Local man wins Emmy

by Mark McDermott
Published September 20, 2007

Fifty years after helping develop a device that changed television – or more specifically, the ease with which a television can be tuned – Redondo Beach resident Howard Sachar has received an Emmy Award.
“Better late,” Sachar said, “than never.”
Sachar attended the Sept. 8 Creative Arts Emmy Awards, hosted by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and held at Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium. He accepted a 2007 Emmy Certificate of Engineering Achievement Award that recognized the “historic contribution to television technology” represented by Varicap, a 1957 development that led to the replacement of mechanical tuning dials on televisions with electronic tuning covering the entire television band.
Sachar, a retired engineer who is former city commissioner but remains active in civic affairs, stood up in the audience at the ceremony as the award was announced. He was there on behalf of three other men named on the award, and an entire company that made this technical advancement possible. But few people at the awards ceremony really understood what Varicap was and what it had to do with television history.
“I don’t think there were more than two people at the Shrine Auditorium who understood what this award was for,” Sachar said. “I got up and waved, but I don’t think anybody knew what it was.”
As Wikipedia describes it, “a varicap diode, varactor diode or tuning diode is a type of diode which has a variable capacitance that is a function of the voltage impressed on its terminals.”
There is, however, a simpler way to understand the importance of this technology: Varicap made it possible to change television channels with a remote control button.
“We had forecast 50 years ago this month that this device would take over the tuning of televisions,” Sachar said. “And it’s amazing, it really did. By the 1980s, the mechanical tuner was gone, and you had a simple tuner that allowed all Americans to become couch potatoes.”
It all began at a lunch meeting in 1957. Sachar was working for a company called Pacific Semiconductors, a division of Ramo-Wooldridge, which would later become TRW (and even later Northrop Grumman). The company was a supplier to RCA’s military program, called ANPRC 34/36, based in Camden, N.J. Sachar was meeting with RCA’s William Southworth.
But the idea that would eventually lead to a nation of channel surfers and thin television sets hanging on walls began with a question and a napkin.
“Well, all great things come on napkins, don’t they?” said Sachar.
RCA, Southworth said, had a problem. They were trying to miniaturize transceivers – the transmitter/receiver devices most frequently used in radios – but were having trouble getting them down to the size they wanted. Part of the problem was the size of the mechanical tuner. Would it be possible, Southworth asked, to use so-called “solid state” technology, electronic circuitry that replaced vacuum tubes and was therefore much more compact?
Sachar knew his company’s R&D products inside and out, and immediately realized that the answer was yes. He took a napkin and sketched out the circuitry. He would later take the idea to fellow engineer Sanford Barnes at Pacific Semiconductor, who implemented the specific application and applied for the patent on behalf of the company.
The company realized immediately that the new technology would have broad applications, and made announcements in the trade publications that Varicap would “change the world of tuning.” It didn’t quite take off as immediately as they might have imagined at the time. But during the late 1970s those unwieldy dials on televisions began disappearing. By the 1980s, television dials were a thing of the past.
“So when you sit on the couch with a remote control and skip through channels, that is only possible because of Varicap,” Sachar said.
Sachar said he lost sight of the technology for many years as he enjoyed a varied career that included 15 years at TRW, a stint with Xerox, and 23 years as an independent consultant. Meanwhile, since 1976, Varicap technology has been referenced on 729 different patent applications as it has taken over television tuning. And now, with the Emmy Award, Sachar has happily been able to revisit his days back at Pacific Semiconductor, a company lovingly known as “PSI” by its employees.
“It’s been a ball being back in contact with old associates on something like this,” he said. “Absolutely delightful.”
Dr. Simon Ramo, the founder of PSI and TRW, had originally agreed to accept the award. Ramo is now 93 and intended on videotaping his acceptance, but when it became apparent the Creative Arts Emmy Awards show would run too long for the inclusion of a video, Sachar was asked to make an appearance on behalf of those who developed Varicap.
Sachar recalls his days at PSI with great fondness. He said it was a company that was able to work on the technological cutting edge because of the leadership Ramo provided. He was willing to fund research and development because he had confidence in the engineers he’d brought together and an abiding faith in human ingenuity.
“Si, to me, was the tie,” Sachar said. “[He was] the bind that brought everything together.” ER