may have contributed to the rising status of pure science. Do you recall Einstein's popularity at that time?

Wheeler:

Well, I don't think popularity is the right word. And I don't think there was such wide recognition of what he was doing because it was something nobody could understand. The physicists didn't understand it, but they learned some rules, which is all he was working with. So those things were largely privy to the scientific community. Sure, his name became well known, but people didn't quite know what he did.

Nebeker:

Do you recall if, for example, during World War II or, shortly thereafter, engineers had a higher popular status than earlier?

Wheeler:

Yes. There's no question that the public became aware that technology was the determining factor in the war. It's interesting to look back to World War I. The innovation which came into play in World War I was hard to imagine today. First, the single-seat aircraft were put into service. The pilot would toss the bomb out from the cockpit, and a little later he would shoot a machine gun through the propeller blades and hope he wouldn't cut the blades off. It happened that I had an older cousin who was an engineer working on synchronizing machine gun with propeller blades. He was lost by submarine during the war. One of the innovations in World War I was the tank. That was a secret weapon of the British, and a very large factor in defeating Germany. Communications were rudimentary. They were a large factor because something was better than nothing.

One story I like: Communications in those days usually meant you had a telephone wire and a stake in the ground for the return circuit. The Germans with their superior amplifiers did better in those fields, but they were mystified when they heard a peculiar whistle on the telephone lines that they could not explain. It was kind of like "PEW!" And they gave up until after the war. Some of the scientists who had been aware of it excited their curiosity again, and they discovered that those signals were lightning flashes from Africa which were focused through the ionosphere back into the German area. The pulse was distorted into that form of a whistle in the process. They had a long-distance lightning detector there. People don't realize that there are many lightning flashes every minute in the world. And if you can get them, you have a symphony.

Nebeker:

Wasn't the radio used at some point as a lightning detector?

Wheeler:

Well, I don't have a quick answer for that. Yes, we heard lightning on the radio. Yes, we soon became aware that in some cases the areas of lightning storms, of which the Gulf of Mexico is the world champion, were a limitation on our radio communications. There's one incident that's relevant to your question. Some scientists were working on lightning detectors in order to predict the onset of electric storms. And one of those efforts became what they called a coherer when Branly, I guess, discovered that if you put a pulse of current through a tube of metal filings, the filings would attract each other and change the conductivity. So that coherer was invented as a detector to predict electric storms. Well, that became probably the first radio detector because radio waves have similar properties. And that's what was used in Marconi's first transmission across the Atlantic. That's before we had crystal detectors.

Nebeker:

To return to the status of engineers in society, in the 'sixties and 'seventies when there was an anti-technology movement in the colleges and universities, did you perceive a lowered standing or a lowered image of engineers?

Wheeler:

It's hard to describe what happened. Partly it was a reaction against technology as an instrument of war. I think some other reactions were just plain jealousy. It's hard to describe what happened. There was a time when there was less effort to develop engineers...and that shortly subsided.

Nebeker:

When you were growing up and when you were in high school, did you imagine that you would become a physicist or an engineer?

Wheeler:

First, I don't know which I did. Secondly, I didn't think in terms of a physicist. I could see what was developing in engineering, and that was what I was pursuing. I was fortunate in pursuing physics education because engineering was deficient in scientific background. I had some head start there, nothing extremely influential. It's significant that research laboratories like GE, which were strong in physics, became leaders in engineering, especially in communications.

Nebeker:

A final question about the status of the profession: Do you recall when you were a youth the relative standing of the different professions of doctor and lawyer and engineer or scientist, the relative standing of those?

Wheeler:

No, I didn't pay attention. And it's notable that doctors and lawyers in those days weren't envied for their income as they are today. And I just don't remember those factors. I do remember that the general public was simply awed with the technological achievements that were happening year after year. And I think radio broadcasting was one that excited the greatest awe on the part of the lay population. It came close to home — literally.

Nebeker:

I suppose that that was a period when daily life was changing probably more rapidly than almost any other period.

Wheeler:

Are we talking about the early days of broadcasting?

Nebeker:

I was thinking of the 'twenties was also the period when the automobile was becoming standard.

Wheeler:

Other things were not changing at a spectacular rate. Yes, we had the first mechanical refrigerator about 1916, and the first time we had a phonograph was then. Those things were a little expensive, but they were so much in demand that they became very common.

Engineering Notebooks and Diary

Nebeker:

Another matter: You've written a bit about the notebooks that you and others kept at Hazeltine. I wanted to ask about the value of these notebooks for the engineering work, besides for establishing patents.

Wheeler:

Keeping a record of developments was always extremely important and typically took a back seat to day-by-day experiments where you were in a hurry and couldn't take the time to write everything down. The major laboratories placed great emphasis on notebooks, where an ordinary manufacturing company probably wouldn't bother. I don't think the patent aspect was the primary motivation. And it was common experience that everything went in the notebook except just the last thing you did in a hurry to make it work, when you were too busy with the equipment to bother to write notes. In my old notebooks the entries at critical times are fragmentary. It's when you were just ambling along that you had time to write notes.

Nebeker:

But you've kept your notebooks?

Wheeler:

Yes. My principal notebooks over the years were such a large collection and of so little value to anyone else that I'm not quite sure what their status is today. I did not take them with me when I left the company.

Nebeker:

Does Hazeltine have a policy of keeping all laboratory notebooks?

Wheeler:

You might say as long as they're likely to be needed for patent support. But in all fairness it's been very seldom in my experience that the existence of notebooks was a major factor.

Nebeker:

That didn't often play a large part in the cases that you were involved in?

Wheeler:

The judges weren't in the habit of paying attention to notebooks. Incidentally, the Patent Office and the patent prosecution procedure did not require notebook records. Only in cases of conflict.

Nebeker:

I see. How about the other uses of notebooks? I'm wondering just often, say, last year's notebook would be pulled out and referred to? Or how often other engineers at Hazeltine would use your notebooks?

Wheeler:

There isn't any clear answer to that. My opinion is that the notebook is of little use to anyone except the person who writes it. And in some periods where I had efficient notebook record keeping, I kept pretty good records. Typically my notebook would be questions and answers, talking to myself and exploring alternatives. But too often the notebook was provided by the company in a form that was not conducive to keeping informal records. One frequent peculiarity of notebooks was that the bottom of every page had a place where it said, "Signed and Witnessed by" two engineers. Well, if you're keeping notebook pages by the hundreds, that's just left blank. And the fact of it being a misguided effort is constantly in front of the engineer [and] is counterproductive.

Here I'm referring to one of my laboratory notebooks in a style that I used at various times for many years. And this notebook covered the period from the middle of '25 to the middle of '26. In the summer of '25, as is entered somewhere in this notebook, I got the concept of automatic volume control. This is all pretty well documented in my book Early Days. But my first thinking of it was very rudimentary in terms of circuits. But gradually I concentrated on circuits that were useful and would yield a good result. Until late in '25 I planned to build a very sensitive super heterodyne receiver at my home in the Christmas holidays. It was an unusual kind of super heterodyne receiver, but that's covered in my book, and I'll pass over it. I went to work at the beginning of the Christmas holidays, and in two or three days put together a super heterodyne receiver that was far in advance of the current technology — an innovation in several ways. And it was intended to be a test bed for my AVC experiments.

Let me just mention that the automatic volume control was accomplished by developing a direct current voltage at the detector and applying it to reduce the gain in earlier RF stages. I had an elaborate circuit that would do that on the weakest possible signal, and I put that circuit together first, and it was too tricky to get it to work. It's interesting that, at that time, resistors of medium high value were not available. There were wire rheostats, there were carbon grid leaks of mega-ohm levels, but in between I needed some resistors that I couldn't buy. So I quickly gave up on that circuit, and I thought: Now what is the most rudimentary circuit that'll work here? And I suddenly perceived what was not common knowledge in the profession. That if I used a diode rectifier for the detector, I would also develop the control bias that I needed. I gradually appreciated more and more its good features. So I put that in my set, and it worked immediately. So on January 2, 1926 we find my entry of that circuit which I'd already put in my set. And that was demonstrated to three of my classmates at Hopkins who were at our house for a party during the holidays.

Nebeker:

I see that they have witnessed the demonstration there.

Wheeler:

Yes. And that entry and that witnessing were very fortunate in our subsequent litigation. Now that was a case where I was entering my experiments rather carefully because I was working on trying to find circuits that would work. This page was reproduced sometime later in historical articles, notably in one anniversary issue of Electronics magazine.

Nebeker:

Is that known as automatic gain control today?

Wheeler:

Yes. A more thoughtful name for it was automatic gain control. I called it automatic volume control because the audio frequency level control on the receiver was labeled "volume control," and it was that control that I wanted to supersede by an automatic control.

Nebeker:

You've also kept a diary much of your life.

Wheeler:

By accident, but very fortunately, someone presented me with a little pocket diary in my high school years for Christmas. I started very casually to jot down things I was doing each day. I was enough interested to continue the next Christmas and bought a diary for myself. I engaged in entries more and more over the years until I graduated to a normal-size diary, bound volume. It is interesting that I did not do what the stories in the literature describe about diaries. My diary was not an exposition of my current emotional problems and other things, just a fragmentary entry of things I did. Sometimes I have a hard time remembering what it was when I read the diary. But I continued that so I have a complete set of diaries that track my daily activities pretty much from high school to the present time.

Nebeker:

Without large gaps?

Wheeler:

One year I just didn't bother to get a new diary. I've regretted it ever since. So one year was missing. I think it was 1930. That convinced me that I shouldn't allow gaps.

Nebeker:

You used these diaries in your historical writings?

Wheeler:

Oh, very much. And in matters of personal interest. What year did I take a first trip to the West Coast? What was the airport when I began to fly west? When I arrived in LA, the airport was Burbank. Just a friendly little shack. So that's one of my treasures that I keep within reach all the time when I'm working.

Hobbies

Nebeker:

What hobbies have you pursued?

Wheeler:

I guess the first one you would identify would be when mechanical construction sets came out. On a Christmas around 1913 maybe, when I was ten years old, the boy next door had a mechanical construction set for a Christmas present. And I sat down in front of it, and they couldn't get me away from it even for dinner. My father promptly provided me with an adequate supply of sets like that, and that was a hobby that continued through high school. Not at a high level, but it was a challenge to make models of airplanes, battleships, things like that, with the equipment that was very rudimentary. Around the same time I became interested in stamp collecting. I think my relatives had some casual collections of a few stamps that they'd saved; the most common source of stamp collections in those days was letters from missionaries. And my interest in that grew until during my high school and college days I found time to accumulate quite a collection of U.S. and foreign stamps — both current and ancient. I inherited some of those collections of missionary stamps. So some of the stamps I have are really collectors' items these days. But it's hard to tell which ones.

I was also interested in music. My mother played the piano some and accompanied herself when she was singing. I guess her interest in music was the reason we as children were provided with piano lessons at an early age. I liked it very much, and I spent a great deal of time on the piano until high school days. Then after that it was very fragmentary, but a lot of time added up. What was my piano work? Well, when I was first taking lessons, my mother had a sheet music that was the latest thing on the shelf. It was the celebrated minuet by Paderewski. It was not vocal, just piano. I started to pick that out, and I liked it. So when I had a good music teacher some years later, I mentioned that. And she said that would be a wonderful composition for you to work on. It became my theme song and still is today.

Nebeker:

You can still play that?

Wheeler:

Yes. It's one of the few that I memorized well enough so that it survived the years. That was an interesting incident. I gravitated toward the classics — definitely not modern trends — and I memorized everything. I was not good at reading. In my high school days I had quite a remarkable repertoire of what you might call "easy classics." I could play by memory, and I enjoyed it very much.

Nebeker:

You continued to play through life?

Wheeler:

Off and on. My teacher at one stage wanted me to become a professional. I wisely decided that I would never have the discipline and the motivation to do the kind of work that professional musicians have to indulge in. I did it just for fun and not at any particularly high standard of performance, just good enough so I enjoyed it. And sometimes people liked to listen to it. Mostly my hobby was my interest in radio. And so in high school I had a very rudimentary radio amateur station with a spark transmitter, and I had a lot of fun. That also introduced me to radio sets, which was the beginning of my career. So a hobby became my career.

Those are the only examples I can think of. Before and after I was married I enjoyed ballroom dancing very much. Here again I could do it for fun, but I was not very proficient. Looking back I'm embarrassed, but I started in senior year of high school, and my wife-to-be and I enjoyed dancing very much. She was a natural follower. And I'd say that was our principal social interest over the years of our marriage up until the 1960's, I guess. Wheeler Laboratories was also a nice social institution. We had annual dinner dances to which all the employees were invited as guests of the company. That was a great factor in the social unit that the laboratory became. We had those, and we had a picnic for the children every summer. I'll meet today occasionally children that came to the picnic in their early years and remember it.

Patent and Licensing Policy at Hazeltine

Nebeker:

Could you describe the patent policy at Hazeltine.

Wheeler:

Even before my association with Professor Hazeltine, I was interested in patents in a very childish way. A couple of times I wrote down something that may have been an invention. I called it an invention and got some people to witness it as I'd read about such things in books. It was after just a few incidents like that that I invented the neutralizing circuit.

Nebeker:

Were the earlier inventions electrical?

Wheeler:

Radio. I think I had a sense that that was a major development when I began writing down descriptions of it and getting people to witness it. Of course the romance of inventions was something we were aware of. When I made that invention before I met Professor Hazeltine, I was thinking, you might say for the first time, seriously in terms of patenting. It's interesting that I was working at the government laboratory, and the government had a policy of encouraging scientific personnel to make and patent inventions, to which they were granted the ordinary privileges — except the government had a free license.

That, incidentally, was a very intelligent policy. So, while working at the Bureau of Standards, I acquired the knowledge that made me aware of the problem of making a tuned radio frequency amplifier that was stable, because the inherent capacitance between grid and plate in a vacuum tube gave feedback that typically caused oscillations and made the amplifier much less useful. It is amazing, with that knowledge of the need, that a giant in the field didn't make this invention before I did. In the telephone company and General Electric, there were a couple of makeshift solutions to this problem that were patented but were not of any use in a broadcast receiver where the amplifier had to be tuned over a wide frequency range. So when I became aware of that problem and the senior engineers in the laboratory were among those who described the problem in the literature, I did something about it.

I'll always be mystified why they didn't do it before me. I said that if we put a reverse transformer in the plate circuit of a vacuum tube, we could couple back through a capacitor simulating the grid plate capacitance an equal and opposite feedback and make the amplifier stable. That is so simple that the court might well say it wasn't an invention. It was obvious. Most inventions are obvious, once you state the problem properly. So I made one at home with rudimentary coils, tested it, wrote up a description and took it to the office to ask some of the prominent engineers in the laboratory to witness it. How much they were immediately impressed by its significance, I'll never know. But I kept working on it at home. It was very shortly afterward that I met Professor Hazeltine and learned that he had made the invention on paper, had filed a patent application but had never made one.

This was an example of my awareness of patents but not much knowledge of how the system worked. When I met Professor Hazeltine, some occurrences had incited him to develop his invention, which he was in the process of doing when I met him. There was no Hazeltine Corporation yet. But his patent attorney perceived that this might be a very valuable invention and urged him to design a set that would have practical utility. That was largely the result of some incidents in the RCA picture.

RCA had a powerful patent position and was aggressive in warning other manufacturers not to use it without a license. They refused to license manufactures under the Armstrong regeneration, which was then the most common radio receiver. Mostly it was used by amateurs and tinkerers who just made it and didn't bother with a license. But the result of that licensing policy was that many small manufacturers who had been making cheap crystal sets were going out of business. They formed an association called the Independent Radio Manufacturers. The only large company in that association was Stromberg-Carlson Co. They organized on the advice of another member of our firm of patent attorneys. He talked with our attorneys, and they perceived that maybe the Hazeltine invention would give the Independent Radio Manufacturers a product that would compete with the RCA product. That proved to be the case. That was the immediate instigation of Professor Hazeltine making a thoughtful design for a radio receiver for broadcasting. He was in the process of doing that when I met him, and he completed the design shortly afterward. It went into wide use the following year — 1923 — and in some respects superseded the Armstrong regenerative circuit. It was more selective, it didn't have squeals and whistles, and it didn't have a critical adjustment necessary.

The wide acceptance of that design under Hazeltine license influenced our patent attorney to form a company to manage the Hazeltine patent and the licensing, and then incidentally provide engineering services because the small companies had very little engineering talent. So the Hazeltine Corporation was formed in February 1924. I was immediately employed part time, and shortly MacDonald was employed as chief engineer. Now when you talk about a patent policy, the original patent policy of the company was to exploit Professor Hazeltine's invention that had already been proved in success, both in the laboratory and commercially. Then the company adopted a more far-reaching policy of encouraging patenting first by the professor and then by the engineers in the company. Their pattern was to license a manufacturer under all their patents as a package, which were very few at first and then became numerous. And to accompany the license with the laboratory's engineering services to design radio receivers at a time when most of them were designed in a very elementary way.

Nebeker:

The patents were all held by Hazeltine Corporation?

Wheeler:

Yes. They were assigned to Hazeltine Corporation. Most of them didn't issue right away, of course. They took time. But the "patent pending" was a sort of promise of a license when the patent was issued. And some of the principal inventions were covered by issuing patents just a few years later. So to summarize, the patent policy was to build up a portfolio of patents in the radio field, which would influence a manufacturing company to take a license and pay royalties. The royalties were substantial but not a controlling factor on the price of the product.

Nebeker:

That was what — a percentage of the price of the product?

Wheeler:

Yes, a percentage of the value of the product, which included same part of the product not the cabinet, and not the loudspeaker. But it included the chassis that provided the amplifiers in the receiver, usually five tubes or so. And the royalty was 5%, and that continued for some years and was a sizeable income to the company but not spectacular.

Nebeker:

It was the main source of royalties?

Wheeler:

The source of income. It's interesting that they bought Hazeltine's patents for a million dollars, and the royalties never reached that level before the patent came to the end of its useful life five years later. By that time we had ambitions for other patents. Almost entirely on my inventions. So we persuaded the licensees to continue paying royalties and to benefit from our engineering services and the promise of future inventions.

Nebeker:

Were you able to retain most of your licensees when the heterodyne era ended?

Wheeler:

Yes. They were almost all patents on my early inventions, or most all-patent applications and later patents on my inventions. I might emphasize that our engineering reports were extremely valuable to our licensees. They were in one category specific reports on a performance of our licensees' engineering design, and in the other category they were reports describing improvements we were working on, some of which were adopted by them.

Nebeker:

You said that the patent policy was not to patent innovations in test devices.

Wheeler:

That policy occurred much later. I think in the early years, which meant mid-'twenties to mid-'thirties, we didn't rate our testing equipment as inventions. It was equipment designed to perform a function. It was not being sold; it was not manufactured by our licensees. And it was only in the 'thirties when I made some few spectacular inventions in the area of test equipment that the question arose. In the late 'thirties our patent attorney decided not to file for patents on test equipment. That was a mistake because it would have augmented our portfolio with some real inventions.

Nebeker:

The reason for that decision was that it was expensive to file for patents?

Wheeler:

It didn't really have a logical rationale. The attorney imagined that our improvements in receivers would be made in the millions and the test equipment would never be made in large quantities. I am afraid it reflected a kind of a prejudice in his mind against calling test equipment inventions. The first reaction of company policy to file patent applications had two motivations. One, our patent attorneys wanted the business. And two, to augment our patent portfolio with patents pending which might influence our licensees to stay with us in troubled times. The latter did happen. And the secret of our success in those years was the package license, which was accepted policy. RCA had a package license. In other fields there were package licenses. That was the only practical way to make a reasonable return on many patents. To litigate every patent was so difficult that it was ridiculous. Only the Congress and the courts would even consider such a thing. To summarize, our motivation was to have our portfolio increase at least the number of patents you could count in our package license. Those numbers passed a hundred sometime in the late 'thirties. Most of the patents were decent inventions, which never came into use because there was not a demand for that degree of perfection. That was the saddest reaction to many of my inventions.

Nebeker:

Do you think that might have been different in a prosperous economic era?

Wheeler:

Well, you might say you had to abandon the profit motive. Nobody was intending to do that. Some of the receivers we made in the laboratory and demonstrated to visitors in the 'thirties were marvelous achievements in simple control and automatic behavior. They involved receivers, which cost maybe twice as much as a rudimentary receiver, and our licensees were just not ready to put them in production.

Nebeker:

Most of these patents you've been referring to were for radio receivers?

Wheeler:

Yes. Improvements in the design and operation of radio receivers. The problem was inherently both simple and complicated. You wanted to be able to tune in a receiver and hear it, but you would rather not hear other signals on nearby channels. But you wouldn't pay very much money for that. You'd go to another station that didn't have interference. The heterodyne receiver, incidentally, was a marvel of selectivity compared with the Armstrong regenerative receiver. That was partly the secret of its immediate success — on the market.

Nebeker:

Was that the main selling point in the advertising of that device?

Wheeler:

That doesn't have a quick answer. The Armstrong receiver involved two or three controls, and they had to be set by reacting to conditions. And there was one very ingenious design by Westinghouse that involved a minimum of dependence on setting the regeneration control. But it had to be set critically for distance reception. So the heterodyne receiver was the first one where you could log the controls closely enough to reset them and receive the full amplification of the receiver. Now you say, why would the public pay for that? It wasn't all that expensive compared with the Armstrong receiver, and the result was spectacular. Also, it was made by companies that were competing with RCA price-wise.

Nebeker:

What about television patents at Hazeltine?

Wheeler:

In the 'thirties our television inventions were the subject of patent applications, and there were quite a few in the early days of television development. But there wasn't any pattern of marketing the receivers; they were just experimental. So in the 'thirties, yes, we had a few patents that were relevant to television, but there wasn't any widespread use because there was not a television system. Then the war came along, and after the war the situation was entirely different. After the war the company made some effort to build a patent portfolio in television with some spectacular success in the days of color television.

Nebeker:

How did the patent policy at Wheeler Laboratory differ from that of Hazeltine in the 'thirties?

Wheeler:

First we didn't have any patent attorneys that were anxious to have business. Secondly, we didn't market anything for sale. So there were just a few cases where there was a reason, and we applied for a patent application on an invention made in Wheeler Laboratories. These were cases where the invention was quite important, and our client had a reason for wanting it patented. The patent was assigned to the client. There were a few cases where the patent was assigned to Bell Telephone Laboratories and a few cases where it was assigned to another client. The total number was not very large. I influenced our policy a little in view of the motivation that an engineer might receive by having a patent application filed in his name. But the number still did not build up to a large number.

Nebeker:

But it was never the thought that Wheeler Labs would be supported by patent royalties the way Hazeltine had been?

Wheeler:

No. And the ones we filed, aside from motivating the inventor, had little prospect of real royalty interest on the part of the client.

Nebeker:

Could you comment on the patent policy of Hazeltine Corporation after the war?

Wheeler:

I think it's fair to say that they were not motivated to file applications on everything that was invented because they no longer had the policy of licensing as a package. The reason was that that invited trouble, as they later experienced.

Nebeker:

Didn't they continue that policy with the television patents?

Wheeler:

I think the policy was that any important invention that was not supported by the government they intended to patent. And that left quite a few candidates because our television staff was very prolific in inventions, and some of them appeared to be important. I probably should say: How about patent applications on improvements under government contract? There was not much incentive to obtain a patent and then give the government a free license. Here again, the motivation of the inventor was a factor, and quite a few patent applications were filed because they were thought to be important even if not immediately profitable. Just a few applications were filed on inventions I made during the period after I rejoined the company. The most remarkable was my last invention and one of my greatest patents, which immediately went into use and became important. Unfortunately, that patent was contested, and the court decided in its infinite wisdom that it was not an invention. So the patent became invalid.

Nebeker:

That was the array antenna.

Wheeler:

Yes. The array antenna for triggering the altitude-coded beacon on aircraft. And it is seen today on top of every rotating radar at airports....

Five Categories of Inventions

Nebeker:

You have five categories of inventions. Would you explain that?

Wheeler:

Yes. In reviewing the subject I jotted down these significant categories: One is a major invention that came into wide use. The second is a real invention that had little or no use. The third is a marginal invention that came into wide use. The fourth is major invention that came into wide use but was not patented. The implications of the first three are that they were patented. The fifth is a real invention, but I was not the first so it could not be patented.

Nebeker:

Could you clarify the distinction you make between a real invention and a marginal invention?

Wheeler:

That's wholly subjective. A marginal invention, I guess, is what I would say was in the nature of an improvement. Perhaps a substantial improvement but not basic. Whereas a major invention is something I regard as basic and a new idea.

Nebeker:

Could you give some examples of each of these categories from your many inventions?

Wheeler:

The outstanding example of a major invention that found wide use is my diode automatic volume control, which is universally used in AM receivers and has no hint of obsolescence — what I call a timeless invention. It's difficult to fund other inventions in this category because most of my inventions I do not regard as major. Real inventions, yes, but maybe too specialized to be regarded as major.

Nebeker:

The typical case is a real invention that you patented but that didn't find wide use.

Wheeler:

Yes. The three categories in this group are first, what I call typical, which is a real invention that may not have been earthshaking. It was patented, but it had little or no use. The second category, which I call the exception, was a real invention that went into wide use but was not patented. We may have only one example there. The most common is the invention that was made during the war for a specific need for the military and immediately went into wide use in its intended application. Not any identifiable wide use beyond the military.

Nebeker:

What examples can you give us there?

Wheeler:

This is probably the most numerous category because it includes inventions in the improvement category, of which I made many in the 'thirties relating to radio receivers. Individually, it's hard to select some for mention. They were well covered by patents. Typically they were improvements beyond what the manufacturer was willing to afford for marketing.

Nebeker:

The third category you have described as a marginal invention that found wide use. What about your diode linear detector?

Wheeler:

That was really part of the AVC invention; so it isn't really entitled to separate distinction. I think the stationmaster antenna is the most typical of that category. It was not a major invention but a rather simple solution to a real problem, and it did come into very wide use. It was not patented because the Patent Office refused to understand it.

Nebeker:

Can one ask for a different patent examiner?

Wheeler:

No, but you can carry it to the Court of Patent Appeals, I believe, is the agency. We didn't do that.

Nebeker:

The next category is a major invention that found wide use but was not patented.

Wheeler:

The typical example of that was the piston attenuator that is thoroughly described in my Monograph #8. It was an unusual use of a waveguide before the word "waveguide" was invented.

Nebeker:

Did you think of it in those terms?

Wheeler:

Not in terms of a waveguide, but in terms of a pipe boundary. And that was typical of waveguides.

Nebeker:

The fifth category is a real invention but where you were not the first to make the invention, and therefore you don't hold the patent.

Wheeler:

Well, the outstanding example of that was neutralization, which I invented and reduced to practice independent of Professor Hazeltine. But he had the earlier patent application.

Nebeker:

You've mentioned earlier some of your work with television where it had been done somewhat earlier in England.

Wheeler:

One or two of those examples we might call real invention although they were very specific to a problem. So I think they might not be worthy of mention in this brief review.

Nebeker:

Also in the category of marginal invention that found wide use you would include a lot of your World War II work?

Wheeler:

Yes. The antennas and some accessories that I invented during the war were important but not what I would call major inventions. They immediately went into wide use during the war. The most famous was the so-called "lifesaver" antenna. Another was the strip-line trombone. These were very ingenious and relied on my advanced thinking, but as inventions go they weren't major.

Nebeker:

Another example of that category, I take it, would be the Philco-95 design, circuit design.

Wheeler:

Well, a design you don't call an invention. That included a couple of minor inventions. We should be mentioning the mine detector. I think I would call that a real invention but not a major invention. It did go into wide use. So it's not clearly any one of these categories.

Nebeker:

In something that Alan Hazeltine wrote, he distinguished inventions that resulted from experimental discoveries he gave as examples Armstrong's inventions of regeneration and super-regeneration — and inventions that were made deliberately as the result of theoretical studies. Is this distinction is useful in looking over all of your inventions?

Wheeler:

Yes. And I would have very few examples of the ones that resulted from experimental observation. The one I think of first is one type of piston attenuator, which we invented as a result of observations of another type, which ran into difficulties.

Nebeker:

I take it these were unexpected experimental results.

Wheeler:

Yes, definitely. But by and large my work was derived in some orderly fashion, however much novelty was involved. I've sometimes remarked in talking about my experience that the secret of my success is identifying problems that had simple solutions. Then using or publishing the solutions. Let me try and give one or two examples of that. I'm thinking that some of my theoretical concepts, which became famous are typical of this category. In the 'thirties definitely my most famous publication was the one I called "Paired Echoes," a theoretical treatment of television distortion occurring from circuit properties in non-linear phase or insufficient bandwidth. In this same category is the subject of the skin effect, the idea that I called the "incremental inductance rule" was completely novel in that day and has received much approbation in later years. After the war, my study of small antennas and their limitations was an entirely new viewpoint, and I developed it in a way that led to very simple relationships and rules. The next we might mention is the concept of the radiating element in an infinite array. Once the idea was identified, it was simple. And anyone would say: Why didn't I think of that? That went into wide use in the designing of large-phased arrays.

Nebeker:

Perhaps we haven't made clear what strikes me as something exceptional, is how many physical inventions and also how many new concepts or formulas you have made. It of course fits with your approach, which is to make a general investigation of a problem and to try to understand it more generally, and then to apply the principles to solution of particular problems.

Wheeler:

I think the ones I've mentioned are the outstanding ones.

Nebeker:

I'm interested in engineers that perhaps have influenced your career whom you've come in contact with and were very much impressed with.

Wheeler:

One name that belongs in any one of these categories is Professor Terman of Stanford. I learned from him and admired him and looked up to him in all of his activities. First, preparation of his radio-engineering handbook, which came out just before World War II. Secondly, in what I learned about his teaching and his leadership in Stanford University. And third, our extremely close personal friendship because we naturally talked the same language.

Outstanding Colleagues

Nebeker:

You kept in touch with Terman over the years?

Wheeler:

From 1935 until his death recently. Another category is the brilliant men with whom I've been associated and whose influence was the result of daily contact and cooperation. Outstanding in that group was Arthur Loughren, whom I brought to Hazeltine in the mid-'thirties. He was already a recognized leader in the radio engineering profession. And we collaborated on some things before the war and during the war. When I employed him, I had already recognized him as one of the brilliant engineers in the profession and one who talked the same language I did. Now in a slightly different category is Daniel Harnett, who was chief engineer of our company until the end of the war. He worked directly with me, and his guidance inspired. Also his leadership in the engineering organizations. He was not individually recognized for inventions and such things but had a great influence on our organization and [was] a great help to me in my development. Now those are the names that involve closest personal contacts.

The next category that I think you would wish me to identify is a few outstanding engineers in our fraternity with whom I was well acquainted and who made a great impression on me from their accomplishments. I guess the first might be the late Bill Everett, the professor at Ohio State and then the University of Illinois. Like Fred Terman he wrote one of the early textbooks on our subject, which I have referred to often in much later years. Another with whom I was less closely — let's say with whom I had less in common in our daily work — was Simon Ramo, but we naturally became good friends from few contacts. And in following his career, I'm always increasingly impressed with his genius and his wide range of talents, from engineering at one end to organization and management at the other end.

Nebeker:

Do you recall how you first met him?

Wheeler:

Yes. In 1940 the General Electric Company organized a series of lectures on Schenectady's station WGY relating to technical topics. I was invited to deliver one of those lectures on the subject of television. That was in the early days of television development. It is a little remarkable that they selected me from among several who were very active in the field. The host was Dr. Coolidge, the head of the research laboratories. Incidental to my visit I had a tour of the radio laboratory. There I met at the workbench two shiny new engineers. One was John Whinnery, and the other was Simon Ramo. They were working on the high frequency limits of technology in those days. We immediately engaged in spirited conversation, and that led to lifelong friendship. Ramo did not continue as an innovator in technology as much as an innovator in organization and management. Whinnery continued on the engineering and the science avenue and is a prominent professor in the University of California at Berkeley.

Nebeker:

Have you had a friendship with Whinnery as well?

Wheeler:

Yes. Dating from that first fortunate contact. I see them both now and then in the National Academy of Engineering. Their names were linked in a very excellent textbook on microwaves in the early days.

Nebeker:

Are there other engineers you'd care to mention in that category of acquaintances?

Wheeler:

Now one of the giants in my mind is Julius Stratton. He wrote the textbook or handbook published about 1940 which brought into electromagnetic field theory many theorems presented in terms of the MKS system of units. This was a breakthrough from the practice in scientific work of two systems of units — one electromagnetic and one electrostatic. In working with them, one was continually confused, and it was impossible to make a universal set of design formulas or performance formulas. Stratton was the first one who brought this system forcefully into the electromagnetics region. I should mention that Professor Harnwell at the University of Pennsylvania published a physics textbook the year before which was perhaps the earlier basic introduction to those units on the part of scientists and engineers.

Nebeker:

Did the IRE Standards Committee debate the question of MKS versus CGS units?

Wheeler:

I don't doubt it, but I don't have very specific recollections. Everyone who was trying to write design formulas was confronted with that dichotomy and welcomed the advent of the unified system.

Nebeker:

That surprises me a bit to hear you say that because my expectation would be that whatever system you learned first, was part of your training, you'd tend to want to continue.

Wheeler:

Well, you had to learn both. And I can't really say that one was dominant although the MKS system is basically an electromagnetic system. Mostly there was much confusion, so that typical design formulas were not written in one consistent set of units but the units had to be identified for each formula.

Nebeker:

Are there other engineers who impressed you greatly that you had some acquaintance with?

Wheeler:

I think there's a quantum jump from these names to the rest of the list. The others are quite numerous. Brilliant engineers, good friends, but not quite in the same category.

Nebeker:

In talking about these people you've named, Terman's A Radio Engineering Handbook, Everett's early textbook, Ramo and Whinnery's textbook and Stratton's textbook. Are there other handbooks or textbooks you can think of right now that were extremely important in the fields in which you worked?

Wheeler:

Not that stands out.

Nebeker:

On the list of engineers that influenced you greatly there was of course Alan Hazeltine.

Wheeler:

Yes. He was at the head of the list — and so obvious to me that I omitted to mention it.

Nebeker:

You have written a book about him, so a person would not likely overlook that influence.

Wheeler:

Yes.

Women in Engineering

Nebeker:

You probably know that the IEEE is very interested in the question of why there are not more women in engineering and interested in encouraging women to enter the field. Do you have comments on that topic?

Wheeler:

Yes. In general terms I've lived a long time, and I've had a lot of contact with boys and girls. And I've been known to say that I found girls brighter than boys. That's an ill-defined comparison, but perhaps significant. In my experience, let's say, before the end of World War II, there were practically no women in creative engineering posts. They had advanced in mathematical operations and chemistry, but not in the electrical engineering. Well, during the war we had on the Hazeltine staff a girl who was educated as a mathematician and had experience in unspectacular positions in the Western Electric Company. Some of the boys called her to my attention as someone whom I should watch. So when I started Wheeler Laboratories, one of the first things we did was to employ Patricia Loth on a par with our engineering staff. She justified that appointment very liberally over her career and stayed in Wheeler Laboratories and Hazeltine until she retired. She did not become particularly famous outside the company, but inside the company she was looked up to. She had real opportunity and a very happy career.