200 People Cram Into Cherry Hill Library for His Latest Talk

CHERRY HILL, N.J. -- Despite a driving rainstorm, more than 200 people -- most of them senior citizens -- showed up for the "Illustrated History of RCA" presentation by author Fred Barnum in the Cherry Hill library last Wednesday.
Fred Barnum

Photo: Hoag Levins

Author Fred Barnum signs copies of his RCA book during Wednesday's appearance at the Cherry Hill Library. Larger photo. Also see photo of crowd.

Historical Society
Sponsored by the Camden County Historical Society, the event drew such a crowd that many attendees were forced to watch the two-hour show from outside the Library Conference Center's corridor doors.

"We are astounded by the size of the turnout," said Historical Society Executive Director Linda R. Gentry.

But Mr. Barnum wasn't at all surprised. When he arrived early to begin setting up his audio-visual gear he surveyed the large room, noted it was only half-filled with chairs and immediately called for library staff to quickly bring in as many more as would fit.

L-3 executive
"I've been giving this talk for years and it's always packed like this," said the business development manager for Camden's L-3 Communications Systems who is also a Historical Society Trustee.

Since 1991, the 48-year-old Cherry Hill resident has been best known to the public as the author of His Master's Voice In America, a sprawling illustrated history of the enterprise that began in 1901 as the Victor Talking Machine Company, then became RCA-Victor, which later became RCA before it was acquired by GE, which then sold it to Martin Marietta.

In 1984, just before the GE acquisition, Mr. Barnum joined RCA's Government Communications Systems division

Fred Barnum
In this brief video, Fred Barnum explains the overall historical importance of RCA Camden.
and began researching the history of the RCA Camden facility -- a project that ultimately lasted six years and became the book.

$400 on eBay
Some 5,200 copies of the hardcover 390-page volume were published in 1991 and sold out in six months. Today, demand for the out-of-print work is so great that copies sell on the online eBay auction site for $400.

Although richly researched and compellingly written, the history book's most striking feature is its trove of rare photographs that provide a 90-year visual history of RCA's operations throughout Camden County.

In 1989, Mr. Barnum was assigned to help create a photo exhibit depicting the history of the Camden RCA complex as part of an employee open house event GE was planning.

Working with one of the company photographers, Tom Del Rossi, Mr. Barnum began searching through RCA's poorly organized archives to find 250 photos that ultimately enabled guests to walk through the visual story of RCA from Victor Talking Machine's first experimental record players to the RCA radio systems used in the 1969 moon landing.

75 boxes of negatives
That project resulted in GE approving the research, writing, illustration and in-house production of a book on the subject. Mr. Barnum's project got its final boost when he literally stumbled on a pile of 75 boxes of old photograph negatives piled beside a dumpster behind one of the Camden RCA buildings GE was clearing out. Those

Fred Barnum

Photo: Hoag Levins

As a historian, Fred Barnum enjoys near rock-star-like status with former RCA employees who consider his book to be the bible of RCA history. Larger photo.
rare photos comprise much of what went into the book and, in Wednesday's Cherry Hill Library presentation, also provided the visuals that brought the company's history alive to that standing-room only audience.

Mr. Barnum pointed out that in both the tight-knit community they were part of as well as the larger significance of the company's extraordinary history-shaping inventions and products, these employees remember their careers as something far more than just the place they worked.

"In its heyday, RCA Camden was one of the most important locations in the world for critical developments in the history of communications," said Mr. Barnum. "From the practical phonograph that first brought recorded sound into the home in the Victor years to the first mass production of radios anywhere in the world to the creation of the crucial tools that propelled the growth of the radio and television broadcast industry, the company changed society. I don't know of any other place anywhere that produced the magnitude and variety of products like that site did in the world of radio and television. And then if you get into the 50s and 60s and 70s with RCA's defense electronics breakthroughs and space communications, you see that there are so many

RCA Book

Photo: Hoag Levins

Published in 1991, Fred Barnum's massive history of RCA, "His Master's Voice" in America, is now out of print and sells for as much as $400 on eBay when a copy does become available.
facets to the operations over a century that, to me, it's like THE story of the history of communication in America. And the individuals in this audience -- and the other audiences that flock to these talks when I give them -- each played a personal, long-term role in historically important events."

Rock star-like status
It's clear that Barnum the historian has achieved something akin to rock star status within this population whose experiences he has so effectively brought back to life in his book and audio-visual presentations.

As they streamed into the conference room, elderly crowd members hailed him by name and quickly surrounded him as he was setting up his equipment. Many pushed forward folders of their own RCA photos and print materials for him to see; one offered a decades-old RCA ohm meter; half a dozen came carrying their copies of the 15-year-old book for Mr. Barnum to sign.

"This happens every time I do this," he said. "Some want to show me things, others want to give them to me. These guys are getting up there in years and they're starting to think, 'If I pass away tomorrow morning, nobody's going to realize the meaning of these RCA things I've had for forty years and they may get thrown away. I want someone to preserve them. So, they want to give them to me."

Rare Radiola
One of those who approached Mr. Barnum was an elderly man who had the original operating manual for a Radiola -- the last product the Victor company made before it merged to become RCA-Victor.

"I knew that model Radiola was a rare one from 1928 and I haven't ever seen one with the original equipment still in the cabinet, but this guy has one at home," said Mr. Barnum. "It was his father's and he said it is in pristine condition. He told me he was 93 years old, he lives alone and he has this thing that is precious to him and realizes he doesn't have much time left. He said he felt he could entrust it to me because he knew I would have it preserved as the meaningful historical item it is. He was very worried that his survivors would clean out his house and not understand what the Radiola was."

Two hours later, when the lights came up, Mr. Barnum was again surrounded by white-haired men talking excitedly about many of the things shown in his presentation. As he talked to each of them -- often carrying on two conversations at once -- the author simultaneously continued to roll up wires and pack up his equipment.

Lone soldier
"Sometimes I feel like a lone soldier who is trying to keep this story alive," he said. "But when I do these talks and see what this story actually means to so many people, I just have to keep doing it. The response at these things can wear you out at the same time it is a really moving experience."

Mr. Barnum finally made it out the front door of the library and into the rain-swept parking lot, still surrended by a cluster of elderly men who continued to talk, even as he lowered the trunk, closed the door and started the engine.

"People just can't stop," he said later. "Once you show them all the photos, it opens the flood gates of their memory and they just can't get enough of it."

All Rights Reserved © 2006, Hoag Levins
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