The David Sarnoff Library Collection: The Weisbecker Papers

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Manual cover for system designed by Joe Weisbecker, circa 1975As the Manuscripts and Archives Department at the Hagley Library begins to work its way through the papers of various scientists and engineers within the David Sarnoff Library Collection, archivists frequently come across some interesting finds. That was certainly the case when processing began on the Joseph Weisbecker portion of the collection.

After graduating from Drexel with a degree in Electrical Engineering, Weisbecker (1932-1990) began a career at RCA that spanned more than three decades. Weisbecker began his work with RCA in 1953 as a staff engineer performing research on LSI circuits and general computer development and design. However, in the 1970s, Weisbecker developed an 8-bit architecture computer system, released as the COSMAC 1801R and 1801U using the CMOS process. In 1976, both 1801s were integrated into a single chip, known as the 1802. After the introduction of the 1801 processor, Weisbecker developed many inexpensive applications to be used with the processor including light guns, card readers, and cassette interfaces. Later in 1975, he designed the 1861 PIXIE graphics processor as a low-budget video output for microcomputer systems which provided functions needed for bit-mapped graphic displays. At the same time, Weisbecker devised an educational board called the Microtutor which taught basic computer concepts as well as a form of a home video game system called Studio II.

Throughout his career, Weisbecker was twice awarded the RCA Labs Outstanding Achievement Award (1970, 1973), the Best Paper Award from the IEEE Computer Society (1975), and the David Sarnoff Award for Outstanding Technical Achievement (1976).

In 1976, Weisbecker’s design for the COSMAC Elf, a newer version of the Mictotutor, was designed to be constructed at home by those with little experience with computers. Later, 1861 based video was added to Elf and RCA released the COSMAC VIP, an expanded version of Elf, but that was used with CHIP-8 programming language. This high-level language was designed for keyboard and video use, and is still widely used, most notably in TI-83 calculators.

Cover for puzzle game designed and constructed by Joe Weisbecker, circa 1975 In addition to his work at RCA, Weisbecker designed his own board and computer games. With an office at his home in Cherry Hill, he operated Komputer Pastimes. The company’s most successful product was a set of computer game books that were advertised in The New York Times and sold through Reader’s Digest. Some of the games built personally by Weisbecker are among the most interesting items in the collection.

The papers of Joe Weisbecker are divided into five separate series. Series I. Manuals, Technical Items, and Reports, 1955-1979 includes for items either developed by Weisbecker or that he had written. Also included in the series are patents held by the Weisbecker and those used for reference by his patent attorney in Philadelphia. Series II. Early Computer Games and Development, 1961-1981 consists of records pertaining to Weisbecker’s interest in computer games and includes diagrams, articles, original artwork and design documents as well as a few game pieces. Series III. Correspondence, 1969-1978 includes Weisbecker’s communications from his work at RCA as well as Komputer Pastimes Company, his self-owned and operated company. Series IV. Clippings, Publications, and Ads, 1965-1980, relate mainly to Weisbecker’s RCA work and includes issues of various computing magazines with related articles. Series V. Artifacts, 1965-1975 includes mainly board and computer games developed by Joe Weisbecker both for RCA and on his own with Komputer Pastimes.

Andrew Engel is Project Archivist in the Manuscripts and Archives Department at Hagley Museum and Library.