H&K and Eimac; an Indigenous Vacuum Tube Industry Emerges

Historical Essay

by Tim J. Sturgeon

Originally written as a Masters Thesis, this is the sixth of a sequence of pages adapted from the full thesis. For the bibliographic references in the text go here.

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"In those days, the Radio Corporation was such a monopoly that if they'd blow their fetid breath at you, you were supposed to fall over. And they blew their fetid breath at us, but we didn't fall over."
—Robert Heintz, 1982

Heintz & Kaufman

One of the leading figures in Bay Area electronics during the 1920s was Ralph Heintz, a Berkeley resident and ham radio enthusiast who attended Lick-Vilmerding High School and both Cal Berkeley and Stanford. During World War I, Heintz developed an early radio-controlled missile guidance system for the British military. After a brief stint as a chemical engineer with Standard Oil after his graduation from Stanford in 1920, Heintz opened a small shop to repair scientific apparatuses (voltmeters, amp meters, watt meters, and assay balances) in San Francisco. At the time radio broadcasting was just beginning to catch hold, and Heintz built most of the early radio stations in the area. His earliest project was to upgrade the Army's submarine chasing station at the Presidio (WVY played music in the evenings). This led to the installation of commercial stations in the Fairmont Hotel on Knob Hill (KDN played music) and for the Mercantile Trust Company on Telegraph Hill (KFTB ran stock quotations and played music). Heintz built these systems from scratch in his various San Francisco shops. He continued his work for the Army, installing a radio station in Mazatlan, Mexico, and a system to relay telephone messages from British Columbia, where the wires stopped, to military bases in Alaska (Heintz, 1982).

Mobile Short Wave Radio

In 1924, Heintz asked a former classmate from Cal Berkeley, Jack Kaufman, to come into his business as a partner, and thus Ralph Heintz Scientific Apparatus became Heintz and Kaufman Company (H&K). This same year, the British Marconi Company announced that its experiments in short wave radio waves (between 20 and 40 meters) had resulted in transmission of signals from Beirut, Syria, to England during daylight hours. Interference of long wave transmission from sunlight had long been a problem that forced all but the most powerful radio circuits to operate only at night. By 1925, Heintz had installed a short wave set on a private yacht that saved the owner's life when he nearly ran aground in Fiji. The distress signals were picked up by an alert San Francisco ham radio operator who immediately went to the cable station and sent a telegraph message the cable operators in Fiji asking them to turn on their lighthouse. This was the first short wave radio system to be installed on any ship in the Pacific, before there were any shore-side commercial stations (Morgan, 1967). During this period Heintz also built five transmitters for the San Francisco based Hearst newspapers, allowing them to disseminate news world wide (Heintz, 1982).

In 1926 H&K had started working on ship-to-shore radio communications systems for the Dollar Steamship Company.(23) In 1928 Dollar acquired majority share of H&K to create a subsidiary to manufacture short wave communications equipment needed for its fleet of steamships. Dollar "did not want to be impaired by some outside source" for its communication system. H&K moved to a larger facility in South San Francisco, where they employed 20-40 people. Heintz retained a one-third share in H&K, and Heintz and Kaufman Inc. incorporated as a separate company, leaving Heintz free to work on outside contracts. At the same time, Globe Wireless was incorporated to manage the operation the system. Jack Kaufman was named manger of Globe Wireless and Heintz remained president of H&K (Heintz, 1982). By the time the Globe system was completed in the early 1930s, H&K short wave equipment was installed at shore stations in Los Angeles, Long Beach, Portland, Seattle, New York, Hawaii, Manila, Guam, and Shanghai, as well as on 160 merchant ships (not all owned by Dollar) (Morgan, 1967; Heintz, 1974).

Heintz, who's teenage ham radio set may have been the first to ever receive air to ground transmissions in 1910,(24) became a leading figure in the development of short wave radio systems for aircraft during the late 1920s. In 1927 he equipped the aeroplanes participating in a Oakland to Honolulu race sponsored by James Dole, the pineapple magnate, with short wave radios, likely the first ever to be installed on aircraft. In 1928 he equipped the first successful flight from Oakland to Sydney, Australia. By this time Heintz had improved his systems to send and receive both long and short wave signals. Included in this equipment were waterproof distress transmitters that raised their aerials with either a kite or a gas balloon. In 1929, he built all the radio gear for Admiral Byrd's famous flight over Antarctica. Besides the system installed on Admiral Byrd's plane, the ground stations and the dog sled rescue teams were equipped with Heintz's short wave sets (Morgan, 1967).

In the late 1920s the Heintz and Kaufman Company was approached by William Boeing's son-in-law, Thorpe Hiscock, to design and manufacture a short wave radio phone communication system for Boeing's fleet of aircraft carrying mail between Seattle, Portland, and Chicago. The company was beginning to carry passengers with increasing regularity and needed extra measures to insure their safety. Western Electric, the company that held the patents rights for the manufacture of commercial radio systems, refused to build the system because they felt that air passenger traffic would never amount to anything. Heintz built a prototype set for one of Boeing's aeroplanes and a series of ground stations that worked well. When officials at Western Electric heard of it, they said they would build the system if Boeing would cease all relations with Heintz and Kaufman. The equipment was sold back to Heintz and Kaufman at ten cents on the dollar, and the company in turn sold the used components to ham radio enthusiast in the local area (Heintz, 1974, 1982).

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Boeing U.S. Mail aeroplane, early 1920s.

Photo: courtesy Museum of History & Industry, Seattle

In the course of developing his airborne radio systems, Heintz fulfilled the increased power requirements necessary for the larger and more powerful radios he was installing by perfecting an innovative AC polyphase electric alternator that was about one-sixth the weight of the DC systems currently in use. At first Heintz asked the O'Conner Manufacturing Company, a San Francisco machine shop, to modify their alternators to his specifications. Later, he built them himself. Heintz wrote some technical papers on the subject, and had been flying them since 1925, but no one took his ideas seriously until Warren Bowten of Douglass Aircraft contacted Heintz in the early 1930s. Bowten questioned Heintz about the system and Heintz readily shared information about the system with him (Heintz, 1982).

Soon afterward, Heintz learned that Bendix, Douglass's alternator supplier, had been awarded a large contract by the Air Force to manufacture AC polyphase power systems. Heintz travelled to Washington and threatened the Air Force that he would ask to his Congressman to "bring before the people what is happening to the poor lonely inventor who brings out something new." The Air Force agreed to split the contract between Bendix and the Heintz and Kaufman Company. When the prototypes were finished the Bendix systems failed, so Bendix tried to buy out the Heintz and Kaufman Company. The Dollar Steamship company, which owned the alternator patents, needed the Heintz and Kaufman Company for its communications business, but agreed to sell the project to Bendix for $150,000.

Bendix insisted that the deal include the services of Heintz, and since business was slow at Dollar Steamship because of the Depression, Heintz agreed to a two year contract. Heintz brought people with him from Heintz and Kaufman that he knew and trusted and set up what was effectively a separate engineering division within Bendix. After the two years were up, Bendix tried to get Heintz to extend his contract and stay in New Jersey, but Heintz refused. "I didn't want to, because I didn't like their outfit. Their engineering stank. So, I had to tell them. 'There's no use. I'm going home. I'm a Californian. I can't live in this atmosphere.'" Later, Heintz's expertise in aircraft electric power systems was called upon to supply a 250kw system for Howard Hughes' "Spruce Goose" (Heintz, 1982).

H&K Begin In-house Tube Production

Because RCA, GE, and Westinghouse perceived H&K as competition, they refused to sell them vacuum tubes. Tubes from England were too expensive. H&K were thus forced to manufacture the tubes they needed in-house. Dollar had purchased the Simpson Radio Company of Seattle because that company had patents on radio circuits that did not infringe on patents held by RCA or Marconi. Heintz flew to Seattle and determined that the Simpson patents could be used to develop a radio system for Dollar. Heintz then designed a system, loosely based on the Simpson patents, that worked well. But in the course of improving the system Heintz eventually discarded the Simpson design for one using a two element electrostatically controlled tube he developed called the gammatron. This tube was based on expired patents and other unpatented technology and used tantalum elements (Norberg, 1974). The increased power from these tube allowed Globe to get through to Manila during daylight hours. Because regular mail service from Manila took 26 days, the company instituted a "radio mail" service at a 25% cost reduction over RCA and Federal Telegraph. Using San Francisco as the collection point for the U.S., teletype messages from across the Pacific were printed, put in envelopes, and sent on to U.S. destinations through the postal service (Heintz, 1974; 1984).

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Charles Litton, who knew the specifications on tube blanks available from Corning Glass in New York, helped H&K get started in tube production by helping them pick out blanks and buy Pyrex stock for glass blowing. William Eitel and Jack McCullough were ham radio enthusiasts who were hired to help develop the tube operation. They did all the machine work in-house. When the Globe system was complete, H&K reverted to production of replacement tubes. According to Heintz, Globe's trans-Pacific communication network was "a poor man's system" that did an adequate job for the least expenditure. Federal Telegraph was tied into Postal Telegraph, and RCA was tied into Western Union's wire system, so these companies did not have to depend on the U.S. Mail for domestic delivery of messages (Heintz, 1974; 1984).

Globe Wireless and RCA

The animosity between RCA and Globe Wireless was quite strong. RCA used every means at their disposal to eliminate competition. As Ralph Heintz put it: "We [Globe Wireless] were a monkey on [RCA's] back, because we had a mechanism of handling [telegraph] traffic across the Pacific that they seemed unable to stop. They tried to harass us by having Western Union refuse our traffic in every conceivable way" (Heintz, 1982). While in Washington D.C. to request additional operating frequencies for Globe Wireless from the Federal Communications Commission, Heintz ran into David Sarnoff Sr., then vice president and general manger of RCA, in a corridor. When Heintz said, "Good morning", Sarnoff responded with, "When are you going to stop infringing on our patents?". Heintz's response was, "Mr. Sarnoff, we are not infringing on any of your patents. The best way to find out is to take it to court, and we're willing to defend our position anytime".

In 1937 RCA again filed suit against the Globe Wireless for patent infringement (in 1929 RCA had attempted to sue Globe's parent, Dollar Steamship Company). Heintz, fed up with RCA harassment, constructed a series of "breadboard" demonstration sets to compare various vacuum tube technologies that could be used to send and receive radio signals. One set was based on de Forest patents, on which RCA's claims of infringement were based. The other sets were based on technology that RCA did not own the patents on, including those owned by Larson (Norway), Vreeland (USA), Simpson (USA), and Goddard (USA). These patents, plus others held by Heintz, covered the technology that Globe's system was based on. Some of these patents were expired, and some had not been filed in the United States, so Heintz knew that Globe was not infringing on the RCA-controlled de Forest patents. Heintz asked his old friend and classmate from Stanford, Frederick Terman, to appear in court as a technical expert. When the day in court came, Heintz's request to have his "breadboard" sets entered as evidence was accepted by the judge. When the six RCA patent attorneys realized that losing this case could result in their client losing control of its monopoly on manufacture and commercial use of vacuum tube technology, they immediately approached the bench and asked that the suit be withdrawn.(25)


Eitel and McCullough Spin Off from Heintz and Kaufman

Dollar would not let H&K sell tubes outside the company, because earlier patents suits brought by RCA had made the company cautious. The sole reason that Dollar was in the electronics business was to supply its ships with radios. However, during the Depression internal demand almost disappeared, and Heintz convinced Dollar to let him sell on the outside to keep the business functioning. His argument was this: you cannot simply idle an electronics factory like you can tie up a steamship and expect it to run again when needed. H&K began to sell tubes to hams radio operators, and, according to Heintz, they "got a tremendous reputation right off the bat because the hams would run them white hot...just beat the tar out of them" For ham radio applications, H&K gammatrons were better than anything available on the market at that time. In 1934, when the volume of production for the Dollar system began to ramp up again, Eitel and McCullough became frustrated and struck out on their own to form a company to supply the ham market (Norberg, 1976; Heintz, 1984).

At first they used the exact vacuum tube technology that had been developed at H&K. When Heintz was asked why he didn't sue them, he responded: "I didn't have any desire to sue. ...they were nice fellows and my partner was very burnt up. I was more amused than burnt up and what amused me was that they went to the Dollar Company and said, 'Look, we can supply you with what you need for your communication system cheaper than H&K. They were immature at business....They could be forgiven, because they were highly successful after that. Very innovative and very, very industrious and they're good friends of mine" (Heintz, 1974).

Eitel and McCullough set up shop in an old meat packing plant in San Carlos. Aiming at the amateur radio market, they advertised their tubes in QST , a national magazine for ham radio enthusiasts. Eitel and McCullough improved their production process and sold tubes through small distributors nationwide (Norberg, 1974). Their tubes were so much more durable than anything else available on the market that the abbreviated company name printed on each tube, "Eimac," became known worldwide. The company grew to about 20 employees and moved to San Bruno in 1940 (Morgan, 1967). Out of the blue, the company received an order from the U.S. military for $500,000 worth of tubes. To their surprise they learned that their tubes had been used in Army and Navy radar experiments for more than four years (Norberg, 1974). War tensions were increasing and the military was ready to go into mass production with its newly perfected radar system, for which it needed tubes. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the U.S. official entry into World War II, Eitel and McCullough was ordered to build a new plant in Salt Lake City, away from possible bomb targets. By 1942, the company had 1,800 employees on three shifts producing 4,000 tubes each day (Morgan, 1967).

After the war, these high production levels at Eitel and McCullough came back to haunt them. Just as the military orders abruptly ended, the surplus market was flooded with Eimac tubes selling below cost. The company pulled through the post-war transition by developing new military and commercial markets for their tubes. They built large klystron tubes for airborne radar, tubes for aviation, nuclear resonance, radio and television broadcasting, telephone systems, oceanography, factory automation, and early computers. By 1959, when the company moved into a large facility in San Carlos, Eitel and McCullough was the largest merchant manufacturer of vacuum tubes in the world (Morgan, 1967). Today, Eitel and McCullough exists as a division of Varian Associates.


The ENIAC, the first computer based on vacuum tubes.

As with the the semiconductor companies that were to proliferate in the region twenty years later, Eitel and McCullough grew through supplying electronic components on a merchant basis for a diverse set of end uses. Unlike captive tube producers of the day such as Raytheon and RCA, Eitel and McCullough was able to expand as electronic technology was applied to an ever widening array of applications without the complication and risk of having to develop the final system in-house.


23. Dollar Steamship was a passenger line run by Stanley Dollar, son of Robert Dollar, who had diversified interests on the Pacific Coast, including a timber company in Canada, and extensive real estate holdings around Donner Lake and Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada. In the late 1930s, the shipping company was sold to Pacific Steamship Company, which later changed its name to the President Line. In the 1960s, Stanley Dollar's ranch in Walnut Creek was developed as Rossmoor Leisure World, a prototypical planned retirement community.

24. In 1883, John Montgomery, who later worked as an instructor at the University of Santa Clara with Charles Herrold (the proprietor of the first radio station), flew the first heavier than air craft in controlled flight. The craft was a glider controlled with ailerons. In 1905, he flew a similar craft, dropped from a balloon, from 4000 feet to land in Alviso, near Santa Clara. In 1910 the first West Coast "air meet" was organized in Southern California to display powered aircraft, attracting 60 entrants, some of whom never got their machines off the ground. John Montgomery was in attendance, and after the meet, he invited the most successful participants to perform in a similar event at the Tanforan Race Track, just south of San Francisco. Two of the attendies of this event were Ralph Heintz, then 18 years old, and Earl Ennis, proprietor of Western Wireless Equipment Company. Western Wireless was located in San Francisco, building wireless equipment for private and commercial ships. After the air show at Tanforan, Ennis asked Heintz to bring his ham radio set to the race track to receive signals from an air-to-ground radio transmission system that Ennis had designed and built. The system worked and helped convince Paul Beck, of the Signal Corps at the Presidio Army base in San Francisco, that the Army should have a fleet of aeroplanes equipped with wireless systems. Beck communicated this belief to his superiors in Washington, who called Ennis for a full description of the system used. Ennis complied and anticipated a response, but never heard from the Army again. (Morgan, 1967)

25. These demonstration sets now reside at the Foothill Electronics Museum, Foothill Community College, Los Altos, CA.

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