Interview Date: Thursday April 16, 1992
Interview Location: Casa Grande, AZ
Interviewer: Archer Taylor
Collection: Archer Taylor Technical Collection
Note: Audio Only
TAYLOR: This is Tape 1, Side A. I’m interviewing Earl Hickman in his enormous hangar with some five airplanes that he has either built or remodeled and a truck that his son has remodeled. We’re going to talk about things that happened a good many years ago in cable television.
Earl, it’s really a pleasure to get together with you after all these years. Tell us a little about your background before you got into cable. What’s your education? Where were you born? Where did you come from?
HICKMAN: Well, I actually went my last two years of high school in Bisbee, Arizona. That’s sort of how I got into electronics was in Bisbee, Arizona. I went to work for the Copper Electric Company. The Copper Electric Company, besides having an electric shop which did motor rewinding and all kinds of things that you can do in an electrical shop, also owned the local radio station. The call letters were KSUN. So I went to work for them sweeping their shop and just doing all the odd jobs that a fourteen year old kid could do.
So the first thing I knew I was a full-fledged electricians helper. I don’t really know exactly how they ever let me into the radio station but somehow – it’s not clear in my mind exactly how it happened – but I wound up building some equipment that they were building for the Cochise County Sheriff’s Department for a new two-way radio system that they were installing. They were using Motorola radios in the cars but the base station was a home-built base station. I can still remember that it had a pair of 211’s in the final. You probably remember the 211’s.
TAYLOR: Yes indeed.
HICKMAN: Carbon anode, 50 watt base vacuum tube.
TAYLOR: The number of people that remember what that is are beginning to get pretty few.
HICKMAN: Strike that. They were not 211’s. I’m sorry. They were 203-A’s which are very similar to 211’s but a little different. They were modulated with a pair of 838 variable mu carbon anode tubes.
I remember that pretty well considering that it was that many years ago. That must have been about 1940 or early 1941 that I actually was doing work on this. While I was working there I got my second class radio-telephone license.
TAYLOR: Did you do amateur radio?
HICKMAN: I didn’t do any amateur radio up to that point. In fact, I held a first class commercial license before I ever held an amateur license. So while I was working there I wanted to be a radio amateur so I taught myself the code and all that kind of stuff, you know. I used to listen to KFS and Press Wireless and things like that. I can still remember KFS because they had such a pretty call sign you know. Dah-dit-dah: dit-dit-dah-dit-dit-dit. I thought that was really beautiful. But anyway, I don’t want to dwell on those things any longer than you want me to dwell on them.
TAYLOR: No, just keep going as you remember it.
HICKMAN: So anyway, working in the electric shop and working in the radio station, I don’t really know how I ever got to doing it but the first thing. I’ll never forget the first radio announcement that I ever read on the radio. It was for a soft drink called Vanti Papaya. Do you remember that?
TAYLOR: No, I don’t.
HICKMAN: Vanti Papaya. One of the announcers there–one of the engineer/announcers at this little 250 watt radio station said, “Earl, read that over the air.” So I read it. Well, anyway, to make a long story short like I said, I got my second class radio- telephone license there. And I heard about an opportunity in Phoenix at Southwest Airways. By now we’re talking early 1941. Excuse me, strike that. I’m off on my timing here a little bit. I went to work with the Copper Electric Company in about 1940. I graduated from high school in 1942. And it was June of 1943 when I went to work for Southwest Airways.
By that time I had just taught myself, I had never had any formal training in electronics or anything, but I taught myself enough that I went to work for Southwest Airways as their radioman at Falcon Field in Mesa, Arizona. That’s where I got my first airplane ride. So between repairing all the radios in thirty-two AT-6’s that they had there–AT-6 North American trainers–I installed electric intercoms in sixty-four Stearman biplanes that they had that up to that time had had gosports instead of electric intercoms. A gosport is a speaking tube. You speak back and forth between the cockpits with a speaking tube. As a matter of fact, you didn’t speak back and forth because it was one way. Only the instructor spoke to the cadet.
TAYLOR: Directional coupler, I’ll bet.
HICKMAN: Right. I’ll never forget those little electric intercoms that I installed. My memory is quite clear on that because I used a 1-T-4 vacuum tube … 45 volt B battery and a 1.5 volt filament battery–A battery.
TAYLOR: You built these, then?
HICKMAN: Well, I did not build them. They were a mil spec item and all I did was install them. But I remember what they had in them. I simply installed them and I used throat microphones in the Steermans.
But, anyway, what I was leading up to is that I got my first airplane ride there. I liked it so much that I just bummed a lot of airplane rides. I had a real close relationship with several of the instructors, mostly over in the Steerman group–the primary group–to the extent that I learned to fly an airplane there. I liked it so well that I went down to the local Army Air Corps office and signed up for aviation cadets.
In December of ’43 they called me up. In the meantime, by the way, when I was working for Southwest Airways I got my first class radio- telephone license. Although self-taught, I was, if I have to say it myself, a pretty good electronics technician by that time even though I was quite young. At the age of seventeen I still was the best that they had at Falcon Field … I was all they had at Falcon Field. You see what I mean.
Anyway, in December of ’43 they called me up for aviation cadets so my job at Southwest Airways ended and off I went to be in Uncle Sam’s Air Corps. While in the Air Corps when I was in pre-flight at Santa Anna you qualified for navigator, pilot, or bombardier or all three or two or whatever. Well, I wasn’t really all that hot for navigator and bombardier. My grades were only seven–they graded you from one to nine. I had a seven for navigator, a seven for bombardier, and a nine for pilot. So I was slated to be a pilot. By now it’s up into ’44 and they said, “We’ve got an awful lot of pilots and we don’t have an opening in pilot school for you right now. So we’re going to send you to Taft, California, and there you’re going to do maintenance on airplanes and things like that while you’re waiting to go to pilot school.”
Well, that played out and they shipped me out to Des Moines, Iowa, to go to a college training detachment because they were eventually going to make me an officer and they had to teach eighteen year old kids how to be a gentleman, also, so …
TAYLOR: That’s a tough job.
HICKMAN: At least they wanted me to see what the inside of an institution of higher learning looked like. So they sent me to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. While at Drake I picked up thirty-two units of college credits which is not bad. And I did very well back there, especially in math and physics and stuff like that.
But to make a long story short about my military career, it turns out that while I was waiting to go to pilot school in Douglas, Arizona–they had shipped me down there for awhile doing the same thing–there was a notice on the bulletin board that said we have an opening for four people if they would like to go to gunnery school in Las Vegas, Nevada, and then go on from there to navigator school in Hondo, Texas. Well, here I was just spending the war wiping the underbellies of airplanes and things like this. So, I went and talked to my commanding officer and said, “Well, if I do this does it automatically lock me out of going to pilot school?” He said, “No, you can go to pilot school considering your grades and everything.” But he was worried that I might not make it through navigator school because I only had a seven in that. But by now I had gone through Drake University’s thirty-two units and had gotten a little smarter.
So to shorten that story a little bit, I did go–I volunteered to go–and I went through the gunnery school and I graduated in the top 5 percent of the class although I never did hit the sock. I was pretty good at taking the gun apart and putting it back together but wasn’t much of a gunner. Then I went to Hondo, Texas, to be a navigator and did a pretty good job there. I graduated as a second lieutenant and got my wings in July of ’45.
The war ended in August of ’45. I was out of the Air Corps in October of ’45, a month before I reached my twentieth birthday. So my military career was over before I reached my twentieth birthday.
TAYLOR: Before you got started.
HICKMAN: Yes. So I never saw any combat or anything else and I didn’t get to fly as a pilot. That still upsets me to this day. So when I got out of the Air Corps in ’45, I went back to the Copper Electric Company and KSUN and worked as a radio operator in the radio station there. I also did some work out in the electric shop but it was a little higher caliber work than I had been doing previously. I forgot to mention that in my spare time when I was in the Air Corps down at Selman Field in Monroe, Louisiana, they gave me a job of teaching electronics to officers who were about to go back into the civilian world. That was my last job before I, myself, went back into the civilian world. Of course, how much electronics can you teach guys who didn’t know an ohm from a volt in thirty days? Obviously I didn’t teach them very much. But I guess I did get them through Ohms Law, maybe, without them really understanding Ohms Law. As you know I couldn’t have gotten very deep with them.
Anyway, when I got out of the Air Corps I went back to KSUN and I was one of the operators there–operator/engineers they called us–and I worked in the electric shop. I did that until 1949. By this time I was the chief engineer of KSUN and I guess that also made me the chief engineer of the Copper Electric Company, too. I believe that was in June of ’49.
Of course, by this time I was a ham radio operator. W7JJN was my call. I got my ham license in ’45 when they first opened it up right after the war. Right at the end of 1945 or the beginning of ’46 they opened it back up and I got the call letters W7JJN because they had just switched Arizona out of the sixth district into the seventh district at that time. That’s been my call all these years–W7JJN. I used to be very active on the ham bands–had a full kilowatt on the air with a pair of 250 TH’s modulated with a pair of 810’s. You know what I’m talking about?
TAYLOR: Yes. Are you still operating ham?
HICKMAN: I haven’t been active in years. Just haven’t been active in years. I still have my license, it’s still current. I keep it renewed but I just haven’t used it in years. In fact, I haven’t used it hardly at all except on rare occasions since I got into cable television. But I used to be very active. In 1946, ’47, ’48, ’49, ’50 up through maybe ’52, I was pretty active.
In June of ’49 I decided that I really couldn’t go any farther in the electronics world without getting a degree. I was about as good as I could get on my own, you know. I had read everything that Terman had ever written. I was country-fair at the mathematics that an electrical engineer must know. In other words, I could handle complex algebra and things like that, you know. I knew what the operator J was all about and all that kind of stuff. But there were a lot of gaps in my education and I just couldn’t fill them in myself. So I decided that I had better get into an honest-to-God engineering school.
So through ham radio I met Paul Merrill, remember the name Merrill–W7PMJ. He was the older brother of Bruce Merrill. See we’re now starting to get into cable. Bruce Merrill’s older brother, Paul Merrill–W7PMJ. And Paul, over the ham radio, gave me a job of convenience, really, at KGLU in Safford, Arizona. The idea was that I would go to work for him at KGLU. He was the general manager of the Gila Broadcasting Company. The Gila Broadcasting Company at that time owned a station in Globe and Miami. They owned the one in Safford and one in Coolidge, Arizona. They owned three radio stations at the time. So I went to work at KGLU in Safford, Arizona, working nights and going to school at Gila Junior College in the daytime. So I went my first year in electrical engineering, which would be just general engineering since this was the first year, at Gila Junior College. Then I transferred to the University of Arizona at Tucson and, again, Paul gave me another job of convenience working as the chief engineer. Now I was not the chief engineer of the Gila Broadcasting Company or of KGLU or of anything when I worked at Safford, you understand. I was just a night operator. But he gave me the job of being the chief engineer at the Coolidge radio station which was KCKY. What I did there, now this was really a neat job of convenience and Paul Merrill was just like a father to me–even better. He set it up so that I could go to school all during the week but on weekends I would show up at Coolidge, Arizona, which was roughly sixty-five miles north of Tucson, on Saturday morning and open up the radio station–the transmitter building–turn the transmitter on and work until midnight. That’s an eighteen-hour shift in case you’ve lost track of the time. Then after I’d shut it down I’d do whatever maintenance was required on the transmitter and also the studio equipment downtown. I had to take care of all that … open the transmitter building back up. The studios were downtown and they operated it from down there. Then on Sunday morning I’d open it up again at six o’clock and work it until midnight Sunday night. So I’d put in four operating shifts there … well, thirty-six hours. That’s pretty close to a forty-hour week.
TAYLOR: Pretty close.
HICKMAN: With all of my maintenance and things that I did in there, I worked a forty-hour week in two days. The other five days of the week I could go to the University of Arizona. I’ve carried sometimes as many as twenty units in a semester at U of A. It was typical for me to carry seventeen to nineteen units and that’s a lot of units when you’re working also.
TAYLOR: Now you met Paul through radio conversations?
HICKMAN: Ham radio. All the good things that ever happened to me in my life …
TAYLOR: Now was he a technical man himself?
HICKMAN: Yes. Paul Merrill also had a first class radio-telephone license. He had been in the broadcasting business. I think KGLU went on the air in about 1937 or ’38 so Paul had been a ham radio operator and a commercial radio operator. Of course when I first met him on the ham bands he was the general manager of the Gila Broadcasting Company. So for my second year at the University of Arizona I wound up with that again.
TAYLOR: I was thinking that you must have had some fascinating conversations with Paul Merrill that he realized your capabilities to sponsor you the way he did through that period.
HICKMAN: Well I did. Paul Merrill is probably really my favorite guy in all my life. My own father was killed when I was just a baby so I guess Paul was kind of substitute father to me. I learned a lot of things from Paul about business. I’ve never known anybody of a higher moral character than Paul Merrill. I just couldn’t say enough good things about him. He was really my favorite guy.
TAYLOR: That’s a very enlightening experience.
HICKMAN: Anyway, I finished up at the University of Arizona and got my bachelor’s degree there in 1952. I don’t think I need to dwell on any of that stuff except to say that while I was in my sophomore year at the University of Arizona I rebuilt the studios of KGLU in Safford. During my junior year I put a radio station on the air for them in Winslow, Arizona. Gosh, I can’t even remember the call letters of it now, isn’t that awful. But anyway, it was a 1,000 watt radio station, had a two tower directional and it put out a figure 8 cardioid pattern that was just running right along what’s now called Interstate 40 but it was Route 66.
TAYLOR: Old Route 66.
HICKMAN: So that’s where I got my first experience in directional broadcast work. It was out of necessity. I had to learn it because I had a radio station to put on the air. I had to design the phasing cabinet, you know, and the whole thing which was pretty good experience for a guy in his junior year in college. Good on-the-job training. Then in my senior year I designed and built for them a new transmitter for KCKY. It was a 1,000 watt transmitter and I designed it myself. It really wasn’t very sophisticated but it was a nice transmitter. It used a pair of 833-A’s in the final–modulated with a pair of 833-A’s. Ran about 3200 volts on the plates. It was a nice broadcast rig. It was state-of-the-art in those days. I used a lot of inverse feedback in it. It was quite extensive because I ran the inverse feedback clear from the output of the modulators all the way back. That’s kind of hard to do, as you know, because you can get into some weird phase shifts and stuff like that. So I learned a lot about handling that kind of stuff there. Anyway, I graduated in ’52.
Here’s an interesting thing that happened. I believe it was about November of 1952, I got a phone call from Paul Merrill and he said, “Earl, have you ever heard of community antenna Television systems?” I believe that’s what he called them. And I said, “No, what is that?” So he said, “Well, I’ve got an issue, I believe it’s the November issue, of Electronics Magazine.” You remember Electronics Magazine?
HICKMAN: I believe it was the November issue of ’52, I’m not sure. But there was a write up in there about Marty Malarkey’s cable television system–community antenna.
TAYLOR: This is interesting because probably that very same issue is what got me started.
HICKMAN: Am I right on that one?
TAYLOR: Close to it anyway. They called it community television. They didn’t have antenna in it at that time. I’m not sure about the date but it was late 1952. I know, because I was a consulting engineer up in Missoula, Montana, at the time and one of my clients was Norm Penwell. I had helped Norm get a radio station–got the licensing and all that stuff. He called me one day and said, “What do you know about community television?” I said, “All I know is what I read in Electronics Magazine.” He had some due bills at the radio station from a flying service and he said, “I’m going to charter and go over to the West Coast to Chehalis and Centralia and Bellingham and Seattle and we’ll look at some of the systems over there and see what it’s all about.” So we did and that’s how both of us got going on it at the same time that you did.
HICKMAN: Isn’t that something.
TAYLOR: From the same source. That’s very interesting.
HICKMAN: I really didn’t have any experience in television at this point. I had quite a bit of broadcast experience, you know. I could take a bunch of field measurements and calculate the RMS field of a directional antenna and calculate the ground conductivities and all that kind of stuff, you know, which made me, as country-bumpkin radio engineers go, a cut above average for that time. But I didn’t know anything about television. I hardly knew how they did it. I remember my first television set was a little seven inch Hallicrafters. You probably remember those things.
TAYLOR: Oh yes.
HICKMAN: But anyway, Paul asked me about this and I said, “No, I didn’t know what it was,” but he explained it to me over the phone. He said, “What if I come over to your house and we’ll discuss this?” By “my house” he meant my Quonset hut because at the University of Arizona I lived in the veterans’ housing project and my house was a Quonset hut. I lived there with my wife and two kids. Paul Merrill came over to the house the next day or two later–drove over from Safford where his office was–and we discussed cable television.
Now by this time we had built another radio station. I did not put this one on the air. I should go back and tell you that this one actually went on the air while I was working my first year in Safford. An engineer by the name of Wally Hitt … I don’t know whether you’ve ever heard of him or not. But Wally Hitt built the radio station for the Gila Broadcasting Company in Globe and Miami–KWJB, that was their call letters. So Paul asked me, “Do you think we could build one of those community television systems in Globe and Miami, Arizona?” And I said, “Why not?”
TAYLOR: At that age you could do anything.
HICKMAN: At that early age I was not only immortal but I could do anything. You know how that goes. I think you’ve been there, too. So anyway, I said, “Sure.”
We, of course, had to look for equipment to build this with. I didn’t know anything about building cable television equipment. I hardly knew how a television worked. So Paul did all the legwork on this. He rounded up brochures on RCA equipment. It was RCA, and I even remember the name–Antennaplex equipment.
TAYLOR: That was what Martin Malarkey used when he started.
HICKMAN: Yes, that’s where we got the lead because in the article it described some of the equipment. It was RCA equipment. Well, we got the idea from the article that RCA made everything that you’d ever need to go in the cable television business. So, we not only threw in with RCA but we became their southwest distributor for Antennaplex equipment.
Well, we started constructing the system in Globe and Miami. In the first place our antenna site was located four and one-half miles south of Miami, Arizona, on a peak called Madera Peak. We could get one station from Phoenix–Channel 5 from Phoenix–and we could get one station from Tucson–Channel 13. In fact that was all that was on the air at that time–two channels. In the process of building the headend and everything, Channel 12 went on the air in Mesa, Arizona, so we had three channels. We used Channels 2, 4 and 6, strip amplifiers, and we converted Channels 12 and 13. I’ve forgotten now but I think Channel 5 wound up on Channel 2 and Channel 13 wound up on Channel 4 and Channel 12 wound up on Channel 6. That’s exactly what we did. So we used RCA converters, RCA strip amplifiers in the headend, and all that. And then strip amplifiers, individual strip amplifiers, down the hill … this four and one-half mile line.
You’ve got to understand that we were rank amateurs. We knew nothing about what we were doing. But we found out about K-14 cable. Remember K-14 cable?
TAYLOR: Yes, I remember.
HICKMAN: Which was about the lowest loss 75 ohm cable that you could get at that time. So we not only put in K-14 cable coming down that four and one-half miles, and then the other six or seven miles it seems like between Miami and Globe, Arizona, the ultimate line of amplifiers. I think we had about fifty-four of them in cascade or something like that.
TAYLOR: Still Antennaplex strips?
HICKMAN: Yes. Well, we didn’t get through those fifty-four with the strips.
TAYLOR: Oh, I should think not.
HICKMAN: But we got through … let’s go back to the four and one-half miles. The four and one-half miles we buried the cable–put it underground–so it was an underground system. I had to line power it because it seemed logical to feed the power back up the same lines. You see the center conductor was the equivalent of a No. 9 wire and you didn’t have to be very smart to calculate the voltage drop in this thing. So what I did was I took a 2400 volt pole pod and just used half of the voltage on it. In other words I took the primary and instead of taking 220 into the primary I put 110 in so that gave me 1200 volts on the output side. Okay? Then at each amplifier location coming down the mountain I put a pole transformer in there and, with no help from anybody–just out of my own calculations, I made up my own networks for putting the 1200 volts on the K-14 running up the hill to power all of the headend equipment and all of the amplifiers coming down the line. So this was an underground system. We’re talking about late 1952, early ’53, okay.
TAYLOR: You had 1200 volts on that K-14?
HICKMAN: I had 1200 volts. It was line powered with 1200 volts. Well, you can see why I had to have 1200 volts because those strip amplifiers took a lot of power to begin with.
TAYLOR: That’s right. Oh, they were hogs.
HICKMAN: And I was also taking care of all the power in the processing in the headend plus the lights in the headend building and all that stuff, see. So it all happened right on the cable there. So early on I got some experience at line powering, like from day one.
So we built a cable television system and we became sorely aware right away that RCA did not have a complete line of equipment to do the work with. Pressure taps were the only thing that were available. In fact, I don’t believe RCA even had an honest-to-God pressure tap at that point. It doesn’t stick in my mind. I don’t exactly remember the configuration. All I know is that it didn’t make sense to a young electrical engineer. You know, the ink was hardly dry on my diploma. But it didn’t make sense to just be hanging shunts off of a transmission line and doing nothing to correct the impedance, the shunting effect of the impedance.
So about this same time, when I realized that not only were these double-tuned amplifiers that were used in those strips not going to make it through much of a cascade, I became aware of Spencer-Kennedy amplifiers–the distributed amplifiers. By this time I had also done as much reading as I could find literature on to read about distributed amplifiers, which I think consisted mainly of an article in the proceedings of the IRE which was written by Fitzroy Kennedy or maybe by Spencer, but I think …
TAYLOR: No. Spencer was a businessman; he was not an engineer at all.
HICKMAN: I think it was written by Kennedy. I think it was in the proceedings of the IRE.
TAYLOR: I think it probably was. I’ll try and find out more about that from some other people.
HICKMAN: I wish I were clearer on that–it’s not real clear in my mind. But I remember I read all that kind of stuff and I read all the stuff that Lou Ridenhauer had to say in his book on amplifiers in the Radio Laboratory Series. Then there was another book that came along later that influenced me but it was written by Martin at the University of Arizona. I think that came several years later.
But anyway, I then became aware of another company called Jerrold about this same time. It seems like Paul wanted to get in with Jerrold but there was some problem. It had to do with the business relationship of getting in business with Jerrold.
TAYLOR: Well, maybe I can fill you in on that.
HICKMAN: I don’t remember exactly but Paul found it not to our advantage to get into it. I don’t remember.
TAYLOR: Well, I’ll tell you what we found. You see, when we went to the West Coast, we bumped into Phil Hamlin who had just that day been appointed Jerrold-Northwest. So we tried to get Jerrold equipment and we couldn’t get it because they had this service contract that you had to agree to.
HICKMAN: That was it.
TAYLOR: And the service contract required five dollars out of every installation fee and twenty-five cents a month out of every monthly fee and the contract failed to give a termination date. This was forever and ever.
HICKMAN: Yes, it comes back to me.
TAYLOR: And they vaguely said what they would do for you for that is that they would keep you up-to-date and they would make sure you did things right. We were four engineers trying to build a system. We had gone out and raised money. We couldn’t …
HICKMAN: Well, we didn’t have all that much money. You’ve got to understand, we didn’t have all that much money.
TAYLOR: We sure didn’t. One interesting thing just on this point talking to Ken Simons, Ken pointed out what I have always felt that there was some merit to Shapp’s position that he didn’t want to just sell equipment because it might reflect back on him. He wanted to sell a system and see to it that it worked properly. But he didn’t have the manpower to carry through neither did they have the knowledge to carry through. So it was really a terrible thing.
HICKMAN: I should go back and fill you in on one thing before we get too deeply involved with all the technical end of this thing here. And that is because what we’re talking about here is the beginning of Ameco. Because this company now that Paul Merrill formed, due to going in with RCA Antennaplex …. I don’t remember which person actually came up with the name but it was either Willard Shoecraft or Nelson Wirick, one or the other and I’ll fill you in on who these people were later, who came up with the name Antennavision–kind of like Antennaplex–Antennavision. So that was going to be the name of our new company, Antennavision. Okay? And it was. It was Antennavision in Globe and Miami, Arizona. That’s where we started. And as far as I know, we were the first honest-to-God cable television system in the state of Arizona. Two or three other people may claim to the same thing and I don’t really care. All I know is what I was doing at the time. I don’t know what they were doing. I thought we were the only ones out there but maybe not. I don’t know. All I can remember is that it was very difficult to get satisfactory equipment and that’s what we were talking about.
But getting back to Paul Merrill. We obviously had to come up with some money to go in business. I was fresh out of the University of Arizona and I had $1,000 dollars to my name when we started Antennavision. The Valley National Bank of Arizona loaned me another $1,000 on a 1950 Hudson that I had. So that made about $2,000 I had to put into it. As I recall, it took about $3,500 to ante up in Antennavision to pay your share. There were seven of us that formed the company. The other $1,500 they gave me because I was doing most of the work.
TAYLOR: What you call “sweat equity.”
HICKMAN: Right, “sweat equity.” It may be of some interest to you to know who those people were–the seven beginning people.
TAYLOR: Yes, it would be.
HICKMAN: Okay. There was Paul Merrill and Earl HICKMAN:–of course, me–and Bruce Merrill, Paul’s younger brother.
TAYLOR: Younger brother?
HICKMAN: Yes. He was younger than Paul by about fifteen or sixteen years. Bruce was an accountant–a CPA. He had his own accounting firm. So it was only logical that he become our bookkeeper right away, and he did. Then there was Nelson Wirick. Nelson Wirick was married to Paul Merrill’s son’s widow. Paul Merrill’s son was married to this lady and Paul Merrill’s son was killed in World War II and Nelson Wirick married this lady who was Paul Merrill’s ex-daughter-in-law. So that was their relationship. They were all good, close personal friends of Bruce and Paul Merrill. Then there was Willard Shucraft who was the manager of the radio station in Globe and Miami. It was only logical that he be in on the thing because we were going to build a cable system right there in his own backyard. But he worked for Paul because it was one of the stations of the Gila Broadcasting Company.
Oh, I might add that … I should tell you about this before we go any farther. The Gila Broadcasting Company was the owner of the radio stations.
End of Tape 1, Side A
TAYLOR: We’re now on Side B of Tape 1 interviewing Earl Hickman.. Go ahead, Earl.
HICKMAN: Okay. Radio Associates was the operating company and it was Radio Associates that formed the cable television company called Antennavision. It was the officers and directors of Radio Associates that actually formed that company. But Willard Shoecraft was one of the officers in Radio Associates so it was only logical that he become one of the officers in Antennavision. Then there was Bill Parody who was the manager of KCKY in Coolidge, Arizona–the Coolidge radio station. Then there was one more, Edward Furman. Eddie was sort of like the business manager of the Gila Broadcasting Company. I don’t remember exactly what Eddie’s title was but he was Paul Merrill’s right-hand man, anyway. So there were seven people.
TAYLOR: Of the seven, you and Paul both were technically oriented.
TAYLOR: Were any of the others?
HICKMAN: No. In fact, Paul and I started the whole operation. We really started it and then immediately thereafter Bruce came into the deal and then all these others just followed. We almost were all in there together.
I give Paul Merrill credit for being the founder of the company because as far as I’m concerned it was his idea. So he was it.
TAYLOR: Now the purpose of the company was to build equipment?
HICKMAN: No, to build cable television systems not to build equipment. We talked about that and we decided that we knew from experience in the broadcast business that you were better off not to build equipment if you could avoid it. We didn’t want to water down our … what we wanted to do was get subscribers as fast as possible. So we didn’t want to get into the equipment business.
But I guess it’s time to talk about how we got into the equipment business. It just simply was out of necessity. We couldn’t get delivery on equipment. The cost of the equipment was too high; the quality was too poor; and pressure taps never did make much sense to me.
So while I was dealing with all of the problems associated with trying to squeeze television through coaxial cable through miles and miles of amplifiers. By this time we had experimented with Spencer-Kennedy amplifiers, also. Spencer-Kennedy amplifiers were actually pretty good. They were about as good as you can do with twelve 5654’s or 6AK5’s in a distributed amplifier. They worked pretty good for their time. But the only problem is we had started out on the basis of channels 2 through 6 so we obviously weren’t spaced to use the full capabilities of a Spencer-Kennedy amplifier, which went up through channel 13. In fact, we really didn’t think much about building cable television systems up that high. Two through 6 was about as good as anybody would ever want to do anyway, we thought. That shows how wrong we were.
After I got out of the University of Arizona I moved back to Safford, Arizona, because that’s where the corporate headquarters were for the Gila Broadcasting Company. So while I was living there in Safford, Arizona, I built a broadband amplifier on my dining room table. That broadband amplifier was influenced by an article in the “Proceedings of the IRE.” I can’t remember who wrote it but I’ll bet you I’ve got a copy of that article–the “Proceedings of the IRE.”
TAYLOR: This is not the Fitz Kennedy?
HICKMAN: No, it wasn’t Fitz Kennedy’s article at all. It was after that.
TAYLOR: A later article.
HICKMAN: Yes. It had to do with stagger damped tuning. Does that ring a bell?
TAYLOR: Yes indeed. I think Don Kirk has cited such an article. I may have that.
HICKMAN: He probably read the same article. I’m sure we were all reading the same things. But I would like to give credit to this person who wrote that article on stagger damped tuning but I’m just darned if I can remember his name. But it was a heck of a good article.
TAYLOR: Maybe when I get the stuff from Don that he’s going to send to me there will be a reference to it.
HICKMAN: Okay, great. But I do remember that that’s what it was all about. So I read that article and I just built up a little two tube amplifier. I think I was using 6BK7s or something like that. I don’t remember for sure. They were a pretty high mu twin triode …. I built up this little stagger damp tuning amplifier and I had it playing there. Paul Merrill, you know being technically oriented, he asked me what I was doing. I said, “Well, I built this little amplifier.” By this time I had a sweep generator and things of necessity in the cable system. The amplifier looked pretty good. I had it so that it worked from 54 through maybe 110 MHz with fair response. So Paul said, “Maybe we could use these in the system.” I said, “Well, we might be able to use them for line extenders or something like that.” I don’t know whether we called them line extenders in those days.
TAYLOR: I think that came in later.
HICKMAN: For that purpose, anyway, we had line extenders whether we called them that or not. Most of the time in the early days we, just like Jerrold and RCA did, we even tapped the trunk. Of course I got away from that right away. That didn’t make much sense at all. That was my first amplifier and I added another tube to it somewhere along the line and made it a three tube amplifier with a nominal gain of something like 26 dB’s or something like that. I think we spaced them on the cable at around 20 dB’s or something like that.
It was immediately apparent to me after we got in business with RCA that you could not build amplifiers doing what RCA said that you would do–feed out with a +60 level and come in with a zero level … 60 dB’s per amplifier station just simply didn’t work. One of my early ventures with the RCA amplifier was to split them in two and make them into 30 dB stations instead of 60 dB stations. Of course I could get much better signal to noise ratios by doing that. I just couldn’t get down the four and one-half mile mountain run with any quality signal at all using 60 dB stations.
So it was more or less just trial and error. I built this little amplifier and the first thing I knew we had built several hundred of these darn things. By this time some of Paul’s friends from out of town had heard about this amplifier and Paul was building them for the people outside. Then our company became a formal little company. I had a little building over there in Safford, Arizona. It was about 35 by 35 feet in size. So we called ourselves the Antennavision Manufacturing and Engineering Company. That abbreviates to Ameco. That’s how it all started right there. It started in Safford, Arizona. That was 1954, I guess.
By this time we had done a lot of other things besides just this. We had built one of the first microwave links in existence and I think that we might have built the longest one that was in existence at the time because it was ninety-two miles long. As you know, in 1954 there was really no processing equipment for feeding microwave shots. So I did the logical thing. I got hold of a Conrac tuner and modified it so that it would feed the video out of the Conrac tuner to modulate the repeller of the klystron in the microwave link. There was a modulator on the market. I can’t even remember who made it–might have been Kay Electric. I know that Kay Electric made a sweep generator but it seems like they also made a modulator about that time. I don’t remember. But I got hold of one of those modulators which subsequently wasn’t any good. It really was lousy. It wouldn’t hold the visual to aural separation properly. It was just rubbery. It didn’t work very well.
One of the things that the microwave link used was a sub-carrier sound system. I think it was about 6.8 MHz. In the process of feeding the audio through, it was all distorted and this and that. So it became apparent to me …. Now I don’t know who did all this first or anything like that and I’m not going to try to address who was first at doing what. I can only speak from where I was because I really wasn’t following any leads. I just had a job to do in Safford, Arizona. So it became obvious to me that one of the neat ways to feed the aural information over the microwave link was simply to take the natural 4.5 megacycle beat out of the Conrac tuner and feed that …. Instead of using the sub-carrier generator and the microwave link, just use that right straight on through.
TAYLOR: As a sub-carrier.
HICKMAN: As a sub-carrier. And likewise in the modulator, to just simply beat it back up. You know, clip it, process it and feed it out as the aural carrier, and then remix it as the aural carrier. And I did that. And for the first time we had satisfactory sound on our microwave systems. We didn’t have to set the modulation level or anything like that. It was set for us. It was pretty obvious if you knew how a television set worked to do that. So we just used inter-carrier sound over the thing.
About this time I was thoroughly disenchanted with the modulators that were available. We had an engineer working for us at this point by the name of Larry Wilson.
TAYLOR: This is still in Safford?
HICKMAN: No. By this time we had moved to Phoenix. We’re now up to 1956 and we had moved to Phoenix on 2949 West Osborn Road.
TAYLOR: Now was that Bruce’s accounting firm?
HICKMAN: No. We built a building there. It was near his accounting firm which was in the vicinity of 16th Street and Camelback in Phoenix. It wasn’t too far from his accounting firm.
But now we’re up to ’56. We’d been building equipment. By this time we’d built just about every kind of amplifier that you could build. We tried distributed amplifiers but using matching devices on their input and output as contrasted to the coaxial input and output lines which was one of the downfalls of the Spencer-Kennedy amplifier if you recall. They were kind of crude as far as the impedance match and the frequency response was done in considerably. If you could get into the amplifiers okay and out of the amplifiers okay, you were in great shape. So I concentrated on trying to build some matching networks to go on the input and output.
And I was following the lead of an engineer who worked at Motorola. A fellow by the name of Russell Yost. He wrote an article … I don’t know whether it was in the proceedings or where I read this article. But he wrote an article on multi-pole matching networks. In other words, they were impedance matching bandpass filters. Which is, of course, old hat now. But believe me, in the early ’50s that was great stuff.
So I used Russell Yost’s paper that he had written as the basis for all of the matching input networks that I used on the Ameco amplifiers. And the output networks as well.
I told Larry Wilson, “Larry, I tell you what I want you to do here as a first project. I want you to build a good modulator to work with the microwave links.” So he designed and built a modulator and we called it an Ameco-Tran. We built several of them and used them on the microwave links and they were just marginal in the operation. The biggest problem with them was the vestigial sideband filter. Well, that wasn’t really the biggest problem. There was another problem, too. Well, I won’t get into all the technical problems that we had with the thing.
But anyway we finally worked out the problems with the vestigial sideband filter and got it working at least as good as a typical broadcast vestigial sideband filter. We were using them in all of Ameco’s microwave links and things like that. Before this we had come up with phase problems with picture and sound carrier diversity problems in Globe, Miami, especially. That was my first crack at individually processing the visual and aural carriers to stabilize them. The first time I did it I think I did it at 21 MHz in the old black and white IF band.
TAYLOR: Oh, yes.
HICKMAN: I think that’s where I did it the first time. Now I don’t know when Jerrold started doing the same time … picture and aural carrier processing.
TAYLOR: I’m not sure either.
HICKMAN: They probably did it about the same time that I was doing it. But I was doing it really for myself and out of necessity on our system. But I can’t speak to who did it first. It never seemed like there was anything in there that was patentable to me, anyway, because all we were doing was just copying TV sets and whatever.
TAYLOR: About that time or maybe a little earlier, you’re talking about ’56 now?
HICKMAN: Well, I’m talking about earlier than ’56. I dropped back there on you. I know I did this individual processing of the visual and aural carriers before we ever moved out of Safford which would have been prior to ’56. It probably would have been like in ’54. Because we early on experienced picture and aural carrier diversity problems like you wouldn’t believe at that particular site in Globe-Miami.
TAYLOR: Well, this has come up elsewhere and I probably can get track of that through somebody up in the Pacific Northwest–maybe Charlie Clements or Phil Hamlin. I suppose it’s a legend, I don’t know, but one of those guys took a TV set–the RCA TV set–and actually put a motor-driven control on the sound volume. They individually processed that way. I think that set had separate carriers.
HICKMAN: Well, it got so bad in Globe-Miami, that I finally out of desperation broke it clear down to video and audio and just remodulated a modulator with it. Eventually I moved the antenna site and solved the problem.
But these are some of the early signal processor experiments, if you want to call it that, which ultimately eventually led up to the Channeleer.
TAYLOR: That’s right.
HICKMAN: Years later it became the Channeleer. But this was all vacuum tube stuff that I’m talking about now. You’ve got to understand, it’s all vacuum tube stuff.
I believe it was 1956 that we actually built a formal modulator that might be suitable for the outside world–vacuum tube modulator. And Bruce sold a bunch of them. By now he was selling amplifiers. We had a production line going there, selling vacuum tube amplifiers and all that kind of stuff.
TAYLOR: How many people did you have working in the shop down in Safford?
HICKMAN: Oh, I don’t think we ever had more than five or six people there.
TAYLOR: But you were just producing amplifiers for your own use out there?
HICKMAN: That was mainly for our own use. Some of Bruce’s friends on the outside, and Bruce had a lot of friends in the cable business early on like Marty Malarkey. Because while I was back home working on trying to make the damn stuff run, Bruce was out really meeting the people that he should have met if he was ever going to do this kind of thing. And I think that Bruce early on realized what he was going to do. I think that he was planning on being in the manufacturing business when I wasn’t really planning on being in the manufacturing business. I was just planning on trying to …
TAYLOR: … making the stuff work.
HICKMAN: … make the stuff work that particular day, you understand. Because you’re right, I was just the technical part of it. And a rank amateur at that. I remember in those days meeting some people of interest at Jerrold. There was Caywood Cooley, Roger Wilson. Did you know Roger–later of TelePrompTer?
TAYLOR: Yes, sure I know Roger.
HICKMAN: This is just aside from what I’m talking about on my own stuff but I think it was in Denver, Colorado, in about 1954 or ’55 that Roger was telling me about one of Jerrold’s–he was with Jerrold at the time–experiences in Dubuque, Iowa, where they had a problem feeding a long way down a hill. See, we were comparing headend runs.
TAYLOR: Not Quite Video?
HICKMAN: Yes, NQV—Not Quite Video.
TAYLOR: Don Kirk was a prime mover in that. He was telling me about it.
HICKMAN: Do you remember them describing the dehubbubers?
TAYLOR: Yes, exactly.
HICKMAN: You should get the Jerrold guys to tell you about this.
TAYLOR: Did you hear about the HLD?
HICKMAN: No. What was that one?
TAYLOR: They were getting crosstalk between these cables, of course, because it was RG … he says 59 which surprised me. But anyway, it was braided cable and the crosstalk was pretty severe. So they found that if they would bury this stuff they’d get some isolation between these cables. So Don called it high-loss dirt–HLD.
HICKMAN: Great. Why not. I’ll never forget that and the reason that I bring this NQV thing up is that later in my cable television experience it greatly influenced some of my thinking.
TAYLOR: I can understand that.
HICKMAN: It also influenced Bruce Merrill’s thinking. Roger Wilson explained that NQV thing from Dubuque, Iowa, to me. And I thought, you know, that sounds like a pretty good idea. But at the time it occurred to me why they had to have the dehubbuber. And I had an idea around that, you know. But naturally I didn’t work for Jerrold so I didn’t get into that. And I let the whole idea just drop and that was it. But the reason that I brought that up was because some people try to lay claim to originality in what they do.
You mentioned about the subsequent thing that I did in Huntsville, Alabama, with the individual trunk lines feeding. Well, that was essentially a Dubuque, Iowa, type thing. It’s just that it used a slightly different frequency band. I didn’t harmonically relate within the pass band. And that was the only thing that made it work pretty slick. It didn’t harmonically relate within the pass band. Which is, as you know, a no-no unless you’re awfully good at building amplifiers. So anyway, that’s all I wanted to say about that.
I guess this leads me up to … I’ll just jump ahead here a little bit and say that I left Ameco in June of 1958. At the time that I left Ameco we were just starting to experiment with solid state devices. By the time I left Ameco in 1958, we had developed a pretty country-fair vacuum tube modulator, a pretty good vacuum tube amplifier, some pretty good tap-off devices that would tap the signal off of the line without screwing up the impedance.
TAYLOR: You used directional couplers?
HICKMAN: Yes, we were using directional couplers by this time. But in order to make them cheap I had built a lot of tap-off devices which were not directional couplers in the higher ranges but they were actually essentially … a lump parameter transmission line was the theory of them. So essentially each tap just loaded the transmission line a little bit. So it was a regular 75 ohm characteristic impedance lump parameter transmission line. In the higher values it didn’t even use directional tap capabilities. Only in the lower tap values did it use the directional coupler.
And the directional couplers were not the type directional couplers that you think of now days when you think of a directional coupler. They were the lump parameter equivalent of what Scotty Gray used to use in his open wire transmission lines. Do you remember that?
TAYLOR: I remember about it, yes. I didn’t know what it was.
HICKMAN: I ought to tell you about open wire transmission lines, too. I wish I could get some order to this chaos. Open wire transmission lines …. I never had any experience with G-lines. You mentioned in here G-lines.
TAYLOR: You didn’t?
HICKMAN: I had nothing to do with it.
TAYLOR: I thought you did.
HICKMAN: This all took place during the eight years that I was gone from Ameco from ’58 to ’66. I was gone completely from Ameco from June of ’58 until March of ’66. I was with Kaiser during that time.
TAYLOR: So it was somebody else that did the G-line?
HICKMAN: Yes. You should talk with Milford Richey. I don’t know that Milford was the actual brains behind this because I don’t think he was. I think he just actually brought it to fruition. He just built it, you know. But Milford could tell you all about that.
TAYLOR: Okay. I don’t know where Milford is anymore.
HICKMAN: I hired Milford just before I left Ameco in ’58. I think I hired him maybe in the later part of ’57.
TAYLOR: He came from Collins, is that right?
HICKMAN: No. He came from Channel 10 in Phoenix. He was the chief engineer of Channel 10 in Phoenix–KOOL. And a very good television chief engineer, I might add. So I never had any experience with G-lines so I can’t really speak to that subject.
TAYLOR: I thought I had heard you talking about it.
HICKMAN: Open wire transmission lines I can tell you about because I fought, clawed, scratched and did everything I could do short of just plain out and out resignation over open wire transmission lines.
A fellow by the name of Scotty Gray from Los Angeles came into Phoenix one day and met with Bruce Merrill. I wasn’t even in on the meeting. Essentially what he convinced Bruce Merrill of was that I was just a clean cut incompetent because I had not used any open wire transmission line in our system. So Bruce put us in the business of using the open wire transmission line. Not selling it but using it. We bought all the stuff from Scotty Gray. I really never had anything to do with it. I told Bruce what was going to happen and it all came to pass just the way I said it would be.
TAYLOR: He had what he called a black box that made the open line work. I remember that.
HICKMAN: I don’t even know what that would be. I don’t know what he was talking about. I never had any black box that made it work.
TAYLOR: I didn’t either but at one point somewhere he …
HICKMAN: Would this have been after I left there? Would it have been sometime after ’58? Maybe so.
TAYLOR: I would guess so. When was the Pat Weaver business in pay TV done there? And that was killed by referendum. It was either late ’50s or maybe early ’60s. This was about that time.
HICKMAN: It’s probably during the time that I was not in the cable business.
TAYLOR: That might well be. But Gray wanted me to come to work for him. I just sensed that this is a charlatan.
HICKMAN: Well, I really wouldn’t have any bad things to say about Scotty Gray except that he was saying bad things about me that I don’t think were true. It was obvious to me just from the examination of the transmission line equations that there’s radiation from an open wire transmission line. I could tell just simply by writing you the equations that I’d studied in school. There was radiation from the open wire transmission lines and it seemed obvious to me that this was going to cause problems. Because people could steal it from you just as well as not and they did.
TAYLOR: They did.
HICKMAN: Of course there were impedance matching problems and all kinds of things associated with it because it was hard to make a turn in the cable without throwing in a rather large discontinuity in the transmission line. So I never was a proponent of open wire transmission lines. I liked the lowest loss coax you could get your hands on. That’s what I liked better than anything else.
TAYLOR: Another thing maybe I erroneously attribute to you but did you work with FM transmissions?
HICKMAN: I built the first one.
TAYLOR: You did. I mean FM video.
HICKMAN: Yes. I built the very first one as far as I know. And the very first FM transmitter was a modified sweep generator, a modified Kay sweep generator. You know where you beat two klystrons together. I had a requirement … I’ll tell you how it grew up. Do you want to hear the story of how it happened?
HICKMAN: The Globe-Miami, system–the same four and one-half mile line. The date is probably 1956, perhaps ’55. I’m not absolutely sure. In that period somewhere. I’m trying to tie it into Larry Wilson and their times with the company and whatnot. But this one, I was entirely to blame for it. I remember the whole thing.
I took this Kay sweep generator and rather than sweeping the klystron, you know, with a sawtooth wave form, I cut the sweep generator loose from it and I applied video to the repeller of the klystron, beat the two klystrons so that they were 15 megacycles apart–15 MHz apart–and I deviated the klystron so that I had roughly about a 10 megacycle bandwidth of interest. In other words it used fractional modulation index. It was about the equivalent of what you would have in a microwave setup of that day and time. Again, it was centered at 15 MHz and I had it operating in the band from 10 to 20 MHz, okay, centered at 15. Note it’s not harmonically related. And even in those days I was smart enough to avoid the harmonic relationship which was one of the downfalls of the company that later had the FM system back in New York. You know the one that had the broadband FM system that was tried out in Colorado Springs. Remember that one?
TAYLOR: Yes. Was that Joe Vogelman?
HICKMAN: Yes, he was the engineer. In fact, I consulted to that firm and it was my painful duty to have to explain to them mathematically why it did what it did. How phase distortion ultimately showed its manifestation in much the same way for FM that inner modulation distortion does on amplitude modulation.
TAYLOR: Well, that outfit was a real charlatan. The surprising thing was that Joe Vogelman is a highly regarded electronics man.
HICKMAN: Well, it was Vogelman, himself, and his boss who actually hired me to come in and shoot them down. So I can’t really say anything against him. In fact, they might not have liked what I said but I’ll never forget that when I left town to come home they met me as I was leaving with a present for my wife–a string of pearls for my wife. So they obviously knew that I was operating in good faith.
TAYLOR: I got up and walked out of a meeting with Joe Vogelman one time in a hotel in Washington because he was just insulting my intelligence. I’d tell him things and he would just walk right over them. I finally got up and walked out.
HICKMAN: I think that maybe this was right at the end and it was pretty obvious to him that it wasn’t going to cut the mustard. Well, anyway, I didn’t want to get into that.
This FM thing, what I wanted to do …. We came down the mountain like this and we split and went to Miami and Globe. We had a television studio in Miami and I wanted to feed back up to this split point and then feed to Globe, you see. Well, we had all this nice K-14 cable in there but it was several amplifiers back to this split point here. You follow me up to now?
HICKMAN: Okay. So what I did was I fed the FM television from our local studio. That was the carrier for it–was the FM. I don’t know why I got involved with the FM except it just seemed to me like FM was kind of a neat way to do it. I put it down in this band of frequencies and I designed, as far as I know, the very first complementary filters used on cable television for reverse feed on the same cable. I don’t know anybody else that built it sooner than this. But there was nothing tricky about it. They were just simply complementary filters right out of Terman’s handbook. So I didn’t invent them. I just designed them.
HICKMAN: So I’m not laying claim to any great shakes here. Frederick Emmons Terman wrote the equations that I used to design the filters. I made the crossover points of these …. They were M derived end sections of M = .6 in which case you can leave out the shunt elements. So you can tell I was there. Right out of Terman’s handbook.
TAYLOR: That’s right.
HICKMAN: So these complementary filters had a crossover, I’ve forgotten the exact frequency now. Oh, I know what they were … I called them CF-33’s. They had a 33 megacycle crossover point. Right below channel 2 and right above my 20 MHz, you see. In fact, if you took 54 and 20 and took the geometric mean of it, it’s probably 33.
TAYLOR: What year was this then?
HICKMAN: This is either ’55 or ’56. Right in there somewhere.
TAYLOR: Did you know of Earl Cullum, a consulting engineer out of Dallas?
TAYLOR: He had been Eisenhower’s communications aide during the Normandy Invasion.
HICKMAN: I didn’t know him but I knew of him.
TAYLOR: A very fine gentleman. I did get to know him personally quite well. But when the Commission was, after the war, beginning to activate television again, he urged them strenuously to change from the amplitude modulation to a frequency modulation.
HICKMAN: Is that right? Well, I’ll be doggoned.
TAYLOR: … because of the interference situation. He urged and it took too much bandwidth and they couldn’t provide it.
HICKMAN: Yes, because when you start to operate with a fractional modulation index, you start to get away from the advantages.
TAYLOR: That’s right. It’s closer to AM.
HICKMAN: Right. But it just worked beautifully. This thing that I designed just worked beautifully. And I’ll never forget that I fed that sucker clear into Globe, Arizona, and took it off the line after going through all these amplifiers and all these complementary filters and all that kind of stuff. It was just a beautiful picture. So immediately Bruce Merrill just fell in love with it. He said, “We’ve got to share this with the world.”
So the first thing I knew, leading up to my last days at Ameco by this time, he sold a system to a guy in San Angelo, Texas. I’ll never forget this deal. They had an RG-11 transmission line eighteen miles long, fifty some odd amplifiers deep.
TAYLOR: That wasn’t Ken Gunter was it?
HICKMAN: Maybe it was.
TAYLOR: I know he was in San Antonio. I’m not sure about San Angelo.
HICKMAN: San Angelo. This was way before San Antonio ever had a system. By the time this came along we’re talking about ’57. But I’ll never forget this thing–eighteen miles. They had a little amplifier that was made down in Texas. As I recall it was triple tuned. It had three bumps in it, you know. And after eighteen amplifiers, when you’d sweep that thing, you can imagine what it looked like.
TAYLOR: It had three fingers sticking up.
HICKMAN: It had three fingers sticking up like that. Well, I went through the amplifiers …
TAYLOR: Was that Johnny Campbell’s stuff … CAS?
HICKMAN: Yes, it was Johnny Campbell’s amplifier.
TAYLOR: Okay, CAS.
HICKMAN: You see, they couldn’t get any pictures through this thing in San Angelo. They had built with Johnny Campbell’s amplifier but they couldn’t get any signals through it.
So Bruce Merrill sent me down there and I was going to get them three good channels through this thing. Well, when I got down there I had three fingers in the sweep generator, just like that, after these fifty some odd amplifiers. I couldn’t even get my FM signal through that. I told the owner down there, I said, “I’ve got this FM system here but I just can’t squeeze it through your system. I’ve got to have some even bandwidth for my FM dingus.” And I said, “How would you like it if I could get you one good channel?” And he said, “I’ll take it.”
So I did. I went into Johnny Campbell’s amplifier and realigned it. By narrowing it up, I could get fairly decent response. So after fifty some odd amplifiers, I wound up with something that looked like that and wide enough to get my FM signal through. I don’t remember what my center frequency was but whatever it was, it was not in the 15 to 20 MHz band. It was up in their pass band. As a matter of fact, I centered it in about channel 4. It was somewhere in channel 4. I could figure it out for you exactly. There was 54 to 64, and there was 66 to 76, and 78 to 88. Those were my three channel frequencies, okay? So I put it in 66 to 76 and I could squeeze 66 to 76 through 57, I believe it was, of Johnny Campbell’s amplifier.
TAYLOR: Good night!
HICKMAN: And I turned that sucker on and a beautiful one channel of television in San Angelo, Texas. I could have become the mayor, you know. They would have given me the town.
I went there with three sets of equipment. I could only use one of them and that was it. There would have been no way I could have squeezed any AM stuff through that thing but I got that FM baby through there. And the signal to noise ratio was good, you know. Real good because I really banged the heck out it. It was coming out of every amplifier with a lot of sock. Instead of feeding out of the amplifiers at say +30, I could come banging out of them at +60 which naturally improved the signal to noise ratio. Even though I was using fractional modulation index, I could simply get the signal out.
HICKMAN: Well, anyway, I got them one channel of television in San Angelo, Texas. I don’t know what they ever did with it. I left town and that was it. I don’t know what ever happened to the system.
And in 1958 I left Ameco and went with Kaiser as a senior engineer. The reason I left Ameco in 1958 was because things were slow in the cable television business in the middle of 1958. Just to be perfectly honest about it, Ameco and Antennavision, or whatever you wanted to call the company …. By this time we had a microwave company called Antennavision Service Company because when we went in the microwave business we went in as a common carrier. So by this time we had formed Antennavision Service Company which eventually became ATR.
TAYLOR: Oh, yes.
HICKMAN: … and all that kind of stuff. I sold my stock in Antennavision Service Company before I left Ameco because I really needed the money and I sold my stock in it. Sold it to Bruce Merrill. Then in June of 1958 I left there simply because Antennavision just didn’t have enough money to pay the salaries, you see. I told Bruce, I said, “Look, I can …”
End of Tape 1, Side B
TAYLOR: This is Tape 2, Side A. We’re picking up where we left off. All right, Earl.
HICKMAN: Okay. As I was telling you, I left Ameco in June of 1958 simply because I just felt that I was really a burden to them. I went to work for Kaiser as a senior engineer working in nothing that had anything to do with cable television. Won’t get into what I was working on there but it had nothing to do with cable television.
TAYLOR: At the time that happened, Cox was joining in with Kaiser to …
HICKMAN: No, this was later.
TAYLOR: Not a whole lot later but it probably was a little later.
HICKMAN: You have to jump to 1965 to do that.
TAYLOR: Gosh, I guess that’s right.
HICKMAN: Because it was the later part of 1965.
TAYLOR: Yes, you’re right. Okay. But I really thought that you had been involved in Kaiser’s getting into the cable business.
HICKMAN: Well, I was directly responsible for it.
TAYLOR: Oh, okay.
HICKMAN: I take full responsibility for getting them into the cable television business.
While I was working for Kaiser, on the side I …. Now you’ve got to understand that I sold my stock in Antennavision–Ameco, Antennavision and all the companies. I owned 14 percent of it and I sold it in the early part of 1959 or maybe about the middle part of 1959 … after I had gone to work for Kaiser. I still owned my stock but I sold it in 1959.
Well in 1962, besides working at Kaiser, I did a little consulting work for a fellow who was in the cable television business there in Arizona. I wound up buying a cable television system from him. The one in Douglas, Arizona. So I had a cable system of my own then in addition to my job at Kaiser.
The cable television system that I had bought needed rebuilding. That’s the reason I could buy it so cheap because it needed to be rebuilt. So I needed some amplifiers and I couldn’t afford to buy them so I built them. I built a couple of amplifiers for myself. My boss at Kaiser saw my amplifiers that I built for myself and he thought, “Well gee, that’s a pretty good idea.” We were in the military aerospace business, you know, at Kaiser but he thought it might be kind of neat to do something on the side like that. It might give us a proprietary product.
So we hired a new young engineer by the name of Don Gregory and recruited another engineer by the name of Dick McMillan. Does that start to ring a bell?
TAYLOR: The names are familiar, yes.
HICKMAN: So we started to build a line of cable television products for Kaiser. I think we first showed them in Colorado Springs in about 1965. I’m not sure of that date but I think that was about it. I think it was 1965 that we first showed the product.
TAYLOR: I can confirm roughly that.
HICKMAN: That’s within … not later than ’65 but perhaps ’64, but I think it was ’65 really I do.
TAYLOR: I had just gone with Martin in Washington in late ’64.
HICKMAN: Where was the convention? Wasn’t there a convention in Colorado Springs in ’65 or Denver, maybe.
TAYLOR: It was Denver, I think. I think it was Denver.
HICKMAN: Could be Denver.
TAYLOR: Mark Bartlett came to me or called me … this was when Cox was getting interested in maybe joint venturing with Kaiser. And Mark asked me if I’d be interested in coming in to head some of the organization. It was a Peter Principle. It wouldn’t have been any good for me to do it so I didn’t.
HICKMAN: Well as I say, I was with Kaiser at this time and I remember the Cox venture and I remember going to Atlanta and meeting Leonard Reinsch and all those people. Edgar Kaiser was there. All of the big guns, you know, were there in Atlanta. And did they ever put on a dog and pony show for us. I met Dick HICKMAN: in Atlanta. And thought that was interesting, you know. My namesake here. He was chief engineer of their cable television operation at that time.
So the first thing I knew we were called Kaiser-Cox. I didn’t really have anything to do with it. My title was Vice President, Manufacturing and Engineering of Kaiser-Cox. I’ve still got a business card upstairs. I can give it to you. There I was vice president in Kaiser-Cox. So we changed our logo and all that kind of stuff.
And I’ll tell you why I didn’t stay on with Kaiser-Cox. March of ’66 rolled around and Bruce Merrill had George Green working for him. Remember George Green?
TAYLOR: Yes indeed I do.
HICKMAN: George Green called me on the phone when I was with Kaiser-Cox in 1966. You remember the meeting that they had in Los Angeles regarding the Second Report and Order of the FCC? It was the early part of 1966, like about in February.
TAYLOR: Yes, I can remember that.
HICKMAN: George Green said, “Are you going to Los Angeles to this?” And I said, “Yes, I think so.” He said, “I want to talk to you while you’re there.” Well, what he wanted to talk to me about is he had brought a message from Bruce Merrill to me that he wanted me to come back with him and head up an engineering group for Ameco. In fact, it would be called Ameco Engineering Company. It would be even a separate corporation. Now if you can imagine Ameco Manufacturing and Engineering Company Engineering Company is what that would be–Ameco Engineering Company. Well, I wasn’t worrying about the name or anything like that.
The thing that interested me was that he would start me out at 50 percent more than I was making at Kaiser-Cox as the head dog there. And it sounded pretty good to me because I needed the money.
TAYLOR: It’s nice talk.
HICKMAN: So I said, “Sure.” Because I never have had any bad experiences with Bruce. Bruce, to this day, has never treated me anything but good. And his brother treated me nothing but good. So I have nothing but good to say about either one of those guys because they’ve always treated me great. I’m well aware of the reputation that Bruce enjoys or maybe doesn’t enjoy in the cable television business. But I, personally, have not shared in any of those bad experiences.
TAYLOR: I’m glad to know that.
HICKMAN: Except only in so far as it adversely affected my own career, you understand. What rubbed off on me is what I’m trying to say.
But anyway, I went back to work for Bruce in 1966. Now there are a lot of things that happened between 1958 and 1966. In fact, probably most of the good things that happened at Ameco happened during those eight years that I was gone. And I can’t claim responsibility for any of those good things that happened.
But I can tell you that coaxial connectors, for instance, there’s no doubt in my mind but what Ameco–Bruce Merrill, et al., did more in the coaxial connectors business than anybody else did. They were well aware, and I’m not so sure but I wasn’t the one that made them aware indirectly to this extent. They had working for them a fellow by the name of Jim Connor. Jim Connor had worked for me at Kaiser as a technician. He had indeed worked for me in the beginning days of cable television and he was well aware of my dissatisfaction with the coaxial connectors that were available that would not satisfactorily match from the transmission line to the input of the amplifier …
TAYLOR: You’re talking about the so-called UHF connector?
HICKMAN: Yes. They simply were not adequate. And the connectors that Jerrold had, you know, and that other people had just were not satisfactory. So Jim Connor left us and went to work for Bruce Merrill and he took that thought with him. But he pushed through a program over there at Ameco on coaxial connectors and got Ameco into the coaxial connector business. It was sort of a joint venture between Ameco and Gilbert Engineering.
TAYLOR: Gilbert was involved in that, too?
HICKMAN: Yes. But anyway, they did that and I had nothing to do with it other than perhaps planting the seed in Jim Connor’s mind on that. Jim Connor is the guy that was responsible for it. Now Jim Connor, as I understand it, was working under Milford Richey over there. But I’m sure that Jim Connor is the guy that really put it together, okay?
TAYLOR: Looks like Milford is somebody I ought to track down.
HICKMAN: Milford can probably …. Jim Connor is not alive. He was killed in a racing accident. He was a race car driver and he was killed. But you need to talk to Milford because those eight good years that Ameco had, Milford was the chief engineer. You really need to talk to Milford.
TAYLOR: Do you have any idea where Milford is?
HICKMAN: Well, the last time I heard from him he owned the cable television system in St. Johns, Arizona, and may even still own it. St. Johns … Milford Richey.
Now you mentioned Rhinefelder. I never met Rhinefelder until after I went back to Ameco for the second time.
TAYLOR: I see.
HICKMAN: Rhinefelder worked with Richey and Jim Connor in the design and development of the first transistorized amplifiers that Ameco came up with. I had nothing to do with that. I can’t claim that … it wasn’t mine. I’d like to. I’d like to say that it was mine, but it wasn’t mine. It was Rhinefelder, Richey, Jim Tarbutton.
TAYLOR: Well, what I remember about that first one was the flop-up in Great Falls at TelePrompTer.
HICKMAN: Well, I know that they even went so far as to make a hybrid amplifier that used part vacuum tube and part transistor. Again, I’m not too conversant on that because all I know about it is what I heard through the grapevine. I have no personal experience with it and that’s again why you need to talk to Milford. Milford could fill you in on that and that’s probably the most interesting part of the Ameco history, the part that I can’t fill you in on.
TAYLOR: Okay. That’s a gap that I will have to fill in.
HICKMAN: And I’m sorry about that because this is also the time when they came up with a lot of the other goodies like the foam-filled taps, the complete line of directional coupler taps, and all those things. They did for their time a pretty good job of impedance matching and isolation and all that good stuff. You know, they may not have been world beaters by present day standards, but considering the advancement that they made, it was pretty darn good. I know because I was sitting over there at Kaiser trying to develop stuff that was as good as or better than theirs. And it was hard to do. Then I went back to work for Bruce. When I went to work for them I just couldn’t believe how a company could be so screwed up. They had literally just spent their money on frills, you know. Every executive in the company had a car; they had a Lear jet. They had a contract with General Dynamics to build the equipment to carry the video signals to and from Launch Complex 39. You know the moon rocket launch pad. You didn’t know that Ameco built the equipment that you watched the moonwalk on.
TAYLOR: I had a feeling there was some connection there somewhere.
HICKMAN: But anyway, when I went to work for them they had this contract. Bruce was telling me the things that I would have to deal with when I got there. He was telling me about all their projects and said, “And then there’s LC-39.” I asked him, “What stage is that in?” He said, “Oh, we’re just about ready to deliver on it.” You see what Bruce didn’t know was that he was equating spending the development money to being ready to deliver. They had spent the development money …
TAYLOR: But they didn’t have the product.
HICKMAN: They had no product to deliver. Now comes where I pull the fat out of the fire for him. John Pranke, does that name ring a bell?
TAYLOR: Oh yes.
HICKMAN: John Pranke was an engineer who worked for Ameco at the time when I went back to them. He had been an engineer for Rome Cable that you were talking about. He came with Jack Woods to Ameco. John Pranke was an electrical engineer–a darn good electrical engineer, very conversant about coaxial cable because I guess he was the engineering know-how of Rome Cable. Anyway, he was with Ameco and I found myself his boss. He was one of the engineers. So I assigned John Pranke the job of LC-39. I found out what was basically wrong with their system. Basically the thing that they were ignoring was in the filters associated … this was a three channel device. Kind of like the thing that you had at Charleston coming down the hill. That was an off shoot from the LC-39 project.
TAYLOR: Oh really. I knew it came from somewhere because it’s special equipment.
HICKMAN: Well, it came from LC-39. But you see when I first went back to work at Ameco I recognized that they were being victimized by lack of knowledge in those things having to do with envelope delay in filters. So they were getting all of these so-called ghost effects, which is a manifestation of envelope delay, and pre-shoot and over-shoot in their video signals that they couldn’t stand at Cape Canaveral. So by just imparting a little bit of experience that I’d had to John Pranke there, he was able to work that thing out to a successful conclusion. Of course, we overran the contract in doing it but Ameco didn’t wind up in court. We delivered the LC-39 stuff and we delivered it on time. Not within Ameco’s budget to do so but …. Bruce Merrill took a bath on the project because he had some incompetent engineers working on it. But we got it done.
Also in 1966 I asked him, “What are you going to show at the convention this year?” He says, “We’re going to show our new amplifier,” which I think he called a Nova or something like that.
TAYLOR: This is ’66?
HICKMAN: I believe this was ’66.
TAYLOR: Yes, it was a Nova.
HICKMAN: Once again I was appalled to find that they really had nothing. Would you believe that I took a couple of the engineers there and we were able to go to the convention, which I think was about a month after I joined the company. I joined them in March and I think the convention was in April. We showed a Nova amplifier and we did it in thirty days time–thirty days. Now what kind of an amplifier can you produce in thirty days?
Well, Bruce was blessed with a bunch of good salesmen and they sold a lot of Nova equipment that was just literally hashed together.
TAYLOR: When was the Huntsville project?
HICKMAN: Seems to me that the Huntsville project goes to 1969.
TAYLOR: Oh, later than this.
TAYLOR: I had always in my mind had it that Nova was an outgrowth of Huntsville.
HICKMAN: No. Nova, I think, happened before. Maybe it wasn’t called Nova. Maybe it was called something else. I may be mistaken about the name Nova, you understand. You may be right, I just don’t know.
TAYLOR: When was George Green there?
HICKMAN: George Green left right after I joined the company.
TAYLOR: So he was there before … while you were away?
HICKMAN: Yes. He was there during the eight years, that’s right. Who was their other guy there that came from the FCC to Ameco? You remember the guy that was the head of the … no, came from the NCTA.
TAYLOR: Oh, Ed Whitney.
HICKMAN: Yes, Ed Whitney. He was there during the time that I was not there. All the good guys came and left while I was not in the cable business. I was out.
TAYLOR: Well, I guess one wonders. I knew George Green. He was with Greyhound in their investment arm. Greyhound had a bundle of cash and had to do some investing with it. He got interested in investing the money in cable television and contacted me. I spent some time with him and we entertained each other for awhile. Finally he left and I don’t know whether it was then that he went to Ameco or whether he did some other things in there. But, at any rate, he had also worked closely with Don Spencer at Spencer-Kennedy. I think he got Greyhound to back some of Spencer’s operating systems. And I don’t how the timing is in there but after Ameco, George went with Spencer. They were really on the skids. George was going to try and help them pick up and it didn’t work.
HICKMAN: I didn’t know George Green all that well. What little experience I had with him he seemed to be very personable.
TAYLOR: Oh, he’s a very likable guy, very enjoyable.
HICKMAN: I can’t speak knowledgeably about his character or his qualifications or anything.
TAYLOR: I guess the only thing I can say is that the ventures he was associated with didn’t seem to do well.
HICKMAN: I see.
TAYLOR: I don’t say that that was his fault.
HICKMAN: I think you could probably say the same thing about mine as far as in the later days of Ameco because I just simply was not able to straighten out the mess that existed at Ameco when I went to work there–the technical mess that was involved. It wasn’t just technical. The problems were deep rooted and I just never could straighten it out. And I feel bad to this day that I couldn’t do it but I just couldn’t do it.
It seemed like I met with obstacles at all turns. Like, for instance, I knew for a fact that Ameco should spend the development money to develop a good push-pull amplifier because I could see that that was the direction that we were all going.
TAYLOR: This is in the transistor period, now?
HICKMAN: Yes, this is in the transistor period. Ameco had a single-ended amplifier and before I left Kaiser I had already put the ball in motion for the push-pull Kaiser amplifier. It was not yet developed but I had already laid the groundwork for the push-pull amplifier at Kaiser and so I immediately thought that I would do the same thing over at Ameco. This was early 1966. I just simply was not allowed to do it. Rather than develop a transistorized amplifier, I had to try to convince people that single-ended amplifiers were just as good as push-pull amplifiers … which they were not as far as second order distortion is concerned. They just simple weren’t and how could I tell good and qualified engineers that their ideas were all wet. But that was essentially what I had to do.
TAYLOR: Were the engineers that were pushing the single-ended talking about the way you can phase out the second order?
HICKMAN: Well, yes. Of course you can do that to a certain extent. People know that you can do that.
TAYLOR: But it needs stability.
HICKMAN: But you have a stability problem when you do that. And, of course, that’s what Ameco was pushing. Then, on the other hand, Bruce wanted to make a name for himself or Ameco or something like that. He wanted to do something that was drastically different. I think that’s why he wanted to get in with Scotty Gray, you know. He wanted to do something that was drastically different from what everybody else was doing. And that’s why we spent so much time at Discade and all kinds of weird things. We used to say that Bruce didn’t believe in designing equipment, he believed in “divining” equipment. I hate to say that. That sounds kind of derogatory of Bruce. Bruce was not a technical man but he got too deeply involved in the technical end of his business.
TAYLOR: What got Discade going? Where did that come from?
HICKMAN: Well, I was thinking the other night how Discade actually got started.
TAYLOR: I ran into this in my files.
HICKMAN: Discade is something that …. I know that the basic ideas of it came right out of my head. I’m just trying to think of what precipitated it. In other words, what caused it all. I know that it came out of me sitting in Bruce Merrill’s office and kicking around ideas on how you could do various things. And I think that he probably took one of these ideas and said, “Build it.”
TAYLOR: It seemed to me that it’s somehow related to the NQV.
HICKMAN: It probably did.
TAYLOR: … single channel or two channel down at low frequencies. And to some extent the Huntsville effort. I think these were the granddaddies to that.
HICKMAN: I think that all goes back to NQV. That’s why I mentioned NQV earlier because I think that greatly influenced … it certainly influenced my thinking.
You also asked about how many patents came out of this thing. You know, I don’t know. You’d have to ask Bruce how many of them ultimately were granted.
TAYLOR: I gather from what Strat said that Bruce wouldn’t have any idea. What I’m going to do on patents, incidentally, is go through the Dialog database out there in California. I think we’ve got access to it and maybe we can trace down the patents that way.
HICKMAN: The cleverest idea that I had on the whole thing, it wasn’t really very clever but …. We needed a twenty channel dial indicator and I came up with a Mobius strip. You know where you can print the numbers on both sides of the strip and still it’s a continuous loop.
TAYLOR: I guess I knew about that years ago but I …
HICKMAN: I put in a patent claim on that.
HICKMAN: But I don’t know whether it was actually granted or not. I think it might have been but I don’t know for sure. But all these were in Ameco’s name so those of us that made the disclosures and everything would just be listed as the inventors but the patents were all assigned to Ameco.
But there was a lot of interesting stuff that we did in that Discade. It was kind of an interesting thing but it was plagued with a lot of problems and most of them had to do with just crosstalk between channels. If we could have ever eliminated the crosstalk by the manufacturing techniques or the design and manufacturing …
TAYLOR: You know dual cable plants are … there aren’t too many of them out now but San Jose, for example, and Media General up in Fairfax County, Virginia, and there are a few others. They worked quite effectively.
HICKMAN: The one we put in Charleston was a dual plant and it didn’t crosstalk. It was pretty good.
TAYLOR: That’s right.
HICKMAN: But I tell you, you get at these low frequencies like this …
TAYLOR: Yes, at the low frequencies it’s worse.
HICKMAN: See, these were at 7 to 13 MHz. You get in those low frequencies there and the crosstalk, the ground loops and everything can get pretty horrendous.
TAYLOR: There’s one up in Ventura County. We did a big study for Western Communications and ran into this thing. They were having all kinds of trouble with crosstalk. But it appeared to be almost entirely due to the connectors. They had old-style, unsleeved connectors.
HICKMAN: The Huntsville headend didn’t have any crosstalk in it and it was 7 to 13 MHz.
TAYLOR: Was it aerial?
HICKMAN: Yes, it was aerial.
TAYLOR: All the cables bundled together.
HICKMAN: Half-inch cable.
TAYLOR: I remember I met with Joe Hale one time a good many years ago up in South San Francisco. You knew Joe?
HICKMAN: Oh yes.
TAYLOR: South San Francisco at that time sat right under two full powered VHF stations on Mount San Bruno and Joe had a terrible time keeping them from ingress. Finally he was talking with the AMP salesman–connector salesman–and they had that big heavy high pressure crimp that made a hex crimp to put the connector onto the cable. But in order to put all that pressure on the aluminum they had to have something underneath it so they put a steel sleeve in there. Joe saw that and he said, “That’s just what I need.” And he put the sleeve in but then the problem …. And Jerrold then picked that up and I think Joe probably passed it along to them. But the trouble was that you couldn’t get contractors to core the cable out to put that sleeve in. Because nobody could ever check it and consequently that was when the integral sleeve came along. Eric Winston, I think, deserves a lot of credit for that.
TAYLOR: But Bruce hired me one time to evaluate cost on Discade and I got a lot of figures from him. Any way you sliced it, as I recall it was probably three times what it would have cost to do it with conventional converters.
HICKMAN: You know that switch idea that I had for the Discade switch, it was actually pretty clever. You know the basis on which it worked? It was a lump parameter transmission line, that’s the way it worked. In other words as you progressed through your various switches that tapped off of there, operated as a capacitive load with a slightly resistive component. But it matched the impedance. Of course you have to match the impedance pretty good at those frequencies or you’ll get hellacious ghosts. But it acted like a lump parameter transmission line going through and these switches just were the shunt elements. In other words, where you’d go off to the individual switches off of this thing, it would just act like another shunt element on this transmission line. Well, anyway.
And then in 1971 … I told Bruce about a year before I was going to have to leave Ameco, that I intended to go out on my own–run my own cable businesses–and that I would be leaving in January of ’72. And I said, “You know, if you can get a replacement for me I’ll go as quickly as you want. Or if you get a guy in here, I’ll tell him everything I know about the operation. We’ll try to make it as smooth as possible but I’m giving you a year’s notice of my leaving.” And that’s exactly what I did. I gave him a year’s notice and he hired Jack Blanchard.
TAYLOR: Oh, I remember the name.
HICKMAN: And Jack Blanchard came in and understudied me there and I made the transition and just moved out of Ameco and went on my own and that was it. It really wasn’t a very heroic venture.
TAYLOR: I can’t recall how long Ameco lasted after that.
HICKMAN: Well, I bought a lot of equipment from Ameco after that. I had a pretty good deal with them. I built a cable system in Payson, Arizona, out of Ameco equipment. I used some Kaiser equipment there, too–Kaiser-Cox equipment. Well, by that time I guess it was called Theta-Com.
You see what happened was at Kaiser, Cox decided they didn’t want to be in the manufacturing business so Kaiser bought them back out. And then the Hughes Company came along and decided they wanted to get in the cable television business so they bought Kaiser out. Then I guess Texscan came along and bought Hughes out of the manufacturing business.
TAYLOR: Have you kept up at all with the new developments … fiber, compression, HDTV?
HICKMAN: No, my son has. My son, John, is in charge of all of Cox Cable’s outside plant construction.
TAYLOR: Cox, to my way of thinking, is one of the most solid organizations in the cable business. There’s some that aren’t so good.
HICKMAN: I think so. I sold my cable systems to them.
TAYLOR: Did you?
HICKMAN: They’ve been nothing but good to me, also. They have just treated me wonderfully well.
TAYLOR: Well, this has sure been fun and fascinating.
HICKMAN: What did I miss? I told you a whole bunch of garbage.
TAYLOR: Oh, I know what. When did Ameco get into the cable business, Ameco Cable … were you there at that time?
HICKMAN: When did what? Oh, the cable business.
TAYLOR: The cable business … when they bought Rome.
HICKMAN: They bought that before I came there because Pranke was there when I came there in ’66.
TAYLOR: This is in ’66.
HICKMAN: Yes. So they obviously had done it just prior to that time. And Jack Woods …
TAYLOR: Who was the other guy with Jack, a big heavy set fellow?
HICKMAN: Oh, Sid …. What the heck was his name?
TAYLOR: I’ve been trying to think of it and I couldn’t.
HICKMAN: I can’t remember his name. [Sid Mills]
TAYLOR: Well, Pranke then left Ameco and went …. I knew him best when he was at Kaiser.
HICKMAN: By the way, you might want to know who was the daddy of the Channeleer. The daddy of the Channeleer, because I wrote out the project release for him and assigned him the job, was Gaylord Rogeness.
HICKMAN: And Gaylord Rogeness left in the middle of the project and went with another company.
TAYLOR: To Anaconda.
HICKMAN: And I turned the project over to John Pranke. So John Pranke really wrapped it up and finished it. So the Channeleer was John Pranke’s baby.
TAYLOR: What was the timing on that? What was the year of that, do you remember?
HICKMAN: Oh, let’s see now. What would be the timing? The Channeleer showed at Chicago, I believe. I remember that the Channeleer got a lot of interest from Scientific Atlanta at that convention. Scientific Atlanta was looking hard over Ameco’s shoulder at that convention.
TAYLOR: Scientific Atlanta was just getting into cable other than the antenna. They got in the antenna in 1960 or thereabouts, I think.
HICKMAN: But Ameco had a signal processor at the convention before Scientific Atlanta ever had a signal processor. I doubt if anybody ever had a signal processor before Jerrold–a signal processor of one kind or another. Because Jerrold had perfectly good vacuum tube signal processors, you know. What did they call them?
TAYLOR: Channel Commander.
HICKMAN: Sure, Channel Commander. Now, when the first vacuum tube Channel Commander came along, I honestly don’t know. I think it might have happened about the same time that Ameco’s Channeleer came out but I don’t know for sure. I just don’t know.
TAYLOR: I think it was out before the Channeleer.
HICKMAN: Was it?
TAYLOR: We got it in Montana … I think it was 1960 or thereabouts that we got the Channel Commander.
HICKMAN: The vacuum tube?
TAYLOR: Yes. We had been using Conrac’s.
HICKMAN: I’ll tell you about Ameco’s modulator. Do you remember? When I went to work for them in ’66, by that time they had a solid state modulator.
HICKMAN: I’ll tell you who built that modulator. It was Dynair right here in San Diego.
TAYLOR: Oh, Gary Gramman.
HICKMAN: And Gary Gramman is still a good friend of mine. I first met him in about 1956 or ’57 when he was with Kay Electric.
TAYLOR: I’ve talked to him within the last year on something else.
HICKMAN: Gary Gramman is right here in town. And I remember one of my first jobs when I went back to work for Ameco the second time was I had to come over to San Diego and talk to Gary Gramman about the problems with the … what did they call that thing? I can’t remember.
TAYLOR: I can’t either.
HICKMAN: Anyway it was a modulator. So I came over and we got a lot of the problems cleaned up in the modulator. But Bruce wanted to build our own modulators. So we started building modulators.
TAYLOR: You had a vacuum tube modulator early on?
HICKMAN: Well, that first vacuum tube modulator happened under my … in the first time around. That happened a long time ago. That was the thing that was born out of necessity. But Dynair is the one who developed the Ameco modulator. Now the Ameco modulator was completely redesigned, I think, or was it? I don’t remember for sure. I’m not so sure about that. I’m pretty sure about the Channeleer, the timing and everything, but I’m not too sure about the Ameco vacuum tube modulator. I’m not even sure that they had any other modulator …
TAYLOR: You mean the solid state modulator?
HICKMAN: Yes, the solid state modulator. It’s unclear in my mind what happened after Dynair quit building them. I’m not even sure Ameco built them after that.
TAYLOR: I’m very unclear. I don’t know.
HICKMAN: It’s not clear in my mind. I just don’t remember. It must not have been a big part of my life.
TAYLOR: You left in ’72?
HICKMAN: I left in January ’72. The first of ’72 I was gone.
TAYLOR: You left before the satellite began to be significant?
HICKMAN: Yes. The first experience I had with satellites was in my own cable systems. The very first one that I ever saw was the one that they put up in Yuma. I guess UA-Columbia owned the Yuma system at that time it seems like.
Oh, we were talking about cable.
TAYLOR: Cable. There were a lot of tricks in cable presentation.
HICKMAN: I just couldn’t tell you about that because I honestly don’t know. I never was a cable guy, you know. I always thought there was a lot of witchcraft involved.
TAYLOR: I think there was. Was Bruce trying to match Jerrold by being in every aspect of the business?
HICKMAN: I think at one time I came to the conclusion that Bruce wanted to try to be all things to all people in the cable business. And I think that Jerrold was the one that he was trying to out do.
TAYLOR: Jerrold had so many strange things at the very beginning, too. They were small and they made all kinds of mistakes. The service contract that was so despicable. And they got into an anti-trust problem when they were forced to sell their systems. There were a lot of bad things they did. And then the sale or rather bringing Harmon Kardon and Pilot in as managers. And Milt got interested in being governor rather than running the business. But still the business seemed to thrive. It seemed to keep going and has always been the dominant market.
HICKMAN: Yes, Jerrold has always been the leader. I’ve often thought over the years that it would be kind of nice to be remembered for something that I did in the cable business. The only thing that I can come up with is that I was just there early on and survived it for … let’s say from ’53 to ’70. Well, actually I sold out in ’88 so I guess you could call that …. If you wanted to stretch your imagination, that’s thirty-five years minus the time that I wasn’t in it so at least I guess I was a survivor.
TAYLOR: That’s pretty much a lifetime.
HICKMAN: But I can’t think of anything really that I could say, “I was the ….” Well, I think I laid the groundwork for … what’s the company that makes the FM stuff now? They make all these FM processors and things.
HICKMAN: Yes, Catel. I think that I may have given Catel a lot of information early on. Imparted it directly to the guy who was the head of the company and his engineers. Because I can remember lengthy discussions that I had with those people when I was doing that Discade thing up in Daly City. They were friends of Buzz Gatlin or something like that. I can’t remember his name–the manager of the system in Daly City. But anyway they were friends and I remember giving them a whole lot of results of my work in the FM thing, warning them of pitfalls and things like that, that I think was quite valuable to them. I think I saved them a lot of development time and money early in their career.
TAYLOR: Well it’s been almost totally supplanted now by the VSB/AM fiber …
HICKMAN: Sure, absolutely.
TAYLOR: When Jim Chiddix first began writing and talking heavily about the amplitude modulation of fiber or lasers, I just instinctively felt I’d rather see him doing it with FM …
End of Tape 2, Side A
NOTE: The conversation started before the leader tape had passed and was therefore not recorded. The following is reconstructed from memory:
TAYLOR: We spoke earlier about the FM tramsmission you developed for Globe-Miami, and you spoke about the system Joe Vogelman installed in Colorado Springs. I had an experience with this system which he called “Laser Link” or “Quasi-Laser Link”.
It is an amusing story. He asked me to come up to New York to demonstrate this. I don’t usually go to those demonstrations but for some reason or other I went up on this one. He had two about 10 gigahertz horns, I guess, maybe thirty feet apart across the room and he was beaming a signal from one to the other. I asked him questions about intermode and signal to noise and so on. Why he can demonstrate to me signal to noise. Well, how do you measure it? “Well,” he said, “you look at that picture. Do you see any noise in it?” Now he puts his hand in front of the beam to shade it a bit and that makes a change, “and when that noise looks equal to the picture ….” It was the most shady thing I ever saw. Then he took it to the FCC for type approval and never could meet the out of band emissions.
HICKMAN: Well, you knew that they put one of those things in the Colorado Springs system.
TAYLOR: Yes, I think I knew that.
HICKMAN: The guy that was in charge of the Colorado Springs system, he was the chief engineer for CableCom General–George Milner. It was about the time that I was leaving Ameco, in fact I had left Ameco, and he said he wanted to hire me to come up and do some consulting work. I got up there and lo and behold what he had was this thing that we’re talking about that didn’t work. It was loaded with intermode and was noisy and all this kind of stuff. These guys had represented it to them as being neither of those things–just plain good. As it turned out, I had had enough experience with the FM to realize some of the pitfalls and some of the traps that they were falling into. They had traveling wave tube amplifiers they were feeding. They’d feed these signals through these traveling wave tube amplifiers that were just loaded with phase distortion. Their phase characteristics were not linear. And when you feed FM signals through nonlinear phase devices, the ultimate manifestation is virtually the same as the manifestation to amplitude modulated signals–nonlinear amplitude characteristics. So you can’t tell the difference in the finished product, if you know what I mean.
TAYLOR: Well, the push–the promotional bit–behind Vogelman was Ira Kamen. I’ve forgotten who it was that told me the story about Ira Kamen in Springfield, Illinois. He went up with the guy from JFD. He was the guy that was annoyed about cable television because it was going to kill the theaters or something like that.
HICKMAN: I can’t remember.
TAYLOR: I can’t remember names anymore like you.
HICKMAN: That wasn’t Shyer, was it?
TAYLOR: No, that wasn’t the one. But at any rate, Kamen was up with this group to get the franchise in Springfield. I think Ben Conroy or Jack Crosby may have been the guy who told me the story. But they’re in their council meeting with a couple hundred people and the fellow in charge went up to tell his story about why we should get the franchise. After he finished he said, “Now I have my engineer Ira Kamen here. If you have any questions to ask, he’s available to answer questions.” One of the councilmen asked a technical question and so they called on Ira Kamen. He was sitting way in the back of the room. Have you ever seen Ira Kamen?
TAYLOR: He has polio, or the results of polio, and so he walks with arm crutches and braces on both legs. So he wiggled around, struggled himself up to his feet and then hobbled down to the front and said, “Now what was your question?” They didn’t ask anymore questions after that. Ira could be an engaging person.
HICKMAN: You realize that I had the painful duty of telling him and showing him mathematically …. I had to write the report and prove that what they were doing was not technically feasible. I had to explain why they were getting the horrible results they were getting in the lab. I went back to their lab and showed them. This guy Vogelman was clawing and scratching all the way. But it was my painful duty to put that whole thing to rest. But apparently he took it …
TAYLOR: He probably knew it was coming.
HICKMAN: By that time he probably knew it was coming. We’ve just covered cable television’s history.
TAYLOR: Earl Hickman’s career up to 1972. We haven’t discussed much since then.
HICKMAN: Well, since ’72 I didn’t really have anything to do. I was just in the cable business as an owner. You mentioned that that large climate test chamber was in existence when I went back to Ameco.
TAYLOR: It was done in the interim period?
HICKMAN: They put that together before I came back there.
TAYLOR: My impression was that that was the first big test chamber.
HICKMAN: I think it might have been. It was capable of testing twenty amplifiers in cascade.
TAYLOR: I remember Larry Janes and I went out to run the Charleston …
HICKMAN: I was there.
TAYLOR: You were there.
HICKMAN: But that chamber … I didn’t put that together.
TAYLOR: Larry never got over …. See that was a week before Christmas and we were out there. Larry had never been to Phoenix and he was so interested in going to Phoenix. We worked all night, as you remember, to get the cycling proper. And we came out at 6 o’clock in the morning and there was ice on the driveway in the parking area. He was so absolutely flabbergasted … “Here I come all the way to Phoenix and you’ve got ice on the runway!”
HICKMAN: This large microwave network that came about, you mean ATR?
HICKMAN: Well, about all I can tell you about ATR is the first link of ATR was from Heliograph Peak in Safford to Clifton, Arizona, and I put it in. The second link was from Heliograph Peak to Silver City, New Mexico, and I put that one in. That was ninety-two miles long. The third link was from …
TAYLOR: Was that 7 gigahertz?
HICKMAN: It was in the 6 gigahertz band. The third link of ATR was from Hutch Mountain to Winslow, Arizona, and I put that one in. And I built the terminal equipment for all of those. The first one was a Philco microwave link. The rest of them that I’ve told you about were Motorola and there was a another one in there. I can’t remember who built it. All I can tell you is that it used a Raytheon klystron in the output. It was a Philco. It used a double cavity klystron in the output.
TAYLOR: I interviewed Don Kirk who left Jerrold in mid to late ’50s over some disagreements and went to work for Philco in their microwave division. He didn’t like what he saw. He was telling them that the microwave wasn’t good enough and he wanted to redesign it. But they had to go through so much bureaucracy to get any redesign that he just gave up. It was then that he and Dalck Feith formed the organization K and F Microwave.
HICKMAN: I see.
TAYLOR: Built it and Jerrold sold it. It apparently went very well. It made Feith wealthy. It didn’t make Don Kirk wealthy.
HICKMAN: Well, as a matter of fact, the way I got into cable television for myself in the latter years was I went down to Douglas, Arizona, to fix some microwave equipment for this guy that owned the system down there and he had one of these Philco links that I’m talking about with a double cavity klystron which sold for around $1,000 in those days. I modified the unit there. His klystron was shot and so, with a local oscillator in the receiver, I modified it to use a Varian reflex klystron. I built a real neat little highly regulated repeller voltage supply. And I rigged up an AFC circuit to go back and change the repeller voltage to have automatic frequency control on the receiver and did away with the dual cavity klystron so he could use these little cheap Varian reflex klystrons which, by the way, had a longer life than the big Raytheon dual cavity klystrons.
And that’s what led up to the relationship between me and this guy which enabled me to eventually buy his cable television system and that’s how I got into the business.
TAYLOR: Oh, I see. Well, Bruce made a pretty good thing out of the ATR at one time.
HICKMAN: Well, ATR was something that … that name came about while I was gone. When I left Ameco it was still called Antennavision Service Company and they changed it to American Television Relay during that period of time–that eight years–while I was gone. All the good years that Ameco had were actually during those eight years that I wasn’t with them. I wasn’t with them during their heyday. I was with them during the rise and fall but not during the real heyday. I wanted to put that in the proper perspective for you. I think it’s important to get the chronology as nearly correct as you can.
TAYLOR: Was the Lear jet while you were away?
HICKMAN: The Lear jet was there when I came back, yes. And it stayed there. I guess it was still there when I left.
TAYLOR: I think it probably was. I know Bruce came to Washington with the Lear jet, picked me up to come back to Daly City. There were a couple other people on there. Funny thing about that trip was that I didn’t realize that it couldn’t fly clear across the continent–they had to stop. And that kind of a plane stops in the general aviation where you get snack sandwiches instead of a place to eat.
HICKMAN: That’s right.
TAYLOR: But coming back we got into Washington and just at the time we were due to arrive, and I had told my wife when I’d arrive, there was a small private plane that crashed into the lagoon off the end of one of the runways. This was reported on the radio just as Laverne was coming to pick me up and she thought, “Oh, my God … small plane just coming in,” just at the time we would have been landing.
HICKMAN: Well, you knew that we hit a tree on final going into Huntsville, Alabama, in that Lear jet?
TAYLOR: No, I didn’t know that.
HICKMAN: We cut the top fifteen feet out of a fifty foot tree the first night that the new Huntsville Airport was open. That was November 1, 1969.
TAYLOR: Coming into the airport here in San Diego reminded me of the time, probably ten years ago or maybe longer than that. There was a retired admiral who was station manager down there, you may know who it was. He called me and said how many feet of the runway they lose because of the height they have to maintain over that ridge to come in. And he said if we could just get a cable system up on that ridge and get the tall antennas down, we could pick up hundreds of feet of extra runway. The runway is short anyway. Nothing ever came of it. I made him a proposal but nothing ever went from there. I thought of that when we came in today. I suppose those tall antennas are gone now.
HICKMAN: No, those tall antennas are still there. Well did we go over these questions?
TAYLOR: I think we did pretty well.
HICKMAN: Did we get all the stuff?
TAYLOR: I want to say that I certainly appreciate the opportunity to listen to you and get your story and so on. Was cable a good business? I mean the cable itself as a part of Ameco–the manufacturing of cable.
HICKMAN: I just don’t know.
TAYLOR: As I said early when I met you out at the door of the hangar, Ken Simons was number one on my list. Fitz Kennedy, because of the distributed amplifier, was on my list. Fitz died three years ago so I couldn’t talk to him. And the next one on my list was Earl Hickman but I couldn’t find him. That was one of my problems … I couldn’t find him. But Strat Smith met with Bruce Merrill and got a lead that got me your telephone number. I certainly appreciate talking to you. You’re certainly one of the prime leaders in the technology of this business.
HICKMAN: Well, I know I’m overlooking some important stuff but I just can’t …. It’s just been too many years.
TAYLOR: Well, what I’ve told other people is that as I go along with this and talk to other people, additional ideas and questions may come to mind. I’ve got an attachment so I can record from the telephone so I can ask some other questions by telephone. So I will keep that in mind.
HICKMAN: What I should have done a long time before now, but I never could really see any reason to do it, was I should have made an outline and tried to put all that stuff in the proper order. Because you’re going to have a heck of a job trying to get something out of that tape.
End of Tape 2, Side B
TAYLOR: This is a postscript with Earl Hickman. I wanted to get some more things on tape that we have been talking about. Earl, particularly you made the comment a moment ago that a lot of things had to come together for the transistorized amplifier. Can you repeat that for the tape?
HICKMAN: Sure. Although at the time that Ameco and some of the other companies were developing transistor amplifiers, I was not really actively engaged in the cable television manufacturing business or in even the operating of systems. I was working as an electronics engineer for Kaiser and I was involved in the development of transistor circuits. So I saw a little bit of what was going on especially in the Phoenix area with regard to transistor amplifier development for cable television use.
I think we were talking about Bill Rhinefelder and Russell Yost, both of whom were engineers over at Motorola. I think I made the statement that I think that Russell Yost probably contributed a lot of his knowledge and expertise to Bill Rhinefelder’s development of transistor amplifiers. I don’t know that for a fact but I suspect that that’s the case because Russell Yost was one of the best network men in the business. It was his article on multi-pole networks used for broadband impedance matching that influenced several of the designs that I had done back in the early vacuum tube days–transistor amplifier.
But I think that awhile ago we were also talking about how many things had to actually come together for there to be a successful transistor amplifier. Some of those things that I think about were the development of ferrites for the transformers used within the amplifiers. I think if there hadn’t been that development of suitable ferrite devices to make those broadband transformers, and of course the tremendous strides in transistors …. Gosh, the speed of silicon transistors in, say, 1958 even was such that it was almost impossible to build a cable television amplifier. You might be able to build a single channel amplifier but that was about the extent of it. The reason I know this to be a fact is because I was trying to build such simple devices as video circuits and sweep circuits for use in a cockpit display device that Kaiser had. We were trying to develop it to a suitable stage for use in military aircraft. I just think that it’s nothing short of a miracle the way that cable television engineers jumped in and actually came up with amplifiers that would work over what I, at the time, considered a tremendous bandwidth.
I don’t know that the industry ever gave Bill Rhinefelder enough credit for what he did in those days. Rhinefelder didn’t keep things to himself. He published a lot of his stuff. He wrote a book; he published several papers. I think that’s to his credit. I’ve always kind of felt that maybe Bill Rhinefelder didn’t get as good a pat on the back as he should have. I don’t think that anybody ever mentioned Russell Yost’s name but me. But I think that those are two perhaps unsung heroes.
TAYLOR: Russell Yost’s article on the multi-pole matching networks … when was that? Was that in the early ’50s or earlier than that?
HICKMAN: I think that that probably goes back to ’54 or ’55, somewhere in there. I don’t know how old the paper was when I first read it.
TAYLOR: Published in IEEE or …
HICKMAN: I think it was just an in-house document at Motorola.
TAYLOR: I see.
HICKMAN: I honestly don’t remember exactly where I read it. I might have read it in the “Proceedings of the IRE” because in those days I used to be capable of reading and understanding that. I haven’t been able to do that for years.
TAYLOR: Not anymore, right. Well, while I’ve got you on a postscript here we talked about a couple of things last night. One of them was the homogenized Channeleers. Let’s put that story on tape.
HICKMAN: Okay. I’ve forgotten exactly what year that was but it was ’70-ish. It was probably 1970 or perhaps even ’71, I’m not sure. John Pranke had just finished developing Ameco’s Channeleer so that would probably give you the timing. I think that it was in Chicago that the NCTA convention was being held that year. Correct me if I’m wrong on the timing.
TAYLOR: Didn’t we use Channeleers in Charleston? That would have been ’68.
HICKMAN: Well, let’s see. I don’t know whether we used Channeleers in Charleston. Yes, I guess we did as a matter of fact. Was that ’68 or ’69?
TAYLOR: It might have been ’69.
HICKMAN: ’68 or ’69.
TAYLOR: I know Pranke came out on that. I think they were Channeleers. It may have been the first year of them.
HICKMAN: Well, I don’t think that this twenty channel Channeleer thing in Chicago was the beginning of the Channeleer. It must have just been that Pranke was going to have a real dog and pony show. He was going to have an actual working twenty channel headend.
TAYLOR: That’s probably it, yes.
HICKMAN: And it was all based on the Channeleer. I guess I could go back and say that Pranke was the engineer who completed the Channeleer project. I think that you should give Pranke credit for the Channeleer. It was begun by Gay Rogeness but Gay Rogeness left the company and Pranke took the project over and completed it. But John Pranke himself had just finished putting together a complete twenty channel headend in the Ameco plant.
So John was going to take it apart and pack it up and ship it to Chicago and then reassemble it there and put it on display. So Jack Woods at Ameco’s cable plant and Bruce Merrill decided that maybe a good thing to do would be to just ship it to Chicago in one of the cable trucks. They had a cable truck that was going back in that direction and they had plenty of room to take this on board. Furthermore, they said they could pack it up and just ship it intact so it wouldn’t have to be reassembled when they got it to Chicago.
Well, it sounded like a pretty good idea to everybody and so it was loaded up in the truck and away it went to Chicago.
TAYLOR: What I understand from what you said last night is that you didn’t think it was such a hot idea. You’d had some previous experiences with shipping.
HICKMAN: That’s right. I’m glad you jogged my memory on that. Years ago, in fact this was about 1946, I was involved in building a radio station in Douglas, Arizona. KAWT were the call letters of that radio station. It went on the air in 1946. We were going to go on the air with a brand new Western Electric 250 watt low level modulation transmitter which you’re very familiar with. It was to be shipped from Western Electric back east into Los Angeles harbor by boat, come through the Panama Canal, and then it would be shipped from Los Angeles to Douglas, Arizona.
Well, it turns out that they had a strike of the dockworkers about that time so it sat on the boat in Los Angeles harbor for several days if not weeks. Eventually the strike was resolved and we received our transmitter in Douglas, Arizona. The only thing is it was in much the same condition as what the Channeleers were in when they arrived in Chicago on the truck. It was just homogenized inside. I’ll never forget how sad it was for me. I was a young man at the time and I had received this transmitter. My boss was waiting to go on the air with the thing and I literally had to just rebuild it on the site. I’m not sure that that transmitter ever was as good as it was originally intended to be. I had to rebuild its innards right there at Douglas, Arizona.
But anyway, the Channeleers, as you very well know because you were there and saw them, arrived in Chicago in pretty bad condition. Most of the components were in the bottom of the relay racks that they were shipped in. I think that one out of twenty of the Channeleers survived to the extent that it could actually be turned on and used. I don’t know whether people thought that Ameco didn’t really have a twenty channel headend at the time and this was some ruse to get around that. But I can assure you that Ameco and John Pranke had a very nice, for that time, twenty channel headend. I’ve always thought it was such a sad thing that it didn’t survive that trip.
TAYLOR: Well, no one I talked to at the time had any doubt that it had been that way and great sympathy for Bruce and the company.
HICKMAN: Well, I felt especially bad for John Pranke because he had put in so much work on that and here he had to stand around and make excuses for the fact that his units were just, as I said before, essentially homogenized by the beating that they took in transit.
TAYLOR: How did Pranke move over to what eventually was Theta-Com? Did you have a hand in that, hiring him away from Ameco?
HICKMAN: No. I was still with Ameco–my second time with Ameco. John Pranke left Ameco and I think that he probably just got a better offer from Theta-Com. So he went with Theta-Com and immediately went to work in amplifier development for Theta-Com. I think that Pranke developed the new amplifier which was Theta-Com’s stock in trade for several years after that. So Pranke took with him considerable expertise from Ameco and jumped right into that amplifier development over there–developing their new push-pull amplifier in the new big housing. You know when they went to the larger housing at Theta-Com. That was Pranke’s baby.
TAYLOR: He has one of the classic papers in the transactions of the NCTA on composite triple beat and the measurement of it and so on.
TAYLOR: You also indicated to me yesterday that you had been instrumental in hiring Burt Henschied.
HICKMAN: I hired Burt Henschied, yes. We were working at Kaiser on the automatic instrumentation of …. Let me go back and say what we were doing is building automatic check out equipment for several cockpit displays that were used in the A-6 airplane–the A-6A, the E-2F. You know, the airplane with the big dome on the top of it. What we designed and built at the Kaiser plant in Phoenix was the automatic check out equipment. It was computerized equipment that was used on shipboard on the carriers to check out. In others words they just plugged an umbilical cord into the airplane and it would check out all these systems. We’d check out, for instance, all of the shaft angle digital encoders that were used in conjunction with those systems on the airplanes. We’d check out the vertical displays and the heads up displays and things like that that were used in the airplane.
So I hired Burt Henschied to work on those projects. And Burt, as I recall, went back to Grummen Aircraft and worked for us as a field engineer back there for several months, if not years, before we got into the cable TV equipment manufacturing.
TAYLOR: I see. So he came into cable TV later then?
HICKMAN: Yes. But I think that I gave Burt his first job right out of engineering school.
TAYLOR: That’s interesting.
HICKMAN: He was a wonderful young man and very smart and talented and above everything else a loyal and hard worker. I have nothing but the fondest memories of Burt.
TAYLOR: Another story you told me last night that I’d like to get on the tape was encountering the 704 signal level meter at Hoffman Television.
HICKMAN: Okay. I’m not sure that I would call it a 704 meter. It might have even been the forerunner of what you know as the 704, I don’t know. All I can tell you is that it seems to me that the time period was 1953. It could even have been late ’52 but I think it was sometime in ’53. Of course, I was just getting into cable TV at the time. We didn’t call it cable TV–Community Antenna Television or whatever.
But one of the problems that we had right away was how do you measure the signal level? Well, I had a … I got it from RCA. I got a so-called portable …. I guess it was portable to the extent that it had two handles on it–it was movable. It was a twelve-inch television set and it had a meter up on the face of one corner. It had obviously been modified. RCA sent this thing to us. I take that back. RCA arranged for us to get this TV set but I think that’s what led me to be back over at the Hoffman plant in Los Angeles. It’s been a long time ago so you’ll have to forgive me.
TAYLOR: That’s understandable.
HICKMAN: I think I was over there to pick up this …. It was an RCA 630 chassis, remember?
TAYLOR: Yes indeed.
HICKMAN: … RCA 630 chassis, twelve-inch TV. A meter in there and it worked, obviously, in the AGC circuitry of the thing. You had a calibration chart so you could read signal levels with it if you were lucky. You could switch it to the various channels and read the signal levels. It wasn’t very good. It gave you the signal level in microvolts or millivolts. There was no such thing as reading it in dB’s at that point or dBJ or dBmV.
TAYLOR: … or whatever.
HICKMAN: In the beginning we didn’t refer to them as dBmV’s or dBJ’s. Being an engineer, I just referred to it as dB’s above or below a zero reference point which was 1 millivolt across 75 ohms. That was my reference point. I don’t know how we all chose the same reference point but I think that it had to do with information that I picked out of the literature that I got from RCA. Because they said their amplifiers put out a 1 volt level across 75 ohms and that was 60 dB’s above 1 millivolt. I don’t know exactly how we got that zero reference point but that’s how it turned out. It was pretty logical, I guess, to do it that way.
But anyway about the time I was getting this TV set for a signal level meter, I saw, I believe it was in the laboratory at Hoffman Laboratories in Los Angeles, a signal level meter. And if my memory serves me correctly, it was about the size of what the old classic 704 …
TAYLOR: An old battery box on the bottom of it.
HICKMAN: Yes. A 704 Jerrold it looked like. And they told me that this is an experimental unit and it’s soon going to be out and all this and that. I remember being impressed with it because it had a continuous tuner on it. Whether it was a prototype, which I thought at the time that it was, or it was one of the first of the production runs I just don’t know.
TAYLOR: It was about that time or a little before that Ken had used the RCA unit and realized that that was not a workable piece of equipment. Since Ken was particularly interested in instrumentation and had learned to appreciate the DuMont continuous tuner, he just built that tuner into a meter to do exactly what the RCA unit did but get rid of all the extraneous material. And that became the 704.
HICKMAN: I saw this meter and I kind of got the idea at the time that it was actually being developed in the labs there. Now it may very well have been that what it was is they had acquired this device from Jerrold and they were using it in their lab but in the development of other things. That’s possibly what it was.
It was quite awhile after that that I was able to lay my hands on the first 704 that I ever had. But I used rather crude methods of measuring signal level. Like in the early strip amplifier days with the RCA units, I used to use a vacuum tube voltmeter to measure signal levels with.
TAYLOR: That’s logical.
HICKMAN: Oh, it was terrible.
TAYLOR: What has puzzled me over the years and I haven’t got an answer to it, is why was it called a field strength meter because it was not a field strength meter?
HICKMAN: Well, there were such things as field strength meters in those days.
TAYLOR: That’s true.
HICKMAN: In fact, I remember using one of the so-called field strength meters, I don’t remember who made it, in doing the initial antenna survey, if you want to call it that, to look for a site for it. The first Ameco or Antennavision antenna site. They called them field strength meters. I suppose that may have all come from the broadcast industry because the meters were referred to as field strength meters in those days.
TAYLOR: Well, of course we had those a long time ago going way back into the ’30s maybe even earlier than that, ’20s I guess. Skifter from Minnesota had a …. But those were all low frequency devices.
HICKMAN: But, of course, the television broadcast industry, although I wasn’t actively involved in it, I’m sure that they had occasion to read signal levels in the field and they probably referred to them as field strength meters.
TAYLOR: But of all the people you would think RCA would be the one that would be most interested in that and here they used the 630 chassis with a clumsy arrangement.
HICKMAN: But that’s the way the cable television industry started.
TAYLOR: That’s exactly right.
HICKMAN: We jumped right into the business and we didn’t have the things to … we literally had to invent, if you will. You know that necessity is the mother of invention, and out of necessity we had to invent test equipment, devices. You know, you might want to do something in the field. You might want to split the cable three ways or something like that and up to that point you had only split it two ways. So you sit down and design a three-way splitter.
Oh, I can remember those days real well. When you just literally would scribble on the nearest cardboard box the design of some new piece of equipment. Quite often it wasn’t very elegant to begin with but that’s the way we did things.
TAYLOR: Well, I don’t think of any other of the things we talked about although I’m sorry I didn’t have the tape recorder going last night while we were talking. There were a lot of interesting things. I’ll put an end to this and call my other friend, Socks Bridgett, and we’ll go from there. Thank you again, Earl. I appreciate this very much. I’ll let you get back to your airplane.
End of Tape 3, Side A