Memoirs – Chapter 13
TRIO LABORATORIES 1953-1968
It was October 1953. I was working at Servomechanisms, Inc and Jay Salz and Ed Hoffart had approached me to go into business together, making and selling the Panel Mounted Vacuum Tube Voltmeter that I had conceived with my work at Servo.
We had a lawyer-friend draw up a business partnership and the next step was to design the instrument. I had a good idea of what I wanted to do but I still had to work out the details and test the circuits. I started working in my upstairs workshop. First I bought a couple of Heathkit laboratory instruments and assembled them. After I worked out the circuits and decided on the components that would be used I did the mechanical design prepared to make the first working model. Using a small drill press and a hack saw I made a unit that worked!
Meanwhile Ed and Jay started getting Ed’s basement ready for our assembly line. They built work benches, and put in lights. We bought some equipment, and made the first prototypes. I had good relations with vendors from Servo and they helped with special parts we needed. For example, Weston Instruments made special meters for us with the meter face we wanted with our name on it. Joe Dale, who was still at Servo, made some mechanical parts and tools for us and a few of the Servo assembly-line workers worked for us at night.
We were all still working at Servo, and doing the business startup at night. All this was happening with Clare taking care of 2½ year old Joan and the newly-born Cathie at home. Clare’s mother was there for a few weeks, but then Clare was on her own, with me working the two jobs at Servo in the daytime and Trio at night.
By the start of 1954 we had a working unit (a military version), and photographs, and Jay went to the editors of Electronic Design magazine with information for an article about the product. Here we hit pay dirt. They put the picture on the front page of the magazine for the issue that would be distributed at the Institute of Radio Engineers national electronics show in March, and included a feature article inside. Our friends at Fairchild Camera gave us a corner of their booth at the show to display our new company and product.
Servo had a small press release in the same issue with at least a hundred others, so we stood out. By May first we had our first order (from GE), and we were buying parts for the first production run of 25 pieces. At the same time Jay would be laid off at Servo, with some sort of an innocuous excuse. Jay now had no income, so we took him into our home, while he now would be out selling our product full time.
In the fall of 1954 Servo was pressuring some of their employees to transfer to their California facility, and Ed Hoffart was one of them. He had to decide, and I think he was tired of the pressure I was putting on him to produce more of our meters. Business was good for us, but he decided to move. This meant we would have to restructure our business partnership, and there were two of our associates at Servo who wanted to come in, George Sbordone and Bob Corby. I preferred Sbordone, but he decided he couldn’t spare the time, since he had a new family and was going to college to get a degree. Corby joined us, we created a corporation with equal shares, he bought out Hoffart, and we moved out of Ed’s basement to a small storefront next to the railroad station in Wantagh.
Trio’s business was building nicely, but when I got laid off from Servo, in the spring of 1955 I had to take a job for a short time at Republic Aviation, in Farmingdale. I liked the work, but hated the company, so when Trio was able to handle the expense I quit Republic and that summer I started full time at Trio. In a short time the business was overcrowding the 1,000 square foot store in Wantagh so much that, when the lease expired at the end of 1955, we rented a 3,000 square foot store on Merrick Road in Seaford.
We were thrilled with our new location. We had plenty of space for separate engineering, production, and machine shop areas. We hired some of our friends from Servo to work in the various departments, and we also had some part-time people. First, we needed a part-time secretary who I found with a suggestion from my old Mepham math teacher who was now a guidance counselor. Then Dad helped with the bookkeeping, Mom went to work on the assembly line, and we hired some part time assemblers. But soon we changed to a staff of full-time assemblers and hired engineers and draftsmen.
Trio started to get plenty of orders and we made a good profit on all of them but we needed cash to buy materials in larger quantities. I went to my friend Don Weller’s father, who was the President of the First National Bank in Merrick. He did not feel we were a good enough risk, so we went to our local bank in Seaford and they lent us the money. We stuck with them for many years.
We had one design of the panel mounted vacuum-tube voltmeter, but it was modified for each customer’s special needs. Its voltage sensitivity was determined by the electrical circuits and the markings on the meter face were specified by the customer. That meant we had to make special meter faces for each unit. I quickly learned how to make artwork for the face, get negatives made, and made silk screens for printing them. As time went on, and that process was time consuming and expensive, I determined that a small flat-bed “Franklin” printing press could print on the metal meter faces. We purchased the printing press and simplified our process.
The original design of the instrument used expensive military-grade components and we decided to produce an industrial grade unit by changing the design to use commercial-grade components. In order to simplify production I decided to use a printed circuit board to reduce the assembly labor and use regular TV-quality vacuum tubes. I designed the circuit board, printed the design onto a plastic sheet that had a layer of copper on its surface and, using chemicals that my brother Bob (the chemist) specified, we etched away parts of the copper leaving narrow trails of copper as conductor paths. The redesign worked well, so we went into full scale production, cutting the cost of parts and labor, and we made even more profit.
Although I was in charge of the engineering effort at Trio I was not good at leading others in the work, but rather I worked best by myself, setting my own goals and fulfilling them. By the time we moved to Seaford the work burden was enough to demand an engineering team, so we reached back to our friends at Servo, and hired Ed Foodim to be Chief Engineer, and my title became Director of Engineering. He was a good engineer and he was good at leading the team. I did most of the initial designs and Ed had the job of overseeing their design for production and product modifications.
Business grew by leaps and bounds, and by 1958 we had outgrown our 3,000 square-foot Seaford storefront. We had a good cash flow and decided to get a building of our own. In Plainview a new industrial park was just starting, and the builder was anxious to get a few buildings up to give it some momentum, so we contracted for the purchase of some land and construction of a large building of about 12,000 square feet. When the building was about half done I moved my laboratory to the building and worked on a design project for Grumman, while keeping track of the building construction at the same time. While I was there I also designed the workbenches and specified the locations for lighting in the production areas. We really enjoyed the new building which had separate executive offices, an engineering department, a production area, a machine shop, a store room, and testing areas. We even had a special room that was electrically shielded so that we could test our equipment for stray electrical radiation. A few years later I again kept my eyes on construction as we added another 5,000 square feet to the building.
Since my interest was in electronics, rather than power electrical engineering, I joined the Institute of Radio Engineers. I remained a member, not often participating in their activities, and in 1961 rose to “senior” member, the highest level below the honorary “fellow.” In 1963 the IRE merged with the AIEE to become the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, where I became a Senior Life Member after reaching the age of 65.
Fortran, the first modern language for programming digital computers, was developed by IBM in the mid 1950s and was widely adopted by 1960. At that time I attended a course sponsored by the IEEE so that I could be familiar with the development of digital computers. While we practiced what we learned on the old computers that entered data from punched cards, some of the skills I acquired were used later in designing the first Trio digital products.
The engineering department kept expanding our product line as the customers asked for variations of our concept. Some of their requests were for variations of the existing products and some were for changes that amounted to new products. By 1957, while we were still in the storefront in Seaford, we had a 36-page catalog that listed 15 products and we had our own booth displaying our products at the IRE show in Manhattan.
My real job at Trio was to find ideas for new products and those ideas generally came as offshoots of the products I was designing for our customers. I took American Management Association courses in New Product Planning and Development, as well as Corporate Management and Executive Action. Despite the courses in management, I still did best working by myself in the small lab in my own office, with my instruments, tools, and typewriter.
One of the new products I dreamed up was a Vacuum Tube Voltmeter that utilized substantially different electrical circuits, and was more accurate and more sensitive than anything else on the market. I applied for several patents at Trio and patent 3,063,009 was issued on November 6, 1962 for “Signal Measuring Apparatus”, our True RMS Vacuum Tube Voltmeter. That patent and all other applications were assigned to Trio, but I retained the patent certificate.
The Model 120 True RMS VTVM sold for $985 and we announced it at the IRE show in March 1958. That show, with our show models, Pat Saul and Clare, and the display of many different instruments, was the beginning of our major expansion at Trio. We built our plant in Plainview, expanded our engineering staff and began converting our VTVM line from vacuum tubes to transistors. Of the engineers we hired, Sy Levine, was highly experienced in the design of circuits with transistors.
We expanded our product line, converted to transistorized versions, and were always looking for new products. Business was doing great and we three founders were making good salaries. Clare and I started traveling overseas, with the first trip to Europe being in 1959 with Jay and Fran.
One of the side benefits of having our own company was that the company would buy a new car for each of the partners every second year, and we could buy the older one at a good price. We started with a Chevy station wagon in 1957, and kept alternating wagons and convertibles until our 1968 Pontiac station wagon, which Clare named “Faithful Steed.”
In 1968 we were having problems with the quality of our manufacturing. We fired the head of Quality Control and I was asked to take over and straighten it out. There were no problems with the designs and selection of component materials but the assembly processes needed correcting so I wrote a 26-page Electronic Assemblers Handbook and gave training to the assembly line supervisors. With numerous drawings the handbook showed the right and wrong ways to perform all of the assembly operations to conform to the military standards.
SuperReg The Synthetic Zener Diode
One time I was working on a small power supply that had to operate in a very high temperature area of a military aircraft. It obviously needed a design with some unique circuits that would generate little heat. One of the circuits I designed simulated an electronic component, a Zener diode, but the circuit was a thousand times better than the device it simulated. I suggested to Jay and Bob that we manufacture this device as a marketable product, and they authorized $1,000 for research and development.
I designed a tiny circuit that could be built right inside a transistor case but it required that special parts be made. Mainly it needed a special case with longer internal terminal posts to support the circuit components board, and it needed a transistor manufacturer who would deliver the unit with the power transistor in place on the heavy mounting surface of the unit and leave the unit open so we could attach the electronic circuit board. Fortunately I was very friendly with Sy Levine who had worked for Trio a few years earlier and was then working for Silicon Transistors, Inc., just the right company to provide the part we needed.
After we assembled the circuit board and attached it to the power transistor unit, the device would be tested and returned to Silicon Transistors to be welded shut. I finalized the circuit design, drew the artwork for the circuit board, printed the circuit design with our printing press, and etched the board. I then assembled the prototype of the SuperReg and tested it over a wide range of temperatures to meet military standards. It performed well, and although the others lacked enthusiasm I pressed us to go ahead with marketing and production. I then designed the production and testing equipment, negotiated with suppliers, and started up the production line. I liked creating devices like the Synthetic Zener Diode, which cost $10 to make and sold for $50.
SuperReg was ready for the announcement and we convinced Electronic Design magazine to feature it on the cover of its July 6, 1964 issue with an article and press release, just as they had done for our first VTVM ten years earlier. The press release went out at the same time as the magazine was sent to its subscribers, and it was featured in over 25 publications in the U.S. and abroad. Subsequent press releases of additional features were equally well received. Then it was displayed in our booth at the August West Coast Electronics Show.
After I had finished the design of SuperReg, production procedures and test equipment, data sheets to send to our customers, and advertising approaches, I decided that the way to sell it was to go on the road and show it to our sales representatives and customers. This was the way I liked to work, taking the idea all the way from the start to finish. I designed the demonstrator that would show all the features of the SuperReg, it’s adjustability and precision. The circuits and meters were all in a small grey American Tourister suitcase. Then I took off with the family (including Clare’s Mom) on a tour of our west-coast reps in Denver, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and the WESCON show. The SuperReg was highly profitable, and it sustained us for several years as our meter business diminished.
Searching for new products… the downward spiral
In our search to maintain our volume of sales we made many variations of SuperReg: a commercial version, constant current version, series regulator, and more. None of the variations really caught on.
While our major business was in the panel mounted VTVMs, we also sought subcontracts for custom instruments, computers, power supplies, and system displays. Because we were experienced in the analog computing field and were approved for the design and manufacture of military equipment we were awarded contracts to design and build a variety of “black boxes” to the most stringent military and commercial specifications. Illustrated are typical instruments we developed for government contractors: an airborne device for remote indication of target ranges, an airborne readout for a dead-reckoning computer, and an intervalometer for analog computing of distance.
We were always looking for new product lines and decided that we needed to go into digital voltmeters. Someone put us in touch with a small Scottish firm that was working on a design, so I flew over to Scotland and spent a few days with them. We agreed to work on their design in the U.S., and eventually hired their engineer, Bob Smythe to come here and work on the meter. It never worked out well enough to be competitive, so we dropped it.
In the process of working with Smythe on the digital voltmeter I learned how to design digital computer circuits and started working on a frequency counter with a unique twist, something no one else was making. It was able to change its frequency range automatically. I built a prototype circuit but the company decided not to go into production. We tried a few other ideas that also did not pan out.
Numerous other product lines were designed in the engineering department, modular test instruments and power supplies, but none of them proved marketable or profitable.
In February 1968 Trio Laboratories, Inc had an Initial Public Offering of its stock as a means of raising some cash and giving our personal stock a defined value, and we were traded on the American Stock Exchange. We had an offer from a medium sized company to buy us out but Jay decide he wanted to remain as the head of a company, so we did not sell.
By spring of 1968 sales of our products continued rising but we were in a profit pinch. In 1968 trio’s net revenue was $2,225,029 but its losses were $449,887. Neil Deoul, who was our VP of Sales, said we had a problem. He had been president of two companies that had gone bankrupt and he could see it as a possibility for us and he warned us. He suggested ways to slim down the company and we started to take action. That summer Bob Corby died of cancer, leaving Jay and me to run the company, with Sally Corby as the “silent partner.” Jay and I disagreed on how the company should be run and Sally sided with Jay, so he suggested that I leave the company. He offered a reasonable consulting agreement, with my retaining my stock and remaining on the Board of Directors, and so I “retired” on November 28, 1968.
Although I was retired from the daily operations of Trio, it was in my interest that Trio remain profitable. I still held a large share of its stock. Trio was now in a good position with the cash from the sale of stock, but it’s profit was slipping. I wanted Jay to relinquish his leadership, with Neil taking over. I suggested it at a Board of Directors meeting and Jay felt I should get out completely by selling my stock to the company. By now the stock had dropped to less than half of its original price, but I felt it was a good idea to sell, so I agreed. By the time the papers were drawn up the price had dropped some more. I wanted cash and Jay tried to get me to take notes, but fortunately I insisted on cash.
In 1969, with the cash that Trio now had, they invested in Thurston Aircraft, a small manufacturer of amphibian aircraft in Maine. That business added to the total sales of the company for a few years but it eventually went out of business. Within another year Trio was bankrupt, Jay tried to hold it together, but eventually they were bought out with his getting a two-year contract, so he had his payoff. Final bankruptcy was in 1975.
The new owners of the company remained there, doing contract repair work of government electronic equipment. I stopped by there one day and there seemed to be just one of the old-time employees left, a former bookkeeper who was then head of their accounting department. In 2004 I went by the plant to find out what they were doing and the plant was abandoned with broken windows and missing doors.
Some of my most enjoyable working years were spent at Trio, and I sorely missed the challenge of inventing and designing electronic products for years after I left there. A new phase of my life was about to start: My “retirement.”
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