The basic principle is simple enough, and an equivalent circuit could be developed today using solid-state devices. Unfortunately, it falls well short of Campbell’s goal of a circuit capable of generating any “desired waveform.” In the patent, Campbell says that these three examples “are to be considered illustrative of the many ways the circuit may be operated to generate a desired waveform,” leaving the problem of determining inputs for other waveforms as an exercise for the reader—meaning that it simply moves the problem back one step. (Even if the user could figure out the inputs needed to obtain the required output signal, there was no indication of how one was supposed to create these input waveforms.) In the end, it offered no real advantages, and the patent may have been motivated by little more than Campbell’s desire to have something to show for all his efforts.
In 1958, however, he returned to his original conception of a true waveform generator—and this time, he produced one that worked. His crucial decision was to employ an oscilloscope as the light source, which he had dismissed years earlier as impractical. By using a cathode ray tube with a very short persistence phosphor and driving the vertical deflection at a high rate of approximately 75 MHz, he obtained a vertical ribbon of light, even with the horizontal sweep as high as 500 KHz. The final result was a piece of test equipment similar to one that is still in use today, the Arbitrary Waveform Generator (AWG), which allows the user to define a waveform by specifying a series of points expressed in terms of time and voltage, rather than by drawing it. (The AWG, which operates on a purely electronic basis, can generate waveforms at much higher frequencies than Campbell’s system.)
Campbell’s version never made it out of the prototype stage, but it was used—in a decidedly unusual context—at least once. In the May 1962 issue of Analog, Campbell published an article by Dr. William O. Davis, the Director of Research at the Huyck Corporation, titled “The Fourth Law of Motion.” As postulated by Davis and others, the Fourth Law of Motion—which supposedly expanded on Newton’s three laws—asserted that the energy of a system can’t be changed instantaneously, but only over a finite time. The article, which attempted to explain certain characteristics of dynamic systems, credited Campbell with providing “consultation and specialized instruments.” In a letter to the teenage inventor Pat Flanagan, Campbell confirmed that this equipment included the waveform generator, which was used at Huyck “in some fourth-law-of-motion studies. They needed some weird waveforms.”
The Fourth Law of Motion inspired minimal interest from the scientific community, and Campbell’s involvement underlines the fact that even as he tinkered at home with relatively conventional ideas, he was building far stranger devices in his workshop at the same time. In 1953, he constructed a “panic generator” with a flickering fluorescent bulb, inspired by a discussion of strobe lights in The Living Brain by W. Grey Walter—a book that later led William S. Burroughs to experiment with a similar mechanism called the Dream Machine. As recounted in “The Campbell Machine” (Analog, July/August 2018), Campbell seriously investigated pseudoscientific devices designed by the inventors Welsford Parker and Galen Hieronymus, which allegedly drew on unexplained forms of energy, and he devoted several articles to the “reactionless” space drive patented by Norman L. Dean, whose work inspired Davis’s ideas.
For many fans, Campbell’s support of the Hieronymus Machine and the Dean Drive was inexplicable, and it raised the question of how a man who was so technically literate in other respects could allow himself to believe in the impossible. On some level, it may have been a form of wishful thinking. Campbell never ceased to hope that a great discovery would emerge from the magazine, and this impulse—which had led him to support dianetics, L. Ron Hubbard’s “modern science of mental health,” which survives today as the Church of Scientology—contributed to his almost messianic sense of mission. He badly wanted to come up with an invention that would make him rich, not just for the obvious financial rewards, but for the legitimacy that it would confer on both him and the genre. He once wrote to his sister, “The larger-scale crackpot has to be a millionaire to be a genius, and I’ll be a millionaire.”
The reference to the “crackpot” was especially revealing. Campbell embraced a vision of scientific discovery that was produced by outsiders, as embodied by the tinkerer in his workshop, much like the heroes of his early superscience stories. For most of his life, he described himself proudly as an amateur, which led him to champion fringe beliefs while remaining out of step with the some of the most important research of his time. Campbell enjoyed visiting labs and universities, but he was too independent to participate seriously in the collective efforts—exemplified by the Manhattan Project and the space program—required to meet challenges that were too complex for any one individual. Science fiction had dreamed for decades about atomic power and the moon landing, but when those goals were fulfilled at last, they arose from the contributions of thousands of professionals, not a few lone geniuses.
In the end, Campbell was left behind by the changing nature of scientific research. He clung throughout his life to an anachronistic notion of the heroic engineer and inventor—which, paradoxically, turned out to be one of his most significant contributions to the culture of the twentieth century. The competent man of science fiction was an unapproachable ideal, but it encouraged countless readers to enter engineering and the sciences, becoming part of the vast communal enterprise in which Campbell himself was never at home. Without the romantic vision of discovery that he presented, however, these fans might never have decided to devote their lives to science. Its values may have prevented Campbell from becoming the inventor he wanted to be, but the community that he created instead turned out to be his one great invention.