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1954, That Was a Very Good Year!

David W. Braudaway, PhD, LFIEEE
NCSLI Wildhack Award Recipient

Abstract: It was the author’s privilege to have been employed by NBS (NIST) Boulder in 1954 at the time of the dedication and to have had a small part in equipping the new facility and in arranging sound for the dedication. The story of how the sound system used in that dedication came to be has earned the delight of a number of those who have heard it. For the rededication this 2004, the author has chosen to write the story with a bit of explanation of the conditions of the area around the Boulder Laboratory and the status of electronics in general 50 years ago. Added are how the author came to be in Boulder and some of the interactions with those involved afterwards. From many aspects, 1954 was indeed a grand year.

1.  Introduction

For the author, 1954 was a year of grand events. On June 5th there was the graduation from the University of Colorado in Electrical Engineering. The author had been working part time at the Cryogenic Engineering Laboratory on the Boulder NBS campus beginning in May 1953 and, on graduation, began full time employment. On June 12th he and Caroline Paschal married; they met in freshman pep band the day before homecoming 1950 (Colorado lost to Oklahoma). On September 14th the Boulder NBS (NIST) site and the new Central Radio Propagation Laboratory CRPL) were dedicated; towards this event the author had some small assignments. After that grand event, a draft notice arrived, wow! Like the year 1954, the year 2004 is also a year of grand events, being the 50th anniversary of those events of 1954. The organization titles operative at NBS in 1954 have been used in this document but recognition of the many changes that have taken place is necessary; The National Bureau of Standards (NBS) became the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and many of its laboratory titles and affiliations also changed.

The history of those times is basis for some parts of the saga leading to NIST dedication and beyond. How the author came from a small town in western Nebraska to Colorado is a necessary part of the story. Beginning in 1944, while starting Junior High School and World War II yet raged, the author opened a radio repair shop which flourished. In addition he aided sound services at the local county fair, recorded High School performances and made records for sale to proud parents. In 1950 he received an honorable mention in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search on design of a high quality, recording amplifier which had many of the features prized today by those who prefer vacuum tube equipment. As a result, the author received the first Engineering Experiment Station Scholarship, which made University of Colorado the preferred choice.

2. Employment at the NBS

The author’s assignment at the NBS Cryogenic Engineering Laboratory was in calibrating vacuum gages and in designing and building vacuum monitoring and control equipment. Management had learned of his electronic repair and experience with sound; he was asked to look at the emergency annunciating system in the Cryogenic Liquification Building which had not performed satisfactorily and defied repair. A quick trip down the new highway 36 to Denver for a single resistor led to a successful repair; ah, one can go far on a very small success. Soon, the new CRPL was being built and there were assignments towards equipping the auditorium and meeting rooms; in addition there was assignment for the sound needed for the dedication of the new facility by President Eisenhower.

3. 1954 Attitudes and the Effect of Available Equipment

The time and experiences then were a bit different than now. The staple through the early 1950’s had been AM broadcast and short-wave radio to provide home entertainment; FM radio was available but originally used 41 to 51 MHz (megacycles per second then); not all receivers worked in the newer 88 to 108 MHz band and there were few stations. While transistors were being invented, equipment used vacuum tubes and would continue to do so for many years. If the problem was a failed vacuum tube, repair could be accomplished but tracking down an unreliable resistor or capacitor of the time was difficult. By 1954, Hi Fidelity amplifiers were becoming popular and from Denver, Television was being broadcast.

Faced with complexity of these new systems, limited training and service equipment, the attitude of both repair personnel and customers became simply that equipment would work properly only if fresh from the manufacturer; repair was expensive, unsatisfactory and, if possible, to be avoided. In towns distant from Denver, where television was not available at first, those in repair had some time to study the new complex circuits and some developed good skill in repair when TV and HiFi did arrived. Bits of the 1954 attitude have prevailed until modern time; replacement has now became the only economic option; ah but component reliability did improve over the years between.

The lack of Denver area experience with vendors and repair personnel led to some minor problems in equipping the new NBS facilities. Some of our wishes could not be met; locally there was no knowledge of how to accomplish some rather simple circuits like microphone mixers. Also, projection equipment needed for presentations has changed significantly since 1954. Then the lantern slide was king; few would use the 35 millimeter slides that became popular and were displaced by overhead projection of large format transparencies; now all are vanishing to direct projection from the computer. The 16 and 35 millimeter projectors with arc light systems needed for the auditorium then are seldom found today; improvements in microphones and amplifiers dictated change in all those elegant early systems before many years had passed.

4. Selection of Sound Provider for the Dedication

Before issuing a request for quote for the dedication sound, the author and buyer discussed at length the lack of expertise in the Denver area; both agreed that there was no identifiable audio experience at that time in the area. A moderate amount had been allocated for the sound but the amount was sufficient to permit purchase of new, adequate, good quality amplifier, loudspeakers and microphones and provide for a reasonable profit. Our test questions were whether there was anything NBS could provide other than power and when the successful bidder would set up the equipment; we hoped all would be set up and checked in advance to assure performance. The specifications were that the sound not be too loud for any in the audience and that an audience of as many as 10,000 might be expected.

The minimum bid received for the dedication sound was 20% higher than the allocation; the maximum 2.5 times the allocated amount. All bidders needed nothing from NBS except power and advised that they would setup their equipment on the day of the dedication ceremony, the sound level would NOT be too intense in the audience as the speakers would be set around the seating area, and the equipment would be new from the manufacturer; freshly opened at installation, NOTHING COULD GO WRONG! The attitude was about as expected but the bids were higher and possibly indicated some greed. A petition had been put to the OMB and the allocation had been increased to cover the minimum bid. However, on the day before the acceptance was to be made, the author arrived early in the morning to a madly jangling phone; the buyer requested an urgent call to Colorado Springs as a late and low bid had been received. The bidder had called, asked if the bid was closed and submitted his bid; the very concerned buyer requested the author find out if the bidder knew anything about sound as the bid was low, 70% of the initial allocation.

A long phone call was made by the author to the late bidder. It was obvious that this bidder had knowledge of sound. He assured a system would be used that would to keep the loudspeakers at some distance from the audience; he noted that setup would be necessary on the day before the ceremony to assure acceptable operation of equipment and, finally, he would like a 100 foot high pole in front of the new CRPL building which he noted he had visited. The author responded that a 100 foot pole was not available but that there were 80 foot poles on site (the flagpole had not yet been installed), and asked if those would be sufficient. The bidder responded that the 80 foot pole would have to do; there was no necessity of procuring a longer pole. After discussion with the buyer, this low bid would be accepted. The buyer requested the author meet the bidder on arrival and stay with him; the buyer noted the “should this go wrong, both our careers would be toast!

5. The Sound Equipment Setup

In 1954 the area from the NBS site east and south was still pristine but the sprawl of business and dwelling would begin to arrive before long. Highway 36 could be seen clearly from the front of the CRPL and the only building on the skyline near Denver was the red-brick school just north and west of the 36/Federal/287 interchange, a landmark that can still be seen. At sunup on the day before the dedication the author clearly could see the successful bidder approaching; from the bright rising sun appeared an ancient panel-van, rust with a little green, followed by a trailer of rusted iron and gray decayed boards which appeared to be 50 feet long. The author’s initial thought was that this was a most ignominious end to a very short career!

On arrival at the front of the CRPL, the trailer was noted to be only 20 feet long. The trailer was positioned near the pole after which the driver introduced himself and his assistant who was already busy strapping on spurs to climb the pole. The assistant was slight of build and a good thing too, for he spent nearly the whole day on spurs and belt atop the pole as equipment was unloaded and raised on a pulley-rope system. First there was a hole to be drilled near the top of the pole; then a beam and various fittings were sequentially raised and emplaced. Before long, the contents of that long trailer were evident; exponential horns, not the folded type already common in 1954 but the straight, about 7 feet long units from the mid 1930’s. Atop the pole a near spherical cluster of the horns grew; only the west side was left open. After the horns, drivers were hoisted and fitted to each horn, then a large transformer and connection harness was put in place. All of the parts fit and much time was spent assuring that the drivers were correctly phased to give intended performance.

In early afternoon, the trailer was empty and moved out of sight while the van was backed up to the table provided for sound equipment on the north side of the dignitary platform. The first box out of the van was a new, top-of-the-line microphone mixer but the box was already open; the sound man noted that it was new but had been on power for over two weeks to be sure it worked correctly. The second already opened box was a new top-of-the-line 200 watt power amplifier which had also been on power for two weeks and which the indicated to be the backup, wow. Both of these units were connected to power and resistor load to stay warm and then the principal amplifier was unloaded; this was very large, used and homemade. As power was applied to the main amplifier, it lit up internally at a level permitting nighttime reading, the sound man answered the author’s query that it would provide something over 400 watts but that, the pole being not as high as he had hoped, we probably would not use over 200 watts. Microphones and appropriate cables in place, the system was functionally checked at low power. Equipment was left on power overnight near the van which also contained enough parts and test instruments to repair any of the equipment in place; in that van our sound provider and helper slept.

6. How It All Went

Early on the day of the dedication, the site was cleaned and the van moved out of sight. There was no remote Television practical at the time BUT the major networks and Channel 2 from Denver arrived to do sound recording of the dedication. As the author recalls, all four arrived in essentially new identical black Jeeps, and after seeing the sound system, demanded, in unison, a totally separate power feed and a location elsewhere; such a thing as that sound system could not be reliable! Separate tables were quickly set up on the south side of the main platform and a separate power cable was run from the building to feed their equipment. Each broke the seal on a new, latest design, in box from manufacturer, identical portable premier tape recorders; new sealed cables, microphones and tape boxes were also opened. All were sealed-in-the-box; NOTHING COULD GO WRONG!

The author did the speaking tests and announcements before the ceremony in 1954; during the ceremony the sound was at comfortable level but nobody in the audience had any trouble hearing. Indeed, there was a report that the ceremony was heard faintly on Federal Boulevard in Denver. Those few in between Boulder and Denver heard it easily; the peak power used was 208 watts. It must be noted that no sound recordings were made that day, however, the manufacturer of those new latest design portable recorders had built a flaw into the microphone mixer circuit and all signals were shorted out. Afterwards, the broadcast people re-inspected the sound equipment and expressed admiration; the station of the sound provider had risen from flunkey to expert. The sound system did honor to the speeches and especially the formal dedication of the NBS site by President Eisenhower.

7. Epilogue and Conclusion

During disassembly of the sound system, the author talked further with the sound expert and asked why he had bid so low; his new top-of-the-line backup amplifier and microphone mixer had cost well above the amount of his bid, the timing indicated he had received these before he had called to place his bid. He indicated that he thought the allowance would be exactly the amount that it had initially been and that it was sufficient to well equip a bidder and give him some profit, but he wanted to make sure he got the bid. Our sound expert had been retired for a good number of years; his business had been supplying sound for the gubernatorial races in Colorado and Wyoming but had never had opportunity to supply sound for a President! The author noted that the other bids were well above the allocated funds to which he commented that they seemed to be a bit greedy.

The dedication experience over, the author soon received a draft notice. Not able to pass the physical for ROTC in college or for the Navy, the Army was not so particular. The Army was, however, careful to assign the author to those physical requirements he could do and to change the assignment when necessary. After basic training and a basic electricity course on the east coast, which the author taught because of a lack of other instructor, he was assigned to the Armed Forces Special Weapons Command on Sandia (now part of Kirtland) Base in Albuquerque New Mexico to which a number of those from Cryogenic Engineering had transferred. After two years of teaching Nuclear Physics and Nucleonics to both officers and enlisted the author received a direct commission as officer. The author opted to stay on at Sandia National Laboratories in metrology rather than return to NBS. The man who hired the author at Sandia, H. Curtis Biggs, was soon the first signatory on the charter of a new organization devoted to metrology and strongly supportive of and by the NBS, especially William Wildhack. That organization was the National Conference of Standards Laboratories, now the NCSL International, and there is still strong support for and from the NIST.

In Washington, D.C., the author was privileged to bid farewell to President Eisenhower when his casket was on display at the National Cathedral. The story told here and other tales from 1954 on the endeavors to equip the Boulder NBS Laboratory is that “the lowest bid was often the best!”