An Oscar for Solitaire

I’m occasionally asked about the Academy Award that my colleagues at Management Graphics received. It was during the early days of computer-generated special effects in motion pictures. A product I contributed to, the Solitaire Image Recorder, was selected as a technology advance worthy of the Academy’s Technical Achievement Award.  These awards are delivered in a parallel ceremony to the one we are all familiar with.  It features celebrities of a different kind: nerds.

This is the story of how my friend Rick Keeney ended up on that award stage. It has been adapted from his personal account and is a bit technical, but don’t let those details detract from the overall story line.

Rick Keeney, with the Academy Award for Technical Achievement, 1992.

Invention and Innovation

In the formative days of digital photographic imaging, output back to film was produced using specialized, often hand-built, image recorders that were difficult to align, calibrate, and keep running consistently.  As one of the early companies in the business of building and selling graphics workstations, Management Graphics (MGI) recognized that the drawbacks of the available film recorders were limiting its workstation sales.  MGI kicked off a development effort to build a film recorder that would be a robust and easy-to-use product. 

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The Burn-Hole Club

The coils that provide the magnetic force to move the electron beam

Cathode ray tubes are a remarkable technology that incorporate many seemingly magic principles of physics.  Thermionic emission causes electrons to “boil” off a cathode, high voltage electric fields accelerate and focus them, and magnetic fields steer them to the anode screen where they energize phosphor molecules, which then re-release that energy as visible light!

While developing the electronics to control the CRT and make all this magic happen, we often had to “bring up the spot”, showing the electron beam in one static location, where it could be examined visually and measured with various instruments. 

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Behind Gamma’s Disguise

Electron guns from assorted cathode ray tubes.

Those who know me would be stunned to learn that I have a gun collection.  I acquired them in the course of my work trying to make computer images on film in the 1990s.  They are electron guns, the mysterious workings at the business end of a cathode ray tube.

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Cathode Rays

The 100th anniversary of the cathode ray tube.

This is the first of three posts describing a now-(nearly)-obsolete technology.

Thomas Edison nearly discovered them.  In his experiments with heated filaments in evacuated glass bulbs trying to find a suitable incandescent lamp, there were hints.  He noticed depositions of material on the walls of the glass tubes.  Many scientific discoveries are preceded not by the expression “Eureka”, but instead by the comment: “Hmm, that’s funny”.  If he had followed up on this odd result, he might have also invented the vacuum tube amplifier.

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The Color of the Moon

I was 16 years old when Apollo-11 landed on the moon.  Color television had been invented but most TVs were still black and white.  I had seen a few color televisions on display and in other homes, but the color was usually awful, partly because the broadcasting signals had to be compatible with black and white sets. 

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Career’s End

From my gun collection: an electron gun, extracted from a cathode ray tube

After years of fearing the consequences of corporate RIFs (“reduction in force”), aka layoffs, and having survived a dozen or more of them, I had finally reached the point where losing my job would have a lesser consequence.  I had built up my savings in anticipation of some future retirement and was now working for the sheer pleasure of it.  

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