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Reflections on Barney Oliver, founding director of HP Labs


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All stories revolving around great technological advances are ultimately stories about people. It is through stories that humans best transmit insight into the timeless and indispensable nature of the spirit of inquiry. In the new HP, keeping alive the stories of our common history can help us both honor our individual pasts and focus on the potential of our combined future. Believe that together we can do anything.

Dr. Bernard (Barney) Oliver in 1973 — Barney was director of research and development at HP for three decades.

Barney Oliver, the founding director of Hewlett-Packard Laboratories (HP Labs) was fond of saying that he never worked a day in his life. Never mind that he spent 12 pioneering years at Bell Labs, 29 years at HP and a decade at the helm of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

Barney's keen intellect and no-nonsense approach to life earned him a reputation for being occasionally impatient and brusque. But he also possessed the ability to wax poetic when it came to his chosen field. "Electrical Engineering has been a huge inland sea adorned with countless hidden coves and inlets," he said. "Every year I've sailed that sea, exploring one cove then another with great delight."

His explorations of the sea of technology resulted in a treasure trove of invention and innovation that catapulted Barney and HP onto the world technology stage. Bill Hewlett — along with many others — regarded him as one of the greatest applied scientists of the 20th century. Barney was a prolific inventor, holding more than 50 patents, and a visionary responsible for advancements in science that shaped generations of scientists and engineers.

It was during Barney's tenure at HP — from 1952 through 1981 — that the company produced industry-wide revolutions, established itself as an icon of excellence in research and development and shaped the face of business in what is now called the Silicon Valley. The central labs — established in 1966 and led by Barney — became the birthplace of a long list of now-legendary products emerging during this era. These included:

  • The HP 2116A, the company's first computer;
  • The HP 9100A, the first scientific desktop programmable calculator; and
  • The HP 35, the first scientific handheld calculator.

April 2002, marked the 50th anniversary of Barney's arrival at HP, an occasion that invites this generation of the new HP to reflect on the accomplishments of one of the early giants responsible for the company's ascendance to greatness.

Much of the content of this reflection is gleaned from the HP Archives and interviews Barney held with Babbage Institute oral historian, Arthur L. Norberg, in 1985 and 1986, and Dave Kirby, retired HP Corporate Communications director, in 1991.

Full moon rising

Barney (left) checks out a new scope in 1965 at HP Labs along with Peter Lacy.

Bernard More Oliver, nicknamed Barney, was the offspring of a civil engineer and an avant-garde schoolteacher. His parents, Margaret More and William "Pat" Oliver, met while they were both students at the University of California, Berkeley. Following graduation, Pat began his practice of civil engineering in Santa Cruz County and Margaret, before embarking on a teaching career, returned to Berkeley and became one of the first women to earn a master's degree from that university. The year was 1907.

Upon their marriage, the Olivers situated themselves on the family farm near the sleepy California coastal town of Santa Cruz. Their only child entered the world on May 27, 1916.

Curious, even as a toddler, Barney demonstrated an immediate and keen interest in his surroundings. A family story recounts a crisp February evening in 1917, when Margaret hoisted the 9-month-old onto her hip and carried him into the garden. She noticed that a full moon rising had captured the attention of the child. Following his skyward gaze, she offered him a word. "Moon," Margaret said.

"Moon," Barney repeated. It was his first spoken word.

Recalling the twilight stroll 60 years later, she would speculate that on that evening outer space had exerted its first tug on her baby son. Before long, that tug snowballed into a gravitational pull that changed the course of little Barney's life and influenced the direction of technology for the lion's share of the 20th century.

The wonder years

When Barney was four, a local shortage of elementary teachers compelled Margaret to return to teaching. Lacking childcare, she took her son along to her one-room schoolhouse.

"I guess the original intention was that I should sit quietly by," he later recalled. "But that wasn't in my nature. The first thing I knew, I found myself on the bench in the front of the class reciting along with the rest of the first grade."

Barney never relinquished that position at the head of the class. By the time he entered high school, he was three years ahead of his peer group, a situation that — by his own admission — resulted in a severely limited social life during these formative years. This isolation, combined with his status as an only child, drove him to invent games or just to sit and think about how things worked to pass the time.

A favorite pastime involved his father's surveying transit. Barney was interested in the stars and Pat would take his son out and show him the craters of the moon and the satellites of Jupiter through the telescopic piece on the device. It was Barney's introduction to astronomy.

By age 9, Barney was devouring books on astronomy and science his parents brought him to keep his restless mind occupied. When he was 11, Amazing Stories, a popular science-fiction magazine, captured his attention. Reflecting on the discovery of the magazine — which he religiously read cover to cover — he laid claim to being one of the very first sci-fi fans. Although his mother may have hoped for Barney to choose a career in music or art, there was never a doubt in the youngster's mind that science and the stars were his calling.

Cal-Tech and back

Barney (left) demonstrating the HP 9100A programmable desktop computer in 1968. Capable of calculating trigonometric, hyperbolic and logarithmic functions, it rendered the noisy mechanical calculators and tables of functions — used by engineers of the time — obsolete.
Showing a predilection for the sciences, Barney branched out from astronomy, which he supposed could not earn him a living, and discovered that engineering could be fun. Coupling this interest with a love of music, he built a high-fidelity speaker system while he was barely in his teens. In incremental steps this interest in sound reproduction led him to study radio, then on to amateur (short wave) radio and eventually radio engineering.

Following his interests, he set sail for a remarkable voyage through science that would last all of his life. At 15, he graduated high school and was accepted into the freshman class at California Institute of Technology (Caltech), in Pasadena, California.

During that first year at Caltech, he discovered there were gaps in his preparation and had to work hard to catch up. The teenager was a bit scared but also stimulated to be in a college where the standards were high. "I remember being very tired," he later said. "And having to work like hell to keep afloat."

Barney had something of a revelation in his second-year Mechanics of Physics course when he discovered what he called a graphic realization of the forces at play. "Suddenly it all began to be clear to me what was involved," he said. "And it was very rewarding to feel that, to feel I understood it and knew it. The whole world was beginning to make a lot of sense."

Following two intense years at Caltech, the double attraction of radio engineering and a leading-edge professor named Fred Terman were strong enough to pull Barney north to Stanford University, near Palo Alto, California, in his junior year. Terman had written "Radio Engineering," the definitive textbook for the nascent field and Barney wanted to take Terman's classes.

Terman's boys

Dave Packard first became aware of Barney Oliver in Terman's classes at Stanford. "In the fall quarter of my senior year at Stanford," Dave said, "I enrolled in Professor Terman's graduate Radio Engineering course. I was the first undergraduate allowed in.

It was common for Barney to set up seminars and work with his engineers to even out areas of technical disparity. For a time, he also occasionally lectured at Stanford University.

"A junior from Caltech asked if he could also take this class, and Professor Terman allowed him to do so with stipulation that if he failed in the first midquarter examination he would have to drop out. Barney not only had the highest grade in that examination, he also got the highest grade in the class in every examination that year," Dave mused.

One particular group of students in Terman's class — "the boys" as he called them — began to plot their professional futures. The group, consisting of Dave, Bill and Ed Porter (Porter eventually became an HP vice president) explored ideas of striking out after graduating, forming their own company and having Barney join them. But Dave got a job offer with General Electric, wanted to get some experience under his belt and decided to accept the job. It would be 1952 before the foursome was back working together in Palo Alto.

Barney received his Bachelor of Science in 1935 from Stanford. He was only 19 and still felt that he was missing the scientific support for engineering. So he returned to Caltech in order to gain the grounding he felt he needed. At Caltech, Barney completed both his master's and doctorate in electrical engineering — graduating magna cum laude — and became Dr. Oliver at the age of 24.

Bell Labs

Barney held more than 60 U.S. patents. Shown here (left to right) in 1967 with Bill and Arthur C. Clark, science fiction writer and author of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Clark claimed the HP 9100A bore an uncanny resemblance to the calculator he sketched on a doodle pad while dreaming of what an engineer would really like.

Through contacts forged during his Caltech post-graduate work, Barney landed a job offer directly out of Caltech at the prestigious Bell Laboratories. There was never any doubt he would take it. "In those days," Barney said, "if you got an offer from Bell Labs, you didn't think twice."

His research group's charter was to establish transmission standards for the fledgling field of television. Barney's job was to eliminate geometric distortion and ensure a clear picture transmission to the pick-up device, a Farnsworth dissector. It was during this effort that Barney filed for and was granted his first patent on a set of coils that guaranteed uniform fields in the dissector tube and delivered a high-quality picture.

With the onset of World War II, the television work was suspended and his group went to work on another new technology, automatic tracking radar. During the course of the war years, Barney made a number of significant contributions to the development of air-to-air and shipboard radar systems adding to his patent portfolio.

After the war, the group retrained their attention on television standards. Among Barney's contributions were a non-linear amplifier system that would be key in making color TV possible, and collaboration on pulse-code modulation circuit theory that paved the way for high-speed digital transmission systems that are in use today.

In 1951, while Barney was working on the possibilities of compressing television signals, his former college chum, Bill Hewlett, approached him about coming back out to California and joining the burgeoning Hewlett-Packard Company.

Typical of his focused style, Barney turned Bill down. Bill's response was, "Well, okay, I understand, but you're not off the hook yet." Barney spent another year on the project before concluding that what he was trying to do was — for the moment — beyond the state of the art.

A new era begins

Bill Hewlett (right), shown here with Barney in 1972, described him as a bigger than life figure who was both a valued colleague and dear friend for more than 50 years.

Since Bill and Barney maintained friendly contact, it was a fairly simple matter for Barney to take his friend up on the offer to return to California. On April 1, 1952, Bernard More Oliver assumed his duties as HP's first Director of Research and Development.

There were no organizational charts or job descriptions in those days. Rather than laying out a set of goals to accomplish, Barney was guided — in what he characterized as a friendly way — by Dave and Bill to familiarize himself with the programs they were working on. His job was to scout and coordinate opportunities for new research areas that would lead to new products and business.

Barney found the working arrangement refreshing after the more formal customs of Bell. Disillusioned with the disconnect between idea and execution for non-telephony inventions, Barney enjoyed the excitement of working within a company staking its future on ideas and moving them swiftly to prototype and then on to production.

"I was very pleased with the spirit of HP when I first came," he said. "In those early years, we'd always collect at the end of the week at the Heidelberg and drink a few beers and review the week. It was very much a family atmosphere and a very positive attitude that pervaded the company in those days. Everybody felt part of the act."

But though the ambiance was collaborative and friendly, there was never any doubt as to the seriousness of each person's task and the importance of their work to the success of the company.

"There's nothing that makes a team work better than to realize that people respect you and count on you," Barney said. "Everybody knew you were there and everybody expected you to produce and by God, you would get up early to do it."

Barney told a story about his early days in the company illustrating this point. "I was in on a Saturday checking on the progress of a few projects that had fallen a bit behind schedule," he said, "and I encountered Dave just coming out of the lab. When I said 'Hi Dave,' he asked, 'When are we going to get some products out of this lab?'

"I started to explain, 'Well, I know there are some things lagging' and he just asked me, 'Are you going to give me a lot of excuses or are you going to get something done?'"

Barney laughingly concluded the story by saying he pulled himself up straight, saluted and said, "Yes sir! Yes sir!

"I would no more have dreamed of arguing with that man when he said something like that because he exemplified the behavior he wanted in you," Barney added.

Barney made good on his promise to Dave. From 1952 to 1965, the number of HP products swelled from 100 to roughly 1,500. They included signal generators, vacuum tube volt-meters, pulse generators, oscilloscopes, and microwave test equipment that included not only signal generators but detectors, slotted lines, wave guide components and spectrum analyzers.

Building world-class labs

As the company grew, the strategy was to decentralize into separate, profit-center divisions. Each of these divisions had its own product line and was spun off into its own geographically distinct location. As the spin off took place, each division took the appropriate engineering and R&D people from the original labs.

After some consideration of whether a central lab was necessary, management concluded that it was. In 1966, Barney became the Director of HP Labs. Its charter was to serve as a sentinel for new technologies, developments and fields for HP where existing expertise combined with forward-looking ideas could lead to new businesses.

This arrangement allowed the businesses to further develop their own product lines while the corporate labs explored entirely new areas and created a reservoir of scientific, technological and engineering talent to draw upon as a resource. Where the businesses were more bottom-line and profit oriented, Barney took the labs in the direction of research activities that would produce ideas benefiting the corporation in the long term. This strategic move contributed directly to HP's entry into the computer and calculator businesses during Barney's tenure.

While the businesses were autonomous, Barney and HP Labs were not operating in a vacuum. He had a coordination function with the divisions as well. "I was expected to go around the circuit annually and review the product programs of all the divisions," he said, "and if I found overlap to call that to their attention." He also had product review responsibility along with Bill and Dave and other top managers. After the review, he would make recommendations that the divisions, due to their autonomous natures, were not compelled to accept. But if they didn't and they should have, they would have to answer to top management for the error in judgment.

In a very real sense, Barney became the architect of HP's long-term technical thrust. He had a dual love of science and engineering although he saw their functions and contributions as quite distinct. "The role of science," Barney believed, "is to discover the laws of nature and how they operate in complex systems. The role of engineering is to apply the discoveries of science to human needs. Scientists make discoveries that increase our understanding of the world. Engineers make inventions intended to increase our productivity (and thereby our standard of living), our mobility, and (it is hoped) our ability to survive."

One of his proudest achievements, both as a scientist and as an engineer, came in 1986 when he was awarded the prestigious National Medal of Science for his work in shepherding the development of the scientific handheld calculator.

Too energetic to confine himself only one job description, Barney became a vice president of HP and served as a member of its board of directors. Outside of the company, he was elected to the Palo Alto School Board, served as vice president and later as president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and was appointed to the U.S. President's Commission on the Patent System — all while steering HP toward greatness.

Joel Birnbaum, Barney's successor at HP Labs, described him as, "A towering intelligence driving his staff — as he did himself — to do their very best.

"He created a tone for an institution," Joel continued, "with an insistence on excellence, a drive to be different, to be better, always in ways that added real value."

Bill Hewlett later wrote, "Barney brought great enthusiasm and the ability to focus his enormous intellect and technical knowledge to achieving the most effective design and development of HP products. He served as a mentor to countless designers and engineers, whom he taught how to convert their theoretical knowledge into simple and elegant designs."

For the 15 years that he served as the HP Labs director, his technical focus and leadership inspired inventions and innovation that brought HP to world prominence. The advances in instrumentation pouring out of HP Labs under his watch resulted in products that equipped a generation of engineers and scientists destined to fuel the electronics explosion.

After nearly three decades of leading HP's product development, Barney decided to retire from HP Labs in 1981.

An eye toward the sky

Barney pursued a lifelong interest in astronomy and made major monetary contributions to the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy. The Institute used Barney's challenge grant funds to build the observatory at Chew's Ridge, near Carmel, California. It is named the Oliver Station in his honor.

Unwilling to rest on his laurels, unable to slake an unquenchable passion for scientific inquiry, Barney returned to an old love in a new era, radio astronomy.

Back in 1971, while on leave from HP Labs, he co-directed a summer study at NASA's Ames Research Center examining the technology required to do an effective search for technological civilizations elsewhere in the universe. It was called Project Cyclops, after the creature in Greek mythology possessing a single gigantic eye. The resulting report provided an analysis of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) science and technology issues that became the foundation upon which much subsequent SETI work has been based.

His concept of a phased array of antennas had helped to catalyze Project Cyclops, so it was with an insatiable appetite for exploration that he turned his eyes back skyward. From 1983 through 1993 he headed the NASA SETI office at Ames working with such trailblazers as Frank Drake, Carl Sagan and Jill Tarter.

When congressional activities dammed the flow of funds to the project in 1994, Barney was instrumental in spearheading the acquisition of philanthropic funding to continue part of the search as Project Phoenix, named for the mythological bird, which rose from its own ashes. Two of his old friends, Bill and Dave, were the first to infuse funds into the newly privatized SETI. In 1994, he became a member of the board of directors of the SETI Institute and at the same time he served as advisor to Project Phoenix.

Barney Oliver passed from the world November 23, 1995. Vibrant and energetic at the age of 79, he was still actively pursuing SETI interests to the end. In a memorial address Paul Shuch, Executive Director of SETI at the time, spoke not only for Barney's colleagues in search of intelligent life elsewhere but for all those who participated with him in the search for excellence within. "It is impossible," Shuch said, "to offer an adequate tribute to the man who taught all of us how to dream. It will be difficult ever dreaming at so grand a scale without him."

A thoughtful postscript

Barney Oliver was an unusually powerful mathematician for an engineer, and this capability, coupled with his deep understanding of how things worked, allowed him to get to the bottom of a startlingly wide range of engineering problems with great speed and unusual perspective. This mathematical prowess powered his many contributions in signal processing, information theory, and the design of antennas and telescope arrays.

There are many stories of Barney supporting an unpopular effort in the company or being a naysayer on a popular one. This was a major reason why he could be right so much of the time.

In addition to the calculating and computing devices often named as Barney's seminal contributions, it is important to remember that there were a plethora of test and measurement instruments started on his watch. After all, HP was primarily an instrument company for most of his reign.

In several cases, these instruments created entirely new ways of making measurements, and led to major HP businesses and even entirely new divisions. The list included:

  • Capillary electrophoresis for analytical chemistry determinations;
  • Time domain reflectometry;
  • Laser interferometric surveying transits; and
  • Electronic fetal monitors;

Then add the inkjet printer, the laser printer and the grit wheel plotter and the enormity of his influence on the future direction of the company becomes quite clear.

Finally, any article on Barney wouldn't be complete without mentioning his obsession with the English language — its grammar and proper usage were of such concern to him that he wrote a book, Modern English Misusage, after he retired, now published posthumously. It is a true masterpiece, and displays the precision, humor, and breadth of an extraordinary mind.

Joel S. Birnbaum
Senior Technical Advisor, HP


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