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A love of tinkering

Engineers are born, not made. Or at least that's the message one can glean from discussions with nearly every engineer about the beginning of their love of engineering. Phil Livingston, ATSC chairman and Panasonic vice president for technical liaison, is no exception.

"When I was seven or eight, I would save my allowance and buy broken radios at the Salvation Army for 50 cents, take them home, take them apart, and try to fix them using past purchases for parts," he recalls. This habit isn't lost on his wife, who he says promises to put "He could take anything apart" on his tombstone.

"Engineers need to find out why the rattle rattles even if it doesn't rattle after you've taken it apart," he laughs.

A love for tinkering has lead Livingston to his lofty position at ATSC, where he'll oversee the nation's efforts in tinkering with the DTV standard. That's a far cry from broken radios.

Livingston has been involved with the ATSC on and off since 1987, and he was the Panasonic representative at the Advanced Television Test Center (ATTC) and the Model Station (WHD-TV) as well. His appointment coincided with the ATSC's branching off the ATSC Forum, which handles promoting the ATSC standard around the world.

Livingston's early career, however, was in broadcasting. He attended Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., where he worked diligently at the college radio station, WRUC(AM). The only problem was that the school didn't offer a major in radio. A physics and chemistry major, he found his attention focused on WRUC. So he left school and became chief engineer at WVOS(AM) Liberty, N.Y., after getting his first-class radio license from the FCC.

"It was a typical local AM station at that point, but it was a great place to begin, because I did everything," he recalls. "I was the chief engineer, but I was also the only engineer."

A little more than a year later, in 1962, the FCC channel reallocation took place, and he moved to WOKR(TV) Rochester, N.Y., where he had a chance to work with one of the first RCA videotape machines. "Videotape was still pretty new, expensive and had lots of tubes. But it was a miraculous kind of thing."

In 1964, he looked for a new challenge. Rochester's school district wanted to build an instructional-television fixed-service system. Livingston, only 23 at the time, headed the construction of a production facility and distribution system for 33 schools. "I marvel at the people who were older than I was who reported to me and worked with me and put up with me," he says. "They had the patience of saints to put up with this kid who was still wet behind the ears."

He enjoyed the educational side of TV and then went to work at SUNY College at New Paltz, N.Y. There he helped oversee construction of a media center, which included audio, video, film and graphics. He then joined a small systems integrator in New Hampshire called Telecommunications Services that tapped into his love of building things.

"I'm not a cabinet maker, but I'm not a bad carpenter," he says, "and I'm actually a pretty fair plumber and electrician."

But financial troubles at the company had him looking elsewhere. That's when he joined Panasonic. It was a year after the introduction of VHS, and the company was just starting to grapple with the success of the format.

Over the years, Livingston has seen lots of changes, but the biggest may be the improved reliability of equipment.

"Manufacturers like Panasonic will begin to build diagnostics that are the equivalent of the systems that are plugged into cars today," he says in discussing how engineers will know what's going on under the hood. Tinkering may become obsolete.