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Forward-Thinking  Innovators from New Jersey

Edison, Bell Labs, Sarnoff, and More

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Thomas Edison famously said, “Genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.” Of the many scientists and innovators from New Jersey who have contributed to technology and many other fields, Edison (1847-1931) obviously remains one of the most renowned. Besides developing the first commercially viable version of the incandescent light bulb in 1879, his famous inventions include the electrographic vote recorder (1868), phonograph (1877), an electric locomotive (1880); and a camera that could capture motion (1888).

John Stevens

Fifty-five years before Edison’s electric engine, the first steam locomotive was invented in 1825. It was designed by Revolutionary War veteran, lawyer, and Hoboken native Col. John Stevens (1749-1838), an engineer who also launched the first commercial ferry service in 1811.

In 1802 Stevens had built a screw-driven steamboat; in 1806 he built the Phoenix, which in 1809 sailed from Hoboken to Philadelphia, becoming the first steamboat to successfully navigate the open sea. In 1811 Stevens’ ship Juliana embarked as the first steam-powered ferry service (traveling between Hoboken and New York City). notes that in 1825 Stevens “built the first American steam locomotive. It was never put into commercial service, however, and was run only on a 0.5-mile (0.8-kilometre) circular track on his estate in Hoboken.” However, in 1830 Stevens and his sons, Robert and Edwin, co-founded the Camden and Amboy Railroad and Transportation Company. This company eventually built branches serving New Brunswick, Princeton, Kingston, and Trenton.

John Philip Holland in the hatch of a submarine. (Wikipedia)


John Philip Holland

Although John Philip Holland (1841-1914) was born and raised in Liscannor, County Clare, Ireland, he emigrated to the United States in 1873. After working for an engineering firm, he became a teacher at St. John’s Catholic School in Paterson.

In 1875 Holland’s submarine designs were rejected as unworkable by the U.S. Navy. However, the Fenians (an American affiliate of the revolutionary Irish Republican Brotherhood) gave Holland funding that permitted him to resign from his teaching position. The Holland I prototype was unveiled in 1878. The submarine Fenian Ram followed, in 1881.

The website for Paterson Friends of the Great Halls quotes Holland: “My financial supporters, the trustees of the Fenian Skirmishing Fund, determined to build a larger boat that could be employed for breaking blockades … I started to design a new boat of about 19 tons displacement, one small and light enough to be carried on a ship’s deck and launched overboard whenever her services would be required. Only three men were required for her crew. She was built at the shops of the Delameter Iron Works, at the foot of West 13th Street, New York, and was launched in May 1881.” Today the submarine is on display at the Paterson Museum.

Willis Carrier

Willis Carrier (1876-1950) was an engineer who invented the first electrical air conditioning unit in 1902. In 1915 he cofounded Carrier Engineering Corporation, which manufactured and distributed heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems. The company was headquartered in Newark.

After obtaining a Master of Engineering degree from Cornell University in 1901, Carrier joined the Buffalo Forge Company as a research engineer. In 1902 an air quality problem at the Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Company in Brooklyn, N.Y., caused paper to grow and shrink, damaging the quality of images. In an attempt to solve this problem, Carrier submitted a design for the first modern air conditioning system. Its purpose was to cleanse the air, and to control humidity and ventilation as well as temperature. In 1906 Carrier was granted a patent for an “Apparatus for Treating Air.”

“Crudely speaking, it worked by blowing air over a set of coils filled with a coolant,” author Matt Buchanan explains in a 2013 New Yorker piece. “The intent wasn’t to chill the suffocating summer air into a pleasant breeze for sweltering humans. Rather, the device was built to precisely control the humidity of the air.” In Robertson’s Book of Firsts: Who Did What for the First Time (2011), Patrick Robertson notes that in the same year (1903) that Carrier invented his apparatus, heating and ventilation consultant Alfred R. Wolff “became the first to use air-conditioning for the purpose most common today.” (The first domestic air conditioner was invented by Harry Blair Hull and marketed by Frigidaire in 1929.)

At the time of his death Carrier was a trustee of his alma mater, Cornell. He was awarded the Frank P. Brown Medal in 1942; and he was inducted posthumously in the National Inventors Hall of Fame and the Buffalo Science Museum Hall of Fame. Later renamed Carrier Global Corporation, and now headquartered in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., Carrier’s company remains a successful seller of HVAC and refrigeration equipment, as well as apparatus for fire (detection and alarms) and security.

Alice H. Parker’s gas furnace design, as patented in 1919. (Heat Treat Today)

Alice H. Parker

Almost two decades after Carrier invented electrical air conditioning, an African American woman named Alice H. Parker (1895-1920) designed a system to generate and transport heat. In 1919, nine years after she graduated with honors from Howard University, Parker was awarded a patent for her design for a centralized “heating furnace.” Her design never entered commercial production, but as Audrey Henderson notes in an Energy News Network article, the blueprint “still stands as a groundbreaking advance in indoor comfort.”

The invention came about because of difficulties the Parker family was having in heating the entirety of their Morristown home — which, as a Howard University article points out, could be unsafe during an East Coast winter. “Coal and wood, commonly used to fuel heating models in the 19th century, were not readily available,” the piece reminds us. “Parker allegedly chose gas since it was a safer, easily accessible alternative and did not require a fireplace.”

As to the mechanics of Parker’s design, “Heat circulates from the primary burner into the secondary heating tools, eventually heating the…centralized area where the air and vent ducts are placed,” explains the Howard University article. “The design permits cool air into the model. Natural gas is pumped into the furnace, creating a heat exchange that processes warm air into the ducts, pouring into individual rooms of a house.” Henderson notes that although natural gas was already in use, “Parker’s central heating furnace design is credited as the first to use natural gas for heating homes and offices.”

The Howard University piece observes that “Parker’s legacy lives on through an arrangement of updated models and products of her invention, including the everyday AC building units. Multiple agencies celebrate Parker’s cultural and historical significance through awards and grants. Crafted by the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, the Alice H. Parker Women Leaders in Innovation Award ‘recognizes and celebrates the contributions of women to the rich legacy of innovation in New Jersey.’”

James Hillier. (Wikipedia)

James Hillier

James Hillier (1915-2007) was a Canadian American scientist and inventor. He received a Bachelor of Arts in mathematics and physics, Master of Arts, and a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto, where in 1938 — as a graduate student — he partnered with Albert Prebus to construct the first successful high-resolution electron microscope in North America.

Princeton Magazine publisher J. Robert Hillier happens to be the son of James Hillier and Florence Marjory Bell. “In 1936 my father and another graduate student in physics at the University of Toronto were looking for a topic for their Ph.D. final projects,” Hillier says. “Their adviser suggested they look into the electron microscope project on which he had heard the Germans were hard at work.”

“In the next year the two developed the first operating model in the world of the electron microscope,” Hillier explains. “They actually beat the Germans by about six months. The model that they built is in a permanent exhibit in a museum in Toronto. My father got his Ph.D. in June of 1937, and I was born in July of the same year.”

James Hillier sitting at the electron microscope, with Vladimir Zworykin standing and looking at the device. The microscope in the photo is the first prototype of the one that they hoped to soon put into production. (Photo courtesy of J. Robert Hillier)

Dr. Vladimir Zworykin, a television technology pioneer who invented a television transmitting and receiving system employing cathode ray tubes, had come to work in the U.S. and escape the war in Russia. He became director of research at the original Radio Corporation of America (RCA) that had been started by David Sarnoff, and was in Camden.

“[Zworykin] reached out to my father thinking that they could mass produce the microscope, and in 1940 we came to the United States and lived in Collingswood,” Hillier says. “In the early 1940s, construction was begun in Princeton on what was to become the Sarnoff Research Center.” He adds, “When the Sarnoff Center opened Princeton, we moved to a house on Main Street in Cranbury.”

“In 1952 he applied for a job managing a startup research lab for a company called Melpar that was part of Westinghouse in Falls Church, Va.,” says Hillier.

“I was at home from school one afternoon, and he called the house and asked me if there was a letter from Melpar.” There was: “It was an offer letter to take over the management of the lab in Virginia for a salary of $17,500. He took the job, and we moved to Virginia.”

In 1957 RCA offered him a management position in Camden. “We moved back to Collingswood, and later he returned to a leadership position in the Sarnoff Center,” Hillier recalls. The elder Hillier served as general manager and later, vice president, of RCA Laboratories; vice president and executive vice president of Research and Engineering; and executive vice president and chief scientist.

Recalling his father’s many accolades, Hillier believes that the one that pleased him the most was the Order of Canada award. “My father, and the prominent economist and diplomat John K. Galbraith,” — both of whom had been born in Canada — “were the first two U.S. citizens ever to receive the award.” (Hillier became a U.S. citizen in 1945.) The prime minister of Canada presented the awards.

He was elected to the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame in Alexandria, Va., and the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame. Hillier notes his father’s honorary doctorate degrees from University of Toronto; and from New Jersey Institute of Technology, “where he and I are the only father and son to be so honored.”

Les Paul playing live, c. 1947. (Wikipedia)

Les Paul

Songwriter, guitarist, and inventor Les Paul (1915-2009) had been searching for ways to make his acoustic guitar more audible since he was a teenager in Mahwah. His early experiments involved adapting, by turns, a phonograph needle and a bit of train rail. In the 1940s he resumed his experiments; the result was “The Log,” one of the first solid-body (relying on electromagnetic amplification rather than including a hollow sound box in the center) electric guitars.

In Popular Music and Society, Steve Waksman clarifies, “Paul did not invent the electric guitar … nor did he invent the solid body electric, at least not in any single-handed fashion. He was one of a small number of guitar makers — Leo Fender and Paul Bigsby were the others — who came up with the solid body design at roughly the same time. Paul may have gotten there first … in 1941, but it was Fender who would issue the first commercially manufactured solid body electric later in the decade, setting the stage for Paul’s famous namesake, the Gibson Les Paul, which first emerged in 1952.”

Since the 1930s Paul had been exploring multi-track recording techniques, starting by playing along with his own recordings. He put them into use for Bing Crosby’s No. 1 single “It’s Been a Long, Long Time” (1945). With Crosby’s encouragement Paul built a studio in his garage, where he continued his experiments. These included “testing different styles of microphone placement, altering the tape speed of his recording equipment to achieve unique sonic effects, and, most significantly, producing overdubbed recordings of considerable clarity and lack of surface noise,” Waksman explains.

The Mahwah Museum is home to a permanent exhibit, “Les Paul in Mahwah.” According to the museum’s website, “Visitors can learn about his inventions and innovations including sound-on-sound recording and electric guitar features while viewing a display of one-of-a-kind precious guitars made especially for Les set in and around a re-creation of the studio in which Les did his work.” For a fee (and by appointment), you can spend 45 minutes playing one of the guitars. Famous visitors to the exhibit include Billy F. Gibbons (of ZZ Top) and King Solomon Hicks.

On July 10, 1962, AT&T Bell Telephone Laboratories (now Nokia Bell Labs) and NASA launched Telstar 1, the first communications satellite from Cape Canaveral, and global communications changed forever. (Photo courtesy of Nokia Bell Labs)

John Bardeen

John Bardeen (1908-1991) earned his Ph.D. in mathematical physics from Princeton University in 1936. Twenty years later he received (with physicists William Bradford Shockley Jr. and Walter Brattan) his first Nobel Prize in Physics, for research “on semiconductors and their discovery of the transistor effect.” In 1972 Bardeen became the only person to win the Nobel Prize in Physics twice, this time with Leon N. Cooper and John Robert Schrieffer, “for their jointly developed theory of superconductivity, usually called the BCS-theory.”

The journey from the Ph.D. to the first Nobel Prize took Bardeen in 1945 to Bell Labs in Murray Hill, where he was a member of a solid-state physics group led by Shockley and chemist Stanley Morgan. The group’s assignment was to seek a solid-state alternative to glass vacuum tube amplifiers — which, as Priya Ganapati notes in a 2009 Wired article, “were bulky, unreliable, and consumed too much power.”

Multiple experiments, using a variety of materials, had failed. The multi-part solution included using germanium instead of silicon. Ganapati relates that the “final design of a point-contact transistor had two gold contacts lightly touching a germanium crystal that was on a metal plate connected to a voltage source … it became the first working solid-state amplifier.”

Bell Labs announced the invention of the first transistor in 1948. Ganapati summarizes, “The transistor went on to replace bulky vacuum tubes and mechanical relays. The invention revolutionized the world of electronics and became the basic building block upon which all modern computer technology rests.”

President George W. Bush awards the National Medal of Technology to Sidney Pestka, center, in the East Room of the White House. Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans, left, looks on. (Wikipedia)

Sidney Pestka

Biochemist and geneticist Sidney Pestka (1936-2016) graduated from Princeton University with a degree in chemistry in 1957. Subsequently he completed his M.D. at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 1961.

After completing his internship at Baltimore City Hospital, in 1962 Pestka joined the National Heart Institute, where he worked in the laboratory of Dr. Marshall W. Nirenberg. Pestka was part of the team whose genetic research led to Nirenberg’s 1968 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for “breaking the genetic code.”

In 1969 Pestka joined the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology in Nutley. It was there that he started work on interferon — specifically, IFN-α proteins, which support immunity against viral infections. Pestka’s work has led to the use of interferons in cancer therapy (it is the only approved treatment for advanced melanoma), as well as treatments for hepatitis B and hepatitis C. Additionally, his work with IFN-β led to use in treating multiple sclerosis.

Pestka was inducted into the New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame in 1993. In addition to numerous other awards he was presented, by President George W. Bush, with the 2001 National Medal of Technology. At the time of his death, Pestka was Emeritus Professor of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School of Rutgers.

“A Good Imagination…”

Among Edison’s famous quotations is “There are no rules here; we’re trying to accomplish something.” He also said, “To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.”

Fortunately for the fields of medicine, communications, technology, and many others, inventors from New Jersey have ignored rules and accomplished much. It will be exciting to see what future innovators have the imagination to achieve.

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