Apollo 11: A small but important part of the moon landing equipment was made in Concord

  • Some of the capacitors produced by the Sprague Electric plant in Concord are shown in a 1981 photo. Courtesy of Sprague Electric

  • Sprague Electric employee, Kathy Scofield, inspects electronics in the Concord plant in 1983. Monitor file

  • Sprague Electric employee Frances Temple inspects electronics in the Concord plant in 1983. At its height, the facility employed more than 600 people. Monitor file

  • The Sprague Electric plant on the Heights in Concord is shown in 1980. It operated from 1958 through the early 1990’s and had more than 600 employees at its height.  KEN WILLIAMS—Monitor file

Monitor staff
Published: 7/6/2019 10:23:37 PM

Richard Perry, 84, has one main thought as he watches the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 flight.

“I have a feeling that 99.9% of Concord doesn’t even know that people from Concord were involved in Apollo landing on the moon,” said Perry, a Penacook and Concord native who now lives in Florida.

What involvement is that?

Sprague Electronics, which operated a huge factory in the Heights for four decades, supplied specialized capacitors to many NASA flights, including the Apollo program.

That doesn’t sound like a huge connection, perhaps, but anybody who has worked with electronics knows that capacitors – small battery-like devices able to store and release electricity very quickly – can make or break a system.

Perry admits that very occasionally, they broke it.

“One time, one of the launches didn’t go off. They tracked it down to the equipment, and it was our capacitor that had a problem,” he said in a recent phone interview with the Monitor. “Six NASA engineers spent a week going through every step of the operation and it ended up being a welding problem. … They were satisfied, and we kept the contract. It was real interesting to spend the time with them.”

But mostly, Sprague capacitors worked just fine, which is why NASA wanted them.

Sprague Electric, founded by Robert Sprague in Quincy, Mass., in 1926, was the first firm to make capacitors out of tantalum, an element with electricity-handling capabilities that made it ideal for the job. In the 1960s, Sprague Electric tantalum capacitors were the industry standard, and they were all built in Concord.

Sprague Electric opened its Concord manufacturing facility, a 120,000-square-foot complex on Penacook Road that now houses Community Bridges, in 1958. At the time, Sprague was an electronics behemoth headquartered in a sprawling former mill in North Adams, Mass., that now houses the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, and it had as many as 12,000 employees worldwide.

The Concord plant, which made both capacitors and transistors, had more than 600 employees in the late 1960s, according to Monitor articles. Many of them, probably a majority, were women doing detailed assembly work, said Perry.

“The transistor department was huge; two big rooms that were all women assembling stuff,” he said.

Perry was born in Penacook and later lived in Concord, attending now-closed Catholic schools – Immaculate Conception grammar school and St. John’s High School.

“I was taught by nuns. I can still show you some marks on my hands where they hit it with a stick when I misbehaved,” he said, laughing.

After a stint in the Army he returned home and was hired by Sprague, eventually becoming a supervisor of a department making tantalum capacitors. He spent roughly 10 years at the company before moving south and working with firms making chips for telephones and computers. He and his wife, Jackie, still have family in the area.

Sprague underwent many changes over the years, developing a variety of tantalum capacitor products, before falling victim, like much U.S. electronics manufacturing, to Japanese competition. It shifted the transistor business out of Concord in 1990 and the plant shut down two years later after Sprague sold the capacitor division to Vishay Intertechnology of Pennsylvania. Vishay still sells tantalum capacitors among a variety of semiconductor products and has a plant in Dover among many locations.

Perry said Sprague didn’t talk much about the NASA connection when he was there: “They did have some pictures of it, but no big deal.” They certainly didn’t brag to the local newspaper; a hunt through old Monitor files finds no articles about it.

But Perry says everybody at the plant was proud of the connection and it added to the excitement as they, along with the rest of the world, watched Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.

“Every time a launch went off, we were all ‘Yeah!’ ” he said.

“I just wanted to remind everybody that some people in Concord had a role in it.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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