About Guido Vannucchi
Born in Benghazi, Libya, in 1933, Guido Vannucchi graduated in Industrial Engineering at the University of Bologna in 1958, and earned a master’s in Electrical Engineering at Stanford University in 1963. In 1960 he joined Telettra as a planner until, in 1970, he was appointed director of the Transmission Laboratory. In 1982 he became Vice-Director and in 1984 Director General of the company. From 1990, when Telettra was sold by FIAT to the ALCATEL group, he acted as strategic consultant to various Italian communications companies. He also promoted the Collana Scientifica Telettra, in which numerous important scientific and educational works were published, many of which he edited.
In the interview, he recounts his research in microwave-link technology, transistorized IF amplifiers, transistorized coaxial cable, low-power consumption radio links, and digital compression for high-definition television. He alludes to leaving Telettra when Fiat sold it.
About the Interview
Guido Vannucchi: An Interview Conducted by David L. Morton, Jr., IEEE History Center, 29 July, 1996
Interview #291 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.
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It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:
Guido Vannucchi, an oral history conducted in 1996 by David Morton, IEEE History Center, Piscataway, NJ, USA.
Interview: Guido Vannuchi
Interviewer: Dr. David Morton
Date: 29 July 1996
Place: Milan, Italy
Background and Education
I was born in 1933 in Bengasi (Libya), an Italian colony at the time, where my father worked as a topographer, but after just one year my family returned to Italy, living in Rome, Modena, and Bologna and later in Milan when I began to work in the industry. As far as school is concerned, I attended what in Italy is called the classical high school, since although I intended to become an engineer, I was attracted to humanistic studies.
In 1958 I graduated at the University of Bologna in Industrial Engineering, which had only started to show a strong interest in electronics in the previous few years. The subject of my final thesis was the study of the “Traveling Wave Tubes”, microwave amplifiers that at the time were the latest technology for applications on microwave radio links. My master was Prof. Ercole De Castro, who unfortunately died at an early age, but provided very important theoretical contributions both in the field of “Communication Theory” and that of Microelectronics.
Career and Research at Telettra
In March 1960, after a period spent at the University of Bologna as Assistant Professor and researcher in the (then fashionable) field of “Circular Wave Guides,” I decided to move over into industry, and between various opportunities, I chose an offer from Telettra S.p.A — a Telecommunications company at the time with just 400 employees and a turnover of about 5 million dollars — because I was attracted to its innovative characteristics. It was a great school of life and professional experience for me for over 30 years. The company had been founded by an engineer, Mr. Floriani, in 1946 with the intention of contributing to the post-war reconstruction of the Italian telecommunications network, including the introduction of carrier frequency systems, which up until then had not been used in our country. The founder’s main attention was concentrated on the strengthening of particularly innovative R&D activities.
I began working in the R&D laboratories (and more specifically in the “Microwave-link Intermediate Frequency” sector) which the founder had deliberately oriented towards developing all of the products autonomously instead of obtaining licences, as was the usual practice in Italy at the time. My first task in Telettra was the development of an IF amplifier, made entirely from transistors; a project that was state-of-the-art at the time both in Italy and in other countries, since these apparatus were still being made with vacuum tubes.
Did any of your University training prepare you to work to make this shift to semiconductor electronics?
No, it was completely a self-learning approach. At that time (the mid-fifties), in the Italian Universities there were no official courses in semiconductor technology and transistor applications.
How did companies make that? How did Telettra make that?
From 1960 onwards, Telettra began to create strong ties with the various Italian universities, in particular with my contribution, since I had come from that area. These contacts have been a constant characteristic of the company in a country in which links between Industry and the Universities were almost non-existent at the time. In this way an internal training programme in various fields was set up, with the support of the most important Italian Universities. It was with the University of Bologna, and namely with the help of Prof. De Castro, that we started up a training programme on Microelectronics and “Advanced Communication Technology.”
A particular feeling between Telettra and some Italian Universities helped to divert a great deal of university research in telecommunication towards industrial applications and it was the beginning of long-lasting, profitable and intense collaboration that led to many joint research programmes. One of the contributions that I believe I have made to the Italian Research community is that I have always worked towards the creation of closer contacts between university and industrial world.
In mid 1962 Mr. Floriani decided to send me to America to follow some courses on “Statistical Communication” at Stanford University. He was on very good terms with Mr. Packard, Dr. Noyce and various directors of Bell Labs who often came to visit Telettra. He was convinced that an experience of this kind was important to my professional training in view of future assignments. What is more, I decided to set myself a more precise objective for my stay in the USA, by dedicating my efforts towards the attainment of a Master in Electrical Engineering, which I gained in June 1963. My professors were Dr. J. Pettit, Dean of Electrical Engineering, Dr. Mason and Dr. Abramson, who was well-known in particular for “Statistical Communication.” In any case and in all aspects this experience in the USA was a great experience and was very important in my general training and for the human contacts that were made.
On my return to Italy, unexpectedly, instead of advanced application for new Telettra microwave equipment, Telettra put me to work on the development of a new programme on transistorized coaxial cable, which was an entirely new field for Telettra and, in the transistorized version, new also to Europe. I must admit that at the time, I wasn’t very enthusiastic. Instead, it was the beginning of my wide-ranging experience in various fields of “transmission,” an aspect that has been very important to my future career.
In 1970 I was made Director of Transmission Research and Development. Transmission was the most important sector of the company during those years, even though an innovative programme on switching had been started up. The years ’70s have been a very creative period for the Company, and also in terms of my scientific production that I had continued even after leaving the University. In particular, the Company reached important goals through the development of advanced and innovative transmission apparatus, both in the traditional analog field and in the now fast-developing digital field.
The Italian Communications Market
Explain what that’s used for in this country? For transmission of telephone signals?
Yes. The Italian telecommunications network, completely destroyed in the early post-war, was making rapid progress. And in the transmission, Telettra’s advanced contributions were much appreciated. An excellent communications school had also been set up in the university sphere. Despite the absence of any Government policy in support of telecommunications, the telephone company SIP (present in Italy for all local areas and middle distance transmission) was operating rapidly and with good results, so that Italy was the first European state to introduce direct dialing on a nation-wide scale.
Can we go back a little bit and could you give me a sort of quick overview of the technical development of the network and also on the operators organization in Italy in the ‘60s, ’70s, ‘80s, or even in ‘50s too? We mentioned the updating of the telephone network but before we jump into some other technologies, it would be useful to understand better the telephone situation in Italy.
Yes, you are right. When I arrived at Telettra in 1960, only a few years had passed since the unification of five different independent telephone companies — operating in different geographical areas of Italy — into a single monopolistic company for the local area, named SIP.
SIP was controlled by the holding company STET, with majority control of IRI holding, the organization that in Italy governed the so-called “state participation system,” with controlled companies also with public share. Apart from operators such as SIP, Italcable (for international connections) and Telespazio (for satellite links), the STET holding was also controlling various manufacturing and engineering companies, imitating the American AT&T. One of these companies was Italtel (set up in the post-war era out of the Italian branch of Siemens), which had an extremely strong market share in switching and was starting to make initial moves in autonomy from Siemens licenses in the field of PCM and digital switching.
Long distance transmission was instead entirely controlled by an operator called ASST (State-owned company for Telephone Services), direct emanation of the Ministry of Communications and therefore entirely state-owned.
In the field of television broadcasting, there was the RAI, which was also 100% IRI-controlled but with a considerable degree of autonomy, and at the time very inclined towards technological innovation.
On the Italian industrial scene, Telettra and Magneti Marelli (which later became GTE) stood out as the only Italian companies with autonomous R&D, and they competed with the Italian branches of important multinational companies such as Ericsson, ITT, Autelco as well as Italtel, controlled by STET (and therefore particularly protected it its market share in SIP), all companies that were particularly strong on the market in the field of switching (at that time totally electromechanical).
Accomplishments of Telettra
While in the field of transmission, Telettra had gained significant market shares (both in SIP, ASST and RAI) due to its innovation and development speed in the transmissions field, there is no doubt that Telettra’s potential further development was strongly conditioned by the above-mentioned structure of STET. Indeed when Telettra presented to SIP (which in practice had a complete monopoly in switching) innovative solutions in digital switching — since the experience gained in numerical transmission had moved the company into digital switching also — it was blocked in its possible prospectives until Italtel was ready for similar solutions. This behaviour caused the Italian system to lose many precious years in digitalizing the network.
The development of transmission was, on the other hand, pretty much free of external conditions, and SIP, through the support of Telettra, was the second in the world and the first in Europe to introduce PCM systems in 1962.
The 1970s were a particularly happy period for Telettra. The company had a series of radio apparatus in the low power consumption sector; it was carrying out the first experiments in digital signal transmission on radio links and was doing studies and work on the coexistence of analogical and digital signals on the same transmission support.
Still in the 1970s Telettra introduced ultra low-power consumption radio links (the great IR 20 based on the injection oscillator technology). I look back with pride on one of my visits to Fujitsu, our strong competitor but with whom we were on good terms. I found about twenty researchers waiting for me, who wanted information on the IR 20 and its technology, since power consumption had been reduced by over 20 times in comparison with traditional systems. In combination with passive shelters, this allowed the building, at very low cost, of battery-operated (and later solar cell operated) microwave radio links on mountainous areas previously considered unusable, because it was impossible to get electricity power lines into these areas. The introduction of this sort of apparatus was revolutionary in the systems approach of microwave links. Another of Telettra’s important accomplishments of the same period was the first digital link in the world functioning at 13GHz.
In 1974 there was an important change in the Company and in my professional career: Mr. Floriani had decided to organize the company into divisions. Thanks to my origins in R&D, I was given the most innovative division, which specifically dealt with digital terminal apparatus and all the analogical and digital evolutions of high capacity transmission lines. I have a fond memory of Mr. Floriani sending me to Hewlett-Packard, before carrying out the split into divisions, to speak to the CEO John Young, to ask for advice based on their experience of divisional organization and its pros and cons. Despite a crisis that hit the Italian telecommunications sector in ’74 and ’75, following a Government refusal to raise telephone call rates (during years of a strong increase in labour costs), the division entrusted to me was growing at a rate of 50% per year, and I gained professional experience in management.
In 1976, at the age of 70, Mr. Floriani retired from the company that he had created and whose control had been handed over entirely to Fiat, who wanted to diversify into sectors other than the car industry in Italy. However much Telettra had always had a distinctly international attitude, the years around 1976 were characterized by a period of great development abroad with a continuation in the creation of plants in Spain, Argentina, Brazil, Norway, and Australia. Telettra had thus begun to become a real multinational, albeit with its own particular philosophy, which was quite different from the then famous ITT group, in the sense that Telettra strongly supported the idea to strengthen R&D laboratories with native expertise in each of the foreign countries where it was present. This made the company particularly welcome in countries that intended to start developing their own autonomous role.
Another important period in Telettra’s history commenced in 1987, when in collaboration with RAI it faced up to the problem of digital compression of television signals for high definition applications. The system studied was in practice the one that is today the MPEG compression standard, but which at the time was greatly disputed by Thomson, which was operating a high definition analogical system, and later by NEC, which despite using digital techniques had followed a different and less efficient path.
The objective of the study of a system of television compression undertaken with RAI was the 1990 Soccer World Cup to be held in Italy. Giving yourself an objective in life is always a great incentive: in the particular case we managed to transmit the matches in high definition on large screen in all the RAI centres, via an experimental Italian satellite (Olympus) with a bit rate of 70 Mb/s (in place of 1.2 Gb/s in the absence of compression), a bit-rate value which soon after was decreased to 34 Mb/s. The experiment also stood out because via the same satellite the signal was received in Barcelona and then sent by fibre to Madrid where the matches were broadcast on large screen in the presence of the king of Spain.
There is no doubt that this episode was a world first for Telettra. In 1989, just before the experimental broadcast for the World Cup finals, we showed the equipment at NAB (the best-known world fair in the television sector) and it was an unexpected success. I recall that the number one technician at Sony, Mr Morizomo, told me that that equipment was the most important thing on show at the fair. Mr Flaherty of NBC, considered a guru of US television, asked me whether the equipment was already at industrial stage and my answer was “yes.” I don’t know how much this discussion influenced the USA who at the time were defining an analogical standard for high definition transmission. The fact is that shortly afterwards, the USA commission, which Flaherty was part of, decided to abandon analogical and pass over to a completely digital solution.
At the end of 1990 — after seven years in which I had led Telettra as COO and at a time of strong development and satisfaction for the Company (approximately $1 billion of sales and 9000 employees of which 4000 abroad) — Fiat decided to sell the Company to the Alcatel group. After a few days I left the company as a mark of protest against Fiat and the Italian government, that hadn’t wanted to keep this company autonomous and national, together with its marked characteristics of innovation and culture and also managerial aptitude, which was particularly peculiar in the Italian panorama.