Tektronix Gets Into The Spectrum Analyzer (SA) Business:
The Story Behind The Story, Behind The Story
A personal perspective by Morris Engelson
It began for me with a 1A designation in the pre-induction physical after I finished my electrical engineering degree in mid-1957. Knowing the experiences of my older brother who was drafted during the Korean war, I was not anxious to go into the army. So, I said yes, when Polarad Electronics (not to be confused with Polaroid) offered me a job after an interview at a jobs fair. I knew very little about the company except that they had a number of government contracts including one involving communication for a future US space satellite. This was big stuff in those near-sputnik days (the Russian Sputnik satellite was launched on October 4, 1957). Working for Polarad meant a deferment from being drafted and I was happy to get the job offer, even though I wasn’t sure that I would care for the kind of work I would be assigned. But I need not have worried.
Polarad, specializing in microwave electronics, with multiple government contracts and an instrumentation division consisting primarily of microwave signal sources, electromagnetic interference (EMI) instrumentation and spectrum analyzers (SA), was a great place to work for someone who wanted to learn and was willing to put in the time to do it. I found the microwaves and RF fields fascinating, and though I did not know it at the time, the top people in the EMI and SA groups, which to a large degree worked together, were among the leading world experts in these fields. These people were very generous of their time and willing to teach anybody who was willing to learn, and I was eager to learn. I worked on SA and EMI instrumentation, mostly EMI, and in time I made some fundamental contributions to the field. Polarad was also good for my advanced education in other ways as the company paid for my graduate school classes which I took in the evening. Things were good. I was doing interesting and enjoyable work, I had mentor/teachers at work and I was getting an advanced degree. And on top of this I was earning a decent wage. But something happened in 1961, and I started having doubts whether Polarad was to be my long-term home as I expected.
Polarad was a privately held corporation having been started by Paul Odyssey and Larry Jaffe. I don’t know what happened to Odyssey, but by the time I got there the only top manager was Dr. Jaffe, who had made important contributions to microwave electronics. He was the inventor of the ceramic klystron tube which permitted higher temperatures and greater power to Polarad microwave signal sources. More importantly, Dr. Jaffe had been associated with the legendary MIT Radiation Labs, where the science behind the microwave spectrum analyzer was developed for wartime analysis of pulsed radar. Microwaves and boating were Dr. Jaffe’s passions. Everything else was secondary. And while he was a great visionary, seeing trends that at the time other people could not discern, his vision was selective. He was slow to embrace the transistor, which at that time was not useful at microwave frequencies, and he neglected to upgrade the instrumentation which was used as a cash cow for his hobbies. Here are three examples of his visionary hobbies which could not be made to work for lack of contemporary technology.
I was not involved in the development, but was present at the testing of the automated Teflon-based commercial pancake maker. Teflon which is smooth and non-sticky is an important dielectric material in microwave electronics, and Polarad had a great deal of experience in using this material. Today it is a no-brainer, but it was a farsighted innovation sixty years ago to suggest Teflon coated cookware. Cost constraints suggested that this should not be a common household item, but it was felt that there would be a market in commercial applications. The test item was a rubegoldbergian type of device intended to automatically make pancakes for a restaurant. The primary innovation was that this griddle was coated by Teflon and would not need any oil to keep the pancakes from sticking. The mechanism worked well and a stack of pancakes was soon accumulated. These were distributed to the members of the project for tasting, and which invariably were spat out. Apparently microscopic slivers of Teflon got embedded in the pancakes which tasted terrible. Others had a similar idea at about the same time and the non-stick cookware market was developed, but not by Polarad. Polarad knew how to use Teflon for electronic applications but did not know how to formulate or manufacture Teflon. Work continued, but the project was eventually abandoned.
We then come to the obstacle avoidance automobile project. Polarad was involved in electronic sensors and radar systems at microwave and even millimeter wave frequencies. This yields very small devices, and Dr. Jaffe initiated a project to use such sensors to help a driver avoid collisions. The idea was that if the car came too close to an obstacle on one side, we would get a certain tone – say beep, beep. The tone would be different on the other side and different in front and different in the back. The driver would recognize the tones and thus avoid getting into an accident. A car was properly equipped, and a driver was properly trained in the system. The driver was so confident that he thought that he could drive into a small garage while blind folded. But it did not work. All the sensors and tones went off simultaneously and the driver crashed into the back of the garage. Work continued, but the project was ultimately abandoned.
I am quite familiar with this next one because I was assigned to work on the transmitter. Dr. Jaffe was an avid mariner. He owned a luxurious boat, or maybe it was a yacht, equipped with every imaginable electronic device. People at sea sometimes have accidents; they fall overboard. I was assigned to design an alarm system to find someone who falls overboard. This was to be a radio transmitter built into a ping pong ball that would be actuated by the water and would float. My design worked but it did not do the job. The transmission was useless from just a few feet under water. Hence the drowning person would have to have the presence of mind to pull the transmitter out of a pocket to have it float to the surface, and the thing would drift. So, it was difficult to pin point the original location. I was not involved in the sea trials and don’t know the details. But apparently there were too many problems and the item was not commercialized.
For these, or possibly other reasons some of the top people, who felt that the company was taking a wrong direction, started to leave. The second level of people, such as myself, also started wondering if the company had a bright future. One of the attractions for someone like me was that there were highly knowledgeable and talented people from whom I could learn. But now these people were leaving. People started talking to each other and exchanging perceptions. Thus, it was that I, along with two colleagues, Arnie Frish and Larry Weiss concluded that it was time to go. Discussing, almost plotting to leave the company did not feel disloyal to me then, and still does not feel disloyal to me now. My relationship to the company, and to Dr. Jaffe was very different than it was at Tektronix. I could never imagine having such conversations behind the back of Howard Vollum. Howard Vollum was Howard, while Larry Jaffe was Dr. Jaffe. My loyalty was to the people I worked with, and working at Polarad was a job and Dr. Jaffe was the boss. At Tektronix my loyalty was to the company, and Howard was my leader.
I, by now had experience in several uncommon areas: microwave electronics, EMI testing and spectrum analysis plus a newly acquired master’s degree. I was confident that I could find another job, but then we considered why not do on our own what Polarad declined to do – introduce a portable transistorized spectrum analyzer? We knew what had to be done technically and we were confident that we could do it. The ultimate objective was a portable SA, but time was of the essence so we came up with an interim short-cut. The display circuitry and power supply already existed in the Tekronix mainframe. All we had to do is design the RF SA plug-in. Then we discovered that we had neglected two important areas: shielding for the highly sensitive RF circuits and power supply conversion from higher voltage tubes to lower voltage transistors. My experience with EMI and Larry’s mechanical layout capability solved the RF shielding problems, and Arnie came up with a clever way to utilize the power supply from the Tektronix mainframe. This yielded a patent on which my name also appears, but actually my contribution to this design was miniscule; most of the work was done by Arnie.
The plug-in version was intended as a means to get a product out faster but the ultimate objective was a self-contained portable SA, on which work proceeded on a parallel basis. This was finished and improved upon at Tektronix in the 490 series. In between getting maybe a few hours of sleep a day and occasionally remembering to eat we had a few other matters to attend to that all involved in a poorly financed and poorly staffed start-up are familiar with. Once we decided on the plug-in concept, we started to develop a cordial relationship with the local Tektronix people and through them Tektronix proper. We were concerned that Tektronix might tell us to cease and desist and were careful to not introduce any surprises to Tektronix. We also decided to take advantage of the Tektronix name. Hence our name would end in ix, but what should be the prefix? We each had put in our savings and Larry and Arnie also managed to secure loans. This made five sources of money and we decided on Pentronix. But Tektronix objected as too similar to Tektronix. Hence the name Pentrix.
The plug-in concept was a success. The slogan: click - it’s a spectrum analyzer worked, and we started getting orders. That is when we discovered that while we had a good technical and even a good marketing plan, our business plan was deficient. We did not realize that the more successful we became the more money we would need. We had profits, but we had negative cash flow. With my advanced experience in EMI, I started consulting in the field with the income helping to pay the Pentrix bills. But it was not enough. We had to pay for parts COD while customers payed in 30 days. Except for the US government where 30 days turned out to be 90 days.
We were in trouble and decided to turn to Tektronix. Would Tektronix be interested in acquiring Pentrix? The answer was yes. The transition was surprisingly smooth. Our test equipment and inventory were packed one afternoon, shipped overnight and the next day we were building SA plug-ins in Beaverton. There was no break at all.
Pentrix existed for just two years: 1962-1964. But during that time, the three of us put in about five years’ worth of hours each. We were broke, utterly exhausted and glad to get back to normal lives. Arnie and Larry migrated to different parts of Tektronix, and even outside of Tektronix, while I stayed with my first love which was, and is the spectrum analyzer. And it all started because I didn’t want to be drafted into the army.