Paul Cram: Engineering a Long Life

A 100-year-old life member helps usher in digital TV and looks back at how things have changed

7 December 2009


Paul Cram at home in his workshop, in Mansfield, Ga.

As TV stations in the United States switched off their analog signals and went digital in June, WAGA–TV, in Atlanta, interviewed the engineer who had switched on its signal 60 years before.

That man is Paul Cram, the station’s first broadcast engineer. As IEEE celebrated its 125th anniversary this year, Cram also celebrated a milestone: He turned 100 last month. Cram spoke to reporter Tom Haynes in the station’s transmitter room about what it felt like to return there after so many decades and how the station has changed. With WAGA’s cameras rolling, he then pressed the button that cut off the analog signal.

It has been a remarkable personal and professional journey for Cram, an IEEE life member who spent most of his career at the forefront of radio, radar, and television engineering. Cram lives with a grandson in Mansfield, Ga., where he occasionally fields questions about his longevity and shows his relatives how to build small electronic devices.

“People ask, ‘What’s your secret?’” he says. “I don’t have any secrets. I’ve taken good care of myself. I’m not a smoker or drinker, and I drink a lot of milk.”

Growing up in Birmingham, Ala., Cram began considering a career in engineering after meeting the local radio station engineer. “It looked like a pretty good way to make a living,” he says. In 1927, after a year at Birmingham-Southern College, Cram headed to Chicago to work in a Grigsby-Grunow factory that was building the first ac-powered radios. “Radios were all battery-powered until 1928,” Cram notes.

Then came the stock market crash of 1929. “Some people lost all their money and committed suicide,” he says. “But I wasn’t affected. As a kid, I didn’t have any money invested. The factory closed, and although it was hard to get a job, I always managed to find one. My friends said it was because I was the type of person companies wanted.”

Cram returned to Birmingham and attended night classes at the University of Alabama while helping to design substations for Alabama Power. In 1932 he joined the local radio station, WKBC (later WSGN and now WAGG), and went on to become chief engineer. WKBC gave Cram on-the-job training with directional antennas—cutting-edge technology at the time. In those days, radio operated with only AM frequencies, and those antennas directed broadcasts away from each other to avoid interference. “I ended up specializing in directional antennas and have made my living working on them,” he says. “I’m one of the few people left who still knows how to build one.”

In the mid-1930s, Cram earned a bachelor’s degree in electricity from the University of Alabama. “The university’s records don’t go back that far, so I’m no longer sure of the exact year,” Cram says.

He joined one of IEEE’s predecessor societies, the Institute of Radio Engineers, in 1935. Except for a few years from the end of the 1930s to the beginning of the 1940s, he has been a member ever since. “The IRE was primarily U.S.-based,” he says. “So whenever an engineer took a job in another country, he’d be responsible for developing an engineering community there.”

Cram says his most interesting work came in 1942, when he moved to Waltham, Mass., to work for Raytheon. “Radar had just been invented, and it was a very interesting time in electronics,” he recalls. “There were no experts, no people with experience. I was working with people who had Ph.D.s and scientists doing classified work, and even they were having trouble developing radar. I would interview the scientists and turn their notes into a real system. It was absolutely my favorite job.”

In 1947, Cram moved to Atlanta to head the engineering department at WAGA-TV, the first TV station in the southern United States. “The owner asked me what I knew about television, and I said, ‘Absolutely nothing.’ He pointed a finger at me and said, ‘Well, you’re about to learn.’ In those days, all you had to do to succeed was be determined to learn. That’s been my attitude all my life.” When the station went on the air in 1949, it was Cram who switched on the signal.

From 1954 to 1975, Cram worked out of Orlando, Fla., as director of engineering at Rounsaville Enterprises, a now-defunct broadcasting firm. He then ran his own consultancy, Broadcast Technical Services, out of his Orlando home. He moved to Georgia in 2000 and retired last year.

In his long life, Cram has had many good times but has also dealt with difficult losses. “Almost everyone I’ve known in my life has died,” he says. “The last time I called a friend I’d started out working with in Birmingham, the phone had been disconnected. It gives you a feeling of helplessness, but you can’t do anything but accept it. An associate once said the reason I’ve lived so long is because I don’t worry about anything. Hmm, maybe that is my secret.”

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