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08/10/2005

Membership Applications

Longtime readers may recall that I was heavily involved in
editing and writing a centennial history of The Electrochemical
Society (ECS), which in 2002 celebrated the 100th anniversary
of its founding. Since then, I’ve been the historian of ECS but
had not done a bit of work to justify that title until recently, when
I joined two of my centennial colleagues in going through old
ECS files dating back to 1903. Our task was to see if there were
any gems among the many membership applications contained in
the files.

I was hoping that we might find Thomas Edison’s application but
someone must have beaten us to it. One application, dated April
21, 1922, did grab my attention. The application was from
Ernest A. Vuilleumier, who was then head of the Department of
Chemistry at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Well,
Vuilleumier not only taught me inorganic and organic chemistry
when I attended Dickinson from 1943 to 1946, but his courses
reinforced my decision to major in chemistry though I had not
taken chemistry in high school. I even did some honors work in
organic chemistry under his direction. (I later grew to hate
organic chemistry. However, today, as I’ve often stated in these
columns, I stand in awe at what organic and biochemists have
accomplished.)

I still remember Vuilleumier’s classic demonstration of the
difference between hydrochloric acid and concentrated sulfuric
acid. He filled two large beakers with the acids and proceeded to
dip his hands into the beaker containing the hydrochloric acid.
After washing and drying his hands, he proceeded NOT to dip
his hands in the sulfuric acid! I don’t recommend that you dip
your hands in either acid and you would certainly regret dipping
them in the concentrated sulfuric, which has a major affinity for
picking up water. The effect would be somewhat akin to
charring your hands over an open flame.

I saw an article in the Star Ledger this week that reminded me of
one of Vuilleumier’s inventions. The Ledger article pertained to
the Breathalyzer used by police to test drivers suspected of
having imbibed too much. I remembered that Vuilleumier was
also interested in alcohol and found on the Dickinson Web site
that in 1923 he invented the Dickinson Alcometer, a device used
by the Feds in Prohibition days to determine accurately the
alcohol content of illegal booze. I also found that Vuilleumier
died in 1958 in the chemistry stockroom while preparing for his
chemistry class. I envision that he might have been picking up
some bottles of hydrochloric and sulfuric acids.

In searching through the ECS applications, I did find a gem of
more general interest, an application from Lee De Forest, who
listed his field as invention and research and his specialty as
electrical discharge in gases. De Forest accumulated over 300
patents in his lifetime, according to my 1962 World Book
Encyclopedia. One of these inventions, his “audion” tube, was
one of the most important inventions of the twentieth century. I
don’t recall the source but in one biography of De Forest on the
Web there’s a picture of De Forest with William Shockley, co-
inventor of the transistor. Not only were both the transistor and
the audion revolutionary inventions in the communications field
but the two devices were also quite similar in their principles and
applications. Both De Forest and Shockley were controversial
personalities of their times.

It’s hard for me to conceive that many readers may have never
seen a vacuum tube, except for the TV tube. Let’s see where De
Forest’s invention of the audion tube fits into the picture. Back
in 1904, British scientist John Fleming invented the vacuum tube
known as a diode. The diode was a glass tube into which were
sealed two electrodes; one electrode, the cathode, was like the
filament in a light bulb. When a current passed through the wire
it became hot, hot enough to drive electrons off the wire. The
other electrode was a cold metal plate, the anode. This cold
anode was charged positively. The positive electrode attracted
the negative electrons. The result was a current of electrons
passing through the tube from hot cathode to cold anode.

Fleming found that his diode could detect radio waves. When
the signal from an antenna was connected to the anode, the signal
would change the voltage on the anode. (The radio waves picked
up by the antenna go up and down in voltage, as does AC
alternating current.) The voltage changes on the anode either
attracted more electrons or repelled them, depending on the sign
of the voltage. As a result, the current varied, mimicking the
radio wave signal picked up by the antenna.

What De Forest did, in 1907, was to stick a third electrode
between the anode and the cathode. This third electrode was
called the “grid” and was typically either a metal screen or a coil
of thin wire. De Forest found that, by putting a voltage on this
grid, he could affect the amount of current going from the anode
to the cathode. The grid acted like a Venetian blind but, instead
of regulating light, the grid regulated the number of electrons
passing from the cathode to the anode. If the grid has a high
negative voltage it will repel the negatively charged electrons
(likes repel, opposites attract). If you lower the negative voltage,
more electrons will pass. De Forest called his tube the audion
tube; with its three electrodes, it was also known as a triode.

De Forest’s audion contained some gas, which he thought was
necessary. However, others demonstrated that it worked better if
it were really a vacuum tube, no gas. This was typical of De
Forest’s career. He came up with great ideas but, as one PBS
biography puts it, he spent his life “nearly getting it.” A major
example of nearly getting it, or getting it too late, was his idea of
“feedback” in 1912. If he fed the output signal of his audion
back into the input, he increased the strength of a transmitted
signal and it could be used in radio transmission. However, he
didn’t realize the importance of the idea, sat on it and didn’t
apply for a patent until 1915. However, a fellow named Edwin
Armstrong had already patented the idea. The audion and its
successors with more than three electrodes became the stalwarts
of the broadcasting industry.

Well, De Forest sued Armstrong and, in what must be one of the
longest patent suits in history, finally prevailed but it was 1934,
almost two decades later. Armstrong, the inventor of FM radio,
suffered not only that defeat but had endured other trials and
tribulations of his own and committed suicide. Despite De
Forest’s victory in the patent suit, those in the radio business still
credited Armstrong with the idea.

De Forest wasn’t above taking someone else’s idea, notably one
of a former colleague, who had the idea that sound could be
encoded on a filmstrip along with a motion picture. De Forest
tried to sell this idea to the cinema moguls of the time and got a
patent in 1924. But the moguls paid no heed and didn’t start
making sound movies until 1927 and they didn’t use the
approach championed by De Forest. However, later they did
switch to the sound on film idea he had suggested.

De Forest considered himself the father of radio and, indeed, in
1910, he made the first broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera,
of a performance by Enrico Caruso. He also started radio news
broadcasting in 1916 when he incorrectly reported the results of
a presidential election. He seems to have been way ahead of his
time in that respect! He had many failed business ventures and
marriages and never felt that he got his just recognition. He died
in 1961 and by then, especially having met with Shockley, must
have realized that the transistor was replacing his beloved
vacuum tube. The torch was passed.

What was the transistor? In an early form, say an n-p-n
transistor, there are three contacts to the three regions. One, the
“emitter” emits electrons, like the hot cathode in the audion.
Another contact, to the other n-region, is the “collector”, like the
cold cathode. The contact to the p region is the “base” and the
voltage on the base affects how many electrons flow from the
emitter to the collector. The base is similar in its function to De
Forest’s grid. The transistor amplifies a signal and performs the
same functions as the vacuum tube, only in a vastly smaller
space.

Shockley and his co-inventors, Brattain and Bardeen, didn’t
suffer from the “nearly getting it” syndrome. I think they “got it”
and their Bell Labs colleagues got it. However, Shockley did
leave Bell Labs and fail in a business venture and then went on to
become involved in controversial matters like donation of his
sperm to propagate genius and his proposals about race and
intelligence that aroused considerable hostility. On reflection, I
guess that all of us at Bell Labs didn’t “get it” in the matter of the
integrated circuit, which we discussed recently with the death of
Jack Kilby.

Oh, in case you were wondering, we pronounced Vuilleumier
VEE-you-may.

Allen F. Bortrum



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Dr. Bortrum

08/10/2005

Membership Applications

Longtime readers may recall that I was heavily involved in
editing and writing a centennial history of The Electrochemical
Society (ECS), which in 2002 celebrated the 100th anniversary
of its founding. Since then, I’ve been the historian of ECS but
had not done a bit of work to justify that title until recently, when
I joined two of my centennial colleagues in going through old
ECS files dating back to 1903. Our task was to see if there were
any gems among the many membership applications contained in
the files.

I was hoping that we might find Thomas Edison’s application but
someone must have beaten us to it. One application, dated April
21, 1922, did grab my attention. The application was from
Ernest A. Vuilleumier, who was then head of the Department of
Chemistry at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Well,
Vuilleumier not only taught me inorganic and organic chemistry
when I attended Dickinson from 1943 to 1946, but his courses
reinforced my decision to major in chemistry though I had not
taken chemistry in high school. I even did some honors work in
organic chemistry under his direction. (I later grew to hate
organic chemistry. However, today, as I’ve often stated in these
columns, I stand in awe at what organic and biochemists have
accomplished.)

I still remember Vuilleumier’s classic demonstration of the
difference between hydrochloric acid and concentrated sulfuric
acid. He filled two large beakers with the acids and proceeded to
dip his hands into the beaker containing the hydrochloric acid.
After washing and drying his hands, he proceeded NOT to dip
his hands in the sulfuric acid! I don’t recommend that you dip
your hands in either acid and you would certainly regret dipping
them in the concentrated sulfuric, which has a major affinity for
picking up water. The effect would be somewhat akin to
charring your hands over an open flame.

I saw an article in the Star Ledger this week that reminded me of
one of Vuilleumier’s inventions. The Ledger article pertained to
the Breathalyzer used by police to test drivers suspected of
having imbibed too much. I remembered that Vuilleumier was
also interested in alcohol and found on the Dickinson Web site
that in 1923 he invented the Dickinson Alcometer, a device used
by the Feds in Prohibition days to determine accurately the
alcohol content of illegal booze. I also found that Vuilleumier
died in 1958 in the chemistry stockroom while preparing for his
chemistry class. I envision that he might have been picking up
some bottles of hydrochloric and sulfuric acids.

In searching through the ECS applications, I did find a gem of
more general interest, an application from Lee De Forest, who
listed his field as invention and research and his specialty as
electrical discharge in gases. De Forest accumulated over 300
patents in his lifetime, according to my 1962 World Book
Encyclopedia. One of these inventions, his “audion” tube, was
one of the most important inventions of the twentieth century. I
don’t recall the source but in one biography of De Forest on the
Web there’s a picture of De Forest with William Shockley, co-
inventor of the transistor. Not only were both the transistor and
the audion revolutionary inventions in the communications field
but the two devices were also quite similar in their principles and
applications. Both De Forest and Shockley were controversial
personalities of their times.

It’s hard for me to conceive that many readers may have never
seen a vacuum tube, except for the TV tube. Let’s see where De
Forest’s invention of the audion tube fits into the picture. Back
in 1904, British scientist John Fleming invented the vacuum tube
known as a diode. The diode was a glass tube into which were
sealed two electrodes; one electrode, the cathode, was like the
filament in a light bulb. When a current passed through the wire
it became hot, hot enough to drive electrons off the wire. The
other electrode was a cold metal plate, the anode. This cold
anode was charged positively. The positive electrode attracted
the negative electrons. The result was a current of electrons
passing through the tube from hot cathode to cold anode.

Fleming found that his diode could detect radio waves. When
the signal from an antenna was connected to the anode, the signal
would change the voltage on the anode. (The radio waves picked
up by the antenna go up and down in voltage, as does AC
alternating current.) The voltage changes on the anode either
attracted more electrons or repelled them, depending on the sign
of the voltage. As a result, the current varied, mimicking the
radio wave signal picked up by the antenna.

What De Forest did, in 1907, was to stick a third electrode
between the anode and the cathode. This third electrode was
called the “grid” and was typically either a metal screen or a coil
of thin wire. De Forest found that, by putting a voltage on this
grid, he could affect the amount of current going from the anode
to the cathode. The grid acted like a Venetian blind but, instead
of regulating light, the grid regulated the number of electrons
passing from the cathode to the anode. If the grid has a high
negative voltage it will repel the negatively charged electrons
(likes repel, opposites attract). If you lower the negative voltage,
more electrons will pass. De Forest called his tube the audion
tube; with its three electrodes, it was also known as a triode.

De Forest’s audion contained some gas, which he thought was
necessary. However, others demonstrated that it worked better if
it were really a vacuum tube, no gas. This was typical of De
Forest’s career. He came up with great ideas but, as one PBS
biography puts it, he spent his life “nearly getting it.” A major
example of nearly getting it, or getting it too late, was his idea of
“feedback” in 1912. If he fed the output signal of his audion
back into the input, he increased the strength of a transmitted
signal and it could be used in radio transmission. However, he
didn’t realize the importance of the idea, sat on it and didn’t
apply for a patent until 1915. However, a fellow named Edwin
Armstrong had already patented the idea. The audion and its
successors with more than three electrodes became the stalwarts
of the broadcasting industry.

Well, De Forest sued Armstrong and, in what must be one of the
longest patent suits in history, finally prevailed but it was 1934,
almost two decades later. Armstrong, the inventor of FM radio,
suffered not only that defeat but had endured other trials and
tribulations of his own and committed suicide. Despite De
Forest’s victory in the patent suit, those in the radio business still
credited Armstrong with the idea.

De Forest wasn’t above taking someone else’s idea, notably one
of a former colleague, who had the idea that sound could be
encoded on a filmstrip along with a motion picture. De Forest
tried to sell this idea to the cinema moguls of the time and got a
patent in 1924. But the moguls paid no heed and didn’t start
making sound movies until 1927 and they didn’t use the
approach championed by De Forest. However, later they did
switch to the sound on film idea he had suggested.

De Forest considered himself the father of radio and, indeed, in
1910, he made the first broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera,
of a performance by Enrico Caruso. He also started radio news
broadcasting in 1916 when he incorrectly reported the results of
a presidential election. He seems to have been way ahead of his
time in that respect! He had many failed business ventures and
marriages and never felt that he got his just recognition. He died
in 1961 and by then, especially having met with Shockley, must
have realized that the transistor was replacing his beloved
vacuum tube. The torch was passed.

What was the transistor? In an early form, say an n-p-n
transistor, there are three contacts to the three regions. One, the
“emitter” emits electrons, like the hot cathode in the audion.
Another contact, to the other n-region, is the “collector”, like the
cold cathode. The contact to the p region is the “base” and the
voltage on the base affects how many electrons flow from the
emitter to the collector. The base is similar in its function to De
Forest’s grid. The transistor amplifies a signal and performs the
same functions as the vacuum tube, only in a vastly smaller
space.

Shockley and his co-inventors, Brattain and Bardeen, didn’t
suffer from the “nearly getting it” syndrome. I think they “got it”
and their Bell Labs colleagues got it. However, Shockley did
leave Bell Labs and fail in a business venture and then went on to
become involved in controversial matters like donation of his
sperm to propagate genius and his proposals about race and
intelligence that aroused considerable hostility. On reflection, I
guess that all of us at Bell Labs didn’t “get it” in the matter of the
integrated circuit, which we discussed recently with the death of
Jack Kilby.

Oh, in case you were wondering, we pronounced Vuilleumier
VEE-you-may.

Allen F. Bortrum