Scanning the Past in IEEE Spectrum

Benjamin Grss

Photo: Hyungsub Choi

November 1, 2012 - Philadelphia, PA

Imagine you’re a historian and you discover, practically in your own backyard, a huge, untouched collection of original source material on a fascinating topic. Now imagine that, shortly after you discover it, the treasure trove vanishes.

Both things happened to Benjamin Gross when he was a second-year graduate student in the history of science program at Princeton University. On a chance visit to the David Sarnoff Library, a few kilometers from where Gross lived, he met the archivist, Alexander Magoun (now with the IEEE History Center). Magoun suggested that Gross look at the early history of the liquid crystal display.

In the 1960s, RCA had pioneered the LCD, transforming a laboratory curiosity into a commercial product. Incredibly, though, no historian had ever explored the library’s vast holdings on the topic, which included the notebooks of nearly every RCA researcher who worked at the company’s central labs. Gross could hardly believe his good fortune. The subject became the focus of his dissertation (and his article in this issue).

Then the other shoe dropped. In January 2009, not long after he “discovered” the archives, the library announced it would be closing—for good. Gross did the logical thing: He spent the next seven months photocopying and scanning every document he could. Eventually it became a full-time preoccupation. “Toward the end, I was there five days a week, from nine in the morning until five or six at night,” he says.

The copied material now resides on his laptop and two backup drives, kept in widely separated locations—“because I’m paranoid,” says Gross. He completed his Ph.D. last year and is a research fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, in Philadelphia. The archives moved to the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Del., but aren’t yet open to the public.

Meanwhile, the College of New Jersey, in Ewing, acquired the Sarnoff library’s hundreds of artifacts, including some of the earliest picture tubes for black-and-white and color TV sets, one of the first blue light-emitting diodes, and the first commercial electron microscope. Gross is consulting on an exhibition that’s in the works.

“New Jersey played a huge role in the history of the American electronics industry,” he says. “People forget that. I’m glad the artifacts stayed nearby.”

Link to IEEE Spectrum

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