The Importance of Electronics


By WALTER R. G. BAKER, D.Sc., Vice-President, General Electric Co.

Delivered at "World of Tomorrow" Dinner, Sponsored by the Allied Store Corporation,New York City, February 24, 1944

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. X, pp. 414-416.

DURING the last few years and particularly since we have been at war, millions of words have been printed and spoken on the subject of electronics. Although engineers, scientists, writers and businessmen have tried to be informative, it is highly probable that some confusion on the subject of electronics still remains. This evening I wished again that I might have an electron for you to see. As a matter of fact—I would like to see one myself.

Of course, no real scientist will give up hope of one day being able to see an electron. Scientists do, however, have a very good idea of the size of an electron and perhaps I can best transmit to you their ideas by a simple illustration.

If the water goblet on the table in front of you were filled with water, it would contain something like 20 million, million, million, million atoms. This means that if each atom itself were the size of this glass of water and all were strung out end to end, you could set out in an automobile and, traveling at a speed of about 60 miles an hour, it would take you 1,500 trillion years before you reached the end of the road of atoms. Now, if any one of these atoms were the size of your glass of water, each electron would still be but an infinitesimal speck.

Today, science knows that atoms are composed of a nucleus of protons and neutrons, and perhaps other particles —with anywhere from 1 to 92 electrons whirling around the outside of the nucleus—at about 20,000 miles a second, and all minding their own business.

The trick in the science of electronics is to free the electrons from the atom and turn them to our own uses. We can free electrons in three ways.

First, we can knock them out of atoms by violent impact from high-speed electrons, protons and neutrons. This is the method of the atom-smasher, a giant machine that acts like a big gun, but shoots very small bullets at very high speeds. With this method of transmutation it has been found possible to produce such useful things as radio-active iron, iodine and phosphorous. These may sound like small end-products to come from atom-smashing, but they stand as amazing achievements in terms of man's search for mastery over the fundamental forces. You will hear more of the atom-smasher in years to come.

Second, we can free electrons from atoms by bombarding them with forms of wave energy, such as light rays.

And thirdly, we may free electrons by means of heat. In the science of electronics the heat method is presently the most important. The heat method of freeing electrons is used in millions of electronic tubes such as those in your radio. The heat generated in the hot filament wire actually boils out the electrons in much the same way that steam is boiled out of a kettle of water.

The most important tool in the business end of electronics is the electronic tube, and in answer to many industrial problems it has been developed in many forms. Essentially She electronic tube is a glass or metal tube containing a vacuum or a slight quantity of gas. When you connect an electronic tube into an electrical circuit, you break the circuit or wire, leaving a gap between the two ends inside the tube. In order to complete the circuit again you can make a stream of free electrons Mow across the gap. In many electronic tubes you will find in this gap an electrical Spigot, with which you can control the flow of current through the circuit, much as a valve controls the flow of water through a pipe.

. . . Electrons are not new. They are as old as the universe, For millions upon millions of years they have been milling about as basic material in everything you can think of. But nobody did anything about them; it was like the weather. Only within the last few years have we isolated the electron and put it to work. The science of the electron at work for Ban is called electronics . . . and the growing evidence is that this new science will transform the world as we know it.

The reason why you can accomplish seemingly magical things with electronic tubes is this: during the split millionth of a second when the electric current is a flow of free electrons in the tube, you can control this current with a degree of ease, speed, and precision that is impossible when the electrons are imprisoned in the wire—and all without mechanical movement, noise or vibration.

Electronic equipment has been especially designed to stop a pair of giant-driven shears from accidentally clipping off the hand of a careless workman trimming sheet metal to size.

Certainly nothing is more important in our industrial war effort than protecting the men for whom directly or indirectly we intend the benefits of the machine. Yet more than 37,000 industrial workers lost their lives in the first two years of this war—more than the military dead. More than 200,000 men were permanently disabled. Accidents cost employers more than $30 per year per worker employed. High as this total is, electronics has kept it from being higher, and—I want to emphasize this point—an imaginative use of electronics in the future can do much to reduce this daily tragedy.

Now, what is electronics doing in the war and on the production front? Whenever anti-aircraft fire brings downan enemy plane, on every bombing mission, on every U-boat hunt, and as the nerve center of every unit of our battle fleet, electronic equipment is playing an important and leading role.

The magnetic wire-recorder is one important example of electronics at war. While I haven't brought an electron for you to see, I have brought along a magnetic-wire recorder. The magnetic-wire recorder is an extraordinary new device with which the armed forces now are recording, on wire, continuous one hour on-the-spot accounts of battle action.

But suppose I let the wire recorder say a few words for itself . . .

"Thank you, Dr. Baker I shall be glad to. I may add that the armed forces also use me to record observations and instructions too secret to be entrusted to radio, and these then can be dropped by airplane pilots to their headquarters. I can be connected to plane, tank, and warship intercommunication systems, and record all messages and orders. I can record instructions issued during training flights. Your own imagination will suggest a hundred ways I can be used in peace time.

"How do I work? First of all, the sound waves on your voice are fed into electronic tubes that operate a special magnetic recording-head, which you can see between my two spools.

"On my spool at the left is wound about two miles of very fine wire. This wire is wound off the spool at the left, through the recording-head where it is charged with a magnetic pattern of voice or sound, and on to the spool at the right. Re-wound on to the spool at the left, the recording is ready to be reproduced.

"Experimental recordings on wire have been played more than 100,000 times. Yet my magnetic eraser can easily wipe the message off any part of the wire, should you want to make a correction. Or my magnetic eraser can quickly wipe the entire recording off the wire so that it is ready to use again. And this procedure can be repeated over and over. "That's my story in brief. You'll hear much more about me when the war is over" . . . .

In our great airplane plants electronic welding machines "sew" airplane parts together faster and stronger than ever before—at about 1,800 electronic stitches a minute.

The radio waves sent out by special electronic equipment heat metals and plastics, perform spot-welding and glue plywood together in a matter of minutes where it used to take hours and even days. We are now able to apply electronic heating over any area desired from a spot no larger than a speck of dust to a square foot or a square yard.

When the Japs swarmed over Malaya, our tin supply became critical but we put electronics to work—with the result that electronic high-frequency heating now "flows" the tin over the steel—faster, better and with much more saving of tin than ever before. By electronic equipment it is now possible, profitably, to extract tin from ore containing as little as one half of one percent of the metal.

Large amounts of plywood are used is the manufacture of certain types of planes and gliders for the air force. Electronic devices bond plywood propellers with "deep" heat, completing them in minutes instead of days, and resulting in propellers 18 times stronger than steel. It is easy to visualize that there will be hundreds of applications which soon may result from this electronic development.

Today, it is perfectly possible to open your doors, cook your food, heat your house and do many other such little specific jobs, but I hope you will give greater consideration to electronic applications which, after the war. will contribute more rapid and important developments to our industrial and economic progress.

Electronic devices inspect and control molding of plastics and insure the uniformity of the product. They control the textile machinery that weaves your draperies, your clothes and other fabrics. They do a quicker and better job of packaging breakfast cereals, canning, sorting, preparing, processing and inspecting of foods.

Electronic devices are built to eliminate foreign materials, start, stop and control machines of industry, level and control elevators and compare and select the colors of fabrics, paints and even cosmetics.

Electronic devices do all of these and thousands of other jobs better and more reliably than they have ever been done before.

Electronic devices, in most cases, do them more efficiently and more economically.

Airplane plants, chemical plants, ship yards, steel mills, all use DC power. And many of them tap the AC power lines with electronic equipment that converts AC to DC without rotating machinery.

Outside hundreds of American war plants stand invisible guards with arms that encircle the grounds. An arm of light from a photo-tube makes contact with another tube anywhere from one foot to blocks away and any interruption of the beam sounds an alarm.

Electronic devices also have been designed to serve as invisible guards in banks, providing protection against hold-ups.

Because of electronics, skips are being sailed through fog, and docked, with less danger of collision and damage. The depth of the ocean can be automatically and accurately measured.

You have all read of the recent uses and extraordinary results in the war obtained by the now famous radio locators, The post-war application of this electronic development may well stagger the imagination.

An interesting application of electronics is that of dust precipitation . . . Inside and outside our factories, the air we breathe has been and still is too generously mixed with billowing clouds of smoke, fumes, carbon, oil mist, and a score of other industry-born by-products that are harmful to both man and his machines.

The cost of this "smog" is being found too heavy. It shuts out sunlight, cuts down health, cuts down profits and in some cases shuts down machines. In many plants an efficient answer to the problem has been an electronic precipitator. This is an electric device which charges the dust with one kind of electricity and at the same time charges a metal surface so that the dust is irresistibly drawn to this metal surface. By means of such electric "fly paper" some manufacturers are removing from the air abrasive particles as small as 1/2,500,000ths of an inch, and thus protecting for one thing, delicate machinery. In some plants, as much as 100 gallons of oil a day are being removed from the air by this electronic process.

It is perfectly possible to prophesy that a day may arrive when electronic precipitation will be used in homes to keep them dust free.

Using a similar principle, that is, that positive and negative charges attract each other, an electronic device is in operation which charges paint with a negative electrical charge, and a surface to be painted with a positive charge. The paint literally flies to the positively charged surface and sticks there.

Electrons are also fighting fire. In many buildings a tireless electronic "fire-warden" stands guard 24 hours a day.

If an unseen pile of rags should ignite spontaneously, or insulation begin to smolder, the electronic "fire-warden" literally smells the smoke and sounds an alarm.

New ore and petroleum deposits are being discovered through electronics, and users report that it is turning in a much more satisfactory performance than previous methods.

By now you may have heard about the new electron microscope which gives a magnification of about 30,000 to 40,000 diameters, as compared with the 2,500 diameters of the ordinary light microscope. With the electron microscope, scientists utilize something much more penetrating than light. As its name implies, they use an electron. By flooding what we want to see with electrons, we are able to penetrate new horizons never before explored by man. For example, the electron microscope has revealed that smoke is composed of various crystal shaped particles. The structure of metals, papers, chemicals, synthetics and other materials have been studied. Viruses in the human body hitherto invisible under the most powerful optical microscope are now being photographed and studied. In fact, history and medicine alike stand to benefit greatly by the introduction of the electron microscope.

Electronics already is doing many things in the field of medicine. In addition to the electron microscope, there is an electronic instrument called the electrocardiograph which draws a clear, detailed graph of the heart action.

Another electronic application is the electro encephalograph which is being designed to record the minute electrical currents generated by the brain.

In terms of human welfare, one of the most significant of all electronic developments is the X-ray, X-ray is also being used industrially to peer into and through six and eight inches of steel in the search for hidden flaws.

Only a few months ago, for the first time in the history of science, hundred million volt X-rays were produced in one of the great electronic laboratories of the country. What this will mean in the future to you and me can only be guessed.

Through the use of electronically created sound above the hearing range of the human ear, we may destroy harmful bacteria, and thereby improve health. Electronics may become widely used by commercial farmers, packers and canners, to detect foreign materials in canning and bottling processes and to sort their fruits and vegetables. We may conquer the insects and perennial plagues that every year destroy hundreds of millions of bushels of grain. As a matter of fact, X-ray examination of oranges in one season recently saved California fruit packers some $7,000,000.

We may yet be served nutritious food that has been long preserved in a healthful state because its enzymes have been deactivized by means of electrons.

The future-will undoubtedly bring an increased development of facsimile reproduction. The time may come when you will "close the deal" by means of facsimile reproduction of signed letters and orders across a thousand miles of space. It is common knowledge that every day hundreds of news photos are transmitted by radio facsimile.

I could cite many more ways in which the electron has been harnessed but I think that you have now at least a speaking acquaintance with the electrons, and have a fair idea of how science, industry, and medicine are putting the electron to work.

As to the future, I think we are entitled to expect an increased use of electronics in most, if not all, of the specific applications I have described, and in all of the general categories of application I have mentioned.

I think you may yet see such dramatic and useful electronic inventions as a device to prevent automobiles and trains from passing stop signals.

No doubt, you have been wanting to hear something in the way of a forecast on post-war radio and television. When post-war radio hits its stride we are going to have programs of higher fidelity and lower noise level as a result of a new type of broadcasting system. I think we can count on a sizeable increase in the number of international short wave Stations, and a big boost in their power.

The most significant radio development in the last two decades has been the introduction of Frequency Modulation broadcasting just prior to this war. Frequency Modulation, or FM as it is" called, is a new kind of radio wave. It reduces static to the vanishing point and provides a high fidelity "full color" reproduction of music and speech impossible to get with present day radio. Furthermore, it opens the field for several thousand additional broadcasting stations in the United States—all broadcasting without interfering with one another. It is probable that any community that now has a daily newspaper will eventually have FM broadcasting facilities also.

Unless I am far wide of the mark, the advantage offered the listener by FM will eventually obsolete the 60,000,000 radio sets now in American homes.

Certainly, television will come after the war. How soon cannot be stated definitely. It will not blossom nationwide St once, since first a large investment must he made in television transmitters and in a system of television transmission for network televising. Whether the network will Use radio, coaxial cable, or wave guides depends upon many factors. The problems will be solved, but some time will be needed to line up both economic and network technical factors.

When it does come, the television picture of both indoor and outdoor scenes will be clear and pleasing, and without disturbing streak, flicker or distortion. Picture and sound will, of course, be combined.

In the post-war period people will surely have the finest radio and television systems that ever have been projected as a result of continuing electronic developments.

Radio is a scientific electronic development, produced and marketed by business. Sales of radio sets in 1921 totaled $9,000,000. Not a bad business for one year. A lot of people enjoyed listening to those early sets. And a lot of people had good-paying jobs making those sets. 16 years later—in 1937—radio set sales were $500,000,000. And in 1941 radio had become another $1,000,000,000 American business, providing jobs for scores of thousands of men, and providing entertainment for millions.

When business and science finally team up after the war, electronics will play an important role in providing new jobs for our returning boys. What radio alone has done in the last two decades gives us good reason to expect equally as much from the thousand and one electronic applications which this great new science will develop.

Electronics is here . . . New . . . Growing . . . Versatile . . . Fundamental. You can properly have an interest in what electrons are doing, for they are part of the atoms and molecules that make up matter itself. As aptly expressed to a recent article entitled "The Electrical Basis of Life": "Matter is matter, wherever it is found. The carbon, iron, hydrogen, and oxygen that make up water, air and the earth are the same carbon, iron, hydrogen and oxygen that make up you and me—all a marvellously balanced system of electrical energy.  And when we again take up our peacetime jobs, electrons will be ready to help us build that better world.