A Tribute to--
ROBERT ADLER, 1913-2007
By JOHN J. PEDERSON
Retired Zenith Vice President and Patent Director
Robert Adler, one of the world’s greatest scientists, born in Vienna, Austria, passed away peacefully in Boise, Idaho, USA, on February 15, 2007 at the age of 93. He is survived by his loving wife and helpmate, Ingrid.
Dr. Adler’s technical achievements and contributions are well documented in his nearly 200 US patents, the numerous honors and awards he received, and his many technical publications. Many of his inventions in widely diverse technical fields found their way into the products of Zenith, the pioneering American consumer electronics company where he worked for nearly six decades. His inventions also were incorporated into products of his post-Zenith clients and into competing products of others from time to time. He is widely remembered as the inventor of Zenith’s wireless ultrasonic Space Command TV remote control, which revolutionized TV viewing in the United States and around the world. But his simple humanity, personal strength of character, and outstanding leadership skills were his most memorable traits.
Robert, or Bob as he was often known by his peers and business associates, was a gentle, modest, patient, selfless and soft-spoken man of unimposing appearance and demeanor. He had a uniquely comprehensive knowledge of the laws of physics, and his avid appetite for reading, along with the extraordinary scope of his scientific genius, enabled him to assimilate new discoveries and advances into his personal knowledge repertoire almost instantly. He had outstanding mentoring and teaching skills, and a natural talent for finding acceptable middle ground between conflicting hypotheses or viewpoints.
His command of the English language was greater than that of most native English speakers. And he had an uncanny intuition about the level of understanding of his audience and an ability to adjust to that level in his discussions and explanations of even the most sophisticated scientific subject matter, and in a wonderful way that never “talked down” to his audience. For example, as a trial witness before a lay judge in complex patent litigation, he explained the nature of coherent light from lasers by metaphorically comparing it to “soldiers marching in lock step.” As well stated by a Zenith executive who worked closely with him for many years: “Bob conversed equally well with the Chairman or with a secretary or janitor -- as a result, everyone, and I mean everyone, loved and respected Bob.”
Moreover, he was not just an ivory tower scientist/inventor. It was as important to him that his innovations could be profitably manufactured and cost-effectively sold to the consumer as it was that they were demonstrably able to provide new and improved results. He was practical to the core, with the unique ability to see his inventions, and those of his colleagues, move through the whole process, from concept to practical application.
One of the project leaders in the Zenith Research Department tells of the time his group had produced their first laser picture using acousto-optic scanning -- it was a very small red-and-black picture, and Bob, who was red-color-blind, couldn't see their proudly displayed result at all!
In his personal life, Bob had a pervasive love and appreciation for the natural wonders of the world and the universe, and he was a devotee and connoisseur of the fine arts, a cat lover, and a hiker, private pilot, and downhill skier until his health began to fail in his 90s.
Bob was born in Vienna, Austria on December 4, 1913. His Austrian parents were Jenny Herzmark Adler, M.D., and Max Adler, Ph.D, a sociologist. Bob received his doctorate in physics at the University of Vienna in 1937, which was a year before the infamous 1938 Anschluss (Hitler’s bloodless coup deposing Chancellor Kurt Schussnigg and annexing Austria).
At that time, Austrian Jewish citizens were summarily expropriated and stripped of their civil rights. To avoid persecution by the Nazis, Bob found a way to flee from his native Austria to Belgium in 1939. From there he went to England, and in 1941 to the United States, where he was discovered by Zenith’s top engineering executives and joined the Zenith technical staff. Had Bob not had the vision and the courage to flee from his native land when he did, he could have become another Holocaust statistic, and the world would never had the benefit of his amazing scientific genius.
When the United States entered World War II, Zenith shut down its consumer product manufacturing and converted all production to war work. Bob had not yet become a U.S. citizen. Technically considered to be a German National, he did not qualify for security clearance for classified materials. So Zenith management set him up in an isolated lab facility and gave him carte blanche to work on unclassified development projects of his own design, for the duration of the war.
Bob was often known to do unexpected things, simply because he could. During his early years at Zenith, at Christmas time each year to the delight of all Zenithites, Bob played Christmas carols over the public address system by twirling the dials of a conventional audio oscillator. Much later in his career, he was known to prepare for presiding at technical conferences abroad by self-studying other languages, specifically Russian and Japanese, to enable him to communicate with featured speakers in their native tongues, and to react to comments and questions from the floor. He accomplished this so effectively that it was a topic of discussion among some of the witnessing attendees for years afterwards.
In 1951, Dr. Adler became a Fellow of the Institute of Radio Engineers (now IEEE) "for his development of transmission and detection devices for frequency modulated signals and of electro-mechanical filter systems." He received the IEEE Outstanding Technical Achievement Award in 1958 for his "original work on ultrasonic remote controls" for television, the Inventor of the Year award from George Washington University in 1967, the IEEE Outstanding Achievement Award in Consumer Electronics in 1970, the Outstanding Technical Paper Award from the Chicago Section of the IEEE in 1974 for his report on "An Optical Video Disc Player for NTSC Receivers," representing early work in what was to become the digital video disc or DVD.
In the early 1970s, when Zenith’s research operations were reorganized, Bob led the company’s technical team into new initiatives in such forward-looking development areas as solid state plasma display panels, visible light emitting diodes, acousto-optic devices, laser measuring and display systems, thermoelectric semiconductor devices, surface acoustic wave filters, and touchscreen displays.
Bob had little patience for time-consuming administrative tasks and paperwork, so he appointed an associate research director to attend to such matters and free him for full time oversight and active participation in all of the ongoing diverse scientific projects. He was a multi-tasking expert long before the computer era, and was respected and appreciated as a cohort and teacher, not just as a department head or boss, by all who knew and worked with him.
Bob Adler, through his outstanding leadership and his many creative scientific contributions, was truly a vital part of Zenith’s lifeblood during its glory years.
In 1978, when the U.S. home electronics industry was forced to economize in the face of unfair competition from foreign imports, Bob resigned at the age of 65 rather than preside over the required downsizing of Zenith’s research operations. But he continued to serve as a highly valued technical consultant for Zenith, EloTouch Systems (now Tyco Electronics), and others for the next quarter century.
He was the recipient of the IEEE Edison Medal in 1980 for many inventions in the fields of electronic beam tubes and ultrasonic devices, and for leadership in innovative research and development. In 1981, he received the IEEE Ultrasonics, Ferroelectrics, and Frequency Control Society Achievement Award for “insight, innovation, and leadership given to ultrasonics technology.”
Together with other Zenith engineers, he was honored in 1997 by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences with an Emmy award for Zenith’s introduction of the first wireless TV remote controls 50 years ago. He was a charter inductee in the Consumer Electronics Hall of Fame in 2000. That same year, Bob was inducted into the Television Academy’s "Silver Circle," which recognizes "outstanding individuals who have devoted a quarter of a century or more to the television industry and have made a significant contribution to Chicago broadcasting."
He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the National Academy of Engineering.
Thirty-nine of his U.S. patents were granted on inventions he made during this twilight phase of his illustrious career. In fact, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office published his latest patent application, for advances in touch-screen technology, in early February 2007, just days before his passing.
Long live the memory of this outstanding man!
-- John J. Pederson
(John J. Pederson was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, on March 21, 1926. He worked with Dr. Robert Adler beginning in 1947 when Mr. Pederson joined Zenith as Patent Solicitor. He was manager of Zenith’s patent department in 1952, was named General Patent Counsel and Director of Patents in 1972, and was elected Vice President, Patents and Consumer Affairs, in 1981. He has been active in volunteer executive counseling for 10 years following his 1991 retirement from Zenith. Mr. Pederson earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, USA., and his doctor’s of law degree from DePaul University College of Law, Chicago, Illinois, USA. He was a member of the Bar for the U.S. Patent Office, the State of Illinois, and the Supreme Court of the United States of America.)
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And so ends another chapter in the long and distinguished history of Zenith Radio Corporation. Those who knew Bob were deeply influenced by him. After all, he was the only genius we will ever encounter.
In the next Post, Post 30, we will accompany Zenith into the phase of the sinking ship throwing lumber overboard. For Zenith was indeed sinking, having posted a series of years of losses which sapped it life blood and its ability to survive. But you will meet certain engineers who still inspire us with what they created and what they did. So, until Post 30, which will appear on August First (whoa!, where did the year go?), we will give our usual farewell salute--