A Fulbright Scholar Experience in 1973

Edward Cherry, Professor Emeritus, Monash University
1973 Fulbright Visiting Scholar from Australia

When I was 12 years old, an aunt gave me the bits to build a 1‑valve radio and I was hooked.  I knew that I wanted a career in the field we now call electronics.

After completing a Ph.D. at Melbourne University, my first paid job was at the Bell Telephone Laboratories (BTL) in New Jersey.  At that time American Telephone and Telegraph was by far the largest company in the world.  In 1963-dollar terms annual turnover was around $100 billion, and they put 1% or $100 million back into research.  BTL employed about 10,000 staff, and on average gave them each $100,000 to spend.

It was an extraordinary place: it is hard to find a major discovery in electronics between about 1925 and 1965 that was not made there.  The philosophy was to take time and dig deep for a good solution.  Nobel Laureate William Shockley was signed up in 1932 because someone thought “there might be something in those semiconductors;” it took his group until 1947 to invent the transistor.  The semiconductor industry, radio astronomy, communications satellites, and the solar cell all began at BTL.

After three years I returned to Australia and joined Monash University.  When my first sabbatical fell due in 1973 I wanted to spend it at BTL, but my wife Diana and had I four children.  Of course I had my Monash salary, and BTL had offered a generous top-up, but the cost still appeared prohibitive.  It was rare in those days for a Fulbright Scholar to work in industry, but the Commission accepted that BTL was about as close to an ideal university as could be imagined.  So, in early December 1972 and with Fulbright support, my family and I arrived in Summit, NJ.

Friends from 1963 had found us an unfurnished house, and the congregation of Calvary Episcopal Church furnished it from their junk rooms.  It was bliss, even though none of the china matched, the dining table had a wire brace between its legs, and one corner of the sofa sat on a brick!

David and Peter, not quite nine and seven respectively in December 1972, spent a full year at Wilson Elementary School.  Kate (not quite four, and now a medical specialist) was an early admission to school in September; she learned her alphabet, and to this day says ‘zee’ for the letter Z.  Diana and our youngest Sarah (not quite two) joined in College Club and other young mum’s activities.

As a family we attended Calvary Episcopal Church, joined the library, and the boys joined the Boy Scouts.  In the winter we skated on a frozen pond, and the neighbourhood kids tobogganed down the hill in our back yard.  In the summer we took family membership at the pool, picnicked in Watchung Reservation, and our street was closed for a block party.  In the fall racoons stole our corn crop.  The boys and I build a model railway in the basement.

Diana and I tried to show the children our favourite places from the 1960s: Mystic Sea Port, Sturbridge Village, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Williamsburg and Jefferson’s Monticello in Virginia.  In May the family stayed with friends in a cabin on the shore of Lake Winnepesauke, NH, while I visited Amhurst, MA for a Fulbright function: black fly season! — we had some explaining to do when the boys returned to school looking as if they had measles.

Not everything was idyllic.  Sarah fell (my fault!) and cracked her skull, and spent time in Overlook Hospital.  While I was across the country in California, Peter witnessed a traumatic incident in the garden next door.  The support we had was remarkable.

Fulbright has had a life-long impact on our entire family. Our youngest child, David, was born in Summit in 1964 and is an American citizen; he now lives on Manhattan with a Chinese-American wife and three boys.  Kate’s medical research involves collaboration with Johns Hopkins University and other U.S. institutions; she visits regularly.  Sarah is a barrister, and she too has U.S. contacts.  Peter developed leukemia in 1975 and spent 12 years in-and-out of hospital; he teaches art at a secondary school, and that basement railway steered him towards a life-long passion.  Diana and I have two American god-children, Kate and Sarah have American god-parents.

In today’s digital world of smart phones, my 1973 work now seems quaint.  AT&T had introduced a picture-telephone service in 1968; this gave callers a black-and-white head-and-shoulders view of each other, transmitted over the ordinary telephone network.  Quickly it became apparent that a higher-resolution picture was needed, so that a document held in front of the camera could be read at the far end.

My work tied up some loose ends in the theory of analog TV; two papers were published, but the work has not endured.  However one Fulbright scholarship brought six Australians into relationships with America, relationships that still endure.  Senator J. William Fulbright’s aim was to promote international understanding through contact between individuals; on that score, my family’s Fulbright experience was an outstanding success.