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Oral-History:Karl Honaman

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About Karl Honaman

Karl Honaman, an early leader in the dissemination of technical information, received a bachelor's degree in physics in 1916, and a masters degree in 1917 from Franklin and Marshall College. In 1917 he joined the Bureau of Standards, where he worked until 1919. Honaman then joined AT&T. When AT&T established Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1925, he moved there, where he remained until his retirement in 1960. During WWII, Honaman directed Bell Lab's School for War Training. After the war, Honaman became Director of Publications. During 1954 and 1955, he served both as a consultant to the US Secretary of Commerce and as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs.

The interview begins with a discussion of Honaman's education and his early field work in inductance interference for AT&T. Honaman then discusses his early work with Bell Labs, which included investigating the viability of applying carrier circuits superimposed on electric power lines. The interview then continues with a discussion of his work with Bell's School for War Training, which was responsible for training military personnel as radar instructors. The interview next covers Honoman's work as Bell's Director of Publications, his appointment in 1954 as consultant to the US Secretary of Commerce, and in 1955 as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. The interview concludes with comments on Honaman's various activities after his retirement from Bell in 1960.


About the Interview

Karl Honaman: An Interview Conducted by Frank A. Polkinghorn, IEEE History Center, November 8, 1973

Interview # 015 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. and Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey


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, Rutgers - the State University, 39 Union Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901-8538 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:

Karl Honaman, an oral history conducted in 1973 by Frank A. Polkinghorn, IEEE History Center, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.


Interview

INTERVIEW: Karl Honaman INTERVIEWED BY: Frank A. Polkinghorn DATE: November 8, 1973

Family Background and Education

Polkinghorn:

This is an interview made with Richard Karl Honaman, one-time of the AT&T Company and Bell Telephone Laboratories. The interview is being made on November 8, 1973. Karl, you were born and brought up in Pennsylvania, were you not?

Honaman:

That's right, Frank. I was born and grew up in Lancaster, among people who had a background in Pennsylvania German culture. My father was one of the very first operators of a linotype machine in a newspaper composing office.

Polkinghorn:

I remember there was quite a hullabaloo about autotype machines when they first came in, putting printers out of work and all that sort of thing. Do you have any recollection of that?

Honaman:

I have the recollection. None of the composition in the newspaper composing room seemed to be interested in operating this new-fangled thing that Mr. Ottmar Mergenthaler had personally come to install. But my father seemed to be adventuresome enough to say he'd at least try. And so he began to receive instruction from the great inventor of the linotype machine himself.

Polkinghorn:

That's very interesting, because I worked in a newspaper office once and got acquainted with it. You went to Franklin and Marshall College, I believe?

Honaman:

I went to Franklin and Marshall, located in Lancaster, without any strong inclinations as to what sort of career I might engage in. I was interested in scientific things, interested in physics and consequently I received a degree in physics and a minor in economics. It is of interest Frank, that I was trained in a small liberal arts college. I probably had more courses in subjects such as ethics, philosophy, economics, and so forth, which are not ordinarily thought of by most engineers as a part of an engineer's curriculum.

Polkinghorn:

Franklin and Marshall had a very good reputation. When did you graduate?

Honaman:

I received my bachelor's degree in 1916 and then stayed as an assistant in the physics laboratory and received a master's degree in 1917. Incidentally, in retrospect I am not quite sure how I managed to do all of these things at the same time, but I also spent half of each day during that year teaching mathematics at the local high school.

First Jobs: Bureau of Standards and George Washington University

Polkinghorn:

Where did you go for your first job after that?

Honaman:

About the time I was about to receive my master's degree, Franklin Myer, a former graduate of Franklin and Marshall who was then working in physics at the Bureau of Standards, came to visit. He suggested they would like to see a few people who could be engaged in the Bureau of Standards because of the enlargement of their program brought about by the impeding World War I. Through his persuasion, I joined the Bureau of Standards in 1917. I worked mostly on the old Liberty engine and a few other war-related activities.

Polkinghorn:

You had some connection to George Washington University, I believe?

Honaman:

That's right. This was an extracurricular activity in which I taught a class in electrical engineering at George Washington University in 1918. It was an evening class.

Polkinghorn:

How long did you stay there?

Honaman:

Until November 1919.

AT&T: Inductive Coordination and Interference

Polkinghorn:

How did you happen to leave?

Honaman:

Well, the war was over, and they intended that the staff of the Bureau of Standards would be diminished considerably. We were given to understand that the AT&T Company in New York was anxious to expand its development and research department and would be interested in discussing employment with some of the people who might be leaving the laboratories. I happened to be one of them and did discuss that employment. In November 1919 I joined AT&T in New York.

Polkinghorn:

What kind of work did you get into?

Honaman:

Mostly inductive coordination work as we call it now that is the interference problems caused by electric fields from power lines in telephones.

Polkinghorn:

Was Warren the head of that department at that time?

Honaman:

Howard Warren at that time was the head of the department.

Polkinghorn:

As I recall, he was a University of California man.

Honaman:

That's right. Otto Blackwell was also a department head at the same time. Many of the people who were then in that group have now passed away, but Paul Gry of Bell Telephone Laboratories retired. He's one who was there and is still living.

Polkinghorn:

What kind of work did you do in inductance interference?

Honaman:

As it developed, it was largely fieldwork, although there was a good deal of office work also. We were at a stage when the problems of interference between power and telephone circuits were not too well understood, the reason being that we did not have very much practical information. That's why making field observations was awfully important. I spent a lot of time in the field working on means of measuring voltages caused by short-circuits in power lines, the amount of induction being received in telephone lines at carrier frequencies in the early days of the carrier system, and so forth. The latter, of course, related particularly to open-wire circuits, which had not then begun to disappear from the old type A carrier or the Type B carrier either, shortly after that. As time went on, cables replaced open wires, so some of these problems were phased out by time itself. They became moot, really.

Bell Labs

Polkinghorn:

Did you stay with that work until you went to Bell Laboratories in 1932?

Honaman:

I was still working in that field when I went to Bell Laboratories in 1925. At that time, the Laboratory reorganized. We became members of the Laboratory, but did not physically move from 195 Broadway to West Street until 1934.

Polkinghorn:

I had never heard that before. And you were a member of the Laboratory from 1925 to 1932, all that time working down at 195 Broadway?

Honaman:

Until 1934.

Polkinghorn:

When you went to Bell Laboratories, what kind of work did you do? The same thing?

Honaman:

Initially it was in the same field. About that time we were just finishing an operation that had to do with interference from an electric railway installation in West Virginia. A small coal railroad, the Virginian Railway, became the subject of litigation between the telephone company and the railroad company. It was finally settled by agreement between the two. One of the things we did after I moved to West Street was to investigate the possibilities of applying carrier circuits superimposed on electric power distribution lines. This was assigned to our department largely because we had become familiar with power circuits through our inductive coordination work. There was a great deal of thought being given to the possibility of telephoning over the electric power lines in rural areas, which then were growing at a rapid rate because of the establishment of the Rural Electrification Administration of the federal government. Many farm areas now had wired circuits for power, and the logical question to ask was could we also superimpose telephone circuits? While we did not solve that problem completely, it was advanced considerably in those early years and later on, of course, we found a way to do just this although there's very little superimposed telephone circuitry on power lines now.

World War II: School for War Training

Polkinghorn:

Did you stay with that work until wartime?

Honaman:

Until 1942. In 1942 the laboratories were urged very strongly by both the Army and the Navy — particularly the Signal Corps branch of the Army — to undertake the training of military personnel who would be needed to establish schools to train other men in radar. There was no Air Force then, of course; the Air Force was a branch of the Signal Corp. The Army and Navy covered the entire area of needs as seen by the military forces. The Laboratory had become about as expert as anyone in the field of radar, because some early work had been done there, and we had been cooperating with some British companies and the British government in radar development. So it became a rather logical thing to ask the Laboratory to train the military people when they found this need for training their own men and no expert knowledge to do it. As a result of this request, Dr. Mudgrave decided to organize what we called the School for War Training, which would be a normal school type of operation receiving Army and Navy people — later we also received some British people — who would then go back and set up schools in the services. I was asked to be the director of this school and functioned as such from 1942 to 1946.

Polkinghorn:

What type of subjects did you have, what types of equipment did you cover, and so forth?

Honaman:

The equipment that we used for teaching was equipment that the Western Electric Company was making for the armed services. We did very little teaching of pure textbook material, although we naturally had to cover the basic principles. But a good deal of the work was actually done on equipment that the Army and Navy were then beginning to use. Early manufactured units of these equipments would be sent to our school and the men would be trained. This was a long-range radar for acquisition, fire-control radar systems, and as far as the military service was concerned, also radar used for fighting at night, inasmuch as the Navy had for the first time in our history to consider the possibility of night fighting.

Polkinghorn:

Did you also take care of some of the military communication equipment like our AMTRC6?

Honaman:

Yes, we did. It was a very small part of the operation, but we did cover a little of it. We used as instructors in this school all Bell Laboratory engineers whose peacetime work may have had very little to do with communications systems, but might have been in switching. That work could be suspended while the war was going on, so we found places for them in the school.

Polkinghorn:

I remember very distinctly when you came to Washington trying to get us to cooperate with you in starting on the STR547. We were completely overwhelmed at that moment. If you had not been so diplomatic and cooperative yourself, I'm afraid we would have had great difficulty with that sort of a situation. But it worked out very nicely.

Honaman:

One thing about this school was that we had no text material, so we had to start from scratch and write all of our text material, which turned out to be about 4000 pages when we were finished. The total number of men trained in the school was, I believe about 4,400.

Polkinghorn:

How many were there in the school at any one time?

Honaman:

Each of the classes was about twenty to twenty-five men, and a few women.

Polkinghorn:

You only had one class going on simultaneously?

Honaman:

No, initially there was one class, but before we were finished there were two classes operating simultaneously, in different subjects. We had about a hundred people on the staff.

Polkinghorn:

That's quite a lot.

Honaman:

It was a major operation.

Polkinghorn:

I was talking to you the other day and mentioned the fact that this was the time when Bell Laboratories was the biggest publishing house in the world, I believe, because we had to have so many instruction books out, and there wasn't paper for the ordinary publisher to put their books out.

Honaman:

We did handle a lot of paper, there's no question about it.

Polkinghorn:

I guess you wrote a few of those books, did you not?

Honaman:

Yes, we wrote all the instruction books for the school, and a good deal of that material became eligible for inclusion in instructional materials sent out for the operation of equipment in the field.

Polkinghorn:

When did this all come to an end?

Bell Labs: Director of Publications

Honaman:

It came to an end somewhat after the end of the war, in 1945. At that time John Mills, who had been the Director of Publications of the Laboratory, was about to retire, and Dr. Buckley came to the conclusion that I ought to succeed him, which I did. I inherited not only the publication of technical material, but also a new area that was just beginning, namely the advertising of Laboratory functions in technical magazines and the publication of a magazine for our own people, the Laboratory Record. At this point, we began to think much more earnestly than we had before about the need to acquaint the American public with the work that the Laboratory was doing because it was recognized that the public using the Bell System telephone service might well be quite seriously inquisitive about this Laboratory that was doing new developments to make their telephone service better. We made a departure from earlier traditions in this, I think, in that we were much more willing to talk to the public who were not specially trained technically, as well as to the technical peers of the Laboratory people. I think this change was just about beginning when I came to the publications department.

Polkinghorn:

Most companies do not have a Director of Publications, and I think very few people have much of an idea of what a director of publications does. Can you tell us?

Honaman:

This function was broad, covering a number of areas such as the publication of our magazine, the review and clearance of all technical papers that were sent by members of the Laboratory for publication outside, an outside advertising program, a public relations program in the sense that we dealt with the news media — magazines and so forth — in general information. In some cases we undertook to guide writers, who intended to write about the Laboratory through the work and with the people who were engaged in the area they were interested in. I personally added another function which has not really been extensively conducted, and that was the presentation by word of mouth to local groups that the top management of the telephone operating companies wished to have me talk to, on the basis of explaining how the new technology had an impact upon the business of the Bell Systems.

Polkinghorn:

Did you handle university relations at that time?

Honaman:

No. Although we had relations with universities, we did not make a specialty of it. Mostly, university relations at that time were conducted by the personnel department, and still are.

Polkinghorn:

Did you continue with that work until you retired?

Honaman:

No. With the publication department work I also inherited the management of the Laboratory's technical library. I became quite concerned about technical information and began to be pretty well acquainted with its problems. In about 1954, the Secretary of Commerce of the United States had been asked by the President to undertake a study of information problems, or at least problems with the flow of information. Mr. Weeks, who was then Secretary of Commerce, asked AT&T if they would lend me to the government for this kind of a study. It was arranged that I would remain as an employee of the Laboratory and be loaned to the government, working without compensation. I became a consultant to Mr. Weeks, the Secretary of Commerce in Washington in the fall of 1954. This job I kept until early 1955, and the change that came about then was rather interesting.

The study on the flow of information was made under a new office, which I held in the Department of Commerce, namely the Office of Strategic Information. The study was of much interest to the National Security Council. On a morning in April 1955, after I spoke to a conference of cabinet members about what we were doing, I had a call from Charles E. Wilson, who was then Secretary of Defense. Mr. Wilson asked me if I would come over to the Defense Department and take a job as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs. I had about completed the work I had agreed to do originally with the Commerce Department, and I expected about that time to go back to the Laboratories to my regular job. I wasn't really inclined to move to the Defense Department, but Mr. Wilson was very persuasive, and finally it was agreed by the Bell Systems people that I should, if I was willing, to take on this assignment for the Defense Department. My leave with pay was continued and I functioned for an additional nine months as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, which was responsible for review of information and particularly for the stimulation of the flow of information that was needed by the press and magazines, and others. It was a rather interesting assignment. At the end of that year, about December 1955, it was decided that it was about time I came back to the Laboratory and work for my own company. I left on December 30, 1955 and came back to the Laboratory.

Polkinghorn:

What did you do then? With the company?

Polkinghorn:

I continued as Director of Publications. Those functions had been carried on while I was away by an assistant, Wesley Fuller, who did very well, so I could come back to that job without any great disturbance.

Retirement

Polkinghorn:

How long until you retired?

Honaman:

I retired in 1960, at age sixty-four.

Polkinghorn:

That was the time that Julian Seabolt took over from you?

Honaman:

No. George Griswold succeeded me, but only for a short time. Then he became ill, and after that Bruce Dresser.

Polkinghorn:

I had forgotten. I didn't have much to do with that department in that period, I guess. You've been working since you retired, too, haven't you?

Honaman:

Yes, off and on. I was chairman of the board of a company in New York called Visual Systems. Then I was chairman of another company called Floating Floors Incorporated, which made the elevated floors that are built to hold computer equipment, providing space beneath the elevated floor is a hollow chamber for delivery of air both to ventilate the room and to ventilate the computer machinery above it. That company was in some difficulty, but we got it out of the red and into the black in time for another large company to buy it. I also was a consultant to a foundation in New York. But mainly I have been working very hard for the Council on Economic Education, particularly in the New Jersey branch, and also for the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America, where I have been for thirty years, and a member of the National Personnel Quality Committee. Incidentally, Frank, just last year in Puerto Rico the National Council of Boy Scouts saw fit to award me a silver antelope, which is a distinction that I'm proud of.

Polkinghorn:

I was one of the first Boy Scouts, myself, in 1911 or so.

Honaman:

I ought to tell you that in the crux of all these things, I found time between 1948 and 1952 to be Mayor of Glen Ridge. We have a system of choosing candidates for public office, which is completely non-partisan — or perhaps I should say all partisan — it is unrelated to partisan politics. The choice of candidates is made by committees chosen from all the recognized groups in the borough, including the political parties. Thereby we choose one candidate, and generally speaking we don't ask him whether he'd be willing to serve, we'd just tell him it is his time and his duty, so I spent four years serving as the mayor of Glen Ridge. That was a part-time, completely non-salaried operation.