John Bardeen, Walter Brattain and William Shockley invented the transistor Dec. 16, 1947, at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, N. J. Only three months earlier, the Air Force was formed as a separate branch of the military Sept. 18, 1947 under the National Security Act of 1947.
Vacuum tubes predated transistors, which are the foundation for miniaturizing electronic circuitry that lead to integrated circuitry and microprocessors used in present technology. The evolution of electronics made it possible to reduce the weight of a cellular phone from nearly 80 pounds to a few ounces. Bell Labs launched the first commercial mobile telephone service in 1946. At most, three subscribers per city could make calls at one time. Each caller used a set of equipment that weighed nearly 80 pounds, according to information from Alcatel-Lucent, the parent company of Bell Labs.
Zurcher, 85, joined the Army as a rifleman in the infantry. He was sent to Guam in the Pacific Theater as the war ended.
“I had enlisted, so I had three years to go. They kept me there but the draftees came home,” he said. “They still really didn’t need me, so I volunteered one time.”
The volunteer assignment required him to turn in his rifle and all of the other equipment that belonged to the company.
“There were about six of us who volunteered. They took us down the island, not too far. Of course, Guam is not very big, so you can’t go too far. They let us off and said this is your new home,” he said. “It was a nice, big Quonset hut and it had 28th Air Force on top of it. Just like that, we’d been transferred into the Air Corps.”
The six men were reclassified as clerks and taught to type.
“That’s how I began my career,” Zurcher said. “I was assigned to what they called statistical control.”
Statistical control evolved into keypunch data processing with all of the electronic equipment needed for accounting, personnel and other recordkeeping functions.
“It all developed into computers, so the latter part of my career in the Air Force, I worked with computers,” he said. “At that time, it was all IBM and the old punch cards. It all progressed into other companies such as Burroughs, NCR and all the rest of them got involved in offering computers to the Air Force. We checked out many different brands of computers.”
He ended his military career sometime in the early to mid-1960s as supervisor of the computer room at Strategic Air Command headquarters in Omaha, Neb., where he supervised three shifts of 10 men each.
“We started out with a computer that was vacuum tube and I think that was Remington-Rand that we had then. We had about 4,000 bytes of working memory in that computer and it was about as big as this room,” he said, indicating to the main hall of VFW Post 2598. “The amount of air conditioning was tremendous that we had to have to cool it.”
He said some of the power vacuum tubes were about 4 inches in diameter and maybe 8 inches tall.
He opted for retirement rather than go to Vietnam, feeling he’d already fulfilled his obligations. He served in the Pacific at the end of World War II and was assigned temporary duty in Korea where he set up new computer and accounting machines.
“I ended up after 20 years with orders to Vietnam. I didn’t want to take that. I went ahead and retired because I had already spent my time in the Pacific at the end of the war and also, spent four years in England during my career and shipped from base to base,” he said. “Back then they shipped people around an awful lot.”
After retiring from active service, he transitioned to civilian job with the Air Force supporting the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
“I spent another 25 years with them programming computers primarily in the budgeting and reimbursement of companies that wanted their satellites sent into space,” he said of his years with NASA. “If you wanted a rocket sent up, you had to pay your share. You didn’t get it sent up by the government for free.”
Zurcher, a native of Nebraska, met a young college girl from South Dakota named Marjorie upon returning from the Pacific after World War II. The couple have been married 63 years.
Zurcher still continues to serve as a member of the Cleveland Bradley Honor Guard.