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’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.

In case of a nuclear war in the 1950’s the Strategic Air Command planned 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 Electronic Warfare 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 fitted to bombers (built by the wartime Harvard Radio Research lab headed up by Terman and his team now at Stanford) had been built around tubes originally designed for radio applications. They put out 5-20 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 penetrating the Soviet air defense system in the Cold War needed jammers that had 1. enough jamming power to defend itself (hundreds of times more power than WW2 devices), 2. could cover multiple frequencies, and 3. these jammers could be tuned instantaneously.

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

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

Frequency Agility
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 (called spot jamming) and could not be re-tuned in the air. To cover all the possible frequencies German radars might be operating on, electronic warfare technicians pre-tuned 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 and Electronic Warfare tutorial is here.)

For example, one of the first Soviet radars U.S. bombers would encounter was the Soviet P-20 Token early warning radar).  The P-20 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 microwave power tubes that offered a solution to both high power, frequency agility and instantaneous tuning 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.) This was a critical development to support the new tactics of single bombers penetrating the Soviet Union. Perfecting this tube for use as an airborne jammer became one of the labs primary objectives.

Equipping a bomber with multiple 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 1,000’s of 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 in 1952 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 Associates 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 a 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.

2 Responses

  1. Hi Steve, what fascinates you more – entrepreneurship or radio/microwaves :). Btw, I too came across a recent article about moth jammers and remembered your earlier post on it.

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