Robert Brooks

Robert Brooks

Interview Date: March 26, 1992
Interviewer: E. Stratford Smith


Robert Alan Brooks describes his first employer in the cable industry, Spencer-Kennedy Labs (SKL). He talks about the excellence of the equipment, installing the first phased antenna array, and doing signal surveys from aircraft. He names Jake Shekel as an innovator in the design of automatic slope control in amplifiers. In addition, he discusses the dispute within the company about developing transistorized equipment, leaving SKL and moving to Anaconda. He mentions Arie Zimmerman and Frank Drendel. On his return to SKL in the late sixties during a time of financial troubles, Brooks became an executive in operations. He names SKL as the premiere technical company in cable television in the early days of the industry, attributing much of this to fine teamwork. He also explores the demise of this business in 1969 and his move to consulting. He concludes by recalling more innovations of SKL and his role as an engineer.

Interview Transcript

SMITH: It is March 26, 1992. My name is E. Stratford Smith. I am a Professor of Communications at the School of Communications at Penn State University and Director of the Oral Histories Program of The National Cable Television Center. With me is Mr. Robert Brooks, the President of Brooks Telecommunications Corporation. Mr. Brooks is a pioneer in cable television. This interview is a part of a series of oral history interviews being conducted under the auspices of The National Cable Television Center and Museum here at Penn State. The histories are being taken of pioneers in the cable television industry as well as current executives. Mr. Brooks qualifies on both accounts. We are in the conference room of the Cable Television Center and Museum at Penn State.

We usually start with the vital statistics. I wonder if you would tell us your birth date and place of birth.

BROOKS: I certainly will, Strat. My full name is Robert Alan Brooks. I was born on May 10, 1932, in Boston, Massachusetts, to Elmer and Eileen Brooks. My dad, Elmer Brooks, was a career law enforcement officer in the city of Boston which was rather unique, being that he was born and raised in Briceville, Tennessee, the son of a coal mining family. I believe his education, up until the time he left home and went into the military, was equivalent to a fifth grade education as we know it today. My mother was Eileen M. Fay, the daughter of a prominent Boston-Irish family. Her dad, my grandfather Lou Fay, was very active in musical productions in vaudeville. My mother’s education was completed through the eighth grade in the parochial school system in Somerville, Massachusetts. I was the third of five children. I have one younger brother, one younger sister and two older sisters.

My older sister, Pauline Peck, is now retired and lives in Orlando, Florida. She was a very prolific writer of children’s literature and has been a guest writer for the Bill Cosby Show over the years. For approximately twenty-five years she was the editor of the Weekly Reader published at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

My other older sister, Virginia Regal, is in the twilight of a very successful career as a sales executive for a semiconductor firm. For the past ten years or so she has travelled extensively through the Far East bringing our technology to companies in that area.

My younger brother, Richard Brooks, is chairman and CEO of ChemDesign, on whose board I serve in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. It is a specialty chemical manufacturing company which he founded in 1981.

My younger sister, Beverly, has been an educator most of her career. Is a graduate of Boston College and of Harvard.

I go into this detail only to show that for five youngsters who had two parents with very limited education … our parent’s number one objective in life was to see that we were educated. All of the children have done so in accordance with their wishes.

SMITH: What brought your father from … was it Tennessee to Massachusetts to Boston?

BROOKS: My dad was working in a coal mine. Briceville was just outside of Knoxville. When he was in the fifth grade his father–who was also a coal miner–came down with black lung and was no longer able to work in the mines. His older brother, William, had been gassed in World War I and he was unable to work in the mines. So my dad became the sole support of the family for a period of time. Being very slight of build and being basically just a youngster, his job in the coal mines was the tapping and the plugging in of the dynamite charges. After seeing one or two of his coworkers disappear in premature blasts, my father decided that working in a coal mine was not for him. I guess you would say he ran away from home with a couple of other boys who were in similar situations. They hitchhiked to Memphis, Tennessee, and joined the Navy to see the world.

He was attached to the USS Colorado, one of the better-known battleships of that era in the early ’20s. My mother had an uncle who was the executive officer of the USS Colorado. The ship docked in Boston one time, I believe in 1923, and my dad was asked to escort my mother around the ship while my great aunt visited with her husband down in the wardroom. I think my mother at the time was 15 and my father was about 17. From that brief meeting on-board ship, they communicated by mail for the next three years. When he was discharged in 1926, he hitchhiked from San Diego to Boston, Massachusetts, and they were married.

Of course, the time being right in the middle of the Depression, he applied for every civil service job–because of his military background–that he was qualified for. I think he applied at the fire department, the police department, the postal department, the metropolitan police department … Having been a gunner’s mate in the Navy, when the application for the police department opened up first, he jumped on it. He became a very well-known, a very well-respected detective in the city of Boston. In fact, I would say that perhaps his most infamous or notorious case was the Boston Strangler. My dad was the police officer who had actually booked the Boston Strangler when he was turned over by F. Lee Bailey, who at that time represented the Boston Strangler. So my dad had a very successful career and died several years ago down in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and was buried in the military cemetery in Cape Cod. His death followed my mother’s death by just thirty days. They are buried side by side in the military cemetery in Cape Cod at Buzzards Bay.

SMITH: Can you tell us a little bit about your mother’s family background?

BROOKS: Well, I guess the one they talked about most in my mother’s background was her father, Lou, who was quite a prominent songwriter all through the turn of the century up through World War I. He was never sold on the idea of copyright protection that songwriters were required to file for. So he never released any of his songs for mass distribution or sales because he didn’t want to pay the copyright or the registration fee. He was very prolific, wrote hundreds of songs. I can recall when my mother passed away, finding box after box of songs he had written and had published under his own label but had never allowed to go into the mass market. It was quite interesting that even almost a hundred years ago the copyright was sort of a problem in the Brooks family.

SMITH: Has any effort been made since to select the best of them and publish them?

BROOKS: My younger sister who is now living down in Cape Cod … after my parents died she returned to the Cape and she is in the process of not only going through and logging all of his works but is also attempting to write some sort of a documentary, not only on my grandfather but on my dad. Because of his police career, he was amongst the … that case that I mentioned, there were several he was involved in that were rather noted. In 1967, the year I returned to Boston to Spencer-Kennedy, he was elected the Law Enforcement Officer of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce and received recognition for his career. So she is in the process of doing all of that.

SMITH: It’s a shame about the copyrights on the music because copyrighting is just about the easiest thing you can do these days. All you have to do is type “copyrighted” and your name and the date and it’s done.

BROOKS: He had a problem … I’m not quite sure. Not having known him all that well, I’m not really sure what his exact problem was but he just refused to allow his works to be mass produced. He was hardly ever protected … he just kept it all to himself. It was an unusual situation.

SMITH: Might have been another Irving Berlin for all we know.

BROOKS: Well, he did pretty good. He was known to take a drink on occasion. I guess as most vaudevillians did in those days. Being Irish and a vaudevillian, I guess … led a rather happy life.

SMITH: That’s great. Did you know that Irving Kahn is Irving Berlin’s nephew?

BROOKS: No, I did not. I’m glad to hear that.

SMITH: His full name is Irving Berlin Kahn and he was the nephew of the late Irving Berlin. And I’m not supposed to be testifying on this record.

BROOKS: No, but that is interesting. I never knew that. I’ve known Irving for a long, long time.

SMITH: Bob, let’s get into your own growing up activities as a boy. I assume, from what you have been saying, that you probably spent most of your boyhood in Boston or in the Boston area?

BROOKS: Yes. I was raised pretty much in Dorchester, a suburb of Boston. Being a police officer, my father was required to live within the city limits so I attended schools in Boston. I went to John Marshall Elementary School, Patrick B. Campbell Junior High School and Boston English. The one thing of note prior to starting high school, being the first-born son of an Irish mother, it was traditional in those days for the first-born son to go into the priesthood. So my mother, when I finished the eighth grade, very promptly enrolled me in the seminary. My father, of course, being from the south was not a Catholic although he eventually did convert. He was a Southern Baptist and it did not please my father that his first-born son was wearing a black robe. There was a little family gathering and it was decided that I would be removed from the seminary and would enter the public school system until I graduated from high school. At that point in time, if I opted to go back in voluntarily, then I would do that. If not, then I would proceed with my own life. So I think, perhaps, my father saved a real scandal in the Church, because eventually I wound up fathering eight children and it would be difficult to explain a Monsignor with eight children. So I did, I came back out of the seminary and went into Boston English High via Boston Latin High and graduated in 1949.

I was a good student but I was a lazy student which used to frustrate my dad. As I said, his one ambition in life was that his children were going to be educated. He had always felt bad that he had to leave school in the fifth grade. I think I was a sense of frustration to him because I was an honor student in math, I was an honor student in German, and yet my whole life was really centered around sports. I think I was a fairly successful football player in high school. I had received four or five scholarship offers. The one I ultimately decided to accept was at the Coast Guard Academy down in New London. Of course, growing up in Boston and with a dad who had been in the Navy, I was always very fond of anything to do with the ocean and with ships. I believe in 1948 the Coast Guard Academy had recruited Otto Graham as their new coach. So when the opportunity came to play football for the Coast Guard Academy, I decided that’s where I was going to go. There were only two things that I overlooked. One was that I wasn’t yet old enough to go into the military because you actually had to go into the Coast Guard to go to the Academy, you know the reserves, and I was only 16 when I actually came out of school. Also, in my last year of high school football I received an injury and the doctors felt I should sit out at least a year or two before I played. It was a neck injury and they felt it would be more comfortable for me to stay out.

So I enrolled at Northeastern University in their pre-legal course in 1949. You might remember that year. That was the year of the famous Brinks Robbery–the very first million-dollar robbery. That was my dad’s case as well … the very first Brinks case. I was not too happy going to college. I missed sports. All of my planning for college had been tied in with being a football player. I was missing something in the classroom where all I had was book work. So in 1950 when I was 17 I got permission from my parents and I dropped out of school and went into the service–into the Navy. I was enrolled in electronics school up in Great Lakes. I think it was an eight-month course for shipboard electronic technicians. Because it was an eight-month course, they only started one class a year. I had about three months to wait at Great Lakes after I had come out of boot camp before I could start my training. They put me to work at the commissary for three months. My principle job was unloading sides of beef from reefers and bringing them into the commissary.

SMITH: Kept you in good shape.

BROOKS: Yes, it did. I did that for about a month and I still had two months of it in front of me. I wasn’t too happy about getting up at 4:30 in the morning. But that must have paid off because I still, from 4:30 on in the morning, am usually awake. I came into my barracks one night and they had a sign posted that they were looking for electronic technician candidates who were willing to switch to the naval air technician school. It was located in Memphis, Tennessee. Of course, my dad being from Tennessee and it still being an electronics school and getting out of that commissary, I volunteered very quickly. I think within twenty-four hours I was on a train down to Millington, Tennessee, where I spent about a year being trained in the various aspects of electronics in naval aviation. I wound up becoming a radar specialist. The Navy in 1950 and ’51 was still in the very early stages of adapting radar to aircraft. They had successfully done it on the ships but they still … the equipment we had in those days was very marginal. The first radar that we mounted was an old APS-4. After completing about a year of school on radar, the Korean War started, and while I was in school they called up or reactivated several World War II squadrons to active duty. I think any time you do that there’s always a certain percentage of the reservists who for one reason or other–job, health, family–don’t come on active duty. They get released from their obligation. So they would beef up those reserve squadrons with regulars and I was one of the regulars that was assigned to an air anti-submarine squadron, VS-27. My job with that squadron was to train everyone on the use of radar and the other communications equipment in the aircraft. We were assigned, again taken out of mothballs, the old TBM-TBFs from World War II.

SMITH: You refer to that as the PBM?

BROOKS: TBM, torpedo bomber. It was a very famous World War II bomber. In fact, that’s what President Bush was flying when he was shot down. I was responsible for installing all of the APS-4 radar and training the crews on the use of radar. One of my other duties, and I had volunteered to do it because I had started to develop a real love of flying, I enjoyed it very much … In the Navy, because of the carrier activity with our aircraft, about every thirty hours of flight time the aircraft were taken off of flight status and all the electronics equipment and various hydraulics all had to be checked. One of the other jobs that I was assigned was the test flights that had to be made after all of this repair work had been done. Before the plane went back on active flight status it had to be test flown and I was the technician who would go up with the test pilot. Not a very nice way to be introduced to naval aviation but that’s how I got into it. The pilots used to rotate this test duty between them. They were all regular pilots. I was flying with one one day whose radio operator had been transferred and he said to me, “You know I’ve flown with you several times. What would you think if I had the skipper put you into my crew?” And I said, “I think I would like that very much.” So he spoke to the skipper, Commander Brassfield, and he had me transferred from the maintenance force to full flight status. I spent the next year and a half as a regular member of his crew.

SMITH: Now was that flying duty?

BROOKS: It was flying duty. I had about forty-seven carrier landings and take-offs during that period of time. I think one thing people someday might find interesting is the name of that pilot who recruited me. He was a lieutenant junior grade at the time, I believe, and he subsequently was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor as the senior naval officer in captivity in Vietnam–Vice Admiral James Stockdale. He was my pilot.

Here in 1984, I believe, he wrote a book entitled In Love and War. The thing that was unique about the book is that he would write one paragraph about what was going on in his life in the POW camp and his wife, Sybil, wrote the next paragraph as to what it was like as the wife of a POW trying to raise three boys and not knowing whether he was alive or dead. They wrote the book that way. I found it fascinating.

At the time he wrote that book I was undergoing heart surgery and he forwarded a first edition, personally autographed copy to me. He had a great career in the Navy, retired as a vice admiral and I believe now is on the staff at Stanford. It was fine. One of the last things that he did in 1953 was recommending me for flight training. So I went through the rigmarole, the testing and so forth which was unusual because I had not completed two years of college. I had only had about half of one year and the Navy at that time without a waiver required at least two years. But I got through it and I did get the waiver and I was awaiting orders to be transferred to Pensacola, Florida.

About that time the Korean War wound down and they had to cut back on the number of pilots they were going to train. The first thing they did, apparently, was to drop those of us who were there on waivers. They offered me the opportunity to go back to my squadron or to take an early discharge. So I took the early discharge for several reasons. One, I had been dating the same girl all of this time. We had met when we were sophomores in high school, I think we were 14. Joanne Marie Schneider was her name. We dated for seven years and she was very disappointed when I was determined to make the military a career and go into flight training. She said that she didn’t want to be married to a career military man. So when things really didn’t work out, it wasn’t too difficult for me to decide not to go back in as a career enlisted man. So I came out of the Navy and we got married. Then I went back to Northeastern University. But this time because of all the electronic training in the Navy, I enrolled in the School of Engineering. That was 1953.

Very shortly thereafter she became pregnant with out firstborn, Marguerite. It became obvious to me that the G.I. Bill was not going to be sufficient to carry me through school and that if I wanted to stay in school I had to have another job. I needed a job where I could work nights so I decided that the one thing that I did know and understand quite a bit about was police work. So I became a police officer. I worked nights for five years as a police officer while I was getting my engineering degree during the day at Northeastern University. It was quite interesting but I was glad at the end of five years to give my badge back. I could not have done what my dad did and spent a whole lifetime doing that. But it gave me insurance. It was probably a good thing because our first four children were born … We were married in July of ’53 and our first one was born in May of ’54; the next one was May of ’55; and the next one was May of ’56; and the next one was September ’57.

SMITH: Will you identify the children and tell us what their basic activities are?

BROOKS: All right. My oldest daughter is Marguerite Forrest. Marguerite is the mother of four children and she is an officer of Brooks Telecommunications Corporation. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri. Marguerite is a graduate of Southwest Missouri State.

My older son, Bob, Jr. died in 1974. Bob had just completed his first year at Southeast Missouri State University and was working on an engineering survey crew for me in cable television when he was killed in an automobile accident in Connecticut.

My next oldest is Patricia Ann Gibson. Her husband, Mike, is employed by my former company, CENCOM Cable, which was sold to Hallmark in December of 1991. She is the mother of two children and resides in St. Louis. Patricia is a graduate of Southeast Missouri State.

Next is Deborah Jean Duncan. Deborah lives in Atlanta. Her husband, Bob, is International Vice President of Sales for an electrical distribution manufacturing firm in Atlanta. She has two children. Deborah’s degree was an associate’s degree out of Meramec Junior College in St. Louis.

Next would be Michael Joseph. Mike is a graduate of the University of Missouri. Michael is presently in the marketing division of Anheuser Busch. Great cable guy. It’s a shame that I couldn’t get him to stay with me. He worked cable all through high school and all through college but he wanted to try something different. Michael is married with two children. He and his wife Martha, live in St. Louis.

Then my son John Kevin. John also is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia. He is presently a Senior Vice President for Brooks Telecommunications and is responsible for the regulatory and political liaison activities in the formulation of this new business venture. He serves as Executive Vice President of one of our subsidiary companies. He and his wife Cindy live in St. Louis.

Then the next one is Maureen. She graduated from the University of Missouri as well. Maureen is married to a Navy pilot, Lieutenant David Spitznagel. She lives out in northern California. David has decided that he is not going to make the Navy a career. They have two youngsters and this six month sea duty tour that Navy pilots take each year is just too much for him. So he has about another year and a half to go and they will return to St. Louis.

And then the last but certainly not the least of the Brooks clan is Mary Katherine Brooks. Mary was born in 1976 long after her brothers and sisters were grown. She’s really been a blessing to us. As I mentioned earlier when Bob, Jr. died in 1974, it was a very difficult thing. She came along just at the right time and she filled a big void in our lives and sort of helped us get everything back on course. She’s now a sophomore at St. Joseph’s Academy in St. Louis. Trying to decide if she wants to be a lawyer or a doctor or an Indian chief. She’s a good student so I think that she will do well.

SMITH: Please identify Mrs. Brooks and her background. She’s the only one we haven’t talked about and we can’t leave her out.

BROOKS: Well, she is the only one. She’s been the only one for me for an awfully long time. I met my wife when I was a sophomore in high school and she was a sophomore in high school. Of course, I was a city boy. My dad being from Tennessee–the Blue Ridge Mountains of Tennessee, as he used to call them–as soon as he had a few dollars he bought himself a little rundown summer home on a lake in a town called Hopkinton, Massachusetts, which perhaps is most well known for the marathon that is run there each year. That’s where the Boston Marathon starts–Hopkinton–twenty-eight miles west of Boston. He decided he was going to buy this old rundown little building and fix it up into a summer place. So he had me join him for that first summer digging cesspools and digging a well and fixing the place up. One of the nice things about that high school being twenty-eight miles west of Boston–as I mentioned earlier, I was a very avid football player–they were allowed to start football practice in August where the city schools couldn’t start until September. I had met a couple of the local high school boys, and they had gotten permission from the coach for me to work out with their football team through the month of August. One Saturday after football practice we went down to the lake swimming. My wife and two of her friends saw that there was a strange guy with guys that they knew and they couldn’t quite figure. This is going to sound crazy but it’s an actual true story. So they decided they wanted to find out who I was. As young girls will do, to get the attention of the three of us in the canoe, they started throwing stones at the canoe. My wife threw a stone which hit me on the side of the head and knocked me out of the canoe. I needed about five stitches.

SMITH: Oh my goodness.

BROOKS: But what really upset her was that I found initially I liked her girlfriend better. We certainly soon worked that out and we started dating that fall when I went back to Boston for my junior year in high school and we dated all the way up through the Navy. Then as soon as I was out of the Navy we got married.

Her name was Joanne Marie Schneider and she was born in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, to an Irish-Catholic mother and, almost like mine, a German-Protestant father–Fred Schneider. Fred was a salesman for Nabisco and her mother was Marguerite McCarthy. This perhaps is a little bit unusual for a son-in-law to say but I think that she was perhaps the closest think to a saint of any woman I had ever met. She was a lovely lady. In fact the one thing I always felt bad about is that she died before our first was born so that she never did get to see her grandchildren. That’s why our oldest girl was named after her grandmother, Marguerite. It was really too bad. Her dad lived for another twenty-five years. We were married in July of ’53 and her mother took sick in August of ’53 and died early in 1954, a couple of months before the baby was born.

We then took care of Joanne’s father and her uncle, Joseph McCarthy who had never married. Joe was a typical Irish bachelor, he should have been a priest. Joe was the one who should have been the priest. He spent more time in church, I think, than the priest did. But they stayed with us up and through ’65 and then we moved from Boston to Chicago and then to L.A. and then came back in ’67. Literally they both stayed with us until they died. Joanne became responsible for the family. They were both great guys. One was Republican; one was a Democrat. One had been in the Navy; one had been in the Army. You know, they never agreed on anything. They were our own “odd couple.” We really enjoyed them. They are both since gone.

Joanne has one brother, Paul, who lives in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Paul has been on the fringes of the cable business for the past thirty years. Paul was active in hospital systems that involved communications–radio and TV–and installing them in hospital systems which he’s done pretty much all of his business career … for RCA, I think it is. But that was her side of the family.

SMITH: I didn’t dare let the record go by without covering her.

BROOKS: I’m glad you caught me on that because she is the mother of eight children.

SMITH: I don’t want to leave the sports subject without finding out what positions you played.

BROOKS: Well, in those days … limited substitution, there was none of that. You played, you had to go both ways. I was a center on offense and I was a linebacker on defense. I really preferred defense. I really enjoyed … I was small, I think for a linebacker but in those days … I think I weighed like 165 pounds or something. In Boston English in my senior year our line averaged 206 pounds so we had a pretty strong high school football team. I was a little bit too light to work on the line but as a linebacker I could move fairly well. And that’s where I played and that’s really what I was going to play at the Coast Guard Academy was defense.

SMITH: Did your high school team win any local championships?

BROOKS: We never really had championships in those days but we had an annual rivalry with Boston Latin. Boston Latin was the very first private high school in the United States and Boston English was the very first public high school in the United States. When they were first opened they were actually in the same facility–they shared the same facility. So the rivalry became very natural. Boston Latin pretty well catered to students on their way to Harvard of the more affluent families. They were the Boston Latin school attendees. That subsequently changed. In fact, my younger brother, Dick, graduated from Boston Latin. In fact, I spent two years at Latin and then was asked to go elsewhere because of my temper. That was when I went to English. They said I was a good student but sports meant more to me than school. At Boston Latin school had to come first and sports second. So it was decided that perhaps I should go elsewhere.

SMITH: You don’t want to elaborate on the temper, do you?

BROOKS: Well, I think maybe I had a lot of my Irish grandfather’s temper. I think that I was a frustration not only to my dad but to a lot of my teachers because they couldn’t understand … I had the same professor that taught me German, Latin and Greek. I would get high honors in German and I would get an “A” in Latin but I was lucky if I was passing Greek. Because Greek didn’t mean anything to me but it was required, you know. I would be lucky if I could get a passing grade in English yet I was all honors in math. They could never get me to concentrate on things that I didn’t like. If I didn’t see a need for it, I didn’t concentrate on it. To me, everything was sports and they just decided that perhaps I should go elsewhere. So I transferred to English.

But to get back to the sports, the big football rivalry high school in those days in Boston was the Boston Latin/Boston English game. It used to pull such a crowd that the game was held at Harvard Stadium on Thanksgiving Day. It was always the biggest high school game and held at Harvard Stadium. The thing that was unique about it, the two years in high school that I spent at Boston Latin, Boston Latin won that game. The two years that I spent at English, Boston English won. So that although I went to both schools, I never played on a losing team at a Boston English/Boston Latin game. But to this day my brother and I always bet on that game every year because he eventually graduated from Latin. In fact, he was drafted by the Boston Celtics. He was quite a basketball player. My brother grew up and I grew out.

SMITH: Well, that should have taught Boston Latin a lesson, shouldn’t it?

BROOKS: I would like to think that it did but I’m sure that it really didn’t enter their minds, Strat. It was interesting. You know, going through college we did a lot of things. As I said, my principle occupation through college was a police officer but I also would fill in … In fact, I was a police officer in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, where we settled after we married because we had to take care of my wife’s family. I also worked as a bartender there. I worked, believe it or not, as a floral designer. I had a brother-in-law who had a florist business and I worked for him. So anything to earn money while I was trying to get through school was pretty well done. I think they figured out that I averaged for five years, four hours of sleep a night. Then I would study twenty hours on Sundays. That was when I did all my studying.

SMITH: One thing that I think we’ve missed in here was when you went back to Northeastern University. You left before you graduated, didn’t you, to go into the Navy? What was the route back again?

BROOKS: Well, when I got out of the Navy I decided that I wanted to follow an engineering career. So I went back and re-enrolled in Northeastern but then in the School of Engineering. If you’re not familiar with Northeastern, Northeastern University is the largest privately-endowed university that espouses the cooperative form of education. The typical undergraduate engineering course is five years. Your first year is like a regular college curriculum. But your last four years you attend class for six months and you work for six months at a job obtained for you by the university that has a direct correlation with your career path. So at the university level, for every seat in the university, that seat has two students at a given time. One student would be attending class and one would be working and then they would flop. So as a result you were going all year round. And the work was required. It was not optional–you had to do that. It was a requirement for your degree. We had a ten-week semester. So you would work for ten weeks and ten weeks and then it was five weeks and five weeks. That went the last four years.

My brother was a year ahead of me because he had graduated from high school and didn’t have the military. So he graduated in the class of ’57 and I graduated in the class of ’58. He was a chemical engineer and I was an electrical engineer.

But that was my introduction actually to cable television which I think is a very interesting story in itself.

SMITH: Well, let’s go into that story. This is a good time.

BROOKS: This is exactly how it came about. I had finished my first year as a freshman and they had assigned me for the work part of my program to Foxborough Instrument Company. I think I had spent one five-week term at Foxborough Instrument and really wasn’t too pleased with it. So when I came back for my five-week summer school session, I went to my coordinator and I said, “I would like something a little bit different. You know, I spent a lot of time in the military and I’m an electronic technician–I was licensed.” I said, “The jobs that they’re giving me are below what I think I’m capable of doing.” And he said, “Well, I’m glad that you came to me.” His name was Professor Alvin Borman. He just died here a couple of years ago, unfortunately. A nice, nice man. He spent his whole career at Northeastern. He said, “I have a request here for one student for a company over in Cambridge. They want a mature student–hopefully one that’s married–and one that has had some prior experience in electronics.” He said, “Would you be interested in something like that?” And I said, “Well, certainly.” He gave me the address and the company was Spencer-Kennedy Laboratories and it was over on, I believe it was, Mass. Avenue over in Cambridge. He said, “You’ll find it easy. It just diagonally across from M.I.T.” He said, “There’s a group of M.I.T. engineers who have started this company.”

End of Tape 1, Side A

SMITH: This is Side B of Tape 1 of the oral history interview with Mr. Robert Brooks. Bob you were telling us a moment ago about your introduction to cable with Spencer-Kennedy Labs. Would you pick up from there?

BROOKS: Yes. Mr. Borman gave me the name of the chief engineer of the company and the phone number and he said he will be expecting you to call to set up and arrange for an interview. The chief engineer of Spencer-Kennedy–or SKL as we will refer to it as we go along through the tape–was Lester Smith. He was a graduate of Georgia Tech. I called Mr. Smith and I arranged an interview.

This would have been the fall of 1954. Our first child had been born on May 4th of 1954 and my wife was already expecting our second. So she had the infant with us in the car and I said, “Well, the appointment’s at eleven o’clock and I’m sure it’s not going to run too long.” I said, “Why don’t you wait in the car and I’ll run up and interview.” Usually for first year college students the interview didn’t take fifteen or twenty minutes. I think if you had two arms and two legs and could walk they would hire you. So I went up. They were upstairs above a barroom. Just a little old corner bar that you’d see all over Cambridge–a little neighborhood bar–and Spencer-Kennedy was up on the second floor. So I went in and introduced myself to the receptionist and she said, “Yes, Mr. Smith is expecting you. Would you wait in the conference room.” So it was a room similar to this and I went in and sat in the conference room. I could look out the window and there was my automobile and my wife sitting down there with a little four month old infant in the car. In about ten minutes Mr. Smith came in and he introduced himself. We chatted for about ten minutes. He was asking me a little bit about my background and so forth. His secretary or someone came in and said, “Mr. Smith you have a phone call.” He excused himself and he said, “I will be right back.” This was probably twenty minutes to twelve. So I sat there and I sat there and I sat there and twelve o’clock came and no Lester Smith. And I sat there and twelve fifteen came and no Lester Smith. And twelve thirty came and no Lester Smith. And I’m looking down at my wife … you know it was getting uncomfortable. So I got up and I walked out to the secretary and I said, “You know I’ve been waiting for Mr. Smith now for forty-five minutes.” You’ll see some sign of my temper here. She said, “You are. Mr. Smith went out to lunch about half an hour ago.” I said, “Well you tell Mr. Smith. I appreciated the interview.” And I stormed out. I was furious.

SMITH: You should be.

BROOKS: I went down, got in the automobile and my wife says, “Where have you been?” I said, “You’re not going to believe this story.” I got mad driving that he would be that discourteous. So I got home and I started to study. I worked ten at night until six in the morning and I used to study in the early afternoon. I was upstairs studying and the phone rang about two thirty or three o’clock and it was Lester Smith.. He and I eventually became very good friends. Lester’s a typical southern gentleman. Just a great guy. And he said, “Mr. Brooks, I really don’t know how to say this. I have to apologize to you. I got involved in a telephone conversation. Mr. Kennedy came in and he had a luncheon appointment that he needed me at.” He said, “Mr. Kennedy is the president and I totally lost track of the fact that you were still in the conference room. I don’t know how to apologize to you.” Strat, to make a long story short, he hired me. I think he was so embarrassed that he had no choice. But he hired me, you know. I went to work at Spencer-Kennedy. That would have been in … I think my first job there started like December of ’54 when I had finished my September, October and half of November. So I guess I started there in November of 1954.

SMITH: Were they in the business of developing cable equipment at that time?

BROOKS: They were just getting it off the ground. They had originally started with a high tech line of electronic filters. They had a lot of government contracts. They were doing a lot of radar work. That was one of the reasons why I think Lester Smith was interested in me because of my radar background. They had Air Force contracts. They were developing ground control approach radars for Air Force bases. They had really hoped to expand on that business. They were doing a lot of work in the optical systems and the housings for nuclear submarines. One of the circuits that they were using in some of this equipment that they were using under license from E.M.I. of England was the distributed circuit.

SMITH: What does E.M.I. stand for?

BROOKS: Electrical and Musical Industries. It would be like the RCA of England. E.M.I. and they had a branch in Canada–E.M.I. Cosser in Canada. It was a big electronics firm in England. Their chief scientist was Dr. Percival. Dr. Percival, I believe, is credited as the founder of television. He was very active in the design of radar during World War II for the British government and prior to World War II had been involved in the development of broadcast television facilities. One of the circuits that he had developed and had a patent on was the distributed circuit.

SMITH: Now is that distributed?

BROOKS: Yes, distributed. And where that comes from is that a normal multiple stage amplifier, and by stage each stage would have two to three vacuum tubes in it. To get the total gain of the amplifier the stages would multiply. It would be three times three times two. You always had to have an odd or an even to get your final gain. Well, Purcival had come up with an amplifier where the stages added instead of multiplied. The reason for that was reliability. If you lost the tube, as long as it was not the output tube of the stage, you did not lose signal through the amplifier. What you did was you had a reduction in gain but the amplifier continued to function. Fitzroy Kennedy and Lester Smith and, I believe, an engineer by the name of Bill Simon, and “Sox”–Argyle Bridgett–who’s a pioneer. And then Bill Simon was on the team, Lester Smith, and I was assigned to it as a technician. Bill Headley had been brought in as vice president of sales to get us going in the cable market because it was a natural. The only problem was a twelve channel amplifier.

SMITH: You mean a broadband?

BROOKS: A broadband distributed amplifier. It was called a 212.

SMITH: And this was in ’56?

BROOKS: Oh no. They were working on this when I got there so this would have been ’54. I think that they had actually put test models up in Canada. We did a lot of work with Bell of Canada in the early ’50s. In Canada, as you might recall, the early cable systems were leasebacks from Bell of Canada.

SMITH: Yes they were.

BROOKS: And this equipment had been type approved for sale to the Bell system by Bell Labs. SKL was one of the leaders, I think, in type approval from Bell Labs on their equipment so we did a lot of work with the Bell system when cable leasebacks were popular. In fact, I spent a couple years up in Canada building cable systems for Spencer-Kennedy. But it was a marvelous amplifier. It had 20 dB of gain, twelve channel, broadband. It went from 50 to 212 megahertz. But there was only one problem with it. You couldn’t convince anyone to buy it because they would say, “Why do we need twelve channels?” You know they had just gone from the old three channel strip systems and they were looking at the low band, the five channel stuff. And they said, “We don’t need twelve. Why are we paying for twelve?” So we actually had to bring that unit back in the house and redevelop it into a narrower band. We did it and we called it the 211 amplifier which was the five channel unit.

SMITH: That is fascinating.

BROOKS: These are the things about Spencer-Kennedy that most people have forgotten because Spencer-Kennedy went away. You know, they didn’t stay in cable. They actually had to go backwards from the twelve channel to a five channel in order to stay in the cable industry. We never really got that twelve channel on the way until we got active in ’57 and ’58 with the Ed Allens and the Bob Reagans and the Cliff Krooms. Bill and I were able to show those people why they should put in the twelve channel amplifier as opposed to a five so that they could start to take advantage of the weather channel equipment as it came out. You know, the cost differential was so small to have that spare capacity available for future uses. Look where we are now–they’re talking 150 channels. But it took us three years to sell twelve.

SMITH: Now to me that’s an absolutely fascinating story. I was around in those days but I was not aware of the fact that there was a usable twelve channel amplifier available to the industry. And the fact that they wouldn’t buy it because they didn’t have twelve channels is fascinating.

BROOKS: Isn’t it. In fact I think, and I would have to go back to really check this, but the first full system deployment with the 212 amplifier, I believe, was Nick Sanguenetti in Barre, Vermont. We did one in Keene, New Hampshire I think, for Al Ricci. We did several in Canada. Bell of Canada loved it, you know–Three Rivers, Quebec; Shawinigan Falls … I’d have to look at a map but we put several systems up in Canada with it.

SMITH: Do you remember what years you did Sanguenetti and Al Ricci?

BROOKS: I would make a guess they were ’55, ’56 in there. You’ve got to remember, from ’54 to ’58 I was still a student so that half of the time I was in school and only half of the time I was at SKL. A lot of this went on … I was working. I used to run the test labs on this sort of thing. I would say we probably did Barre in 1956. And at the same time that we were doing Barre I think we were doing Naples, Florida, for Doug Dancer with the 211, with the five channel because we couldn’t convince Doug that he needed twelve channels. So we actually had the two lines going. In fact, one company actually copied the 212 and there was litigation over it because we had a patent for it. We were building it and selling it under a patent that we had gotten from E.M.I.–Amplivision, I believe.

SMITH: I remember the name.

BROOKS: They copied the amplifier and came on the market with it. SKL’s attorneys brought suit and they had to take it back off the market. They somewhere had gotten their hands on a copy of it.

SMITH: Did SKL get any damages for the infringement?

BROOKS: No. One of the things about SKL and with Don Spencer … In fact to this day I thank God that I started my business career with the Fitzroys and the Donald Spencers and the Bill Headleys. These people, although they were “Boston stuffy,” as we would call it … in fact I’ll tell you the story about the time when I was promoted to chief engineer when Don Spencer called me into his office. But their business ethics were so high it was unbelievable. They would lose a sale rather than to do or say something than was incorrect. To me, they were top rate. And I think that was one of the reasons why they had difficulty as a group of Boston engineers with that high an ethic to get out and compete in a world that they really didn’t understand. It made it very difficult for them because they wouldn’t tell falsehoods. They wouldn’t embellish any of their specifications. If anything, they would be conservative on their specifications. They never would really market the way you and I would look at marketing today or the way Milt Shapp used to market, you know. Freddy Lieberman, who in these early days, was the sales manager for Jerrold at the same time that I was first active in cable. It was funny, after Fred left Jerrold and he started his own company, the first three systems that he built for himself were Ishpeming, Marquette and Negaunee in the upper peninsula of Michigan. These were the first three that he built, okay. He came to Spencer-Kennedy … Don Spencer called me into his office and he said, “Fred Lieberman is going to give us a contract to build these three cable systems.” Now remember, I’ve been competing against Fred …

SMITH: That’s astounding.

BROOKS: Yeah. I’m looking at him and I said, “Well Don, I can’t get to those for like four months. I’ve got these other systems to build.” And he said … I wasn’t a real strong marketing guy either. I didn’t realize what a coup it was for SKL to have gotten Fred Lieberman’s business.

SMITH: Yeah, Jerrold’s sales manager.

BROOKS: And he said, “You will build those NOW.” But Fred came and took our equipment to build his systems up in the Upper Peninsula. That’s how good the equipment was. And then ultimately, I think whenever the protection went away on the licensing, you know Jerrold then came out with the similar equipment. The twelve channel broadband distributed amplifier then became the standard. But SKL had that–sat for years–and couldn’t sell it until other people started to pick it up.

SMITH: Bob, before we get away from those early days, as I mentioned to you off the tape, we don’t have any source of information about the founders of that company. That is, we don’t have it in the record. Could you give us a little bit of the background of Don Spencer and Fitzroy Kennedy to the extent … You know, how they got together and got that company moving.

BROOKS: Yes I will. Now this, again, is to the best of my knowledge. You’ve got to remember that I was just a young student engineer when I met Don and Fitz.

SMITH: Your memory doesn’t seem to be failing you.

BROOKS: Fitzroy was, I think, and to this day is known as one of the more brilliant engineers that was around the Cambridge and M.I.T. … the Harvard educational environment. He came up with this concept. I think his original product line was an electronic filtering system–the model 300, model 302 electronic filters. They were used a lot in marine research. They were used in aircraft research. The application in aircraft was interesting–testing the strength of the wings on new aircraft. They would flutter the wings and they needed a filtering system that could filter out the vibrations. It was rather an elaborate scheme. They were used, as I said, in periscope housings on submarines. The Woods Hole Institute had several. In fact I had, in the early days … it’s a shame that this material is all gone … where we actually had recorded through one of these filters. We were able to narrow their frequencies down. They were band pass and band reject, high pass, low pass filters. The mating of shrimp … we actually had that on tape.

SMITH: The mating of shrimp?

BROOKS: The sexual mating of shrimp.

SMITH: Could you understand the language?

BROOKS: No, but the scientists told us what we were hearing. You know, they wanted us to help them to filter out all of the extraneous noise. And we were able to do this. But that was the original product that they started the company with.

Fitzroy was the president, of course, being an engineer. He had gone to the financial community, I believe to the old New England Merchants Bank in Boston. The banking officer was Art Snyder who became very famous in cable for about fifteen years as one of the premiere lenders to cable. In order to get some equity, Art Snyder introduced him to Scudder Stevens and to Don Spencer. Don Spencer represented the Brewster family. This is the Mayflower Brewster family I was told–George W. W. Brewster.

SMITH: By Mayflower …

BROOKS: The old Mayflower–the Brewsters that came over on the Mayflower. This was an old New England family and George Brewster was related to the pilgrims.

SMITH: What was the source of that family’s money, just for background?

BROOKS: That I really don’t know but he was extremely wealthy. I know he was very active in real estate. Whether that was the principle source of it or not, Strat, I don’t know. He was very wealthy, very active in real estate. And they convinced George Brewster to put up the equity portion of the capital. And again, the other unknown is why they used Don’s name because when I joined Spencer-Kennedy in 1954, I did not know Don Spencer. Don was not active in the company. He was a director. In fact he might have been chairman, I’m not sure. He was on the board but he represented the Brewster interests. Don was with Scudder, Stevens & Clark in Boston in investment banking.

I want to say it was about 1956 or ’57 when we were really starting to get going in cable, really getting active. Our product line was being accepted. Bill Headley was doing a great job particularly up in the Minnesotas with the people that we’ve talked about. The company had the need to expand and at that point in time Don Spencer was brought in as president. I think, and again I can’t prove this thing but I know what we talked about the time, that it was done at the request of the bankers and of the Brewster family that they felt if they were going to put more money into this that they wanted someone running it who had a financial background as opposed to a technical one. So Don then came in as president of the company. And we relocated in 1957 or ’58 from Cambridge over to Brighton, over on the Boston side. We wound up then for years at 1320 Soldiers Field Road, Brighton. And from the time that we were over there, Don Spencer was the president. Fitzroy gradually faded out of the picture and went off on other endeavors. Don Spencer brought in as the chief engineer, a retired engineer from Bell Labs, Dr. Walter Albersheim. He came in as chief engineer. This would have been in the late ’50s or early ’60s.

In the meantime I had continued to work more and more in the cable industry. One of the biggest problems that we had in cable in those days, as you will remember, was getting signals over any great distance into the cable systems. In about 1956 I was assigned to work with one of our field engineers, Winfield Bemis–Win Bemis. Win’s responsibility at Spencer-Kennedy was to design the towers and the antenna arrays for importing the distant signals. When Win found out that I was noted for my agility with math, he asked for me to be assigned to him to work on a phased array for the elimination of co-channel which was the big bugaboo in trying to bring in distant signals.

SMITH: By now, then, you’ve graduated from …

BROOKS: No, I was still in school–I was a senior. Although at that time, I think because of my age and all of my prior experience, even when I was in class I was active in the company. In other words, I stayed in the police department all this time because I got my medical insurance through the police department but when I would finish school at three o’clock I would drive over to Brighton and spend another two or three hours there at Spencer-Kennedy and then I would go home and get dressed to go to work at the police department. So I became much more active with Spencer-Kennedy my last two years. The chemistry just worked fine–I was happy and they were happy with me. They got me involved in all these projects.

SMITH: Finish the Win Bemis story. I didn’t mean to interrupt that.

BROOKS: Well, Win was trying to find a solution to the co-channel. He got it into his head that by the use of phased arrays that there had to be a mathematical solution to the positioning of antennas in order to enhance the reception of the desired signal and to negate the reception of the undesired signal, okay? So he assigned that to me to come up with a mathematical solution for the design of antenna arrays. I’m not even sure, Strat, that I can pull it out but I’m going to try. I’m going to say that it was: S sine of theta – R x 1 – the cosine of theta = N lambda over 2/

SMITH: I want for the tape to show that Bob is writing down a formula that was related to his work on this co-channel problem.

BROOKS: 1957.

SMITH: We will want that formula and your sketch to be in the oral history.

BROOKS: What this all stood for was that if you took two yagi antennas, S was the distance between them this way (horizontally) and R was the distance that one was advanced over the other–was the R distance.

SMITH: Vertically?

BROOKS: Vertically. And theta was the angle between the desired signal and the undesired signal taken clockwise. And lambda was the wavelength.

SMITH: I’m acting like I understood this, of course.

BROOKS: Well, it was fascinating. In fact, this is really what made me fall in love with cable. It really did. And N was any odd integer. And I worked and worked and worked on this thing and I finally came up with it. And I said to Win, “All right, I think I can do this for you but could you build the tower exactly where I ask you to build it?” He said, “What do you mean?” We were using triangular towers, okay, and I said, “I need for you to see that when that tower is built that at least one leg is on true zero,” so that my calculations then could be plugged in. Because without this, I couldn’t calculate theta. So we worked together on this thing and I think we put in the first phased array into Winona, Minnesota. That’s why I was out in Winona in 1957 with Win and met Ed Allen. We put this in and this subsequently … When SKL went out of business, this whole concept was, I believe, transferred to Scientific-Atlanta–the sale of the phased antenna arrays. But that also came out of SKL.

SMITH: Co-channel has always been the bane of the cable industry’s existence. Isn’t it still a problem today?

BROOKS: Well, I think today they’re able to filter this thing quite well. The thing that really helps the co-channel … what we used to call the zero beat co-channel was the problem. That’s where the two stations had exactly the same frequency. If you take a channel 6, for instance, as you go across the country you’d have one exactly on frequency and the next one would be the frequency plus 10 kc, the next one would be the frequency minus 10 kc. There were frequency offsets and depending on which two were beating together, if you had a minus 10 kc and a plus 10 kc beating, you would get a very fine line. It was very fine. But if you had a zero beat you had a very wide … That was the one that was objectionable. What we did is we eliminated it this way. Where today they use the filtering techniques to take it out because they can filter the 10 kc.

SMITH: Now did you develop a proprietary interest in this? Is it something that you could have patented and if so, did you?

BROOKS: It probably should have been patented but it wasn’t because we had the antennas designed by a company in Brighton that was called Lake Service Corporation. They designed the antennas for us. In order to get the separations that these calculations would give us, we had to mount them out on brackets so you would have antennas like that. And for the low channels, channels 2 through 6, we used … I believe these were ten foot brackets that would come out. They were just like gates. In fact, that’s what we called them. They were gates that actually bolted onto the leg of the tower and that gave you the offsets that we needed to space the antennas. And then the high channels, they were six foot gates. They would come out six feet from the tower. So you could always tell an SKL designed system in those days. You would see all of our antennas. They weren’t mounted on a tower, they were all mounted out on these gates. And that was to minimize the co-channel.

We experimented with several but this was the most successful. We also did for one of the other … I don’t want to get too technical on this because it’s been too long. But in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and Bemidji, Minnesota, I designed and installed an extrapolated rhombic antenna which was a huge ground level installation… we did it on poles. I think for years they used that when the co-channel on the tower got real bad they would switch down to the rhombic on the ground. The problem with the rhombic is that it was not developed for the frequencies that we were working in. The rhombic was basically a low frequency antenna–military antenna type. What I did was extrapolate it up to our frequencies. And it lost a lot in the extrapolation. It worked but no where near as good as the phased array. So it got to the point where I started to do all of the headends for the field people. So what was going on was I eventually came out of the R&D group and wound up in the systems group–the field group–where I would actually go out and design these headends and oversee their installation in the various cable systems.

SMITH: Now when you say you designed headends, Bob, are you talking about the headend processing equipment, too? Did SKL furnish …

BROOKS: Not the electronics. When I talk about what I did … I would go out and conduct the signal surveys to get an idea of what the strengths were, what the interferences would be, and I would select the tower location. I had a Cessna 172 aircraft that I had rigged with antennas. In fact, I had to get an experimental license from the FAA in order to use it. And I’d get permission to make low-level passes. In fact, the very first cable system that Bud Hostetter ever built, I did the signal survey for him in Fostoria, Ohio. I would fly over different altitudes with my antennas and my recording equipment in the aircraft and I would measure the signal strengths of the channels that he wanted to carry at different heights so I could make a determination of how big a tower he had to put in. Then after I knew that I would go back and I would design the antenna arrays and site locations.

SMITH: By this you mean the antenna array?


SMITH: Did SKL produce headend processing equipment?

BROOKS: Yes they did and it was very fine headend equipment. They had preamplifiers. The preamp was the SKL 450 and the control amp down in the tower was a 451–it was a 450 series. SKL had a complete line of headend equipment. In fact, one of the other products that they put in that really was never successful for various reasons, but they had DC power cable equipment. I don’t think anyone has ever played with that. We actually installed a five channel DC powered cable system in Grants Pass, Oregon, in 1960 or ’61.

SMITH: How did you transmit the power?

BROOKS: It was DC down the coax.

SMITH: Down the coax. Down the cable itself.

BROOKS: Yes. And we also installed it … the first place that we used it and there it worked and I’ll explain why. I want to say it was with Westinghouse. They were automating a coal mine outside of Pittsburgh where they were going to go to the automatic mining where they had these big machines. They wanted to put in about an eleven mile conveyer belt from the mine face to the tippler on the Monongahela River where the coal would spill out to the barges. They wanted all of this to be automatic. Westinghouse had designed a big conveyor system that about every 1,000 yards they would have to go through a turntable because they were coming up out of the mine. So that it would be going up. And at each one of these turntables they carved out in the mine a temporary storage area so that if there was a blockage up ahead or if there was no barge, the coal would temporarily be shunted onto the storage area and not be backed up on the conveyor belt.

Well, they found that what they had to come up with was a system to monitor how the coal was moving. Because that belt was really moving. And one of our engineers who came to us from Switzerland, and again this is another SKL name, Pierre de Bouerknecht, worked strictly on the DC-powered equipment. He did a DC powered, signal channel preamp for the tower and then he did the DC cable power for use down in this mine. At each one of these storage areas we hollowed out the mineshaft and we painted it all white and installed a monitoring camera there. Again this is back in the late ’50s and early ’60s, you know. And we ran this cable system all the way from the mine face out to the tippler where we could monitor to a control center what was going on in every stage of this belt system. I went down and installed that as the project engineer. I worked with the Emerald Coal Mine outside of Pittsburgh. The mine was owned by the J & L Steel Company and the plant contractor was Westinghouse. SKL did the surveillance design and installation and it worked fine.

SMITH: Was J & L Jones and Loftus?

BROOKS: Yes, that was the company. And then because that worked Pierre said, “Well okay, why don’t we build a cable system?” The thing that was nice about it was it was an in-line amplifier, something that the industry had been looking for and looking for and that the amplifier was actually built in a tube. Basically the same circumference as the cable. So you could actually lash right over the amplifier. It was just a cylindrical tube and the components were mounted on wafers … the various stages of the amplifier. A unique design, it really was.

SMITH: Were we into transistors by then?

BROOKS: Yes, that’s what made this thing possible.

SMITH: I couldn’t see the …

BROOKS: Oh no. This was all transistorized. We got permission from Homer Bergren, I think it was Homer, to go ahead and install one of these in Grants Pass, Oregon. And they couldn’t get it to work. They couldn’t control the signal levels. Because I had done the one in the coal mine and had gotten it to work, Spencer Kennedy sent me out to see why it wouldn’t work in Grants Pass. The thing that everyone forgot was that down in the coal mine the temperature was constant and as a result DC resistance of the coax center conductor stayed constant. But you get out in Grants Pass, Oregon, and it’s 80 degrees in the morning and 20 degrees at night, the DC losses changed in the cable and the AGC would go haywire and that’s why we were never able to get that off the ground. We actually built Grants Pass, Oregon, with that system on a trial basis. In fact I’m trying to think of the guy who … Lou Davenport. Lou was the system manager at the time we did it.

SMITH: I know Lou from Coos Bay, Oregon.

BROOKS: Coos Bay, Oregon. Yeah, he was the systems manager. He eventually, I think, went to work for Cox.

SMITH: He did.

BROOKS: That’s where I first met Lou Davenport–Grants Pass, Oregon. That was probably ’61 or ’62. But, you know, SKL kept going on their equipment. They went from the 212 up to the 222. The 222, I think, was perhaps even more successful than the 212.

SMITH: How was it distinguished from the 212?

BROOKS: It had more gain but it also had automatic slope control. In other words, instead of … the 212 had a flat gain. The 222 had a sloped gain. We had sensitivity in it so that as the temperature changed and the slope of the cable changed, the slope of the amplifier changed with it. Sort of like an AGC/ASC. It was the forerunner for the automatic gain and automatic slope control circuits of future generations of equipment.

SMITH: For the non-technical reader of the transcript, would you explain your use of the term slope?

BROOKS: As you take a band of signals and you put the band of signals down a coaxial cable, the higher the frequency, the more loss that cable causes for the signal. Channel 2 would have the least loss. Channel 13 would have almost double the loss. And if you plotted that loss, you had a slope. Compounding this is that the slope was not a constant. The colder the weather got–the lower the temperature–the flatter the slope. The higher the temperature, the steeper the slope. So what this amplifier did is it had–we called it a bliffy snifter–a little thermistor that hung out of the bottom of the amplifier. It sensed the ambient temperature and automatically adjusted the slope of the amplifier to give you the desired output. That was developed by Dr. Jacob Shekel who by that time was chief engineer at Spencer-Kennedy. Now Jake, I think, was installed as a Pioneer two years ago. I was shocked when I found out that he was not a Pioneer.

SMITH: I think, also, just as an aside on this, he was just interviewed a few days ago by Archer Taylor for a technical oral history.

BROOKS: Outstanding.

SMITH: Of the cable television industry. You, Robert Brooks, are also on Archer’s list.

BROOKS: Well, I worked very closely with Jake. The contributions that Jake made, not only at Spencer-Kennedy but Jake also spent some time with Jerrold and General Instruments. He was a professor at the University of Maryland. Just an outstanding technical person–very low key. But the one thing I always loved about Jake Shekel, if I was out in the field on a system with a problem, I could call Jake Shekel at three o’clock in the morning and Jake would give me an answer–one way or the other. You’d call a lot of these guys and they’d say, “That can’t happen,” when you’d tell them what you were experiencing. Not Jake. He’d say, “Okay Bob, run it by me again.” And I’d run it by him and he’d say, “Okay, call me about ten o’clock,” and he’d have an answer.

End of Tape 1, Side B

Start of Tape 2, Side A

SMITH: This is Tape 2, Side A of the oral history interview with Robert A. Brooks.

Bob, we were talking about Dr. Shekel when I had to turn the tape over. Would you expand just a little bit on his background in the industry that you are familiar with.

BROOKS: Jake Shekel, Dr. Shekel, came to this country from Israel, I believe, to study for both his master’s and his PhD at M.I.T. I believe it was while he was in the doctoral program that he joined with Spencer-Kennedy as a consultant in a part-time arrangement in the engineering group, I believe, under Dr. Albersheim. Subsequent to his receiving his PhD he came full time with Spencer-Kennedy. I do recall he was called back to Israel. Jake was, I believe, a senior officer in the Israeli defense forces and he was called back in the Yom Kippur War. He was called back to Israel to serve in the military. But subsequently came back to Spencer-Kennedy and I think was the driver behind the 222-A amplifier that I just talked about. It was the innovative design of the automatic slope control, the thermistor equalization function of the amplifier. He was the one that, I think, I relied on principally because as I got more and more active into the systems and the antenna designs, I also became extremely active in working with Bill Headley in marketing. As the systems started to become more sophisticated, it became necessary to increase technical participation in sales activities. A non-technical salesman was sort of at a loss with some potential clients.

SMITH: He was in trouble in the industry, wasn’t he?

BROOKS: Yes. Particularly when the independent telephone companies started to become involved in the cable industry. I remember Continental Telephone was very active under Phil Lucier at one time, the founder of Continental. Just as an aside, Phil Lucier was the Chairman and CEO of Continental Telephone that was murdered. In St. Louis they say he was the wrong target–they got the wrong guy. Someone put a bomb underneath the seat of his car and blew him up.

SMITH: That’s terrible.

BROOKS: Frank Drendel worked with Phil Lucier. Frank Drendel and I went to Phil Lucier’s funeral together twenty years ago.

But when the more technical cable operators started to come in, they didn’t want to talk to a non-technical salesman, particularly the telephone types. They wanted someone there who could tell them what the amplifier did, what it didn’t do, and someone who could oversee the training of their field forces. That sort of thing. So I got more and more involved with the sales people and with this sort of thing for Win Bemis. I would take the responsibility for designing the tower sites and the antenna arrays. I also, with Don Spencer who became active as president probably in ’58 or ’59, again because Don lacked technical background, I sort of became his aide-de-camp as you would in the military. When Don made a trip on behalf of the company, I usually would accompany him to handle the technical aspects of whatever activity. Particularly with Homer Bergman … I would go with Don to meet with Homer. Ed Foust … Bill Shiller I think was another one up there that we dealt with. Don was really interested in learning the business. He would work on me by the hour for an explanation.

This might be a place to introduce another set of characters into the Spencer-Kennedy story that you might find interesting. In about 1964 Don Spencer, by this time I was the chief systems engineer and they had decided … Win Bemis was retiring so they asked if I would permanently leave R&D and go into systems where I would be available for marketing. So I did. And Don called me into his office and … as you recall I told you early on, I was always very active in athletics. I was on the company’s bowling team and I liked to drink beer. You know, I was one of the guys in the company.

SMITH: An all-around man.

BROOKS: Don called me into his office and he said, “You are now going to become an executive in the company, Bob.” You know Don, you know exactly how he was looking at me with his hands on the desk like that. And he said, “I don’t know any other way to say it other than straight out. No more loafers and argyle socks. No more slacks and sport coats and open shirts. You are to wear a suit. You will wear a tie and you will wear appropriate shoes and socks.” Now this is the God’s honest truth. God bless old Donald.

SMITH: … Boston.

BROOKS: Very typical. He said, “I think it would be inappropriate for you to continue on the employee- sponsored bowling activities. I think as management you’ve got to distance yourself a little bit from that.” He said, “And I think that it’s about time that you put your beer drinking days behind you.”

SMITH: My goodness.

BROOKS: “If you find it necessary to drink, scotch and soda or scotch and water would be much more appropriate for someone in your position.” As God is my judge that’s exactly the way I got promoted to chief systems engineer.

SMITH: You had to pay a stiff price, didn’t you?

BROOKS: We got all through that and he said, “Now, this evening I have got two gentlemen coming by that I want you to spend some time with.” He said, “As you know, I’m a Harvard graduate and I have a business school student and his instructor coming by to learn a little bit about our industry. They’re going to do a paper on the cable television industry for the B school.

SMITH: Did he make you run out and buy a suit for the meeting?

BROOKS: No, but he said, “They’ll be coming by this evening and I expect you to give them as much of your time as they need over the next few months while they’re doing this study for the B school. So that night in through the door walked Amos “Bud” Hostetter and Irv Grousbeck, the founders of Continental Cable Division. So I spent the next three months with Irv and Amos telling them all about cable television. I know you’re looking at me … this is the truth.

SMITH: I believe it. I simply have to add to it that Amos and Irv came out to the NCTA’s convention in Denver probably in the same year or close to it when Ben Conroy was the chairman of the NCTA and I was general counsel. And they asked to see Ben and me to get more information about the industry. That’s a story in and of itself. That’s just a coincidence. I have it on the record.

BROOKS: Now I’m going to show you just how smart I was. In 1965 they decided they were going to start Continental and they approached me to be the third party. And I turned them down because I thought they were flakes. Anyone that went to Harvard was flaky.

SMITH: I believe it. Since I’m a friend of Bud’s now, I don’t mind saying this. Ben and I thought they were two of the most arrogant young men we’d ever seen in our lives.

BROOKS: I call them flaky. But I did do this. In fact Bud got a little upset with me because when I turned him down–this is another story–at the same time I was preparing to leave Spencer-Kennedy to go with the Anaconda Company as chief engineer. And when Bud found out that I had turned him down and gone with Anaconda, he got very upset with me. He couldn’t understand why I passed up this marvelous opportunity to be one of the investors. You know, they were going to give me 10 percent or 15 percent of the company and all these good things. Why I passed that up to go with another manufacturing organization. He just couldn’t quite understand it.

SMITH: That’s a great story.

BROOKS: I really got to like Bud very much. In fact, when he finally built Fostoria, I did the signal survey for him, I designed his antenna arrays even though I was out at Anaconda at the time–I had moved to Chicago. I would fly in weekends. And I did it for him because I promised him I would. So I did his first tower for him in Fostoria, Ohio. That’s how I met Bud and Irv. They were Harvard boys and Don was a Harvard boy.

SMITH: Don brought them in when you were promoted to chief engineer. Well, that’s a fascinating story.

BROOKS: The only other thing I would throw in here because coincidentally it fits in with my leaving Spencer-Kennedy after all those years. People said, “God you know, you’re chief systems engineer, you’re an executive. Why are you leaving the company?” Well about 1962 or 1963, it became obvious to Jake Shekel and to Bob Brooks and to Bill Headley that we had to do something about transistorizing our equipment.

SMITH: This was what year?

BROOKS: 1962 or ’63 … in that period. We could not convince the board of directors of Spencer-Kennedy. It was a privately-owned company … for all intents and purposes owned by the Brewsters. We could not convince the board that they had to appropriate several million dollars to develop a line of transistorized equipment. I think, God rest his soul, the reason that we were not successful was Don Spencer. Don and I, and this gets back to what I had mentioned to you earlier, had visited sometime in the early ’60s with a fellow by the name of Hank Abajian down on Long Island. Westbury Electronics, I think, was his company. He had a breadboard of a transistorized amplifier. Don grabbed me and we went down to Westbury to take a look at this thing. I believe that Hank actually installed some because when we were there they were some in housings but they had an extremely high failure rate. When the ambient temperature went up, the transistors were popping. Don became absolutely convinced that transistors would never work at our frequencies in the outdoor temperatures that they were going to be subjected to. I must admit that perhaps for the first six months I sort of agreed with him. I thought that maybe the outside temperatures that we had to work at were not going to be controllable.

But Northeastern University did something that I thought, again, was rather unique. Realizing that some of those recent graduates … now remember I had still only been out five years. We had never studied in our engineering curriculum any transistorized theory because it was not available. When they instituted courses in transistorized theory, they invited recent graduates back to take courses in transistor theory. And I went back and availed myself of the opportunity to do that. And I soon changed my mind. I became an ally of Bill Headley, who from sales was running into … Who was the outfit down in Phoenix that started selling?


BROOKS: AMECO and Bruce Merrill. He started running into him. And Entron, I think, started doing it. But we could not convince the board at Spencer-Kennedy to give us the money to do this. And then early in 1965 the Anaconda Company approached Spencer-Kennedy and made an offer to buy them. Anaconda was, as you know, a principle cable supplier to the independent telephone industry. United Telephone, Continental Telephone, Centel, DeKalb-Ogle Telephone Company, Rochester Telephone Company … all of these companies were getting very actively involved in cable in their exchange areas. They did not want to deal with cable people. They wanted to buy their stuff from Anaconda–from people that they were comfortable with. Also because Anaconda would finance them. So Anaconda was in the process of developing a Sealmatic coaxial cable for cable television. A couple of gentlemen working on that project–one name won’t mean anything to you, another name probably will. At the time there was a gentleman named John Buscemi and his aide-de-camp was a young man by the name of Arie Zimmerman. I don’t know whether Arie Zimmerman’s name rings a bell.

SMITH: Yes, that does. The other one does not.

BROOKS: They approached Spencer-Kennedy initially to buy equipment. They wanted to be a distributor where they would manufacture the cable and would buy the equipment from us because we were type approved. That’s why they came to us. We had gone through Bell Labs and our equipment had been type approved for use by telephone companies. So to them that was quality, okay. They built one system that way in Sycamore and DeKalb, Illinois. The telephone company was DeKalb-Ogle Telephone Company. Subsequently it was purchased by Continental Telephone Company. That’s another story that I want to get into because it brings another industry pioneer into the picture. They had signed a contract with DeKalb-Ogle to build the cable system for them. They came to Spencer-Kennedy and said, “Okay, we want to turnkey it but we want Bob Brooks to design it,” and all this sort of thing. We did it for them and it worked out fine. When they found out that Spencer-Kennedy was privately owned, they then came back and they said, “Well, we either have to develop our own line of electronics equipment or buy a company and we would like to buy Spencer-Kennedy.” Well, that was welcomed. Spencer-Kennedy initially was very pleased with it. The negotiations were going along and this was 1965. I really thought that it was a fait accompli. I was very involved in the negotiations because I had worked with Anaconda on the DeKalb-Ogle job. I got to know all of their executives in New York down on Third Avenue. At the last minute, for whatever reason, Don Spencer and George Brewster decided not to sell the company. Sort of pulled the strings out of the whole deal. So that upset Anaconda tremendously. About a month after the negotiations terminated, I received a phone call. This would have been April or May of 1965 from Anaconda. I was frustrated because the SKL board wouldn’t allow us to build transistorized equipment. We were still out pushing our vacuum tube line. By this time G.I., Jerrold had transistors–everyone did but us.

SMITH: And you were soon going out of business.

BROOKS: Yes. And we could see that we were going to be in trouble. So I was invited to go to New York to meet with the fellow who was president of Anaconda at the time–his name was Bob Fulton–and the executive that headed up that part of Anaconda’s business who was a fellow by the name of Robert McIlvain. I sort of sensed what they were after. But anyway they said, “We would like you to come with us and build a line of transistorized equipment.” What they were going to do was take over Spencer-Kennedy and then invest the money to build transistorized equipment and that’s why all of us from the technical side really wanted to see the sale take place. So to me this was like giving me the carrot. You know, here was an opportunity to do, to get on the ground floor of the development of a new line of equipment. So my wife and I had a very long talk. We both always, other than for the military, had been in Boston. I finally decided to accept it so I became chief engineer of the communications systems division of the Anaconda Wire and Cable Company in Sycamore, Illinois. I was charged with the responsibility of building them a turn-key coaxial cable and electronic manufacturing capability.

SMITH: Well, I want to go into that at length for the record, Bob. Let’s finish SKL with a couple of other questions and then go into Anaconda.

A brief biographical sketch I have here indicated that at one period when you were with SKL you were vice president.

BROOKS: That was subsequent, Strat. That goes back to the late ’60s. You see I left Spencer-Kennedy in 1965 and then came back in 1967. If you want me to go through that, I will and then we can come back.

SMITH: No, let’s do it in sequence.

BROOKS: I left them in ’65 after I had been with them eleven years–’54 through ’65.

SMITH: Okay, I’ll ask just one other question then because you had another title when you were with SKL and if this was after Anaconda that’s when we’ll treat it. But you were president and CEO of SKL Systems, Inc.

BROOKS: That was subsequent.

SMITH: That was subsequent. Okay, then, let’s do the Anaconda story and get back.

BROOKS: As I said I turned Bud Hostetter down at Continental and I went with the Anaconda Company. My wife and I and our seven youngsters at that time moved to Sycamore, Illinois. It was a very difficult experience for us. Her uncle and her father, at the time, thought that we were going to the edge of the earth. They thought we were going to be fighting Indians, you know. Anything twenty miles west of Boston was foreign territory. But we were okay there and I started to put together a division in Sycamore. We added some fine people.

One day Mr. McIlvain came to me and he said, “There’s a young man that’s working for John Buscemi that would like to come into your activity.” He said, “He can’t speak English, he’s from Israel. We think he’s a good engineer, and would like you to take him on.” So I was then introduced to Arie Zimmerman. Arie, in those days, could hardly even speak English. Arie subsequently became famous in the cable industry for the design of the phase-lock headend. The PhaseComm Company is Arie’s company. He and I share patents on a system analyzer. In fact, I was looking all around here for the first system analyzer in the cable business that he and I designed together in those days. I’m going to have to find you one somewhere.

SMITH: I hope so.

BROOKS: Anyway, I added Arie to my staff. We had a lot of fun teaching Arie how to speak English. It turned out that I was one of the few people that could understand Arie. I think that, perhaps, goes back to my childhood. Although I lived in the city of Boston and I had an Irish mother, we lived in an area of Boston that was predominantly Jewish. So a lot of my boyhood friends were Jewish. A lot of their parents were first generation immigrants to the country. So I got used to hearing broken English on a regular basis, particularly with the Yiddish background. So that I could pretty well piece together what Zimmerman was saying. And that was why he wanted to come to work for me because I was the only one that understood him. So Arie wound up working with me. And then subsequent to Arie coming on board … The chief engineer of DeKalb-Ogle Telephone Company was a gentleman by the name of Donald Redmond. He and I had become quite friendly while we were building a cable system back when I was still with Spencer-Kennedy. When I moved to Sycamore, which was where he lived, he sponsored me at the local Elk’s Club which was the cultural center of the community. So he and I became very close friends and to this day still are.

He came into my office one day and we were sitting there having a cup of coffee and he said, “I’m really down today.” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “Our company has just been sold.” And I said, “What the devil are you talking about?” He said, “Continental Telephone Company out of St. Louis just bought our company.” And he said, “I’ve got to cut back on my people. They’re coming in and I’ve got to do this now.” He said, “I’ve got a young guy working for me on a part-time basis. He’s a student at Northern Illinois University. I’ve got to let him go and without a job, he’s not going to be able to stay in school. Is there anything that you can do for him?” And I said, “What is he doing for you?” He said, “I’ve got him as a draftsman in the engineering department.” I said, “Hell, I can always use a draftsman. Send him over to me.” So that afternoon my secretary comes in and says there’s a young man outside that wants to see you. And I open up the door and a twenty year old young man comes into my office and sits down and he introduces himself. We chat a little bit and I said, “Okay, Don thinks very highly of you. I don’t know too much about you but I’m going to give you a job in the engineering department.” I told him who his supervisor would be and he said, “What are my hours going to be?” I said, “Well, I understand you’re a college student.” He said, “I am.” I said, “Then you make your hours as you are able to make them.” He looked at me and said, “You mean you trust me to just come and go when I feel like it?” And I said, “No, not when you feel like it. You’re going to have some job responsibilities and I would expect that you would address those responsibilities when your schedule permits it but your school schedule comes first and working for us comes second.” I said, “If I can help you, let me know. But if you can work ten hours, that’s fine. If you can work forty hours, that’s fine. You put the time in as necessary but don’t take away from your school work.” That young man was Frank Drendel.

SMITH: Unbelievable.

BROOKS: That was Frank Drendel. A year later my whole division was transferred to California. Frank Drendel asked to come in and see me. Frank and I became quite friendly during that year. I really liked Frank. Of course, having flown in the Navy and everything … Frank was a student pilot. I was there when he got his solo. We cut his tie off and all that stuff. And Frank used to hang around the house a lot. He and I used to hunt a bit. So I got to know Frank pretty well.

Well, anyway, it was decided that we were going to merge my division at Anaconda with a company in California called Astrodata. The subsequent company was called Anaconda Astrodata. So I had to move forty odd guys and their families from Sycamore, Illinois, to Anaheim, California. So Frank Drendel comes into my office and he says, “Bob, I just want to let you know that I’ve got everything worked out with the school.” And I said, “What have you got worked out?” He said, “Well, I told them that I’m going to be going to California with you and I won’t be back in the fall. I said, “Well, you can go back and tell them that you’re not going to California because if you quit school, Frank, you’re fired.” He sort of looked at me. I picked up the phone and called Don Redmond and I said, “I want to come see you.” I walked Frank back across the street to the telephone company and I said, “All right, I carried him last year. He’s got one more year to go. You put him back to work and when he graduates, send him to me out in California.” And that’s what we did. So Frank stayed behind when we left and he got his degree out of Northern Illinois and then came out to California.

SMITH: Love it.

BROOKS: And to this day Frank and I are like brothers. So that was really the Anaconda thing. We got to California. Astrodata had hired a cable engineer–I believe he came out of AMECO–Bill Rheinfelder. He had come up with a concept for what I called a prepackaged cable system. He actually designed the amplifiers … the systems engineers would design the cable system on the maps, okay. And then he designed … each amplifier in the system was specifically designed for the location on the map that it was selected for. I spent six months trying to convince those people that that doesn’t work. Because once that unit fails, if you’ve got to go put it somewhere else or you know. But anyway, that was the course that they opted to go so I spent one year out there. Took them to the cable show in Miami and introduced Anaconda Astrodata and their coaxial cable and their electronic equipment. Then I received a call to report to New York again to the parent company, the Anaconda Company. Went back to New York and I was told that I was going to be reassigned to Mexico City to the Anaconda Mining Company in Mexico City. I said, “What for?” They said, “Well, you’ve been selected as one of our …” they didn’t use fast track but it was the same thing, “one of our young executives who we feel eventually someday will be an officer in the parent company. And a requisite of that is that you have to have worked in all the divisions of Anaconda. We feel that a two-year assignment to our mining operation down in Mexico will be your next assignment.” Well, I went back to California and started to tell my wife and seven kids that we were going to move to Mexico City. My wife looked at me and said, “Well, I don’t know when you’re going but I’ll be back in Boston. There’s no way I’m going to take seven kids and move to Mexico City.” Our kids were all small. So we were sort of in a real family go-around.

And simultaneously with the Anaconda experience, SKL’s fortunes were on a sharp decline. Bill Headley had resigned and left. I had resigned and left. And we were really the two figureheads. The company got into serious financial trouble and the bank relieved Don Spencer. They brought in a guy by the name of Charles Wright as president of the company. Eventually they brought in a fellow by the name of Charles Patterson. For all intents and purposes in a two-year period of time, Spencer-Kennedy had gone from a premiere quality cable company to receivership. They were actually being run by these people from Merchants Banks. Charles Patterson … Charlie Wright before there was Charles Patterson.

So we’re sitting out in California. Of course, remember now, I spent a lot of time with SKL and had a lot of friends in that company. I really felt bad seeing what was going on with them. One night my phone rings and a fellow says to me, “This is Charles Patterson. We’ve never met but I have been appointed to run Spencer-Kennedy by the Merchants banks. I would very much like to meet with you to discuss some of the past histories of Spencer-Kennedy and where you think we should be going.” I said, “Well, Mr. Patterson, I don’t mind meeting with you but you’ve got to remember I’m with a competitor. I don’t mind discussing what went on in the past but I’m not too sure that I should be involved in discussions of what’s going on or what should go on in the future.” There was a cable show, I think, in that resort community south of Atlanta in Georgia. Well, anyway there was a cable show.

SMITH: I ought to remember. I would have been to it.

BROOKS: It’ll come. It was one of those regional shows. So he said, “If you’re planning to go to that, I would like to have dinner with you and chat.” And I said, “Okay, fine. I’ll meet you there.”

So we sat down and I found that he was a very entertaining guy. Again, he had a military aviation background. You know this is something in cable, just as a quick aside. I found most of the relationships that I have developed in the cable industry with people that have been lasting have been … they’ve all had aviation backgrounds. You know, Frank Drendel when he was a student pilot. Even our old buddy Frank …

SMITH: Frank Thompson, yes.

BROOKS: … was an F-4U pilot. Bill Daniels was a Navy pilot. For some reason or other, I’ve always warmed up to the guys that have been in a cockpit or been in a bomb bay or something. Ed Allen flew B-29s and was a navigator of B-29s. For some reason or other, aviation has been in common with the people that I’ve really been close to in the business.

But anyway, I met with Patterson. He was non-flying but he was an Air Force officer and he had been the investigating officer in the fiasco that Joe Kennedy, Jr. was killed in over in England when that bomber exploded. Do you remember the story of Joe Kennedy, Jr.?

SMITH: Yes, I remember the story. Would you summarize it just briefly on the record because many of the readers may not?

BROOKS: Well, Joe Kennedy, Jr. had volunteered for a special mission. They were loading, I believe they were B-24 bombers with explosives and they were flying them as drones in to attack the dams in the Rhone Valley on the Rhein to try to blow those dams. They found that they had to get the planes airborne before the drones could take them over. Joe Kennedy was one of the volunteer pilots whose job was to take this explosive-laden bomber off the runway, get it up to altitude, trim it out, turn it over to the drone control, and then bail out. And then the drone would take it across the channel to hit the target. I don’t think that, according to Patterson, they ever really knew what had happened but they felt that some sort of an explosion occurred in Kennedy’s plane at the time he was switching control from the cockpit to the drone, and it just disintegrated. Patterson was the Air Force investigating officer assigned because of the prominence of Joe Kennedy, Jr. At that time, remember, his dad was the ambassador to the Court of St. James.


BROOKS: In fact, if he would have lived I think he would have been President instead of Jack.

So Charlie and I had a lot in common. He was explaining to me what he was trying to do and he said, “You know, the bank has not officially taken over SKL–not officially. They have not gone through a formal legal proceeding for receivership. But I was asked to come in to take it over and to find out first of all could it be saved and, if so, how. And what caused the problem? Why all of a sudden did it go from here to there?” He said, “And all of the memos and all of the documentation I’ve gone through and all the people that are there that I’ve talked to … one common vein keeps coming out. That if they had done the transistor work that Brooks and Headley and Shekel had asked for that everything still would be fine.” He said, “It was obvious that you were one of the spearheads in this attempt and that those people back there still have a great deal of respect for you.” And he said, “I’d really like to you come back with me. Come back in as vice president-general manager and take over our cable companies.” Most cable equipment manufacturers also owned and operated their own cable systems; companies like Jerrold and SKL, ENTRON, etc.

SMITH: And AMECO, too.

BROOKS: AMECO, too. “Take those over and help me get this company into condition to merge it.” He said, “There’s a company that I’ve got picked out. A company in Boston called Adams-Russell which is still a very viable company today. In fact, he was working … Jerry Weisner, who I think was the provost of MIT, was also a director of Adams-Russell.

SMITH: Weisner, the name is not familiar.

BROOKS: He was the provost at M.I.T. But more importantly is that Jerry Adams was a Northeastern University graduate and I was a Northeastern University graduate and, lo and behold, Charlie Patterson was a Northeastern University graduate. So I looked at all of these things and I said well, all the ties that I’m usually comfortable with are there. I knew Joanne didn’t want to take the seven kids to Mexico and I had that facing me. I called my boss at Anaconda, Bob McIlvain, and I told him, I said, “I’ve decided I’m going to leave and I’m going to go back with Spencer-Kennedy.” Well, he was on vacation down at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

SMITH: Aviation connected again.

BROOKS: He sent the Anaconda plane … the plane was based in Chicago … to L.A. to pick me up and fly me to Kitty Hawk and he spent two days trying to get me to change. And he said, “We won’t send you to Mexico City. We’re getting ready to put a new cable plant in Tarboro, North Carolina. You can go there. We’ll find an assignment for you that meets the criteria.” But I couldn’t do it. I’m the sort of a guy that if I give you my word I’m going to do something, I do it. I said, “Bob, look, it’s got nothing to do with it. I’ve enjoyed my two years with Anaconda. I don’t think I’ve ever worked for a finer company, but I’m really not a big company man.” The politics in a big company made me uncomfortable. And I said, “I sense that the further on I go in Anaconda the more the politics. I really think that this move is right–it’s right for me, it’s right for my family. I feel a responsibility for a hundred odd people sitting back there working for Spencer-Kennedy. If we can save that company, I’ve got an obligation to go back and help.” So I did. I left Anaconda and I went back. Bob McIlvain … to this day he and I are friends.

Every year on my oldest boy’s birthday we have a Mass said for him and up until a year or two ago when Bob’s health stopped him, he used to fly out for that Mass. Once a year he’d come out. He understood.

So in the summer of ’67 we went back to Spencer-Kennedy. We had a merger negotiated in principle with Adams-Russell. In fact, it was down to really just the stock price ratio, I think. There was going to be a stock deal for tax purposes. There were going to exchange stock. Adams-Russell’s auditors … there were two things that blew the deal. One of them was a little bit nasty but for history it has got to be told. SKL, during the years that I was gone, had opened up “warehouses” to expedite delivery of equipment. They had a warehouse right near the airport in Los Angeles; one in North Carolina, near Hickory, North Carolina; and one down in Florida. And each one of those warehouses was showing substantial current inventory–a million bucks or more of inventory which was going into the valuation for the negotiation on the stock swap ratio. So the auditors decided that those should be inventoried, which was proper.

SMITH: Of course.

BROOKS: So I was dispatched to inventory those three warehouses. Well, to make a long story short, those three warehouses were not current inventory. The inventory in those warehouses was absolutely obsolete. Without getting into individuals, it appeared to be a deliberate attempt to inflate the book value of Spencer-Kennedy by predecessors to Patterson and myself. As a result the valuation of Spencer-Kennedy was significantly reduced. That, in itself, probably would not have cratered the deal but there became quite a bit of unrest in the manufacturing group of the company and they voted to go union because the union convinced them that that would save their jobs.

Well, the combination of the falsified inventory records and the loss of the election to the union caused Jerry Adams to back out of the deal.

SMITH: Now, of course, you uncovered the falsification.

BROOKS: Yes. They had taken place subsequent to my leaving. Apparently what had gone on, in order to maintain their credit balance with the bank, they had opened up these locations and shipped obsolete material because they didn’t figure the bank would bother to go down and check before they let them draw down on their loan. Because we always borrowed against current inventory. That was how as a manufacturing operation you financed what you were doing. You borrowed against inventory. And once you had it on the shelf then you could borrow 80 percent of the value. So what they did was they said we have these three locations and we’ve got all this inventory out there and they borrowed against that. And the inventory was all obsolete. It was all vacuum tube stuff. There was nothing there that was selling.

One other thing that happened that I think was not too helpful at all … Now remember I was really not all that experienced in top management. I had primarily been in engineering–that part of the business. So coming back to Spencer-Kennedy was really the first time that I got involved in the executive–the operations–side of the business. Well, also through the middle of all of these negotiations, in fact it happened while I was down in Florida going through these warehouses … Charlie Patterson lived in Potomac, Maryland, and he was out cutting his lawn one Sunday, I was supposed to meet him Monday morning in Boston to go over the results of the inventory. Well, he slipped with the lawnmower and cut off the top of his foot. To show you again how dedicated this guy was, as soon as they had him stabilized he had them transfer him by ambulance from the hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, up to the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston to be as close to me up there as he could to help me with running the company. He was sort of guiding me and that’s when I had to take over as CEO of all of the operations of the company because he was out of action.

End of Tape 2, Side A

Start of Tape 2, Side B

SMITH: This is Tape 2, Side B of the oral history interview with Mr. Robert A. Brooks.

Bob, when we interrupted to turn the tape, we had you back at SKL as vice president. Let’s go on from there.

BROOKS: All right. I came back, as I said, as vice president-general manager reporting directly to Charlie Patterson who had been put in there at the request of the bank to try to salvage the company and to keep it functional. I think I covered the two aspects that virtually negated our efforts to do that. One, of course, being the falsified inventory in the three warehouse locations. I don’t think that the principle culprit for that was ever identified. Again, because of the integrity and the Boston ethics, no one wanted to point a finger at anyone. So the thing was never pursued but that coupled with the loss of the union election by the people in the factory and the debilitating injury to Charlie Patterson … and I might say I had a short term physical problem at that time. In inventorying the material in the Florida warehouse, the same day that Charlie Patterson cut off the top of his foot–his toes–I was bitten by a black widow spider while I was crawling around that warehouse.

SMITH: It was not your day.

BROOKS: Which was not my day either. In fact, it had me in a coma for about two and a half days so that both he and I had some physical hardships going on, we really did. We were very, very disappointed when we were not able to affect the closing with Jerry Adams. I think the thing that was disappointing was that simultaneously with all this merger activity, we had started to rebuild the company. Again, this gets into another cable pioneer. During my sojourn in California, I had been introduced to and had come to know fairly well a young man who told me he was an attorney although I had never seen him practice law–he talked a lot of law. But I thought he was a marvelous marketing individual. One of the things that was sadly lacking at Spencer-Kennedy, particularly with the departure of Bill Headley, was someone to take over the entire sales and marketing operation. The gentleman that had been there when I came back, and I won’t mention his name but because of this whole warehouse fiasco we let several people go … I actively recruited this young man to relocate from California to Boston and become our vice president of marketing sales. That young man was Mr. Richard Loftus, attorney-of-record as we would say.

SMITH: Jr., as others call him.

BROOKS: And that was the beginning of a very long and lasting relationship that Dick and I have shared that started way back in 1967. When it became obvious that we were not going to be able … I might at this point also mention the engineers. By this time Dr. Shekel, of course, had left. One of the engineers that had been there from day one and by day one I mean from 1954 the time I joined the company, who had always been very, very helpful and very productive and dedicated was a very quiet young man by the name of George Ray. George really stepped into the breach and was leading the efforts to develop a transistorized line of equipment. I believe in 1966, SKL introduced a line of transistorized equipment, but to be honest from what I could see of it, it was really a copy of the Jerrold line that was already on the market. I think they had felt where Jerrold had once copied one of our amplifiers, in order to try to correct the deficiency they would copy Jerrold’s.

SMITH: Seems logical enough.

BROOKS: Seems logical. So that’s what they had done. When I got back in ’67 I was able to get George really moving. And we had, I think, a good product line on the drawing board. If we had been able to have accomplished the merger, it would have given SKL a good step up on the technology. I still have to say this, and I’m saying this not only as a former employee, a former officer, a former stockholder but as an engineer, I think SKL in the early ’50s and in the early ’60s was the premiere technical company in cable television. I think they were innovative in everything that they did. I think their quality was unsurpassed. I think the nickname that they had was the Cadillac–SKL was the Cadillac of the industry–and if you could afford it, that was the way to go.

SMITH: Technically who do you credit the most, and don’t be modest?

BROOKS: Quite honestly, I don’t think you could single out one person. I think the things that made SKL what they were was an overall team effort including probably the first graduate accredited EE that ever went out into the field on a regular basis.

SMITH: EE meaning electrical engineer?

BROOKS: Electrical engineer with an electronic background and with radar design background, who really understood, as well as one could understand it, the technical problems that we had. I was able to bring those problems back to the R&D people who, taking that input, could then develop the equipment that would help resolve the problem. I think it was that interchange with the Jake Shekel … They respected me because they knew that I had once been one of them. So that when I called them on the phone and I said, “Look this is what’s going on guys,” they knew that they weren’t getting some mumblings from a salesman. Okay? And in those days, Strat, most of the people in the field representing manufacturers were not engineers. You know, they were salesmen or sales engineers, whatever you want to call it. They weren’t degreed engineers. They didn’t really understand what they were looking at. So I think my ability to translate what I uncovered in the field back to the R&D and the R&D people accepting it as fact …

SMITH: In their language.

BROOKS: … in their language and addressing it is really what kept SKL, I think, moving very well. It got to the point, as I said, where Don Spencer wanted me with him almost all the time. So as a result I got to meet a lot of the technical people in the field and the interchange of information, I think, was really the key. That what was going on in the field got back to the R&D people in their language and in a timely fashion.

There was just a good chemistry between us. There was George Ray. The chief tech of the company, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention his name, was Frank Amarilian. Frank was not a graduate engineer but he had a degree from an electronics technician school, I guess you’d call it an associates degree, who ran our technician base. Outstanding, dedicated guy. Of course, I mentioned George Ray, Pierre de Bouerknecht that I’ve mentioned, Jake Shekel, Sox Bridgett, Bill O’Niel, Win Bemis, Dick Schroder. All of these fellows were predominantly M.I.T. type engineers. They were well versed in what they were doing. Bill Simon was another–Bill was our radar guy. Our quality control guys like Charles Morrison and Walter Cosseboom. I think we had, from an engineering drafting standpoint … Bob Sheehan … the housings for this electronics equipment was extremely important. Bob Scheehan, although I call him chief draftsman, was really our mechanical designer for the housing–the environmental housing requirements and equipment. Bob was well versed because he had cut his teeth designing the equipment for installation on the submarines and so forth so he was used to water tight and all of this. I think his contributions were outstanding. The manufacturing people–“Red” Love, Al Clark, Fred Mark–all quality people. There was just everything about the company. And if I had to roll it all into one, the reason that it worked was that Fitz Kennedy set the platform. It was Fitz Kennedy’s company. He set the company the way he wanted it to work. In the early days of Spencer-Kennedy we were all a team. There were no leaders and followers. There were no executives and employees–it was a team.

SMITH: And Fitz was an engineer?

BROOKS: Fitz was an engineer.

SMITH: Now where did he get his …

BROOKS: M.I.T. as well. They were predominantly an M.I.T. group of people. I think when Don came along it got a little bit more stuffy but the technical relationships remained because we had all started under Fitz. So that Don ran it more along the old Boston Brahmin way that the camaraderie never really disappeared.

It was really a good group of guys. I’m trying to make sure that I’m not overlooking anyone. You always do on this because those fellows all contributed so much. I mentioned Bob Sheehan. I must mention my alternate student who was a very competent engineer. I mentioned back at Northeastern there was always two of us assigned. Well, when I was back in school my replacement was Adrian Roy who has had a marvelous career in the electric industry. When it came down to our graduation in 1958, Spencer-Kennedy had to make a choice as to which one they were going to hire on a full-time basis. This was one of the advantages to business is that when the engineering students got to graduation … like Raytheon. Raytheon would employee three to four hundred students. So what a choice they had of engineers. Assuming that 25 percent of the 200 engineers graduated each year and they had … Like at Spencer-Kennedy, I had been there four years; I had become an integral part of their R&D group and of their research group. When the time came for me to get my degree, I got my degree on a Sunday afternoon and Monday morning I was full time. There was no more on-the-job training. There was no more learning curve. I was a full-time, productive employee.

SMITH: What year was that?

BROOKS: I graduated June of 1958 with four youngsters by my side. By that time we had four youngsters. Thank God I didn’t flunk a year. I was 28 years old. Got my degree June of ’58 and I resigned from the police department in June of ’58. In fact one aside that was quite funny, when I decided back in 1953 that I needed a job and decided I was going to go into the police department because I could work nights, the one most opposed to that move was my dad.

SMITH: And he was a law enforcement officer.

BROOKS: He was a police officer but he said, “This is not something that you want to do. Find something else.” The disrespect for law enforcement … There was all that cycle … the college campus problems and all of that. He said, “That’s the last thing that you want to do.” Well, when I finally got my degree and he found out I was leaving the police department he got very upset with me. He said, “Hell, you can make captain now. We’ll get you into communications.” I had a uncle who was a lieutenant in the communications division and they were going to get me transferred over to communications. They had a big future planned for me in the police department. I said, “Dad, I’ve got to do my thing.” I had had several job offers but the one I just stayed with was Spencer-Kennedy because it was a hell of a fine team to work with. In fact, I actually had two job offers that were better than what Spencer-Kennedy was able to offer me and I just decided I would stay where I was. I was just too happy.

So that all took place in ’58 and then, as I said we got Loftus back in ’67. Charlie Patterson, that was a relationship that I really enjoyed. Charlie died here just a couple years ago the way an old military man should die. He died in his sleep. He fell asleep and died watching “War and Peace” with Robert Mitchum. His wife thought he had fallen asleep. He was sitting down in the living room and told her he wanted to see the end of “War and Peace” and he would be up when it was over. She covered him with a blanket not knowing he’d passed away. That was a couple years ago. But Charlie was quite a guy.

He did his damnedest but what happened, when the merger fell through the bank then officially took the company over. And they brought in what I always called the demolition team. It was a group of three people who just then proceeded to dismantle the company. They sold quite a bit of our engineering capability to Scientific-Atlanta–the antenna work that we’d done. We had some work on converters, some of the amplifier technology was sold, transferred to S-A. The cable systems that we owned, for the most part, were sold to Dick Leghorn. Where I really first got to know Dick was in negotiating the sale of our cable companies to him. Dick and I have remained friends to this day. The manufacturing operation as far as cable was concerned was shut down and the only activity they kept going was the electronic filters. Again, they went back to square one, to the product line that primarily sold to the military and industry.

SMITH: How fast did this happen after you returned from California to go with them?

BROOKS: Over a two year period. I was there ’67 to ’69 and the merger collapsed in ’69. I would not have brought Dick back. I really thought that we had a fait accompli and we were down to just the point in time where we were trying to assign the stock swap ratio when they asked me to go and check the inventory to make sure that the value was correct on the inventory. I would never have asked someone to move from California to Boston if I didn’t think that we had a done deal–that we had it accomplished. Almost from the time I came back, I had been bitten by the spider and Charlie had lost his toes … we got back into Boston and it became obvious that the we had lost the union election. Jerry Adams didn’t want the union in his company. He called the merger off. Once that was called off and the bank pulled their financial support, they said, “All right, we have to take it over,” and basically liquidate it–sell the cable operations to get the value out to pay off the bank loans. So that although the company was eventually liquidated, they didn’t leave any debts behind because the cable properties had significant value.

One of the big assets that we had in cable was that Patterson and I merged several of our cable systems into ATC when ATC was formed with Roy Little. Several of our cable companies went into that so that we had a significant block at that time of ATC stock.

SMITH: What part did you play, Bob, personally in the development of the cable systems–the building of them, the acquisition of them–for SKL?

BROOKS: Well, really from one end to the other. In the early days I designed them; I was the systems engineer; I was the chief engineer; I supervised it. At one time I ran the construction division. I think that’s one of the things that perhaps has given me the degree of success that I’ve had is that with Spencer-Kennedy I had an opportunity to really work in almost every phase of the business.

SMITH: You were the chief operating officer of SKL systems …

BROOKS: Of all the systems the last two years, and proceeded to negotiate the sale of them to Leghorn and the sale of the ATC stock to pay off the bank debts. I guess you can say that with Charlie Patterson’s help from the hospital room, I presided over the dismantling of Spencer-Kennedy down to an instrumentation company. I took them out of the cable industry.

SMITH: Well, with what four to seven kids by then, that must have been a happy …

BROOKS: We had seven. It was not very happy. I tell you one day, and this perhaps should go on the history so that it doesn’t appear that I took this too cavalierly … had, I want to make a guess, 140 employees when the merger cratered. Well, I had been with these people now fourteen or fifteen years and I had to call in and lay off 100 people. That was the hardest day of my life next to the day that my son died. I don’t think I have ever experienced anything like that in my life. In fact, I didn’t even go home that night. I called my wife and I said, “I’m going to check into a motel.” I went in, got a bottle of Jack Daniels and stayed there that night. I laid off 100 friends. Some of them, and I understood it and I’ve never held it against them, some of them lambasted me … ” Bob, how can you do this to me? I’ve worked with you since 1954.” I said, “I’ve go to do it. If I don’t do it, they’re going to put someone else in here that will.” At least I could do it in a way that would be the least hassle for them. But it was the toughest thing I ever did in my life. Lay off all those people that I had been with since the early ’50s.

And that ended it for me–after we got through that and as soon as those three clowns came in from the bank. There were a couple of receivables on the books for work that we had done, systems that we had built for other people. I stayed on, collected those receivables, and more or less completed everything that I was involved in. By that time the cable properties for all intents and purposes were now under Dick Leghorn. Then I resigned. In ’69, I left them.

Bill Headley had started a company when he left in ’67. He had started a company called TeleTransmissions and he was attempting to get franchises in the Massachusetts area. I went with Bill. Bill and I and Tommy Quinn. Tommy had been the purchasing agent at Spencer-Kennedy for years and years. Tommy was an B.C. graduate, served in the military with F. Lee Bailey. And with another gentleman by the name of Ray Phares. Ray was my construction superintendent. The four of us then started a company called TeleTransmissions. The Massachusetts law was crazy but we had obtained the rights–and what the attorneys had interpreted as the responsible way to do it–in numerous communities and then, just about the time we were ready to move ahead they passed that bill that gave the Commonwealth of Massachusetts regulatory control over cable. All of our work was thrown out so we were sitting there … instead of thirty-five franchises, we were sitting with zero franchises.

SMITH: That had to be a blow.

BROOKS: Yes. So we had developed a couple of companies down in the Oranges in New Jersey with a fellow by the name of Sam Kravitz. So we more or less sold those companies out to Kravitz and Bill stayed with him and that was when I started consulting in 1970. When I was with the Anaconda company I had come to know the principals of a firm in St. Louis that was called J.C. Barnard & Associates who were telephone consultants. Continental Telephone was one of their clients; United Telephone was one of their clients. The chairman of the company was Jim Barnard, Sr. He lived only a short time after I met him. His son, Jim Barnard, Jr. was president of the company. Again the aviation connection–Jim Barnard was a B-52 pilot in the Air Force. He gave me a call. I was just doing some freelance consulting trying to decide what I was going to do and he said, “We have just received a contract from the state of Vermont. Their legislature up there just passed a bill putting cable underneath the P.U.C.” He said, “They’re drafting a line extension policy that’s a disaster. The cable industry is up in arms and the state has asked us to come in and take a look at it and see if we can’t work out a policy that would be doable.” He said, “We don’t know that much about cable but would you take on the assignment for us on a subcontract basis?” So I became a subcontractor for this consulting firm and became their consultant for the Vermont Public Service Commission in 1970. I worked with the operators and with the Public Service Commission up in Montpelier for about a year drafting the first regulatory guidelines for the state of Vermont.

SMITH: Oh. Do you have any records of that?

BROOKS: I’m going to have to go through my files. I probably do and I will find them.

SMITH: Please do. I’d love to see those in our files if you don’t have any need for them.

BROOKS: I will find them to the extent that I can. Do you want to take a recess here for a minute so you can make your phone call?

SMITH: Yes, let’s do that.


SMITH: We’re coming back on the record after a luncheon break. We are doing the oral interview with Robert A. Brooks.

Bob, we’ve agreed to start this section of the interview with a question of your experience in building and operating systems, your field experience in particular, and how those experiences influenced the development of equipment at SKL.

BROOKS: As we were talking earlier, Strat, from about 1957 until 1962, most of my time at Spencer-Kennedy was pretty well concentrated, other than for the marketing of systems and the time I spent with Don Spencer, on the actual design and in-field supervision of construction of cable systems. The ones directly under my control were primarily in the middle west–Minnesota, Wisconsin, the upper peninsula up in Michigan. I think that one of the advantages that I had, being a degreed electrical engineer and having the prior experience, that the research people–the design people–usually would ask me to field test new products or new concepts, many of which would have come from us in the field back to R&D as being something that was needed. I think perhaps the one that comes most quickly to mind was the thermal equalization requirements that we found almost an absolute necessity when we went from the five channel to the twelve channel amplifier installations.

We impressed upon the research people that because of the wide temperature swings that you experienced in the Minnesotas where the daytime temperature could be 50 or 60 degrees and at night it would go below freezing, that we needed something that would react rather quickly to control the gain and slope settings of an amplifier to keep it from overloading causing distortion. The first product that came out as a result of that was a separate unit–an in-line thermal equalizer whose characteristics changed on a gradient with the ambient temperature which more or less went on the input of the amplifiers on the initial go around to control the level of the input signals. We actually corrected the signals prior to their entry into the amplifier. We would adjust them to the level that we wanted.

From installing that, I believe, the first one of those was installed in Winona, Minnesota, in 1958, we found subsequent to that by inserting the equalization interstage in the amplifiers that it was much more effective but that it then required an external path from the amplifier through the housing for the outside temperature sensor. The first use of that, I think, was incorporated in the 222-A which became the high gain amplifier. I think the establishment of the design criteria for the 222-A really clearly illustrates the feeling that I always had about SKL about the team that Fitzroy had built in that before we undertook the design of a new unit, an actual specification team was assembled that included a representative from sales and marketing and myself representing the systems engineering and design people. We had one construction engineer and two R&D people headed by Jake Shekel where I would say for a period of weeks, if not months, we attempted to ascertain the needs of the cable industry in the way of gains and with capability, reliability, and discussing all of these things and the pros and cons.

Of course, the cost benefits all had to be addressed. There were a lot of things, of course, that you felt you could do but it would drive up the cost of the equipment. You could never forget that the equipment had to be priced competitively. Even though it had more capability, and again I don’t say this in a derogatory way at all, but the majority of the customers that we were selling this to were not technically oriented people. The original owners and operators of the cable systems were really not technically driven and price was their principle concern. Performance was secondary. We often found, this is typical, that we would have to under design something because of the price increment that would add to build that feature in. But Spencer-Kennedy utilized a design team that were all participants to the industry … had their say in the prototypes developed. We also always field tested the units in a system under our control. We never designed something and put it on the shelf. We always got ourselves considerable field testing. But, I think, the thermal equalization; the automatic slope control that initially was incorporated in the 222-A; the dual pilot automatic gain control where instead of sensing the performance of the amplifier at one frequency we actually sensed it at the two extremes for a much finer adjustment of gain control, were all things that came from the field as a requirement back to the research people to add in. And, again, I credit, I think, the quality of the SKL products and the dialogue–the ability to communicate between the field people, the systems people, and the R&D people … that we weren’t isolated from each other. That we were really together.

The other thing that we used to do, and this was not uncommon, and I think this added a great deal, too, to SKL’s capabilities, is that quite often the research people would come into the field and spend time with me or with some of my people on other projects to get to understand the circumstances under which we had to make something work. It was not always easy. For instance, if you were working with a new cable pilot preamplifier on top of a 600 foot tower, you pretty well had to know what you were putting up on top of that tower unless you wanted to climb up it yourself. Unfortunately, I was one of those dumb guys that would do that. There were not too many of us. I think Dick Loftus and a few other people occasionally would climb a tower. But people who were willing to climb a tower who knew what they were doing were few and far between. So that we pretty well had to have the bugs out of the equipment.

We had to understand the environment and by bringing the R&D people into the field … In fact, I used to take great relish … if I was working in Minnesota or Wisconsin, I would watch the weather reports and when I heard it was going to go to five below zero I’d call up and ask for one of them to come out. To let them know what it was like to try to lash a cable and install an amplifier at five below zero. Just so they would get an idea. When they used to get in to connect the housings, that used to be a real bugaboo not only from an initial installation but a maintenance. You know, you have to go out and maintain this system at zero and five below. So that all of these things had to be taken into consideration when you design something.

Fitzroy Kennedy had started it and I think it was continued all through my career at SKL that the R&D people would come into the field. They grumbled a lot but they would come. So there was a good sense of understanding between the groups.

We tried various things. As I said, we experimented with the DC powered in-line amplifiers out in Grants Pass, Oregon. That was not successful I’m sorry to say. I think that it was a significant part in the pioneering effort because certainly if they could have gotten the bugs out of it at the time I think that the cost benefits to a in-line DC powered cable system were self evident. But it just was impossible to solve the problems with technology as it existed in that day and age. The field input became a driving factor in the design of the SKL equipment.

SMITH: In-line amplification in underseas cable is the thing today, isn’t it?

BROOKS: Yes, and again we were exposed to that at SKL because of the work that we were doing with the marine people with the electronic filtering and in the submarine housings and in the maritime research. We were very conscious of what was going on in marine technology in the in-line equipment. We could not at that period of time uncover the technical capability to bring it into cable. It would have been fascinating if it had been successful. It really would have been. But I think the whole key between the DC cable powered and the AC is that with the DC cable powering you didn’t need these huge boxes. You could go directly to your amplifier stages with the DC and you didn’t need the direct connection to the electric utilities and so forth. But, again, this was the sort of thing … A side benefit to that, we did ultimately wind up using those as preamps. They worked very fine as single channel, 6 megahertz devices up on towers. In-line, they became very easy to install and to maintain. It eliminated the need for all of the big cabinets and housings up on the tower for your AC power source. So that there were some benefits that came out of the experiments in Grants Pass.

SMITH: What do you consider to be the most significant technical innovation in terms of the overall technical evolution of the industry? What was a breakthrough that perhaps meant more than most others?

BROOKS: I think I’d almost have to two-stage that. I think the early days, what I considered to be the breakthrough was the introduction of the distributed broadband amplifier–the twelve channel distributed amplifier. Where the loss of a tube did not necessarily put you out of business. You know, reliability and the ability to deliver signals was always a problem in the early days of cable. In the early cable systems, if you lost one tube you lost your signal–you were out of business. And, if you remember, the cable system is a series circuit–wherever you lost it from that point on you were out.

SMITH: Like the old Christmas tree lights?

BROOKS: Yes. So then, at Spencer-Kennedy we always tried to concentrate on ways to improve reliability. We had little gadgets that … for instance, in the distributed amplifier, we used to put a little warning light in the bottom of the cabinet where with a distributed amplifier, if one circuit or one stage ceased to function and you were losing the gain and the overall gain dropped, this little warning light would come on. So that the technician driving down the street could look up and say, “Okay, I’ve got to retube that amplifier,” because it’s low on gain. Below a certain gain level the warning lights would come on. And the thing that always used to amaze me in the early days of the cable industry, people didn’t want to pay for all of that. They didn’t want to pay for the reliability.

I think to a certain extent because of the economy, there were a lot of improvements that could have been made, both by Spencer-Kennedy and by Jerrold and incorporated in the systems for reliability enhancement that were not done because you could not get people to pay for it. I think, to a certain extent, that hurt the cable industry. The telephone companies have used that reliability and performance over the years to beat us over the head. To this day I think that we’re still looked on as technically inferior by the general public–technically inferior to the telephone company and we’re really not. I would say if anything that we’re probably now technically superior. Now I don’t think that we have the technical superiority in the numbers of people. I think by far there’s a much greater number of competent technical people in the telephone company. But I certainly think that although we might be smaller in number, I think we’re higher in quality and capability.

So I think, to get back to your question, to me the first major breakthrough was the broadband distributed amplifier that increased capacity and also increased reliability. I think that was a significant step and eventually everyone went to it. As I mentioned earlier, Jerrold then came into it. Amplivision tried to duplicate it. A twelve channel then became standard. In fact, I think that if you will recall, the next step forward from that didn’t take until the Federal Commission mandated twenty channels. The twelve channel was doing very well in meeting the requirements of the cable industry and I think it did it until the FCC said, “Okay, any new systems …” I believe it was twenty channels …

SMITH: I think it was.

BROOKS: … that you had to go to. But to me and then the next thing and I think we discussed it earlier, the ability of the industry finally to incorporate transistors into our technology to me was the next step.

And the third one we’re looking at now is the fiber … our ability to employ fiber. When you look at our plants today, by deploying fiber to some extent and adding that to our coax network, we have far greater superior technical capability than the telephone company. They can add fiber to their pipe but they’ve still got that copper wire at the end of it, you know. That’s why I think that we have an image that we still suffer under that really is no longer true.

SMITH: At a point in our interview, and I imagine it can be best done in another session, I would like to explore with you at some length the telephone company/cable issue and relationship because I know that you’ve got telephone background as well. But that is a major and very important subject and I think I’d like to study your new company plan before we get into that discussion.

End of Tape 2, Side B

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