Early Color Television
Charles H. Coleman Jr., a Memorial
My brother was a frontiersman...but a very modest frontiersman. Although he shook up the world, literally changed our way of remembering, flew above the arctic circle in a tiny little airplane, won many of the awards in his field....despite all that.....he died last month acknowledged only by his family, a few colleagues and a few friends. He died, by the way, bravely fighting a half a dozen persistent illnesses.....he died following a heart operation that was considered impossible for a man of his age and health...78. He ended up on the frontier of medicine just as he had had visited the frontier of North America and spent his working life pushing the frontier of television engineering far into the world that we live in now.
He never spoke openly of his incredible achievements in this arcane world. He was modest to a fault.
He would hate this obituary.
Let me explain.
Charles Hubert Coleman, Jr. (he despised "Hubert" ... the name he was saddled with as a child to distinguish him from his father) was born on October 28th 1926 and grew up in Charleston, Illinois, a small middle western town where our father was a professor of history at a state teacher's college. There were three children, my sister Dr. Mary Coleman, my brother...and me. We lived in several successive homes but ended up in an old brown Victorian-pretend house with lots of rooms. One of those rooms belonged to Charles. Back behind the kitchen was his sanctum sanctorum filled with a dozen devices that beeped and snorted and produced lines that wiggled on tiny oscilloscope screens. I remember his trying to explain a primitive radio crystal set to me....without success. My sister reminds me that Charles secretly installed little radio receivers under each of our pillows so we could listen when we were supposed to be asleep. He was eleven at the time.
The Second World War was in full stride when the genuinely shy and reclusive Charles H. Coleman joined the Marines on his 17th birthday in October of 1943. Following boot camp he came home on a week-long leave a changed man.....his shoulders back, his bearing strong, his uniform spotless....he brushed by me with a "Hi ya kid!" and took over the family.
He was shipped to the Pacific and spent the remainder of the war teaching young Marines how to be radio technicians. Assigned to the 2nd Marine Division of the 5th Amphibious Corps, Charles was scheduled to invade the southernmost Japanese island of Kyushu in August of 1945 when the atomic bomb ended the war. Although it was an unparalleled act of savagery, it undoubtedly saved my brother's life. He would have carried a radio, the first target of enemy snipers. After discharge, Charles went to Chicago and studied briefly at the Illinois Institute of Technology where he found himself teaching his own classes....and quickly got a job as an electronic engineer at WBKB-TV (now WBBM-TV). In 1953 he joined CBS Television and became a pioneer in the brand new field of video tape recording. Somewhere through here, he met and married a stunning redhead named Alyce. Their almost unbelievable adventure began.
Charles' subsequent life can be (roughly) divided into four chapters........his career as an engineer on the cutting edge of the 20th Century's most powerful communications system, television.... he and Alyce as adventurers, pilots, explorers....the acquisition and rebuilding of the ranch in Round Mountain, Nevada and finally, Alyce's death and his retirement years ending with his remarkable and happy marriage to Carolyn Husted Coleman.
In May of 1960 Charles joined Ampex Corporation in Redwood City, California --- one of Silicon Valley's earliest firms --- a pioneer in audio and video recording. This is where he "changed our way of remembering" by inventing much of the supporting technology that made recording color television possible. One apparatus that he created (and built the prototype) was called "Colortec" an accessory that when installed in the video recorder provided more faithful reproduction of color pictures. He then developed the VR2000, a completely new generation of recorder incorporating many of his inventions. The product changed recording from a merely record and playback procedure to a system that made editing and the assembly and copying of television programs possible, creating a whole new supporting industry. I recently read a 1971 report of an award to Charles that said the VR2000 was the "single, most profitable product in the history of Ampex."
In 1983, under a government contract, he devised the Digital Cassette Recording System (DCRS) the first small high storage capacity data recorder that worked flawlessly under unimaginably adverse conditions. The machine could detect faint signals and was used in a variety of survelliance and communications functions. John Mallinson, one of his colleagues said, "I wouldn't be surprised if Chuck's equipment was on the space shuttle flying right now." * Kurt Hallamasek, one of dozens of young college graduates that he trained in his years at Ampex, spoke of him almost reverently, pointing out that Charles' work, particularly in things like "digital storage" and "image compression" had an important impact on the development of computers. All of his associates agree that he was the gentlest of souls and a methodical scientist. Fraser Morison, now retired from Ampex and contemporary of Charles', spoke of how Charles was fascinated all of his life by "how things worked"......from the simplest lever to the most complex digital system.
At Ampex they actually had a measuring system called the hypothetical "Coleman Unit". A "Coleman Unit" should be used when the current measurement units do not provide the degree of precision (accuracy) required. Fraser Morison sent me a list of some 20 patents assigned to Charles----an incredible lifetime of work ranging from a "Video Electronic Switching Apparatus" in 1958 all the way through the video tape revolution to a "Method and Apparatus for Image Data Compression Using Combined Luminance/Chrominance Coding" granted in 1991, the year of his retirement. And finally, the awards....the multiple awards. The most treasured was the David Sarnoff Award.....a penultimate achievement in television engineering presented to Charles in 1970 for "many original inventions". The problem was that he had to travel to New York City in a commercial aircraft, and wear a tuxedo to get it. He hated all the amenities.... the suit, the city and especially the large noisy airplane.
You see, he was also a bush pilot.
*Charles, it is said, actually smiled when he saw one of his creations in an interior TV picture of an early space shuttle in orbit around the earth.
The Pilot and Hiker
The bush pilot is a special brand of pilot......they fly all sorts of crazy places. His airplanes were Cessna"s -- and they were what pilots call "tail draggers" -- which means that the third wheel was on the tail instead of the nose...a slightly quirky arrangement that made it possible to land and take off most anywhere....but it also meant that you had to steer the airplane by using the brakes on the two main wheels plus the rudder pedals. Charles had a bumper sticker in his hanger that said "TAILDRAGGERS TAXI FUNNY". They (Alyce was a licensed pilot as well) flew all over the western hemisphere.....once all the way up to Point Barrow, Alaska (incredibly, one year after he had earned his pilot"s license.) There was no airstrip in Point Barrow in those years. He reported that when they landed on the beach the Eskimo children ran to greet the first airplane they had ever seen. Over the years, Charles and Alyce flew across the United States dozens of times and indulged their love of hiking and mountain climbing by flying to remote mountain sites and setting out on foot. Famously they set out to identify the old, long -obscured Pony Express Trail both from the ground and the air.....Charles once gave me an ancient beer bottle (the kind that was corked), black with age, that he had found along trail...he was sure it had been consumed and tossed by one of the riders.
But their most unbelievable adventure was the trip they made to King William Island, above the artic circle in the ice-bound Canadian northeast. In 1845 Sir John Franklin and 128 men in two ships, "Erebus" and "Terror" set out from England to find the northwest passage across northern Canada. They disappeared and some 40 expeditions were sent to find them. It was finally ( in 1859) established that the ships had become stuck in the ice at King William Island and the men had tried to walk towards civilization to the south. Several members of the expedition probably died on King William Island. Charles and Alyce decided to fly from California and explore King William Island which is uninhabited and miles above the arctic circle. Charles arranged for barrels of gasoline to be stashed along the way. When they arrived, they landed successfully on a stretch of beach. After setting up camp and exploring the island they actually found a cache of British uniform grommets (the metal surrounding a button hole) from the Franklin expedition. Their discovery was confirmed by the Canadian government. They made it back safely to California.
One final, possibly apocryphal story...
Alyce, it is said, one day landed their little fragile Cessna aircraft on the main runway of San Francisco International Airport....amidst a forest of huge jet aircraft...a brave and fitting adventure for a family that would prefer to walk rather than fly in a 727.
In the 1970s Charles and Alyce went searching for their dream home. Their criteria was as follows...... "some sort of long thin ranch in a place so remote they could see no artificial light". They found and bought a privately owned 130-acre homestead called Barker Creek Ranch in the middle of the desert in the middle of Nevada surrounded by government land. The ranch is in Big Smoky Valley 200 miles east and south of Reno near a gold mining site called Round Mountain. It nestles between two great spines of mountains, the Toiyabe and Toquima ranges. I"ve never been able to resist the image of brown-cassocked old prophets, lying on their sides.
For the first 15 or so years when they visited the ranch, they lived in a small old cabin on the lower end of the property, without light or power. Their nephews Coleman Bazelon and Eric Poryles who visited them frequently explained how they would take a hot shower by using a long black hose connected to a mountain stream and heated by the sun...it was a quick shower. A propane refrigerator and kerosene lamps sufficed until the middle 1980s when Charles began to install a highly original powerhouse, located in an old whiskey storage cellar, (there was a prohibition-era still up the mountain). The powerhouse consisted of 4 sets of 10, 12-volt wet batteries driving a 60Hz, 120 volt inverter thus providing a standard electrical hook-up. They are powered from two environmentally immaculate sources; the first is a hydro-electric turbine powered by the mountain stream and the second is two arrays of photo-voltaic solar cells that automatically follow the sun all day long. He had considered adding a wind turbine but the prevailing winds in the desert weren"t consistent enough. The power system still works perfectly, making the ranch a totally self-sufficient oasis in the middle of nowhere.
Anecdotally, my son, also named Charles Coleman who is a classical composer, used to sit on a hill called "Coleman Mountain," just behind the house, and play Prokofiev on a boom box to all the desert critters. By the way, the first family dog was named "Bruff" after J. Goldsboro Bruff, a famous western charlatan that Charles and Alyce, for some reason, admired.
One fairly windy afternoon in the "middle" Eighties, Charles landed his "taildragging" Cessna on a brand new airstrip on the ranch, taxied up to and parked in his brand new hangar. It was, he reported, a "hairy" landing....but his childhood dream of a "long thin ranch" had come true.*
And then, the house......a beautiful-big shouldered house was built, up the pasture from the original cabin. All the amenities; three bedrooms, a state-of-the-art kitchen, a beautiful living room on the second floor with enormous windows looking out at a staggering view of the Toyiabe Range. Alyce had a root cellar and a huge back deck where humming birds dive bombed the family when we held family reunions.
Charles retired from Ampex Corporation in 1991.....he and Alyce moved permanently to the ranch. At about 5 PM on most afternoons, Charles would open the bar in the living room, delicately mix his Bombay Gin and Noilly Prat Vermouth (mixed, engineering-wise at a precise 40 to l ratio), move the shaker up and down with slow andante movement, pour the drink and look out the window at what may be the most beautiful scene in all of the west.......it was paradise.
*Sam Coleman, our cousin who lives in Reno and has been close to Charles, Alyce and Carolyn lo these many years....asked me to add that the reason the landings on Charles"s airstrip are "hairy" is because the runway and surrounding land slopes up,causing an optical illusion that makes the pilot think he is higher than he actually is.
Sadly, Alyce....who had soldiered through years of adventure and incessant activity all over the continent and looked forward to the "quiet" years.....died in March of 2000 of lung cancer. (Both Alyce and Charles were afflicted by cancer and questions have been raised in the family as to whether the old Nevada atomic tests about 150 miles upwind of the ranch were in any way at fault.)
Unable to sit still, Charles re-vitalized the Smoky Valley TV District, a system of TV relay stations (including one on a 11,000 foot mountain) which brought television service to his neighbors in the valley. On May 1, 2003, Charles married an old friend and flying enthusiast, Carolyn Husted, widow of John Husted who Charles and Alyce had known for over 25 years. An especially happy "September" marriage, they shuttled between Carolyn's home in Tehachapi, California and the ranch.
But Charles was struck down by an incredible series of illnesses. Against hopeless odds and involving at least three major operations he survived
cancer of the lymph nodes
cancer of the prostate
Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS)---cancer of the bone marrow
and cardiac disease.
Following a draconian operation which replaced two arteries and two valves in his heart (which was successful) Charles finally succumbed to kidney failure and died on July 13, 2005.
Charles Hubert Coleman, Jr. was in every sense of the word, a remarkable man. He had his quirks...all oddly ironic. Charles, the man who helped to bring recorded television to the world, actually disliked broadcast TV and refused for many years to keep anything other than a small black and white receiver in his house. Charles, the man who helped to sort out the technical puzzles of the computer revolution....absolutely refused to use email.
We won"t see his like again.
August 2, 2005