Book excerpt: How the father of big science went small with the invention of a color TV tube

Pioneering physicist Ernest O. Lawrence transformed American science over nearly three decades. The inventor of the cyclotron, the ancestor of such advanced machines as Europe’s Large Hadron Collider, Lawrence placed UC Berkeley in the forefront of high-energy physics.

He single-handedly saved the Manhattan Project from cancellation, played a key role in the development of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and then threw his considerable stature behind the development of the hydrogen bomb.

His role bequeathed us what is now Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which he founded largely to pursue H-bomb research. Lawrence created the research paradigm known as big science — the capital-intensive partnership of academia, government and industry that helped us land men on the moon and sequence the human genome and continues to drive planetary exploration.


His legacy also challenges us to think about the best way society should spend its resources — how to weigh the monumental effort it might take to put a human on Mars or bring life-saving but expensive drugs to those suffering from curable diseases.

Many scientists worry today that the sheer cost of big science might spell its demise: a budget-conscious Congress canceled the Super Conducting Supercollider physics program in 1993 after spending $2 billion of its projected $11-billion budget.

As is related in this adaptation of my new book, “Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention That Launched the Military-Industrial Complex,” Lawrence himself took a break from delving into the mysteries of the atom. In a return to his small-science roots, Lawrence invented a color TV tube inside his converted garage.


Lawrence’s interest in color TV began in 1949, when he and Luis Alvarez, one of his top assistants and a future Nobel laureate, were invited to a demonstration of a rudimentary tube. The very idea of a color broadcast was so implausible that Alvarez secreted a small magnet in his pocket to verify that the display actually was produced by electrons striking a phosphor screen. So it was, though the picture was hopelessly blurry. The device did, however, start Lawrence thinking about how to produce a higher-quality display.

The technical challenge was right up his alley; fundamentally it involved the electromagnetic focusing of a stream of charged particles and its synchronization with an oscillating electric current — in other words, the basic elements of the cyclotron. The project returned him to the milieu of small science he had left behind after his first few handmade cyclotrons, which resembled flattened metal flasks swathed in gobs of wax to maintain their internal vacuum. Once again he was inventing by himself, without an army of technicians and engineers, working on a laboratory bench at home.

Within a few months he had rigged up an improved tube, which he showed to Alvarez and his other top associate, Edwin McMillan. They reacted with unease to Lawrence’s enthusiasm for what they considered a most unprepossessing project. “Ed and I were embarrassed by the tube’s poor picture quality and its even poorer commercial potential,” Alvarez would recall. Lawrence dismissed their doubts “with a wave of his hand. He said the tube was certain to do the job.”

Greater encouragement came from his friend and business advisor Rowan Gaither, an impeccably groomed San Francisco lawyer with extensive connections on Wall Street and in Washington. Gaither thought the device might have great commercial possibilities and the two friends formed a partnership to transform Lawrence’s little project into a business. Chromatic Television Laboratories was incorporated on March 31, 1950. At Gaither’s insistence, the ownership was split 80/20 in Lawrence’s favor.

Color TV was an embryonic technology, but the size of its perceived market already had triggered a furious rush to develop a consumer product. The contestants included RCA, the Columbia Broadcasting System and General Electric, all working on mutually incompatible systems. Hollywood was also interested, and Gaither soon lined up financial backing from Paramount Pictures. Over the next six years, its investment would run to millions of dollars.

In the thrall of his usual sunny optimism, Lawrence began recruiting workers for the venture, installing them in a garage laboratory in a vacation home he had acquired in Diablo, a resort community about a half-hour’s drive from Berkeley. The Diablo bungalow had never appealed much to Lawrence’s family, for the inland summers were beastly hot, the house too small to accommodate all six of his children comfortably. Lawrence himself never seemed to be around — to him the inactivity defined by “rest and relaxation” meant boredom. But now the house acquired a new purpose. Lawrence equipped the garage with bunk beds and a kitchenette for Chromatic technicians, and soon doubled the size of the garage to serve as a full-scale electronics shop.

The staff swelled with scientists and technicians recruited from Livermore and the Radiation Lab, Lawrence’s main lab nestled in a ravine above the Berkeley campus. One of the first was Don Gow, a former military engineer who became swept into Lawrence’s magnetic field and was held there by the boss’s “sense of urgency, his willingness to try ideas rapidly and drop them when a better idea came along.” Gow and his fellow Chromatic employees became accustomed to receiving calls from Lawrence at dinner time with the message, “I’ve got a new idea — let’s look at it tonight.” They would all speed out to Diablo in a caravan, not to return home to Berkeley until dawn.

Lawrence worked on the tube with an intensity he had not shown since his work on the Manhattan Project. The blue notebooks he carried were filled up with notes and designs scribbled at all hours of day and night and all conditions — on the road between his vacation home in Newport Beach and Berkeley, on the train to Chicago, during a retreat at the exclusive Bohemian Grove, on a flight to New York. In mid-1951 he developed a radically new design based on placing microscopically thin wires just behind the tube’s glass viewing surface. These were to focus the electron beam onto colored phosphors behind the screen. The Diablo shop built a prototype, and the result was stunning: a much brighter picture than the RCA and CBS tubes, with cheaper components. On the strength of a demonstration, Paramount agreed to build a manufacturing plant to turn out consumer-quality tubes in Oakland.

The Hollywood studio also stepped up its meddling in Chromatic’s management. Suddenly there were production managers and corporate finance experts peering over Lawrence’s shoulder. The gulf between the operational methods of research laboratories and industrial factories became excruciatingly clear. Production engineering, Gow reflected, “is a very expensive game and none of us, including Ernest, had the faintest notion what it meant.” Lawrence had run the Rad Lab frugally — for a laboratory. But the cost of experimental equipment had always been secondary to the goal of the research, especially during the Manhattan Project, when urgency made profit-and-loss calculations irrelevant and the goal was the production of a single-use object — a bomb. Paramount’s goal was to mass-produce tubes to be marketed at a nominal price of $50 or $75. The demands of mass manufacturing and mass marketing began to overwhelm Lawrence’s resolutely upbeat disposition.

Adding to the pressure were the many other demands on his time. “Ernest was probably the busiest man in the country,” Gow observed. “There were very important people with respect to defense matters, and very important people with respect to color television, and very important people with respect to God knows what else, in and out of the office in an absolutely steady string.”

Finally, in the spring of 1952, Lawrence broke down with a colitis attack that landed him in the hospital. Plainly some way had to be found to enforce a rest cure. The ingenious solution came from his close friend, UC Regent Jack Neylan: a round-the-world voyage on tankers owned by Standard Oil of California. Since the company’s chairman, Gwin Follis, was a personal friend of Neylan’s — and the company itself a subcontractor at Livermore — arrangements were concluded rapidly. Ernest and his wife, Molly, would be accompanied by their 16-year-old daughter, Margaret.

The group departed from New York on Jan. 24, 1953, aboard the oil company tanker Paul Pigott, whose manifest identified them as members of the crew (Molly and Margaret listed as stewardesses and Ernest as the ship’s doctor), their wages set at $1 each for the voyage. Awaiting them were the spacious and luxurious quarters reserved for VIP travelers on the seagoing vessels of a giant American corporation. For two months they traveled in style — from New York to Beirut by sea; thence by car to Ammann, Jordan, and onward by air to Bahrain, Karachi and Ceylon. Presently they boarded another tanker for the homeward passage east. Ernest disembarked in New York more hale than he had seemed in years.

His health was not to last. There were issues to manage at the fledgling Livermore lab, thermonuclear tests to attend in the Nevada desert and plans to be made for new tests at the Pacific atoll of Eniwetok. In 1954 Ernest would visit Geneva to consult on the establishment of an international high-energy physics lab under the aegis of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research; in time this facility would host two linear accelerators, three synchrotrons and the Large Hadron Collider, all of them technological offspring of Lawrence’s original, wax-slathered cyclotron, which he had cradled in his palm nearly a quarter-century earlier.

Then there was Chromatic. A few months after the return from his round-the-world tour, Lawrence color tubes manufactured in Oakland played a role in a landmark of television history — the televised coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. On June 2, 1953, while a worldwide audience of 150 million watched the coronation procession in black and white, 100 young patients at London’s Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital viewed it live in color, on two 20-inch Lawrence tubes displaying a closed-circuit image from three color cameras stationed along the route. But technical achievements were one thing; the commercial potential of color TV was another. Doubts about the public demand for color sets were multiplying. At Chromatic, the ebbing interest was sensed acutely. “Instead of having people clamoring at us for sample tubes, you couldn’t give them away,” Gow recalled.

By 1955 Paramount would be desperate to exit the field; Lawrence, feeling duty-bound to help limit his financial partner’s exposure to losses, went on the road to help Paramount find a buyer. He met with executives from Columbia Broadcasting Company and Philco in the United States and flew to Holland to make a pitch, fruitlessly, to the Dutch technology conglomerate Philips. In the end, Paramount transferred Chromatic to its DuMont Laboratories, a TV manufacturer affiliated with the DuMont television network, an early network that failed in 1956 despite launching the careers of Jackie Gleason and other future television stars. Lawrence’s technology did not quite disappear; in 1961 Paramount licensed what was left of it to Sony. A few years later the Japanese company incorporated significant elements of Lawrence’s design into one of the most successful color TV technologies in history, and named the product Trinitron.

Michael Hiltzik’s column appears Sundays. Read his blog, the Economy Hub, at, reach him at, check out and follow @hiltzikm on Twitter.