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November 3, 2004

Biography revisits Fred Terman’s roles in engineering, Stanford and Silicon Valley

By Dawn Levy

When Fred Terman—engineer, educator and administrator—died in 1982, the San Francisco Chronicle headline read “Stanford’s Terman Dies—He Launched Silicon Valley.” While that claim is debatable—the term “Silicon Valley” was coined in 1971, several years after Terman’s retirement—what is certain is his influence on electrical engineering, Stanford University and American education. Terman’s life is the subject of a new book, seven years in the making, by C. Stewart Gillmor, a professor of history and science at Wesleyan University. In Fred Terman at Stanford: Building a Discipline, a University, and Silicon Valley (2004, Stanford University Press, $70), Gillmor describes how Terman raised “steeples of excellence” in the School of Engineering as dean and throughout Stanford as provost and fostered the academic, industrial and governmental relationships that helped transform Stanford into a world-class university and the region once known as “the valley of the heart’s delight” into a globally admired nexus of innovation.

“I have generally expounded a non-Stanford-centric view of the formation of Silicon Valley,” Gordon Moore, co-founder of both Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel, told more than 100 attendees at an Oct. 25 book launch party in the Faculty Club. “On the other hand, there is a group that has endowed Terman with having been the father of Silicon Valley. In trying to reconcile these two different views, it’d be a bit of a problem. Professor Gillmor has done a very good job in illuminating what actually happened here and defining the role that Professor Terman played.”

Terman’s best-known role is that of inspirational mentor to HP founders William Hewlett and David Packard. Terman, who kept track of his former students, gave Hewlett and Packard a list of about 25 potential customers for their first product, an audio oscillator. One was J.N.A. “Bud” Hawkins, chief sound engineer for Walt Disney Studios, who in 1938 purchased eight oscillators at $71.50 each.

Support from the William R. Hewlett Revocable Trust and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation made the 642-page scholarly biography possible. All royalties will go to the Hewlett-Packard Graduate Engineering Fellowship at Stanford.

“Historians are the tribe responsible for sorting out memory,” Gillmor said at the book launch. “As the early 17th-century writer Francis Bacon would say, we ‘twist the lion’s tail,’ asking new questions. But we do not seek to extract unnatural confession. We historians have many responsibilities and a number of privileges, but none of these involve a mystification of the facts, so I hope I have done what Fred [would have] wanted.”

Though Gillmor’s book is rife with detail, he met Terman only once. In 1956 at a frosh reception, Terman, then provost, said “Good man!” upon learning that Gillmor had come to Stanford to study radio engineering.

Radio days

Born in Indiana in 1900, Terman came to Stanford at age 10 when his father, Lewis, joined the psychology faculty. The elder Terman later gained fame for his studies of gifted children. His obsession with measuring intelligence may have rubbed off on his son. Sibyl Walcutt, the psychology and education graduate student who would later marry Fred, claimed their courtship did not heat up until Fred, then a young professor, went to the Psychology Department to look up Sibyl’s IQ score.

As a boy, Fred’s favorite hobby had been ham radio. After a Stanford undergraduate education in mechanical engineering and chemistry, he went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1922 to become the first electrical engineering doctoral student of Vannevar Bush, a lifelong influence who would go on to head the Office of Scientific Research and Development, in charge of the entire U.S. civilian research effort, including the Manhattan Project. Terman and Bush respected each other, but Terman said staying at MIT would have made him the tail to Bush’s high-flying kite. An attack of tuberculosis requiring months of bedrest cinched it: Terman headed home in 1924 to California’s milder winters and a Stanford faculty position.

In ensuing years, Terman taught O. G. Villard Jr., Robert Helliwell and Edward Ginzton and other students who went on to greatness, conducted research of radio circuits, vacuum tubes, instruments and more, and wrote textbooks. At one point, Terman was advising half the graduate students in electrical engineering—one-fifth the entire School of Engineering. An avid inventor, he filed 36 patents between 1930 and 1947. His book royalties earned him more as a writer and editor than he received as a Stanford professor, dean and provost.

By 1937, he headed the Electrical Engineering Department. He extended the department’s research into ionospheric and radio wave propagation, electron tube design and construction, and applications of the klystron tube, instrumental for military radar and the most significant invention to come out of the Physics Department in the first half of the 20th century. His friendship with the Stanford team that invented the klystron, physics Professor William Hansen and Varian brothers Russell and Sigurd, became a prototype of interdepartmental collaboration. Terman’s engineering graduate students helped develop the klystron once wartime preparation took most of the physics workers to the East Coast to employ it in aircraft landing and detection systems.

Terman also worked hard outside of Stanford to bolster electrical engineering and technology in California (most engineering job opportunities were on the East Coast). “He was elected president of the Institute of Radio Engineers in 1940—the first person ever west of Pittsburgh to be elected,” Gillmor said.

With America’s entry into World War II, Terman as president of the Institute of Radio Engineers had wide knowledge of radio engineering and of the pool of engineers and physicists needed for the war effort. In 1942, he was tapped to direct the secret Radio Research Laboratory (RRL) at Harvard. Radar, an acronym for radio detection and ranging, was instrumental in winning the war. It was used offensively, to locate and attack sites, and defensively, to warn against air attack and aim anti-aircraft guns. The RRL developed radar countermeasures, the most important of which was a metallic reflecting strip, tape or rope released from airplanes that appeared on enemy radar screens as a radar-reflecting cloud, masking nearby aircraft. By 1943, Terman had built a staff of more than 800 and managed a budget larger than Stanford’s. Postwar analysts concluded that the more than 150 countermeasures developed at RRL saved an estimated 800 Allied bomber aircraft and their crews.

Back on the Farm

When Terman returned to campus after the war, he embarked on a 20-year plan to make Stanford a top-tier engineering school by improving faculty salaries, student financial support, and teaching and research facilities. He added a department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and helped establish Stanford’s Microwave Laboratory.

Knowing Vannevar Bush was planning to transfer formerly war-related federal research funds to American universities once the war was over, Terman chartered a committee to plan for such actions. He also magnified dollars from industry by persuading companies to pay their student-employee’s tuition plus an equal sum to the university. He recruited outstanding researchers in fields he thought promising, such as transistor technology.

In 1955, Terman became provost and helped President Wallace Sterling build the university’s academic stature, endowment and external funding sources. He encouraged Stanford to draw high-quality students from beyond California and from underrepresented groups. Relocating Stanford’s medical school from San Francisco to Palo Alto and launching a $100 million fundraising campaign were among his challenges.

When Stanford’s trustees, pleased with profits from Stanford’s shopping center, industrial park and other leasing ventures, balked at a recommendation to lease land to the government for $1 per year to enable the creation of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, Terman said it was “time to decide whether Stanford was a research institution or a real estate operation.” His stance helped save the project.

Terman continued to recruit star scholars, including Joshua Lederberg, Arthur Kornberg and Henry Kaplan, to raise steeples of excellence throughout the university. His success in securing new lab buildings and recruiting William S. Johnson and Carl Djerassi transformed the beleaguered Chemistry Department, quickly giving it national stature.

At the book launch party, James Gibbons, former dean of the School of Engineering, recalled coming to campus on Aug. 1, 1956, to take a job that had been created by the combined thinking of Terman and electronics researchers John Linvill and William Shockley. “The idea was that in a properly constructed laboratory, electrical engineering students could learn to build semiconductor devices, an opportunity that was sure to develop great jobs and terrific economic benefit for those students,” Gibbons said.

Moore agreed: “He deserves credit for the idea—it was then revolutionary—of the Stanford Industrial Park as a way to associate industry much more closely with the university.”

Terman retired in 1965 at age 65, Stanford’s mandatory retirement age at the time. He kept busy consulting for Stanford, conducting a study of faculty pensions that resulted in the university revamping its retirement-fund policies, and for Southern Methodist University, which wanted to improve its engineering program. He advised California, other states and even Korea on higher education issues. He consulted for the President’s Science Advisory Committee and the Institute for Defense Analyses. He served on corporate boards including those of Watkins-Johnson and Hewlett-Packard.

In 1976, Terman was awarded a National Medal of Science. In 1977, he attended the dedication of the $9.2 million Frederick Emmons Terman Engineering Center. In 1978, he received Stanford’s Uncommon Man Award.

“Stanford has been good to me,” Terman wrote at age 77 to his friend Cecil Green. “If I had my life to live over again, I would play the same record.”

Editor Note:

Photos of Terman are available at



Dawn Levy, News Service: (650) 725-1944,

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