“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.”