Retirees spark history to life Memories: Volunteers are preserving technological wonders from the World War II vacuum-tube era to the dawn of the Space Age.


Some people retire from work that they loved and never return.

Gary Ryan can go back any time he wants -- way back, to relive some of the earliest jobs in his career as a technician for the old Westinghouse electronics plant that's now a division of Northrop Grumman in Linthicum.

Ryan and about 30 other retirees still solder and tinker away in the back rooms of the Historical Electronics Museum, a quirky and unpretentious collection put together by the retirees through a mixture of love, cluttered home workshops and arcane detective work.

The volunteers have bagged some impressive trophies for the little museum in a former warehouse near the BWI Marriott. One retiree tracked into the wilds of Saskatchewan, Canada, for a first-generation Westinghouse radar antenna like the one whose warning was ignored at Pearl Harbor.

The museum has one of only two earthly models of the camera that Buzz Aldrin and Neal Armstrong used to send back pictures from the moon. Next to it is the Emmy award Westinghouse Electric Corp. and NASA won in 1969 for the television feat.

A woman in Annapolis went to her garage to give the museum one of the first three commercial microwave ovens ever produced. It hit the market not in the 1970s, which might seem like a logical guess, but way back in 1957.

The retirees also have collected a German Enigma machine, the notorious encryption device that tormented the Allies during World War II. And they have a Norden bombsight, another World War II treasure that was so secret its users had to swear to die to keep it from falling into enemy hands.

But more than any rare machine or tube-laden Jazz Age artifact, what's on display for the museum's 5,000 annual visitors is the devotion of a handful of aging men and women to the electron, and to the culture of innovation and hard work that harnessed it to such amazing ends throughout the 20th century.

Bob Dwight, 75, is president and founder of the museum. He remembers the precise moment in 1973 when he got the idea for it.

Standing at a Westinghouse Family Day picnic, Dwight watched a man drag his wife and two kids over to a display of a 1950s Aero 13 radar unit. For 30 minutes, the man described to his family how he had designed part of the system long ago.

It suddenly hit Dwight that he and his co-workers spent most of their careers working on secret defense projects that their families could never see. By the time the projects weren't secret anymore, the government had probably scrapped them.

"Right then and there I got the idea that we should be preserving the old equipment," Dwight said.

He started with the Aero 13, which now sits in the museum.

With Westinghouse's blessing, Dwight and several co-workers started hoarding gear and storing it in sheds around the defense plant. They cleaned out home workshops and sought out old-timers for anything they might have lying around.

They settled into a spare Westinghouse building near Baltimore-Washington International Airport. In 1992, the Historical Electronics Museum moved across West Nursery Road to an abandoned warehouse.

The museum still gets Northrop Grumman sponsorship, but it also has a donating membership and seeks grants for special projects. It has a full-time director, 28-year-old Jeff Buchheit, and slick, professional displays.

But the retiree volunteers are what keep the museum running. Besides finding all the gear, they restore the equipment and build the displays. The back rooms are filled with enough hardware -- including hundreds of thousands of vacuum tubes -- to get Tom Swift to the moon and back.

They look like ordinary grandfathers, but these are people who really know how things work, who can look at a metal and glass doohicky and instantly understand how to pour electrons through it and into another device to come up with something new and strange.

In almost any other field, pioneers like Ryan and Dwight would be long-dead figures of distant history. But electronics changes so fast -- kids encountering the museum's Edison phonograph exhibit have never even seen vinyl LPs before -- that they are a living link to what amounts to eons of evolution.

"I enjoy working on things that I worked on years ago," said Ryan, 67. "It's a completely different concept than the electronic stuff today, where if it quits it's almost more economical to throw it away than repair it."

For Dwight, a former mechanical engineer, the pleasure is about equal between putting an old antenna back together and doing the detective work to track one down.

"I think preserving something that took an enormous amount of effort to design and manufacture is important," Dwight said.

"There's also a lot of nostalgia connected to it. People come in and say, 'Gee, I flew an airplane that had that system in it.' When you had a hand in designing it, you say, 'I trust it worked OK,' and when they say, 'Oh, it worked great!' Well, then, your day is made."

The museum

The Historical Electronics Museum is located at West Nursery and Elkridge Landing roads in Linthicum. It is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Admission is free.

Pub Date: 10/07/96

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