Electronics Museum Is High-tech But Also User-friendly


February 19, 1991|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Staff writer

Up close, the machinery of war takes on a whole different perspective.

On the television screen, thousands of feet below your vantage point at the nose of a fighter plane, you watch a bridge between cross hairs reduced to nothing -- instantly, clinically -- seconds after a car crosses it.

Now, consider another view.

Take a closer look, at a 12-foot tube of cold steel with a camera tucked behind a tiny window at the front, a laser beam wrapped inside. Exposed to reveal its eyes and brain and brawn, "Pave Spike" could chart the course for "smart" bombs with chilling precision.

Many who come to behold Spike know it and call it by name. They know it delivers, this intelligent weapon proficient at making the kill with the tactical skill of surgery that couldlead tons of explosives to a doorstep -- or a bunker door -- from miles away.

You'll find Spike -- and a whole lot more -- tucked awayin a non-descript brick building a few minutes' drive from Baltimore-Washington International Airport in Linthicum.

The little-known Historical Electronics Museum, perhaps the only one of its kind anywhere, traces breakthroughs in electronics technology, stressing radar, countermeasures and communication.

All that may sound a bit esoteric, beyond the grasp -- and interest -- of most people.

But don't let it scare you.

This museum, run by a 10-year-old non-profit corporation, is most definitely not geared just toward the specialists and the engineers, the inventors and the scientists. This museum's user- friendly.

Here, you'll find exhibits as timely as the headlines-- the Pave Spike, closely resembling "laser-delivery systems" decimating Iraq; the 26-foot-long AWACs radar you see on television that could fly over Baltimore and pick up every plane in the air from Boston to Miami; the technology behind precision ground-mapping and motion-detecting radar.

But, of course, all this modern-day wizardry flowed directly from past breakthroughs.

The museum provides a monument to many of the visionaries of this century who looked around them,saw what was, knew it could be improved, then went on to prove it.

Think of Edison's tinkering, and marvel as the "cylindrical" records that look like little black cans play on the early 20th-century forebear of the phonograph displayed here.

Read the banner headline on the framed, slightly yellowing newspaper of July 21, 1969, "Astronauts walk on the moon." Then see one of the two remaining models of the video camera that sent back the first pictures of the moon. The onethat sent back the pictures remains in space.

Tune in the knobs on a 4-foot-long clumsy wooden box with a string of 2-inch knobs on it, among the earliest radios. People wrote down the call numbers then,because no station printed them, and searching out the same combination among five knobs tended to get old fast.

That one never fails to get a laugh out of the kids.

High school and middle school students on field trips, in fact, account for a good part of the Historical Electronics Museum's estimated 2,000 visitors a year, says Betsy Chalfant, the assistant director who oversees day-to-day operations.

Other regulars include retired veterans who know some of the radar and equipment firsthand, from the Battle of Bulge and the Battle of Britain and Vietnam. Then there's the core of die-hards, a few dozen retired Westinghouse volunteers who help keep the museum going. Many of them also helped design some of the marvels on hand.

Chalfant, a 24-year-old anthropologist who also happens to hold a master's degree in museum studies from the University of London, always figured she'd be studying the history of different peoples and maybe sorting through bones by now.

Instead, she's studying the history of machines and the lives they touch, constantly looking for one more tidbit, one more clue, not to mention one more gem in somebody's basement or in mothballs at the Defense Department.

"Unless, until you look at the history of any of this stuff, it's just a piece of hardware," shesays. "Most people don't want all that technical stuff. They want toknow: What's it do? Everybody wants to know: How's it work? You can't let it just sit there."

It doesn't, none of it.

Rather, each exhibit comes to life, with a poster-sized panel explaining its history and significance, and much more.

Videocassette recorders play tapes on "electronic warfare in history"; Airborne Warning and ControlSystem radar showing a pre-glasnost simulation of a Soviet fighter entering forbidden air space; and the first satellites circling the earth and the cameras sending back the first pictures taken on the moon.

But can you touch any of it?

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