Stanford Report Online


Stanford Report, Jan. 26, 2004

Oswald Villard Jr., father of ‘over-the-horizon’ radar, dies at 87


Oswald Garrison "Mike" Villard Jr., a professor emeritus of electrical engineering and electronics pioneer in radio and radar, died of pneumonia Jan. 7 at a Palo Alto nursing home. He was 87.

"His technical achievements were legendary," said David B. Leeson, a consulting professor of electrical engineering in Stanford's Space, Telecommunications and Radioscience Laboratory (STARLab). "Stanford and the entire engineering community were enriched by his person and his accomplishments."

Villard taught at Stanford for five decades and directed STARLab's predecessor, the RadioScience Laboratory, from 1958 to 1972. His initial work used radar to study electrical disturbances in the upper atmosphere caused by meteor trails, nuclear explosions and rocket launches. By reflecting radio waves from meteor trails, he became the first U.S. scientist to "hear" meteors in 1945. His "radio camera" clocked a 1948 Perseid meteor shower at 133,200 miles per hour.

"One of Mike's biggest accomplishments was the development of over-the-horizon radar," said Antony Fraser-Smith, research professor emeritus of electrical engineering and of geophysics. "He started this work at Stanford and then it was transferred to [Stanford Research Institute] when it became clear that it had important practical defense applications."

By bouncing high-frequency radar signals off the ionosphere, an electrically charged layer about 50 miles above the Earth's surface, Villard by 1959 had transcended the limitations of line-of-sight radar, which could only "see" as far as the horizon. The over-the-horizon radar he pioneered could instead peer around the Earth's curvature to detect aircraft and missiles launched from thousands of miles away.

It didn't take long for this research to become classified. When Stanford ceased all classified work in 1969 in response to anti-war protests, Villard moved his group to Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International) in Menlo Park. There he also developed "stealth" technologies to cancel target return signals from radar and sonar to thwart detection of aircraft and submarines.

Villard was born Sept. 17, 1916, in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., to a distinguished family with a long tradition of activism. His great-grandfather, William Lloyd Garrison, was a renowned abolitionist. His grandfather, Henry Villard, also wrote newspaper articles opposing slavery and financed railroads and the work of Thomas Edison. Through his business dealings, he gained a controlling interest in the New York Evening Post and The Nation, which his son, Oswald Garrison Villard Sr., took over upon his death. The senior Villard left The Nation in 1940 when the liberal magazine abandoned its stance against America entering World War II. The junior Villard, whose research eventually earned the highest civilian honor bestowed by the Air Force, described his politics in a 1976 interview with the San Jose Mercury News: "I certainly agreed with my father's viewpoints about peace and mutual disarmament, but I couldn't see unilateral disarmament. He kind of said, 'Let them come in, it's not the worst thing.' I've gone the other way: Keep your powder dry."

As an undergraduate at Yale, where he received a bachelor's degree in English literature in 1938, Villard made history by broadcasting, over a radio transmitter he built, a football game from the stadium back to his dormitory. To the dismay of his father, who had hoped he would go into journalism, when Villard won two composition prizes, he chose to spend the money only on engineering books.

One was written by Stanford electrical engineering Professor Frederick E. Terman, who would later come to be regarded as the "father" of Silicon Valley. When Villard told his father that he wanted to study under Terman, the elder's response was "What? Stanford? That hotbed of Republicanism?" But Villard's father relented after meeting Terman during a visit by the professor to the East Coast.

At Stanford, Varian brothers Russell and Sigurd, David Packard and William Hewlett, William Webster Hansen and other luminaries took Villard under their wings as he pursued his graduate degree in engineering. In turn, Villard aided them as they developed the klystron tube, the basis of radar.

In Stanford's Department of Electrical Engineering, Villard was a research associate from 1939 to 1941 and an instructor from 1941 to 1942. During the war, Terman hired him and others to join the Radio Research Laboratory at Harvard, where they engineered countermeasures to protect Allied forces against enemy radio and radar devices. Villard participated in pioneering studies of radar jamming. In 1943, he received his Engineer degree from Stanford.

In 1946 he returned to Stanford, where he joined the faculty and married Barbara Letts, whom he had met at a dance at Mills College. In 1947, he designed a simplified radio voice transmitter permitting simultaneous two-way communication on a single channel, as in a telephone conversation. His introduction of single-sideband modulation increased the number of stations that can operate without interference and allowed military users, and later police, pilots and radio amateurs, to have their own means of communication. Previously, single-sideband modulation, because of its complexity, had been used only in commercial point-to-point radio stations. W6YX, the station of Stanford's radio club, became the first amateur band to use single-sideband transmission.

Villard received his doctorate from Stanford in 1949 and rose through the faculty ranks to full professor in 1955. He continued to shepherd students to their doctoral degrees in radioscience even after his official retirement in 1987. He also continued to work part time at SRI.

In the 1980s, Villard designed an inconspicuous antenna that could null out signals that jammed communications, allowing people in oppressed countries to receive Voice of America radio programs despite the efforts by their governments to block them. The antenna could be concealed in a newspaper if a listener were in danger of being caught in the process of receiving broadcasts despite the high-power jamming prevalent in Eastern Bloc countries, Leeson said.

Later, Villard, who filled the backyard of his Woodside home with antennas he built, received requests for his antenna design from Chinese outraged by the student massacre at Tiananmen Square. Chinese students in America translated his antenna design into Cantonese.

Author of more than 60 technical papers and holder of six patents, Villard was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the International Scientific Radio Union. He was a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and SRI. In 1998, Villard was elected to SRI's Alumni Hall of Fame.

He served as a member on the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board (1961-75) and the Naval Research Advisory Committee (1967-75), which he chaired from 1973 to 1975. He served as chair of the USA Commission III of the International Scientific Radio Union, a senior scientific adviser to SRI International and director of California Microwave Inc.

His awards include the Morris Liebman Memorial Prize from the Institute of Radio Engineers, Outstanding Young Bay Area Engineer, Meritorious Civilian Service Award from the Department of the Air Force, Secretary of Defense Medal for Outstanding Public Service and the IEEE Centennial Medal.

"His biggest hobby was ham radio," recalled Fraser-Smith. Villard, whose call letters were W6QYT, was a faculty adviser to the Stanford Amateur Radio Club and a license trustee of W6YX from the early 1950s to the early 1980s. He instigated amateur radio satellite systems and frequently published in QST, the journal of the American Radio Relay League, the official ham radio society in the United States. Ham radio operators sometimes helped Villard with his research. One experiment solicited hams to participate in a contest that allowed Villard to detect invisible clouds affecting radio wave transmission.

Leeson, who called Villard "one of the most gentle, supportive people I've ever known," recalled an airplane flight from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., when Villard learned that Leeson hoped to form a new company. "He wrote me a blank check right there on the plane! He was a supportive board member of the resulting company, California Microwave."

Villard's wife, Barbara "Bobbie" Slater Letts, died in 1996. Villard is survived by three children -- Thomas Houghton Villard of Menlo Park, Calif.; Barbara Suzanne Villard of Tucson, Ariz.; and John Sandford Villard of Martha's Vineyard, Mass. -- and three grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations in support of the Mike Villard Memorial Fund to SRI International, 333 Ravenswood Ave., AD-114, Menlo Park, CA 94025. A small graveside service is being planned for family in spring at a New York cemetery. Plans for a West Coast memorial service are pending.

Oswald Garrison "Mike" Villard Jr.