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Winston Kock: Right Place, Right Time, Right Idea

During research for my recent 6-part article series on the early transistor makers, I tried to find information on the companies that attended the 1952 Bell Labs Transistor Symposium, yet clearly never made transistors. One of those companies was listed as “The Baldwin Company.” Searching the Internet, the closest match I could find for that corporate name was the Baldwin Piano Company. I wondered, what thread could possibly tie a piano company to Bell Labs and point-contact transistors?

A little more research revealed the thread. It was a name: Dr. Winston Kock. While I mentioned Kock in Part 2 of my article series, his history with electronics is extremely complex. Although I’d never heard his name before, he is closely associated with many major electronics developments. In fact, it seems he had quite the knack for being in the right place, at the right time, with the right knowledge. His journeys reminded me of the fictional Forest Gump, who also had the knack of being in the right place at the right time, repeatedly.

In 1862, during the US Civil War, reed organ and violin music teacher Dwight Hamilton Baldwin opened a music store in Cincinnati, Ohio. Over the next quarter of a century, DH Baldwin & Company became one of the largest piano retailers in the US Midwest. The company started manufacturing its own branded pianos in 1890. Winston Kock was born in Cincinnati in 1909 and started playing the piano at the age of four. Even at birth, he seems to have been in the right place at the right time.

Kock was playing recitals by the time he entered high school. After he graduated from high school, he studied organ and piano at the Cincinnati College of Music while also taking electrical engineering classes at the University of Cincinnati. As part of his studies for a BSEE, Kock built an electronic organ. By this time, Hammond had introduced electronic organs that used electromechanical tone disks to generate the many required musical tones, but Kock became interested in synthesized electronic music when his father discovered a 1930 paper about the topic published by F. Trautwein in Germany.

Trautwein’s paper discussed the concept of formants, the harmonics that give various musical instruments their characteristic sounds. Kock thought this was a marvelous idea for his BSEE thesis because it combined his interests in music and electronics, and he built and demonstrated an electronic organ in 1932 using a bank of 70 sawtooth oscillators made from neon tubes, resistors, and capacitors. Kock’s electronic organ was one of the earliest examples of subtractive waveform synthesis,

Kock might have used vacuum tubes to create the oscillators – they certainly were available by 1932 – but neon tubes were far less expensive, so that’s what he used. An extensive set of filters modified the harmonics in the sawtooth waveforms from the 70 oscillators to produce the formants needed to create different instrument sounds such as a flute or trumpet. With the development of this electronic organ, Kock had already set upon a path he’d travel for the rest of his life: the study of electromagnetic and acoustic waves and a heavy reliance on multidisciplinary learning.

The electronic organ Kock built for his BSEE worked, but his neon-tube relaxation oscillators were not very stable, so the organ needed retuning before every performance. For his master’s thesis, Kock sought to improve oscillator stability by inserting an inductor into each circuit, hoping to create a resonant tank circuit that would stabilize the output frequencies. Kock’s improved oscillator design proved to be more stable, and he received his MSEE for the work.

Kock continued his university studies in 1933 at the University of Berlin, where he obtained an Exchange Fellowship. He would conduct his doctoral research at the Heinrich Hertz Institute at the Berlin Technische Hochschule, and his advisor, Karl Willy Wagner, suggested a direction for Kock’s PhD thesis research. Three forms of oscillation had been identified when an arc-discharge lamp was connected to an inductive/capacitive tank circuit, and Wagner told Kock that a similar study of Kock’s tank-enhanced, neon-tube oscillator would make a fine doctoral thesis topic. In just two semesters, Kock completed his research, defended his thesis in his major fields (experimental and theoretical physics) and in his two minor fields (mathematics and philosophy), and received his PhD. However, Kock had to receive his degree in absentia, because he’d already headed back to Ohio to serve as a Teaching Fellow at the University of Cincinnati.

Upon his return from Germany, Kock developed patent applications for his electronic organ design. He filed those patent applications for the electrical generation of musical tones in 1935 and was able to interest the Baldwin Piano Company to license the yet-to-be issued patents. The patents were granted in 1938, but World War II intervened, and Baldwin did not start building electronic organs until after the war ended. Meanwhile, Kock had left Ohio, positioning himself to be in the next right place at the right time.

Kock joined the Radio Research Department at Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1942. His expertise in electromagnetic waves, wave theory, and mathematics put him into the center of the war efforts taking place at Bell Labs, where he worked on microwave, waveguide, and radar research. During this research, Kock developed the theory and practice for constructing microwave lenses based on the knowledge gleaned from the study of RF and microwave waveguides. Microwave lenses are the forerunners of today’s metamaterial structures, which are based on the same fundamental principles. After the war and during the 1950s, Kock would extend this research into the study of acoustic lenses using similar principles.

However, something at Bell Labs happened that interrupted that work on acoustic lenses. The team of William Shockley, Walter Brattain, and John Bardeen succeeded in developing the point-contact transistor at the Murray Hill Labs in December 1947. This work took place in the new Murray Hill Labs, which the rest of Bell Labs called the “ivory tower group.” The announcement of the transistor was delayed by half a year to give the attorneys time to develop and file the patent applications. Meanwhile, Dr. Ralph Brown, VP for Research at Bell Labs, sent out an “all-hands-on-deck” letter asking for everyone to pitch in on the required patent development work prior to the announcement. At the time, Kock was part of the surface states group, and, once again, he’d arrived at the right place and at the right time.

Development of a working point-contact transistor preceded a true understanding of how the device worked. There were two competing theories for the transistor’s operation. One theory posited that the electrical phenomena responsible for the transistor’s operation took place on the semiconductor’s surface. In this case, the semiconductor used was germanium. Another Bell scientist, John Shive, thought that the phenomena might arise from the bulk properties of the semiconductor, and he devised an experiment to help identify the right theory.

Bardeen’s original point-contact transistor put two metal contact electrodes on the germanium crystal closely adjacent and on the same side of the crystal. The shortest path between these electrodes was indeed on the surface of the germanium block. Shive built a point-contact transistor using a wedge of germanium with electrodes on either side of the wedge, but near the edge so that the transistor’s base, made of germanium, would be very thin in the vicinity of the transistor’s emitter and collector. In Shive’s implementation, the shortest path between the emitter and collector electrodes was through the body of the germanium crystal and not along the surface. Shive’s implementation exhibited the same transistor properties as Bardeen’s original device.

Shive’s transistor suggested but did not prove that the transistor action was due to germanium’s bulk semiconductor properties, so Kock and a colleague, R.L. Wallace Jr., modified Shive’s design by using a piece of germanium shaped into a disk instead of a wedge. Each of the two flat surfaces of the disk had a dimple, to thin the semiconductor material where the transistor action would occur. The point contacts for the transistor’s emitter and collector contacted the germanium in the dimpled regions. The entire disk was encapsulated in a metal holder, which completely contacted the rim of the disk and constituted the transistor’s base connection. The base connection formed an electrostatic shield between the emitter and collector electrodes and prevented any current from flowing from the emitter to the collector along the disk’s surface. Kock’s and Wallace’s transistor exhibited the desired electrical characteristics, and the configuration became known as a coaxial transistor. This device conclusively proved that the transistor action arose from the bulk properties of the germanium semiconductor. Kock and Shive presented the coaxial transistor findings at the AIEE meeting in New York City on January 31, 1949.

At this point in Kock’s story, I’ve established a clear connection between the Baldwin Piano Company, Bell Labs, the 1952 Transistor Symposium, and Winston Kock. However, Kock’s ability to be in the right place at the right time certainly didn’t end with the development of the coaxial transistor. Kock left Bell Labs and joined the Systems Division of the Bendix Corporation as Chief Scientist in late 1956. He became Director and General Manager of the company’s Research Laboratories Division in January 1958, and in 1959, the US Air Force contracted with Bendix to build the world’s first phased-array radar prototypes followed by a full installation located at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Kock’s experience with radar, wave theory, waveguides, and microwave lenses were undoubtedly essential in this work.

In 1964, Bendix “loaned” Kock to NASA, where he became the first Director of the new Electronics Research Center (ERC) located across the street from MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The ERC was an important NASA field center, a peer of the Langley Research Center and the Marshall Space Flight Center. ERC research focused on multidisciplinary studies through ten different laboratories: space guidance, systems, computers, instrumentation research, space optics, power conditioning and distribution, microwave radiation, electronics components, qualifications and standards, and control and information systems. The multidisciplinary aspect of the center reflected Kock’s interest in multidisciplinary research. NASA closed the ERC in 1970 as part of the NASA budget cuts associated with the wind down of the Apollo space program, but Kock had already returned to Bendix in 1966. The loan period had run out.

Dr. Winston E. Kock. Image credit: NASA 

Kock died on November 25, 1982. He was a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the American Physical Society, and the Acoustical Society of America. He wrote several non-fiction books on a wide range of topics including Sound Waves and Light Waves (1965), Lasers and Holography (1981), Seeing Sound (1972), and Radar, Sonar and Holography (1974). He published a semi-autobiographical book covering his many achievements, titled The Creative Engineer: the Art of Inventing in 1978, and he wrote at least one novel, Love’s Warm Sun; The Story of a Bright Young Engineer and a Beautiful Young Girl under the pen name Wayne Kirk.



The Creative Engineer: the Art of Inventing, Winston E. Kock, 1978

Electronics Research Center, Andrew Butrica

6 thoughts on “Winston Kock: Right Place, Right Time, Right Idea”

    1. Thanks Wally. I had to add another chapter to the early transistor makers story. Look for it next week. Then, in April, I’ve got another series starting on the early history of MOS. Had a great time writing that one.

  1. What a fantastic story—a fascinating subject in Kock, whose EE/applied physics story is very well-told here. Thanks for bringing him to my attention. Despite having been interested in electronics in the musical instrument (MI) industry since the early 1980s, I’d never heard of Kock. Clearly, he should be more widely known.

  2. I started working for The Baldwin Piano & Organ Company in December 1975 as a cooperative education student from the University of Cincinnati Electrical Engineering Department and was told then the story that Baldwin had, indeed, attended the Bell Labs Transistor announcement. BEI Electronics, Inc is an offshoot from Baldwin (http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/bei-technologies-inc-history/) and I recall a connection to a semiconductor company starting with an ‘S’ like Signetics or Siliconix that I’ve not been able to verify. Their expertise in optics and electronics resulted in their Multi Waveform Organ that could replicate virtually any pipe organ’s sound in the world due to its use of a soundtrack placed on a rotating glass disk like a movie’s soundtrack used to be recorded on film. Kock is on UC’s Engineering College’s wall of fame and deservedly so.

  3. Thanks for this fascinating information, rrestle! I remember BEI and some Googling reveals that Schneider Electric bought them in 2005. Signetics and Siliconix were both founded in the early 1960s and both have been long since acquired. I was not aware of the optical disks in Baldwin organs being the start of the optical encoder’s development, but it sure makes sense. It sounds like the Baldwin organ’s optical disks were far more sophisticated versions of Hammond’s mechanical tone wheels. There’s a great story in there.

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