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HERITAGE THE TELECOM PIONEERS

What they hath wrought.
By Tom Peeler |

WHEN MOST PEOPLE think of Dallas in the Fifties, they recall Dandy Don Meredith slinging passes for SMU, Elvis Presley gyrating at the Cotton Bowl and Mayor R.L. Thornton admonishing the city to “keep the dirt flyinV Gyrations aside, a lot happened in Dallas during the same time that revolutionized the world of telecommunications and blazed the trail for the cluster of communication giants that now dot the suburban landscape in Richardson and form the area so important the city has trademarked it name, the Telecom Corridor.

Six major telecommunications firms- Lucent Technologies, Nortel, Alcatel, Ericsson, Fujitzu and MCI-as well as 200 smaller companies make up this bustling T-shaped information highway thai begins at Texas Instruments at the northwest coiner of North Central Expressway and LBJ Freeway and extends northward through Richardson to State Highway 190, where the top of the T spreads east and west.

Dozens of these companies along the Telecom Corridor trace their roots to engineers who broke in their slide rules at TI or Collins Radio in the Fifties when Jack Kilby. Arthur Collins and Tom Carter were making waves and accomplishing the milestones that would make them pioneers in the field of telecommunications.



WHILE GROWING UP IN CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa, Arthur A. Collins was fascinated with ham radio. In 1925, when he heard that the U.S. Naval radio station in Washington was unable to contact Richard E. Byrd and other members of a scientific expedition in Greenland, the 15-year-old amateur tuned in to the explorers from his attic and obligingly conveyed each day’s reports to Naval Headquarters. He started manufacturing radio sets in 1931 and two years later supplied the equipment thai enabled Admiral Byrd to broadcast I ive from the South Pole.

On May 12, 1951, Collins Radio Company of Cedar Rapids, then a major communications supplier to the military, announced it would build a $1 million factory in Dallas. The location was selected because of the proximity to aircraft manufacturers TEMCO and Chance Vought (both later merged into LTV) and Fort Worth’s Consolidated Aircraft (later General Dynamics).

Collins settled in a hangar at Red Bird Airport in southwest Dallas and leased manufacturing facilities in the Trinity Industrial District. By the mid-’50s, the firm had captured 80 percent of the U.S. commercial-airlines communications market, and the burgeoning operation had consumed eight separate buildings. The company, needing room to spread its electronic wings, announced the purchase of a large patch of farmland in Richardson, which had an official population of 1,289 and a volunteer fire department.

Collins pioneered air-traffic control systems and installed the communication equipment for the first manned space flights. In I960, Collins originated the world’s first two-way radio satellite; in 1969, TV signals from the moon were transmitted on Collins equipment. Rockwell International acquired Collins Radio in 1971.



Jack Kilby. who grew up in Great Bend, Kans., was also a ham radio operator who developed a keen interest in electronic engineering. After an initial setback in which he failed to pass the entrance exam at M.I.T.. he graduated from the University of Illinois and went to work for a lab in Milwaukee designing the electronic parts in hearing aids and radio and TV circuits. Kilby moved to Texas Instruments in 1958. Because there was no air conditioning in TI’s lab in 1958, most of the employees took their vacation during what was called the “summer shut-down.1’ Kilby had not yet earned vacation time and spent that summer in relative isolation in the Tl lab. It was during those sweltering months that Kilby invented the integrated circuit.

To appreciate the significance of the integrated circuit and the enormity of what Kilby did, one has to consider what things were like before. ENIAC. the world’s first general-purpose, all-electronic computer, built by the University of Pennsylvania in 1946, was powered by 18,000 vacuum tubes, which had the same dull orange glow that peeped through the cracks in the backs of early TV sets. ENIAC’s tubes were irresistible to moths, which made kamikaze flights through the dimly lit maze. During a routine operation, technicians stood by with grocery baskets filled with tubes to replace the ones ruined by the moths: thus the computer term “debugging.”

Dallas-based Texas Instruments contributed significantly to the world of technology during the ’50s with advancements in the field of semiconductors, which enabled the transistor to replace the vacuum tube. Transistors proved to be a boon to consumers of portable radios and digital watches but did not solve the quandary in the computer lab. because thousands of transistors would have to be wired together to perform sophisticated computer operations, a design impracticaliiy. Kilby’s integrated circuit solved the problem.

“1 understand some ideas occur like a lightning bolt,” Kilby told The Dallas Morning News in April of last year, “but in this case, it didn’t/’ He described the invention of the integrated circuit as “one small advance after another.” Kilby’s first model was built on a sliver of silicon with gold wires for connectors. Then he figured out a way to do it without the wires by taking advantage of the silicon chip’s inherent ability to conduct an electrical charge.

Advancements made to Kilby’s integrated circuit enable central telephone exchanges to process 1 million calls a second-a big improvement from using a minimum of two long-distance operators per call. Kilby’s portrait, in company with Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison, now hangs in the Inventor’s Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C.



In 1946. Tom Carter opened a small business in Snider Plaza near SMU selling mobile radio equipment. His customers were oil companies who used the mobile radios to call in gushers and doctors who attached them to their golf carts. The oilmen and doctors found the equipment useful but there was one nagging complaint- they wanted to tie the mobile phones to the basic telephone network.

With long-distance phone competitors bombarding the American consumer with reasons to switch to a different company, it is easy to forget that in the 1950s, AT&T was the phone company. It was against the law for anyone to attach any kind of equipment to a telephone, each and every one owned by AT&T or its Bell affiliates. Ma Bell complained when someone put a plastic cover on the yellow pages, so the idea of a mobile phone connected to AT&T’s network was out of the question.

Then in the mid-’50s, the Federal Communications Commission issued an obscure decision granting the Hush-A-Phone Company the right to clamp a simple, non-electrical attachment over the end of a Bell telephone mouthpiece to thwart eavesdroppers. This was all the encouragement Carter needed.

In 1959. he started selling the Carter-fone, a device that connected AT&T’s network to his mobile phone customers. AT&T retaliated by threatening to cut off the telephone service of anyone who used it. “That scares the hell out of a businessman.” Carter later said. No one dared to use their Carterfone, so Carter filed suit in Federal Court in Dallas. The court kicked the decision back to the FCC, which ruled in Carter’s favor.

For Carter, it was a moral victory; all the money he got out of the decision went to pay his attorneys. But for everyone else, this was the crack in the door that lead to the Mood of telecommunications competition we have today. A few months after the Carterfone decision, MCI, whose manufacturing headquarters is in Richardson, persuaded the FCC to allow it to build and operate a small microwave communications service between Chicago and St. Louis, the first private phone service to go head-to-head with Goliath.

The vast expanses of black-land cotton farms north of Dallas in the 1950s have now been transformed into affluent neighborhoods for the engineers and scientists who work along the Telecom Corridor. If it weren’t for the contributions of people such as Collins and Kilby and Carter’s lawsuit that helped break up AT&T’s monopoly, there might not be a need to double-deck North Central.