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Thomas L. Robinson Sr.

He was born in Asburn, GA. He was accomplished in the area of Science. He later died on 1-10-1988.
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One of America's 200 best small companies (Forbes Magazine), Astronics Corporation, is located in Buffalo, New York. What is not known (lost to history) is that Astronics Corp. was started by a local African-American engineer and researcher Thomas L. Robinson, Sr.

Thomas L. Robinson, Sr. was born 1916 in Ashburn, Georgia. At a very young age his parents Ulysses and Mary Robinson moved the family, Thomas and his younger brother to Buffalo, New York. Thomas attended the old Hutchinson Central High School (now Hutch-Tech). He also pursued some coursework at the University of Buffalo in Electrical Engineering but mostly Thomas was self-taught in the areas of electronics, mechanics and electrical circuitry. During World War II he worked as an electrical draftsman for Curtiss-Wright who developed the famous P-40 War Hawk fighter plane. In 1948 he was hired in research and development at Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory (now Calspan Inc.). Over the next twenty years he worked as a project engineer at the Cornell Labs where he developed electro-optical devices.

In December 1968, Thomas L. Robinson, Sr. established the Astronics Corp., the first company solely dedicated to developing electroluminescent panels. He formed Astronics because existing technology was not advanced enough to allow him to complete an electroluminescent flat screen display for the National Aeronautical and Space Administration's (NASA) Goddard Space Center while he was at Cornell Labs. (This was completed in 1972.)

Electroluminescent technology is based on a French physicist discovery of electroluminescence in 1937. In this phenomenon, a cool light emits from an electroluminescent material sandwiched between two electrodes under alternating current (ac power). Scientists spent the next couple of decades and millions of dollars trying to make the discovery practical. It wasn't until Mr. Robinson developed and patented a new process allowing the production of larger, more practical electroluminescent panels. These panels are flexible, lightweight, and thin as paper, these solid-state devices are resistance to breakage, produced more light at lower voltage and lower frequencies than conventional incandescent or fluorescent bulbs. They stayed cool and wore out gradually rather than blowing out like light bulbs.

Astronics first home was the Gardenville Industrial Park in West Seneca. It later rented space from Moog Inc. on French Road in Cheektowaga. Besides Mr. Robinson the company had five other employees; and, its first year revenues were only $13,000.
Sales volume fell to just $1,777 in 1970 as the company devoted it's time to research and development. Mr. Robinson called on George F. Rand III, chairman of Rand Capital Corp., for financial backing. Rand Capital's investment in late 1970 allowed Astronics to document its R&D efforts and gain a contract from NASA. That project involved making displays for Skylab. The panels also were used in aircraft and sea vessels.

In December 1972, Astronics bought MOD-PAC Corp. in Buffalo, which manufactured paperboard cartons and boxes. It had nearly $2 million in annual sales, more than ten times that of Astronics. Although seemingly unrelated to the aerospace business, MOD-PAC represented good investment potential; there was also some transferable expertise in its graphics department.

January 1973 the company purchased a 14,000-square-foot building at 77 Olean Road in East Aurora and relocated its entire electroluminescent operation there. Employment increased to 105 by October 1973. By this time, Astronics was supplying electroluminescent instrument lighting to the Big Three U.S. automakers as well as all levels of aerospace producers including Beech Aircraft and Lear. Military aircraft used exterior lighting strips to facilitate formation flying in low visibility.
Astronics continued to grow and develop and, to acquire other companies over the years. Sales in 1974 were $2.7 million; sales reached $3.4 million in 1976 and $4.3 million 1977. In April 1999, Astronics officials announced plans for a new $6 million plant for the Luminescent Systems (Aerospace and Electronics) division of the corporation to be built in East Aurora.

Today Astronics Luminescent Systems Inc. is a leading supplier of high performance aerospace lighting systems. Astronics cabin, cockpits lighting components, escapes slide lighting, exterior lighting, flashlights, lighting control products and night visions systems can be found around the world in all types of aircraft from helicopters to business jets, VIP aircraft and commercial airplanes. Astronics has recently raised its 2013 sales forecast to between $260 million and $275 million. Forbes Magazine has in rated it has as one of the best 200 small companies in America.
Besides being a very talented scientist and researcher with a number of other patents related to electroluminescent technology.

Mr. Robinson was also a gifted amateur violist and pianist. Always having a curious mind, for him learning was a lifelong endeavor. In his early 60s Mr. Robinson developed an interest in computers and received a degree in computer technology from Erie Community College in 1984. At the time of his death he was enrolled in his last semester as a computer electrical technology major at Buffalo State College.

Thomas L. Robinson, Sr. died on January 10, 1988 and is buried locally in Ridgeway Cemetery. He left behind a wife and eight adult children.

Reprinted with permission from Charles H. Campbell
July 2013


Dearlove, Ray, "Small East Aurora Firm Has Glowing Future," Courier Express, October 14, 1973, p. 52.
Levy, Michael, "Astronics: A Glowing Business," Buffalo News, April 23, 1978, p. B10.
McKeating, Mike, "Astronics Corp.--State-of-the-Art Pioneer," Buffalo News, January 20, 1980, p. B4.
Various Internet resources
Interviewed wife: Bessie Scott Robinson