A Brief History of the Pultec Company
By Mark Williams
Reviewed with Small Additions by Eugene Shenk
This is based upon an interview with Eugene Shenk, one of the two co-founders and owners of Pultec, a producer of professional audio studio equipment from 1953 until 1981. The Interview took place on April 17th and 18th, 1996. To understand the founding and history of Pultec, it is necessary to discuss the backgrounds of the principals before Pultec’s founding in 1953.
Eugene Richard Shenk
Eugene was born on April 1, 1918, in Delphos, Ohio. He had an early intense interest in radio and electronics that was well developed from the third grade onward. Through his high school years he maintained a radio repair shop in his parents’ house, and became a sales dealer for American Bosch radios, as well as Gibson refrigerator-freezers. When he completed high school in 1936, he hoped to set up a shop in downtown Delphos for his growing business. His father, however, had bigger plans for him. He told young Eugene that if he really was interested in electronics as a life’s career after one more year, he would then send Eugene to a professional electronics school. An additional stipulation was that Eugene should keep his electronics shop at the family house during that year. Eugene, with the assurance of youth, felt there was little he did not already know about electronics, but agreed to his father’s plan.
During that year, Eugene and his parents considered at least five electronics schools. The decision came down to the RCA Institutes which had schools in Chicago and New York. Chicago was closer, but Eugene’s dad felt that the New York school might get preference from RCA in some ways. New York was the choice, and so nineteen year old Eugene headed for the “Big Apple” in August of 1937. The RCA General Course in Radio and Communications was 18 months long, and a new class began every three months. Eugene had saved some money, and his grandparents loaned him the balance for tuition. In spite of the hardships of the 1930’s depression, his parents managed to send him 15 dollars each week for his total living expenses,
During his time at the RCA Institutes at 75 Varick Street, he and three other students became close friends, and did much studying together. These were Richard Sirrine, Edmund Carserino, and the person who would become his future partner in Pultec, Oliver Summerlin. Eugene had every intention of returning to Delphos upon graduation and reopening his business. However, on one of the last days of school, Albert Preisman, who was chief instructor of the school, spoke to Eugene and asked him about his future plans. He offered Eugene a job building equipment for the television course which was being set up to begin in six months. While he would not be paid for his work, he would be permitted to go through the television course tuition free. It was an honor to have been asked to build this equipment. This would require an extended stay in New York, however, of over a year. Eugene called his parents (a rare and expensive thing in those days!) and they agreed that this was a good opportunity and approved his extension.
Among the early Pulse Techniques products was a compact audio oscillator, Model P-1, a prototype of which is shown above. The P-1 had 17 fixed (50 Hz to 20 kHz) switch-selected frequencies. Its constant amplitude, low distortion and fast, precise frequency repeatability made it ideal for rapid testing of audio lines and equipment.
The product that really launched Pulse Techniques, the EQP-1 Program Equalizer, is shown above. This was the predecessor to the EQP-1A and EQP-1A3 Program Equalizers. The EQP-1 was designed with all Peerless audio transformers (input, interstage and output) and provided low frequency shelf boost and attenuation with corner frequencies of 30, 60 and 100 CPS, high frequency peak boost (with variable bandwidth) with center frequencies of 3, 5, 8, 10 & 12 KCS and high frequency shelf attenuation with a corner frequency of 10 KCS.
Eugene began the construction of the equipment according to the schematics supplied to him. One day about two weeks later, Albert Preisman came to Eugene’s bench with another man, J. Ernest “Smitty” Smith. Smitty carefully examined the work Eugene was doing, and then asked him if he would like to do similar TV work and be paid for it. Eugene told Smitty he had a commitment with Mr. Preisman who then spoke up, telling Eugene that he would not have brought Smitty in if he did not want him to accept his offer. Eugene’s new job was with RCA Communications, Inc., at 66 Broad Street in New York, another subsidiary of Radio Corporation of America. His first day at work was his 21st birthday, April 1, 1939. His starting salary was 35 dollars a week, and he immediately was able to relieve his parents of their support for him.
RCA Communications, Incorporated, was a commercial company engaged in international radio telegraph and radiophoto transmission by pulse technology. A company or an individual could send or receive messages, “Radiograms”, to nearly any overseas country “via RCA”. Associated Press and United Press sent news dispatches “via RCA”. RCA also sent and received photos to most of the world. Pictures of foreign news events published currently in American papers were subscripted “via RCA Radiophoto”. In those days the next fastest way to communicate was by air mail. When Eugene was hired, RCA Communications was planning a relaying system for television signals.
World War II was soon upon the country, and the RCA Communications Division was given a number of responsibilities by the U.S. government for designing Secret and Top Secret equipment for both communications and radar. Eugene was involved in this development work and therefore was exempted from military service. (Eugene’s local selective service board called him to military service. RCA, the air force, and the navy appealed his case to the president’s review board which granted him an exemption based on the work he was doing). Later, Eugene published several papers, including an important contribution on multivibrators, and continued to work for RCA after the war. He was married on October 6, 1945 to Helen Deffenbaugh, whom he had known during his school days in Delphos. Their first apartment was on the 4th floor of a 42 family apartment building at 3601 Avenue J in Brooklyn. In the spring of 1949 they moved to a brand new garden apartment at 1506 Chandler Drive in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. Having stayed good friends with Ollie and Jo Summerlin, Eugene and Helen moved to 151 West Clinton Avenue in Bergenfield, New Jersey, two blocks from the Summerlin’s, in July of 1950.
W. Oliver Summerlin
“Ollie” Summerlin grew up in Mount Olive, North Carolina, home of the well known Mount Olive pickles. He was born on March 29, 1918, three days before Eugene. He operated an amateur radio station and dreamed of being transmitting engineer at station WBT in Charlotte. Upon graduation from RCA Institutes, Ollie was employed by RCA Communications at its transmitter complex in Rocky Point, Long Island, N.Y. During this time, he married Jo Summerlin of Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, whom he’d known for several years. He joined the navy during World War II, and he and Eugene stayed in touch by letter. After the war, Ollie realized his dream of working at Radio Station WBT. In the late 1940’s, he took a job with Audio and Video Products Company in New York City. This company had an exclusive contract with the Ampex Corporation to provide sales and service for their new tape recorders in the New York area. Ampex tape recorders were the highest quality available in the world at that time, and Ollie developed many contacts in the professional audio industry. He and his wife, Jo, settled at 46 Sugden Street in Bergenfield, New Jersey, about 10 miles northwest of the George Washington Bridge, across the Hudson River from the city. They came to Bergenfield because a childhood friend of Jo’s, Louise Guile, had married and settled there.
For over a year before and for 2 1/2 years after the time the Shenks settled near the Summerlins, Eugene and Ollie were making plans for a business of their own. Their plan was to manufacture equipment that would utilize Eugene’s 14 years experience at RCA Communications where he had acquired tremendous experience in circuit design with emphasis on pulse techniques for electronics applications. Thus, on February 1, 1953, the doors were opened for new company with the obvious name of Pulse Techniques, Incorporated. Several other names were bandied about, but this name was the one that stuck. The company registered PULTEC as its trademark, and both names were used throughout the history of the company.
The first ideas for equipment had been settled upon in a small shop in the basement of Eugene’s house, but the company opened its doors at 1411 Palisade Avenue in Teaneck, New Jersey, three miles from their homes. This was the home for the company throughout its history. At first the post office told them their mail would be expedited by using West Englewood (a section of Teaneck) as their address. After a few years, the post office changed its mind and recommended Teaneck as the preferred address. The company occupied a little over 1200 square feet on the ground floor of a brick building that served eight similar size businesses. A partition was installed to separate an office space from a production area. William Major, Bergenfield postmaster, and part time accountant, did the company’s accounting. In the nearly 29 year history of the company, the only full time employee other than Eugene and Ollie was Peter Menti.
Peter E. Menti was hired in 1958. Pete was five years younger than Eugene and Ollie and was an acquaintance of Ollie’s. He had no formal electronic engineering training, but was skilled with tools and at soldering. Almost simultaneously, Pete was offered a job by Pultec and by Otis Elevator Company. He had a tough decision to make, but finally chose the less secure, but more interesting job with Pultec.
Over the years, a number of electronic engineer friends were hired to assemble Pultec equipment in their homes. The parts and a sample unit were supplied to them, and they were paid by the completed unit. These people included Nicholas LeDonne, James Phelps, Richard Rynd, and James Gough among others. Their skills were utilized primarily when large orders had to be filled in a short time.
The early years of Pultec, particularly the first three, were up and down. Despite the eventual success in the professional audio market, the first products were very specialized in nature. These included the VFS-1, a variable filament supply for electronic engineers doing development work in vacuum tube circuitry. About 50 of these were sold, many to RCA through Eugene’s contacts. A product that never was manufactured, but was one of the ideas that launched the company, was a relay tester designed to measure the time in milliseconds for a relay to switch from one state to another.
Among the early products was a compact audio oscillator, Model P-1, with 17 fixed, switch selected frequencies. Its constant amplitude, low distortion and fast, precise frequency repeatability made it ideal for rapid testing of audio lines and equipment.
A rare, but interesting piece of equipment was the RSO-1. This was an audio oscillator patterned after the P-1, but that automatically stepped through 17 audio frequencies. Every 2.5 seconds, it stepped to the next frequency. After reaching the highest frequency, it returned to 1,000 hertz where it paused for 17 seconds before repeating the run. The pause gave the studio or service people time to prepare for the next test run. The change from frequency to frequency was clickless. Pultec designed and built three of these for RCA Victor Records, Inc., for their studios in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. This frequency run was available 24 hours per day for use in every studio and repair facility in each of the three complexes. If desired, the stepping could be stopped and the frequency changed manually by pushbutton. Lights on the panel indicated the output frequency. The people who had occasion to use these test frequencies soon learned the sequence by heart.
The break for Pultec occurred about 1955. Up to this point the company almost closed its doors 3 or 4 times, but was saved at the last minute. Eugene and Ollie had an idea for an audio program equalizer that they felt was superior in several respects to any of the three or four popular ones on the market. Upon completing their laboratory model and trying it out at Pultec and at each of their homes with considerable satisfaction, their equalizer was ready for the acid test. They knew Clair D. Krepps, then chief engineer at MGM Studios in New York, who also lived in Bergenfield. He gladly took the equalizer to MGM for extended use and opinions. After several weeks Clair returned the equalizer telling Eugene and Ollie they really had something, it had impressed all who used it, and MGM wanted several as soon as they were available. Timing also was in Pultec’s favor. The 78 RPM record was being replaced by the 33 1/3 RPM long playing record, creating a need for better quality audio equipment all around. The result for Pultec was the Model EQP-1 Program Equalizer. This equalizer, which evolved into the Model EQP-1A and later the EQP-1A3, was the staple of the firm throughout its corporate history. All Pultec equipment was designed and built using the highest quality parts. In broad terms, Ollie was responsible for mechanical design, drafting, and panel engraving. Eugene did the electronic design, precise selection of parts for the equalizer and filter networks, and final testing and then packing of units for shipment. Pete did most of the mounting of parts and wiring of the units and helped in the shipping department. In truth all three did a bit of everything as needed and always maintained a happy and productive working relationship.