Electrical engineering in the 1960s: The transistor changed everything

-September 02, 2016

Herbert Pollack

The late 1950s and early 1960s saw perhaps the most dramatic change ever to hit electrical engineering. When transistors came along, many engineers needed to quickly learn how they worked and how to use them. Engineering managers had to convince upper management that transistors were the future of electronics. Herbert Pollack was one of those engineering managers.

Pollack worked for Polarad Electronics from 1955 to 1965, starting as a design engineer and leaving as vice president. Based in Queens, New York City, Polarad designed and manufactured microwave spectrum analyzers. One such product appeared on the cover of EDN in November 1961, (click image to enlarge).

I spoke to Pollack at his home in Massachusetts in July, 2016.

"When transistors came along," said Pollack, "nobody in the company knew anything about them. As chief engineer at the time, I had to figure out how to get information about transistors—what they were and how to use them—to my engineering team. We knew we had to catch up with Hewlett-Packard, our principal competitor."

In the early 1960s, transistors were just beginning to be taught at universities. That was great for students, but not for working engineers. Pollack had to get his engineers up to speed on this rapidly developing technology. "I had to convince management that we had to make the shift to transistors and semiconductors in general to keep up with competitors," he said. "We had to learn about transistors and integrated circuits and learn how to make logic gates from transistors."

When asked how he brought knowledge of transistors to his engineers, Pollack said, "We learned about transistors from articles appearing in trade journals. We found some people who had rudimentary knowledge of transistors and brought them in to give lectures. Then, we just set up our own experiments and learned by doing. We mostly taught ourselves."

Pollack's engineers at Polarad weren't the only ones who needed knowledge of transistors. Seeing that need, Electrical Design News published a four-part series on high-frequency transistor basics that included audio on phonograph records. We've digitized the audio and photographed the print pages. See and hear it at Audio lectures from 1960: High-frequency transistors.

Pollack left Polarad in 1965 as vice president. He moved his family to Massachusetts, joining Sanders Associates (Nashua, NH). In 1970, he started Parlex, a manufacturer of flexible and rigid printed circuits and flat cables. Here's a Parlex ad that ran in the March 3, 1982 issue of EDN (click to enlarge).

Pollack retired in 2005 when Parlex was acquired.

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