Post-War Pioneers

Above: Bing Crosby sits with microphone in hand, beside an Ampex 600 reel-to-reel tape recorder. Crosby helped introduce and popularize the innovative magnetic tape recorder in 1948. The photo is autographed to Ampex founder Alexander Poniatoff. (Perham Collection of Early Electronics)

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.