The History of InfoAge Science & History MuseumsOral Histories Oral History of FOSTER MERRILL DENNIS
Interviewee: FOSTER MERRILL DENNIS
AN AMERICAN YANKEE
Interviewer: Henry J. Nahal
Media: Hand-typed story
Source: Henry J. Nadal wrote this oral history from stories told to him by Foster Dennis. Foster Dennis was his Father-in-law. Mr. Nadal kindly gave us a copy of this unpublished work. Foster Dennis worked at Camp Evans. He developed the Flyback Transformer which made electronic color TV practical.
Dedicated to Foster’s Great Grandchildren. Thea, John Foster, Aaron, Tara, Dennis, and Henry James.
Foster Merrill Dennis was an American Yankee. Born in Owego, New York in 1897, Foster could trace his ancestry back to the Mayflower. Of course, that was only part of his ancestry! With his family here so many years there had been much intermarriage with other Europeans who immigrated to the country. Thus his French surname was not an indicator of his ancestral lineage which included at least 4 or 5 nationalities.
He grew up on the family farm with his mother, father, and three brothers, Richard, Rowland, and Henry. His Dad, Henry was a lawyer-farmer. It wasn’t a big farm. Rather it was a. dairy/truck farm. Foster grew up working on the farm, helping to make cheese. His job was to turn the jumping wheels of cheese to make sure they aged properly. The school was a short walk, 2 miles (most of the other kids had to walk a lot farther) to a one-room schoolhouse.
When Foster was 15 years old, his family moved to the booming coal town of Scranton, Pennsylvania, where his dad got a job as a trolley car operator. Foster applied himself, working on his studies, graduating from high school, something out of the ordinary for the times.
Going to school did not mean that life was boring. Foster lived in an area where unionization of laborers, especially in the mining industry, was occurring. The miners were especially targeted by organizers because of the working conditions and pay in the mines. Children as young as 8 went into the ground each day and many of them and their fathers were carried out. They lived in company houses and bought in company stores. If you were lucky they allowed your family to “wake” you when you died before the company forced your family out of the house.
Against this backdrop, Foster saw many strikes. During one especially long and violent one, where owners brought in their own private army, Foster got to witness President Teddy Roosevelt stand up in an open car and address the miners in Pittston. President Roosevelt told the miners to get the **** back to work and berated them in the carefully chosen language, which if used by the President today would cause a national uproar. The miners went back to work that day. After school, he joined the Army. Army life was an adventure. Foster was in the cavalry. Before he knew it he was in Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico fighting with General Pershing against the Mexican Bandit\ revolutionary Poncho Villa.
America was dragged kicking and screaming into World War 1. With it came danger and adventure. Foster was shipped out, sailing on a troopship through submarine infested waters to France. Foster soon found himself in a different type of warfare than he had been used to in the Southwest. Instead of chasing people on horseback, there were trenches, barbed wire, and gas attacks. Fighting in hand to hand battle with fixed bayonets in the famous battle at Argonne woods Foster was struck by shrapnel. He was seriously injured in the hand, face, and leg, spending many months in the hospital, and growing a set of wooden dentures that he used for the rest of his life!
With convalescence in England over and a Purple Heart in his pocket, Foster headed home to Scranton. Once home he decided to go back to school. He applied to and was accepted at, Penn State in the high tech field of his time, physics, and electrical engineering.
College life was anything but boring. In addition to studying, Foster found time to play sports, especially baseball, and to be mischievous. He was on the Penn State baseball team as a pitcher. Foster played for Pop Conklin, who according to Foster, inspired love, respect, and fear in his players. It was normal practice for Conklin to punch a player out if he made a mistake, not an error, a mistake. Foster told about the time when he was pitching and the opposing team got a few hits off him. Well, he wound up striking out the next batter for the third out. When he went into the dugout Conklin punched Foster to the face so hard he knocked him down. Foster asked what had he done? Conklin answered that he should have hit the batter with the first pitch, rather than strike him out because you needed to have the other team afraid of you.
Foster displayed his creative and inventive nature during college This was the time of the great social experiment, prohibition. Foster took his Cadillac Roadster that had two fuel tanks, one under the body in the back, and an external, I think on the side and modified it. He turned the side tank into a whiskey flask, driving the car into the mountains of West Virginia for moonshine and then back to Pennsylvania where he decanted the booze and made some spending money.
After graduating from college, Foster went back to Scranton. There he met literally “the girl next door” Bertha Haddad. Foster’s parents were renting from Bertha’s. Bertha was as much smitten by Foster as he was of her. There was only one problem. You see even though Foster had a college degree, a laudatory oddity at the time, he wasn’t “Syrian”. Bertha’s parents forbid her to see this infidel. Bertha was crushed, but love would find a way.
Bertha would meet Foster at the local cinema. She would go with her girlfriends and meet him there. This worked really well until her parents found out. They decided to take steps to cool off this romance. They sent Bert to her Uncle’s in New York City to work in his garment factory. She was crushed, but she knew she had to go.
A week or so later, at her uncle’s, she went to her seat by the window to look out and mope. Looking out she saw this handsome guy leaning against the light pole. It was from Foster. She got up, told her uncle she was going to the store and ran out of the house into Foster’s arms. They immediately ran off and eloped!
Things didn’t go so well with the Haddad family though. Having been told of the marriage, the family decided that Bert had “died”. They sent her and Foster a letter with a black border which indicated that she was out of the family.
Foster knew that things would be fine though. The morning after they were married he woke not to find Bert in bed. He looked out the window and saw her coming down the street with a watermelon under one arm and a bag of corn in the other!
Realizing that returning to Scranton was not a good idea, Foster got a job in Cleveland with Westinghouse designing and building the electrical grid in the midwest. Westinghouse at the time was in a heated debate with Edison over just what that electrical grid should look like. Westinghouse was in favor of DC current, which gave a steadier light, was more efficient in relation to the work electrical appliances did, but could not be transmitted over long distances without significant line loss. Edison on the other hand was building in the Eastern United States through General Electric an AC gird. While Edison agreed that as energy DC was more efficient, he argued that because you could transmit AC power long distances without significant line loss it was a better public power source because it cost so much less to build and maintain the grid.
Come Christmas time, Foster and Bertha decided it would be a good time to try to reconcile with the family. So on Christmas Day or right around there they showed up at the family house in Scranton. They guessed right, they welcomed home and Bertha was reborn. Bert and Foster decided then and there to move back to Scranton.
Foster took up where he left off in Ohio, electrifying the Scranton, area, however this time he did it from a different approach. He tied into the electrical grid rather than built it. He started an electrical service and electrified homes and businesses. He did extremely well, even wiring the Scranton Times Tower, a large radio tower on top of the Scranton Times Newspaper building which soars above the city and the Lackawanna valley. He wired both the red warning lights and the electrical service for the Christmas lights on the tower. It is still lighted every Christmas season with his wiring.
Bert in the meantime was busy. She was taking care of their daughter, Rosemarie, and the family grocery store on 10th Ave. Bert was really too kind-hearted to be a business women though.
She like most small grocers of the time allowed people to buy on “the Book” This meant they bought on credit. She would continue to sell to people who were behind on their payments and worse than that when she went around to their house to collect, seeing their plight, she usually wound up giving them money, rather than them giving her.
Life went on rather nicely, with Rosemarie growing up to be a beautiful intelligent young lady, Bert in the store, and Foster, working, inventing, and playing baseball. Some of the inventions he worked on were close to success. For example, he worked on improving the ability to transmit pictures by radio. He came up with improvements to the opticon tube for what we now know to be the television camera, however, DeForrest filed for a patent on similar improvements just a few weeks before Foster did. He did however market a more mundane product, an electric grandfather clock, the case for which was a wooden coffin!
This idyllic life was interrupted again by war. World War 2 broke out. America was eventually drawn into the war by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Foster said Roosevelt knew was going to be attacked but he thought he could wait until the last minute to war the base and thus galvanize the country for war. Foster said Roosevelt miscalculated the amount of time necessary to get the message to Pearl Harbor and the infamous raid was successful. He was proven right a few years ago when the British released documents detailing their reports to FDR that a Japanese armada was on its way to bomb Pearl Harbor.
Foster was too old to fight. He continued to operate his electrical contracting business. As the war dragged on Foster became frustrated with government regulation of his business, especially materials. He also had a strong desire to help beat the Nazis. As luck would have it he saw a flyer in the post office asking individuals with electrical theory and research backgrounds to contact the government. Foster didn’t hesitate. The next thing he knew he was being asked to come down to the Army’s research center at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey for an interview. At the interview, he got excited over the opportunity and the army was ecstatic that a flyer produced such a find.
Well, Foster went home and told Bert he was closing his business, and going to help the war effort by doing research for the army. Bert probably said, “Are you nuts Foster?” In any event, she said she wasn’t moving anywhere right then, so he went off to Jersey alone. He staved with some friends of the family in Neptune and began work on a number of top-secret projects including radar and sonar, coming home on weekends, gas rationing permitting.
Bert and Rosemarie continued in Scranton, Bert ran the store, which was located on and adjacent to the Haddad holdings on 10th Ave. Rosemarie for her part had grown up and was studying at Marywood College and keeping the troops’ morale up by writing to as many men as she could. She knew nothing cured homesickness and loneliness like a letter from home from a beautiful girl. With the war over the troops came home, and so did all troops that Rosemarie was writing to.
One of those troops was Albert Abda. Al was a handsome man and he came from one of the more prominent “Syrian “‘families. While Al and Rosemarie never really dated before the war and he was not one her pen pals she decided to go out with him when he came home from Germany in April of 1946. She and Al hit it off and the next thing you know, in September of 1946, they where married.
Foster was still in Jersey at the time, but he threw a great Scranton wedding. He was a little concerned however because Rosemarie, who was now going into her final year at Marywood had decided to quit school to get married. At the same time he was proud that Al using the GI bill had started premed at the University of Scranton.
Bert decided it was time to join Maxie, as she called Foster, in Jersey. She told him to look for a house. She had two criteria; that it be on a bus line and that it come with furniture. Maxie found one in Wanamassa, a dutch colonial. Bert called Rosemarie and Al in and said here’s our apartment, our store, my furniture, Pop’s pickup, and my clothes. I’m moving to Jersey! With one suitcase in hand, off she went!
She joined Maxie in Wanamassa, and they stayed in that house for almost 40 years. Although Bert and Foster were often lonesome for their friends and family in Scranton, they became close friends with the Dello family next door, Mike and Maddy. The familial bonds that cemented the two families together continue even today. Bert and Foster never quite recovered from the shock of Mike’s untimely death in 1974.
Bert was home alone a lot in the beginning. The government had Foster putting his knowledge to good use. He was sent to New Mexico again by the army, this time not to chase Mexicans but to chase captured german rockets. His job was to learn how radar acted when tracking rockets and most importantly to figure out how to track something that moved that fast. You see at the time the radar operator had to watch the screen and move the antenna. Foster figured out how to build circuitry that had the antenna track the rocket. Working with Werner Von Bran, who later became head of the American space program, the self-tracking radar was born.
While Foster was down there giving birth to the tracker circuitry, Rosemarie was busy giving birth to Bert and Pop’s (as he would he called from then on) first grandchild, Alexis in December of 1947.
Things were busy in Scranton, Alexis was born, Al was now in the store, working construction part time with George Basilla and helping his Dad with the Abda property. There was to he no Doctor -Al Abda. Family responsibilities caused him to change his major and became his life long priority. He was very successful though becoming the most well known and well loved person in all of Scranton by the time he passed away in 1986. In addition to these events Al and Rose Marie were busy making a new baby, Denise, born June 14, 1950.
Rosemarie had her hands full with the store, two kids, and her grandmother, grandma Haddad. Unfortunately they were so full she spilt hot grease on herself severely burning her arm. Bert and Pop decided that to help her out over the short term they would take ” Neecie”, as Bert called Denise, home with them until Rosemarie could handle everything again. That began Bert and Pop’s second adventure in parenthood that was to last for the
next five years.
In the meantime things continued to grow in Scranton. Al and Rose Marie were buying houses, running the store and building there own home on 10th Ave. Pop was called on to do the wiring Bert and Pop loved having little Neecie around. They always came up with a new excuse for why it wasn’t time yet for her to go home for good. Neecie was happy in Jersey, she had great playmates next door in Linda, Mikey, Petey, and Mary Dello. As she grew older they did more things together like swim and play all day at the Monte Carlo Pool and Beach Club in Asbury Park. Neecie was crazy over her Pop. She ran to the corner every night to be there when he drove home from work. Finally, however, Al and Rose Marie decided it was time to have Denise home and at the age of 5, she returned home to begin school.
Pop was not only busy being the exemplary Grandfather/father, he was busy inventing for the “government” as he liked to call his employer at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. Pop was working on radar, telemetry, and radar imaging. He developed the flyback transformer which allowed higher voltages to be delivered to the electron guns on the radar screens and therefore improved the definition and made possible color radar. This invention also decided on the outcome of a great debate that was going on at the time. Foster’s old employer Westinghouse and General Sarnoff were in a heated debate over the future of color television. Westinghouse using the technology available had developed a color television system that used a wheel with three color segments, blue, green, and red , which twirled in front of a black and white television camera. The color segments filtered out the corresponding light and produced various shades of gray. The receiver had the corresponding wheels in front of the screen. By spinning the wheel, in synchrony with the one in front of the camera, a color picture was developed.
Sarnoff, who owned RCA, believed that the mechanical system was too prone to failure and that any color system to be widely Accepted must be compatible with the black and white television system that had grown up in the country. RCA’s problem was that their three gun approach, with red, blue, and green electron guns firing at corresponding rare earth phosphors, that glowed in those colors, produced unacceptably washed out pictures. This was caused by the fact that there was no practical way to deliver with a device to be used in the home sufficient voltage to the electron guns to allow them to fire high volumes of charged electrons.
The flyback transformer solved this problem and is still used in color televisions today. Foster however signed his patent rights to the government, who licensed them for television purposes to RCA. Foster never got a dime for his invention, but he didn’t care because for him, the American Yankee, he was just doing his job helping the government. Even when his assignment to the government of this patent rights expired in the late 70’s he refused to explore his commercial rights.
The fifties were a productive time for Foster. He worked with Bell Labs, in Colts Neck, New Jersey, and at Marconi Hill on transistors and led the project that bounced radar signals off the moon. His moon radar work resulted in a display he designed and helped install at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, which you can still see today. Of course, the real reason we were bouncing signals off the moon was to develop the capacity to spy on the development of the Soviet Union’s radar defenses by analyzing their stray signals that bounced off the moon.
Denise was still coming down to Jersey every chance she got. She and Alexis spent every summer there. They went to the beach, the Monte Carlo watched wrestling matches at the Convention Center in Asbury. Asbury Park you see was the summer mecca of many people in the Metro New York – Philadelphia area, rivaled only by Atlantic City. Asbury’s beaches and the boardwalk was packed from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and a Fashion parade was held every Easter Sunday. What a time they had!
Pop decided one year to drive them all down to Florida. Well, there were no interstates than, so off they went in Pop’s new car on Highway 1. They literally swam to Florida stopping each day at a motel with a swimming pool. There was no Disneyworld then but they had a great time eating pecans, grits and seeing the more traditional Florida sights.
On the way back they broke down on a very hot Sunday in Georgia. Southern hospitality and friendliness prevailed and a mechanic opened his shop, got the local car dealer to open his parts department, and fixed the car. While he worked on the car the mechanic’s wife gave them drinks and a snack. When he was done the mechanic charged them $20!!! When Pop died thirty years later that receipt was still in his wallet.
Alexis was growing fast. She was now a sophomore in high school. Al and Rosemarie found out how fast when they came home one day to find her and the boy next door, James Davis, on the swing together talking and giggling. Well, Pop and Jimmy became fast friends and partners in crime. They both had this penchant for getting into trouble. For example, Grandma Haddad asked them to prune the grapevines. unfortunately, their idea of pruning and hers were not the same and when she found stubs where luxuriant verdant vines once were they were lucky to escape with their lives.
Alexis decided to go to Monmouth College in New Jersey. That meant that Bert and Pop had a boarder again and they where ecstatic. Alexis needed a car to commute to college so Pop decided he’d buy her one, a brand new Pontiac Bonneville convertible.
It also meant that Jimmy hitchhiked down to New Jersey every weekend. He and Pop had great times together and with Al did many unusual home improvements. For example, one year they cut Pop’s garage in half, lifting up the one half moving it twelve feet and reconnecting it to make a two-car garage.
Another war, the Viet Nam conflict, had come along. This was the second in Southeast Asia in ten years. Pop was called upon to help the troops out again. He was given the challenge of coming up with a handheld radar unit that could be used in the field not only to guide in helicopters or spotter aircraft but also to make it work as a device that could be used to detect movement of supplies down the Ho Chi Ming Trail and possibly even to help detect troop movement at night. He rose to the challenge and units were deployed to the field.
Pop by this time was getting older. The government had a mandatory retirement age of 70. Pop was not ready to retire. He asked for and was granted an exemption from mandatory retirement for five years. Things had begun to change in Asbury Park and in Pop’s life. While there was no discrimination in the use of facilities or the beaches, blacks did tend to live in a defined area of the city. While it was not a classic ghetto it did create a de facto cause a separation of the races.
The summer of 1968 was a hot summer, politically and weatherwise. That summer, Neecie was working down at the boardwalk at Maxwell House Coffee Shop. As many of the blacks did that summer, the blacks in Asbury abandoned the principles of Dr. Martin Luther King and turned to violence to release their frustrations. Fires were started, the media went wild blowing things out of proportion, the politicians overreacted, people became frightened and the national guard was called in.
When this started Denise was not home, she was working. The crowds were between her and Pop. National Guard helicopters were landing on the beach in front of Maxwell House. Pop was beside himself! Should he go down to get Denise? Would the roads be blocked? Should he leave Bert alone? He decided that he would get his gun and go down. Just as he was leaving the house the phone rang, it was Denise’s boss calling to say that he would get Denise home safely. He did that with the help of the National Guard. Pop was happy, but he was still worried. The rioting was less than a mile away. He stayed up all night with his gun by his side, listening to the news, the sirens, and watching the red glow in the night sky. It was all over in the morning. The only portion of the town that was destroyed was the predominantly black area. However, the real damage was not to be known for years. You see the constant hammering of the press over the next few years portrayed the Central Jersey shore including Asbury Park as a place that was unsafe because of civil unrest. This resulted in a serious downturn in the tourist trade with a loss of money and jobs to the economy. The end result of the riots was a destruction of the local economy that still exists today and the change of the name of a few high schools and parks in the central Jersey area. Dr. King was right, violence will accomplish nothing good, and what victories you win will be pyrrhic.
Pop’s life was changing in even more ways, that year Alexis and Jim were married, two years later Pop retired and a few years later Pop became a great grandfather, and Denise, now a graduate of the college, again moved in with Bert and Pop. She
arrived in her 1968 Buick Skylark that had been purchased by Pop for her when she graduated from high school. It was filled to overflowing with hardly enough room for her to sit and drive.
Pop still wasn’t done seeing changes in America. First, he had to live through the Arab oil embargo. He waited, with Denise, in long lines early in the morning on the days he was allowed to buy gas. He and Denise did all they could to cut back usage so they could shop and go into Scranton for holidays. He always thought that rationing would have worked better.
He didn’t just sit around not thinking during retirement. He looked at the energy problem and decided there were things that could be done. He came up with the idea of regenerative recharging, where you use the energy dissipated by the brakes and the movement of wheels down the road to recharge batteries for electric cars. He worked on and refined the concept of hybrid cars which is where a small lawnmower engine is used to run a generator to recharge batteries and provide extra power for electric vehicles. Both of these concepts are now being tested in experimental electric cars. He also helped design and install a solar hot water heater for and with his neighbor, LeMar, who is a retired professor of electrical engineering from RIT. Pop was too old and tired at that point in his life though to start marketing these ideas. He just enjoyed the intellectual stimulation. On the political front he watched as the President of the United States, Richard Nixon resigned under threat of impeachment. He truly believed that this was a sad day for America.
Foster enjoyed the last years of his life watching his grandchildren and great-grandchildren grow up and his New York Mets on color tv, the technology he made possible. He and Bertha spent their final years in the home of Rosemarie and Al. He died in Scranton in 1979, a true American Yankee to the end.
Page created January 31, 2003
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