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Issue #16: Traits and Common Threads Across Radio Innovation

By Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

Traits and Common Threads Across Radio Innovation


My father first got me interested in reading about inventors, although I had to view this only as a topic for study while he got to work with them daily in his job at General Electric. But he taught me to learn from those books. Stories of the great innovators show you how some succeed in changing the world from their workshop; they can provide inspiration to get you past the hurdles you may find on your own path. I've found that sometimes you have to grit your teeth and dig in even further when you face a hurdle, as all of these innovators have done.


Dad worked for more than 40 years with the General Electric Company, and in the last decade of his career he ran the General Electric Lighting Institute located on the campus of the huge GE research complex, Nela Park (Cleveland, Ohio). Nela Park was arguably the first industrial research park in the world, built at the turn of the last century. This beautiful acreage and its collection of early 1900’s buildings remains a part of Cleveland area history, and many innovations came from inside those walls.


My father loved his work because the ghosts of brilliant people with wild ideas were all around him. His favorite was Thomas Edison, co-founder, whom he wrote about for the historical records of the company. As GE’s official Edison biographer, he always enjoyed researching a man whom he felt had impacted his life. Dad was an Electrical Engineer from Case Western Reserve, and after dinner we’d go to his workbench for lessons on the fabrication of gadgets of one kind or another . . . it’s where I built my first HeathKit, and where he helped me with various projects for school. This guy was a craftsman who could work with all kinds of tools, whether it be a soldering iron or a wood planer.


Unfortunately, I missed out on his creativity and handiwork genes. To say I wasn’t a star pupil is an understatement, but his disappointment never showed. He was a champion at supporting any interest his son showed in electronics, which is why I had such great shortwave listening gear at age 10 and later a beautiful amateur radio station as a young teen. Sure, I put my paper route money into it, but that didn’t cover those frequent trips to Lafayette Radio.


I begin this column with this biographical sketch because I think it’s important to know that I do not have an innovator’s brain or abilities. When innovations are discussed in Trials and Errors, you’ll know that you’re not reading about FT-8 in an article by Joe Taylor. Instead, I’ve studied innovation and innovators as an enthusiast. And being up in the stands looking down on the playing field can be an interesting place to write about this topic.


In my column today (and in a future Part Two as well) I’ll dissect the common elements of success for those who champion innovations. At the upcoming Hamvention, I’ll be presenting these to my audience with a bit more detail.


Two Common Threads Across Innovation


I’ve been a hired gun for decades, someone brought on board to identify and then recruit the best scientists or engineers -- people capable of innovation that can make or break a small company. I’ve been in so many biotech company board rooms that I can read off portfolios of prospective new hires without even looking at my PowerPoint slides. But even while my professional career deals primarily with the biological sciences – pharmaceuticals and agriculture – the skills and unique personalities of the “players” aren’t much different than those of the RF engineers who are designing tomorrow’s transceivers. There are common traits, leading to common experiences, across the careers of brilliant innovators despite the industry sector they come from.


That first and most important trait is Persistence. When Edison developed the electric light bulb, he had to identify the right material to use for the filament, something that would produce light over and over again and yet be "scalable" so that bulbs could be manufactured. Edison and his lab members went through hundreds and later thousands of materials, natural or man-made, and most "glowed" when given a shot of electricity. But it took more than 2500 attempts before the team found one that worked consistently. When later asked about his "failure" to find the right filament, he replied: "We didn't fail. The light bulb was simply an invention with thousands of steps." Let's face it -- people like Edison, or our radio innovators, were capable of much more than the rest of us despite negative results or naysayers. That's because they just don't give up.


This same "staying power" was also a key part of the journey that Guglielmo Marconi (photo below) took in developing radio. Prior to 1895, Marconi had been unable to get his transmissions to go further than 1/2 mile. His invention worked across his bedroom from one point to another, but when he moved his apparatus outside his signal would become inaudible at about the same point, no matter what he did. It led the British physicist, Sir Oliver Lodge, to forecast that radio waves were a curious phenomenon that had a maximum range of one-half mile! Years before Marconi's birth, an American dentist by the name of Mahlon Loomis proposed a system of "aerial telegraphy" but despite a patent he wasn't able to generate funds or enough enthusiasm from the American government to see the commercial prospects that Marconi's Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company eventually brought to the world. Marconi had the persistence to hang in there and take it to the next level.


Looking back on my interviews with innovators in these pages on QRZ, I think of Kenny Martinez, the founder of KM3KM Electronics, maker of the Mercury line of linear amplifiers and antenna tuners -- another fine example of persistence. Here's a fellow who spent his early years building radios in Cuba, and whose incredible passion for following that dream led him to the USA and to his own business. That company, thanks to the perseverance of Martinez, is now a major player in solid state amplifier design. Nothing gets an innovator further than the passion and persistence behind their vision of success. 


Long-Range Vision


Speaking of "vision," I'll introduce the second of my five traits here and refer to it as the capability for seeing much further down the road than the rest of us. Martin Jue, also interviewed in my column on QRZ, looked into the future as a young man and saw his business transforming the radio shacks of hams all over the world. He knew, even though he had only a few products for sale out of a rented hotel room, that one day his company would be something greater. He spent years ensuring this long-range vision came to fruition for MFJ.


As to historical examples, a great piece of long-range vision came at the time that David Sarnoff worked for the Marconi Company. He was hired as a messenger boy and made his way through the ranks due to his rough, competitive approach. But the key element for radio under Sarnoff was the long-range vision he had for radio to be something more than what Marconi's business had in mind. Radio had been a point-to-point medium until Sarnoff saw that it was a point-to-masses opportunity. Sarnoff had the vision to see what radio actually could mean to society as a broadcast medium. (The photo below has Sarnoff on the left, Marconi on the right).


I'm sure I'll take some flack in the attached Forum discussion for incorporating today's innovators such as Kenny or Martin into a discussion of historical innovations, because the jury is still out on the ultimate impact of their work. But I want to include them and also those who we don't even know yet . . .  engineers working away at an idea, either with a major company or in their own lab or garage. It's so exciting to watch where innovations spring up. In a future Trials and Errors, I'll point out the remaining three traits we find in innovators, both past and present.


73 for now, and please don't forget to look at Short Takes #8 in the Trials and Errors index, for this week's product reviews!





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Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

Dave Jensen, W7DGJ, was first licensed in 1966. Originally WN7VDY (and later WA7VDY), Dave operated on 40 and 80 meter CW with a shack that consisted primarily of Heathkit equipment. Dave loved radio so much he went off to college to study broadcasting and came out with a BS in Communications from Ohio University (Athens, OH). He worked his way through a number of audio electronics companies after graduation, including the professional microphone business for Audio-Technica.  He was later licensed as W7DGJ out of Scottsdale, Arizona, where he ran an executive recruitment practice (CareerTrax Inc.) for several decades. Jensen has published articles in magazines dealing with science and engineering. His column “Tooling Up” ran for 20 years in the website of the leading science journal, SCIENCE, and his column called “Managing Your Career” continues to be a popular read each month for the Pharmaceutical and Household Products industries in two journals published by Rodman Publishing.

Articles Written by Dave Jensen, W7DGJ

This page was last updated April 23, 2023 17:26