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Edward Keonjian: The High-IQ, Armenian-American Forrest Gump of Microelectronics, Part 2

When Edward Keonjian arrived in New York City from war-torn Europe in February 1947, he could speak Armenian, Russian, and German, but he was not yet able to speak more than a couple of words in English. Even though he had the equivalent of a PhD in radio communications from the Leningrad Electrotechnical Institute (LETI), his lack of English skills relegated him to menial jobs. He cleaned stores and washed cars. Meanwhile, the World Church Service had placed the Keonjian family in an inexpensive and very odd sort of hotel. In his autobiography, Survived to Tell, Keonjian wrote:

“… [my wife] Virginia became concerned about our hotel. ‘Why is it so unusually quiet during the day,” she asked me, “while late at night there is so much commotion? You’d think it would be the other way around.’

“We did some investigating and found out that this hotel, where we were sent by the World Council of Churches, was actually a ‘house of pleasure’ catering to sailors! We decided to move out as soon as we had an opportunity.”

Edward Keonjian continued to work menial jobs and Virginia got a job as a cleaning woman. With the combined income, the family moved to a “dilapidated” apartment, complete with bedbugs and rats. “Still,” writes Keonjian in his autobiography, “we were very happy. At least we did not have to share this apartment with six other families, as we did in Leningrad. Virginia would say, ‘What else do we need? We already have hot running water!’”

Virginia then got a piecework job making stuffed animals and Edward got a job as a junior draftsman for Westinghouse where he copied plans for elevator control wiring. Keonjian’s advanced electronics education quickly surfaced, and Westinghouse offered to relocate his family to Pittsburgh where he’d work as a scientist in the company’s research lab. However, Virginia did not want to leave the Armenian- and Russian-speaking communities in New York City, because the couple still did not speak English fluently. She also did not want to leave the theaters, museums, or the stores. Keonjian declined the new position.

Shortly after arriving in the US, Keonjian had written to Dr. Vladimir Zworykin, the chief scientist at RCA. Zworykin was a television pioneer, and he was also part of New York City’s Russian community. Keonjian inquired about employment at RCA. Zworykin declined to hire Keonjian, replying that he did not see how Keonjian could succeed in the United States without English speaking and writing skills. He recommended that Keonjian seek employment making matches at the Lion Match Company in Queens, where nearly everyone spoke Russian. Years later, after Keonjian authored and co-authored several electronics books, used as references in RCA’s transistor engineering department, Zworykin admitted he’d made a mistake.

The English language continued to present a problem for Keonjian, so he applied to the City College of New York (CCNY), asking to enroll in an electrical engineering class. CCNY turned down his application because he did not have a high school diploma. Displaced people like Keonjian had escaped war-torn Europe with no papers at all. Six months later, CCNY wrote back to Keonjian and asked if he’d teach the same class in electrical engineering. When Keonjian pointed out that he’d applied to take that engineering class just six months earlier, CCNY replied that he didn’t need a high school diploma to teach the class. He only needed a diploma to take the class. Keonjian agreed to teach the class.

Preparing and presenting the classes forced Keonjian to learn English and, in particular, to learn the specialized English words for electronics. While he was learning English, his classes consisted of a strange mix of Russian, German, and English words that often left his students somewhat confused. Even so, CCNY continued to employ Keonjian as an engineering professor. However, the stress of preparing and presenting these classes gave Keonjian an ulcer, so he stopped teaching at CCNY after four semesters.

Just as he was giving up the teaching position, New York State’s largest employer, General Electric (GE), arrived in the city, searching for scientists and engineers to hire. GE had just opened a new Electronics Park in Syracuse, New York and needed to fill its labs with technologists. GE had become an early licensee of the Bell Labs transistor patents and was busily developing its own line of transistors. It was 1950, and the electronics industry was booming. Televisions were flying off the shelves at retailers. Keonjian interviewed with the GE recruiters in New York City. Two months later, he received an invitation to visit GE’s Electronics Park. Keonjian describes his visit to GE in his autobiography:

“It was a field day for me! I had never seen such fascinating equipment and facilities. Everything was new for me. Everything was exciting. After being out of the field for ten years I had no idea of the progress that had been made. I felt like Rip Van Winkle.”

When his hosts asked Keonjian where he might like to work at Electronics Park, he wrote in his autobiography, “I said I’d like to devote myself to a new technology where I thought I could contribute the most – transistors.”

Two months later, Keonjian received a telegram with a job offer to work as a transistor applications development engineer in the Semiconductor Applications Unit of the GE Electronics Laboratory in Syracuse. He was ecstatic, and he immediately accepted the offer before telling his wife, who shocked him by telling him she would not go with him to Syracuse, a small town located 300 miles from New York City. Her objections were the same as for the Westinghouse offer in Pittsburgh. Keonjian was faced with a hard choice. This time, he chose electronics. Keonjian left his wife and son, drove to Syracuse, and took a two-bedroom apartment. He expected that his family would eventually join him, and they did. Six months after Keonjian drove to Syracuse, his wife and son joined him.

Meanwhile, he dug into the work. His eight-man applications development team – they were all men back then – was headed by Richard Shea. By 1953, GE’s Semiconductor Application Unit had developed enough information about early transistors and their applications to produce the first book, titled Principles of Transistor Circuits. Shea is listed as the book’s editor. One of the book’s co-authors, John Saby, attended the second Bell Labs Transistor Symposium in April 1952. He was one of only two GE representatives at that meeting. The book lists Keonjian as another of the book’s nine listed co-authors.

At this point, Edward Keonjian had joined the solid-state revolution. As part of GE’s Semiconductor Application Unit and co-author of the definitive book of transistor applications, he was now, officially, one of the revolution’s leaders.

Note: For more information about the 1952 Bell Labs Transistor Symposium, see “The Transistor at 75: The First Makers, Part 1” and “The Transistor at 75: The First Makers, Part 7.”

Reference

Edward Keonjian, Survived to Tell, Sunstone Press, 1997

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