Edward M. Wysocki, Jr.
The Inventions of John W. Campbell
by Alec Nevala-Lee and Edward M. Wysocki Jr.
Published in the January/February 2020 issue of Analog Science Fiction & Fact.
Copyright ©2019, Alec Nevala-Lee and Edward M. Wysocki, Jr. All rights reserved.
No part may be reproduced in any form without the explicit permission of the authors.
“The thing about John Campbell is that he liked things big,” Isaac Asimov once wrote. “He liked big men with big ideas working out big applications of their big theories. And he liked it fast. His big men built big weapons within days; weapons that were, moreover, without serious shortcomings, or at least, with no shortcomings that could not be corrected as follows: ‘Hmm, something’s wrong—oh, I see—of course.’ Then, in two hours, something would be jerry-built to fix the jerry-built device.” Asimov’s description could apply to many other writers of the thirties, whose heroes often solved monumental engineering problems overnight, but it speaks in particular to the singular personality of John W. Campbell, Jr., who achieved his greatest fame as the editor of the magazine Astounding Science Fiction, later known as Analog.
Many of the protagonists of pulp science fiction were inventors, and countless early “gadget stories” revolved around the development of spaceflight or atomic power by a solitary genius. During the period associated with Campbell’s editorship, these characters evolved into the figure of “the competent man,” who triumphed over all obstacles using the tools of engineering. Such breakthroughs are more difficult in real life, and Campbell, who learned this the hard way, has sometimes been viewed as a frustrated inventor who channeled his ambitions into the magazine—although he also never gave up on the hope of making a discovery that really would change the world. He spent much of his time in his home workshop, pursuing avenues of investigation that paralleled his work in print, in a relatively unknown side of his career that sheds a surprising light on the genre that he did so much to define.
Campbell was born in New Jersey in 1910, and his idealized sense of himself as a resourceful experimenter was shaped by his childhood. His father, John W. Campbell, Sr., was a chief engineer at AT&T who lectured his ten-year-old son on the principles of physics. As a boy, the younger Campbell loved his Meccano set, and he spoke fondly in later years of his youthful inventions—the backyard catapult that conked him on the head, the crane with a worm gear that won a prize, the radio receiver, the electronic eavesdropper, the car assembled from two batteries and an old Studebaker starter motor. He fixed bikes, repaired appliances for neighbors, blew up his basement with a chemistry set, and often had reason to remember his father’s favorite saying: “Well, it was a good idea, John. But it didn’t work. Now clean it up.”
When Campbell went off to college at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he brought some of his old habits with him—he put together an experimental setup in class to prove one of his teachers wrong, and he invested the money from his first science fiction sales into rebuilding a Model A Ford. After graduating from Duke, where he had transferred after flunking German at M.I.T., he found professional success more elusive. A series of jobs at Mack Truck, the Pioneer Instrument Company, and the chemical firm Carleton Ellis failed to lead to the kind of research role that he wanted, and his frustration was reflected in his fiction. Writing much later of one of his first mature stories, “Forgetfulness,” Campbell said that it amounted to his unconscious rejection “of an up-till-then idea that I wanted to be the Great Inventor.”
After Campbell unexpectedly landed the editorship of Astounding in October 1937, he transferred most of his creative energies to the magazine, but he continued to tinker at home. When he and his wife Doña bought their first house in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, he turned the basement into his workshop, and a visit there became a rite of passage for writers. The author Lester del Rey recalled a typical night with Campbell: “That evening, after supper, we inspected his fuel battery. He had written a story about one once”—“The Battery of Hate,” which was published in Amazing Stories—“but I didn’t know he’d actually built one.” (This appears to refer to a series of experiments performed by Campbell in developing a battery that involved the use of the element cobalt. Campbell persisted in these efforts for over two years, but they led only to a series of confusing results that he couldn’t explain.) The editor was also an enthusiastic amateur photographer, writing to his friend Robert Swisher that his hobby provided a convenient outlet for his “homemadegadgetmania.”
During World War II, Campbell found various outlets for his inventive tendencies. At the invitation of Harry Walton, an editor for Popular Science, he wrote a series of twenty articles on home electronics projects, including a remote baby monitor that he illustrated with a picture of his sleeping daughter. He recruited the writer George O. Smith, an electrical engineer, to spend a weekend every month at the house in New Jersey, where Smith worked on various gadgets—and also got to know Doña, whom he married after the Campbells divorced in 1950. At parties, Campbell asked guests to sing into a microphone hooked up to an oscilloscope, which displayed their voices as undulating waveforms, and he pitched technical ideas for the war effort to Robert A. Heinlein at the Naval Aircraft Factory, although none was ever put into practice.
After the war, Campbell got into ham radio, which he used to discuss story ideas with Heinlein in Colorado Springs, and hi-fi equipment. When his marriage to Doña ended, he lost himself in work on his stereo system, and after he remarried in 1951, his efforts in home audio inspired his most ambitious project as an inventor. While tinkering with an amplifier that he had made from scratch, he was left unhappy with the results: “Music comes out in such a fashion that a piano, saxophone, and trumpet are almost indistinguishable.” Reasoning that music was based on complex wave patterns, he found himself wishing for a device that could generate any arbitrary waveform—or electrical signal—on demand, which would allow him to conduct “bench tests” on the equipment that he was building. Eventually, he arrived at a potential solution, and he became convinced that it was the big idea that he had been seeking for most of his life.
On October 8, 1954, Campbell wrote a letter to Arthur Z. Gray, the head of his parent publishing company, Street & Smith, to describe what he had in mind. He took pride in his ability to predict future technological developments, joking that he could have taken out a patent on the fundamental principles of the atomic bomb in 1940, but he had never been able to translate this talent into financial success. Now he had an idea that seemed to have vast commercial potential: “There is a need for a waveform generator. I want to get a patent on it, and get it now.” Campbell thought that such a generator could be used to produce the complex synchronization signals needed for color television, the waveforms used by radar, customized timbres for an electronic musical instrument, and applications that even he couldn’t foresee. He compared himself to Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of television, who had made “some nice money” by patenting concepts that were utilized by legions of innovators to come.
The underlying mechanism was straightforward. You simply drew any waveform that you wanted—no matter how complicated or strangely shaped—as a silhouette on a piece of transparent material. A photocell would be placed behind the transparency and a vertical ribbon of light swept horizontally across the silhouette. Because the intensity of the light striking the photocell at any given point depended on how much was obscured by the silhouette, the photocell circuit could be designed to produce an electrical signal with a waveform that precisely matched the shape that had been drawn by hand. The setup was basically the opposite of an oscilloscope—it translated a visual representation into a signal, rather than the other way around—and it made it possible to generate unusual waveforms, including one shaped like the New York skyline. Figure 1 shows a silhouette possibly similar to the one used by Campbell in such a test, where the narrow white rectangle represents the vertical beam of light that would scan from left to right.
It was a clever arrangement, and in fact, a similar device—which mechanically rotated a drawing on a disk in front of a light source—was already on the market. The real challenge was moving the mask past the light rapidly enough to generate signals with a high frequency, and the existing mechanical solutions were all limited by how fast they could go. If one rotation of the disk equaled a single cycle of the waveform, obtaining a signal that repeated 15,000 times a second would have required a rotation rate of 900,000 RPM, which was clearly out of the question. To address this issue, Campbell considered such approaches as photographing the waveform pattern and reproducing it a thousand times on a strip of film—if mounted on a drum, a rotation of 6000 RPM would generate a signal at 100,000 Hz—or reading it off a reel of magnetic tape, both of which suffered from practical limitations.
Campbell’s eventual answer was to move the light source, rather than the mask, although he soon realized that this presented problems of its own. In his correspondence, he checked off various possibilities. A rotating prism could be used only at a low rate of speed, which left it open to the same objections as before. Campbell also initially rejected the use of an oscilloscope to produce a moving band of light on a cathode ray screen, which he thought was bulky and excessively complicated. He was more intrigued by solutions that used piezoelectricity or magnetostriction—in which materials change shape in response to electrical or magnetic fields—or an optical medium that altered its index of refraction under stimulation, which could theoretically shift the plane of a light source. After weighing the alternatives, he decided to focus on the piezoelectric angle, but his requirements couldn’t be satisfied by any known material. A supplier reportedly told him, “If you ever find a way of getting one, let me know, too.”
Campbell was stumped by the mechanical challenges, and he temporarily set the project aside. Along the way, however, he came up with what he saw as a solution to a more limited issue relating to the creation of signals with specific waveforms. In a letter to Steve Cox, who was evidently his patent attorney, Campbell wrote, “If I use present techniques for generating a square wave, some six tubes and associated components are needed. To change from a square wave to an isosceles triangle wave, I would need to construct an entirely new circuit system, employing some fifteen tubes.” Campbell devised an alternative setup that could produce square, sawtooth, or stepped waveforms with a pair of vacuum tubes, one of which caused the output voltage to rise, the other to fall. By providing the correct inputs to the tubes, you could obtain different waveforms without having to build a new circuit each time.
The result was described in United States Patent 2,954,466, which bore the somewhat unenlightening title “Electron Discharge Apparatus.” Campbell filed the application on July 9, 1956, but the patent—which consists of just two pages of text and four figures—wasn’t issued until September 27, 1960. Figures 2 through 5 are taken from the figures that appeared in the actual patent. The circuit that Campbell designed (Figure 2) has two inputs, one to tube T1 and the other to tube T2. Its output is terminal P, which is connected to the load, or the component that consumes power. Tube T1 is a pentode, with five active elements, while tube T2 is a pentode with the addition of a dynode, or electron multiplier, which causes secondary emission of electrons. The anode (or plate) of T1 is connected to the terminal P. The dynode of T2 is connected to terminal P, while its anode is connected to a positive voltage B+. Both tubes have bias voltages that normally leave them in a cut-off stage with no flow of electrons.
If a large positive voltage is applied to the input of T2, electrons flow to strike the dynode, which leads to a larger flow of electrons away from terminal P to the anode, causing the load voltage to increase rapidly. (For the circuit to work as intended, the load has to be a capacitor. If it were a resistor, the voltage introduced by the current flow would disappear as soon as T2 was turned off, while a capacitor will hold the voltage placed on it for a very short period of time.) If T2 is switched off and a similar positive voltage is then applied to the input of T1, electrons will flow from its anode toward terminal P, causing the voltage on the load to drop rapidly. This voltage will remain at this low level for a short time after T1 is turned off. The process is illustrated in Figure 3, which shows how an alternating series of input pulses result in a square wave at the output.
Other patterns of voltages applied to the two inputs will permit desired output waveforms to be generated. Figure 4 shows what happens when the input to T1 is set to a fixed voltage that places T1 slightly above cut-off, resulting in a gradual decrease in the voltage at terminal P. If a series of pulses is applied to the input of T2, the voltage at the load will abruptly rise each time, followed by a gradual decrease after the pulse is removed and the voltage falls through the action of T1, which leads to a sawtooth wave. Figure 5 depicts a series of small pulses applied to each tube, resulting in an increasing or decreasing stepped waveform.
The basic principle is simple enough, and an equivalent circuit could be developed today using solid-state devices. Unfortunately, it falls well short of Campbell’s goal of a circuit capable of generating any “desired waveform.” In the patent, Campbell says that these three examples “are to be considered illustrative of the many ways the circuit may be operated to generate a desired waveform,” leaving the problem of determining inputs for other waveforms as an exercise for the reader—meaning that it simply moves the problem back one step. (Even if the user could figure out the inputs needed to obtain the required output signal, there was no indication of how one was supposed to create these input waveforms.) In the end, it offered no real advantages, and the patent may have been motivated by little more than Campbell’s desire to have something to show for all his efforts.
In 1958, however, he returned to his original conception of a true waveform generator—and this time, he produced one that worked. His crucial decision was to employ an oscilloscope as the light source, which he had dismissed years earlier as impractical. By using a cathode ray tube with a very short persistence phosphor and driving the vertical deflection at a high rate of approximately 75 MHz, he obtained a vertical ribbon of light, even with the horizontal sweep as high as 500 KHz. The final result was a piece of test equipment similar to one that is still in use today, the Arbitrary Waveform Generator (AWG), which allows the user to define a waveform by specifying a series of points expressed in terms of time and voltage, rather than by drawing it. (The AWG, which operates on a purely electronic basis, can generate waveforms at much higher frequencies than Campbell’s system.)
Campbell’s version never made it out of the prototype stage, but it was used—in a decidedly unusual context—at least once. In the May 1962 issue of Analog, Campbell published an article by Dr. William O. Davis, the Director of Research at the Huyck Corporation, titled “The Fourth Law of Motion.” As postulated by Davis and others, the Fourth Law of Motion—which supposedly expanded on Newton’s three laws—asserted that the energy of a system can’t be changed instantaneously, but only over a finite time. The article, which attempted to explain certain characteristics of dynamic systems, credited Campbell with providing “consultation and specialized instruments.” In a letter to the teenage inventor Pat Flanagan, Campbell confirmed that this equipment included the waveform generator, which was used at Huyck “in some fourth-law-of-motion studies. They needed some weird waveforms.”
The Fourth Law of Motion inspired minimal interest from the scientific community, and Campbell’s involvement underlines the fact that even as he tinkered at home with relatively conventional ideas, he was building far stranger devices in his workshop at the same time. In 1953, he constructed a “panic generator” with a flickering fluorescent bulb, inspired by a discussion of strobe lights in The Living Brain by W. Grey Walter—a book that later led William S. Burroughs to experiment with a similar mechanism called the Dream Machine. As recounted in “The Campbell Machine” (Analog, July/August 2018), Campbell seriously investigated pseudoscientific devices designed by the inventors Welsford Parker and Galen Hieronymus, which allegedly drew on unexplained forms of energy, and he devoted several articles to the “reactionless” space drive patented by Norman L. Dean, whose work inspired Davis’s ideas.
For many fans, Campbell’s support of the Hieronymus Machine and the Dean Drive was inexplicable, and it raised the question of how a man who was so technically literate in other respects could allow himself to believe in the impossible. On some level, it may have been a form of wishful thinking. Campbell never ceased to hope that a great discovery would emerge from the magazine, and this impulse—which had led him to support dianetics, L. Ron Hubbard’s “modern science of mental health,” which survives today as the Church of Scientology—contributed to his almost messianic sense of mission. He badly wanted to come up with an invention that would make him rich, not just for the obvious financial rewards, but for the legitimacy that it would confer on both him and the genre. He once wrote to his sister, “The larger-scale crackpot has to be a millionaire to be a genius, and I’ll be a millionaire.”
The reference to the “crackpot” was especially revealing. Campbell embraced a vision of scientific discovery that was produced by outsiders, as embodied by the tinkerer in his workshop, much like the heroes of his early superscience stories. For most of his life, he described himself proudly as an amateur, which led him to champion fringe beliefs while remaining out of step with the some of the most important research of his time. Campbell enjoyed visiting labs and universities, but he was too independent to participate seriously in the collective efforts—exemplified by the Manhattan Project and the space program—required to meet challenges that were too complex for any one individual. Science fiction had dreamed for decades about atomic power and the moon landing, but when those goals were fulfilled at last, they arose from the contributions of thousands of professionals, not a few lone geniuses.
In the end, Campbell was left behind by the changing nature of scientific research. He clung throughout his life to an anachronistic notion of the heroic engineer and inventor—which, paradoxically, turned out to be one of his most significant contributions to the culture of the twentieth century. The competent man of science fiction was an unapproachable ideal, but it encouraged countless readers to enter engineering and the sciences, becoming part of the vast communal enterprise in which Campbell himself was never at home. Without the romantic vision of discovery that he presented, however, these fans might never have decided to devote their lives to science. Its values may have prevented Campbell from becoming the inventor he wanted to be, but the community that he created instead turned out to be his one great invention.
Sources: The quote from Isaac Asimov on Campbell’s fiction appears in the essay “Big, Big, Big,” which was first published as the introduction to the collection The Space Beyond. Much of the material on Campbell’s early history as an inventor can be found in Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction (Dey Street Books / HarperCollins) by Alec Nevala-Lee. Campbell describes his waveform generator in letters to Arthur Z. Gray (July 27 and August 8, 1954); Steve Cox (October 9, 1954); John Pierce (May 27, 1958); “Mr. Thomas” (July 12, 1958); Warren Creel (August 11, 1958); and Pat Flanagan (July 16, 1962), all of which can be found in the microfilm reels of The Complete Collection of the John W. Campbell Letters. G. Harry Stine discusses the research at Huyck in the article “Detesters, Phasers and Dean Drives” (Analog, June 1976). Campbell’s patent can be downloaded from https://patents.google.com