November 19th, 2012

Copyright 1997 IEEE. Reprinted with permission from the IEEE publication, “Scanning the Past” which covers a reprint of an article appearing in the Proceedings of the IEEE Vol. 85, No. 12, July 1997.

Alien B. DuMont: A Pioneer in Electronic Instruments, Radio, and Television

Sixty-five years ago this month, the proceedings of the institute of radio engineers (IRE) included a paper by Alien B. DuMont reporting on “An Investigation of Various Electrode Structures of Cathode Ray Tubes Suitable for Television Reception” (Fig. 1). At the time, he was an independent consulting engineer with a small private laboratory (Fig. 2). During his long career as an engineer-inventor and entrepreneur, he made significant contributions to ‘instrumentation as well as to radio and television com­munication. He became known for his advocacy of flexible standards in television as being less apt to inhibit innovation than the fixed standards actually adopted in 1941.

The son of an executive with a clock company, DuMont was born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1901. As a child, he was afflicted with polio, which left him with a permanent physical handicap. He became a radio amateur at an early age and worked as a wireless operator on ships during summers while still in school. He graduated in electrical engineering from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1924. Following graduation, he worked for about four years in a vacuum-tube manufacturing plant in Bloomfield, NJ, and received several patents related to the testing and production of radio tubes. In 1928, he joined the de Forest Radio Company in Passaic, NJ, as chief engineer, and continued to work on the design and manufacture of electronic tubes. In collaboration with L. de Forest, DuMont helped design an experimental television station using a mechanical scanning disk. In July 1931, he published a paper in Radio Engineering on practical aspects of a television system.

When the de Forest Radio Company was acquired by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in 1931, DuMont set up a small laboratory in the basement of his home, where he began developmental work on cathode-ray tubes for possible use in television receivers. This led to the publication of his December 1932 IRE paper, in which he discussed differences between cathode-ray tubes intended for use in television as opposed to oscilloscopes. During this period, he supplemented his income by serving as an expert witness in patent litigation and as a consultant. He was elected a Fellow of the IRE in 1931 and later became a Fellow of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE) as well.

In 1932, DuMont invented the so-called “magic eye,” an electronic tube that proved quite useful as a visual tuning aid in radio receivers. It featured a small display that could be altered by a voltage such as that produced by an automatic-volume control circuit. He sold the rights of this invention to RCA, which developed commercial magic-eye tubes such as the 6E5. DuMont also invented a “cathautograph” or “electronic pencil,” which enabled one to write on the screen of a cathode-ray tube with a special long-persistence coating. He published a paper on this device in Electronics in January 1933.

In 1934, DuMont incorporated his laboratory as the Alien B. DuMont Laboratories and moved it into a building formerly used as a pickle factory in Passaic, NJ. There, he began to produce and market cathode-ray oscilloscopes and achieved sales of more than $100000 by 1937. Many of the instruments were acquired by engineering schools for use in teaching and research. In 1938, Paramount Pictures invested in the DuMont Labs, enabling renewed work on electronic television systems. DuMont became an outspo-

ken critic of television standards proposed by the Radio Manufacturers Association (RMA) in 1939 (Fig. 3). Instead of fixed standards, he favored “continuous flexibility” in parameters such as the scanning rate. He believed that the RMA-recommended standards would tend to stagnate engineering design and inhibit needed enhancement of picture quality. He did serve as a member of the Na­tional Television Systems Committee, which formulated the standards ultimately adopted and approved by the Federal Communication Commission in April 1941. His recommen­dations were rejected as likely to increase receiver cost and complexity of operation.

During 1941, DuMont initiated television broadcasting over station W2XWV (later WABD) in New York City. The same year, he received licenses to operate stations in Passaic, NJ, and Washington, D.C. He served as the first president of the Television Broadcasters Association in 1943. During World War II, the DuMont Labs produced instruments (Fig. 4), radar, and navigational equipment for the military services. After the war, the DuMont Television Network was formed, linking stations owned by DuMont with numerous affiliated stations. DuMont also manufac­tured television receivers until 1958, when this business

was sold to the Emerson Radio and Phonograph Company (Fig. 5). In 1960, DuMont Labs merged with the Fairchild Camera and Instrument Company, with DuMont himself becoming a senior consultant to Fairchild, He received the unusual distinction of being elected an Honorary Member of the AIEE in 1961. He died in November 1965 at age 64.

James E. Brittain


Entry Filed under: History of Electrical Engineering


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