Screen History: The Haeff Memory and Graphics Tube of 1940s Opened a New Era of Computing
By Michael Martinez and Lori Cameron
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Computing pioneer Andrew V. Haeff, a Moscow-born inventor of several important vacuum tubes, was working in the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in the 1940s when he designed a breakthrough invention: a cathode ray “Memory Tube” that he said could serve as a “computer memory device … to store, and to read out numbers whenever desired.”
It helped lead to “a new era of human-computer interaction,” according to authors of new research in IEEE Annals of the History of Computing.
Haeff received a patent for the Memory Tube in August 1947, but his idea for a cathode-ray-tube computer memory eventually took a back seat to one developed by British engineer F.C. (“Freddie”) Williams, and later refined by colleague Tom Kilburn, in 1948.
That highly successful Williams tube was the first commercialized electronic random access memory (RAM) and became the backbone of many early generation electronic digital computers, the researchers said.
Still, Haeff’s Memory Tube was an alternative form of CRT memory, operating on principles very different from those discovered by Williams, the authors said.
A Haeff-type memory tube was actually used in only one case, at MIT’s Whirlwind computer.
Nevertheless, the Haeff Memory Tube represented an achievement for the Russian electrical engineer, whose role in computing history has often been overlooked and neglected, the authors said.
“At Hughes Aircraft Company, Haeff developed various bistable—i.e., monochrome—direct-view tubes deriving from the 1947 Memory Tube. These included the Typotron, an alphanumeric tube that operated as a direct-output device for computers. Later, Tektronix engineer Robert H. Anderson modified Haeff’s design to form what he called a ‘simplified direct-viewing bistable storage tube,'” the authors wrote. “Anderson’s implementation of the Haeff principle was the basis of a widely used series of Tektronix monitors and display terminals.”
Tektronix terminals were an early standard-bearer as a graphics platform and were regarded as “a luxurious alternative” to interfacing with a mainframe through a paper-fed teletypwriter, the authors said.
Behind it was Haeff’s work.
“Few users, though, would have been aware of the decades of personal and corporate struggle that lay behind this defining technology,” the researchers said.
Michael Martinez, the editor of the Computer Society’s Computer.Org website and its social media, has covered technology as well as global events while on the staff at CNN, Tribune Co. (based at the Los Angeles Times), and the Washington Post. He welcomes email feedback, and you can also follow him on LinkedIn.
About Lori Cameron
Lori Cameron is a Senior Writer for the IEEE Computer Society and currently writes regular features for Computer magazine, Computing Edge, and the Computing Now and Magazine Roundup websites. Contact her at email@example.com. Follow her on LinkedIn.