Their ingenuity probably spared you from watching people eat worms on "Fear Factor'' in black and white.

In March 1954, RCA rolled out the world's first mass-produced color TV set, unveiling a product with a strong local hue: A revolutionary color picture tube that was largely developed -- and manufactured entirely -- at RCA's plant on New Holland Avenue.

The debut of the $1,000 sets, with their 15-inch picture tubes, capped five years of concentrated effort by the enterprising RCA engineers here.

But their work, which ultimately would bring color to millions of living rooms, was just beginning.

"It was challenging. We were exploring new ground. We didn't know if it could be done until it was,'' recalled David VanOrmer, now 81, then a design engineer on the local RCA team.

As the complicated work progressed over the years toward the introduction of that first model, VanOrmer remembered the exhilaration of technical breakthroughs.

And the opposite held true as well.

"The new samples (made by the RCA plant's development shop to the design team's specifications) would come in and you're holding your breath to see what they'll do.

"If (the test) was successful, you expanded on it. If not, you went back to take another tack,'' said VanOrmer. "I did a lot of praying.'' RCA once was one of the county's largest industries, employing thousands. It was sold in the 1980s, with Thomson Consumer Products becoming the owner of the picture tube business. The RCA complex now is the Burle Business Park.

RCA's local roots dated to the early 1940s, when the Navy opened a plant here to make radar display and other tubes. RCA bought it a few years later.

An outgrowth of the plant's original purpose was the development and production of black-and-white television picture tubes. In 1949, that expertise led to the plant's involvement in color tube work.

The color picture tube design team had about a dozen RCA engineers, supported by about 70 specialists in glass, ceramics, metals, manufacturing and other fields, many of them veterans of black-and-white tube work.

The team's course was charted by RCA Laboratories in Princeton, N.J., which had sifted through the various possible ways to make color picture tubes, then selected the one perceived to be the most practical for mass production.

The team was assigned the mission of taking that chosen technology and, with the ongoing support of RCA Labs, developing a color picture tube that could be mass produced in the Lancaster plant by the thousands, while another department of the local plant, headed by Robert G. Neuhauser, developed the color TV camera tube.

Meanwhile, other RCA sites concentrated on creating other aspects of the color TV set, such as its circuitry.

But RCA was not operating in a vacuum, so to speak. RCA's rival, CBS, was finalizing development of a mechanical color television set that used a whirling disc of color filters.

While CBS' system was endorsed by the Federal Communications Commission, it had a major drawback -- it couldn't display black-and-white programming. CBS only made a handful of sets using its technology during a few months.

As the CBS system stagnated, RCA pursued an all-electronic system that had no moving parts and was capable of displaying black-and-white programming as well.

Yet RCA faced challenges too. Early on, its color was not exactly lifelike. Gen. David Sarnoff, RCA chairman at the time, said of one version, "The monkeys were green, the bananas were blue and everybody had a good laugh.'' It was no laughing matter to the RCA team here, however, as they kept striving to perfect the color tube using a "shadow mask'' technology selected by RCA Labs.

Picture tubes made with this technology, still found in the vast majority of color televisions made today, have red, blue and green electron guns at the back.

These guns fire electron beams through microscopic holes in an ultra-thin steel mask.

The holes are positioned to allow the electrons to strike only the correct microscopic dot of a color-emitting chemical known as a phosphor on the inside of the screen. The array of glowing phosphors gives the picture tube its colored image.

Working closely with Harold Law of RCA Labs, who earned several patents for his advancements of the shadow-mask technology, the local plant overcame obstacle after obstacle.

The team solved intricate, unprecedented issues such as finding ways to exactly align the mask and compensate for the heat generated by the electron beams.

As RCA's teams here and elsewhere continued to achieve breakthroughs, eventually the FCC reversed itself and endorsed the RCA color TV system, including the picture tube, in 1953.

Now the challenge for the local plant was to take the picture tube from a demonstration product, made in small test quantities, to mass production.

RCA initially predicted it would take six to nine months to gear up, but the Lancaster plant did it in two, according to news accounts at the time.

The local plant shipped the tubes to RCA's plant in Bloomington, Ind., where they were assembled into completed sets, the first coming off the assembly line March 25, 1954, and sent to stores for sale the next month.

But the 160-pound sets didn't exactly fly off the shelves. That inaugural model, the CT-100, named "The Merrill,'' had a sizable downside.

First was the price. At $1,000, the equivalent of nearly $6,900 in today's dollars, "The Merrill'' cost half as much as a new car.

Second, there were few chances to use it. The only regularly scheduled show in color then was a sitcom, "The Marriage,'' which lasted only eight episodes. Just 68 hours of color shows were aired the entire year.

Third, the sets were complicated to operate and offered a mediocre picture, compared to the consistently sharp pictures provided by black-and-white sets of that era.

"The Merrill'' also came long before today's highly automated TVs that come with the convenience of remote controls and the signal quality of cable or satellite dishes.

In addition to the same controls and antenna adjustments needed to operate black-and-white models of that time, the finicky "Merrill'' had controls for tint and saturation (color intensity).

"It used to be a joke that an engineer was sold with every television set,'' said Albert Morrell, 81, one of the design team members.

To spur weak sales, in August RCA cut the price tag to $495. But having sold fewer than 5,000 "Merrills,'' RCA knew it had to improve the product, and quickly, for color TV to catch on.

"The main problem,'' remembered VanOrmer, "was the size of the viewing area and the brightness of it. It was in a "porthole.' And you had to dim the (room) lights so you didn't wash out the picture.'' While the public still perceived "The Merrill'' as the epitome of color TV sets, because that's all that was on the market, the RCA team here knew better.

"It was history to us. It was dead meat. All the problems it created and the lack of adequacy -- there was no way we could stop there. ... Color (television) would not survive if that stayed the state-of-the-art,'' said VanOrmer.

"It was all right, as far as it went,'' said Yoneichi "Bill'' Uyeda, now 80, then another design engineer on the RCA team. "But it had some nasty operational problems.'' The picture wasn't consistently sharp and the color, especially the color of skin tones, wasn't consistently accurate and stable, Uyeda remembered.

The local design team quickly put its years of effort into creating "The Merrill'' behind it and looked forward, in VanOrmer's words, to "leapfrogging to the next generation.'' "There was a lot of work in developing the tube'' for "The Merrill,'' he said. "But at that point, we said there's no point in trying to further dress up this sow's ear.

"We figured, let's get after the silk purse.'' At the direction of Sarnoff, the local plant launched a "crash program'' to develop and mass produce a larger and better color picture tube.

Engineers completed tests in a day that normally took a week or two. Sarnoff designated executive vice president Charles Joliffe as his personal liaison with the Lancaster plant to ensure the plant immediately got the resources it needed to press on.

Facing a new round of technical issues and pressure from corporate headquarters to solve them yesterday, the RCA group often worked 18-hour days, even on weekends.

It was nothing to start at 7 a.m. and finish at 11 p.m. or midnight. On more than one occasion, said Uyeda, they worked straight through the night.

"I don't know that anybody mandated me to stay overnight. But I knew the criticality of the situation...,'' he said. "The pressure was on, because this (color TV) was the dream of our corporate executives in New York.'' "One of the things I remember is that we were so busy, we didn't even have time to get haircuts,'' said Yale Eastman, now 75, then a lead engineer in the color tube testing department. "And back in those days, men always had their hair cut pretty short.'' "We were working for the General and we were as dedicated to his vision as he was,'' said Morrell.

Other key members of the close-knit design team included Richard Godfrey, Dick Nolan, Dick Hughes, Terry Schrader, Robert Demmy, Franz Van Hekken and H.C. "Nan'' Moodey, the only woman in the group.

RCA's "Merrill,'' observed VanOrmer, "was state-of-the-art in 1954, but state-of-the-art in 1954 wasn't good enough. We had to go the next step, in a hurry.'' By late 1954, their exceptional efforts were paying off. A 21-inch color picture tube, with vastly improved performance, was rolling off the production line here.

Over several years, as color sets offered better picture tubes, lower prices and simpler operation, and as the broadcast industry made more color programming available, sales of color sets grew.

"It wasn't until 1960 when color TV became a truly profitable business,'' said Morrell. "Many other companies started to manufacture color TV picture tubes using for the most part RCA technology.'' Today the industry, and Lancaster's role in it, is very different.

RCA eventually stopped making picture tubes in Lancaster, was sold to General Electric and divested piecemeal by GE; RCA's picture-tube R&D operation here now is owned by Thomson.

The technology has changed dramatically too. Shadow-mask technology, while in widespread use, is no longer cutting edge. Now other high-tech marvels are all the rage, although some of that old RCA team saw them coming way back.

"The only thing that surprises me is that it has taken much longer than I would have expected,'' said VanOrmer.

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