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Isaac Brimberg: The Broadcast Pioneer Who Made It All Work

WNYC History Notes: Volume 2, Issue 12

Friday, March 25, 2011 - 12:00 AM

WNYC's Chief Engineer Isaac Brimberg, from a 1930s photo. Brimberg was a pioneer in radio broadcasting. He joined WNYC at its opening in 1924 and was named Chief Engineer in 1929.  He oversaw the WPA construction of our new studios and our state-of-the-art transmission facilities at Greenpoint, Brooklyn--both opening in October 1937.  Brimberg was also responsible for setting up our shortwave facility W2XVP in 1941 and our experimental FM station W39NY, now WNYC-FM.  Major Isaac Brimberg was in the Army Signal Corps in 1943 when he died tragically on leave in a car accident at the age of 40. 

'Brimmy' as he was affectionately known, was very much an engineer of the 'Yankee' ingenuity school who, when faced with a problem, was great at thinking outside the box. The following is from an account by former WNYC Director Seymour N. Siegel on how Brimberg overcame remote transmission problems when sending a signal from Music Mountain in the Berkshire foothills back to WNYC.[1]

"…Bearing in mind Mayor La Guardia's admonition to substitute ingenuity and brains for dollars, Ike (Brimmy) Brimberg, the station's Chief Engineer, suggested the use of our portable short wave equipment.  He produced from some arcane source, two white balloons which would provide an instant antenna without any attachment to any existing structure…It was on July 3, 1938 [2] when Brimmy and I arrived at Music Mountain to carry out Novik's [WNYC Director Morris S. Novik] pioneering idea to bring some of the world's great musical performances live to the audiences of New York City's own station, WNYC…Novik had arranged for this special coverage of the Gordon String Quartette…Brimmy came upon the then summer resident, McNeil Mitchell, an assistant Corporation Counsel of the City.  He was pleased to allow us to use his living room as a command post to hook together short wave reception from the white balloons…" 

This was just one of Brimmy's many inventions. On October 10, 1929, he filed for a patent on "a novel apparatus for reproducing and simulating musical notes and instruments."  This pioneering electronic synthesizer was composed of seven rotating discs on a shaft.  All the discs but one "has embedded in it a wire on which is magnetically recorded fundamentals and overtones of a note or some sound effect."  Passing the disc by a magnet and sending the variation in the current  through a transformer, variable resistance and amplifier, numerous effects are obtained. Brimberg described the operation of his invention this way:

"By means of the controlling member, the pitch and tremolo effects can be varied at the will of the operator. Varying the rheostat varies the current which is employed, so that the rise and fall of the current produces a tremolo effect. By means of switches, the operator can reproduce selectively different notes or sound effects, and these will be reproduced and pass to the amplifier at the output end of the device. The variable resistance is controllable at the will of the operator to vary the overall volume of the combination of notes and sound effects which is reproduced.  In accordance with the invention, any notes and sound effects which have been recorded can be readily reproduced."

A patent for the invention was granted February 19, 1935.  Although Brimberg indicated his device could be made inexpensively, we have yet to discover whether he ever made one that was used at WNYC.  According to his son, Dr. Arthur Brimberg, his father was also involved with electronic improvements to the Hammond organ and invented an instrument similar to the Theremin. To see Brimberg's patent drawings go to: PATENT #1991727.

[1] Thanks to the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming - Seymour N.  Siegel papers.

[2] It appears that Siegel misremembered his arriving at Music Mountain with Brimberg as being in July when he meant June. The New York Times reported the station's first use of a shortwave transmitter to cover the Gordon recital as June 12, 1938. See: "WNYC Uses Portable Set," The New York Times, June 13, 1938, pg. 35.  

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Broadcast on WNYC Today in:

1945: In his weekly Talk to the People, Mayor F.H. La Guardia talks about the reasons why the Office of Price Administration should use sense in their actions, basketball betting, student college scholarships, city finances, the referendum on increasing the five cent subway fare to ten cents, and an invitation from General Charles DeGaulle to visit Paris, France

1955: Don Gillis and NBC Symphony Orchestra members have a birthday tribute to their maestro, Arturo Toscanini. They include: David Walters, bass; Philip Sklar, bass; Leon Frankelt, violist; Abe Rinius, contrabassonist; Paul Rensy, Jr., flute; Sam Leveton, bass; Theodore Katz, violin; Michael Kresnapolsky and William Carboni, viola.

1961: ILGWU leader David Dubinsky and Eleanor Roosevelt speak at the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire 50th anniversary memorial. The former First Lady tells the assembled and WNYC listeners to rededicate themselves to see that the fire laws are complied with. She says that she has never forgotten what happened that day.

1998: Neil Rauch reports on the new Black Panther Party.

2001: Social critic Bell Hooks tells Leonard Lopate what's in her Survival Kit. Hooks is the author of a number of influential works, among them Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism and Killing Rage: Ending Racism. She has also written books for children and essays on art and love.

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