When I was doing graduate work at the University of Pittsburgh
another graduate student was Donald Koontz. Don’s wife Emma
was a nurse at Magee Hospital, where she met Vicki, who was
working on her B.S. degree in nursing education at Pitt. Vicki
was having trouble with chemistry and Don suggested that I tutor
her. Don was a take-charge kind of guy and loved to organize
picnics and other outings that also served to bring the nurse and
her tutor together in social settings. I was a flop as a tutor but
did manage to convince Vicki to marry me. We were married in
Cleveland, where I worked at NACA (now NASA) and she
worked at Crile Veterans Hospital.
After a brief stint teaching at a university in Illinois, Don moved
to Bell Labs. He was the one who invited me for an interview,
which resulted in a job offer and a career at Bell Labs of over 36
years. During that time, Don and Emma were our best friends
and we ended up living only a few blocks from each other. Don
became a department head at Bell Labs and, when the title of
Distinguished Member of Technical Staff was created, he
successfully nominated me to be among the first to receive that
honor. You can see that he played seminal roles in both my
personal and professional lives. Emma passed away in 1990 and
last week Don joined her.
As with many of my former colleagues at Bell Labs, Don also
played a role in your life, albeit indirectly. For example, you
probably take for granted the reports via satellite from all over
the world on the evening news programs. The first active
communications satellite was Telstar, born at Bell Labs and
launched in 1962. Don and his group were involved in
qualifying and testing the rechargeable nickel-cadmium battery
flown on Telstar. This battery was charged in orbit by some
3600 solar cells, invented at Bell Labs in the 1950s. Telstar
followed the launching in 1960 of the passive satellite Echo,
which was just a large plastic balloon.
Whereas Echo served only to reflect and relay signals, Telstar
had the smarts to process, amplify and re-transmit signals. It was
a huge success, as hundreds of millions of people all over the
world saw it transmit the first transatlantic TV signals. Telstar
prompted musical compositions by rock and pop groups and
even Duke Ellington. Although it only was in service for a year,
Telstar paved the way for the multitude of commercial and
military communications satellites that are orbiting or have
orbited our planet. Today, most of us have gotten used to the
time delay between question and answer that is a characteristic of
The nickel-cadmium battery in Telstar did its job in orbit. But
Don played a role in another area of power that plays a more
down to earth role in your lives. When your electrical power
goes out, you may reach for the phone to call neighbors to see if
they’re experiencing the same outage or to call the power
company to report the outage. If that power outage also hit your
phone company, your phone is working thanks to lead-acid
batteries that back up the power to the phone system until
generators can be brought on line. Chances are good that these
batteries are what we knew as “round cells”.
Don and his very capable colleagues at Bell Labs invented the
round cell in response to problems with the conventional lead-
acid batteries of the time. Fires in remote locations in the old
Bell System were traced to acid leaking from cracked batteries.
The round cells were designed to avoid such problems and also
to provide a significantly longer life in service than the earlier
batteries. A major effort was launched to develop the round cell
batteries, which were first installed in the Bell System about 30
years ago. These batteries are still being manufactured and some
have logged three decades in service ensuring your capability to
Electroplating is another area in which Don played a significant
role. If you’ve ever looked at the innards of a telephone,
computer or any electronic device you will have seen the printed
circuit boards upon which are mounted the transistors and other
electrical components. The many gold-plated connectors and
paths that serve as wires connecting the different devices may
have impressed you. Western Electric, the manufacturing arm of
the old Bell System, made the devices and circuit boards for the
phone system. The plating operations were being done the old-
fashioned way, hand carrying the boards to different plating
baths to accomplish that phase of the operation.
Don played a key role in convincing Western that they should
automate all the plating operations in one machine and that they
should pay for its development. Don’s department undertook the
job of making such a machine. Four of them were constructed at
Bell Labs and then delivered to Western Electric plants in Dallas,
Kansas City and Omaha. The machines combine electroplating
and electropolishing operations and both gold- and nickel-
plating. You may have printed circuit boards in your home that
were plated using these very machines, especially if you’re of the
generations that still have phones with cords and can remember
that there once was a Bell System.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Don’s passion for making
fine furniture, of which we have several examples in our home.
He spent most of his evenings in his basement workshop turning
out works of utility and beauty. Before our town went the
recycling way where you dump everything into a hole, we had a
real dump. Don would spend weekends picking up discarded
furniture and restoring it to its original condition, or better.
I will close with an example of either Don’s keen sense of
observation or his utter recklessness – I’ve never figured out
which. When we were students, we were invited out to the home
of one of our professors, who lived in a suburb of Pittsburgh,
possibly Mt. Lebanon. Don suggested that a few of us students
go for a hike and explore the area. We came to a railroad bridge
crossing over a highway. There were two tracks. Don started to
walk across the bridge on one of the tracks.
Like utter idiots, we followed. I said he was a leader. Sure
enough, we’re on the bridge and a train comes barreling towards
us! Thankfully for all of us, the train was on the other track!
While the rest of us were terrified, Don maintained his cool and
stated that he knew any trains would be on the other track. Why?
Our track was rusty, while the other track was shiny. Obviously,
both would have been shiny if trains ran on both of them. Over
50 years later, I still shudder when I think of the experience and
wonder if Don’s bit of logic stood on firm ground.
Whatever the answer, I’m forever grateful that Don picked the
rusty track. Thank you, Don!
Allen F. Bortrum