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Interviewee: Howard VollumInterviewer: Linda Brody, Oregon Historical Society
Date: March 26, 1980
Media: audio cassette
Transcribed by Deborah Frosaker
Mr. Howard Vollum was a founder of Tektronix, a famous electronic firm. The company was founded in 1946 just after Mr. Vollum left Camp Evans. In 1955 Mr. Vollum was a director of the IRE. His biography was published in the July issue of the Proceedings of the IRE and is below.
In 1980 the Oregon Historical Society interviewed Mr. Vollum. The Society gave us permission to post the portion of his oral history related to radar and Camp Evans. The Oregon Historical Society can furnish the complete interview.
Mr. Vollum's biography from the July 1955 issue of Proceedings of the IRE
Howard Vollum was born on May 31,1913, in Portland, Oregon. He attended Columbia University in Portland from 1931 to 1933, transferring to Reed College in 1934 .In 1936 he received the B. A .degree in physics from the latter school. Upon graduation from college, he spent the next few years servicing and installing home, auto, and aircraft radios and constructing electronic devices. From 1940 to 1941 he was Supervisor of Radio Project, NYA, in Portland.
Mr. Vollum served as an officer in the U .S .Army Signal Corps from 1942 to 1946. His first two years in service he spent at ADRDE, in Malvern and Christ Church, England,working on coast artillery fire control radar. He was awarded the Legion of Merit for this work. For the next two years he was stationed at the Evans Signal Laboratory in Belmar, New Jersey, in charge of a subsection concerned with the use of radar by ground forces. As a result, of this contribution, the Oak Leaf Cluster was added to his award.
In 1946 Mr. Vollum helped to found Tektronix, Inc.,of which he is now President. Mr. Vollum is known for his work on the development of the cathode-ray oscilloscope.
In recognition of his achievements, Portland University awarded him an honorary Sc. D. degree in 1953. Mr. Vollum became a Senior Member of the IRL in 1950, and received the Fellow Award in 1955. "for his contribution to the development and manufacture of electronic laboratory instruments ." In 1954 he was Chairman of the Portland Section .
Mr. Vollum's 1980 oral history:
LB: You were part of the war effort and you began with the defense department as a civilian employee and later were in the service as a signal corp officer.
That's not quite correct. I had a low number in the draft and so I was drafted and went to Camp Roberts, California. I was in one of the first groups to go to Camp Roberts and I was there for nine months after taking my basic military training in an infantry battalion. I stayed on in a headquarters company, taking care of the radio equipment for them for the next two groups. I had applied to officer's candidate school and also applied to a program that was called the Electronics Training Group. It was an attempt by people, I think with Dr. Vanevar Bush's program with the president, for a two-pronged effect.
In England they were in great need of technicians to maintain the radar equipment that they had. The British educational system, at that time, was not well-suited to developing a series of engineers or technicians. The Universities were excellent as they always had been, but they concentrated on developing scientists rather than people who could operate and take care of the equipment. So the idea was to provide commissions to Americans who had either an engineering or a science degree, and send them to England for a period, supposedly of six months. You spent the first six weeks of that taking training courses on the equipment that you were going to maintain, and then you went into the field and radar sites and were radar maintenance officers for the rest of the period. Of course, the United States was not involved at that time in the war. The idea was to provide a group of officers who had been actually on active radar sites and of course Britain was being bombed so we had a chance to work under actual conditions.
I was selected in that group and commissioned a second lieutenant; it was a direct commission. I was the first person at Camp Roberts to receive a direct commission, so I was a corporal one day and a second lieutenant the next.
Yes, very much so because I went to England and took a course on a search light control radar set, but I never went on the active search light site, because as a result of this course, I was selected to go to one of the British radar labs. There was one which was operated by the Ministry of Supply who were responsible for Army equipment. I went to the lab of an organization called the Air Defense Research and Development Establishment, ADRDE, located at that time on the south coast of England in a town called Christchurch. I went to work there on the development of a radar set which was designed to control the fire of the coast artillery guns at Dover. They, of course, had radar on them but we were developing a much more accurate one than the one that was in use at that time. I spent almost two-and-a-half years back on that project, sort of six months at a time. I was always going to be sent back, except there were extensions and they kept going on. I didn't come back until very close to D-Day.
I was lucky enough to work with a group of very good scientists and engineers in an area of radar development which was right at the cutting edge of the technology, using very short pulses and the shortest wave length that were available at that time. So I had an opportunity to work in an area of radar which was very important and very difficult. -Of course, test equipment for this sort of thing was not readily available and we had to make our own in most cases. The part of the radar set that I was concerned with was the indicator section, that is, the display section of the radar, the thing that the operators look at. That's really a specialized form of oscilloscope and so the techniques that I learned, and the technology that developed was directly applicable to me and oscilloscope design, which of course, was my interest. It worked in very directly.
Then when I came back from England, I was sent to the Signal Corp Laboratories at Belmar, New Jersey. There we worked on variation of this coast artillery radar set, which was designed to track mortar shells to locate the mortar that fired the shells, by extrapolating part of the trajectory that you could observe back to its source.
The coast artillery radar set that we worked on was designed so that you could not only see the ship that was a target, but you could also see the splash from the shells when they landed around it. It's called a shell splash radar. In order to do that, you had to have short pulses and high frequencies, otherwise it would all blur together so you couldn't tell shells from the target.
This led to then making corrections for the next shot. If you didn't get where you aimed, you took appropriate corrective action. That wasn't possible until that time. And the problem with the mortar-locating radar is to see a rather small thing there at a substantial distance - a sixty millimeter mortar shell is only about a foot long and to see it at 5000 yards - it's fairly small. It's going pretty fast so you don't have much time. We were just getting that device into reasonable shape to use when the war was over. Which was perfectly alright with me.
LB: Did the armed forces go on to use this improvement?
Yes, they did. Technology is much advanced. Of course the computing facilities are so much greater, that you can do a lot better with a smaller amount of information. It's kind of interesting - the measure of the extent that the United States would go to protect soldiers. Now mortar is one of the deadliest weapons. It causes more casualties than most other ones.
The United States government was willing to spend large sums of money to put a radar set in the front lines, and the chances of it getting destroyed were pretty good. At that time, my guess would be that these were in the price range of a quarter of a million to half a million dollars and they were very likely to get blown up. Of course, they cost a lot more than that now.
LB: You were given several awards.
I got the Legion of Merit for the work in England and then an Oak Leaf Cluster, which is equivalent of a second for the work in the United States.
LB: How did you become acquainted with Jack Murdock?
When I graduated from Reed, I went to work as a radio service man and I had an independent business of my own also as a radio service man. I just heard that Jack was opening up a store out on Foster Road, that was for radio, appliances, refrigerators and that sort of thing. He needed a radio service man; he was interested in radio and was a service man himself. So I went out there and as the result of that, I set up the radio service department in his store.
I worked with him for a couple of years until I got drafted. Jack eventually went in the Coast Guard and closed the store. We renewed our friendship after the war. We corresponded during the war and we talked about the possibility of manufacturing instruments before the war and after the war.
During the war it got more evident that chances were better and we probably knew more about it and there was a lot of rebuilding to do after the war so we decided to start off and have a try at it.
I got out of the war in November, 1945, and Jack got out a little bit later. There was a point system and I had a lot of points because of the overseas service so I got out a little earlier. We got together at that time and incorporated January 2, 1946.
LB: Were you the only partners or were others involved?
There were some others. I think they were- mostly friends of Jack's. One of them in Portland was a neighbor of his, an accountant. His name was Glenn McDowell. Then there were several other people who were Coast Guard friends of his who came with us. But Jack and I always had the principal part.
LB: What kind of business did you engage in? Were you manufacturing? Or were you developing, or was it a combination of appliance repair?
Tektronix started out in an effort to design and manufacture cathode ray oscilloscopes. We were in a building on Southeast 7th and Hawthorne, which was built for us at that time, and we leased.
And because it was on a fairly busy street and because we knew we weren't going to have any income from the manufacturing for some time, we put in a radio retail store and service department. Then as our Tektronix activities grew, that eventually moved next door and was called Hawthorne Electronics - it is now Hawthorne Stereo.
LB: Was your oscilloscope priced competitively?
Yes, one of the big advantages we had was a substantially lower price than any of our competitors, in addition to superior performance. We had everything going for it. The first oscilloscope that we had sold for $595 and the competition was something like $1300. We had a lot of advantages. It's kind of interesting that Tektronix today manufactures an oscilloscope which is very superior to that for approximately the same price in current dollars. (laughs)
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