Kaarlo J. Hamalainen, 88, of Medford, an Emmy Award-winning electrical engineer whose pioneering achievements in television technology helped pave the way for high-definition TV, died Wednesday, March 13, of pneumonia at the Samaritan Center at Voorhees.
Born and raised in Helsinki, Finland, he graduated in 1956 from the Finland Institute of Technology with the equivalent of a master’s degree in engineering.
In 1959, he joined the Geneva, Switzerland, branch of RCA Corp., from which he designed, sold, and installed video recording equipment across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.
In 1974, Mr. Hamalainen was transferred to the RCA headquarters in Camden. He moved to Medford, where he lived near Taunton Lake for 45 years. He directed the development of reel-to-reel video recording and broadcast technologies for RCA until the company closed its broadcast division in 1986.
Glenn A. Reitmeier, an RCA engineer now at NBC Universal, remembered working with Mr. Hamalainen. “As a friend of the industry, I can tell you he was a brilliant engineer,” Reitmeier said. “The phrase ‘a gentleman and a scholar’ comes to mind. He was always positive, one of the people in your life you’re glad you know.”
In 1986, Mr. Hamalainen became general manager of the Panasonic Corp.’s Matsushita Applied Research Laboratory in Cherry Hill. His team developed technology for digital television, including designing one of the first HDTV digital cameras in 1993.
In 1996, Panasonic created a subsidiary called Panasonic AVC American Laboratories Inc. (PAVCAL) in Burlington. Mr. Hamalainen was its president and chief operating officer.
PAVCAL was Panasonic’s only HDTV research laboratory in the United States. It produced the prototype for the company’s first commercial HDTV.
High-definition became the American standard for television in 1996. In 1997, Mr. Hamalainen and his team demonstrated the new technology for network TV executives, the New York Times reported that year in an Oct. 6 article.
“At the flick of a switch, Panasonic engineers can show the same TV picture in high definition or standard definition,” the Times wrote.
''We want them to see for themselves, so they can make informed decisions,'' Mr. Hamalainen was quoted as saying.
He continued his work on HDTVs, video compression, and the development of international standards for broadcast HDTV transmission, until retiring from Panasonic in 2000.
Video compression means reducing the vast amount of digital information captured by a TV camera, to make a signal suitable for recording and transmission. International standards for broadcasting can be compared to “a nut and bolt having the same dimension and screw size,” said Reitmeier. “It’s the same thing in electronics.”
The first products were launched in 1998. The old analog transmission system was turned off in June 2009.
“His work on the development of HDTV from 1986 to 2000 was very important to television history,” said his friend Barbara Sorid.
Mr. Hamalainen was granted five U.S. patents, four while at RCA and one at Panasonic. In 2000, he received an Emmy from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for developing compression standards for television.
When not doing research, Mr. Hamalainen enjoyed playing tennis and watching it on TV. He married Deborah Allen on July 5, 1980. TV played an amusing role in the day’s celebration.
“He almost missed his wedding because he was watching the historic Wimbledon men’s singles final match between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe,” said his daughter, Karina. Borg won the match.
An avid skier, Mr. Hamalainen was a weekend ski instructor at Camelback Mountain in the Poconos. He bicycled into his late seventies.
He “loved sharing the things he loved with the people he loved — from skiing in fresh powder, to following a hot sauna with a jump in Taunton Lake, to a good glass of chardonnay,” his family said.
In addition to his wife and daughter, he is survived by a son, Max, and a sister, Tuula.
A life celebration will be held from 2 to 6 p.m. Saturday, March 30, at the family home in Medford. Burial will be private.