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Oral-History:William Rambo

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About William Rambo

William Rambo graduated with an engineering degree from Stanford University in 1941. From 1942 through 1946, he was with Harvard's Radio Research Laboratory, and from 1946 through 1950, he was with the Airborne Instruments Laboratory on Long Island. In 1951 he returned to Stanford, taking a position at the Applied Electronics Laboratory of the Stanford Electronics Laboratories. He was soon appointed director of AEL, and in 1955, upon Frederick Terman's appointment as Provost, he became the director of the SEL and was appointed professor of electrical engineering. He became associate dean of engineering in 1962, from which he retired along with his SEL directorship in 1972. Professor Rambo retired as a professor in 1976.

The interview begins with his undergraduate days at Stanford University, where he transferred from San Jose State in 1936, and took undergraduate courses from Frederick Terman. After completing his graduate work under Carl Spangenberg, Rambo was recruited by Terman into RRL in 1942. Rambo discusses his work at RRL, which focused primarily on developing power oscillators and modulation mechanisms. He goes on to detail the personnel connections between RRL and Airborne Instruments Lab and AIL's post-war growth. The interview continues with a detailed, comprehensive discussion of the development and work of the Stanford Electronics Laboratories. He discusses the demands of research management in the university setting and his relationship with Terman, closing with remarks on the transformation of the engineering profession and Terman's role in the expansion of Stanford's school of engineering.

About the Interview

William R. Rambo: An Interview Conducted by A. Michal McMahon, IEEE History Center, November 27, 1984

Interview # 047 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.

Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center.

Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program,  39 Union Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901-8538 USA. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

William R. Rambo, an oral history conducted in year by A. Michal McMahon, IEEE History Center, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.

Interview

INTERVIEW: William R. Rambo

INTERVIEWED BY: A. Michal McMahon

DATE: November 27, 1984

Stanford: Terman and Spangenberg

This is an interview with Professor William R. Rambo, Emeritus Professor of Electrical Engineering at Stanford University. After undergraduate training at San Jose State and at Stanford he received an engineer's degree in 1941. Between 1942 and 1946 Professor Rambo was at the Radio Research Laboratory at Harvard, and from 1946 through 1950 at the Airborne Instruments Laboratory on Long Island. He returned to Stanford in 1951, to work at the Applied Electronics Laboratory (AEL) of the Stanford Electronics Laboratories (SEL), soon becoming director of the AEL. In 1955 when Frederick Terman became provost, Rambo was appointed professor of electrical engineering and made director of the SEL as well as of the AEL. He became associate dean of engineering in 1962, from which he retired along with his SEL directorship in 1972. Professor Rambo retired as an electrical engineering professor in 1976.

McMahon:

We can begin at the beginning. With the subject matter that I'm interested in, I'd like to talk about your education. Mr. Villard gave me the transcript of the testimonial dinner given to Frederick Terman in '78, and you made a very nice comment — You introduced it by, "I was an undergraduate during those days." Evidently Ginzton had just spoken, so you were talking about the late thirties, and there had been that group of graduate students that was so interesting, and you were among them but not among them.

Rambo:

That's right. I was two years, probably, behind Bill Hewlett and David Packard. I transferred here in 1936. I was going to San Jose State, and came in as a junior. So I had the good fortune of meeting Dr. Terman very early on, because he was teaching undergraduate courses, amongst other things. So that took care of our introduction. Of course, he was someone I took classes from — but our contacts were entirely those of a student and a faculty [member].

McMahon:

Did you know of him when you came here? When you transferred? Did you have a sense of what you were coming into, or were you just coming to study electrical engineering?

Rambo:

I was coming into Stanford to study engineering — not even electrical engineering. In those happy days, one could take undergraduate courses in all of the engineering disciplines — in fact, that was required for an undergraduate. You got an AB in engineering, and it turned out that I was able to continue on for graduate work, and in the course of that I learned of a job that was going to become open in electrical engineering, so I instantly became an EE...

McMahon:

That was the work you did for the Radio Broadcast...

Rambo:

Radio Broadcasting Station, yes. The man who was the manager was also a student here at the time, and we got to know each other quite well, so that's how that all came about.

McMahon:

That was a way of working your way through school also, I guess?

Rambo:

I used to work mildly in what was the NYA, the National Youth Administration program, one of the many programs of the New Deal. Then Stanford was very generous, and I borrowed money, which enabled me to go on there for another year, and then I went to work and again through a very generous arrangement with the university I was able to finish two quarters of work in absentia, really, by undertaking special projects after consulting with Fred Terman.

McMahon:

That was to get your engineer's degree? You did that in absentia?

Rambo:

Only the last two quarters: I had gotten four quarters in a perfectly normal way.

McMahon:

So did you study with Terman then at that time also? He had a graduate course I understand, a kind of series —

Rambo:

Yes, I did this work for Carl Spangenberg, and so this all happened while I was working in the radio station, or a couple of radio stations.

McMahon:

So you did the thesis that you had to do for your engineer’s degree under Spangenberg, and what, you worked on that during 1941?

Rambo:

I did the field work in 1940, because I did that up in Oregon with what would qualify as the laboratory site. I wrote the thesis at night up there, and finished in the spring of 1941.

McMahon:

How was that, working under Spangenberg?

Harvard: Radio Research Lab

Rambo:

I enjoyed it immensely, and welcomed the opportunity to work under him again back at RRL, because he eventually came back there and I was in his group for a time.

McMahon:

I’d like to ask you about that. You were at RRL from ‘42 to ‘46; Spangenberg came in just almost the last year, ‘45, because he worked with Everitt, in fact, in Washington. I came across some interesting correspondence the other day. I spent almost two days reading the box of correspondence between Terman and the people back here — that would mean Skilling, and some with Morris, and with a bunch of people — but Skilling in terms of the EE department, he was acting head. He didn’t think it was a good idea for Spangenberg to go to Everitt’s outfit. He said he’d sit at a desk and do operation analysis, so he finally got him, he was trying to get him to come to RRL.

McMahon:

So what did you do at RRL? Who recruited you?

Rambo:

He did (Terman). I had gone up to Oregon and then I was working in Northern California, the radio station, and the contacts with Stanford stayed open because I was teaching a course in radio for the ESMDT, something like that. It was a national program, and I was teaching in Eureka, at night in high school, but Stanford was administering the ESMDT activity in this area, so that kept a touch there. The war came in the middle of that, and Edie and I were married by that time. I had the idea of going to work for Westinghouse in radar, which was a new and exciting term, up in Alaska. I don’t have any idea what that would have amounted to. So I wrote to Stanford to see if I could get a recommendation from Dr. Terman, and instead I got a telegram from his secretary at RRL, saying "Don’t do anything until you hear from me," in essence. It turned out that I was offered a job out there, which was far more attractive, so we went back there at the end of June in 1942. So that’s how we got started.

McMahon:

What was your work at the RRL?

Rambo:

I was in a group that was primarily interested in developing oscillators and amplifiers for what were then high frequencies, UHF, my work was in the band pool from 200 megahertz to 2500. It was a very inauspicious beginning because we were handicapped as far as devices were concerned, and since the intended focus was on jamming transmitters, one wanted bandwidth — tunability — as well as power. There were tubes which were quite remarkable in terms of providing power but they were not tunable things. The magnetrons, for example. So we worked and worked, and fortunately there were other people working very diligently in making new types of vacuum tubes. People at General Electric, IMAC out here on the coast, RCA, IT&T, and I spent a lot of time testing tubes, some of which were still in the development stage, and designing equipment to exploit those tubes in the countermeasures business. My own work was primarily in developing power oscillators and modulation mechanisms, particularly frequency modulation, which was a difficult thing to do in those days with those frequencies. So it was very exciting, technically.

McMahon:

It must have been a surprise to you. It sounds like it happened so quickly.

Rambo:

Yes — pure chance.

McMahon:

Of course it wasn’t pure chance, because Terman was looking to Stanford real closely, and had tabs on everybody. He paid attention to the age of students — it would be interesting to know when your name came up, whether it was in your mind already. He liked Spangenberg a lot — of course, he was the other radio man, in a sense, in the department. Was there any other radio man by that time?

Rambo:

No, not really, because Hugh Skilling was there, and Leland Brown was illumination. Hugh Skilling was a teacher, he was just a GREAT teacher, and Bill Hoover was there, he was a power man. Professor Carroll was there, the high voltage man, and Ward Kidney taught undergraduate courses primarily, but he was a power man. So it was really Terman and Spangenberg.

McMahon:

What about graduate students teaching? Did you have anybody — people like Ginzton I’m thinking of, who by 1940 or '39 had finished his doctorate work. Was he teaching in the department at all?

Rambo:

No, I had readers, for Terman’s course for example, or lab courses. Bob Bus, who was in this area close by, and Clark Cahill were two names — I mention them because they went through RRL but they were ahead of me and they were graduate students, so they were readers for several classes.

McMahon:

Who led your team at RRL? Do you recall? Were you a member of a group?

Rambo:

George Holstead, J.P. Woods, and Carl Spangenberg, in that sequence, for the group that I was in. George Holstead was a telephone man with Pacific Tel and J.P. Woods was from one of the oil companies in Texas. He was from Dallas, but he was a scientist, and very good — and then Carl came back, or came up to the Lab.

McMahon:

Did you ever get into ultra-high frequency work? I know that the lab didn’t really get deeply into that at any time.

Rambo:

The focus was primarily in the UHF range, because the Japanese radars were reputedly in the 100-200 MHz range. The Germans were predominantly around 5-600, 4-600. Everybody feared that they would go to higher frequencies, the S-band, as of course our radar people had done. Because of that fear we were trying to get ready, and my last project there was to build a jamming transmitter which tuned from 300-2500 MHz, which was quite a range. We used a lighthouse tube, a so called oil-can tube, 2C39, 2C38. That was quite a tuning range, and it would be useless today because the modulation is so narrow — for many reasons. But after the war it developed into a single generator because of that wide tuning range, when people were hard up for some power sources in those frequencies.

Airborne Instruments Lab

McMahon:

So as it began to wind down, did you come back to Stanford right after the war?

Rambo:

No. I went to Airborne Instruments Lab, as did a number of the people from RRL.

McMahon:

Where were they located?

Rambo:

In Long Island, the plant was in Minneola, and AIL had been an OSRE laboratory, as was RRL, and the Rad Lab at MIT, and they initially were involved in anti-submarine warfare, that kind of thing, and then they got into some proximity fuse work later in the war. They were much smaller than we, and of course we were much smaller than MIT. When the war was over, there was a cadre of people at AIL that stayed on, and a group came down from Rad Lab and a group from RRL, and formed Airborne Instruments Lab. AIL had been under the auspices of Columbia University and RRL was Harvard, of course, and Rad Lab was MIT.

McMahon:

So AIL has a life of its own after the war, you were with them about five years —

Rambo:

Five years; it did well in those five years, and boomed from then on, about the time I left. (I don’t think that had a singular bearing on it...) AIL did very well indeed, and Cutler-Hammer bought AIL in time, and the people at AIL in turn began to dominate Cutler Hammer in terms of presidencies, and so on. Then the Heaton Corporation bought the whole thing. So there is still an AIL today that is very prominent in this whole electronics business, still on Long Island.

McMahon:

How were they funded as they moved out of OSRD and became really private?

Rambo:

The thing that sold the concept was the idea that radar and advanced electronics, the new technology, would solve the air navigation and traffic control problem for the airlines. It was the intention that AIL would turn its best efforts to that end. Hence, a substantial dependence on the people from the radar side of the picture at Rad Lab, and as I say there were ten to fifteen of us from RRL, and the Vice President for Engineering was John Burn, who’d been VP for Engineering at RRL. The Head Man was Hector Skifter, who had been a consulting engineer before the war, and he headed AIL during the latter stages of the war. So it was a blend, and in those initial months, American Airlines supported the place, underwrote it. In due course we were supported by the Air Transport Association, of which American Airlines was a part. When I say supported, it was not a case of them handing out money. They handed out contracts, and we did a lot of work toward the end of helping the airlines. We did a lot of flying with airborne radars and American Airlines test airplanes — the ones they use for their own engineering work. At the same time there were sustaining contracts with the Navy, which were very important to the existence of the lab, because some of the projects that were underway at the end of the war were transferred to AIL and maintained through Navy sponsorship. They showed significant promise, and indeed some of them were enormously important. There was a receiver, the APR9, that fell into that category and it turned out to be of great importance. This was development work, but also engineering modules, one or two of a kind, that sort of thing, that happened at RRL.

McMahon:

I ask only because I knew that the Navy created the ONR soon after that and really took the lead among the services in promoting fundamental research, and I know that that was the money Stanford then was getting.

Rambo:

That’s right. AIL was a step along the way. ONR was enormously important to Stanford, but the work was a little more engineering — in the full engineering sense — at AIL.

McMahon:

So did you have the sense that you were going to stay there, to make a career, or did you have some desire to come back to California?

Rambo:

We had some desire to come back to California, but AIL was an excellent place, absolutely outstanding; outstanding people — quite a list. John Dyer was there (he’d been at RRL); Gene Lubini was there, plus a number of people there from the AIL background.

Return to Stanford

Rambo:

We always had thoughts of coming back to California, but the thing that triggered it was that my mother was quite ill and was not expected to live, so we pulled up stakes and came back without a job, and I had thought that we would wind up in southern California. By that time Hughes was in the picture, and it really turned the engineering profession upside-down, with their remarkable perception in hiring the team of people to do the work that they wanted to do. Their salaries were just way out of line with what we were all used to. That was the fix on Southern California. I interviewed down there, but we came up here, and my mother was still alive, and I dropped by the university and Dr. Terman said, "Why don’t you come over here for a while?" We’re talking about 1951. January. We left there in December. I came to Stanford as a research associate, in purely a temporary assignment, meant to go for six months or so.

McMahon:

You came to the Electronics Lab?

Rambo:

One thing led to another. The program grew: it was fascinating work, of course. This was in the days when Stanford had two basic ONR contracts. They were joint service contracts administered by ONR. One was purely basic research, and the other was classified. At least, it offered the opportunity to do classified, I think maybe 15% of it was classified. It was intended to exploit the traveling wave tubes or whatever was coming out of the basic research program to the ends of the government. After all, this was when the Korean war was on, and we were five years from WWII, so there was quite a different perception of these kinds of things than was true twenty years later. So I stayed on, taught some courses, and eventually joined the faculty.

McMahon:

Did you just work slowly into the faculty? I know you joined it, but did Terman invite you in? Terman wanted Ph.D.’s in, clearly.

Rambo:

I think for thirty years he thought I had a Ph.D. I think he died thinking I had a Ph.D.

McMahon:

But you were Associate Dean under him for the last few years before you retired, weren’t you?

Rambo:

Yes, I was Associate Dean under him and under Joe Pettit.

McMahon:

Joe Pettit succeeded him in 1965.

Rambo:

The interesting part of it is, when the war was over, I was debating whether to go to AIL or to go back to school. I went to go see Fred Terman one day and I said, what do you think? What should I do? A school had offered me a scholarship to go back and get my Ph.D. and he said, “Don’t bother with that! You’re an engineer! If you were ever going to go into teaching that would be a different thing, but you’re never going to go into teaching!” So I went to AIL. But I know that he thought I had a Ph.D. for many, many years. I don’t know whether that ever persuaded him on the appointment or not — I’m sure not because all of that was looked at rather carefully.

McMahon:

He must’ve looked at your research record, which is what Ph.D's do, they make a life of research really, and that’s what you did. It must’ve been like a graduate degree at RRL in some sense, I would think. This is why he was trying to get Spangenberg to come into RRL, and why he was so down on the Washington job, because that wasn’t what he had in mind, of what the future was, and he was talking about that then. Spangenberg needed that experience, and he liked him and he saw him as a part of the core of faculty. Spangenberg died right after the war, didn’t he?

Rambo:

It was twelve or fifteen years I would say. You see, he was here when I came back, and then he went off to Brazil on sabbatical, and stayed for an extra year, and that didn’t go over all that well with everybody. So he came back and I think he was here maybe three years and died.

McMahon:

It didn’t go over well with the people here you mean?

Rambo:

To take a two year sabbatical.

Stanford Electronics Laboratories

McMahon:

Yes, that really disrupts a program. You were talking about the ONR contracts, basic and classified. There were several electronics laboratories, weren’t there? Wasn’t there something called the electronics laboratories, with an "s"? How did that evolve?

Rambo:

It evolved into Stanford Electronics Laboratories, and there were for the most part five laboratories. One was the Applied Electronics Laboratories, and that’s the one that had the classified contracts, for the most part. There was the Radio Science Laboratory, where Mike Villard was the head man. There was the Tube Laboratory, and then there was a sort of Circuits and Systems Laboratory involved with transistors, control systems, networks, that sort of thing, and a plasma laboratory. These were all grouped together under Stanford Electronics Laboratories.

McMahon:

It sounds also as if they would be founded as those issues came up. Does the Tube Lab fade out?

Rambo:

The Tube Lab faded out, and we were early into solid-state, but from an interesting point of view. The transistor was on the scene, of course, and a very substantial amount of time was spent because of the strong background in networks and circuits to come up with mechanisms to exploit the properties of these transistors — for more power, for higher frequency, for tunability. And in my opinion, that was a tough assignment, because the device people were improving these things faster than you could improve them by being a genius in the surrounding circuitry. That was never a howling success. But then that was perceived, and we got into the device side of the business with some excellent people — Linville, Gibbons, Jim Midal, who is now director of the Stanford Electronic Laboratories. He took over when I left that particular job, I was the director of Stanford Electronics Laboratories, and the Director of AEL, the Applied Electronics Laboratories. In other words, I was reporting to myself in that one job.

McMahon:

So when did you get the Applied Research Laboratory position?

Rambo:

I had that. Fred Terman was running the labs for quite some time, as Director.

McMahon:

Who succeeded him? Was it you, perhaps, when he became Provost?

Rambo:

Yes.

McMahon:

So did you have all the classified work in your lab then?

Rambo:

Most of it. Mike Villard had some of it, in the Radio Science.

McMahon:

What would that have been? I don’t think any of that is classified anymore.

Rambo:

I’m pressed to think of it.

McMahon:

The way Villard talked about his work, the idea of an application was so far down the road, in a sense.

Rambo:

I can give you an example: over the horizon radar, some aspects of which are still classified today. Not that Stanford was involved with all of those classified aspects, but in the early days, some of the features that were being exploited — propagation aspects — a lot of that research was done at Stanford, and some of that was done under classified contract.

McMahon:

So there was not the concern over that that arose later. Was there no concern over this mass amount of Navy money coming into the university?

Rambo:

Not in those days, because it wasn’t all that massive, either.

McMahon:

Enough to create those laboratories, but those were just little pockets in the university. Then you started teaching in ‘55?

Rambo:

I used to teach before then, because I used to teach Fred Terman’s course when he was away. But yes, that’s when I came on the faculty.

McMahon:

I guess I’d like to know more about the internal workings of things, if you have a sense of that. When the Applied Physics Lab was being set up. Do you remember meetings? I ran into some very interesting correspondence on the Microwave Lab. They began to create that in '43 and '44, and it’s about that time that objectives started being spelled out, and larger issues were being discussed. Once you get into the work, it seems, then the work is dominant, and there’s no longer any need to discuss that. Were you involved in any of that?

Rambo:

Not really. By the time I got here, which was 1951, there was a Microwave Lab, and they were heavily involved in the Klystron — that was the dominant thing, and the linear accelerator concept was very much in Ginzton’s and Chodorow’s mind. It was sparked by the contact with the Varian operation, and medical aspects were intriguing and so on, so it was very much a part of it. And they had a joint service project, and we had one, so we had two of these joint service contracts at Stanford, in that we were fortunate. The other schools that were involved in it, there were eight — they had one apiece. The unclassified joint service contract was in being when I came, and it was largely a three part thing with Mike Villard, Les Field the traveling wave tube man, and Joe Pettit. Those three had the principal control over the program.

McMahon:

So you’re really talking about the Electronics Laboratories?

Rambo:

Yes, that’s right. That was before the assortment of buildings over there which now house the labs — they were not built in those days. Carl Spangenberg by that time was into microwave tubes. I came about the time this classified contract showed up, and I think that was probably one of the reasons that Fred Terman offered the opportunity to stay, because he needed to staff up that work.

Shift to Managing Research

McMahon:

So you joined the research work in the electronics labs right off, that was your first work? As a non-student, your first associations?

Rambo:

Yes, although I got pretty much out of my individual project work, because I had these other things going on.

McMahon:

Yes, of course. How did you feel about that, moving out of the actual research into managing research?

Rambo:

I had really had no idea what it would amount to. I remember really well when Fred Terman proposed that I undertake these responsibilities, because he remarked to someone else who was sitting there that I was giving up an activity, and I didn’t believe him at the time. You know, if you think about the announcements when someone is made president of a university, they always say that they are going to continue teaching and their contacts with students, and that’s baloney. They believe it at the time, but it doesn’t work that way. I was amazed at how much I had to get out of.

McMahon:

You said that he remarked to someone else — how was that broached? What kind of situation was that?

Recent Research: Multipath Propagation in DHF Band

Rambo:

I don’t remember who it was and he asked if I would be interested in doing this, which I was. He made the remark that I was giving up a facet of my life, really, and it was that way for a long time. I’ve recently gotten back into it  [research].

McMahon:

What are you doing?

Rambo:

I’ve been looking into multipath propagation in the DHF band, with a specific application in terms of reducing the multipath interference in FM car stereo systems. So it’s had a brush with having to understand VHF multipath, and then, finally, to do the sort of things I used to teach students to do! From the time I used to work at a bench until now, vacuum tubes disappeared and transistors, integrated circuits, the whole picture changed — so it’s been a real learning experience, and lots of fun.

McMahon:

In one sense a transistor is just another electron device. It does better, the things that the tube did, but to understand how it works and how to utilize it, is just real challenging. You have to learn new things, and...

Rambo:

It’s not a hard thing to do because of the continuity, and the opportunities it provides that’s the remarkable thing; that’s what makes it exciting. The flexibility it gives one in circuit design — size, power, basic properties — the frequency ranges now encompassed in solid state electronics, the integrated circuit, the opportunity to buy a circuit for thirty-nine cents and have it do something you’d never even dream of doing with vacuum tubes. I never had anything to do with Whirlwind computer at MIT. They were into that early on, in connection with their defense work, the protective radar network that was going to save the country and all that stuff. But they had something like 250,000 vacuum tubes in that thing. You just figure the ordinary failure rate. I was told that the power supplies for that thing took up the whole basement of the building. It would be an interesting thing to contrast that with today, although that’s going so far back.

McMahon:

The Whirlwind computer — was that being developed at MIT during the war itself? I’ve gotten somewhat into that — I live in the University of Pennsylvania neighborhood, and the ENIAC was developed during the war. I guess there’s also work going on at Harvard and at Princeton during the war. MIT’s work began after the war but they were still dealing with the tube.

Rambo:

It began after the war. I know that this was being worked on after the war because the whole defense radar network was being worked on after the War. When I retired from the university, I’ve had some more time, so it’s been fun to get back into some of these things.

Management Responsibilities

McMahon:

When you took over the management of the lab — ‘55, I think — was that your first experience to find yourself in a network of really different people in a sense? People you’ve seen before, but on a tiny basis. Is that right? Is there a change there, in terms of all of a sudden being in on meetings, that are discussing issues that are much broader? As long as you’re at the bench, it must be much different. You give up something.

Rambo:

It wasn’t as much of a change that way. I was already head of the Applied Electronics Lab, and the principal contracts were spread out throughout. When somebody came we were all together automatically. Fred Terman was the head man, but there was good communication there, and from the point of view of being the director of Stanford Electronics Laboratories, the secret there is this: the people there working were absolutely superb people, technically, and I was not about to go out into the laboratory and tell Les Field how to build a tube, or Mike Villard how to run an ionosphere experiment — that was not the problem. The problem was more in terms of the growth of the place, housekeeping, the relations with our sponsors, the bringing in of people into new areas, that sort of thing. So it was, as far as being the president of a computer company and then going out and telling someone to do it, that was not the way the place worked. It would have been fatal to try to do that and it was unnecessary. That was not a problem. The problem was not one of getting people to be creative and to come up with ideas. The problem was to get them to do it for a budget, and to a certain time, and to finish off a job instead of being distracted into something else. And to get into new things. But Fred Terman ran the labs, even from a remote distance, and the electronics labs reported to the dean’s office rather than to the head of Electrical Engineering, which was truly because of the manpower and Terman, but that continued with Joe Pettit, you see. By then I was associate dean and we had a natural path there.

McMahon:

I wonder if I could get you back into the days of when you were actually in the AEL, the research assignment you got in January ‘51, when Terman said to do it for a while but you stayed around.

Rambo:

One thing just led to another, and the work was just fascinating, and of course it was a fascinating set of people, so we stayed, and progressed into these various assignments.

McMahon:

So you were saying you were already into some of the contracts. When did you become head of AEL? Within a few years?

Rambo:

Probably two or three years. I may have been the first head, come to think about it. We weren’t all that formal with the laboratories early on, and it wasn’t that big. Terman was never one to over-organize or to clutter up the place with an organizational structure beyond what he saw was necessary to get the job done.

McMahon:

So how much then were you involved with dealing with clients, to get the funding?

Rambo:

I was very much involved in that, because the joint services contracts, the two contracts, were the fundamental part of it, I’m speaking now of the classified and the unclassified one that we had in electronics. Chodorow and Ginzton had an unclassified contract in applied physics — so I’m talking about two of the three — that was one of my responsibilities, to make sure we served our joint contract clients properly, and they understood what we were doing and approved of it.

McMahon:

You did that mostly by correspondence?

Rambo:

We had two ways of doing it beyond correspondence and their own visits. Each year we had a program here at the university for four days, to which they came and to which they invited members of other service laboratories from all around the country and to which they invited industrial people who had government contracts in the same general areas of interest. Once a year at the six month points — the in-between points — we would go east with eight or ten people and present to twenty or thirty of the government people a report of what we were doing, and what we had found out, and where we had stumbled and all of that sort of thing. It was a very good communicating mechanism. We’d have 300-400 people here sometimes in the summer for these meetings, and we would lay out everything that went on. Being a university, we were expected to be doing risk-type research, and it’s important to know what doesn’t work too because it keeps somebody else from going down the same road. So they were quite popular, and that was a principal communicating mechanism. Then we built up an assortment of contracts based primarily on what grew out of those initial programs, and quite naturally focused on pretty much the same areas. We had at any one time maybe fifteen to twenty contracts. Each contract would have a faculty member as the principal investigator. He would be responsible for the technical content of it.

McMahon:

He’d write the proposal?

Rambo:

We would always go over the proposals from the points of view of costing and to be sure he wasn’t promising something [we couldn’t deliver]. There were some guidelines by which we lived that had to be observed, and we made sure they were observed.

Military and NASA Contacts

McMahon:

So you’re saying the funding source — basically the Navy — continued through all those years. There wasn’t a problem of something folding down and having to go out and get another funding source.

Rambo:

The classified contract is long gone, phased out at the end of the Korean War, but it was supplanted by individual contracts with the Air Force and the Army, primarily, that went on for many years. A number of contracts.

McMahon:

Besides the Navy, the Air Force and the Army got involved?

Rambo:

The Navy was not the largest sponsor. NASA was involved in a very active way, and at different times the other government departments: the Department of Commerce, the Department of State funded a contract for us. So there was nothing rigid about that.

McMahon:

All I’ve been hearing is Navy — because that was the start-up, wasn’t it?

Rambo:

That was the start-up, and the Navy administered the joint service money. The Air Force and the Army transferred the money to the Navy, and the Navy administered it. But when we would talk about the program, we would have three people there, and there were three people that were far-sighted that moved the services into this, into support. That was not an easy thing to do in the 1940s. Manny Pearet, Harry Zall for the Army, and the Air Force man in the Boston area. Dr. Zall wrote a book that I have in the library of his experiences in the war, and before it. He was of the Evans Signal Laboratory, prominent in radar — he came up with a vacuum tube, his own tube. Dr. Marquetti was the Air Force man. They were outstanding people; they had vision, and Terman of course had vision. He had seen at RRL and at the Rad Lab what could be done by an unlikely set of people. I am thinking now of an assortment of people from the faculties and the universities and new students, and people from oil companies I mentioned. Dr. J.P. Wood was a physicist from this oil company in Texas, and they had Fred Wipple the Harvard astronomer — he was a very prominent man in the countermeasures business with Window, the chaff, that sort of thing. We had biologists, and so it was clear that these people could do useful things for the government. It was Terman’s concept that people at Stanford could do useful things for the government which the government could well pay for because it would be a bargain for them, and which at the same time would support the university research for students and faculty. Terman was very rigid about that. He was out counting noses to be sure there was a full complement of graduate students involved and that they were doing useful things, not Mickey Mouse things. He was very rigid on that, and properly so. When I say that there were guidelines for running this place, those guidelines were just as firmly in place when he was provost as when he was running the lab himself.

McMahon:

What was your relationship to them? When you took over the Labs he moved into the provost position and you say that he still kept a —

Rambo:

He was still interested in it, but I reported to Joe Pettit, who was dean, and of course Joe had come up right through this whole sequence of events so it was no difficulty at arriving at an understanding.

McMahon:

Was getting into solid-state in a way —

Rambo:

He was a circuits man and he got into solid-state, because at that time we had nobody! He went back to Illinois one summer and took a course in transistors and all —

McMahon:

Why Illinois?

Rambo:

I don’t know why. For some reason — I’m not sure it was Illinois, but it was somewhere in the Midwest. He very rapidly acquired a sufficient background in solid-state to where he handled that side of it initially. If you look in the fourth edition of Terman’s book, Joe wrote the chapter on solid-state.

McMahon:

That was mainly why I was aware that he had gotten into that. I wondered how that affected this.

Rambo:

That’s right, and you see that’s a device chapter. Joe was early on into the circuit experience, and we had to get into the devices business. So Joe wrote that chapter. I wrote the chapter on radar, because by that time I had been into that at AIL, so Fred Terman was quite interested in bringing in backgrounds that were available.

McMahon:

About the contracts again. What about NASA? Do you mean NACA and NASA? That is, the National Advising Committee on Aeronautics — and then that became NASA.

Rambo:

It was only NASA. They were more interested in Aeronautics and Astronautics, another department in the school of Engineering. We had some NASA contracts in electronics, too. I guess I have to be careful because I tend to think of NASA now when I was associate dean, and that time I was as interested in NASA from the point of view of Aero and Astro as I have been with the other. So NASA was very much into it. As a matter of fact, NASA and the Air Force were the major contributors to the funds to build the Duran building, which is now on the campus here. The kind of thing that would take an enormous amount of my time, when I was associate dean, was trying to keep these people interested in coming up with two or three million dollars for a building.

Recollections of Terman

McMahon:

It just struck me that I was thinking that you were associate dean under Terman — but of course Terman was provost then, and it would be Pettit to whom you were associate dean.

Rambo:

As a matter of fact, to be specific now that I reflect on it, Terman was the head of Stanford Electronics Laboratories when he was dean. And I was head of AEL. When he became provost, I became the head of SEL. I think that’s about right: maybe it was a year or two before that. I wrote it down somewhere.

McMahon:

That sounds right — I have that.

Rambo:

It’s in that vicinity anyway. Terman was always interested in people having some breadth, and I spent a lot of time in Washington on committees as an advisor, a consultant of one sort or another. This was always with his knowledge and encouragement, and my time on those assignments was always paid for by the university. The government paid all the travel and the hotel expenses, but he always had the feeling that we were involved with the government, and a lot of government money, and it ought to be a two-way street. If we could help the government in these various ways then it was perfectly appropriate for people like me and Mike Villard to sit on various government committees.

McMahon:

Well, he certainly did make his payback with the NRAC, the Naval Research Advisory Committee, and he advised for the Signal Corps a bit, and then he was very active with the Institute for Defense Analysis, which is not quite the same thing but is still basically a military organization. What were some of the groups you consulted with?

Rambo:

I consulted with an NSA Committee for ten years, the National Security Agency. I’d done work with the CIA as far as that is concerned.

McMahon:

When were you with the NSA?

Rambo:

About 1968, or 1970, somewhere in there. I am not saying this to boast, but it is a fact, because I got an award from the Crows here one time — a Pioneer Award. I was a member of I think thirty-five government committees while I was out here at Stanford. Some of them, of course, were just two or three meetings, but some of them as I say went on for ten years. I think I had ten years on a committee at Evans in New Jersey. Evans Signal Laboratory. Air Force — you know, the usual sorts of things, PISAC, Institute of Defense Analysis. So it was a two-way street, our contacts with the government.

McMahon:

So did Terman encourage you to seek that, to let it be known that you would be willing to serve?

Rambo:

I don’t know how that ever came about.

McMahon:

Some committee would be appointed, I’m sure that’s it. Terman must’ve been putting names into that.

Rambo:

Oh sure, and of course he was on committees with the Navy all during that time.

McMahon:

Right up until his retirement.

Rambo:

Department of Commerce, ASEE —

McMahon:

Was there ever a time that you wished that Terman wasn’t so involved? Was there ever a time that you would’ve liked a little more of the Hewlett-Packard system of participatory —

Rambo:

Not really. I’ll give you a facetious answer and then I’ll give you another one. The facetious answer is that almost every time I was with him I wished he wasn’t so involved; and that was because he had one of these minds that went like that [snapping] and I always had the feeling that I was about two words behind in informing him of something. He was a phrase ahead of me and I guess that wasn’t the case. We had a very long period of interaction that existed only in his place. But he moved right along, believe me. On the other hand, he was very much prone to tossing you into the pool and letting you sink or swim. His primary involvement was one of monitoring. He was a GREAT monitor. It was much more monitoring than it was direction, as long as he was happy. If he was happy, you really had a free hand, and that could go on for months or years, you see, and that was very nice. I’m sure it was true of his faculty, and his department heads, and the schools — the whole thing.

McMahon:

So would the losers just not be around anymore?

Rambo:

Losers just tended to get side-tracked. That’s particularly true in the university, because you just don’t throw people out. He would move certain people out of certain roles...

McMahon:

Could you tell me about that some? I’m not trying to dig up dirt, I’m trying to find out more about how he operated in the real world. What I’m beginning to see is there was a community of people, and I think the story I’m going to want to tell goes beyond Terman. I may’ve mentioned this when I was chatting with you about my project on the phone. In any case, I need to begin to look at Terman operating in the real world, because the community of people I’m talking to were obviously all people who won.

Rambo:

Well, there were some people at RRL and there were people who came to Stanford into research projects that, for whatever reason, didn’t really fit in. It’s not a reflection on them, so I think their names are unimportant. They were well-known people. I’m talking about people in significant roles. They would be gone, and sometimes you wouldn’t know why, but I think for the most part people would think, “Well, that’s probably good.” He didn’t make very many mistakes. That’s a subjective statement on my part, because I thought there were a couple of times he kept people too long, or not long enough. But, you see, I don’t know what his relation with them was in that detail. But there were people that were into positions and then left. Here at the university, Terman was very much interested in the expansion of the school of engineering, which was the dominant thing for twenty years while he was there. And getting good people, he was just absolutely polarized on that. He did not want people that he didn’t think were good. There was a mechanism by which you could bring people in either in the research category, such as I was in, or in a quasi-faculty role, which made a difference in the apportionment of one’s time. You would do more teaching but you were also into research. But that was a non-tenure relationship, and some of those people made it and a lot more didn’t make it. So it was a good screening opportunity.

McMahon:

That must’ve been behind him saying, “Why don’t you do this for a while?” That’s a proper caution for an administrator, or someone who’s going to be responsible for it down the line.

Rambo:

I’m sure if it hadn’t worked I would’ve been doing something else.

McMahon:

I was really impressed in reading his correspondence during the war in the sensitivity with which he dealt with Spangenberg, for example. There was never any question in his mind about Spangenberg’s abilities. There was nothing negative. As he’s talking to Skilling, he’s trying to say, "Now you’ve got to deal with Spangenberg in this way." It was for Spangenberg’s good, he said; "You’ve got to push him, he devalues himself." He was so sensitive to that, that Spangenberg doesn’t think well enough of himself and he has to be pushed to do something that we know he’s quite good at.

Rambo:

One of the remarkable things about Fred Terman was his interest in students, and it was a broad interest. You could sit down someday and he would get into a discussion about the football team. He could tell you not only who was playing left tackle, but what his grade-point average was. This was true of not just the people in engineering — of course, it was predominantly that — but he was very supportive, a remarkable individual. He had some habits that used to drive me up the wall. When he was teaching, of course, he used one of his own books, and naturally he wanted you to have read it before you came to class, because he didn’t want to have to stand there and read his book to you. He had a practice of every so often giving you a fifteen minute quiz at the beginning of class — a very simple question if you’d read the book. If you were enormously smart you would’ve known the answer anyway, so it didn’t mean that everybody had to read the book just to find out how he started the last paragraph — but it was always a question that if you hadn’t read the book you were enormously embarrassed, because there was no answer for it. I used to hate it, but it made me read the book. That’s why teachers do that. I used to do it when I was teaching his course, too. I kept right along with the same practice.

Teaching Experience at Stanford

McMahon:

What field did you teach when you became a full professor later?

Rambo:

I taught primarily undergraduate courses. I taught a graduate course in systems, but it was a strange kind of a systems course, because I had had enough outside experience to want to get the students to look at systems from a real-world point of view. So I would set up the course on a case study basis, which was pretty new for engineering in those days. I would very often use cases that I was personally familiar with, and I think the students enjoyed that. As a matter of fact, Edie and I were out the other evening, and I ran across one of the other people there at this dinner. He introduced himself as one of my former students, and he’s in electronics with a company here in the Silicon Valley. He was saying that he had just run into the same problem that I had used on a case study, and that the solution I had was not open to him because the trouble was in a component that they were buying from another company, and he couldn’t get the other company to go back into it and make the change. But he still remembered it after all these years, so I was pleased.

McMahon:

I didn’t realize that teaching by case is something that’s come along in engineering.

Rambo:

Very much so.

McMahon:

Is that in the ‘70s?

Rambo:

It began to receive attention in the mid '60s, and it was picked up, at least at Stanford. I think the industrial engineers were probably the first to get into it and that may be because of their more natural contacts with the [business] school, to some degree with the law. But it’s quite a popular thing. If you look at the ASEE publications, you’ll see words about that, and the government at one point was sponsoring the development of case studies for engineering. So it’s caught on, not to replace the formal [means] of education, but as an adjunct, and a very useful thing, I think. It’s when you don’t suspect mother nature that you get whacked in development and electronics. You have to be suspicious of what might happen, or of the ingenious ways with which you’ll thwart your —

McMahon:

That’s your real-world systems analysis that you’re talking about.

Rambo:

That’s right.

McMahon:

The tendency I guess in the university is for people to become very rarefied in their work, to lose contact with the real world.

Rambo:

Yes. Of course, it’s a little different too in some of the things. You live in the real world if you’re studying radio propagation, because it’s always in conflict with nature. When you get into solid-state or some of these kinds of things, then your universe is more confined and controllable. You’ve got a little bit more control unless somebody spits into the integrated circuit like half of TI. Like the trouble TI is in with integrated circuit failures in the IBM systems, and the NASA failures, and all that kind of stuff.

McMahon:

No, I haven’t seen that.

Rambo:

Well, it turns out that, as near as they can find out, the problem resulted from a lack of cleanliness in the manufacturing of these integrated circuits. Their quality control should have caught it, but it didn’t. But anyway, that’s one of those kinds of things where nature even steps into that environment.

Military Connection and Appropriateness of Work

Rambo:

The questioners were the very first ones to ask these questions. Apparently, believing or anticipating that only they had ever thought about such things as: is the work you’re doing appropriate? Are the relationships you have appropriate? This was not to me a foreign thought at all, to ask that question.

McMahon:

Was it asked very often?

Rambo:

I mean to ask yourself that question. The idea that the engineers never asked themselves that question, I found somewhat naive.

McMahon:

Did you ask it amongst yourselves ever? Would there be coffee table talk about that?

Rambo:

Oh yes, there were people who left the engineering profession at Stanford.

McMahon:

It is true, in a sense, that electrical engineering, and electronics engineering, has been uniquely a partner in post-World War II development. That’s very revolutionary. You were a part of it, the huge military involvement. It’s governmental expenditures, but a big hunk of that is military expenditures, and that was new. It wasn’t so before 1940. It took engineers and scientists and civilians to convince the military — that’s why Bush wanted the OSRD to be outside the military. Because the old Navy boys liked what they had. I couldn’t explain the profession after WWII without talking about that. That’s another reason I went into the RRL, to talk about this “new world of electronics engineering” that wasn’t there before. Before I couldn’t talk about the old engineering profession without talking about the power industry and RCA. That defines the context in which you work.

Rambo:

In 1938, to reinforce what you’re saying, times were hard. As I remember, there were two companies that came in recruiting students. One was General Electric and the other was Westinghouse. They were looking for students for their so-called test course; where you go back to Schenectady, or East Pittsburgh, and spend two years going through the various departments. They were offering $100, or $115 a month for that, and we all went to interview for that.

McMahon:

That’s also good money, isn’t that?

Rambo:

For those days, $100, $115 a month, that was more than I made at the radio station.