History ain’t what it used to be

It wasn’t long ago the headlines were buzzing with claims and counter claims as to which lab had fabricated the smallest transistor. But which is the real fabrication – the transistor or the claim? We all assume the claims made by technologists are genuine and issued in good faith. But what’s your reaction when you discover established historical fact is sham, purely a fiction to enhance the reputation of an individual or of a large manufacturing corporation.

Perhaps you imagined that historians recorded nothing but fully corroborated facts in a completely objective and unbiased fashion; if so you’re in for a big disappointment Most history is written for money and generally with a definite purpose.As the American author Eric Barbour wrote recently when discussing the true inventors of the digital computer, every age tries to re-write history to suit its leading personages People with power and money manage to uncreate’ the past even while they feed on its very foundations, while the populace at large accepts the official version as fact.

One organisation that falsified history for its own ends is the late lamented Radio Corporation of America, now reduced to a mere brand name or trading title of General Electric in America and assigned in the consumer electronics field to Thompson of France and in sound recordings to the (German) Bertetsmann Music Group. Once a company of far greater status, it was created by American anti trust legislation out of the U S subsidiary of Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company. RCA had much to be proud of and sadly much to be ashamed about. For example the way it harassed worthy inventors such as telvision pioneer Farnsworth and Armstrong, the inventor of the frequency modulation technique for broadcasting.

But what is now coming to light thanks to investigative historians is that RCA deliberately distorted history to portray the company in a more favourable light. Loyal and decent American citizens brought up on the gospel according to RCA may wish to skip the rest of this article; everyone else should read on.

TV’s Unsung Hero.

Take television for instance. Most textbooks will tell you Vladimir Zworykin developed the first successful electronic television camera in RCAs development labs. It was he who in 1935 turned the Iconoscope image pickup tube into a working product suitable for series production. According to RCA that is. It is now clear that the Iconoscope was not RCA’s unaided work. It fell to a Hungarian, Kalman (Coloman) Tihanyl to first patent the idea of a light sensitive image storage tube in 1928, at a time when Zworykin had already abandoned electronic pickup tubes and returned to mechanical scanning.

Tainted Hero.

Another cornerstone of RCA history is that David Samoff another Russian emigre and the power house behind the company, had begun his career as a wireless operator at the time of the sinking of the Titanic and received its final transmissions. Safely on dry land throughout the disaster, he relayed the information to the press and became something of a hero at the time. The story is nothing more than a fairy tale, according to Michael Biel, professor of Radio and Television at Morehead State University, Kentucky. “There is no contemporary evidence that Samoff ever had anything to do with the Titanic story. It was a myth that he promoted and his name is not mentioned in any of the news accounts at the time.”

“Accordingly it is highly doubtful that he was something of a hero at the time; he was not on duty when the ship sank in the middle of the night, therefore he did not receive the transmissions from the Titanic”. Biel continues: “The fairy tale some books report that the President ordered all oilier stations off the air so Sainoff’s station could be in the clear is pure egotistical fabrication. So is just about the entire story. He probably told somebody he had stayed up 72 hours to hear the Titanic reports, and the story just grew from there – and he loved it and never corrected it. The story that has been reported all these years makes just about as much sense as the story above that he had jumped ship and became a hero’.

War secret that never was.

Yet another historical myth accepted as fact is that the allies had no knowledge of the magnetic tape recorder until the American troops overran Radio Luxembourg and found German magnetophone machines playing out propaganda tapes. Apparently the development of tape had been a war secret, developed by the Germans so they could play Hitler’s speeches at all odd hours to deceive the allies from finding his true whereabouts. A damning story but without any basis in fact. In reality the Magnetophone had already been on public display at the 1935 Radio Show in Germany and an improved version of the machine had been sent to the American General Electric organisation in Schenectady in 1938.

A report describing the same machine was published in Wireless World (now Electronics World) on June 1st 1939 concerning broadcasting arrangements for the forthcoming Olympic Games in Finland (subsequently cancelled). It said: “As it is estimated that at least 25 simultaneous commentaries will have to be radiated each day, it has been necessary to resort to recording on a large scale An order has therefore been place for 40 AEG Magnetophone iron powder film recorders. It has also been decided to provide a fleet of seven vans, several of which will be equipped for handling two different recordings at once’. Admittedly the expression “iron powder film recorders” as applied to recording tape looks strange, but how else would you describe a technology too new to have a name. No wonder few readers took much notice!

John G0THG – January 1999.

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