William “Herb” Hartman, an innovative electronics expert and visionary broadcast engineer at KCRA who oversaw construction of a landmark transmission tower in Walnut Grove, died Aug. 20 of complications from bladder cancer, his family said. He was 91.
Mr. Hartman, who began working in radio full time at 16, joined Kelly Broadcasting in 1949 and was an influential engineer at KCRA AM and FM stations in Sacramento. He helped design the studio and downtown transmitter for the company’s new TV station, which went on the air in 1955, former KCRA engineer Ken Blue said.
As the first chief engineer for KCRA TV, Mr. Hartman developed plans in 1959 to build a sky-scraping antenna in the Sacramento River Delta that would expand the station’s viewership. He worked with local network affiliates KOVR and KXTV to erect a joint, 1,549-foot transmission tower that was one of the tallest structures in the world when it was completed in 1962. (It is used today as a backup antenna by local stations.)
“It was the tallest this side of the Mississippi,” said retired KCRA transmitter supervisor Tom Hughes. “There was quite a bit of coverage in The Bee. Herb was very instrumental in getting a lease for the land and getting it done.”
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Mr. Hartman left KCRA to be vice president of sales for Grass Valley Group, a leading maker of switching and signal processing equipment for TV stations. By 1967, he had founded Research Derivatives Inc., which developed and manufactured electronic controls for machinery used to paint stripes on highways.
He ran the Sacramento-based business until two weeks before his death. Besides selling equipment to transportation agencies in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Brazil and Spain, the company has developed custom-made circuitry for materials-testing labs and other uses, said his son-in-law Walter Wade.
“He thrived on solving challenges,” Wade said. “For a man with no college education who was self-taught, he was a true genius.”
William Herbert Hartman was born in 1923 in San Antonio, Texas. He became interested in the new science of broadcasting after he heard a speech by President Calvin Coolidge on a crystal set radio at age 4. He studied books about radio and spent hours after school hanging out with engineers at local station KONO.
He passed the rigorous Federal Communications Commission exam for an engineer license at 14. After graduating from high school two years later, he worked at KONO before joining Gila Broadcasting Co. as chief engineer for stations in Safford and Globe, Ariz.
During World War II, Mr. Hartman worked as a consultant on providing electricity for the Morenci copper mine in Arizona, a major supplier for munitions manufacturers. In the 1960s, he advised Gov. Pat Brown’s staff on ways to improve emergency broadcasting systems in California. He served on a trade advisory committee for the California Department of Corrections and taught electronics classes at Folsom State Prison.
He was an avid boater who joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary and taught classes on safe boating. An expert on celestial navigation, he helped friends sail a 60-foot schooner from Hawaii to California, including a weeklong detour after a Pacific storm blew the vessel off-course toward Alaska.
“Herb could explain complex things in electronics, physics and astronomy in terms that anyone could understand,” Wade said. “He really should have been a professor.”
Mr. Hartman’s wife Janet died in 2007. He is survived by three daughters from a previous marriage, Margaret Wade, Marjorie Smelser and René Domino; and a grandson.
No service is planned. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to the American Cancer Society.