September 1930 Radio-Craft
[Table of Contents]
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics.
See articles from Radio-Craft,
published 1929 - 1953. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.
Ernst Frederick Werner Alexanderson (1878-1975) might not seem
overly familiar to you, but he is credited with designing the first
high frequency alternator for transmitting longwave audio modulation
over long distances. His device preceded the spark and arc type
transmitters that infamously spewed harmonics and noise all over
the spectrum and were therefore a great nuisance when broadcast
at high power levels. It was a relatively (for the time) narrowband
scheme that permitted more stations to be co-located in a given
service area. He went on the develop one of the first successful
television projectors as well. Read a short biography on Mr. Alexanderson
in the "Men Who Have Made Radio" series by 1930 edition of Radio-Craft
See other "Men Who Made Radio" :
Reginald A. Fessenden,
Georg von Arco,
Men Who Have Made Radio - E. F. W. Alexanderson
The Twelfth of a Series
Radio, beneath its innumerable applications, has the fundamental
basis of electrical engineering. The latter term may have seemed,
oftentimes, a trifle too stately when it was applied to the design
of a device of power so low and mechanical structure so simple as
that of the earliest radio receiving sets; but the problems of long-distance
and commercial radio transmission involve tasks of consummate engineering
as well as delicate electrical balancing. It is not enough to perceive
clearly radio's fundamental principles; it is necessary to create
machinery for their application. Such has been pre-eminently the
work of the distinguished electrical engineer pictured here.
Ernst F. W. Alexanderson was born January 25, 1878, in the ancient
city of Upsala, in Sweden. His early mechanical bent was encouraged
by his father, a professor of classical languages, and he was sent
to the Royal Technical University of Stockholm. After post-graduate
technological work in Berlin, the young engineer determined to pursue
his profession in America. Here, in 1902, he entered the drafting
department of the General Electric works at Schenectady; and after
two years, won a place on the engineering staff, to the top of which
he proceeded to climb rapidly.
Alexanderson soon made his impression on the whole field of electrical
motor design and allied machinery. The New Haven railroad undertook
electrification, and he designed the single-phase motor for this
work. For other purposes, he created the self-exciting alternator,
high-voltage D.C. motors, high-voltage synchronous converters, variable-speed
induction motors of great power, whose application to the battleship
New Mexico marked a revolution in naval design.
Perhaps the best known, however, of his accomplishments in this
type of machinery is the invention of the high-frequency alternator;
the repercussions of which were more than nationwide. For many years
the spark method of radio transmission reigned, until it was threatened
by the arc; yet neither of these met the rising demands of radio
communication. The idea of creating a generator which should develop
radio frequencies, as ordinary machinery does sixty-cycle current,
had been more than once suggested. The problem of practicable design,
however, seemed insoluble until Alexanderson was successful. A new
and striking element was introduced into overseas communication;
and to it the inventor added the magnetic amplifier and the multiple
tuned antenna, the last perhaps the most important from the standpoint
of permanent addition to the radio art.
The rivalry between transoceanic communication systems reached
the point when a consolidation of American electrical companies
and "wireless" systems was formed, on the suggestion of the late
Admiral Bullard, in order to maintain ownership of over-sea "ether
lanes" in American hands. Dr. Alexanderson was appointed the first
chief engineer of the Radio Corporation, to effect the systematization
of its assembled constituents, and the extension of its facilities.
"Radio Central," that marvelous linking of the communication offices
in New York to the transmitters and receivers, some of them hundreds
of miles away was the result. Today telegraph, telephone, and even
pictorial messages go out to all quarters of the world, from controls
a continent away from the sending aerial.
It was not alone on the large scale that the engineer worked,
however. He had to make practical huge generators, and great antenna
systems which multiplied the certainty of reception a thousand-fold;
but the same researches were to make their mark on home radio devices.
Not only did he work on vacuum-tube amplification and modulation
for transmission, but his system of tuned radio-frequency reception
forms the fundamental patents for the modern radio receiver. By
solving the problem of selectivity, it made broadcast reception
possible in a zone where broadcasters by the score are competing
for the public ear. One of his earliest studies in radio was the
problem of the behavior of iron in a magnetic field alternating
at radio frequencies and of dielectric hysteresis. One of the by-products
of the invention of the alternator is that of the cored high-frequency
Not only did the work of Dr. Alexanderson command the respect
of his profession, but also the honors, first of the gold medal
of the Institute of Radio Engineers, and then of the presidency
of that organization in 1921.
In recent years, the most striking of his developments, as chief
consulting engineer of the General Electric Company, have been those
in the field of television, where he has been steadily building
up a technique which seems now, for the first time, to bring sight-at-a-distance
out of the laboratory and into commercial possibility. Two years
ago, he took television apparatus out of the huge laboratories and
set it down in the home; where representatives of the press and
public were admitted to see moving images in the little screens
of receivers which differed apparently in no other manner from those
in their own houses.
This was followed by the public exhibition of television images,
almost full size, to the thousands who visited the radio world's
fair in New York that year. Those faint, flickering, but unmistakable
shadow shapes seemed to bid their watchers wait yet a little longer,
and television would be here.
The laboratory of such an inventor is no unobtrusive table in a
corner; he who works on a huge scale must have adequate tools. A
workbench ninety feet long, lining one side of a lofty room, down
the center of which runs a traveling crane; dynamos, generators
and the appliances of science on every hand; draftsmen and observers
busy everywhere with measurements, sketches and calculations-so
an eyewitness sees the sanctum where Dr. Alexanderson presides.
Out of this workshop, a few days ago, came another surprise for
the world. The television projector (pictured and described in the
previous issue of Radio-Craft) threw upon the screen of a theater,
in the view of thousands, moving figures far larger than life, in
detail better than ever. The engineer, whose life task has been
to make large bodies move faster, has accomplished the same feat
with even those incorporeal, phantom reflections of distant actors
which he threw into the ether, and caught from it again.
Television had at last turned the corner!
Posted November 19, 2015