Stanford and Electrical Engineering – Early 20th Century

Return to Timeline of the History of Computers or History

“A pivotal event in the history of the Bay Area’s high-tech industry took place in 1925: Harris Ryan’s student, Frederick Terman (a ham radio fan who had also studied at MIT in Boston with Vannevar Bush, joined Stanford University to work at Ryan’s pioneering radio-communications laboratory. Terman was the son of a Stanford professor, so he represented a highly educated generation that had been raised in the Bay Area, a step forward from the immigrants of previous decades. Within two years, the young apprentice became a visionary on his own, fostering a new science on the border between wireless communications and vacuum-tube electronics. Terman didn’t just perfect the art of radio engineering. The Bay Area offered precious few opportunities for employment, and during the Great Depression that started in 1929 virtually none. Terman encouraged his students to start their own businesses rather than wait for jobs to be offered to them. After all, Stanford had perfected a number of engineering technologies that could potentially be of general interest (one being the resistance-capacity oscillator built by Bill Hewlett in 1935). Many of those students were coming from the East Coast. He encouraged them to start businesses in the Bay Area. He viewed the university as an incubator of business plans. It was a step up from Harris Ryan’s philosophy of encouraging cooperation between academia and industry.

A vibrant industry was taking hold around Stanford University by the time Ryan retired in 1931 and Cyril Elwell’s Federal Telegraph Corporation (FTC) moved east. Several startups were spin-offs of the early radio companies.

Stanford’s student Ralph Heintz, a former radio amateur and employee of Earle Ennis, had started a business to install short-wave radios on ships and airplanes. In 1926 he founded Heintz & Kaufmann in San Francisco; but soon had to start manufacturing their own vacuum tubes to compete with RCA, for which they hired radio hobbyists Bill Eitel and Jack McCullough.

Litton Engineering Laboratories had been founded in 1932 by ham-radio hobbyist, Stanford student, and FTC manager Charlie Litton at his parents’ Redwood City home to manufacture tools for vacuum tube manufacturers (the same job he had at FTC). Litton invented the glass lathe that mechanized the process of making vacuum tubes. Eitel-McCullough (later Eimac) was formed in 1934 in San Bruno by Heintz’s employees Bill Eitel and Jack McCullough to develop better vacuum tubes for the amateur or ham radio market (which would become the Armed Forces’ favorite tubes during the war). Another FTC employee, German-born Gerhard Fisher invented the metal detector in 1928, and founded Fisher Research Laboratories in 1931 in his home’s garage in Palo Alto. Many of these independents who scouted the market for radio communications and electronics had started out as ham radio amateurs, some of them at a very early age.

At the time, Stanford was a minor university, and not many scholars of international standing were willing to join its ranks. The world sent many Europeans (especially Jews) to the USA, but almost all to the universities of the East Coast. The head of the department of Mathematics at Stanford, Hans Blichfeldt, was the son of Danish peasants who immigrated to the USA. Admitted to Stanford despite his lack of formal education, he had to spend a year in Germany (Leipzig) in order to finish his dissertation: German universities had a far better reputation than Stanford, especially in mathematics. After he retired in 1938, he was succeeded by the Austro-Hungarian Jew Gabor Szego, who had fled Europe after the rising of Nazism and in 1940 convinced his friend Gyorgy Polya to join him. “George” Polya would go on to become the world’s expert in heuristics, the rules of thumb that mathematicians use to find solutions, a topic on which he published an influential book, “How to Solve it” (1945), originally written in German in Switzerland but rejected by European publishers. While all of these mathematicians were brilliant, none compared with the likes of John VonNeumann and Kurt Goedel who flocked to the East Coast universities (not to mention Albert Einstein).

Stanford’s “Engineering Corner” (2010)

The local tradition of radio engineering led an immigrant to settle in San Francisco to conduct his experiments. In 1927 Philo Farnsworth, a stereotypical amateur who had been discovered in Utah by San Francisco venture capitalists Leslie Gorrell and George Everson, carried out the first all-electronic television broadcast. It was based on a theory that he had conceived as a teenager. Farnsworth’s team included the young Russ Varian and Ralph Heintz. In 1931 the investors decided to cash in. They sold the company to the Philadelphia Storage Battery Company (later renamed Philco). At the time, Philco was the main maker of home radios in the US and therefore in a much better position to mass-manufacture television sets. The power of RCA, however, was such that the Russian-born scientist Vladimir Zworkyn of their New Jersey laboratories was credited by the media with inventing television. Farnsworth’s reputation was saved by his good San Francisco friend, Donald Lippincott, formerly a Magnavox engineer and now an attorney, who in 1930 defended the young inventor’s intellectual property against RCA. Lippincott exemplified a tradition of heavy intellectual-property litigation in the Bay Area that would be crucial to the development of the high-tech industry run by young inventors.”

Fair Use Sources:



Stanford University – 1885 AD

Return to Timeline of the History of Computers

Stanford University

Stanford University seal 2003.svg
Motto German: Die Luft der Freiheit weht. Motto in English: “The wind of freedom blows”

Stanford University, officially Leland Stanford Junior University,[12] is a private research university in Stanford, California. Stanford is ranked among the most prestigious universities in the world by numerous major education publications.[13][14][15]

The university was founded in 1885 by Leland and Jane Stanford in memory of their only child, Leland Stanford Jr., who had died of typhoid fever at age 15 the previous year.[2] Stanford was a U.S. Senator and former Governor of California who made his fortune as a railroad tycoon. The school admitted its first students on October 1, 1891,[2][3] as a coeducational and non-denominational institution.

Stanford University struggled financially after the death of Leland Stanford in 1893 and again after much of the campus was damaged by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.[16] Following World War II, Provost Frederick Terman supported faculty and graduates’ entrepreneurialism to build self-sufficient local industry in what would later be known as Silicon Valley.[17] The university is also one of the top fundraising institutions in the country, becoming the first school to raise more than a billion dollars in a year.[18]

“Until 1919 the only road connecting San Jose to San Francisco was the old “El Camino Real,” a dusty country road (at the time known as US 101) that snaked its way through orchards and barren hills. The only way to travel quickly was the Southern Pacific Railroad. It had been acquired by the railway empire of Leland Stanford, the president of the company charged with the western section of the first transcontinental railroad. Stanford was a former California governor and a US senator. The Stanfords donated land and money to start a university near their farm after their only son, Leland Junior, died. They had a station built on the Southern Pacific route, the station of University Park, later renamed Palo Alto.”

“Stanford University opened in 1891. It was not the first university of the Bay Area: the Berkeley campus of the University of California had opened in 1873 at the other end of the bay. However, Leland was a man with a plan: his express goal was to create the Harvard of the West, something like New York State’s Cornell University. At the time, despite the huge sums of money offered to them by Leland, neither the President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, nor the President of Cornell were willing to move to such a primitive place as the Bay Area from their comfortable East Coast cities; so Leland had to content himself with a humbler choice: a relatively young Cornell graduate, David Starr Jordan. In 1892 he hired Albert Pruden Carmen from the College of New Jersey (later renamed Princeton University) to teach electricity (at the time still a new discipline) within the Physics Department. The following year, another Princeton graduate, Fred Perrine, became the first professor of electrical engineering within a department furnished with equipment donated by local electrical firms.”

View of the main quadrangle of Stanford University with Memorial Church in the center background from across the grass-covered Oval.

“The light bulb (Edison) and the alternating current motor (Tesla) had been invented on the East Coast, but California pioneered their domestic use. In 1860s Horatio Livermore’s Natoma Water and Mining Company, based in Folsom, had built an extensive network of dams to supply water to the miners of the Gold Rush on the American River. Leveraging that investment, in July 1895 his company opened a 35 km hydroelectric power line to bring electricity from Folsom to Sacramento, with water powering four colossal electrical generators (dynamos), the first time that high-voltage alternating current had been successfully conducted over a long distance. In September 1895 Sacramento celebrated the coming of electricity with a Grand Electrical Carnival, and very soon the streets of the state’s capital were roamed by electric streetcars. Unlike on the East Coast, where electricity mainly served the industry, in the Bay Area and in Los Angeles electricity first came to the cities for public and domestic use. That also explains why electric consumer goods (such as the washing machine) would spread more rapidly in California, creating a myth of high-tech living.”

Fair Use Sources:


GCP History

Google – 1998 AD

Return to Timeline of the History of Computers



Larry Page (b. 1973), Sergey Brin (b. 1973)

“The seed for what would become Google started with Stanford graduate student Larry Page’s curiosity about the organization of pages on the World Wide Web. Web links famously point forward. Page wanted to be able to go in the other direction.

To go backward, Page built a web crawler to scan the internet and organize all the links, named BackRub for the backlinks it sought to map out. He also recognized that being able to qualify the importance of the links would be of great use as well. Sergey Brin, a fellow graduate student, joined Page on the project, and they soon developed an algorithm that would not only identify and count the links to a page but also rank their importance based on quality of the pages from where the links originated. Soon thereafter, they gave their tool a search interface and a ranking algorithm, which they called PageRank. The effort eventually evolved into a full-blown business in 1998, with revenue coming primarily from advertisers who bid to show advertisements on search result pages.

In the following years, Google acquired a multitude of companies, including a video-streaming service called YouTube, an online advertising giant called DoubleClick, and cell phone maker Motorola, growing into an entire ecosystem of offerings providing email, navigation, social networking, video chat, photo organization, and a hardware division with its own smartphone. Recent research has focused on deep learning and AI (DeepMind), gearing up for the tech industry’s next battle—not over speed, but intelligence.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary both added the word Google as a verb in 2006, meaning to search for something online using the Google search engine. At Google’s request, the definitions refer explicitly to the use of the Google engine, rather than the generic use of the word to describe any internet search.

On October 2, 2015, Google created a parent company to function as an umbrella over all its various subsidiaries. Called Alphabet Inc., the American multinational conglomerate is headquartered in Mountain View, California, and has more than 70,000 employees worldwide.”

SEE ALSO: First Banner Ad (1994)

Google’s self-described mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Fair Use Sources: B07C2NQSPV

Batelle, John. “The Birth of Google.” Wired, August 1, 2005.

Brin, Sergey, and Lawrence Page. “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine.” In Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on World Wide Web 7. Brisbane, Australia: Elsevier, 1998, 107–17.