Time Machine

Time machine: Cedar Rapids inventor pushed communication boundaries, led Fortune 500 company

This October 1944 photo shows women assembling TCS radios for the U.S. Navy at Collins Radio Co. in Cedar Rapids. Collins hired its first women production workers in February 1942 during World War II. This photo was part of a 2001 display at The History Center. (Collins Radio Co. photo)
This October 1944 photo shows women assembling TCS radios for the U.S. Navy at Collins Radio Co. in Cedar Rapids. Collins hired its first women production workers in February 1942 during World War II. This photo was part of a 2001 display at The History Center. (Collins Radio Co. photo)
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“LOCAL BOY PICKS UP ARCTIC MESSAGE,” screamed The Gazette’s banner headline on Aug. 3, 1925.

The local boy was 15-year-old Arthur Collins, the only person in the United States who was able to pick up a radioed message from the Donald MacMillan scientific expedition’s ship, the Bowdoin, in Etah, Greenland, more than 2,500 miles from Cedar Rapids.

Collins and the ship’s radio operator, John Reinartz, were friends and had experimented with shorter wavelengths in radio communications. The Bowdoin had been able to communicate briefly with New England stations on longer waves. But it obtained sustained communications with Collins, a teenager in Cedar Rapids, with 20-meter “skips” during most of the expedition’s 22 days.

“The boy has constructed a radio set with a better low-wave length reception than any other set in the country, and he also can be heard at far distant points with more ease than any other American set,” a Gazette editorial writer noted on Aug. 11.

Collins relayed the ship’s messages by telegraph to three recipients: the National Geographic Society, sponsor of the expedition; the American Radio Relay League at Hartford, Conn.; and Reinartz’s wife in South Manchester, Conn.

Collins was a student at the old Washington High School at the time and had been a radio enthusiast for several years. He set up his radio equipment on the third floor of his parents’ home at 514 Fairview Dr. SE in Cedar Rapids, with the radio call letters of 9CXX.

“As early as the year 1920, Collins was doing his part to dress the radio industry in rompers and lead it out of a state of infancy,” wrote one enthusiastic columnist. “He was one of many amateurs back in the dawn of radio whose joy it was to fumble with wavelengths and shout with delight at contacting a fellow operator in New York or Los Angeles.”

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Even though Collins worked for his father’s farm and real estate companies, his interests were firmly in the radio world.

A year after he married Margaret Van Dyke in 1930, he started his own company assembling transmitters for amateur radio enthusiasts in the basement of their home at 1720 Sixth Ave. SE. He soon hired Clair Miller as his first full-time employee. By the early 1930s, during the Great Depression, he employed 20 people to make transmitters to send to places like Cairo or the Philippines.

Collins was again involved with a polar expedition in 1933. Radio equipment for Cmdr. Richard E. Byrd’s trek to the Antarctic was constructed under Collins’ supervision in his new company building at 2920 First Ave. NE. The two tons of equipment shipped to Byrd in late September included a one-kilowatt voice transmission unit and a one-and-a-half-kilowatt unit for telegraph transmission. The radiophone transmitter was the first taken on an expedition.

GROWTH

In 1933, Collins Radio Co. moved out of the basement factory to 2920 First Ave. NE in Cedar Rapids. It incorporated in Delaware in 1933 and in Iowa in 1937 and grew rapidly, exporting radio equipment around the world. It would eventually become a Fortune 500 company with business in avionics, communications and space and military technology.

During World War II, the company’s naval air communications equipment and air-to-ground communications were decisive factors in the United States winning the war in the Pacific.

One of the company’s big advances came in 1951 when Collins cooperated with the National Bureau of Standards to use ultrahigh frequencies to bounce radio signals off the moon.

“If practical use could be made of the moon as a reflector, it would provide a means of extending communication on the ultrahigh frequency band beyond the horizon, which now limits the range because of quasi-optical (line-of-sight) projection of these frequencies,” Collins said.

Twice during the experiment, signals were sent from Cedar Rapids via the moon to a Washington, D.C., laboratory. Power to beam the signal to the moon was generated by a radio tube called a “resnatron” developed by the Collins company.

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The Collins company created its own patent department in 1949. By 1960, the company had 17 U.S. patents and 43 patents from foreign countries. By 1969, it held about 1,000 patents in more than a dozen countries.

In 1965, the company employed 10,250 people in the Cedar Rapids area. An additional 6,500 were employed in Dallas, Toronto, Newport Beach and Santa Ana, Calif., as well as sales offices around the world. Payroll topped $60 million.

The company’s continually advancing communications systems made it a prime defense contractor, which, in turn, made the company grow even larger.

TAKEOVER

In 1969, a 38-year-old Ross Perot announced that his Electronic Data Systems Corp. was going to take over Collins Radio, a company that was vulnerable but more than six times its size. The takeover failed, but Wall Street confidence in Collins was waning. Investors saw an executive who buried himself in research and ignored stockholders.

With the stock value dropping, another takeover followed. Schlumberger Ltd., an international company, began buying Collins common stock.

In 1971, at the annual meeting of stockholders, the company’s board of directors fired Arthur Collins. Robert C. Wilson became president and Willard F. Rockwell Jr. of the North American Rockwell Corp. became chairman of the board. Two years later, the company showed a $1.1 million profit compared with a $10.2 million loss the previous year.

Rockwell invested $35 million in the operation and effectively took control of Collins. In October 1973, the Collins board of directors approved a merger of Collins into Rockwell International Corp. Shareholders approved the merger Nov. 2.

Arthur Collins, who still controlled 16 percent of the company’s common stock, moved to Dallas, where he died in 1987 at age 77, with 27 patents in his name in the United States and many more abroad. He is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery.

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This year, United Technologies Corp. is planning to acquire Rockwell Collins for $30 billion, including debt — a long way, in time, money and resources, from the young man who started assembling radio transmitters in his basement some 88 years before.

l Comments: (319) 398-8338; d.fannonlangton@gmail.com

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