Oral-History:Werner F. Auerbacher
About Werner F. Auerbacher
Engineer Werner F. Auerbacher's career spans most of the history of electronics, from the beginning of radio to the present. First introduced to radio engineering at the age of thirteen, he maintained a passion for the field throughout his life. After attending law school, he studied engineering at technical universities in Heidelberg and Munich. Following his brief employment with Philips in Holland in 1936-1937, Auerbacher emigrated from Germany to the United States. His early employment in the US was with Pilot Radio among other radio outlets. However, as a non-citizen when war broke out, he was identified as an "enemy alien," and, unable to obtain "top secret" clearance, lost his job. He secured a teaching position at the Radio Television Institute where he provided both educational training for the army and technical guidance to the U.S. Government. After the war, he returned to Pilot to work on FM converters and televisions, and later joined Emerson working on a variety of government projects, specifically in the field of magnetics. When Auerbacher left Emerson, he began his own consulting firm, and continues to advise a number of domestic and foreign companies. The interview ends with a brief discussion of his involvement with IRE and IEEE.
About the Interview
WERNER F. AUERBACHER: An Interview Conducted by Frederik Nebeker, IEEE History Center, 13 March 1996
Interview # 263 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc., and Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
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It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:
Werner .F. Auerbacher, an oral history conducted in 1996 by Frederik Nebeker, IEEE History Center, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.
INTERVIEW: Werner F. Auerbacher
INTERVIEWED BY: Frederik Nebeker
DATE: March 13, 1996
PLACE: Elmsford, New York
Auerbacher: I was born on July 15, 1909, and my father was head of a department store in Ludwigshafen. The city is across the river from Mannheim, not too far from Frankfurt, in the Rhine valley of Germany. My father came from a relatively uneducated family. He had lost his father when he was one year old, and his mother had to raise four kids without a husband. But my mother came from a very educated family, and to indicate it to you in terms that you would recognize, she came from the Straus family in the United States that used to own the Macy's Department Stores. My mother was very determined that I get a lot of education, and they sent me to what in those days was called the "humanistic gymnasium." I had nine years of Latin, and six years of Greek, five years of French, and no English.
Nebeker: Was there also a more scientific gymnasium, that you could have attended instead of the humanistic one?
Auerbacher: We had physics, but we did not have chemistry, and other sciences, because the idea was not to let me be an engineer. That was not at all in my parent's minds.
Nebeker: What did they have in mind?
Auerbacher: Anything but! The way this came about is that when I was thirteen years old, there was an inventor's fair in Mannheim, in this building [indicating a picture on the wall]. While I was looking at these inventions, one school friend of mine said, "You have to go to the next aisle. There is a booth with a telephone where somebody is talking and somebody is playing music and they claim this is coming from Frankfurt," which was about forty miles away. "There are no wires!" And I said to him, "My friend, that is ridiculous. How can it get here without wires? There is no such thing, you know." He said, "Well, you go there." So, I went there and they convinced me that they were not connected, and I was so struck by this that I felt that I had to know more about it. That was in 1922. I heard about radio, and I felt that this was fantastic and that I had to get a book on it. There was one book in all of Germany, by Manfred von Ardenne.
Nebeker: I have seen that book, Rundfunk published in 1924.
Auerbacher: It described radio and I started to get caught up with this. I wanted to build a little radio detector.
Nebeker: Crystal radio?
Auerbacher: Just a rectifier with earphones. I didn't have the money to do it, so I made a lottery among the friends and relatives of the family, each bought a 10 pfennig ticket and somebody won, and so I got some money. I built this receiver, and after that I started to build radios, because after I built them for myself, and then I built one for my family, then my friends came around and saw and they told their parents, and their parents said, "Can't we have something like that?"
Nebeker: Were these all crystal radios, or did you buy tubes?
Auerbacher: Well it started off with crystal radios, but as time went on, in 1926, or 1927, I started to get vacuum tubes.
Nebeker: They were very expensive in those days?
Auerbacher: I built sets with them and I loved to do it. In the beginning, I didn't even know how to solder. I had to go to the plumber, the first time it happened, to get the connections soldered. So I wanted to become what in those days was a radio engineer because, that's all. My father, who was born in 1875 and who didn't have the vision, said "That's just a plaything. That's not really anything. I am not going to be around for the rest of your life to support you. I am not going to pay for such a thing." To make a long story short, eventually we made a deal. He had said that I could be a dentist, or a doctor, or I could go into business, but I could not do this playing around. He said I could also become a lawyer, and I said that I didn't even know a lawyer does.
Nebeker: This is at the time that you finished the gymnasium?
Auerbacher: Not yet.
Nebeker: Oh, you hadn't quite...?
Auerbacher: It was before I finished it that we talked about what I was going to do, and eventually, to make a long story short, I said to him that I wanted to become a patent lawyer. I said that I was going to study law and engineering, and then I can become a patent lawyer. That made sense to him, as long as I could support myself, since this playing with radio was not a serious matter. So I did study law, and threw it away, and studied engineering and physics.
Nebeker: Where was this?
Auerbacher: At the Heidelberg and Munich technical universities.
Nebeker: Technical universities?
Auerbacher: Yes, technical universities. In Munich, there were two different institutions, namely a "University" and a "Technical University." For an engineering degree, you had to go to the second school. In Heidelberg, there was only a "University." It had world renowned Physics and Chemistry Departments, and I took these courses. I was going to call this arrangement in Heidelberg "Technical University."
That reminds me of another event. I forgot the name of the professor in charge of the Physics Department in Heidelberg, but I remember that he was a renowned adversary to Albert Einstein. A famous story relates to a discussion between these two men, when the Heidelberg professor said to Einstein that the theory of relativity contradicts sound human thinking. Einstein answered him politely by saying he would appreciate it if the professor would clearly define "sound human thinking!"
Anyway, I also studied law, but I didn't ever touch it. I just went through it.
Nebeker: Did you get a law degree?
Auerbacher: Oh, yes. But I didn't ever use it or play with it. I mean it wouldn't have done any good, in the United States I couldn't have used it anyway. I went through law school only in order to study engineering.
Nebeker: You were simultaneously going through the engineering program?
Auerbacher: No. From 1927 to 1936 I went to the universities.
Nebeker: So, did you go to law school first?
Auerbacher: Yes. I went to law school first for three years, and I went for eight and a half or nine years for all my studies. I mean in order to go through both. Law school helped me only to the extent that it trained my thinking. I am not saying that it didn't help me, but it was a little expensive, in terms of time, just to do that. Then when Hitler came to power, as a Jew I wanted to get out of there, but my father asked me not to run away from it, that he needed my help. So I didn't go. I wanted to go finish my studies abroad, but I didn't. I finished them in Germany. Then in 1936, through friends, I got a job at Philips in Holland; a starting job. I went from Germany to Eindhoven and stayed there for about three quarters of a year or a year. As a matter of fact, I just happen to have here my driver's license.
Nebeker: Oh, I see. A Dutch driver's license. That's very nice. And this was 1937 when it was issued?
Auerbacher: That's right. I was there in 1936 and 1937. I looked over my shoulder and the Germans were only fifteen miles away and I said that's too close for me. I was right, because they obviously moved when the war broke out and therefore I applied for immigration into the United States.
Nebeker: In 1937?
Auerbacher: In 1937, yes, and I got the visa and then I came over here.
Nebeker: What about your family, did they get out?
Auerbacher: My wife came with me and then I brought my parents over later. They did not come over until 1939 or 1940. They just about made it and I brought my brother over early in 1939.
Nebeker: So, your first job as an engineer was with Philips? What were you doing for them?
Auerbacher: I was there in the transformer laboratory, and I also worked there at some other time in the telephone system because that was part of my... you know, electronics did not exist yet; you had high frequency engineering and communications which was little bit of radio. So, I asked to be transferred. They had inside the plant an automatic telephone system.
Nebeker: You mean an automatic switchboard?
Auerbacher: Yes. They used me as a repair guy. I was just a beginner. Then, when I got my visa, I quit there and I came over here, and fortunately I got a job. I came here on Columbus Day, 1937. I know it was Columbus Day because when I came I couldn't understand why they had closed the banks. But it was Columbus Day, 1937, and I got a job in December or so.
Nebeker: Did you have any relatives or any people you knew to help you get you started?
Auerbacher: I had some people: me and my only decent relatives were the Straus family, who I didn't want to bother. But they did help me bring my parents over, because my mother was a Straus, but I was too far away. So, yes, I did have a few people whom I knew but not really very many. I mean it was mostly other German-Jews whom I knew from over on the other side.
Nebeker: You had a little bit of savings to live on for a while?
Auerbacher: Well, yes but not much. We had about three thousand dollars. That was worth more than it is today, but still.
Nebeker: What were your first attempts of getting work?
Auerbacher: Well, I went to various companies who made radios, which were in the electronic industry: they made radios. They usually said, "I'm sorry, but you have no American experience. You have to have American experience first." My English was not very good either, but I got a job finally at Aerovox, which in those days was in Brooklyn.
Auerbacher: Aerovox capacitors. They had a chief engineer by the name of Louis Kahn, who sort of felt good or sorry about me, I don't know which, and he gave me a job. This is how my first connection came up with the American industry. I was a junior engineer at their laboratory, and today the company still exists--Aerovox is now in New Bedford, MA, and some of their corporate offspring include AVX, a world leader, and Kyocera, who are doing ceramic capacitors.
Nebeker: They made capacitors for radio?
Auerbacher: They made in those days capacitors for radio and also for other applications, like motors. I was the youngest engineer, and in those days this was the depression. The youngest engineer also had to dust the place, to clean the floor, and stuff like that, but that didn't matter to me. The pay was about forty-five cents an hour, which is the equivalent of maybe six dollars an hour today, the "minimum wage." My wife had an education as a physician, but we didn't have the money so she could take another exam, so she got a masseuse license based on her education. Between the two of us we made about thirty dollars a week, and we figured out together that if we would make forty-two dollars we would be on easy street.
Nebeker: Were you living in Brooklyn?
Auerbacher: Well, we were first living in a furnished room in Manhattan, because that is where you come off the boat. Then, about two or three years later, we rented a small apartment in Jackson Heights, which was immigrant territory. Today, it is immigrant territory except it is Latin Americans. I started to get familiar with other engineers, and I got from them some good advice and some bad advice. I am not going to tell you the bad advice. I eventually got a new job, and I moved from Aerovox to Pilot Radio. That was my first radio job.
Nebeker: When was that?
Auerbacher: That was about 1938, I don't know exactly, but maybe late in 1938 or early in 1939. From Pilot Radio I moved to another radio outlet in those days, Air King. They made radios for Sears, Roebuck & Co. I want to mention that all the radio companies were in those days licensees of RCA, because RCA held all the patents, and they were small companies. They were in New York City alone about three, four, or five of these small companies. They all made radios, and that is all they made. Then the war broke out and I became an "enemy alien" in 1940, 1941. All these companies were converted to military operations and they couldn't give me "top secret" clearance, so I lost my job. I got a job as a teacher in a technical school; not a university, I mean in a technical school. It was called "Radio Television Institute."
Nebeker: In New York City?
Auerbacher: In New York City. I became a teacher. Then they also got some other teachers who were engineers. There was an arrangement whereby people could get a deferment, when they were drafted for a year and a half, if they went to school for a year and a half or two to learn radio. The school also got work to do for the defense department because they grabbed every engineer they could to help. Now, they said, "What are we going to do with this guy? We need him." So they got in touch with Washington and Washington said, "Yes, we'll do something to make him a citizen." Then the FBI descended upon me. This is not a technical story, but it's an interesting story. I am not going to go into it unless you want me to.
Nebeker: I would like to hear it.
Auerbacher: Well, the FBI went to all of the neighbors that we had lived with since coming to the United States, and tried to find out what I did. Then they came and interviewed me, and they looked at my radios that I had in the house, and made sure that they were not short-wave, because you were not permitted to have as an enemy alien any short wave equipment, not even receiving.
Nebeker: Is that right?
Auerbacher: They asked me if I wanted to build a short wave transmitter and communicate with Germany, could I do that? I said, "Of course, I could do that, I'm an engineer. I don't understand why you ask me that question." He said, "No, we only asked the question because if you would have said, no, you couldn't do it, then we would have worried about you." So they eventually told me that some neighbor had said that I had been reading a lot of maps and I was probably a spy. I told them "Of course I read maps. The war is going on in Europe and I want to see what is happening." Well, to make a long story short, I did get cleared and I became a citizen. Of course, my wife did not become a citizen, because there was no need to make her a citizen. It was a great joke in our family, how the American citizen had to go home and sleep with the enemy. Then, they sent me around to see some things I really had not known about, but they were technical. Like in Denver, they had a company that made an instrument to control and measure the path of artillery shells, and they had problems with this.
Nebeker: Were they tracking the trajectory somehow? Was it radar or visually, do you know?
Auerbacher: It was visually. They followed it with light. Of course airlines didn't exist; well, they did exist but you couldn't just go and buy a ticket. You had to get permission to go on a plane. They put me on DC-3 that left from LaGuardia, although it wasn't called LaGuardia yet, and it was more or less where the cows were grazing. It went from New York to Philadelphia, and from Philadelphia to Cincinnati, and from Cincinnati to Chicago. I don't remember all the stops, and it took ten or twelve hours to get from New York to Denver by air.
Nebeker: Were you still employed by the Radio Television Institute?
Auerbacher: Yes, all during the War I was employed by the Radio Television Institute, and they would get reimbursed from the government.
Nebeker: So they were essentially doing consulting work for the government?
Auerbacher: Yes, and I had become chief instructor there. And we did some other work.
Nebeker: Some of it is mentioned here, for example, this DC amplifier design at Hathaway Instrument Company.
Auerbacher: Some of the work I did there ended in patents. Of course today they are useless, because it is all vacuum tubes obviously.
Nebeker: So this was a patent for an amplifier with heat compensation.
Auerbacher: What I am trying to say is that at the Radio Television Institute we did a lot of work for the government and we educated people for the army; it was valuable work. And they thought I was more valuable this way, so they gave me a deferment. I was not drafted because of that work. So the enemy did pretty well for the United States.
Nebeker: I don't know when it was you received the clearance. Was that in 1942, perhaps?
Auerbacher: In that area, I don't remember exactly.
Nebeker: So for maybe three years you did different work for the government?
Auerbacher: We even did some work for Emerson Radio at the time. We had Julius Rosenberg working there. They were involved in that at the end of the war, but I didn't know them at the time. In the meantime, of course, I knew lots of engineers, and I became known with all the work that I did. I got a telephone call from Pilot Radio, where I had worked as a junior engineer, asking me to come over, so the boss could talk to me. He said he needed a chief engineer for the civil work, and that he heard a lot about me, and asked if I would like to do it. Obviously I did, so I went back to Pilot Radio again.
Nebeker: Was Pilot a fairly large company?
Auerbacher: Well, it was very large in those days. It was in Long Island City. I would guess that they might have had two or three hundred people at the most. They were not very large, in terms of thousands of people.
Nebeker: Were they still manufacturing radios during the war?
Auerbacher: No, they didn't make radio, they made other things. I don't know exactly what they did, because I didn't do anything for them. As a matter of fact, after the war, they separated out what they did for the government into a separate division. When I worked for Pilot the first time, and when I worked for Air King, and when I worked for the Radio Television Institute, I was a member of the National Television Systems Committee.
Nebeker: When did you first become a member of that?
Auerbacher: At Pilot Radio, because when I was a youngster, I was cheap enough and had a good enough education that they could afford to spend on something that didn't make money. I was one of the two who they sent to RCA and other people.
Nebeker: About what year was this roughly?
Auerbacher: It was 1938 or 1939. I was a member before the war.
Nebeker: Of the National Television Systems Committee?
Auerbacher: Well that was from before the war, and then they kept me and even as I changed jobs they kept me and it was very exciting. I would like to tell you one story for history. In 1939, it was known that President Roosevelt's opening speech for the world exhibit in New York was going to be transmitted over television, and I wanted to see it at home. So I asked for permission to I take from the office a three-inch green cathode ray tube from a scope. We didn't have television sets, we were just playing with it. I rigged up at home on the kitchen table something to receive the broadcasts. It was not a particularly a good picture but I did receive it in my kitchen, and then I had some friends over there, and it was a television set that was on the table, but it didn't have a chassis!
Nebeker: It was impressive that you could do that.
Auerbacher: The antenna was up in the air, and we were stretching baling wire. Let me say this: All this came back from the time when I made radios, I mean as a child. I was so taken by it that I couldn't believe it. There was more and more, and I wanted more and more and more. Let me just stop for a moment and tell you one thing: I am the luckiest guy that you can imagine, because I knew at age thirteen what I wanted to do. I did it all my life, and I am still doing it at age eighty-six. I cannot think of anything else that I would rather do, or else I wouldn't do it. And I was good at it. I got patents, I got what you see here, other things. How much luckier can a guy be?
Nebeker: Your career spans the whole history of electronics pretty much, from the beginnings of radio to the present.
Auerbacher: As we go on, I just wanted to repeat this statement: How lucky can a guy be, if he starts at age thirteen to get interested? Most kids don't know what they want to do, and then he's doing it all his life and he's good at it! I'd rather do that than anything else, and that's it.
Nebeker: Could I ask you about the 1939 World's Fair. I am particularly interested in that. Did you go to that fair yourself?
Auerbacher: Yes, of course.
Nebeker: It was very much oriented toward the future, what technology would make possible.
Auerbacher: Yes, but nobody really saw. It was oriented toward the future, but the when the real future came...You must remember one thing: Even in 1939, the average engineer like me, learned in school that any frequency above two or three megacycles was useless, and it was only for the hams to play with. We didn't learn in school anything about microwaves. I had to go back to school. I went to Columbia and I went to Brooklyn Polytechnic and I had to learn these things.
Nebeker: Did you ever take any classes from Ernst Weber at Brooklyn Poly?
Auerbacher: Well I did, yes. I don't remember exactly what I took with him. I also took some math courses. I particularly remember a math course at Brooklyn Poly called "Functions of a Complex Variable." In it there were many other working engineers and the professor dealt only with letters. We never dealt with figures. We, the few engineers who were working asked, "Couldn't we do something with numbers?" And the guy said "Numbers? That is sacrilege! Not in this course! We will never use them!" So much for our idea.
Nebeker: Purely symbolic mathematics.
Auerbacher: There was no way to put a number in there. I have the papers and all the notes that I took at home. I look at this stuff and I say, as such it is useless. It is good training, but it is still useless!
Nebeker: Do you remember what impressed with the 1939 World's Fair? Do you remember that there was a hall of communications; there was the "Futurama", the General Motors vision of the future?
Auerbacher: I don't really recall.
Nebeker: There was a television demonstration you mentioned.
Auerbacher: Yes, television, of course, was ready in 1939 or 1940, but then it was shut down because of the war and that is why we were again in meeting in 1944, 1945, and changed it slightly. Well, first of all, you must remember one thing: When we wanted to do anything with television we could not buy test equipment. Everything, for example synchronizing signal generators, you had to build it! You had to build the synchronizing signal generator in order to test and build your television set. There was nothing available, so you had to build your own test equipment to test what you wanted to do. Of course, the only other test equipment was that the television transmitters were on the air all day with a test pattern. And they would occasionally send a program, and if you had a television receiver, you would tell them you had a television receiver, write to them and they would send you a postcard when they were on the air: "Next week we are going to be on Tuesday from 7 to 8." The rest of the time it would be on the air, but with a test pattern, so that the engineers could work to develop the receivers.
Nebeker: I see. Could you tell me more about the National Television Systems Committee? How many people were on it, in those early years when you started?
Auerbacher: Well there were various panels; there were panels for synchronizing signals, and panels for other things. I cannot tell you exactly how many people there were, but I would guess the ones I remember may have been about two dozen at most.
Nebeker: What panels did you serve on?
Auerbacher: They must say it here.
Nebeker: I see. Panel on Synchronization. This is a 1940 letter from Baker.
Auerbacher: He was the head of the whole thing. Then I got another one in 1941. Then I was a member again. They reactivated it in 1944, when the war drew to a close, and we changed some frequencies; it was speeded up horizontal scanning. The horizontal frequency went from 13,230 hz to 15,750 hz, which was a big step in those days. It was easier because I had to change synchronizing signals.
Nebeker: Was it mainly RCA's system that was the one that was adopted?
Auerbacher: Well, it was more or less an RCA system, yes. Of course, RCA helped us very much. When I was chief engineer of Pilot Radio, and we were aiming for my portable set... well, when you had a seemingly unsolvable problem. RCA had a licensee lab on 5th Avenue in New York, and since we had to pay license fees we could go to the licensee lab anytime. You just called them up. There were other RCA engineers who became good friends of mine later, and advanced at the ranks of RCA, and I knew them when we all were young. It is hard to believe that I was young.
Nebeker: So, after the war you accepted the job at Pilot Radio?
Auerbacher: I accepted the job, and the first thing was, of course, to build the typical ten-inch television set.
Nebeker: So that was your initial assignment?
Auerbacher: So we more or less started with duplicating what RCA had, differently, in a different box. I have to tell you that I was the guy who always did something differently. That was sort of built in me. I can't take credit for it. I was alone already before the war, and was very much interested in FM, as you can see from the physics stuff. During and after the war, I stayed with FM, and after the war I suggested to the head of the company that we were still in the throes of a situation where nobody has money, from the Depression, and even after the war was over you hadn't lived in a society that people had money. I said nobody can afford to buy a new radio, so if you want to listen to FM you have to convert the old radio, and you make a converter.
This was my idea: To build just a tuner, which would be cheaper than a new radio, because you are using the audio, the power supply and so forth from the old radio.
Nebeker: This would be a little box that you would attach?
Auerbacher: Just a tuner that you would plug into the audio amplifier of the radio on the input for the phonograph, or, if not, we gave instructions of how to connect to the volume control, etc. I had the idea of that tuner, right after the World War, because the frequency also had changed from before.
Nebeker: Yes, I knew that they changed that.
Auerbacher: Because we suddenly became aware that higher frequencies were not useless. So, under my guidance we designed a tuner this device would just be a tuner and we'd market it for $29.95 to convert all radios. This letter that we got here was somebody who wrote to me from Nash.
Nebeker: The automobile manufacturer?
Auerbacher: Yes. Wrote that why don't we do it to convert automobile radios? He had done it personally. He bought from us those units, and then offered his customers to convert their car radios.
Nebeker: So, this is a letter from April 11, 1948, from the manager of the radio department at Nash, saying that he has installed one of your tuners in a radio. "Most of the reception is good, and motor noise is not noticeable. There is a local demand for FM on automobile radios, so please ship us twelve more Pilot tuners."
Auerbacher: So this is what I did. I also said our television sets would be different, because we put FM into the television sets, so that you didn't have to buy a new radio. If you buy a television, you already get FM to add to your AM radio. So that was one of the things that I did. As a relatively small company, I had to compete with RCA and places like that. Our television sets in this way were different. They weren't the same.
Nebeker: Was this the ten-inch television that you were telling me about?
Auerbacher: The ten-inch televisions, and they had an FM receiver in them. Now, I also was wondering, around the same time, why everything had to be ten-inch? You must remember that there were no bigger tubes. I thought, "Why not a smaller set that doesn't cost $400.00?" $400.00 is equivalent to maybe $5,000.00 today. So, I had the idea of a three-inch television, and the president of the company, said "With the three-inch set, you cannot see anything!" I said "That's not true. It's a question of viewing distance. You cannot see anything if you sit as far away as from a ten-inch set. But we could do two things to overcome that problem, by either making projection television, which we did with a Philips "Optical Magnifying" system. Pilot was the first one to do this. Or could we make it so small you have to read it like a book. And I had to prove it to him, not by building a three-inch set, but by setting up a three-inch tube within a ten-inch set that we had to design, and showing him that if somebody played tennis you could see the ball on the three-inch provided you got close enough. It was a question of viewing distance. The definition was there. So we designed a three-inch set with high definition. I haven't got the picture of it, because I gave it all away to the museum, and we put in the front of the set, which was slightly tilted so that it was like reading a book. You sat in front of it and you looked at this way. It was much bigger than today's three-inch sets. Today they are available again, but we had to do it with vacuum tubes. It was still much smaller than a ten inch set of the day. Even today the television sets are only big because of the cathode ray tubes.
Nebeker: So was this something like this size, a foot by a foot?
Auerbacher: It was about I would say about this wide, and about this deep, and slightly tilted, and it was in a carrying case, and the carrying case had an antenna on it. We sold it for $100.00, instead for $400.00 for a ten-inch picture tube set. I remember we gave Macy's in New York the right to sell it two weeks before anybody else in the United States. I remember the first evening when they advertised it, I went up to Macy's in their radio and television department and I just stood there and I said, "I am wondering whether anyone is going to buy this?" Because it was my idea, and maybe people would think it was too small. I saw people walk in and look at it, and put down $100.00, which was equivalent to $1,000.00 today, and walk out with it. I couldn't believe it.
Nebeker: What year was it first offered?
Auerbacher: Probably 1948. The work happened in late 1946, early 1947; the set came out in 1948. It was a very great success.
Nebeker: Were there real challenges in getting it that small?
Auerbacher: Well one of the things we did was, for instance, believe or not, make the tuning like a radio.
Nebeker: With an air gap capacitor?
Auerbacher: Yes. That made it smaller than a switch with all the channels.
Nebeker: I see. To save space you did that?
Auerbacher: Yes, and it worked. You could do it, the only thing it was a little harder to tune because people couldn't tune it right on the frequency.
Nebeker: I see. Instead of having, like the early televisions or like present ones, knobs that they clicked into the position, yours had a continuous knob?
Auerbacher: Yes, a continuous knob, and then a little wheel with it that had numbers on it, so you could see. We had other problems like this, but it was a great success.
Nebeker: So the main engineering problem was to get things small enough?
Auerbacher: Yes. you had already by that time, starting in 1949, small vacuum tubes; you didn't only have the bigger ones. You had already the smaller ones. You know what I am talking about when I talk about the smaller ones. They originally had tubes that had, let's say, this diameter, and then they had made them with this diameter.
Nebeker: Yes, I know what you mean, sleeker tubes.
Auerbacher: And it was using the smaller tubes, and it was a big success. What knocked it out finally, after it was on the market for about two and a half years, was that Motorola came out with a five-inch set at the same price.
Nebeker: Do you have an idea of how many these Pilot sets were sold in those years?
Auerbacher: I don't know for sure, but if I am thinking about it, I would guess probably fifty to seventy thousand of them in two and a half years.
Nebeker: Were there any other companies before Motorola who tried to do the same thing?
Auerbacher: There was no one. Motorola beat us with the bigger tube.
Nebeker: But there were no companies before Motorola who also tried to do the same thing?
Auerbacher: No, Motorola did it, and it meant that these things, the FM converter there, that we called the Pilot Tuner, and the television set that was called the Model-37 TV, these were things for a little company like Pilot that made it stand out in the 1940s. So I became well-known, and eventually I received an offer from Emerson Radio.
Nebeker: Before we get to that, I had a couple more questions.
Auerbacher: I just want to say, the offer was based on our fame.
Nebeker: I assume also that when you were designing this three-inch television, you were trying to keep the price as low as possible?
Auerbacher: Because the competition was either the $400.00 ten-inch or, I don't even remember what it cost, the projection television, which was also sold. But that was of course much more expensive than $400.00.
Nebeker: Can you tell me a little about that projection TV?
Auerbacher: Well, it was an optical system. It had a small projection tube, I don't remember how big it was, probably a five-inch tube. The whole system of the projection tube was sold by Philips with the optical system to magnify it and then throw it onto a transparent screen. You threw it from the back and looked at it from the front. It was a tremendous cabinet that stood on the floor.
Nebeker: This was also in the late 1940s?
Auerbacher: That was also in the late 1940s. And we made that tube.
Nebeker: Do you make it for Philips?
Auerbacher: No, no. We bought the optically magnified system from Philips and Pilot did the rest
Nebeker: I see you made the projection TV.
Auerbacher: I tried something that eventually I thought had a great future although eventually it did not. On this expensive television, I broke up the chassis into sub-chassis, which would permit, if something had to repaired, to take the sub-chassis out and replace it. Eventually quality of things got so good that replacements were not necessary anymore. Today you don't have to fix things anymore. That was an idea that I had taken over from the war, to break up the chassis, but it was one of my ideas that did not really take off.
Nebeker: What about this projection TV, how well did it sell?
Auerbacher: It sold for people who could afford to pay for it. Because compared to the ten-inch and the three-inch, that was really a big picture.
Nebeker: Was it sold to bars and public places?
Auerbacher: Well it sold, and even sold to homes of people who could afford it.
Nebeker: Do you remember how much it cost?
Auerbacher: I don't remember how much it cost, and I don't remember how many we made, but it was a success. I mean, we did not abandon it right away or anything like that. When the cathode ray tube started to get bigger, this projection stuff didn't have the definition because, let's face it, it was an optical system.
Nebeker: What else was Pilot making in the late 1940s, besides the FM tuner and these TVs?
Auerbacher: Well they made regular radios.
Nebeker: They continued to make regular radios?
Auerbacher: We made AM, and later, when the people started to get a little more comfortable monetarily, we brought out a new television set, we made AM-FM radios, and AM-FM radios built into television receivers.
Nebeker: Any radio-phonograph combinations?
Auerbacher: Radio-phonograph combinations? Yes, we made some of those. But that was not particularly exciting. I had to think for a moment, because that was nothing new about it. If there was nothing new about it, there was nothing exciting about it.
Nebeker: So you were mainly working with television sets?
Auerbacher: Well, I was the chief engineer, I was responsible for everything, but there is one interesting sidelight, since you asked me, historically. In 1949 or 1950, there was a time when retail sales dropped down, and we had a meeting to say how can you sell televisions cheaper so people can afford them? So we decided that we were going to take the FM out of the television, in order to do that, so after we did that, my boss called me and said, "Now, what are we going to do with the separate parts we have for the FM and the expensive audio parts," because we made cheaper audio parts, and I said, "Let's make audio amplifiers and tuners separately, and sell them separately." He said, "Is that salable?" And I said, "I think so, if we make them. I'll tell you what I do. I'll make the best audio amplifier that I know how to make as an engineer, and we will sell it as better than anything else on the market. If somebody wants the FM tuner with it, fine."
So we demonstrated it to some of the people like Harvey Radio, who were the big radio people in those days, and they said "This was very, very good, but we would have to sell that for ninety dollars, and that wouldn't sell. If you want to sell something that is that good, it has to cost at least $150.00." So my boss said, "Well make it even better." And I said "I can't make it better; it as good as it can be." So we were thinking and thinking, and we finally came up with the idea that we are going to make the chassis look as if it were gold-plated, we are going to put in sixteen pilot lights to light up everything with plastic panels, and I don't know what else. We added things that had absolutely nothing to do with performance, and it sold; and this was the beginning of what we became the expensive, Hi-Fi thing. Then everybody else went and did it, and that was another one of my peeves.
Nebeker: Was this sold just as an amplifier?
Auerbacher: Just as a tuner and an amplifier.
Nebeker: Oh, a FM tuner and an amplifier!
Auerbacher: Somebody could buy the phonograph, but this was the beginning. But the idea to make it expensive, to make it attractive, came because they said that I should make it better so that it costs more money. I said that I could not make it better, it as good as I know how. So then I said OK, make the chassis look like it is gold-plated, put in the pilot lights, engrave the dial. That's still what they are doing today.
Nebeker: In other words, to market that successfully it clearly had to be more expensive than the other available FM radios?
Auerbacher: That's right. Otherwise, people wouldn't believe it was better. If it is so much better, than why doesn't it cost more?
Nebeker: That is very interesting. And that was Pilot that sold?
Auerbacher: That's right. We had the first "gold-plated" chassis, although it didn't contribute anything to performance but it looked good.
Nebeker: Of course, I have heard that people wanted to get very good sound systems for phonographs or FM radio. That is very interesting. Pilot stayed in that business of high-end components?
Auerbacher: Well eventually they were absorbed by Emerson.
Auerbacher: I was already at Emerson, but at that point I wasn't in the consumer business anymore. Because when Emerson offered me the job, it was in the government electronics division. I was solely there in the 1950s, and I had nothing to do anymore with consumer electronics.
Nebeker: When was it that you took the job at Emerson?
Auerbacher: 1951 or 1952.
Nebeker: Were there any other projects at Pilot that you care to mention, that you had worked on?
Auerbacher: No, that was about it, from what I remember. Do you see anything else? I just brought a few things here. Here they gave me a prize.
Auerbacher: Yes, because before I came to Emerson, they were accustomed that whenever they submitted something for test to the government that it was rejected three items. Here I made a very new thing, which was a magnetic amplifier bomb control system, and it got accepted the first time. I got the job, although I had become well known for my deviations from normality.
Nebeker: I am sorry to interrupt, but did you continue to serve on the NTSC?
Auerbacher: No, that was finished in 1946. And we are still running by the same standards! Soon, with HDTV, they are going to change it. But from 1946 till now we have been running on the standards that we set in 1944-1945.
Nebeker: But there was also the big fight over color standards that came up later.
Auerbacher: Color. Let me say this: contrary to my being ahead of the game in so many ways, I could never see the point of color. I always kept saying "So what's different if I see it in color or in black and white? And if this comedian is funny, he is just as funny in black and white." Particularly the original color system, the CBS rotating disk, seemed to be completely insane. That thing, that rotating disk, you wouldn't have put it into your living room without having it in steel enclosure. Because if that would have failed, that would have cut your head off. Rotating that fast in my living room? No. That's not right.
Nebeker: Yes, I know of that system.
Auerbacher: It may seem strange after all the things that I was ahead on that I was not particularly keen about color. But at that point in the 1950s, I had already switched from consumer electronics.
Nebeker: So, in 1951-1952 you were offered a position at Emerson. What position was that?
Auerbacher: Well, director of the government electronics division. Of course, the president of Emerson and the president of Pilot knew each other, so first the executive vice president talked to me and said "Would you be interested in it?" And I said, "Yes, I would be." Then I said "How I am going to do this, because they know each other?" So, the president of Emerson called the president of Pilot and said, "I have a very good position for your chief engineer, would you permit me to talk to him?" He didn't say no, and he called me in and said, "You really wouldn't want to change, but I permit it." I went over, I accepted it, and I came back; and then they made a deal that for the first year on any of the things that I designed at Pilot that if they needed me they just have to call up Emerson and I would go over and help them. So it was done in a very friendly way. Then I was out of consumer electronics.
Nebeker: Why were you attracted to the Emerson position?
Auerbacher: I was attracted for two reasons: First of all, I saw that Pilot had reached the end of the road in that they had nothing else to offer; they didn't have the money, and they had tried to sell the business. I just didn't think there was any future. I felt that this was new.
Nebeker: Were you also attracted to military electronics?
Auerbacher: I don't know. I would lie if I said so. Maybe I was, and maybe I wasn't. It was probably more the idea that I had exhausted my consumer ideas. For six years, I had spewed the things out, and I think I had it. And there was a new glory, and more money. In the meantime I had also two kids, so I think it was a promotion. In my division there were quite a few hundred people working for me, eventually. I was vice-president of engineering and manufacturing. I was not only the chief engineer, but after that I was director and had other positions.
Nebeker: So here you are named divisional vice-president for engineering and manufacturing.
Auerbacher: And I was in charge of engineering and manufacturing for the government products. We had many such products. When I originally started off there, it was small and I was only in charge of one engineering project, and that grew into this one.
Nebeker: Can you tell me about the first projects that you worked on at Emerson?
Auerbacher: The first project was a magnetic amplifier bombing control systems by aiming it, bombs and later missiles were aimed, and it was a magnetic amplifier not tubes. The magnetic amplifier interested me for the fact that in my studies already I was attracted to magnetics. I always had this particular interest, and I am a member of the Magnetics Society of the IEEE. Magnetics always intrigued me, even though I had gotten far away from it, so that is the way that it started.
Nebeker: Were these new designs, new magnetic amplifiers?
Auerbacher: No, they were not new designs. It was designed at the Naval Avionics facility in Indianapolis. Then we were supposed to convert it into producible form and produce it, and that is what we did. As a matter of fact, that was actually the second project. The first one I did at Emerson was a flight trainer.
Nebeker: Like a link trainer?
Nebeker: Is that something Emerson built?
Auerbacher: That was something that we also built there. That was the first one. The magnetic amplifier was the second one.
Nebeker: That is almost forty years ago.
Auerbacher: I made progress at Emerson, and eventually I was in charge of this enormous thing.
Nebeker: Was that the usual pattern, what you described on the magnetic amplifiers, that design work was initially done some place else, and then it would come to you for production, and they you would work with their engineers?
Auerbacher: No, we also designed things ourselves and produced them; we did both. Then eventually it grew so big, that in 1955 or so Emerson opened up a research lab in Washington D.C. and separated engineering from manufacturing.
Nebeker: What contact did you have with that research division?
Auerbacher: We belonged to the same organization, and we sometimes had to engineer or manufacture things that they designed. But it was a separate organization in Washington D.C. It was headed by Dr. Harold Goldberg. He is a Fellow of IEEE.
Nebeker: So the 1950s, I am guessing, was probably a time that defense spending was rising?
Auerbacher: Yes, with the Korean War.
Nebeker: Then the Sputnik scare, and the missile gap?
Auerbacher: Yes. Well what else can I tell you? I told you all of my stories as an employee. I did a few things afterwards, but that was when I made my greatest contributions.
Nebeker: How long did you work for Emerson?
Auerbacher: Until the end of the 1950s. At that point I had reached the top, as a vice president, and there were eight other vice presidents. Everybody was stabbing everybody else in the back to become executive vice-president. The politics for me was unbearable, the personal make up, and I said, "What is the use? If I leave now and go to another company it is exactly the same thing." So I then said to myself, "I don't know yet what I am going to do, but I have to get out of here." It was so bad that when I was on a trip and I came home, my secretary would call me in the evening after she knew I was home, and say "before you come in you have to know that this guy did this, and this guy said that," and so on.
Nebeker: This was company politics?
Auerbacher: Yes, company politics. You see, there are eight guys who are smart and good, and they see two more steps: executive vice president and president. If they want to advance, they have to knock out the other seven. Not me. So I got sick and tired of it, and I had reached the point where nobody could say this is "sour grapes." So then I decided to do something totally different.
Nebeker: Could I ask what?
Auerbacher: Again this was something new, but something for myself. I went to the president of Emerson on some Saturday morning, at his home, and I said "I would like to tell you that I would like to quit, but I am not going to work for the competition, and I am not asking you for money. I want to do something else on my own." And he said, "What are you going to do?" I said, "I don't know yet. There are various possibilities, I could go and write a book, I could go and teach at the university, I could go and do something I haven't thought of yet. I am working for you sixteen hours a day. I haven't got the time to sit back." I said it that there was no emergency about it, and he could take his time to find somebody. I was not saying I'd leave in two weeks. I said, "Maybe I am going to become a consultant. I have so much broad experience." He said, "If you become a consultant, I am going to be your first customer." He offered this to me, and I said "OK, that is attractive." So I became a consultant for Emerson to start with, and for various other people at the same time. Then I had an idea that with my European background and with my knowledge of French and German, maybe I could advise some people in Europe about how to set up sales offices in the United States. The Europeans were just climbing out of having everything destroyed. I started to travel in Europe, and got paid to do it. There was one company in the United Kingdom in magnetics. When I was free I tended in that direction, and I knew them very well. Their name was Telcon Metals, and I knew them from the fact that we had bought stuff from them when I was the vice president and they knew me. I went over there and said, "You people should sell in the United States, and I am willing, if you pay me, to set up a sales organization for you. You have good stuff and you are competitive." You know, like today's people in the Far East. So they said, "We will talk to our board of directors," and then they wrote a letter to me, saying "Yes, we would like to do it, but why should we set it up? Why don't you do it yourself? You know a lot about magnetics and we would like you to take on our representation." That is how this company was founded. If you look at this here, thirty years ago, these were eventually all the companies in Europe. Vicalloy was one of Telcon's products. Thorn-Brimar was in cathode ray tubes, etc. And Wima was in capacitors, cathode ray tubes and magnetics.
I want to get us back to the magnetics. What year was that roughly? About 1960?
1963. And in 1993 we celebrated our thirtieth anniversary. We started this off in a little room with one secretary.
Was it called Inter-Technical Group then?
It was initially to market Telcon Metals?
Yes, and today it is mainly Wima. Thorn went out of the manufacturing business, they are today an entertainment company. A totally different company.
Where did you start? Where was your office?
Not far from here. In Irvington, where I lived. It started with one person, and today we've got five engineers, and altogether about twenty-two people. I don't want a big company, and I have so much fun, that I don't want to stop. My family is with me, and what we did was successful.
Can you tell me a little bit about that business of marketing these European products in the United States? What were the real challenges?
Of course I would be glad to tell you, what would be interesting from a historical point of view. When I started it, the majority of people that I wanted to sell something to said "We do not buy foreign." If you were to look at this today, at thirty-odd years ago, it's strange that we would only buy American.
And that is because they didn't believe that they could get good products from overseas?
The Americans made the best and nobody else knows anything.
The start of it was your recognition that this Telcon Metals was making something that really was better and available in this country?
It was available, but it was as good as what was here. It was available here, and it would cost less.
It was particularly interesting. You see the word "Vicalloy" on this. Vicalloy was involved in the way I had dealt with Telcon Metals first, when I was at Emerson. It was a flight recorder that our Washington, D.C., research lab had designed that used as tape not a paper or plastic tape, but it used a metal tape of Vicalloy. Vicalloy is vanadium, iron, and cobalt, VIC. And that was used for analog and digital recording in flight recording. This is how I got familiar with Telcon Metals, but they made it all. Our engineering here made Vicalloy, too, but you wanted to establish competition to get a better price. So that woke me up about Europe. Up until a few years ago we imported exclusively from Europe, and I was afraid to go to the Far East because my advantage in Europe was that I was familiar with the culture, being born there. And I was afraid of the Far East, and I was right, it is very difficult to do business there.
But in the last two years you started doing business there?
Well, we have started, but our main thing is still Europe.
To go back to the mid-1960s, did you quickly find other companies in Europe that you represented?
Well, I could not afford to do it quickly, because I did not have the money. Eventually, yes, I added other companies. First of all there were companies that were relatives of Telcon Metals, which belonged to a conglomerate called BICC -- British Industrial Callender Cables. They owned Telcon metals and other companies. Then I got two other companies later, one called Telcon Magnetic Cores, that made cut cores for transformer cores, the other was called Magnetic and Electrical Alloys that also made transformer cores out of laminations of various materials: from stainless steel to alloys. So I was deeply involved in all three in magnetics; it was my first excursion. Then a further excursion that I needed was because Telcon Metals made Mu metal. I sold magnetic shielding for cathode ray tubes, and that led me back to cathode ray tubes and that's how I got to Thorn Brimar. So it developed.
Was it the usual case that the European product was less expensive?
Less expensive, or things that were better, like cathode ray tubes, particularly if you talk about military cathode ray tubes. Sometimes one guy has it, but the other guy just hasn't got it. Sometimes it was the clear case of that. It was very interesting, it kept me involved and it still keeps me involved in the engineering even so today. I have to deal with a lot of other things besides engineering, because since the 1970s we have dealt with currencies, which is a science all by itself. But I had to learn it.
What were the problems with transferring products from Europe to this country? There must be some different standards?
Well, yes, I will give you a good example of how right you are. It used to be a problem when you wanted to sell a toroid, particularly one in a plastic case, because in Europe they didn't have the same size. They were selling them in meters and millimeters, and here they had them in inches. That's no problem today.
I suppose that the engineering world, for one thing, uses the metric system. Are there also international standards for performance?
Well, today, whether you go to the Far East or to Europe it is all one standard. Let me say one thing one of our main items today is the film capacitors from Wima. The German product that is the most expensive product of its kind in the world. We have nine percent of the American market with the most expensive product, and nobody else makes this good a product.
When did you start with Wima?
So when you were doing this, you would be just alert for opportunities to market something that you recognized was very good?
I wasn't looking at them as an entrepreneur, I was looking at them as engineer. Would I want this?
So I am sure that you would not have been able to succeed with such a company if you were not an engineer yourself? Is that right?
Today there are lots of people who do this. They can hire engineers. But in my case, it was the combination of a lot of engineering experience plus my being a European. I could go to Germany or to France, or to England and I speak their language and knew their culture. I knew I had to act differently in the United Kingdom than when I went to Germany. I could talk a certain way. That helped me very much because today people accept this difference of culture, but not in those days. I'll give you one example. Just last week I had a discussion on the telephone with a German at Wima whom I know very well. He speaks English, and we talked about a very difficult thing. And he said, "Will you permit me to talk German, because I feel more relaxed and I don't have to think?" I said, "Go ahead, talk German." That helped me a lot. I can switch from English to German to French. And at the same time, I speak "engineering."
I wanted to also ask you about your connection with IEEE and probably with the IRE?
I joined them as an associate in 1938.
I see. I know also that in those days New York was the center of the radio industry in this country. Did you go to IRE meetings?
I used to go, as I said, particularly in my connection with my interest in television when there was no television and I learned a lot by having the contact. I met other engineers. Yes, IRE helped me a lot.
So you did go to meetings?
Were the Publications useful to you? The Proceedings of the IRE?
Yes, and I still have some of the old stuff at home.
Did you stay a member from the late 1930s on?
Yes, I am a senior life member of the IEEE. Later on, as I got into exporting, I drifted away from it. But I was active until about 15 years ago. I still read the monthly magazine. It's part of my life, of everything that I did. To sum it up, I knew at age thirteen, and can't let go. I still think, "What a blessing, what a life. How many people are that blessed that they have so much fun to make a living?"
I am particularly interested why people value the IEEE, or, earlier, the IRE?
In my days, the contacts were very vital because the literature in those days, well, there was no Web, there was no fax. The telephone was expensive. I don't know how far I would have gotten if it wasn't for the IRE.
Do you continue to value the publications?
Yes, I continue to value the publications. I am still getting the Magnetic Society journals, and I do read them.
Is there anything that I didn't ask you about, that you would like to comment on? Anything about your career that I didn't ask you about?
I would just say that I have had a wonderful time. I was successful in terms of getting the respect of my peers, and in terms of my career, and ultimately I was successful financially. At the same time, I was doing something that I love! How many people are that lucky? That is all I can say.
Well thank you very much.