Classical music entered Russell's life before he went off to college. "My brother-in-law had a record collection, and we had Beethoven, some Chopin, and some Gilbert and Sullivan," he said. In high school, he began to buy recordings by Mussorgsky and Offenbach. Vocalist Paul Robeson made a stop in his hometown of Bremerton, Washington, and Russell occasionally crossed Puget Sound to hear the Seattle Symphony. The summer before beginning classes at Reed, he installed equipment at an AM radio station. Once in college, he listened to the Saturday broadcast of the New York Metropolitan Opera.
When he graduated with a degree in physics in 1953, Russell signed on with General Electric, the private manager of the Atomic Energy Commission's Hanford Nuclear Plant. His wife, Barbara, another '53 graduate, worked as a chemist. GE made Russell a "designated problem-solver" for its experimental unit, sending engineers with technical quandaries to him. He patented several devices that helped run Hanford's reactors and also helped develop complete computer controls for a test reactor.
At home in Richland, where no stations played classical music, Russell was trying to figure out how to keep his records from wearing out. For a while he took a cue from other LP owners and used cactus spines instead of steel styluses. "After each record you had to resharpen the needle," he recalled. "The cactus would wear quickly into the groove, so you'd have very good contact, whereas the steel needle would wear down the record."
But that wasn't enough. What recordings really needed, Russell thought, was a needle that would never wear the groove-one made of light. "I realized that if I wanted to store music, there weren't enough bits on the conventional digital tape around at the time," he said. "So I came up with the optical process."
In 1965, when Battelle Memorial Institute took over management of Hanford's lab, Russell gained an audience for his more far-fetched ideas. He began to pepper Battelle with proposals for new commercial concepts. The optical digital technology was met with skepticism. "Here I was at Battelle, enmeshed in the scientific community, and one of the first things I had to demonstrate was that you could digitize music and reproduce it," he said. "`Music into numbers? Come on now, Russell. ' When I first proposed it, it was not believed that you could digitize sound."
Battelle's commercial interests were somewhat narrow, but another investor preferred more popular applications of the new technology. In 1971 venture capitalist Eli Jacobs started the Optical Recording Corporation and hired Russell and a team of technicians to come up with a video disk. "The vision I had in mind was of television programs on little plastic records. The networks, instead of putting programs on television, would print records. And if you wanted to watch your favorite programs you'd get them in the mail and put in the disk whenever you want," Russell said. "Jacobs thought, if we can do it, hey great, we've got the whole world by the tail. And if we can't, well at least you know where you are."
They did it, but the world didn't jump up. In 1974 the company announced an optical digital television recording and playback machine, the first device to digitize a color image, at a Chicago trade show. The response from large potential investors was cool. "RCA had considered some kind of video storage disc. They said `Gosh, we've been trying to do this; we'll tell headquarters about it,'" said Russell. "But the answer came back, 'In no way will you turn us around. Princeton Labs invented television.' So they chose to go off on another tangent."