Monthly Archives: November 2015

Friday, November 13 — 12:00 noon — WAG 316

Josh Roebke, University of Texas Institute for Historical Studies

“Color Television and Gray Flannel Suits: Ernest Lawrence and the Entertainment Industry in the Early Years of the Cold War”

In 1958, David Lilienthal called Ernest Lawrence and Luis Alvarez, “Madison-avenue-type scientists. Scientists in gray flannel suits.” Lilienthal was referring to the advertising that these physicists did for the hydrogen bomb, but he could have also been describing their recent business experience. In March of 1950, Ernest Lawrence founded Chromatic Television Laboratories, Inc., and a few weeks later he sold a half stake to Paramount Pictures for $1 million. While Paramount developed into a consumer electronics conglomerate, Lawrence and his employees from the Radiation Lab in Berkeley, including the future Nobel Laureates Luis Alvarez and Edwin McMillan, developed a cathode-ray tube for color television named the chromatron. Throughout the 1950s, Ernest Lawrence thus attended to dueling passions: hydrogen bombs and color televisions. Although his commitment to the first was attributed to patriotism and his interest in the second has been dismissed as a hobby, it is not so easy to disentangle his motives. Lawrence worked with the same physicists and engineers on both projects. And color screens were needed for more than variety shows and sitcoms; they also displayed incoming missiles and airplanes in vivid color. Several Nobel Laureates have founded successful businesses. But no company has been led by three future Nobel Laureates and been such a failure as Chromatic Television Laboratories. The chromatron resisted mass-production for more than a decade, and Lawrence divested all interest in his company shortly before he died. Yet Lawrence still had a profound influence on the development of color television. In 1961, the Sony Corporation licensed the chromatron, and by the end of that decade Japanese engineers had developed a native version of Lawrence’s tube, called the Trinitron system. Sony would soon dominate the US market for consumer electronics, thanks in part to its patient refinement of Ernest Lawrence’s technology.


Joshua Roebke is currently writing his first book, The Invisible World, a social and cultural history of particle physics during the 20th century. The book will be published in the US by Farrar, Straus & Giroux and rights have been sold in a few other countries around the world. He has a Master’s Degree in theoretical high-energy physics, and he was an editor and writer at an award-winning science magazine for several years. One of his features was included in The Best American Science and Nature Writing. He was a visiting scholar in the history of science at UC Berkeley, and he is currently a research associate at the Institute for Historical Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, where he also teaches writing.

Friday, November 6 — 12:00 noon — WAG 316

Felipe Cruz, University of Texas

“The Balloonists: Brazil’s Underground Folk Artists”

Thousands of unmanned hot air balloons cross the skies of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo every year. Tightly knit and secretive groups exist whose sole purpose is to create a public aerial art form consisting of balões, the Portuguese name for these intricate aircraft made of paper and propelled by fire. Small balões had been made for annual  folkloric religious festivals since the colonial era, and by the 1970s making them had evolved into an activity in its own right, ushering in a golden age for balões and their makers, the baloeiros. These groups developed a wealth of new techniques in order to construct and launch their gigantic balões, creating a complex body of technological knowledge. I propose the term “guerrilla technologies” to describe this decentralized and bottom up approach to technical creation by subaltern actors. These new large and complex balões  flew higher and longer than their predecessors and began to overtake the urban airspace, traversing the vast oceans of poor peripheries and landing in the islands of elite population in Rio and São Paulo. This talk analyzes the world of baloeiros and their process in creating a guerrilla technology, as well as the elite perceptions of them as dangerous criminals that eventually led to their criminalization and repression.


Originally from São Paulo, Brazil, Felipe Fernandes Cruz is now a doctoral candidate in History at UT, where he is completing a dissertation on the history of aeronautics and colonization in Brazil’s frontier regions. He also wrote and co-directed the documentary film “The Balloonists: Brazil’s Underground Folk Artists,” the subject of his talk today, and helped found The Appendix, an online journal of narrative and experimental history. His work has been supported by fellowships from the Social Science Research Council, the American Meteorological Society,  the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, and the Linda Hall Library, and he has been awarded both the prestigious Kranzberg Fellowship from the Society for the History of  Technology and the Edward H. Moseley Award from the Southeastern Council of Latin  American Studies.