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The Quest for “Magnalux”: Redefining Technological Success and Failure at RCA, 1951-1956

The Quest for “Magnalux”: Redefining Technological Success and Failure at RCA, 1951-1956

Abstract

In September 1951, Radio Corporation of America chairman David Sarnoff celebrated his 45th year in the electronics industry by publicly challenging his research staff to develop three new technologies in time for his golden anniversary dinner 5 years later. This article considers the fate of one of these items, the “Magnalux” light amplifier, to explore how scientists, manufacturing personnel, and managers viewed the significance of fundamental research to technological innovation. Following a discussion of the content and context of Sarnoff’s request, the article focuses on the creation of two prototype light amplifiers to emphasize the contingency of technological success and failure and the centrality of commercial considerations in defining those categories. This case study reaffirms the value of historical methodologies to the social study of corporate science.
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