The True Story

of the Communication and Radio Physics Lab

of the Stanford Research Institute (formerly SRI International)

from the actual archives.

 

compiled by Lumbar P. Doldrums, Archivist

 

 

Graduation day at San Diego State College in 1954 found me wondering if there was any value to a college degree in physics and math. Pondering the meaning of life I skipped the commencement ceremonies and fired up my Tesla coil in the Physics Lab. The school had a nifty, jim-dandy arker sparker of a coil built about 1922. But my EE prof David Kalbfell suggested I modify it to be all-electronic. He took me to the basement and showed me bushel baskets of Eimac 304TL power tetrodes left over from the war. Next he conned the power company for a 15 kw 12,000 "pole pig" transformer and the Navy for mica capacitors. During my senior year we stacked eight 304TLs in parallel and using a Colpitts oscillator circuit and raw AC on the plates we generated fat streams of glowing plasma several feet long. The local IEEE chapter politely sat through my demonstration and lecture on LaPlace transforms, network analysis, and how to get maximum suds out of any Tesla coil old or new.

Terrified of getting a job or even of living in the real world I decided to go to Stanford. Dave Kalbfell and Prof. Lester L. Skolil Jr. wrote glowing letters of recommendation to Fred Terman, Bill Edson, Dave Petit, Hugh Skilling, Leonard Schiff and who knows who else. My best friend Leland S. Reel chose Physics at Berkeley which began our long rivalry to see which one of us could flunk out of graduate school first. HiFi had recently been invented, and yes, TV too, so my U-Haul to Stanford that fall contained my monstrous 18 inch speaker cabinet (16 cycle organ notes were a must), my 50 pound precision weighted turntable, a ton of books a million LP records and boxes of old radio parts. Like the rest of the grad students we were invited into the luxury dorms of Stanford Village (312B). This never-used WW2 hospital was frame buildings, paper thin walls (ask someone about the legends of the marriage students dorms). All the buildings were joined to the cafeteria by miles of hallways and roofs that leaked whether it was raining or not.

Stanford was not easy. I had breezed through SDSC but my 150 physics grad school companions were all geniuses and suddenly I was at the bottom of the heap. The school bulletin said a PhD in four years was a breeze, but then I met an ancient shriveled little man who lived in the old physics building attic. Mr. Chan told me he had been there since x-rays were discovered by Prof. Paul Kirkpatrick at the beginning of century. He allowed as how 7-10 years was typical for a PhD and that many physics students would probably spend their lives in the basement working on Prof. Meyerhof's cyclotron. Many, he said would never again see the light of day. George Johnson, an older "professional" grad student, passed on his job to me--he was the chief lab instructor for the freshman labs and our friendship started then. He in fact DID get a PhD, never grew a day older, and thrives to this day in a brilliant career at SRI. Many are the terrible things that happened to me back then. I remember deciding to send all the mercury from the manometers out for cleaning. So I dumped gallons of liquid mercury into old coffee cans and left it all on Eric's desk. (Eric was the Physics Storekeeper and he dated back to the days Mrs. Stanford rode her bike around the Quad). Well, mercury amalgamates nicely with other metals so all the mercury was soon on the oiled planked wooden floor, in the desk, and scattered in dusty clumps everywhere! I was terrified, not so much of the wrath of the head of the department Prof. Leonard Schiff, (he was a shy man and always slipped in and out of his office when no one was in the halls). What I feared was getting on the wrong side of Anna Laura Berg, who, everyone said, actually ran the department and ruled with a rod of iron. The ordeal of my first year was finally over so I spent the summer earning $1.25 an hour building high voltage power supplies for the original on-campus linear accelerator. Second year was not much better, I cowered in fear of exams and the intimidation of the older students any one of whom could surely win the Nobel Prize at any time. Oh, the classes were fabulous: Robert Hofstader, Wolfgang Panofsky, Willard Lamb, Herr Meyerhof...great men and great teachers in a golden era for physicists.

Money was tight, I was burned out so was eager for my second summer. Housing had improved during Year Two--I was now upstairs in a huge room of the Stanford Village Hospital (Mental Ward?). Directly underneath me was a very neurotic grad student in chemistry who studied all night every night. Not only did I have to walk softly at all times, but never ever (hardly ever) could I play my favorite organ music at full volume on my super linear push-pull Macintosh power amplifier using British KT88s with 30 db of feedback. At the very opposite end of the building was a red-haired EE grad student named Myles Renver Berg. All the rooms had many extra closets and cabinets and we arranged these as we liked. Myles had his cabinets around his room with clothes lines stretched between them so his laundry could dry while he slept. His hi-fi was buried in the stacks on each side of his bed, at ear-level. In my room I fixed all the cabinets in a U-shaped labyrinth so that opening the door of my room one had to turn right and then left and then left again to enter my room. Well, one night I was out drinking beer late at Rossotti's with some of my grad student friends and it was after 2 AM when I staggered back to my room at Stanford Village. Opening my door I found not a labrinith but a solid wall. The lights also did not work, and the wall reached to the ceiling. Myles had cleverly played a joke on me knowing that I would be forced to knock over cabinets and send them crashing down to the floor. Sure enough after the thundering crash of my forced entrance, the now-psychotic chem student from the room below was at my door with the RA in tow, and murder in his eyes. He never spoke to me again, and in fact I think he disappeared not long thereafter. Surely I pushed him over the edge?

Well Myles was to blame and my revenge was sweet. The next day while Myles was on campus I ran wires down the outside of the building from my amplifier to his loudspeakers and concealed the evidence. Setting my alarm for 3 AM the next night I quietly connected the wires to Myles' speakers to my amp in my room and turning up the volume to maximum fired up the Finale from the Organ symphony of Saint Saens. The whole building was flooded in sound, and Myles leapt out of bed pulling wet clothes lines down around himself as he ran into the hall. Quickly I retrieved my wires from the window and left Myles to answer for himself. I think he suspects me to this day, but our friendship was always solid thereafter. At least i think we are even!

In fact when I told Myles I needed a summer job he said he would speak to a friend of his in the EE Dept, a certain Dr. Peterson. June came around and sure enough Lu Clarke at SRI had a summer job for me at $2.25 an hour. My assignment was to install a 50 kilowatt FM transmitter in a 40 foot van, help build a 61 foot dish, get radar echoes from the moon and take the ensemble up to College, Alaska, near Fairbanks. My first purchase order was for bright red rubber floor tile for the van and I still remember this was when my reputation as the "Last of the Big Spenders" got off to a good start. My boss was a tall, lean, lanky fellow, Ray L. Leadabrand who I discovered was already very very famous. It turns out Ray had almost finished his PhD at Stanford (except for the French exam Prof. Mike Villard later told me). Using a war surplus radar and a ham beam antenna, Mr. Rubberband had made the astounding discovery that field aligned ionization over Seattle could be seen on radar from Stanford during periods of high solar activity. Ever modest, Mr. Rubberband to this day has refused interview requests from 60 Minutes and The Discovery Channel regarding this dramatic, pioneering work. Anyway Mr. Rubberband lived with his charming wife Mildew in a spiffy new Eichler home on Middlefield and he owned a very fine green corduroy jacket and was already in the Flying Club and the United Airlines 100,000 mile Club. He was my instant mentor and hero and I hoped I could be like him when I grew up (if I ever did). Ray's office mate was a short but alert scientist, a certain W. Ray Vincent. "Well, now wait just a minute, golly, I think, well Van Allen has activated his radiation belt and I am not sure, well maybe, let's see, may be we can get some meteor echoes, sort of thing.." (rocking from side to side). Dr. Alec Montflower Patterson came through the lab once a day and we all reverently waited to greet him as he was light-years ahead of everyone else with his Giant Electric Snake project and exotic plans to point the RF energy from SLAC's thousand klystrons at the planet Venus. Dr. Pete also rocked back and forth nervously when he talked, "Well, the calculations show that we could trigger an earthquake on the San Andreas fault but I'll ask Livermore to check the data." Then he rushed off to meetings with various brilliant scientists from near and far.

Our lab was in a part of the old Stanford Village where the roofs leaked all the time. As I understand it they still have never been fixed, 50 years later. The buildings were laid out like a Mississippi river boat sunk in the mud. At the front end, up near Ravenswood avenue and the old Sharon Estate Guest House, was the Wheel House where Tom Morrin steered the ship of state and led the Engineering Group into the roaring '50s. It was always a privilege to visit the Wheel House. The old steering wheel linkage to the rudder was broken, but I think the whistle and bell were still working. The high muckety mucks usually wore their naval uniforms from the Spanish-American War which added an unmistakable touch of class.

We had coffee hours in the halls twice a day and I always knew when it was time to go for coffee as the booming bass voice of our electromagnetic theoretician, Dr. Pharton Klammer, would always be heard above the din at the coffee cart, "Well, that formula could not possibly be correct because you forgot to take the divergence of B into account and I see you did not integrate over all of Q space. My new paper on this is definitive. I suggest you wait for it to appear in JGR. Har-umph." Dr. Tseste Morita generally showed up for coffee in a white shirt with sleves rolled up above the elbow. His X, Y, and Z band antenna models are still being exploited around the world.


Lunch at Fabbros! Always a treat!

George Parks and David A. Johnson came on board soon, and their first job, as I recall, was tying screen on our first radar dish on campus. This first giant steel framework disk (GSFD)--61 feet in diameter--was spindly but a beautiful masterpiece designed on the back of a match cover by an incredibly intuitive mechanical engineer named Steel Nafford. Mr. Stafford insisted the disk was plenty strong (it could be winched up and down for changes to the feed)--yet the first winter always found Mr. Rubberband calling one of us to get out of bed and make sure the guy wires were in place when the winds roared in. That got old in a hurry. It was worse when Sputnik happened because Mr. Vincent built an Eichler home at the field site and we had to record every satellite pass night or day with Dr. Patterson taking notes and talking to the President (I think) on the White Courtesy Phone.


Chapter Two