The Flying Tigers: A Storied Chapter in Wartime Aviation

The story of aviation is peppered with great challenges, significant milestones, and heroic individuals who made history while advancing the notion of human flight. I have written about some of these in my posts, and I now introduce you to the AVG, the American Volunteer Group, popularly known as The Flying Tigers. Many will recognize that famous name and the intimidating business-end of the tiger-shark portrayed on the Curtiss P-40 fighter aircraft they flew.

Flying Tigers - Iconic Pic_1A                                                                                              Photo: R.T. Smith/AVG

Nothing about the nature of the AVG is familiar or ordinary – not the circumstances of its existence, the people in the organization, nor its legacy!

Although the name Flying Tigers is still recognized by the public (save today’s youngsters), very few understand the circumstances and the heroics that cemented their place in aviation history – indeed, in world history. As a young lad living in San Mateo, California, and building model airplanes many years ago, the P-40 Warhawk was one of my favorite models. The Warhawk joined my other model airplanes in full flight across the open and cloudless skies of my bedroom, suspended just two feet below the ceiling!

Surprisingly, given its notable fame and legacy, the American Volunteer Group existed for less than one year. The group fought for and under the auspices of the Chinese Air Force and The People’s Republic of China, with no direct ties to America’s armed forces. Indeed, most of the young pilots had resigned previous commissions in the United States Army Air Corps, Navy, and Marines prior to boarding a ship in San Francisco in July of 1941 and setting-sail for far-off Indo-China.

Chennault Stamp 1940There, they would fly under the leadership of former U.S. General Claire Chennault and fight the invading Japanese. Japan had swept into neighboring Burma intending to block land-locked China’s access route to the Pacific Ocean with its important shipping lanes.

By December 7, 1941. Pearl Harbor Day, the AVG was operational in Burma. It is fascinating to ponder that this small, mercenary force from America was already engaging Japan – on behalf of The Republic of China – just prior to Pearl Harbor and Roosevelt’s subsequent declaration of war on Japan.

The initial reception in Washington to the proposed AVG in 1939/40 was decidedly cool; only direct and intense lobbying by Gen. Chennault and others finally convinced President Roosevelt to endorse the idea. As small as the AVG mobilization was (one-hundred P-40 Tomahawk aircraft and three-hundred pilots and ground crew), Roosevelt surely foresaw the coming conflict with Japan and must have concluded that this initial, although indirect, mobilization of U.S. airpower would prove useful in kick-starting any future U.S. engagements.

There was even an early proposal that the AVG be used to directly bomb Japan as opposed to being limited to the defensive role of keeping open China’s access to the sea. By early 1941, it was clear that creating the landing strips necessary to reach Japan from China/Burma was not feasible given the Chinese defensive posture. In 1941, it had been many years since airpower first made its battle-field debut in World War I, and the airplane had become dramatically more sophisticated since then. There was much to be learned about mobilizing air power in 1941, and the AVG was to prove invaluable in that respect.

As was true in the contemporary Battle of Britain where outnumbered pilots of the RAF (Royal Air Force) performed heroically in the skies above England to save the homeland from the German Luftwaffe, the AVG Flying Tigers routinely were outnumbered in sky by odds typically three-to-one in favor of Japan.

Tiger Scramble w:o TextFlying Tiger Scramble to Meet the Enemy!

As for the fighting effectiveness of the AVG Flying Tigers: the group was credited with 297 enemy aircraft destroyed (229 in the air). Fourteen AVG pilots were killed or missing in action, with another six deaths due to accidents. The final engagement of the original AVG took place on July 4, 1942 in which four Japanese Ki-27s were downed with no friendly losses.

Were the Flying Tigers blessed with a better airplane than the Japanese fighters, one might ask? The answer is: neither better nor worse …but different. The P-40 could not out-turn the more agile Japanese fighter planes – a decided disadvantage in classic dogfights. Gaining on an adversary while engaged in a tightening circle of high-speed turns is the obvious way to get on the enemy’s “tail,” to get him in your gunsights, and to shoot him out of the sky.

General Chennault taught his young pilots to minimize “turning tactics” in the air and to rely, instead, on the P-40’s ability to climb out of compromised situations with adversaries. Chennault instructed his men to then utilize their altitude advantage using the P-40’s superior high-speed dive capability to position themselves on the enemy’s tail. Part of the reason the P-40 suffered in agility compared to the Japanese fighters was the heavier airframe and the armor installed to protect the pilot from enemy fire. In general, the P-40 was a ruggedly constructed airplane by any standard, with the pilot’s safety in mind.

Routine Boredom  Punctuated with Moments of Sheer Terror

Despite their unique situation, those who flew with the Flying Tigers wrestled with the same demons that bedeviled thousands of flyers who followed in World War II. Many of those found themselves based on the open airfields of Northeast England or somewhere in Italy. Imagine being a fighter pilot in the European theatre. More likely than not, you are there to provide cover to the B-17 or B-24 heavy bombers as they lumber to and from their targets – usually over well-defended German territory. Your chief adversaries were the German fighter pilots who came up to intercept the bomber formations before they could deliver their bomb loads. Your job was to shoot them out of the sky. Your other concern were the long German flak guns on the ground whose shrapnel from exploding high-altitude shells could rip apart even the largest of nearby bombers.

To best describe the life and emotions of a fighter pilot, I quote one of the best ever to fly in the European theatre: Clarence “Bud” Anderson who chalked-up over sixteen victories in the skies over Europe flying that iconic fighter, the P-51 Mustang.

 Staying alive was no simple thing in the skies over Europe in the spring of 1944. A lot of men couldn’t. It was a bad thing to dwell on if you were a fighter pilot, and so we told ourselves we were dead men and lived for the moment with no thought of the future at all. It wasn’t too difficult. Lots of us had no future and everyone knew it.

From all that I have read and heard, that was the way many fighter pilots lived and stayed sane: they lived only for the moment. Great bonds and lifelong friendships were formed among many of those flyers in World War II who, day after day, went up to face deadly threats in the skies. Many flyers eschewed forming close relationships with any of their comrades given the familiar and gut-wrenching experience of one’s best friend in the unit not returning from a mission.

Imagine the added uncertainty, anxiety, and excitement the Flying Tigers must have felt when boarding a ship at San Francisco in July of 1940 headed for Hong Kong with an ultimate destination somewhere in the strange environs of Burma. They, of course, knew full well that they would be flying as “lend-lease” mercenaries for the Republic of China under its leader, Chiang Kai-shek, with only tenuous ties to the U.S. military with its customary lines of support. This was to be “adventure in spades,” and most understood and readily accepted the challenges they were about to face. Flying with the Tigers out of Burma was nothing like being based in England! For one thing, Chinese, not English, was the dominant language among most of the local support crew comprised of armorers, second-level mechanics, and general helpers. Crew chiefs and lead mechanics were, in-general, like the pilots: AVG recruits from the States.

What prompted these volunteers to go on such an uncertain adventure? Certainly money was one motivation: the pay was very high, and pilots were awarded a $500 bonus for every victory in the air – a lot of money, back then. Then there were others who wanted to help in the effort to stem Japanese aggression in the Pacific as well as those who could not resist the call to unmitigated adventure in a far-off and unfamiliar part of the world. There were many of the latter, individuals who shunned security and comfort for the chance to satisfy their yearnings.

Mark Twain:

“You will regret most the things in life you did not do, not the things you did!”

Mark Twain’s wise admonition coupled with the irresistible mystique of the fighter pilot and my father’s aviation legacy persuaded me to finally take the plunge on Memorial Day, 2018, and buy a ticket-to-ride in the dual-seat/dual-control trainer version of the P-51D Mustang operated by the Collings Foundation. The chance to experience and to actually fly the most iconic fighter of World War II was one of the great thrills of my life. Here is a segment of my blog-post account of that flight that represents my best effort to encapsulate in words the powerful mystique that surrounds that era of wartime aviation:

I wanted to experience, as best I could, what it must have felt like to ride out to the flight-line in a far-away place on a cold, early dawn, to greet your crew-chief who got up even earlier to prepare your plane, and then to clamber into the cockpit for yet another mission over Germany. Your crew chief helps you strap-in and briefs you on the status of your airplane. You look at him and he looks at you, briefly, each realizing that you might not come back from today’s mission. Then you close the canopy to form an eerie silence, and your crew-chief slides off the wing to the ground – perhaps the last human you will see…at least for several hours. At your touch of the starter, the big four-bladed propeller slowly turns, and turns some more, and turns some more, and finally the powerful, twelve-cylinder Rolls-Royce/Packard Merlin engine coughs and belches its way to life, shaking the cockpit in the process. In a matter of seconds, the big Merlin engine settles into a smooth, steady cadence and you are set to face the great unknowns that await all pilots on such missions.

To capture some essence of that scenario in a real P-51 Mustang is what drove me to do what I did last Monday. What better way to pay tribute to the memory of our flyers than to take to the skies over Livermore in a vintage airplane on an absolutely gorgeous, cloud-free day like Monday, May 28, 2018. It was everything I had hoped it would be, and more. I will never forget the experience.


Toulouse Nuts_5                                                                                     Photo: Collings Foundation

 Meet James Howell Howard: Ace and Medal of Honor Recipient

James Howard at Right

Tigers: James Howard on the right. Howard went on to fly P-51 Mustangs in the European theatre. He is the first and only pilot ever awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroic service in Europe. Greg “Pappy” Boyington was the only pilot ever accorded the same honor in the Pacific Theatre.

James Howell Howard (above picture) and his story first ignited my deeper interest in the Flying Tigers. I learned of him from a family relation who knew of my interest in aviation. I am thankful for the lead that got me started down this fascinating trail.

James Howard, like several other surviving AVG pilots, left behind their memories in book form and via numerous interviews for which they were much in demand.

Roar of the TigerThey are gone, now – all of them, but their memory will linger long after many other recollections of wartime will have been lost and forgotten. The mystique of those who flew in World War II is powerful – a challenge to express in meaningful words for those of us who like to write.

These aviation interests of mine stem from an “aviation legacy” left me by my father’s longtime passion for and involvement in aviation. I have written about that in some detail in various blog posts. Only late in life, did I fully realized just how deeply ingrained in my psyche was everything aviation, thanks to my father.

 No wonder, then, that the subject of The Flying Tigers would eventually find its way into a blog post of its own!

Flying Tigers Cover

50th anniversary “first-day cover” from Sept. 6. 1990 celebrating the Flying Tiger’s creation and featuring the Chennault stamp’s “first day of issue.” Chennault’s home-town was Monroe, Louisiana. This collectable cover carries the autographs of six members of the early organization including top ACE pilots, David Lee “Tex” Hill and Dick Rossi.

Our Family’s Identical Twin Sister: Finally Meeting Her Face-to-Face

Yes, we have identical twin sisters in my family, and I was finally able to meet “the other one” after many years had passed. The “sisters” were born in the mid nineteen-seventies, but their linneage extends back to the late-thirties. I met the “other twin” earlier this month at my sister’s home in Atlanta, Georgia, and here she is:


Below, is her identical twin sister who has resided in our home since nineteen-seventy-five. These two, the only ones in existence, were brought to life by my father in the nineteen-seventies.


Mother nature never produced identical twins more alike than these two: all that differs are the background colors and picture frames.

I had long known of this other twin’s existence, but I do not recollect ever seeing her since the time my father gifted the twins to my wife, Linda, and my sister, Karen. During our visit with Karen in Georgia this month, I noticed “yellow-twin” hanging in her bedroom, just as “blue-twin” is prominently displayed in ours.

The original painting-on-glass, dating from the late thirties , was exactly like ours – with the same blue/turquoise background. After decades above my parents’ bed, it hung in my sister’s bedroom after Dad passed away in 1992. Before long, the painting literally dissolved as paint separated from the smooth glass back-side.

I will finish this post by attaching my earlier post explaining the heritage of these identical twin sisters and the family legacy left behind by my talented father.                                                      

The Blog of Alan A. Kubitz                                                           June 27, 2020                                                       

The Painted Lady (on Glass)

Yesterday, I attended to something that long begged attention. I finally put on display a precious family heirloom, a unique work of art from the imagination and talented hands of my father, Alfred Kubitz. I call her “The Painted Lady.” It now hangs regally on the wall above my wife Linda’s large dresser mirror.


There is a story behind this image. To begin with, this art-deco rendering of “The Painted Lady” resides on the back of its protective glass, not on any traditional artist’s medium under glass. The composition, itself, was created in the nineteen-twenties or early thirties by an unknown (to me) artist. I vaguely recall conversations many years ago with my father that leave me with the impression that he first saw this image in one of the magazines popular during his teen-years – perhaps Cosmopolitan or Vogue? The art-deco flair of the rendering must have tweaked Dad’s significant artistic sensibilities, and this led him to produce his original painting-on-glass version which was the prototype for what is illustrated, here, in my post.

Going way back to my earliest recollections, I vividly recall the original painting hanging for many years in my parent’s bedroom. Likely, my father painted it in the mid-to-late nineteen-thirties and proceeded to gift it to my mother after their marriage on July 8, 1939.

Fast-forward to approximately nineteen seventy-four when signs were apparent of paint separating from the back of the glass on “The Painted Lady.” With retirement on the near horizon after thirty-two years at United Air Lines, my father recognized, in his deteriorating painting, an artistic/technical challenge as well as a small business opportunity for his retirement years. The challenge? To produce “replicas” of his artistic tour-de-force. Simply photographing the image and printing copies was not what he had in mind. The challenge of reproducing “The Painted Lady” on the back of glass and offering such unique works of art for sale to the public at a price only three or four times what the market might fetch for a fine photographic print – that was what he had in mind. In the spirit of “preserving” his original concept, these highly unique offerings were to be an affordable improvement on his original “Painted Lady” in two major ways.

First, the delicate black outlines of the original would be even finer and truer than Dad had been able to lay down on the glass by hand. Despite the difficulty, he did a fantastic job on the original, years ago! Second, the recreations would use art-quality, modern paints applied to the back of a glass surface ever-so-lightly etched for optimal adhesion of the paint, thus guaranteeing decades of life for the image.

Dad worked out a process that would meet all these objectives and result in a striking work of art. As I recall that process, the black outlines and the several colors would be silkscreened onto the glass in a series of layered steps. What you see pictured at the beginning of this post is one of the original prototypes (actually a finished/perfected product) of the process described, here. Dad designated this “Copy #1” on the back.

Lady on Glass_3_Crop

Dad presented this beautiful treasure to my wife, Linda. Here is his birthday gift inscription to her, penned in his own hand on the back:

My sister, Karen, also received one of these treasures from Dad. Hers is identical to Linda’s, except for a yellow background rather than the original blue as reproduced on our Copy #1. We called Karen and husband Jon cross-country the day before yesterday with congratulations on their fifty-fourth wedding anniversary. I asked Karen about Dad’s original “Painted Lady” which she had kept after choosing from the keepsakes he left behind when he passed away in nineteen ninety-two. Alas, Karen informed me that the original “Painted Lady on Glass,” like her creator, was no more. Much of the original paint had finally come loose from the glass after all those years, rendering her “lost.”

Although my father may have created one or two experimental prototypes before crafting the two copies I have described, here, I do not recall seeing any. I do recall finding in recent years some of his process documentation for the project: I hope I still have his papers somewhere in my files. Recalling my father so well, I am certain that meeting the technical challenge of creating these modern versions of his early work while preserving his artistic concept of “The Painted Lady” for others to see were more satisfying to him than the prospects of any potential commercial venture. He decided not to go forward with the latter.

It pleases me to know that at least two copies, offspring if you will, of the original “Painted Lady” live on to remind us and our descendants of my father, his craftsmanship, and his artistic legacy.

A $12 Work of Art from an Outdoor Antique/Collectibles Fair!

work-of-art_3Everyone and everything on this planet has a unique and interesting story (at least on some level). One of the many interesting items that have crossed my path during eighty-plus years on this planet is this little piece of African art.

I purchased her approximately fifteen years ago at a giant outdoor antique/collectibles fair in Sacramento, California. Linda and I were visiting her brother and sister-in-law at the time, and this local regularly scheduled, periodic outdoor fair was a “must see” according to them.

The event was unlike any antique/collectibles sale we had ever seen – tables of goods covering a huge, paved area near a major highway interchange. You name it, and it was likely there…somewhere! The trick was to find it: good luck! Much better to embrace my prevailing attitude that day: “Who knows what I might find there and take a fancy to, as long as it is not too expensive.” Serendipity has its charms when it comes to antique/collectibles browsing.

work-of-art_1The afternoon wore on under a bright sun, and fatigue was setting in when I laid my eyes on yet another table full of every sort of object – some of it junk. Barely protruding from the hodge-podge was this wooden bust of an African (?) woman. It was surely hand-carved from a block of very hard wood (mahagony?). Although I am far from a connoisseur of African art, I was struck by the artistic, noble beauty of the piece. The detail in the hair was exquisite. I was quite taken with this sculpture, but what would I do with it, and where would I keep it if I bought it? Things I have collected over the decades span many of my personal interests, but my collection of Africana is limited to books on African wildlife and the exploits of the colorful European “white hunters” who settled the continent in the very early days when wild animals ranged far and near.

I turned the piece over to view the base of the statuette and there was a sticker marked $12. I decided at that instant that this was too good to pass-up at such a give-away price – lack of suitable display space at home be-damned. I also noticed the artist’s signature crudely carved on the piece: “PAUL.” I paid the twelve-dollars and carried her off. This was my only purchase, that day.

Work of Art_5I recently made a critical decision during a massive effort on the part of me and my wife to consolidate and organize many of the things that have piled up over the years in our limited space. I was soon holding this piece of art in my hand, ready to pass judgement on its future vis-a-vis our household. Although I have mindfully stored it over the years to prevent any damage to its fine finish and details, I now made the long-term decision to keep the piece and store it carefully along with other things deserving of protection. Now it is wrapped in bubble-wrap and stored for the long-haul. If more space were available in our compact house, I would find a place to display it.

I am glad that this noble brown woman will remain with us for the foreseeable future. I wish that I could know her full history: who was this “PAUL” who carved her, and when and where did she enter this world? Whatever happened to her creator and what was his story?

Sadly, but tantalizingly, I will never know these things. What I do know is that this is a work of art – something worth much more than twelve-dollars to one who appreciates artistic excellence!

Silicon Valley Origins and Stanford University

I live in the Santa Clara Valley of California, the high-tech capital of the world – yes, the world! As recently as the nineteen-fifties, we locals were surrounded by acre after acre of apricot, cherry, and prune trees, and people called the region the Valley of Heart’s Delight. And a beautiful, bountiful landscape, it was. Today, after monumental change, the heart of the Santa Clara Valley has become known as Silicon Valley, and the cash crop of the region derives not from produce, but from silicon, that natural element crucial to the ubiquitous transistor and the integrated circuits which combine hundreds of thousands of transistors on a tiny silicon “chip” no larger than a fingernail. There are virtually no producing orchards left in the Santa Clara Valley. Today, the landscape is covered with pavement connecting hundreds of industrial parks and large corporate campuses. Electrical engineers are everywhere, and venture capitalists are here, too, ready to loan money to promising fledgling operations whose founders have “the next big idea.”

hp-garageThis is where it all began: a tiny garage on Addison Avenue, in an unassuming residential area near downtown Palo Alto and just down the road from Stanford University (more, to follow). Fortunes have been made (and lost) in Silicon Valley as fragile, seedling companies strived to take root and grow, over the years, into towering trees whose far-reaching branches continue to merge with those from neighboring seedlings. The result is an overarching canopy of scientific knowledge and technical know-how which has changed the way we live our lives.

           The Famous HP Garage

How and why did this remarkable transition occur in fewer than six decades, and why here? The local story of Apple Computer is familiar enough to present-day residents of this valley. As impressive and ubiquitous as the company and its products may be, Apple is but the result and not a primary cause of the tech culture we witness today in the region. Apple Computer was founded in 1976 in a nearby Cupertino residential garage by two youngsters, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, who truly believed they could build a better computer than those produced by other “hobbyist afficionados” back in those early years. Wozniak had the technical knowledge necessary to create a viable Apple II computer for the market and Jobs was the corporate/marketing visionary with the stamina to make Apple Computer happen as it did.


                     Stanford University: The Catalyst for Silicon Valley

Two young electrical engineering graduates from the Stanford University graduating class of 1935 came along much earlier than the two Steves of Apple, and it was their success that heralded the transformation of the Santa Clara Valley. William Hewlett and David Packard were the names, and their fledgling company became Hewlett Packard, also known as HP, one of the truly great icons in Valley history. Have you visited the famous “HP Garage” at 367 Addison Street in downtown Palo Alto? Although rarely open to the public, it is visible from the sidewalk. It was in this tiny, detached garage directly behind their rented quarters that Hewlett and Packard began HP by designing and building a simple piece of electronic test equipment called the 200A audio oscillator. From such a simple beginning, these young entrepreneurial engineers built corporate giant, Hewlett Packard, long the leading supplier of state-of-the-art electronic test/measurement equipment, computers, and printers. During my thirty-seven year career as an electrical engineer in this valley, many of my working hours were spent in a product development lab surrounded by stacks of HP test and measurement equipment. Any older electrical engineer, anywhere, can relate!


                     Workbench in the HP Garage ( As It Looked Back Then )

The Hewlett Packard story showcases the two primary reasons that cities including Palo Alto, Mountain View, Cupertino, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, and San Jose find themselves at the focus of the world’s tech capital. The two prime movers underpinning today’s Silicon Valley were: Stanford University and its famed Professor of Electrical Engineering during the nineteen-twenties through the fifties, Frederick Emmons Terman. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard were both electrical engineering graduates, class of 1935, who studied at Stanford under Fred Terman. It was Terman who recognized the talent of his two charges and suggested that they consider an alternative to the long practice of recent west-coast electrical engineering grads which was to pack their bags and head east to where the jobs were. Famous corporate names like General Electric, Westinghouse, IBM, Bell Labs, and countless others were well established on the east coast and always on the lookout for engineering talent. Looking southward from the Stanford campus in 1938, little, save acres of orchards, could be seen – certainly few established companies with good opportunities like those on the east coast.

Fred Terman was, himself, an accomplished electrical engineer who wrote the “industry standard textbook” titled Radio Engineering back in 1932. As a student at Stanford in the early nineteen-sixties, I myself used the 1955 fourth edition of his book. Terman was not only a nationally recognized engineer but an uncommon visionary, as well. At the center of his vision for the future, was Stanford University. Accordingly, he convinced his talented pair of students, Hewlett and Packard, to break tradition, remain in the region, and begin their very own company, right here! They did precisely that at 367 Addison Avenue, less than three miles from campus. HP grew rapidly to become an industry giant with an uncommonly fine corporate culture and identity. And the rest was history, as Terman, from his Stanford faculty position, took an ever more active role in promoting the local region and seeding it with other start-ups during the years that followed. Not only was the proximity of Stanford University an attraction to young entrepreneurs bent on acquiring state-of-the-art knowledge, the fresh, scenic beauty of the region and the fine weather were not to be discounted, either!

Terman was instrumental in Stanford’s important 1951 decision to incorporate some of the University’s prime, ninety-four hundred acres of extensive campus as the Stanford Industrial Park. HP, in its heyday, established its corporate headquarters on the edge of the new industrial park – a familiar sight on Page Mill Road, just west of the El Camino Real. Many tech and venture capital firms followed suit and settled nearby on Stanford land. The Stanford Shopping Center sits on Stanford property under a very long-term lease agreement with the University. The founding grant from Leland and Jane Stanford stipulates that the land they bequeathed as part of the university charter shall never be sold.

Stanford University is a fascinating study in itself. Founded in 1891, in memory of their only son, Leland Stanford Junior, who died at the young age of sixteen, Leland and Jane Stanford dedicated the school to “the children of California.” Stanford has made an incredible mark not only on this valley, but on the world at large, thanks in large part to the vision of Fred Terman.

Once his former electrical engineering students, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, were convinced by Terman in 1938 to plant the seeds of their start-up company near Stanford and downtown Palo Alto, things happened quickly. In 1953, the Varian brothers, Russell and Sigurd, were the first to occupy the university’s newly established Stanford Industrial Park which was ably promoted by Terman. The headquarters for Varian Associates was located at the juncture of El Camino Real and Page Mill Road. It was there that the brothers manufactured their important klystron tubes, devices which operated in the microwave spectrum and proved so vital to the burgeoning communications industry. The author fondly recalls his summer job at Varian in 1961, testing large, water-cooled, high-power klystrons. My first full-time employment after college was with a small electronics company just up the road from Varian Associates, also within the Stanford Industrial Park.

                            Enter William Shockley and Transistor Technology

2N697In 1955, William Shockley left Bell Telephone Labs in New Jersey, where, in 1947/48, he developed transistor technology working with two colleagues. For that momentous achievement, the trio shared the 1956 Nobel Prize in physics. In that very same year, Shockley, with funding support from industrialist Arnold Beckman and Stanford, began operations at Shockley Semiconductor in a tiny converted storefront building on San Antonio Road in Mountain View. His plan? To make transistors a commercial success – and himself a lot of money! The transistor was, in most significant respects, a miniature replacement for the large, “clumsy,” and power-hungry vacuum tubes which had long served electrical engineers as signal amplifier/switching devices since first introduced by Lee De Forest in 1906.


        2N697 Transistor

Although germanium was the “solid-state” semiconductor material originally used by the Shockley team at Bell Labs, Shockley, a brilliant physicist with a Phd in physics from MIT, ultimately surmised that the future of commercial transistor technology would rely on another semiconductor known as silicon. Thus, we locals are residing not in Germanium Valley, but Silicon Valley. The development of the transistor proved such an important and pervasive a technology that its silicon ingredient symbolizes much of the other incredible and related technologies that were to emerge from this region – hence the name Silicon Valley.

Shockley on Electrons and Holes - 1950 1stIn 1950, Shockley published the first authoritative book (indeed, the bible) on semiconductor behavior, Electrons and Holes in Semiconductors. The publication of Shockley’s famous volume heralded the coming age of computers.

Transistor technology was the “big new thing” (a vast understatement) in 1955, destined to replace the vacuum tube and change our world – which it did. Transistors, with their constantly advancing “solid-state,” semiconductor technology and incredible miniaturization continue, still, to change our world, and Shockley deserves much of the credit for that. But, after bringing silicon to this valley, Shockley’s start-up company, here, was destined to be only an indirect factor in all that was to quickly transpire.

William Shockley was a brilliant physicist, but a terrible manager of the men he hired into his new venture. He also knew virtually nothing about the business world, but he had personally recruited an extremely talented band of engineers, physicists, and chemists into Shockley Semiconductor. The best and brightest of the bunch were destined to leave Shockley’s employ after only one year and make real Valley history at another fledgling company – Fairchild Semiconductor, in Mountain View. That group of employees became known as “the traitorous eight” after handing Shockley a mass resignation and heading out the door for Fairchild and better prospects.

Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore were the spiritual and technical leaders of this band of eight. By 1961, they, and their team had catapulted Fairchild into fame and fortune by developing the “integrated circuit” manufacturing process which allows the economical mass-fabrication of thousands of interconnected transistors on a single tiny chip of silicon. That post-Shockley leap in semiconductor technology/fabrication was THE pivotal point for everything – literally the beginning of the digital computer age as we have come to know it. Coupled with Claude Shannon’s The Mathematical Theory of Communication and Norbert Weiner’s pioneering book, Cybernetics, Fairchild’s brilliant band of eight and their breakthroughs in semiconductor fabrication allowed digital technology to mushroom in the Santa Clara Valley and elsewhere to heights unimaginable even to the most optimistic of visionaries. Just contemplate your own iPhone!

Shugart Associates in Sunnyvale along with Quantum and Maxtor were other fast-growing companies in the Valley that developed and manufactured data-storage devices known as “disk drives.” These electromechanical devices used magnetic recording to store hundreds of millions of data bits (1’s and 0’s) on their whirling, plated aluminum platters. Fairchild’s integrated circuit technology gave us powerful small computers requiring immense data-storage capability, hence the burgeoning disk drive industry, which became a very big and important player in the growth of Silicon Valley. Today, most computing devices use – you guessed it – semiconductor data storage instead of magnetic recording.

In 1969, Bob Noyce and Gordon Moore left Fairchild to start yet a new venture which emerged as Intel whose fabulously successful and quickly ubiquitous microprocessors (computers on a small silicon chip) further enhanced Silicon Valley’s status. Almost on cue, garage start-up Apple Computer, under Steve Jobs’ visionary guidance, surfaced around 1977/78 right next-door in Cupertino and very successfully implemented the Apple II vision of semiconductor computing technology for the “masses.” This, while consistently attaching its renowned brand of imagination and excellence to the products Apple continues to produce. The iPhone concept/implementation has changed everything, has it not?

In closing, I should add that Stanford University was not an idle spectator to all of these world-changing developments after getting things started in the Valley. Rather, the University quite brilliantly adopted an active investment role and cultivated an on-going influence on many of these success stories, including even Shockley’s ill-fated effort. For starters, the school remains a long-time landlord, collecting rents on its numerous ninety-nine year property leases – prime Palo Alto property which was included in the original ninety-four hundred acre Stanford endowment. Stanford also rapidly expanded its engineering and computer science curriculum over the years, providing both personnel and expertise to the region.

When former Stanford engineering student Cyril Elwell (class of 1904) opened his Poulsen Wireless Telephone and Telegraph Company (a forerunner of radio) near the campus in 1908, he obtained a five-hundred dollar loan from Stanford’s first president, David Starr Jordan. Several of the faculty also invested. In that sense, Stanford can claim credit for the emergence of venture-capital financing which has long been so prominent in the Valley and so vital to start-up companies!

Poulsen Elwell Stock 1910_1001

This historic stock certificate from 1910 for over one million shares of Poulsen Wireless reflects Elwell’s founding interest in the newly organized company.

Many years later, in a newspaper article addressed “To the [SF?] Examiner,” Elwell wrote: “Your editorial …did not go far enough back in crediting Stanford University as the pioneer of the fast growing electronic and atomic eras.” Elwell proceeded to relate my account of the early history regarding Stanford’s influence on his fledgling company. Poulsen Wireless ultimately became Federal Telephone and Telegraph – a very long-standing company.

How often have you used the Google search-engine on your computer? Thank two former Stanford students who founded Google and provided the world a revolutionary way to search for (and locate) most any information one can imagine. The importance of Google search to enhancing the flow of vital information and collaboration for the worlds of tech and medicine can scarcely be overestimated. The list of similar examples involving Stanford’s influence is long and signficant.

Suffice to say, Stanford University has not built its huge endowment since opening its doors in 1891 by collecting tuition and room and board from its students. Look to Fred Terman and wise investing by the University to account for its continued funding – to the tremendous benefit of Stanford students in need of financial aid, to this Valley, to the state of California, and, without exaggeration, to all the world that depends on technology.

Such fame, fortune, and game-changing technology has happened within this regional neighborhood – in barely more than one human lifetime. There is a cost, of course, to all of this, and many choices will be required as we go forward. The region fairly hums today to the activity and progress within. Sadly, gone forever are tranquil afternoons amid the blossoms in the “Valley of Heart’s Delight.” The simple fact is this: this Valley is permanently changed, and so is the way we all live our lives because, in large part, of what took place, here.