Electronics Time Machine

February 19, 1993

The speed of electronics inventions -- and their adaptation to commercial uses -- has been so mind-boggling in recent decades that it is increasingly difficult to imagine what the world must have been like before the advent of the telegraph, the telephone, television, radar or the computer. Or how bulky and rudimentary the early versions of those gizmos and gadgets must have been before they revolutionized the world.

Residents in the Baltimore-Washington region, and visitors from farther away, now have an enhanced opportunity to ponder how the world of electronics has changed. The 13-year-old Historical Electronics Museum, a labor of love of countless volunteers, recently moved to a Westinghouse warehouse on West Nursery Road, next to the BWI Marriott near the entrance to the airport.

Early vacuum tubes and radar components, hopelessly outdated telecommunications equipment and other electronic period pieces fill the museum's 11,000 square feet of exhibit space. Amid all this stuff, it may not be easy to realize what breakthrough inventions they were in their time. Or how little trust was placed in them by their early users.

The SCR-270 radar antenna is a good example:

Joseph Lockard, a 19-year-old Army private, manned that Baltimore-built Radio Detection and Ranging device while on a mountain top in Hawaii on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941. The device was so bulky it had to be hauled in four trucks. While others participating in a maneuver had begun disassembling their units, Mr. Lockard kept fiddling with the controls of his radar set. He wanted to gain extra practice.

As the sun started to rise in the sky, the round 5-inch black-and-white screen went wild. "The pulse went all the way to the top of the screen. It was the biggest thing I had seen on the thing," Mr. Lockard later recalled.

Believing something big was going on, Mr. Lockard tried to alert the proper authorities. It wasn't easy. The radar control post had closed minutes earlier. When he finally reached an Army Air Corps duty officer, he was told, "Don't worry about it." It was only minutes later that Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor commenced.

At the Historical Electronics Museum, such landmark equipment comes back to life. The free museum is a resource that enables all of us to measure the incredible electronic progress of our lifetimes and those of our parents.

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