Bay Area Early Electronics: A Brief History

Long before microchips, personal computers, and dotcoms defined Silicon Valley, the San Francisco Bay Area was deeply involved in a wireless revolution. During the first half of the 20th century, communications moved beyond telegraph and telephone wires into an “Empire of the Air,” allowing transmission not only of voices but music, news and entertainment. Young Bay Area engineers and technicians, amateurs, and academicians, were remarkably inventive, adaptable, persistent, and versatile. Some, beginning without business connections, proved to be skilled entrepreneurs.

The Perham Collection highlights those enterprising individuals whose passion to explore new technologies brought the West Coast to the nation’s attention. It is more than a story of the lone inventor tinkering away in a backyard shed. These men and women, and their inventions, reveal, like today, the crossroads of scientific curiosity, good timing, and fortuitous events with market forces, business interests, ruthless competitors, and lawyers. Some later names will be familiar, but most of the individuals featured here have now been lost to the public’s awareness.

The Dawn of Wireless in the San Francisco Bay Area

The ability to communicate across long distances brought dramatic social and economic changes to American society during the 19th century. The telegraph, and later the telephone, brought news and information from across the country within hours. Major cable companies crossed the Atlantic and dreamed of linking the continents, but were limited by the high cost and technical difficulty of laying cable across the Pacific.

By the 1880s, new experiments in electro-magnetic (“wireless”) currents were underway. By 1895, Gugliermo Marconi’s experiments in England were being replicated in California, sending Morse code dots and dashes across increasingly longer distances. In 1899, the world’s first wireless message from ship to shore was sent through the fog from a lightship off the Golden Gate to a shore receiver in San Francisco.

The San Francisco Call captured the excitement of Federal Telegraph Company’s successful trans-Pacific wireless transmission in July 1912 (Perham Collection of Early Electronics)

It was more than a passion for technological experimentation that drove this rush to devise new and better ways to send and receive wireless telegraphy. San Francisco Bay was the heart of the West Coast maritime and transportation industry, and the location of key U.S. Navy and Army installations. Wireless offered exciting new means for ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications, vital for rescue and safety as well as navigation and business. The Bay Area had both the investment wealth and the business to justify wireless development.

By World War I, Bay Area wireless experimenters and entrepreneurs were competing to outfit ships, airplanes, and radio stations around the world with newly developed technology. Local companies were challenging manufacturers on the East Coast to produce vacuum tubes, radios and other electronics gear.

Radio Into the Air and Across the Oceans

Just as wireless played an important role at sea, pilots and wireless operators quickly saw its value in making communication possible between an airplane in flight and an operator on the ground.

Like the maritime world, air transportation was an obvious venue for wireless. In addition to the airplane’s disconnection from the earth, its often unpredictable movement made wired communication clearly impossible. The loudness of engine and wing noise, along with small, confined and inconvenient spaces added new dimensions to the problem.

The development of air and sea communication became vitally important during World War I, as the airplanes and air balloons, like the Navy’s vessels at sea, became essential reconnaissance tools as well as weapons. Inventive young Americans returned from war with new skills, higher expectations, and ideas for new apparatus.

In January 1911, at a Tanforan aviation meet south of San Francisco, Lt. Paul Beck carried in his lap a 29-pound transmitter, in a wooden box. He tapped out messages to a ground receiver as pilot Phillip Parmalee flew their Wright biplane hundreds of feet in the air. The type A-4 American Wireless Telegraph set was designed and supplied by Earle Ennis, sole employee of the Western Wireless Equipment Company. They were delighted to hear later that the messages were heard with little interference as far as 40 miles away. (Perham Collection of Early Electronics)

“On The Air, Everywhere” — The Growth of Radio and Television Broadcasting

In the 1920s, “radio” emerged as a new cultural force, sending voice where wires could not go, as well as sharing entertainment, information, and commerce. In 1919, wireless transmissions were back on the air after two years of wartime government control. There was a rush to attics and basements where spark sets and headphones had been gathering dust. Electronics shops opened around the Bay Area to serve thousands of amateurs, many of them veterans who had worked with vacuum tubes sets while in the armed forces, now looking for tubes and other parts to rebuild their home stations.

By 1922, the radio had moved into the living room. With the introduction of the loudspeaker, the whole family could listen without sharing a set of headphones. A “Radio Craze” was on as manufacturers faced a new demand for radio sets that were easy to operate as well as attractive. Inventors like Harold Elliott pioneered one-knob and push-button tuning, “so simple a woman can operate it.” More than ten million receivers were in use in America by 1928, and the market kept growing. Hundreds of commercial radio stations that offered diverse community-based programming were swept under the umbrellas of powerful broadcasting networks, dominated by NBC (National Broadcasting Company) and CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System).

Sight soon joined sound. In 1927, Philo Farnsworth successfully transmitted an image using electronic scanning and synchronization, marking the birth of modern television. World War II delayed their debut, but electronic televisions were embraced by post-war consumers, and by 1964, 93 percent of all American households owned a television. The home entertainment industry was here to stay.

Post-War Pioneers

During World War II, Bay Area engineering companies were at peak production and provided valuable in-the-field engineering expertise. By the war’s end, companies that had expanded production to meet military demands faced serious downsizing, even closure. Some found opportunities in expanding commercial and consumer goods markets, others grew with revival of defense contracts during the Cold War.

Many engineers and scientists formerly employed in the war effort returned to the private sector with new ideas and energy. They also saw the Bay Area as a welcoming environment for new kinds of companies as well as products. Noted Russell Varian, “there, engineers would have a chance to try out their own ideas about how an engineering business should be run.”

Successful companies, like Eimac and Varian Associates, extended the power limits of their devices, allowing transmission from ground stations to satellite communications networks and contributing to America’s space program. Others, like Ampex and Hewlett-Packard, explored new or improved products, bringing to the American public new ways to view the world.

Satellites were used not only for communication but for surveillance as the Cold War demanded improvements in spy technology. As tetrodes and klystrons expanded the range of radio communications, receivers and microphones got smaller, allowing for expansion of police surveillance techniques and the need for counter-surveillance products to match the growing threat of industrial espionage.

Electronics experienced yet another sea-change during the 1950s as vacuum tube technology made way for the transistor (invented in 1947) and, later, the boom of semiconductor technology of the 1960s. Each allowed for vastly improved reliability and greatly reduced power needs, leading to smaller integrated circuit components and true computer processing capabilities. By the time the phrase “Silicon Valley” (referring to the semiconductor’s silicon chip) was commonly used in the 1970s, the San Francisco Bay Area already had a long history of electronics innovation.