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Richard W. Sonnenfeldt

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Biography

Richard Sonnenfeldt was one of RCA Corporation’s most innovative electrical engineers, leading the invention of color television and computer technology. He may be best known for his role as the chief interpreter for the United States prosecution team at the Nuremberg war criminal tribunal.

Sonnenfeldt was born in 1923 in the small town of Gardelegen in eastern Germany to Jewish parents. Growing up in a culture where Nazi ideology was ascendant, he struggled to keep friends and enjoy school. His parents sent to a Jewish private school in Berlin and to a German Quaker school in England.

When the war broke out, sixteen-year-old Sonnenfeldt was detained by the British government as an enemy alien and deported to Australia. When he arrived there, he wrote to the British King and Prime Minister, offering his services to the cause, and was allowed to return. On his way back, he was stranded in Bombay, India, and got work as a foreman at a radio factory. By April 1941, he was reunited with his parents, who had fled Germany and moved to Baltimore, Maryland. Sonnenfeldt proudly spent the early war years working his way up to become a master electrician, which gave him money to support his parents.

In 1943, he was drafted into the United States Army, serving as an infantry soldier. He fought his way through Africa, Italy, and France, and participated in the Battle of the Bulge. By war’s end, he was a sergeant detailed to the Office of Strategic Services, where he supervised an organization of fifty persons which provided interpreters for the interrogation of over seventy five major witnesses at Nuremberg, including twenty-one important Axis leaders.

After the war and the Nuremberg trials, Sonnenfeldt attended Johns Hopkins University. His first job after college was at RCA Corporation, where he led a group angling to win the race for the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) color television standard. This required him to bring together the inventors at RCA’s Princeton lab, who had invented the black-and-white kinescope picture tube, and RCA engineers tasked with building commercial color receivers. The Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) had already won FCC approval for its color television standard, and RCA’s system appeared untenable, as it relied on a cumbersome system of three separate kinescopes rather than a single color wheel. Sonnenfeldt’s innovation was to create a receiver that could display a color signal while also automatically switching back to black-and-white depending on the signal. The final product, based on a single kinescope, would overtake the CBS standard.

Sonnenfeldt received three major awards from RCA early in his career: the 1954 and 1961 Sarnoff Awards and the 1958 RCA Award of Merit. He became a fellow of the Institute of Radio Engineers (IRE) in 1962 “for contributions to color television and digital techniques.”

In the late 1950s, Sonnenfeldt had moved on to research in satellite technology and industrial controls. He set up a research and development operation in Foxboro, Massachusetts, which RCA would spin off. Under his leadership, this Digital Systems Division worked with Gordon Bell, creator of Digital Computer’s PDP-4 mainframe computer. They pioneered the use of computers in industrial process controls.

Sonnenfeldt rejoined RCA in the 1970s, moving the company away from its declining share of the computer market towards videodisks. At the time, videotape was expensive and disfavored by the movie industry, which feared its potential use by counterfeiters. Sonnenfeldt’s solution was to create a home video system based on stamped vinyl disks similar in size to a 33-rpm record but coated with very thin layers of metal and insulation. Like vinyl records, they could not be copied. Although the playback quality was similar to videotape, and about 600,000 receivers were sold, RCA lost a billion dollars developing and marketing this product after VHS became the standard.

He continued to pursue leadership positions in electronics, entertainment, and manufacturing industries. After leaving RCA, he served as an executive vice president at the National Broadcasting Company and an executive at a printing-plate maker, NAPP Systems Inc. He died in 2009.