Ben’s Project Feedback

Dear Mark,

Thank you for bringing your class to the Sarnoff Collection last week to discuss their interactive exhibit projects.

Emily and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about the creative ideas and new technologies that the students wish to incorporate into our long-term exhibition.

Based on their preliminary proposals, I have started to compile some resources that might prove useful.

When necessary, I have uploaded relevant materials to a Google Drive site accessible via this link.

Please let me know if I can be of any further assistance,



Oculus Rift Tour of the David Sarnoff Research Center

I have uploaded two items to Google Drive that may prove useful in efforts to construct a virtual tour of RCA’s Princeton laboratories.

The first is a dedication booklet from 1942 which contains information and photographs showcasing the research center’s facilities.

The second is an issue of Radio Age from the same year, which includes a feature article on the opening of the labs. [Reminder to all groups!: Full issues of Radio Age and its successorElectronic Age are available online in a searchable database at ] Additional photographs of the laboratories can be found in Alexander Magoun’s book, RCA Labs to Sarnoff Corporation, which is available at the Sarnoff Collection.

The Hagley Library may have additional information concerning the research center’s physical layout, including staff directories which would let you pin down the location of specific researchers’ offices, but you will need to e-mail them to determine what materials are accessible at this time.


Electronic Music Exhibit

There are a wide range of resources available to explore RCA’s contributions to the history of electronic music. TCNJ’s library has several books that may prove useful, including Thom Holmes’ Electronic and Experimental Music : Technology, Music, and Culture and Peter Manning’s Electronic and Computer Music (2nd ed., 2004). Both of these books will reference the theremin, the first commercially available electronic instrument, which RCA manufactured during the late 1920s. The best source of information on the RCA theremin is, appropriately enough, You may also enjoy this recent public radio story about the theremin.

So far as synthesizers are concerned, there are two major technologies that merit further exploration. The first is the RCA Electronic Music Synthesizer, a room-sized computer that was programmed using punched paper reels. You can find a brief introduction to this device—constructed in the 1950s by RCA engineers Harry Olson and Herbert Belar here.  (Be sure to watch the YouTube video!) The Sarnoff Collection also has a set of phonograph records showcasing the RCA Synthesizer’s capabilities. This recording is also available online. Just scroll down to the list beginning with “Side 1.”

RCA was also among the first companies to take advantage of advances in microprocessor technology to create electronic music. The COSMAC-VIP system on display in the Sarnoff Collection was prominently featured at the first Philadelphia Computer Music Festival.  Although we have a phonograph recording of that event in the Sarnoff Collection, it will likely be easier to utilize the digital version available here. This website also has some basic technical information about the COSMAC-VIP system. Further information on the COSMAC system can also be found here.


Sarnoff Interaption

The Interaption Project could extend to a variety of different sections of the exhibition and should feel free to make use of any of the resources listed in this e-mail. If additional materials would be useful, let me know.


Vacuum Tubes

Unsurprisingly, a great deal has been written about the history and science behind the vacuum tube. So far as books are concerned, Gerald Tyne’s Saga of the Vacuum Tube and John Stokes’ 70 Years of Radio Tubes and Valves are both available in TCNJ’s library. You might also wish to watch Ken Burns’ documentary, Empire of the Air, or the book upon which it is based by Tom Lewis, for a slightly less technical introduction.

As the nation’s leading vacuum tube manufacturer, RCA also published many books, repair manuals, etc. about the technology. Some of these may be found on the shelves of the Sarnoff Collection. One additional item that might be useful as an introduction to the technology–or the basis for an animation or filmstrip?–is a 1944 pamphlet entitled The Inside Story, which is available via Google Drive. Also, you might consider reaching out to Jonathan Allen, a volunteer who set up the Collection’s vacuum tube carousel display. (Contact Emily or myself if you wish to arrange a meeting with Jonathan.)



This project seeks to call attention to the material science underlying the shadow-mask picture tube, specifically the phosphors that make color television possible. As Emily and I noted during our in-class discussion, it would be nice to do more than merely demonstrate that red, green, and blue are the primary colors of light. Perhaps this project could highlight how phosphors work or do a comparison of RCA and CBS’ respective approaches to color. In either case, you will want to do a little bit of research on the development of color television. David Fisher and Marshall Fisher’s Tube: The Invention of Television provides a good introduction, as does Alexander Magoun’s Television: The Life Story of a Technology.

For more on the science behind phosphors (and other luminescent materials), you may also wish to visit the Sterling Hill Mining Museum, which boasts a large collection of fluorescent mineralsand has a useful online introduction to different types of luminescence.


Glass Beacon

The Glass Beacon project team has decided to focus its efforts on three different areas of the Sarnoff Collection:


1)      The Phonograph

Given that the Sarnoff Collection already has a working hand-wound 78 rpm phonograph that will be added to the long-term exhibition in the near future, perhaps it would be better to focus on some of the other technologies on display such as the Columbia graphophone or the 45 rpm player.  In any case, A.J. Millard’s America on Record: A History of Recorded Sound(available at the TCNJ library) will be a useful resource. If the group decides to focus on the graphophone, it would be worthwhile to peruse Ben Aldridge’s History of the Victor Talking Machine Company , which is uploaded on to Google Drive. (Note, Aldridge’s history only goes up to 1930.) Digitized versions of wax cylinder recordings, such as those that might have been played on the graphophone, can be found at the University of California-Santa Barbara’s Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project.  There are several books on the 45 rpm player, most notably The Fabulous Victrola 45 by Phil Vourtsis. (Unfortunately, this volume does not appear to be available from TCNJ, but could be obtained through interlibrary loan.) You may also wish to demonstrate the 45 rpm player’s automatic record changer using videos like this one.

2)      The Electron Microscope

The electron microscope is arguably the single artifact most in need of additional interpretation in the entire exhibition. To obtain the necessary technical background about its origins, you will want to review Into Unseen Worlds—a pamphlet that RCA compiled in 1941 to explain the technology to the general public. A PDF of this document is available on Google Drive.  I have also posted a folder filled with articles from RCA’s Radio Age magazine describing advances in electron microscopy during the 1940s. Nicholas Rasmussen’s Picture Control:  The Electron Microscope and the Transformation of Biology in America 1940-1960 is another useful reference, though it does not appear to be available in TCNJ’s library. To supplement this textual material, you may also wish to make use of the IEEE History Center’s oral history interview with electron microscope inventor, and future RCA Labs director, James Hillier, but make sure you contact the History Center’s staff ( to obtain the proper permissions.

3)      The VideoDisc

Margaret Graham’s book, The Business of Research: RCA and the Videodisc, is the definitive history of RCA’s efforts to commercialize a home video player. An extremely valuable supplement to this story can be found at, an online museum boasting an online title database, biographies of key researchers, and scans of relevant patents and press documents. There are also numerous YouTube clips showing the RCA Videodisc system in action. (See, for example, 4:15-6:00 in this video.)


Benjamin Gross, Ph.D.
Research Fellow
Institute for Research
P: +1.215.873.8298
F: +1.215.629.5298

Chemical Heritage Foundation
315 Chestnut Street  •  Philadelphia, PA 19106 • U.S.A.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *