The General of High Tech in U.S. 1

David Sarnoff

David Sarnoff

October 2, 2013 - Ewing, NJ

by Michele Alperin

Artifacts have stories to tell, but to “hear” requires observing them with great care. Take the early form of computer core memory—called a magnetic memory array—that Benjamin Gross points out at the newly opened Sarnoff exhibition at the College of New Jersey (TCNJ).

The exhibition, “Innovations That Changed the World,” traces the history of telecommunications from the invention of radio to the dawn of information age. It uses objects drawn from the famed David Sarnoff Collection, now permanently housed at TCNJ after being relocated from the original Sarnoff Labs on Route 1 and Washington Road.

The curator and consulting scholar for the exhibition, Gross is also a postdoctoral fellow for sustainability in innovation at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia.

Gross explains what can be learned through careful visual observation of one artifact in the exhibition that shares the history of the Radio Corporation of American (RCA) Labs and the consumer electronic industry it spawned.

The magnetic memory array consists of 256 tiny magnets shaped like spools of thread, mounted in a wooden frame and held together vertically and horizontally by a grid of wires (see photo at upper right).

Gross says that he could see that each of the wires was hand threaded through the spools, which told him that constructing it was a time-intensive process. From the fact that the spools were set in a regular array, he could see that any single spool could potentially be selected by picking the correct x and y coordinates of the wires.

“You can read the lab notebook and can see it in a photograph, but if you don’t get a chance to actually see it, you might miss some of details,” says Gross. Each of the spools could be set to one or zero in binary code, and indeed these arrays were used in early computers. Given how time consuming it apparently was to put together this 256-bit memory, the question arises as to how hard it would be to move to bigger computer memory.

Not only do the scientific and technological artifacts in the Sarnoff Exhibition speak to history of science scholars, like Gross, but for people born in the mid-20th century, give or take a few years, the exhibit lays out their lives before them—from the clunky black-and-white televisions that decorated family dens (not yet designated “playrooms”); to the transistor radios teens glued to their ears; to computers so big they required a room the size of a small auditorium to house them; and finally to the liquid crystal display, or LCD, screens that today occupy our phones, computer monitors, watches, and so forth.

Much of the basic research behind the electronics of the 20th and 21st centuries happened in Princeton’s backyard, at RCA labs, and the exhibition—which features items from the Sarnoff Museum’s new home at the College of New Jersey—covers the life and legacy of David Sarnoff, president of RCA and a driving force behind the rise of consumer electronics.

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