Screen History: The Haeff Memory and Graphics Tube of 1940s Opened a New Era of Computing

By Michael Martinez and Lori Cameron
Published 06/05/2017
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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.”

Andrew V. Haeff
Andrew V. Haeff about 1949.

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.

Read research about Haeff “Memory Tube” here (login may be required)

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.

Andrew V. Haeff working on the Memory Tube at the Naval Research Laboratory
Andrew V. Haeff works on the Memory Tube at the Naval Research Laboratory, circa 1947. The experimental tube is on the table in the center of the picture.

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.

“Haeff’s design did enjoy considerable success in the fields of monitor technology and computer graphics. The Haeff tube formed the basis of direct-viewing systems, where the readout mechanism consisted simply of a human being looking at the tube’s phosphor screen,” wrote Jack Copeland of the University of Canterbury, New Zealand; archivist Andre A. Haeff of The A. V. Haeff Papers, who’s also the son of Andrew Haeff; Peter T. Gough of the University of Canterbury; and engineer Cameron Wright of Dynamic Controls.

Andrew V. Haeff Memory Tube
The experimental Memory Tube circa
June 1947. Its evacuated glass envelope is approximately 18 inches long. The phosphor storage screen is on the right of the picture, and the three guns—for writing, holding, and reading—are visible.

“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.

In other works, Haeff also invented another piece of vacuum tube technology, the “traveling wave tube,” that accompanied the NASA Cassini spacecraft. That tube transmitted microwave signals from space through which the Cassini passed, his son said. Cassini just ended its 20 years of space journey in September after exploring Saturn and then disintegrating into its atmosphere.Andrew V. Haeff biography at a glance.

Andrew V. Haeff biography at a glance



Michael Martinez


About Michael Martinez

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 Follow her on LinkedIn.