Frederick Emmon Terman was known as “The Father of Silicon Valley.” But even a nickname like that fails to capture his contributions to the electronics industry. Under his leadership, Stanford University evolved from a respected university to a world-class institution. His work in radar countermeasures in World War II saved countless lives. Radio Engineering, which he revised and expanded in three additional editions, is a cornerstone of electronics scholarship. Yet this Father of Silicon Valley was a caring father at home as well.
“As a family, we always ate dinner together,” said his son Lewis Terman, a Research Emeritus at IBM and a former president of IEEE. “He came back around 5:30 from the office. He would do something in the study. We had dinner from 6 to 7. He would rest from 7 to 7:30, and then he’d be back working on the books. But I could interrupt him at any time.”
While Fred Terman’s family was very important to him, he also had a lifelong devotion to Stanford University, and the Termans and the school have enjoyed a very long association. Fred’s father Lewis Terman, who invented the Stanford-Binet IQ test, was the chair of the psychology department there from 1922 to 1945. Fred earned his undergraduate degree in chemistry and his master’s degree in electrical engineering there in 1920 and 1922, respectively.
After earning his ScD in electrical engineering under Vannevar Bush at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1925, he returned to Stanford to join the faculty. He was named the head of the Electrical Engineering Department in 1937, Dean of Engineering after World War II, and provost of the university in 1955, retiring at the age of 65 in 1965. Even then, he continued to consult for the university, and the school honored him with the Frederick Emmons Terman Engineering Center in 1977 and Stanford’s Uncommon Man Award in 1978.
“He was proud that the Terman name was going up on a building,” said his son Lewis. “There was a t-shirt of a map of the Stanford campus and on it was the Terman Engineering Center. When I was wearing it one time, he said, ‘What’s that?’ He asked us to buy him one, which we did.”
While Fred Terman was dedicated to Stanford during the early years of his teaching career, in 1942 he answered his country’s wartime call and led the secret Radio Research Laboratory (RRL) at Harvard University. According to Terman biographer C. Stewart Gillmor, postwar analysts claimed the more than 150 radar countermeasures developed there saved approximately 800 Allied bombers and their crews.
“I think he was very well aware that this was saving lives,” Lewis said. “That part of it was very important to him. The German radar, around ’43 or so, was really formidable. It was probably equal to ours, maybe not quite as good. They had it set up around Germany in waves. The Germans didn’t have a lot of fighter planes, so they had to send them up where they thought the attacks were coming. When what was called chaff was dropped, it would look like there were thousands of planes coming, so they didn’t know where to send fighters up, and that made a big difference.”
Once the war was over, though, it was time for Fred Terman to initiate his plan to bring the school to the forefront of engineering education, as his old mentor Vannevar Bush was directing war-related research funding to American schools.
“He definitely felt that there was a game change after the Second World War, and the game change was that he knew there was going to be government money to sponsor research. He knew some people in the industry. Hewlett and Packard were getting started, and there were a number of others. And he said there were really three elements here,” Lewis said.
“There is the government money, there’s the university, and the industry. He wanted a tight tie together between industry and the university with the government money supporting education of the students who would then go into the industry. That was the model he was working on that he thought had really great opportunities to do great things.”
And so Silicon Valley was born.
The Father of Silicon Valley
While the electronics industry had been centered on the East Coast, Terman felt there was an opportunity to attract established companies and engineers, as well as inspire new ones, in California. In 1951, he developed the Stanford Industrial Park on land owned by the university on the campus in Palo Alto, Calif. Varian Associates was the first company to sign a lease, followed by Terman’s former students Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard. Instead of taking all the credit, though, Terman attributed the complex’s success to three factors.
“One was the California climate. You bring people out from Bell Labs in New Jersey or Boston or wherever in February and it’s 30 or 40 degrees warmer, and, by the way, February is after the rains have fallen in California so now the hills are a beautiful green. It’s a gorgeous time. And they say, ‘This is heaven. Why am I in Boston or working for AT&T or Bell Laboratories in New Jersey?’” Lewis said.
“The second thing, he would say, was Bill Shockley, the future Nobel Prize winner from Bell Labs, who came out and started a company in Palo Alto. Basically, he was not a good technical or people manager. His employees thought he was going in the wrong direction. He was hard to get along with, so they left to form Fairchild Semiconductor, and then Fairchild people started Intel, and that created this culture of startups out there, that people would move around, starting a new company, and being successful,” Lewis said.
“The third thing was my father. He didn’t do anything about the climate. He didn’t do anything about Shockley. But Stanford itself, having a world-class university there, was really important because it was an educational center that people could really rely on. There were outstanding professors there. You could interact. Your employees could get educated and get higher degrees,” Lewis said.
The symbiotic relationship between Stanford and Silicon Valley couldn’t have happened with the vast network of incredibly talented engineers that Terman had known. When he was a professor, his students included Hewlett and Packard, O.G. Villard Jr., Robert Helliwell, and Edward Gintzon, according to Gillmor. He also was friends with William Hansen and Russell and Sigurd Varian. These relationships made it easy for Terman to pursue his “Steeples of Excellence” philosophy.
“One of his comments was, ‘You don’t get an 8-foot high-jumper by hiring two 4-foot high-jumpers,’” Lewis said. “So you look for the best person you can get. When he was provost, that was one of the big focuses he had, to go out and find the best person he could to head the department, to fill in this chair, and so forth.”
An Influential Author
Terman’s reach extended far beyond the engineers he knew personally. In 1933, he published the first edition of Radio Engineering. The second and third editions came out in 1938 and 1947. When the fourth edition appeared in 1955, it was called Electronic and Radio Engineering. The different editions were part of the coursework at Stanford and elsewhere.
“The second edition in the late thirties was really good. That became the book of record that literally thousands of people around the world used. Then the Second World War ended and he realized that three years of intense progress had been made. He sat down and went through all the stuff in those publications and conferences and incorporated all the changes, all the advances, in the third edition,” Lewis said.
“He worked night and day to get the third edition out because he knew the game had changed. If he wasn’t the first person to get it out, he would lose his place as the textbook leader. So the third edition came out, and again, it was a real winner, and then he did the fourth edition,” Lewis said. In fact, Lewis used the book in his own undergraduate career at Stanford when he took the course under radar pioneer William Rambo.
“The fourth edition I got for free,” Lewis laughed.
“I took the course. ‘Read the next chapter for tomorrow’s class.’ Okay, I read it. My heavens, how am I going to absorb all this? But somehow you absorb it and you come back three weeks later for a midterm or for reviewing for PhD orals, and it’s all laid out beautifully. It’s all there. It’s clear. It was really something spectacular in how well he wrote that book and how much work he put into it,” Lewis said.
“People keep coming up to me and say, ‘Are you related to the person who wrote the book?’ And they always say, ‘That was it. That’s when I learned electronics. That’s the great book. I still have it.’ This is 40 or 50 years after they’ve studied from it,” Lewis said.
Don’t Forget the Engineering
While Terman is most known as a visionary administrator, he was no slouch in the lab either. Between 1930 and 1947, he had 36 patents. Still, he was humble when it came to his own technical achievements.
“He always felt that he was not as good as people like Bill Hansen. My mother said that was nonsense. He was every bit as good as these guys. But then he had this bent to be in the management side of things. By the time he came back from the Second World War, he was ensconced in management, so I didn’t see his inventiveness,” Lewis said, though he noted his father was particularly proud of one development.
“He defined the bandwidth of data transmission by the 3-dB loss points, which quickly became the standard definition of bandwidth. He noted with a smile that nobody remembered that he had defined it,” Lewis said.
There were other accomplishments to treasure too. Lewis said his father was primarily proud of improving Stanford’s stature. He also was proud of being the first president of the Institute of Radio Engineers (IRE), the IEEE’s predecessor, from west of the Mississippi River. He had an honorary doctorate from Harvard University that meant a lot to him. And, he received the 1975 Medal of Science from President Ford.
“That was a high point of his life,” Lewis said. “There is a picture of him talking to Ford after he received the medal and the family joke is that he was telling Ford how to run the country.”
Considering how well Stanford University and the companies in Silicon Valley flourished under his leadership, Ford would have been wise to take this visionary’s advice.