The Secret History of Silicon Valley Part X: Stanford Crosses the Rubicon

This post is the latest in the “Secret History Series.”  They’ll make much more sense if you read some of the earlier ones for context. See the Secret History bibliography for sources and supplemental reading.


Swords Into Plowshares
After the end of World War II, returning veterans were happy to beat swords into plowshares (and microwave tubes) on the Stanford campus. From 1946 until 1950, Stanford’s Electronic Research Lab conducted basic research in microwave tubes.  Although this reseearch would lead to the development of the Backward Wave Oscillator and Traveling Wave Tube for military applications, Stanford was building tubes and circuits not entire systems.  The labs basic research was done by graduate students or Ph.Ds doing postdoctoral internships, supervised by faculty members or hired staff (many from Fred Terman’s WWII Electronic Warfare lab.)

In 1949, with the detection of the first Soviet nuclear weapons test, the Iron Curtain falling across Europe and the fall of China to the Communists, Cold War paranoia drove the U.S. military to rearm and mobilize.

Source: Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation (in constant 2009 $’s)

Source: Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation (in constant 2009 $’s)

We’ll Do Great in the Next War
Early in 1950, just months before the outbreak of the Korean War the Office of Naval Research asked Fred Terman to build an Applied electronics program for electronic warfare. All branches of the military (the Air Force and Army would fund the program as well) wanted Stanford to build prototypes of electronic intelligence and electronic warfare systems that could be put into production by partners in industry. The Navy informs Terman that, “money was not a problem but time was.”

Pitching the idea to the President of Stanford, Terman enthusiastically said, “In the event of all-out war, Stanford would become one of the giant electronic research centers…”  (A bit optimistic about the outcome perhaps, given that both the U.S. and the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons at this point.)

Crossing the Rubicon – The Applied Electronics Lab
Setting up a separate Applied Electronics Lab for military funded programs doubled the size of the electronics program at Stanford. The new Applied Electronics Laboratory was built with Navy money and a gift from Hewlett-Packard. With the memories of WWII only five years old, and the Cold War now a shooting war in Korea, there was very little discussion (or dissension) about turning a university into a center for the production of military intelligence and electronic warfare systems.

The work in the applied program focused in fields in which faculty members or senior research associates specialized.  Many of the other staff in the applied program were full-time employees hired to work solely on these military programs.

ELINT, Jammers and OTH
The Applied Electronics Lab used the ideas and discoveries (on microwave tubes and receiver circuits) from Terman’s basic research program in the Electronic Research Lab. The Applied Lab would build prototypes of complete systems such as Electronic Intelligence systems, Electronic Warfare Jammers, and Over the Horizon Radar. The Applied Electronics Lab also continued work on the Klystron, pushing the tube to produce megawatts in transmitted power. (Stanford designed Klystrons producing 2½ Megawatts were manufactured by Varian and Litton would power the radar in the BMEWS (Ballistic Missile Early Warning System) built at the height of the cold war.) The close tie between the two labs was a unique aspect of the Stanford Lab. Stanford had a Customer Development loop going on inside their own lab. The discoveries in tube and circuit research suggested new electronic intelligence and countermeasure techniques and systems; in turn the needs of the Applied Lab pushed tube and circuit development.  With the Applied Electronics Lab Stanford was becoming something akin to a federal or corporate lab run under university contract.  The university found government contracts profitable as the government reimbursed their overhead charges (their indirect costs.) This means they could fund other non-military academic programs from this overhead.

The Stanford Applied Electronics Lab built prototypes which were handed off to the military labs for their evaluation. Subsequently military labs would contract with companies to build the devices in volume. In some cases, branches of the military contracted directly with Stanford which worked with local contractors in Silicon Valley to build these components or systems for the military. The prototype ELINT receivers built by the Applied Electronics Lab used the Stanford Traveling Wave Tubes. They quickly went into production at Sylvania Electronic Defense Labs down the street in Mountain View and Hallicrafters in Chicago. Later versions would be built by numerous industry contractors and installed on the fleet of ELINT planes orbiting the Soviet Union. These traveling wave tubes would also become the heart of the panoramic receiver used on the B-52 by the electronic warfare officer to get the bomber through the Soviet Air Defense system.

Jammers built by the Stanford Applied Electronics Lab used the Stanford Backward Wave Oscillators to produce high power microwaves. Unlike the simple noise jammers used in World War II, Soviet radars were becoming more sophisticated and newer designs were fairly immune to noise. Instead the jamming signal needed to be much smarter and have a deep understanding of how the targeted radar worked. Taking the information gleaned from our ELINT aircraft, Stanford built prototypes of jammers modulated with two new deception jamming techniques – angle jamming and range-gate pull-off. Some form of these deception jammers would eventually find their way into most electronic warfare defense systems used in the Cold War; first in the U-2, A-12 and SR-71. (Ironically the B-52 bomber, which would become the airborne leg of our nuclear triad, would use dumb noise jammers for two more decades – the Air Force opting to put the smart jammers on the B-58 and B-70, high altitude supersonic bombers – one soon obsolete and other never made it into production.)

The last major area of research that the Applied Electronics Lab group investigated was how radio signals propagated within the earth’s ionosphere. Over the next fifteen years this Radio Science Laboratory would receive the most funding of all departments in the lab (from the CIA) to build a ground based ELINT system. They would build and deploy two Over The Horizon Radar (OTHR) systems to detect Soviet and Chinese ballistic missile tests using ground based radars.

Guards at the DoorStanford Joins the Cold War
In 1953 the Office of Naval Research told Terman that all military-funded projects (basic or applied, classified or not) needed to be in their own separate physical building. As a result Stanford moved the Applied work from the Electronics Research Lab into its own building.

In 1955, the pretense of keeping unclassified and classified work separate imposed too much of an administrative overhead and Stanford merged the Applied Electronics Lab and the Electronics Research Laboratory into the Systems Engineering Lab. The Applied Electronics portion of the lab was now the size of a small company.  It had 100 people, 18 of them full time faculty, 33 research associates and assistants and 33 other tube technicians, draftsman, machinists, etc. Over half this lab would hold clearances for military secrets. (Top Secret: Terman, Harris, McGhie, Secret: 44 others, Confidential: 8 others. Terman, Harris and Rambo also had Atomic Energy Commission “Q” clearances.)  Some students who were getting their engineering graduate degrees wrote masters and PhD thesis that were classified. Unless you had the proper clearances you couldn’t read them.  Terman and Stanford had just made a major bet on the cold war, and Stanford ranked sixth among university defense contractors.

A security guard was stationed at the door of the Applied Electronics Lab to ensure that only those with proper security clearance could enter. The law of unintended consequences meant that this most casual addition in front of a university building would result in the occupation and destruction of the lab (and its twin at MIT) and the end of the program 14 years later.  (More on this in a later post.)

Show and Tell – The Stanford ELINT and Electronic Warfare Contractors Meeting
During a typical year, the Applied Electronics Lab would host classified visits from military labs and defense contractors. By early 1950’s Stanford started holding a two day meeting for contractors and the military.


1955 Stanford Contractors Meeting

1955 Stanford Contractors Meeting


The 1955 attendee list gives you a feeling of the “who’s who” of the military/industrial establishment: RCA, GE, Motorola, AIL, Bendix, Convair, Mepar, Crosley, Westinghouse, McDonnell Aircraft, Douglas Aircraft, Boeing, Lockheed, Hughes Aircraft, North American, Bell Aircraft, Glen Martin, Ryan Aeronautics, Farnsworth, Sperry, Litton, Polarad, Hallicrafters, Varian, Emerson, Dumont, Maxson, Collins Radio.  Other universities doing classified ELINT and Electronic Warfare work attended including University of Michigan, Georgia Institute of Technology and Cornell. Over a hundred government contractors reviewed Stanford’s work on tubes and systems.

Stanford Contractors Meeting 1955 Attendees

Stanford Contractors Meeting 1955 Attendees

This was a classified conference at a university, the contractors not only got to hear the conference lectures, but also visited exhibits on the devices and systems the lab had built. The lab would repeat the conference the following week for government agencies doing military work.

Barely noticed at the 1955 conference, a year before the first transistor company opened in Silicon Valley, one of the sessions described how to use a new device called a“transistor” to build wide-band amplifiers. (Terman had sent faculty and graduate students to the University of Illinois in 1953 to learn transistor physics.)

The World Turned Upside Down
The Applied Electronics Lab solidified Stanford’s lead as one of, if not the place in the U.S. military for advanced thinking in ELINT and Electronic Warfare.  It would turn on its head the relationship of universities and corporations.

Traditionally universities chased corporations for funding and patronage, but the military’s dependence on Stanford’s and Fred Terman’s judgment turned that relationship on its head.  Now the military was listening to Terman’s advice about which military contractors should get the order for to mass produce the Stanford systems.  The contractors were now dependent on Stanford.

Terman the Rainmaker
During the 1950’s Fred Terman was an advisor to every major branch of the U.S. military. He was on the Army Signal Corps R&D Advisory Council, the Air Force Electronic Countermeasures Scientific Advisory board, a Trustee of the Institute of Defense Analysis, the Naval Research Advisory Committee, the Defense Science Board, and a consultant to the President’s Science Advisory Committee. His commercial activities had him on the board of directors of HP, Watkins-Johnson, Ampex, and Director and Vice Chairman of SRI.  It’s amazing this guy ever slept.  Terman was the ultimate networking machine for Stanford and its military contracts.

Stanford Industrial Park – Microwave Valley Booms
By the early 1950’s many of the corporations that attended the yearly Stanford Electronic Warfare conferences would establish research labs centered around Stanford for just this reason – to learn from Stanford’s basic and applied research and get a piece of the ELINT and Electronic Warfare contracting pie.

Stanford Industrial Park was the first technology office park set up to house local and out of state microwave and electronics startups. First occupied in 1953 it would include Varian, Watkins Johnson, Admiral, HP, General Electric, Kodak, Lockheed.  Other east coast companies which established branches in Microwave valley in the 1950’s included IBM, Sylvania, Philco, Zenith and ITT.

The Future is Clear – Microwave Valley Forever
By 1956 Fred Terman had every right to be pleased with what he had helped build in the last ten years in and around Stanford.  The Stanford Electronics Lab was now the center of ELINT and Electronic Warfare.

Startups were sprouting all over Microwave Valley delivering microwave tubes and complete military systems, slowiy replacing the orchards and fruit trees. Granger Associates was a 1956 startup founded by Bill Ayer, a graduate student in the Applied Electronics Radioscience Lab, and John Granger, a former RRL researcher, building ELINT and Electronic Warfare systems (the Granger jammer was carried on the U-2.) Four years later Ayer and another Granger engineer would leave Granger and found one of the preeminent electronic warfare and ELINT companies: Applied Technologies.

The future of the valley was clear – microwaves.

1956 – Change Everything
Yet in 1956 two events would change everything.  At the time neither appeared earthshaking or momentous. First, a Bell Labs researcher who had grown up in Palo Alto, had his own interesting World War II career, and recently served as a military advisor on cold war weapons systems, decided to follow Fred Terman’s advice to locate his semiconductor company near Stanford.

The second was when a Southern Californian aircraft company decided to break into the missiles and space field by partnering with Stanford electronics expertise. It moved its electronics research group from Burbank to the new Stanford Industrial Park and built its manufacturing facility in Sunnyvale.

Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory and Lockheed Missiles Systems Division would change everything. Read about it in Part XI of the Secret History of Silicon Valley here.

The Secret History of Silicon Valley Part IX: Entrepreneurship in Microwave Valley

This post is the latest in the “Secret History Series.”  They’ll make much more sense if you read some of the earlier ones for context. See the Secret History bibliography for sources and supplemental reading.


In the 1950′s Stanford University’s Electronics Research Laboratory (ERL) continued to develop innovative microwave tubes for the U.S. military. This next product, the Traveling Wave Tube, would have a major impact on electronic intelligence. Stanford’s Dean of Engineering, Fred Terman, encouraged scientists and engineers to set up companies to build these microwave tubes for the military. Funded by military contracts, these 1950′s microwave tube startups would help build Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial culture and environment.

Why Electronics Intelligence?
Starting in 1946 Electronic Intelligence aircraft (ELINT) had been probing and overflying the Soviet Union to understand their air defense system. During the 1950′s, the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command, U.S. Navy and the CIA were the primary collectors of tactical and operational ELINT on the Soviet PVO Strany Air Defense system. (The NSA owned COMINT collection.) They flew an alphabet soup of Air Force and Navy planes (Navy PB4Y-2′s, P2V’s, P4M’s and EA-3′s, Air Force B-17s, EC-47′s, RB-29s, RB-50′s, and the ultimate ELINT collector of the 1950′s – the RB-47H.) Common to all these planes (generically called Ferrets) is that they were loaded with ELINT receivers, manned by crews called Crows.

The Strategic Air Command needed this intelligence to understand the Soviet air defense system (early warning radars, Soviet fighter plane radar, Ground Control Intercept radar, Anti-Aircraft gun radar, and radars guiding Soviet Surface to Air Missiles.) We needed this data to build radar jammers that could make the Soviet air defense radars ineffective so our bombers with their nuclear payloads could reach their targets. The information we collected would be passed on to defense contractors who would build the jammers to confuse the Soviet air defense radars.

ELINT Tasking
The ELINT program sought answers to operational questions like: What was the Radar Order of Battle a penetrating bomber would face? Were there holes in their radar coverage our bombers could sneak through? What was the best altitude to avoid the Soviet defenses? ELINT operators on each flight were tasked to gather basic data about the characteristics of the radar: is this a new type of radar or an existing one? What is its frequency, power, pulse repetition interval, rotation rate, scan rate, polarization, carrier modulation characteristics, etc. Then they would use direction finding equipment on their aircraft to locate its position.

ELINT Receivers
Early ELINT receivers were not much different then the radios you had at home – someone had to manually turn a dial to tune them to the correct frequency. By the 1950’s these receivers could automatically “sweep” a frequency band, but this action was mechanical and slow. That was fine if the Soviet radar was operating continuously, but if it was just a brief radar transmission or burst communication (which Soviet submarines used), we would probably miss hearing it. (The Soviets kept their radars turned off to stop us from recording their signals. So at times multiple ELINT planes would fly on a mission – one to run at the Soviet border appearing to attack, the other to pick up the signals from the air defense network as it responded to the intrusion. Keep in mind that 32 of these planes were shot down in the Cold War.)

The ultimate dream of ELINT equipment designers was a “high-probability of intercept” receiver, one that would pick up a signal that came up on any frequency and capture even a single pulse, however brief.

This was a two-pronged challenge: the U.S. needed receivers that could tune much faster than any of the manual methods that existed, and it needed receivers that could tune a much broader range of frequencies along the electromagnetic spectrum. Again Stanford technology would solve these challenges.

Rapid Scan/High Probability of Intercept – Stanford’s contribution
In the last post we described Stanford’s high power, electronically tuned microwave tubes (the Backward Wave Oscillator) which made high power, frequency agile airborne jammers possible.

Now Stanford’s Electronics Research Laboratory delivered another tube which forever changed electronic intelligence receivers - the Traveling Wave Tube (TWT.) Invented in Britain and further developed at Bell Labs, this tube would deliver the “holy grail” for ELINT receivers - instantaneous scan speed and extremely broad frequency range. A Traveling Wave Tube (TWT) could electronically tune through microwave frequencies at 1000 times faster than any other device, and it could operate in a frequency range measured in gigahertz.  As a microwave preamp, it had high gain, low noise and extremely wide bandwidth. It was perfect for a new generation of ELINT receivers to be built into the Ferret planes searching for signals around the Soviet Union. Later on TWTs would be built that could not only be used in receivers, but also actually transmit broadband microwaves at high power.

Invention Versus Commercialization
While Stanford was doing its share of pure research, what’s interesting about the Electronics Research Laboratory (ERL) was its emphasis on delivery of useful products for its customers – the military – from inside a research university.  The military had specific intelligence requirements and that meant that a TWT needed to be rugged enough to withstand being put on airplanes. This military/university collaboration for deliverable products is where the Electronics Research Laboratory (ERL) would excel – and ultimately end up leading to its destruction.

twt schematic

Traveling Wave Tube – Source: Thales Electron Devices

The Rise of “Microwave Valley” – More Stanford Tube Startups
The Traveling Wave Tube generated another series of startups from Stanford’s Electronics Research Laboratory.  R. A. Huggins, a research associate at the Stanford’s Engineering Research Lab, left in 1948 to start Huggins Laboratories in Palo Alto and put the first commercially manufactured traveling wave tube on the market. With a boost from military R&D contracts, Huggins Labs continued to expand, diversifying into backward-wave oscillators, low-noise TWTs, and electrostatic focused tubes. (In the 1970′s Huggins Labs sold to an east coast company, Microwave Associates (which became M/A-COM.)

Stanley Kaisel, a research associate at the Stanford ERL tube laboratory, left to join Litton’s startup. He left Litton in 1959 and started Microwave Electronics Corporation (MEC) to make low power, low noise TWTs. He sold the company to Teledyne in 1965.

Venture Capital, Microwaves and the OSS
Dean Watkinsthe leader of TWT research at Stanford’s Electronic Laboratory, left Stanford in 1957 and co-founded Watkins-Johnson (with R.H. Johnson the head of Hughes Aircraft microwave tube department) to market advanced TWTs to the military. Unlike the other Stanford tube spinouts which were funded with military contracts, Watkins-Johnson would be one of the first venture capital funded companies in the valley. Its first round of funding came from Tommy Davis (an ex-WWII OSS agent) then at the Kern County Land Company who knew Fred Terman through his military contacts. Terman and Davis negotiated the Watkins-Johnson investment and would sit on the Watkins-Johnson board together.

Frustrated with Kern’s lack of interest in investing in more technology companies, Tommy Davis would go on to found one of Silicon Valley’s first VC firms with Arthur Rock, creating Davis and Rock, founded in 1961. They would be one the first venture firms to organize their firm as a partnership rather than an SBIC or public company. They would also set the standard for the 20% carry for general partners. Tommy Davis would go on to found the Mayfield Fund in 1969.

These Stanford tube spinoffs joined the growing list of other microwave tube manufacturers in the valley including Eitel-McCullough, Varian, Litton Industries and Stewart Industries. Others would soon join them. By the early 1960s, a third of the nation’s TWT business and a substantial share of the klystron and magnetron industry was located in the Santa Clara Valley– and almost all of these companies emerged from one engineering lab at Stanford.

But microwave tubes were just the beginning of Stanford’s relationship with the military. Fred Terman was just getting warmed up. Much more was to come. Read about in Part X of the Secret History of Silicon Valley here.

The Secret History of Silicon Valley Part VIII: The Rise of Entrepreneurship

This post makes sense in context with the previous post.


The Korean War catapulted Stanford University’s Electronics Research Laboratory (ERL) into a major player in electronic intelligence and electronic warfare systems. Encouraged by their Dean, Fred Terman, scientists and engineers left Stanford Electronics Research Laboratory to set up companies to build microwave tubes and systems for the military. Funded by military contracts these 1950′s startups would help build Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial culture and environment.

The Beginnings – “Vacuum Tube Valley” Ecosystem circa 1950
From its founding in 1946 Stanford’s Electronics Research Laboratory (ERL) did basic research into vacuum tubes that could operate at microwave frequencies. The research was funded and paid for by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and later by the Air Force and Army. Much of the basic research work was done by advanced students or by recent Ph.Ds doing postdoctoral internships, supervised by Stanford engineering faculty members or senior research associates (staff.)

In a 1950 proposal to the Navy Fred Terman noted that the work that Stanford proposed “correlates almost ideally with related industrial activities in this area.”  There were already “tube manufacturers in the area (Eitel-McCullough, Litton Industries, Varian Industries, Henitz and Kaufman and Lewis and Kaufman) that represented an integrated set of tube facilities for basic research, advanced development, engineering of new tubes, model shop and pilot and quantity production. And that circuit work is carried on by several organizations in the neighborhood, with Hewlett Packard Company being especially notable in this regard.” Terman was describing the valley’s already existing ecosystem for building vacuum tubes in 1950.

But unlike the majority of existing tube manufacturers in the valley who were making products for radios, Stanford Electronics Research Lab tube group had a special customer with very special needs – the U.S. Air Force and its Strategic Air Command.

So what exactly was the Electronics Research Lab designing? What were these microwave tubes? Why were they so important to the military? And what were these electronic intelligence and warfare systems used for?

Stanford Joins the Cold War - Microwave Power Tubes
Stanford’s work in microwave power tubes would solve two of the Strategic Air Command’s most important cold war problems.

During a nuclear war in the 1950′s the Strategic Air Command was going to fly its bombers with nuclear weapons into the Soviet Union. To protect their country, the Soviets were building an air defense network to warn, track and destroy these attacking bombers. Our bombers used jammers to confuse the Soviet air defense radars. But the jammers that we built in WWII were no longer sufficient to protect the planes we wanted to send into the Soviet Union.

These 1940′s jammers (built by the wartime lab headed up by Terman and his team now at Stanford) had been built around tubes originally designed for radio applications, put out 5 watts of power. This miniscule amount of jamming power was acceptable because each WWII bomber flew in formation with hundreds of other planes, together attacking just a single target each day. The combined jamming power of all the bombers on a mission was enough to saturate and confuse German radar. But in a potential cold war attack on the Soviet Union, our bombers were not going to fly in a massed formation to attack one target. Instead we would attack multiple targets in the Soviet Union at the same time.  And while a few bombers would penetrate the periphery of the Soviet Union together, each plane — now able to carry more explosive power than all the bombs dropped in WWII — would approach its target individually. As a result of this change in strategy (and explosive capacity), each bomber had to supply enough jamming power to defend itself.


B-47 - primary Strategic Air Command Bomber in the 1950's

B-47 – primary Strategic Air Command Bomber in the 1950′s

As a result, to protect its bombers flying over the Soviet Union the U.S. Air Force needed power tubes that had hundreds of times more power than WWII devices.

The U.S. Air Force also needed improvements in frequency agility to protect its cold war bombers. Frequency agility can be best described by what happened over Germany in WWII. As the allies jammed Germany radar, the Germans tried to avoid the effect of jamming by changing the frequency on which their radars transmitted. This was possible since the jammers in U.S. planes’ could only transmit on a narrow band of frequencies (providing spot jamming) and could not be retuned in the air. To cover all the possible frequencies German radars might be operating on, allied technicians pretuned the jammers before each bomber raid so that each plane transmitted on a different frequency. The combined effect of hundreds of planes in the bomber stream was to cover a broader frequency range than one jammer could by itself.  (This technique of covering a broad range of frequencies was known as barrage jamming.)

(A good Radar tutorial is here, on the Radar Range equation here and Electronic Warfare tutorial is here. The links will download PowerPoint presentations.)


But nuclear warfare over the Soviet Union in the 1950′s meant that a single bomber needed jammers that could cover multiple frequencies, and could be tuned instantaneously. Not only did the US need more more powerful microwave power tubes, the power tubes had to be frequency agile, (able to be tuned in the air to different frequencies) to jam the Soviet radars. (For example, the Soviet P-20 Token was an early warning radar our bombers would encounter.  It transmitted on 5 different frequencies over a band 300mhz wide. To jam it, all five frequencies had to be jammed at the same time. Our WWII jammers couldn’t do the job.)

Terman’s Systems Engineering Research Lab at Stanford would develop microwavepower tubes that offered a solution to both challenges and would be a a game changer for electronic warfare at the time.

High Power, Instant Tuning – Stanford’s contribution
Stanford’s Electronics Research Laboratory first contribution to high power microwave tubes for airborne electronic warfare in the 1950’s was the Backward Wave Oscillator (BWO). Stanford engineers realized that this tube, which had been invented in France, could electronically tune through microwave frequencies while producing almost a 1,000 watts of power – (equivalent to the output of 200 jammers over Germany in WWII.) Perfecting this tube for use as an airborne jammer became one of the labs primary objectives.

This was a critical development to support the new tactics of single bombers penetrating the Soviet Union. Equipping a bomber with several jammers built around Backward Wave Oscillator could give it enough power to use barrage jamming against multiple radars and get it through to its target.  Stanford gave its Backward Wave Oscillator design drawings to tube manufacturers throughout the U.S. By the 1960′s, the U.S. Air Force would ultimately equip its B-52 bombers with 6,000 jammers using these these oscillators.

The Rise of “Microwave Valley” Stanford Tube Spinouts
A technician in Stanford’s ERL tube shop, Ray Stewart, thought he could build these Backward Wave Oscillators commercially, and left to start Stewart Engineering in Scotts Valley near Santa Cruz.  The company had more orders from the military than it could handle. (Stewart would sell his company to Watkins Johnson, one of the most financially successful of the Stanford microwave tube spinoffs. More about Watkins-Johnson in the next post.)  Stewart joined a growing list of other microwave startups beginning to populate the valley.

One of the early microwave spinouts from Stanford was built around a microwave power tube called the Klystron, invented by Terman’s students Russell and Sigurd Varian and William Hansen. In 1948 the Varian brothers along with Stanford professors Edward Ginzton and Marvin Chodorow founded Varian Corporation in Palo Alto to produce klystrons for military applications. (Fred Terman and David Packard of HP joined Varian’s board.) While the Klystrons of the 1950’s had too narrow and bandwidth and were too large for airborne use, they could be scaled up to generate megawatts of power and were used to power the U.S. ground-based Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) radars (and the Stanford Linear Accelerator.)

klystronAnother of Terman’s students, Charles Litton, would start several Silicon Valley companies, and in the 1950’s Litton Industries would become the leader in pulse and continuous wave magnetrons used in jammers and missiles. Magnetrons were the first high power microwave device invented in WWII. Used in radars systems and missiles, magnetrons could produce hundreds of watts of power.

More to Come
These first microwave tubes were just the beginning of a flood of innovative
products for the military.  The next Stanford tubes and systems would revolutionize the Electronic Intelligence aircraft that were circling (and flying over) the Soviet Union.

More in the next post, Part IX of the Secret History of Silicon Valley.

The Secret History of Silicon Valley Part VII: We Fought a War You Never Heard Of

These next series of posts chronicles the untold story of how one professor returning from one war decides to enlist Stanford University in waging the next one and by accident, laid the foundation for Silicon Valley, venture capital and entrepreneurship as we know it today.

These posts cover two distinct periods – the first, the rise of “Microwave Valley” chronicles the decade of 1946-1956 as Stanford University became the hub of military/industry contracting in the Bay Area.

The second series of posts, the rise of  “Spy Satellite Valley,” starts in 1956 with two game changing events– one very public – the valley’s first semiconductor company and one very, very private – the valley as the home of the first optical and ELINT spy satellites and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.  The story ends in 1969 with campus riots at Stanford.


These posts will make a lot more sense if you look at the earlier Secret History posts.  If you read only one previous post, read this one (or this one.)

The Birth of Entrepreneurship in The Hot Cold War
Silicon Valley entrepreneurship was born in the middle of a secret war with the Soviet Union. It’s a war you probably never heard of since most of it was classified, and both parties never wanted it public lest it got out of hand.  Yet it was a war in which tens of thousands of Americans fought and hundreds died. Frederick Terman, Stanford’s Dean of Engineering, enlisted Stanford University as a major arms suppliers in this war. In doing so he accidentally launched entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley – with the help of the U.S. military, the CIA and the National Security Agency.

Stanford as a Center of Microwave and Electronics
In 1946 after running the military’s secret 800 person Electronic Warfare Lab at Harvard, Fred Terman returned to Stanford as the dean of the engineering school. Terman’s goal was to build Stanford’s electrical engineering department into a center of excellence focused on microwaves and electronics. Having already assembled one of most advanced electronic labs in World War II, Terman was one of the few academics who could do it.


Fred Terman

Terman’s first step was to recruit 11 former members of his staff from the Harvard Radio Research Lab — “Congratulations, you’re now Stanford faculty.”  Not only were they all great researchers, but they also had just spent three years building electronic warfare systems that were used in World War II. They would become the core of Stanford’s new Electronics Research Lab (ERL.)  While officially in the electrical engineering department, the lab reported directly to Terman.

Next, Terman used his military contacts to secure funding for the Lab from the Office of Naval Research, the Air Force and the Army Signal Corps. (Although the country had returned to peace, some in the military wanted to preserve our ability to fight the next war.) By 1947 the U.S. military was funding half of Stanford’s engineering school budget. Terman proudly pointed out that only Stanford, MIT and Harvard had a military sponsored electronics program.

Stanford Leads in Electronic Intelligence and Electronic Warfare
In the 1950’s Stanford Engineering Research Lab (ERL) made major contributions to electronic intelligence and electronic warfare.  Its basic research focused on three areas: microwave receiving and transmitting tubes, radar detection and deception techniques and understanding the earth’s ionosphere.

Stanford became one of the leading research centers in advancing the state of microwave tubes including the klystron which could provide high-power microwave in pulses, magnetrons which could provide continuous wave microwave power, and backward wave oscillators and traveling wave tubes – both electronically tunable microwave tubes.

Stanford’s research on the earth’s ionosphere would lead to meteor-burst communication systems and Over the Horizon Radar used by the NSA and CIA to detect Soviet and Chinese missile tests and ultimately to the research that made Stealth technologies possible.

Its studies in radar detection and deception techniques would lead Stanford to the applied part of it mission.  Stanford would build prototypes of electronic intelligence receivers (high probability of intercept/rapid scan receivers) for use by the military. These applied systems were prototypes of the jamming devices found on our bombers and receivers found in NSA ground stations and the fleet of ELINT aircraft flying around and in the Soviet Union and later on in the U-2, SR-71 and ELINT ferret subsatellites.

Later posts will talk about these technologies and the startups that spun out of Stanford to build them. But first, to understand what happened at Stanford and in Silicon Valley under Fred Terman, some context about the Cold War is helpful.  (Skip the next section if you’re a history major.)

The Cold War
After World War II ended, our wartime ally the Soviet Union kept its army in Eastern Europe and forcibly installed Communist governments in its occupied territories.  Meanwhile the U.S. demobilized its army, sent its troops home, scrapped most of its Air Force and mothballed almost all its Navy. As tensions rose, there was a growing fear that the Soviets could invade and occupy all of Western Europe.

In 1949, the Soviets exploded their first nuclear weapon and ended the U.S monopoly on atomic weaponry. That same year China fell to the communists under Mao Zedong, and the Nationalist government retreated to Taiwan.  A year later the Korean War turned the cold war hot, as communist North Koreans attacked and overran most of South Korea (except for a small defensive perimeter in the south.) American and United Nations troops entered the war fighting North Koreans and then Communist Chinese ground troops, and Soviet fighter pilots for three years.  34,000 U.S. soldiers died in battle.

To the U.S. the Soviet Union seemed bent on world conquest with Korea just a warm-up for an atomic war with massive casualties. (This was not an unreasonable supposition after a conventional world war which had left 50 million dead.)  Faced with the reality of the Korean War, the U.S. began to rebuild its military. But now the Soviet Union was its target enemy, and nuclear weapons had become the principal instrument of offense. Instead of rebuilding its WWII forces, the U.S. military embraced new technologies (jets, electronics, missiles, nuclear subs) and built entirely new weapon systems (bombers with nuclear weapons, ICBMs, SLBM’s) for a new era of international conflict.

Europe, completely outnumbered and outgunned by the Soviet Union, built the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as a bulwark against ground Soviet attack.  And the U.S. planned strikes with nuclear armed bombers if war in Europe broke out.

Stanford’s Electronic Research Lab (ERL) which had focused on basic research on microwave tubes from 1946 was about to scale up for the Cold War.

Smarter Intelligence
One of the major differences between the war with Germany and the cold war confrontation with the Soviet Union had to do with access.  The Soviet Union was a closed country. Unlike Germany in World War II, the U.S. could not fly across the Soviet Union to learn how their defenses were set up. We did not have radar maps of their cities. The Soviet’s secrecy fed our cold war paranoia. The U.S. was determined to find out what was going on inside.  And the way we were going to do it was with electronic/signals intelligence.

But the technology that supported intelligence gathering against our WW II enemies was not sufficient to penetrate the Soviet Union. The U.S. military had to develop new ways to collect intelligence. The engineering department and labs that Fred Terman established at Stanford University would play a key role in advancing electronic intercept and jamming technology to support the more sophisticated intelligence systems that the Cold War required.

The Air Force Needs to Know
By the Korean War, U.S. policy held that the Air Force, carrying nuclear weapons into the Soviet Union, would be the means to fight World War III.

Through World War II, the U.S. Air Force had been a part of the U.S. Army. It split off into a separate service in 1947. By the 1950’s, the Strategic Air Command (SAC) had become the U.S. Air Force’s long range bombing arm and the designated instrument of Armageddon.

On the other side of the Iron Curtain, the defense of the Soviet Motherland lay with the Soviet Air Defense Forces, called PVO Strany, a separate branch of the Soviet military formed in 1948 designed to detect U.S. bomber raids, target and aim radar-guided weapons and destroy the U.S. bombers.

Example of Radar Coverage - Japan in WWIIExample of Early Warning Radar Coverage – Japan in WWII

SAC needed intelligence to understand the components of the PVO Strany air defense system in order to shut them down and make them ineffective so our bombers with their nuclear payloads could reach their targets. (The information we collected would be passed on to contractors who would build jamming devices the bombers would carry.) It sought answers to tactical questions like: What was the Radar Order of Battle a penetrating bomber would face? (Were there holes in their radar coverage our bombers could sneak through? What was the best altitude to avoid the Soviet defenses?) What were the different types of Soviet fighter planes?  How many?  How effective? What about the anti-aircraft (AAA) gun defenses?  In addition the Soviets were adding a new type of defensive radar-guided weapon called the Surface to Air Missile (SAM).

Example of Jammer versus Radar Coverage- Germany in WW11

Example of Jammer versus Radar Coverage – Allied Jammers over Germany in WW11

The Strategic Air Command also needed to know what the navigational waypoints and the target would look like on their air-to-ground bombing radars. (These radars painted a map-like picture of the ground and prior to GPS, this is how bombers navigated their way to the target.)

And on top of all this the Strategic Air Command needed to understand the current state of the Soviet Air Defense Force readiness and deployment updated on a daily basis.

The CIA Needs to Know
While the Air Force was working on collecting intelligence to execute their tactical missions, the CIA, founded in 1947, was responsible for providing U.S. political leadership with a much bigger picture. They developed the National Intelligence Estimate –  a  series of reports which summarized their judgment about the size of the Russian threat. Also seeking to learn more about the Soviet Union’s offensive weapon systems, the CIA wanted intelligence to help them understand: What type of strategic bombers did the Soviets have? How many did they have? How would they reach the U.S.?  How would we know if they were coming? (Have they moved to their forward operating bases in the Artic?) The same was true about the Soviet defensive systems – how many fighters would they build and of what type?  How many Surface to Air Missiles – what was their range and accuracy?

And by the mid 1950’s the Soviets were testing ballistic missiles, both intermediate range that could reach Europe and intercontinental range that could reach the U.S.  Whatwas their range? What was their accuracy? How big of a nuclear warhead could they carry (throw weight and yield)?  The military needed to answer these same questions about the nuclear armed missiles the Soviets were putting on their submarine force.

To give our leadership an estimate of the Soviet’s nuclear production capacity, the CIA also had to estimate how many nuclear weapons could the Soviet Union make. Where were their production facilities? What was the yield of the weapons and their weight and size?

Throughout the 1950′s the CIA’s Office of Scientific Intelligence was heavily involved in the development of Electronics Intercept and Electronic Warfare Intelligence – and Stanford and the emerging startups around it would provide the systems and concepts to help.

In the 1950’s the Strategic Air Command and the U.S. Navy were the airborne ELINT assets for the U.S. Beginning in the mid/late 1950’s the National Security Agency (NSA) starting taking more and more responsibility for collection – first in communications intelligence, then in signals and telemetry intelligence. The NSA ultimately built up hundreds of ground stations, satellites and aircraft manned by tens of thousands servicemen (under the cover of the Air Force Security Service, Army Security Agency and the Naval Security Group.)

The “Hot” Cold War
Remember the Soviet Union was a closed country. To collect the intelligence to answer its questions about the Soviet threat, the U.S. military resurrected the signals Intelligence lessons and skills we invented in World War II. Starting in 1946 ELINT aircraft had been probing and overflying the Soviet Union. SAC, the CIA, the Navy and our British allies flew modified planes called Ferrets around the periphery of the Soviet Union to understand their air defense system (the crews were called Crows). (What isn’t well known is that the U.S. and Britain flew planes on deep penetration missions into and across the Soviet Union numerous times – well before a U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960.)

British Canberra PR3 - Overflew Kapustin Yar 1953

British Canberra PR3 – Overflew Kapustin Yar 1953

The Air Force adopted a cover story that these were weather data gathering missions. These flights were no secret to the Soviets, (given the sheer number of surveillance flights around the Soviet Union it’s surprising they didn’t need their own air traffic control system,) and they started to protest diplomatically in 1948. When our flights continued, the Soviets took direct action. In 1950, two months before the Korean War started,  the Soviets shot down an ELINT plane over the Baltic. All ten crew members were killed. This was the beginning of a Soviet policy to stop ignoring incursions. They would attempt to force the ELINT planes to land in the Soviet Union or they would destroy them. Every year through the the 1950′s and the early ’60′s the Soviets attacked and shot down at least one of our ELINT ferret aircraft. This was a deadly game.

pb4y-2 Privateer Navy ELINT

pb4y-2 Privateer Navy ELINT

We kept on probing their defenses convinced that it was in our national interest to continue. The low-level conflict continued until the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis when the local Soviet commander shot down a U-2 over Cuba. Both countries realized that a miscalculation could have been a catalyst for World War III and the Soviets stop attacks on U.S. spyplanes. (The Communist Chinese continued to shoot down U-2′s flown by Nationalist Chinese pilots until 1970, and the Soviet Union accidently attacked two Korean airline passenger planes in the Far East, one damaged in 1978 and one destroyed in 1983.)

During the Cold War 32 U.S. ELINT planes were shot down by Soviet pilots with 225 U.S. airmen killed. (The numbers vary depending on the sources you read.) Regardless of the number, this was a deadly shooting war.

Stanford and an emerging set of Silicon Valley startups would be deeply involved in designing the technologies, techniques and ELINT systems on these planes. Microwave Valley was about to take off.

Details in the next post, Part VIII of the Secret History of Silicon Valley.

Gravity Will be Turned Off

Part of marketing is the ability to communicate a message to thousands of people and convince them to believe your version of reality. When I was 19 I accidentally had a test run of my ability to do so. I created havoc at an air force base by convincing thousands of airman that gravity would be turned off so that the Air Force could make repairs under their buildings. 74HGZA3MZ6SV

Two Million Students
First some background. Ever since WWII U.S. Air Force aircraft have carried sophisticated avionics equipment – radar, navigation, electronic warfare, etc. While the sharp end of the stick were the pilot and/or crew, each of these systems required a cadre of technicians to maintain and repair the equipment. Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi Mississippi was the Training Center responsible for teaching 10’s of thousands of students a year how to repair radar, communications, and electronics. Some 2 million students have trained there since it opened in 1942. Think of it as the ultimate vocational training school.

Trade School
At the height of the Vietnam War, I was at Keesler learning how to repair electronic warfare equipment, a skill which had gone from theory (our B-52 bombers might one day have to use this stuff –once – penetrating the Soviet Air Defense system) to practice (our fighter/bombers were encountering the murderously effective North Vietnamese air defense system every day.)

In hindsight the USAF did a damn good job. We spent the first five months learning basic electronics theory and the next months getting our hands dirty with the theory and practice of electronic warfare receivers and jammers. As it was a vocational school, I think the most math we had to do was to figure out whether we got a passing grade, and no one was in any danger of actually designing new equipment, but I left with an excellent education in troubleshooting, and solving complex problems in real-time.

Duality – Student Life – in the Military
Here we were, thousands of students with an average age of 19 going to school and living in barracks on the airbase. The barracks were like college dorms except we had to polish the brass doorknobs, wax and buff the hallway floors and make our beds.  We attended classes from 6am to noon – five days a week.  And we had to march to class (I’m convinced it was the only way they figured they were going to get us up and out of bed at that hour).

There was a duality to our existence.  On one hand, we were in a rigid command and control system where we had to follow orders, salute officers and understand the military hierarchy, yet on the other we were in an educational institution where we were encouraged to ask all the questions you wanted.  And we had afternoons and weekends off.  We could go off base and do anything a group of 19-year olds wanted to, like skydiving, but that’s another story.

Library Hours
I loved libraries since I was a kid. Growing up in New York, the library was the only calm and stable place in my life, a refuge from home. I read my way through our small neighborhood library.

My fondness for libraries and my reading habit carried through to the Air Force, and this technical school had an awesome technology library. One day I opened up a Scientific American magazine and read an article on a prank that had been pulled at CalTech the year before. And something about the story clicked for me. I thought that this practical joke would be even funnier in a military organization than it was at Caltech. (I’ll describe the actual prank in a bit.)

Alone with Letterhead
Every evening someone in the barracks had to serve as the “fire warden” for the night.  In hindsight, fire warden meant you were a manual smoke alarm. You walked around the barracks and made sure the building wasn’t on fire. (Anytime you put 10,000 19-year olds on a base you can bet one of them will go to sleep with a cigarette and burn his mattress, if not the building.)

The other minor duty of the fire warden was to update the squadron bulletin board. This was the one place you had to go daily to read all the official notices, and orders.  Reading official military notices and memos always seemed funny to me as they had the most verbose and obtuse ways of saying even the simplest things. You usually had to read two pages to realize the memo said, “No Smoking Indoors,” or “Mandatory meeting on Thursday.”

Following Orders
One night it was my turn on fire warden duty, and with way too much time on my hands, I was mulling over the philosophical contradictions of the literal interpretation that my fellow military students placed on even the most trivial orders.  Orders didn’t have to make sense, we were told, “an order is an order. Don’t think, just follow it.” I wondered how far that would really go.

Then I thought of the Caltech prank. If it worked on a college campus, I wonder what would happen on a military base?

So working into the wee hours of the morning I typed up a version of the Cal Tech prank (on official base letterhead,) translating it into military phraseology. I typed 30 copies, and using the master key I went into every squadron building bulletin board, and posted these orders from the base commander on all 30.

The memo I posted looked something like this:gravity 1gravity 2Friday Formation
I had posted my memo on Wednesday, got a good chuckle over it and promptly forget all about it. I thought it was very funny, a good one-time joke and people would laugh and then remove it from the bulletin board. But a few days had passed, and I hadn’t heard anything, so I thought the joke had fallen flat on its face.

Every building/squadron had an officer in charge of us, and all 300 hundred or so would gather in the courtyard every Friday for our squadron meeting, where our lieutenant would give us orders for the weekend, (usually have a good time) and answer any questions.

We’re standing in the Friday squadron formation, and the lieutenant comes out, who is all of 22 years old. The sergeant calls, “Squadron a-ten hut,” we all snap to attention. The lieutenant reads the orders of the weekend, blah, blah, blah, and then says, “okay, any questions?”  And usually there weren’t any questions because everyone wants to go and be dismissed for the weekend.  But today was going to be a bit different.

I’m ready to run for the gate, but wait, there’s a raised hand.

“Sir, about the gravity being turned off, what if we have fish?  Should we cover their bowls?” I almost burst out laughing surprised there was at least one person in the squadron who believed the memo. The lieutenant is silent for a long minute, staring at the airman who asked the question, and calculating whether he heard it correctly or was being made fun of. But before he could respond, someone else raised his hand and says, “Sir, what if we have small children and they’re crawling, and we can’t get them off base, will they affected by the gravity?”

Ok, I think, maybe there were two.

But that was the cue for 10 more people simultaneously to burst out with questions, (“How about motorcycles will they be OK? Can we go to the bathroom when the gravity is turned off?”) And I started to panic as it dawns on me that this conversation is occurring 30 times the 300 people in each of the 30 squadrons on this airbase.

The lieutenant looks stunned.  Were we all on drugs?  What on earth were we talking about?  He sent the sergeant to get the memo from the bulletin board, reads it and he starts looking really confused.  It can’t be real, but yet… it does look like an official order from the base commander.

The lieutenant leaves to call the base commander,(about the same time 29 other lieutenants were doing the same.) “But sir, the order came from you.” An hour and a half later we finally get dismissed with a, “Ignore that order, it wasn’t really an order.”

Years later at different air bases, at the most unexpected times, I’d hear someone bring up, “Hey, were you at Keesler when they had those orders about the gravity being turned off?”  And I always say, “No, never heard of it, tell me about it.”  The story was even better when someone else told it.

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The Secret History of Silicon Valley Part VI: Every World War II Movie was Wrong

This is Part VI of how I came to write “The Secret History of Silicon Valley“. This post makes a lot more sense if you look at the earlier posts as well as the video and slides.


The next piece of the Secret History of Silicon Valley puzzle came together when Tom Byers, Tina Selig and Mark Leslie invited me to teach entrepreneurship in the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP) in Stanford’s School of Engineering.  My office is in the Terman Engineering Building.

Fred Terman – the Cover Story
I’d heard of Terman but I didn’t really know what he did – his biography said that he was one of the preeminent radio engineers in the 1930′s literally writing the textbooks. He was the professor who helped his students Bill Hewlett and David Packard start a company in 1939.  In World War II he headed up something called the Harvard Radio Research Lab. There was plenty in his biography about his post WWII activities: chair of electrical engineering in 1937, dean of engineering in 1946, provost in 1955. He started the Stanford Honors Co-op in 1954 which allowed companies in the valley to send their engineers to Stanford graduate engineering programs.  74HGZA3MZ6SV

Since I was interested in the history of Silicon Valley, Entrepreneurship, and now Terman, I began to understand that Terman had a lot to do with the proliferation of microwave companies in Silicon Valley in the 1950′s and ’60′s. But how? And why? So I started to read all I could find on the development of microwaves. That led me back to the history of radar in World War II – and a story you may not know.

What Does WWII Have to Do with Silicon Valley?
Just a quick history refresher. In December 1941, the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, and Germany declares war on the United States. And while the Soviets are fighting the Germans in massive land battles in eastern Europe, until the allies invade Western Europe in June 1944, the only way the U.S. and Britian can affect German war-fighting capability is by mounting a Strategic Bombing campaign, from England. Their goal was to destroy the German capability to wage war by aerial bombing the critical infrastructure of the German war machine. 

The allies bombed the German petroleum infrastructure, aircraft manufacturing infrastructure, chemical infrastructure, and transportation infrastructure. The Americans and British split up the air campaign: the British bombed at night, the Americans during the day.


b-17The Odds Weren’t Good
These bombers flew for 7+ hours from England and over occupied Europe, through a gauntlet of intense antiaircraft fire and continuous attack by German fighter planes. And they got it coming and going to the target.

But what the bomber crews didn’t know was that the antiaircraft fire and German fighters they encountered were controlled via a sophisticated radar-guided electronic air defense system covering all of occupied Europe and Germany.

The German electronic air defense system was designed to detect the allied bomber raids, target and aim the German radar-guided weapons, and destroy the American and British bombers. The German air defense system had 100′s of early warning radars, and thousands of radar controlled anti-aircraft guns, and Ground Controlled Intercept radars to guide the fighters into the bombers.


And the German night fighters had their own on-board radar. In all the Germans had over 7,500 radars dedicated to tracking and killing the allied bombers.


Each allied bombing mission lost 2-20% of their planes. Bomber crews had to fly 25 missions to go home. The German objective was to make strategic bombing too costly for the Allies to continue.  

By 1942 the Allied Air Command recognized they needed to reduce allied losses to fighters and flak. We needed a way to shut down the German Air Defense system. (Bear with me as this history takes you from the skies of Europe to Fred Terman.)

The Electronic Shield
To shut it down we first needed to understand the German “Radar Order of Battle.” What radars did the Germans have and what were their technical characteristics? How effective they were? What weapons were they associated with? We needed to find out all this stuff and then we needed to figure out how to confuse it and make it ineffective. 

So the U.S. set up a top secret, 800-person lab to do just that, first, to gather signals intelligence to understand the “Radar Order of Battle” and then, to wage “electronic warfare” by building mechanical and electronic devices to severely hamper the Germans’ ability to target and aim their weapons.

Ferrets and Crows  Signals Intelligence
The first job of the secret lab was to find and understand the German air defense system. So we invented the U.S. Signals Intelligence industry in about 12 months (with help from their British counterparts at the Telecommunications Research Establishment.) These mission of the planes called Ferrets, manned by crews called Crows, was to find and understand the German electronic air defense system.  We stripped out B-24 bombers, took out all the bomb racks, took out all the bombs and even took out all the guns.  And we filled it with racks of receivers and displays, wire and strip recorders and communications intercept equipment that could search the electromagnetic spectrum from 50 megahertz to 3 gigahertz, and this is 1943. 

We flew these unarmed planes in and out of Germany alongside our bombers and basically built up the “radar order of battle.” We now understood where the German radars were, their technical details and what weapons they controlled.

Tin Foil Rain – Chaff
We first decided to shut down the German radars that were directing the anti-aircraft guns and the fighter planes. And to do that we dropped tin foil on the Germans. No kidding. Radar engineers had observed if you cut a strip of aluminum foil to 1/2 the wavelength of a radar transmitter and throw it in front of the radars antenna, the radar signal would reflect perfectly. All the radar operator would see was noise, rather than airplanes. 

Well, you couldn’t stand in front of the German radars and throw out tin foil, but you could if you had a fleet of airplanes. Each plane threw out packets of aluminum foil (called “chaff”.) The raid on Hamburg in July, 1943 was the first use of chaff in World War II.  It completely shut down the German air defense system in and around Hamburg.  The British and then the Americans firebombed the city with minimal air losses.

Chaff used 3/4′s of all the aluminum foil in the U.S. in World War II, because by the end of the war, every bomber stream was dumping chaff on every mission.

Jam It and Shut it Down - Electronic Warfare
But this secret lab was focused on electronic warfare. So they systematically designed electronic devices called “jammers” to shut down each part of the German air defense system.  Think of a “jammer” as a radio transmitter broadcasting noise on the same frequency of the enemy radar set. The goal is to overwhelm the enemy radar with noise so they couldn’t see the bombers. We built electronic jammers to target each part of the German air defense system: their early warning radars, the short range radars, the antiaircraft gun radars, the Ground Control Intercept Radars, the air to ground radio links and even the radars onboard the German night fighters. By the end of the war we had put multiple jammers on every one of our bombers, and while their power output was ridiculously low, these jammers were flying in formation with 1,000 other planes with their jammers on, and the combined power was enough to confuse the radar operators.

Just to give you a sense of scale of how big this electronic warfare effort was, we built over 30,000 jammers, with entire factories running 24/7 in the U.S. making nothing but jammers to put on our bombers.

By the end of World War II, over Europe, a bomber stream no longer consisted of just planes with bombs.  Now the bombers were accompanied by electronics intelligence planes looking for new radar signals, escort bombers just full of jammers and others full of chaff, as well as P-51 fighter planes patrolling alongside our bomber stream.


Every WWII Movie and Book with a Bomber was Wrong
While there were lots of stories about how the British early warning radar system, called “Chain Home” saved England during the Battle of Britain by giving the Spitfire pilots time to scramble to intercept German bombers, there wasn’t a coherent story about American and British bombers encountering the German radar-guided air defense system.

This lack of information meant that every World War II movie or book that had airplanes on bombing missions in it was wrong.  Every one of them. (To someone who had grown up with reruns of WWII war movies on TV, this was a shock.) Every movie I had seen – 12 O’clock High, Memphis Belle, etc. –  assumed that there were no electronics other than radios on these bombers. Wrong. Not only didn’t the movie makers know, but the pilots and crews didn’t know about the German radar guided system trying to kill them. Nor did they know about the electronic shield being assembled to try to protect them.

But while this may be a great story what the does this have to do with the history of Silicon Valley?

The answer lies with who ran this lab and became the father of electronic warfare and Signals Intelligence in the Cold War for the next 20 years.

Who Ran the Most Secret Lab You Never Heard of?
It was Fred Terman of Stanford.  The Harvard Radio Research Lab was his creation. A Stanford professor was at Harvard in World War II because the head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development thought Terman was the best radio engineer in the country. (Why couldn’t he have set up a lab at Stanford?  Apparently, the Office of Scientific Research thought that Stanford’s engineering department was second rate.)

Finally, I had an answer to the question I had asked 35 years earlier when I was in Thailand: “How did electronic warfare get started?” Now I knew that it began in the early days of World War II as a crash program to reduce the losses of bombers to the German air defense network.  Electronic warfare and signals intelligence in the U.S. started with Fred Terman and the Harvard Radio Research Lab.

Spooky Music
Reading about Terman was like finding the missing link in my career.  Here was the guy who invented the field I had spent the first five years of my adult life working on. And 30 years later I was teaching in a building named after him and never knew a thing about him.  Play spooky music here.

I began to realize a few things: First, everything we had done in electronic warfare in the Vietnam War was just a slightly more modern version of what we had done over occupied Europe in World War II.  (And in hindsight, we seemed a bit more agile and innovative in WWII.)

Unbelievably, in less than two years, Terman’s Radio Research lab invented an industry and had turned out a flurry of new electronic devices the likes of which had never been seen.  Yet decades later the military lacked the agility to write a spec in two years, let alone get 10′s of thousands of new systems deployed on aircraft as Terman had done.  How was this possible?  In 21st century terminology we’d say that Terman built the Radio Research lab into a customer-centric organization doing agile development.

Just the Beginning
The public history of Terman’s involvement with the military ends when he returns back to Stanford at the end of the war. Nothing in his biography or any Stanford history mentions anything as exciting as his work in World War II. The public story of his last 20 years at Stanford, in the 1950′s and ’60′s, seems to have him settle into the role of the kindly dean and innovative provost.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Secret Life of Fred Terman in a War you never heard of in Part VII of the Secret History of Silicon Valley.


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