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12.09

Electronic Marvels on Display at National Electronics Museum

By George F. McClure

A valuable, but little known, resource tracing the development of electronics for defense, space, and other applications is located near the Thurgood Marshall Baltimore-Washington International Airport and the BWI Rail station.

The National Electronics Museum (NEM), renamed in 2009 from the Historical Electronics Museum, is a treasure trove of radar, sonar and other electronic technology, with an emphasis on phased array antennas and countermeasures.  It also operates an annual two-day Pioneer Camp program for school children between the ages of 8 and 11 to help them appreciate the role electronics plays in our lives.

There is a complete amateur radio station, K3NEM/W3GR, fully equipped with vintage and modern communications systems.  A temporary exhibit last year, called “Hallicrafters and Heathkit – the H in Ham Radio,” chronicled the history of these two companies and their contributions to amateur radio.

A visit to the museum is a special treat for every member of the family. Children and adults alike enjoy the Fundamentals Gallery, where the basics of electricity are explained through interactive exhibits.  There are some 25,000 visitors each year.

On display in the Space Gallery is one of only three Apollo TV cameras still in existence. The black and white camera was responsible for televising Neil Armstrong's historic first steps on the moon.

A research library covering all aspects of electronics history is available to the public.

Background

The Museum was incorporated in 1980 with support from Westinghouse Defense and Electronics Systems Center in Baltimore.  Robert Dwight, a Westinghouse employee and a key planner of Family Day saw an opportunity in 1973 to display three airborne radars, employee products that their families had not had the opportunity to see.  The project, titled, “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” elicited considerable interest from families of employees, who were excited to see the finished products employees had been working on.   Dwight, credited as the museum founder, helped arrange non-profit museum status, needed to acquire items of interest from the Department of Defense.  The late Warren Cooper, who worked at Westinghouse and was later president of the IEEE Aerospace and Electronic Systems Society, was instrumental in arranging early IEEE support for the Museum.  When Northrop Grumman Corporation acquired the Westinghouse radar operation in 1996, it became the principal corporate sponsor of the museum.

Support has also been provided by the IEEE’s Baltimore Section, the Antennas and Propagation Society, and the Microwave Theory and Techniques Society.  The Association of Old Crows (AOC) has assisted with the electronic warfare and countermeasures exhibits.  

Current historical projects

There is a project in cooperation with the IEEE History Center to produce two dozen oral histories.  The transcripts will be shared with both the History Center and the Museum.

IEEE has provided a new grant of $10,000 to the National Electronics Museum, from the IEEE Life Members Fund through the IEEE Foundation.  This funding will support the creation of a 10 -12 minute film focusing on the electronic creations of scientists and engineers. Combining archival footage, photographs, and objects from the museum with interviews of active and retired engineers, the film will explore electronic engineering. The audience will learn about the design challenges and personal inspirations that motivated the engineers as well as the dramatic impact their work has had on our lives. It will be used as a tool to interest students in engineering and intrigue the public. The director of the film will work with local high school science teachers and the staff of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory to craft a film that is fast paced and informative. Area students and interested groups will receive free copies of the video. DVDs for school use will contain menu choices allowing teachers and students to review specifications, diagrams, and photographs of devices seen in the film. Engineers will offer comments about the engineering process and challenges of interest to students. This will make the video more useful for school curriculums and assure its continued use.

Museum Resources

The museum includes twelve galleries in addition to its outdoor displays.

The Giant Wurzburg radar antenna, 22 feet in diameter, located next to the street outside the back corner of the museum, is one of only three on exhibit in the world.  This was part of a German gun laying radar used against Allied aircraft in World War II.  The chronicle of its eventual relocation to the museum is an interesting story. The antenna was built by the Zeppelin Company in Wurzburg, Germany, using dirigible technology. 

Some Allied aircraft soon carried radar jammers as a countermeasure.  The Museum’s Giant Wurzburg antenna had been used by the Department of Commerce in Colorado, prior to its acquisition by the Museum.

Another Giant Wurzburg was used to track V-2 rockets tested at  Peenemünde.

The Baltimore-built SCR-270, closer to the museum entrance (pictured below), was like the first automatic tracking and gunfire control radar which, on the morning of 7 Dec. 1941,  detected the enemy just before the attack on Pearl Harbor.


The type of radar antenna that gave early
warning of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Some events and projects

Take Your Child to Work Day  attracted more than 200 visitors to see live demonstrations  about magnets, electricity and solar power.  They could also participate in hands-on activities using the museum’s radar gun.

Electronic Music/Experimental Music enthusiasts staged a day of synthesized music at the Museum in September. Called the National Electronics Museum Electronica Fest 2009, the event was  jointly sponsored by members of the Baltimore SDIY Group (loosely, synthesizer do it yourself) and the Museum.  Theremin kits were available for the do-it-yourselfers.

A popular museum feature is the RobotFest, attracting standing-room only crowds to see battling robots, musical robots, military robots, Star Wars robots and others.  Kids could build their own solar-powered “bots.”

The 2008 Young Engineers and Scientists Seminar (YESS) program for high school students, funded by a grant from Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems, was a project-based program to help students understand how engineers and scientists perform their jobs. In seven evening sessions from September through January, students were introduced to various scientific disciplines by researchers from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and the Northrop Grumman Corporation.

A new project is the installation of the U.S. Navy’s XAF radar, the first ever shipboard radar, developed in 1938. 

The museum offers outreach programs for the community, where an NEM volunteer will visit a school, community organization, or scout program to present an educational program about the history and development of military defense electronics. This program can include a brief lecture, a presentation, or an interactive program.

Getting there

The National Electronics Museum, located at 1745 W. Nursery Road in Linthicum, Maryland, is easily spotted by the outdoor displays of large radar antennas.  The Museum is normally open from 9 am to 3 pm Monday through Friday, and 10 am to 2 pm on Saturdays. There is no admission charge.

The National Electronics Museum Web site provides details on upcoming events, as well as an archive of newsletters.  The AOC Web site provides directions to the museum.  

New Membership Benefit

Admission to the Museum is free, but contributions are always welcome.  The National Electronics Museum is participating in the new Greater Baltimore History Alliance

Reciprocal Membership Admission Program

This program will provide free general admission to other participating GBHA sites to Electronics Museum members who donate at least $100 yearly. A membership card will be issued to all qualified members and a list of participating museum partners will be made available.

Acknowledgement

The assistance of museum director, Michael Simons, with historical facts is gratefully acknowledged.

 

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George McClure is Technology Policy editor for IEEE-USA Today’s Engineer and the IEEE Vehicular Technology Society's representative to IEEE-USA's Committee on Transportation and Aerospace policy. Comments on this article may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.

Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.


Copyright © 2009 IEEE

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