First-Hand:A Checkered Career in Electrical Engineering


Submitted by William A. Edson

My brother Jim, who was seven years older, was already studying electrical engineering when I entered high school. He had a job at Bell Labs before I graduated. Also, my Uncle Jim was a professional engineer, and my father had some training in engineering. So it was almost preordained that I should go into electrical engineering.

The University of Kansas (at Lawrence) was close to my home (Olathe) and had a good school for electrical engineering. My father, brother, and several uncles had gone there, so it was the obvious choice. My years at KU were the bottom years of the Great Depression; so when I graduated in 1934 there just weren't any jobs. Out of a very talented class, only two electrical engineers got job offers. So, with the help of my family and two part-time jobs, I stayed at KU another year to get a masters degree.

Near the end of that year, Dean George Shaad called me into his office and offered me a Gordon Mackay Scholarship at Harvard! For that I am deeply grateful to him and to Conyers Herring, who had received the same honor the preceding year, and who was already showing his outstanding talents at Harvard.

After a long hiatus, Bell Labs resumed hiring in 1937. Partly, on the basis of my brother's talents, I received a job offer and joined the Systems Development Department in August, at the princely salary of forty-two dollars per week. No time clock and only thirty five hours a week! During that summer I toyed with an offer from the fledgling General Communication Company, but wisely chose Bell Labs. It may be worth noting that the words "electronics," "communications systems," and "development" were not yet in the vocabulary of the general public.

My career is checkered. I have worked as an individual at the bench, as a group manager, and as president of a small company. I have worked for large companies (General Electric and Bell), and one small one-Vidar. Also, I have taught at three major universities and one small college. Each of these positions offered it's own special set of gratifications and frustrations. I believe I was a fairly good teacher and a reasonably good group leader; I was not a successful entrepreneur.

I worked at the Bell Labs from August, 1937 to August, 1941. At that time, I was assigned the task of developing a high-gain IF amplifier with a bandwidth of 10 Mhz centered at 60 Mhz, to meet the needs of upcoming X and K band radar systems. The best available tube was the RCA 1852, later designated 6AC7. Its bakelite base and iron envelope were poorly suited to the application, but the all-glass miniatures had not yet been developed. Naturally, this work was highly secret. A vivid memory of that time is sitting silently (and glumly) through an IRE meeting in New York at which an RCA engineer, working on television, pointed out that it was impossible to achieve the values of gain and bandwidth that I had already exceeded.

Seeking greener pastures, Al Ryan, Ed Proctor and I left GE and founded the Electromagnetic Technology Corporation (EMTECH) in Palo Alto, California. Alex Poinatoff was our landlord and Ed Boshell, a prominent Wall Street figure, provided some funds and much organizational know how. I was Director of Research, but things did not go well, and after a year I was promoted to president. We built high power filters, microwave windows, channelizing filters, and microwave gain equalizers to flatten the response of traveling wave tubes. We were never really profitable and went through various reorganizations, ending as a subsidiary of American Electronics Labs (AEL), near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (In the spring of 1970, AEL decided to close our shop and move the operation back east.)

I didn't want to move, and found a job at the Viacom division of Vidar Corporation in Mountain View, headed by my friend, Vernon Anderson. There I learned about the T-1 telephone carrier system and tried to develop a cheap system for sending it over a microwave link. Unfortunately, at about the same time, Viacom was acquired by a (larger) Saint Louis corporation that already had such a link. In the face of this reality, Verne, very generously, gave me three months to find another job.

Early 1971 was not a good time to find a job, and I really beat the bushes, without much encouragement. Then in February, Sally and I were invited to dinner at the home of Ed and Elizabeth Proctor, old friends from GE and EMTECH days. Also present were Ray Leadabrand, one of my former students at Stanford, and his wife Millie. Upon hearing of my troubles, Ray offered me a job in the Radio Physics Lab of SRI International, formerly Stanford Research Institute. I am deeply grateful to all of them for this kindness, and remained at SRI for over eighteen years.

At age sixty-five, I was obliged to give up my managerial and supervisory duties, but was allowed to continue as an individual contributor and project leader. I very gradually slowed down and ceased to lead projects. Now I work about twenty hours a week on several problems concerning electromagnetic scattering and antenna near-field distributions. In this way, I keep active and avoid the problems that are encountered by some engineers who retire abruptly.

I joined the AlEE as a senior at the University of Kansas under pressure from Dean Shaad and continued as a member for about fifteen years. By the end of that time, my interests were widely divergent from those of the AlEE and I resigned to join the IRE in 1941. I was Chairman of the Atlanta Section, 1948-49,and of the San Francisco Section, 1963-64 (during the transition to IEEE). It was through these activities that I met Bill Hewlett and Fred Terman, and eventually became Director of WESCON. These contacts had very beneficial effects on my career and personal life.