Remembering the Beginning of Printed Circuit Board Manufacturing

by Bob Swiggett, Photocircuits

Looking back 58 years to 1948, I recall five things that led me to found Photocircuits Corp., which became the first company in the world to manufacture printed wiring boards as its sole line of business. These five things were as follows:

  1. I read a short report written by the Signal Corps Engineering Laboratory describing the "Autosembly" process for electronic assemblies using plastic boards with etched copper foil patterns where the axial lead components were inserted through holes in the board and dip soldered to the foil pattern;
  2. I met Russ Davis, a salesman for the National Vulcanized Fibre Co., at the wedding of a friend, who pitched me on what he thought was going to be a great new product, copper foil-clad plastic laminate;
  3. I worked as a process engineer for Chemco Photoproducts, a company that made plastic film, process cameras, etching, and other equipment for photoengraving printing plates as well as operating three photoengraving plants. We really knew everything about printing and etching processes;
  4. RCA had asked one of our plants to try photoetching coils for a new TV tuner using the new NVF copper clad plastic;
  5. My boss at Chemco, A. Jay Powers, enthusiastically supported my request to set up a small laboratory and investigate the potential for what just might become a big business.

After visiting the Signal Corps and the National Bureau of Standards, the lab was put together in the cellar of one of Chemco's buildings in Glen Cove, New York. In the beginning, there was no market and little interest. After World War II, military electronics was 'dead'. Radio manufacturers claimed that they could hand-wire a five-tube AC/DC set for 35 cents. TV was just coming alive. IBM didn't have a single vacuum tube in any of its punched card equipment. The computer business hardly existed. Nobody had heard pf the transistor yet.

However, there were customers for complex rotary switches that we could make. Etched inductances such as the RCA tuner coils were interesting to many. We made large quantities of TV antenna filters and couplers, and other products.

Bell Labs came to us for a few small cards that they used to make the first logic circuits wit this new 'transistor' to be shown at their three-day symposium in 1950, where they introduced it to the world. It seems quite significant in retrospect that the only way that they could mount and interconnect these devices was on a printed wiring board. Amazingly, at the symposium, I sat next to three guys from a small geodesic test equipment firm from Texas – Texas Instruments. They expressed interest in getting a license.

Our antenna filters used two-sided cards where conductors on opposite sides were interconnected by brass eyelets that were soldered. Temperatures on the roof produced open circuits. There was panic! This stimulated violent process development in our lab to produce electroplated holes that would not open. Solving this problem opened the doors to many new applications.

As quantities increased, we developed inks, screen printing machines, etching and electroplating equipment, solder masks, and other products and process tools. Military customers wanted better high-temperature resistance and strength than could be achieved with the early paper-based laminates. We tried many resins, and the best turned out to be a new 'epoxy' material in combination with glass cloth. Since the laminators such as NVF had only high-pressure presses, they could not, at the time, use epoxy resins. We acquired a small press and began producing materials ourselves.

My brother Jim, fresh out of Princeton, brought order to our production systems, as well as pricing; still, we lost money operating out of a cellar and a garage. Despair set in, and we almost quit.