PARS Book Review: The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner

PARS Book Review: The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner

PARS Book Review: The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner

Prior to the breakup of the Bell System by the federal government, Ma Bell created the prototype industrial research organization–Bell Labs. If you grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, you couldn’t miss the work of Bell Labs. 

Bell Labs teams invented the transistor (!), demonstrated the value of orbital satillites and orbited the first communications satillite Telstar. 

The people behind this remarkable list of achievements are what this book is about. Each of their stories is told like a murder mystery where the technology is the murder and the inventor(s) is the detective solving the case. It is a compelling writing style for what might otherwise be a dry, academic history. 

Maybe the names John Pierce, Claude Shannon and Bill Baker don’t mean much to you, but they will mean a LOT after reading this book. You will also get strong insight into the thinking of notable illuminaries like William Shockley, principle inventor of the transistor, and Doug Ring, who was the first to outline the design of what became our modern cell phone network–a design published in 1947!!

Sections of this book move pretty slowly. But other sections light a fire under the story and it all flows together remarkably well. I didn’t think much of the closing chapters which are dedicated to rounding out the lives of the protagonists–mostly sad and contributing nothing to the tale. 

But man alive, the bulk of this book is MUST READ if you like the history of technology. –Don Merz

Don Polito Passes

Don Polito Passes

Long Time PARS Member Don Polito Passes

With grief deep in our hearts, we are sorry to tell you that Don Polito passed away yesterday evening at Forbes Regional Hospital after a tough- fought battle with leukemia. 
Funeral and visitation arrangements were emailed to all PARS members.  Please do not directly contact the Polito family at this time, 
Several of us (including me) have items awaiting repair at Don’s shop.  PARS members will be assisting Don’s family in returning everything to its’ proper owner.  Please be patient.
Kindly follow the developing events and announcements through PARS emails and this website at
Here are detailed information about visitation and funeral for Don Polito…
Visitation will be held on Thursday, September 24th 2020 from 1:00 PM to 4:00 PM and from 6:00 PM to 9:00 PM at the Gene H. Corl Funeral Chapel and Cremation Services (4335 Northern Pike, Monroeville, PA 15146). A funeral service will be held on Friday, September 25th 2020 at 10:30 AM at the same location. The wearing of masks will be required, the maximum of 25 people will be permitted in the funeral home at one time and social distancing will be followed.
PARS is sending flowers.
Quartz Radio Crystals, Part II

Quartz Radio Crystals, Part II

Quartz for Radio, Part II

As the second world war loomed, it was clear to many that science and technology would play key roles. Precise frequency control would become fundamental to what  Dr. R. V Jones termed ‘The Wizard War.” (read the book!–it is not to be mssed!).

Other than through frequency synthesis some 20+ years later, the only reliable method of obtaining and retaining frequency stability at the start of WWII was through cutting, polishing (lapping) and finishing extremely precise slices of quartz.



Axes and Reference Directions

An orthogonal coordinate system was developed for precisely selecting crystals for broad frequency ranges and sopecific frequencies within those ranges. For instance a so-called “X-cut” crystal was useable in radio at frequencies beween 40 and 350khz, As you may well imagine, under the pressure of wartime needs, research quickly identified many other cuts along many other axes that produced crystals that could resonate at precise and extremely useful frequencies. 

As the war heated up, the US military identified a need for MILLIONS of crystals for its’ radios. Radio designs chosen for production were often chose on the basis of the need the radio design would create for more crystals. And yet, the work required was so precise that it resisted conventional attempts at ‘Henry Ford-style” automation.

Crystal “holders” grew many and varied. Early holders had to be designed to take high current imposed by then-popular oscillator designs.Even with good holder designs, many valuable crystals were lost–cracked when they overheated.

The brief gallery of images below reviews post-WWII crystal holder designs and other engineering wizardry that surrounded the humble quartz crystal.

The Magic Crystal That Saved Radio

The Magic Crystal That Saved Radio

At the end of “The Great War”, the new technology of radio was problematic at best. The problems were many and the solutions few. The rectifying characteristic of lead sulfide (galena) had been uncovered long before (in 1881). Pressure on the crystal was key–and so the effect was named “piezo-electric” (which literally means “pressure electricity”).But it wasn’t until after the Great War that patents started beig registered for “crystal-controlled” radio frequency circuits.

Early experimenters and amateurs discovered that a point contact “cats whisker” could be moved around the surface of the galena until a rectifier junction (unknown in those terms at the time) was formed. Rectification allowed radio signals to be detected. Surround the cats whisker with the right coils, capactors and resistors, with a crystal headphone opposite he antenna connection and you had a crystal radio that could detect signals and separate them from others (in a pretty limited way).

By then, Broadcast Radio had sprung to life–with every station at or near the same frequency! A means was needed to accurately put a radio transitter on frequency and keep it there. Researchers discovered that quartz, when cut in specific ways could be made to resonate in almsot exactly one and only one frequency (yes, I’m leaving out considerations of harmonics for now).  Commercial radio station WEAF became the first crystal-controlled broeadcast station in 1926.

Cutting crystals by hand was labor-intensive with a huge failure rate. But the need was low between the wars. Most transmitters were MOPA designs–Master Oscillator–Power Amplifier that used tuned circuits, not crystals to establish and hold the transmitting frequency. Most receivers for broadcast use just didn’t need the accuracy that cystals delivered.

The limited needs of industry and ham radio in the depression-wracked 1930’s were served by a few garage-shop entrepreneurs including Bliley, Valpey, Petersen (after 1934) and James Knights. Production-line methods were not in use and all crystals were hand-cut, hand-polished and laboriously tested.

Those pesky ham radio operators and a small event called the second world war changed all that. Details in Part II. But please browse the PARS library of cystal history photos below!

Radio History Found In Railroad Union Archives

Radio History Found In Railroad Union Archives

Radio History Found In Railroad Union Archives

Frank J Lotito K3DZ

It continues to amaze me where one can find articles related to the history of electronics and radio! I am
talking about original publications, not the ramblings of some author (like me) who 50+ years after the
fact puts his own spin on history!
One particular set of publications where the original history of radio and electronics can be found is the
magazine that was published by the “The Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Engineers fn(1) ,” here
after referred to as the “B of LF&E.” I understand that it was quite common way-back-when for fraternal
and labor unions to publish magazines containing articles not only highlighting current events related to
their mission, but also containing articles pertaining to other interests of the members. One of the “other
interests” of the members was “radio” and its allied fields. Most definitely, beyond a doubt, radio during
the 1920’s through the WW2 era was experiencing its “Golden Era!” Everybody wanted in, except for
my maternal grandmother’s commandment of “no radio on Sundays! “Nyet!” followed by a stern look.
In my personal library I happen to have excerpts from a number of the B of LF&E organization’s
magazine titled “Radio Department.” The excerpts range in date from the mid-1920’s through the early
1930’s. The Table below lists, in summary, my holdings. If you are interested, this magazine might be
found in the library archives of footnote 2. The Cornel University archive may be a little difficult to
access. The Radio Department articles are primarily “how to build it yourself.” I can also be enticed to e-
mail you a scanned pdf of an article or two.
Where did I get these excerpts? A photocopy I made years ago from a friend and mentor’s [W3RLX(sk)] personal semi-organized collection of memorabilia. He obtained this material as a youngster growing up
in the pre-WW2 Turtle Creek, PA area. My friend used to comment on how difficult and expensive it
was to find stuff (material for building and literature) on radio and electronics during the depression era.
To feed his growing interest in radio and electronics he would always have an eye out for radio and
electronics related materials. As I dimly recall, my friend obtained these B of LF&E publications from a
neighbor who belonged to that union.
So, bottom line, while snooping around at flea markets, yard sales, estate sales, charity shops such as
Goodwill/St Vincent dePaul/Salvation Army, keep an eye peeled for 1900’s through maybe 1970’s era
publications other than those obviously devoted to electronics and radio. You never know what you
might find! After all, part of the PARS mission is to preserve the written history of radio and its allied
fields. You never know, one of these literature finds, used as an adjunct, may push your entry into “Best
Of Show” during a PARS event! And, that material may be the God’s honest truth, and not the ramblings
of a self-ordained historian brought up during the post-WW2 era’s “land of plenty!”

[At this point in his original, Frank included a table of a superb set of references to radio articles in the railroad magazine called: Summary of Holdings at K3DZ for the “Radio Department” Section of the Magazine Published by the B of LF&E. Unfortunately we have no way to reproduce the table on the web site and retain its’ formatting. If you want to see the table, please email the webmaster for an email copy of it.]


fn(1) from Wikipedia: The Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen (B of LF&E) was a North American railroad fraternal benefit society and trade union in the 19th and 20th centuries. The organization began in 1873 as the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen (B of LF), a mutual benefit society for workers employed as firemen for steam locomotives, before expanding its name in 1907 in acknowledgement that many of its members had been promoted to the job of railroad engineer. Gradually taking on the functions of a trade union over time, in 1969 the B of LF&E merged with three other railway labor organizations to form the United Transportation Union. In 1969, the union merged with the Order of Railway Conductors and Brakemen, the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen and the Switchmen’s Union of North America to form the United Transportation Union.

fn(2) B of LF&E Archive Sources:

fn(3): Originally published in the “Radio News,” copy write:

(a) December 1929

(b) November 1930

(c) December 1930

(d) March 1931

(e) April 1931

fn(4) GE Company, Schenectady, NY