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Russell, Sigurd Varian's Klystron Launched Us Into High

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Russell, Sigurd Varian's Klystron Launched Us Into High Frequency
- Investors.com

01:51 PM ET

As Russell and Sigurd Varian tested their klystron tube in 1939, the Palo Alto (Calif.) Times trumpeted, "New Stanford Radio Invention Heralds Revolutionary Changes."

Journalistic hyperbole?

More like the paper got it right.

Russell (left) and Sigurd Varian with their klystron tube, which broke the microwave barrier and boosted a revolution in cellphones, Wi-Fi and GPS.... View Enlarged Image

"The invention of the klystron in 1937 was the single most important event in the development of microwave (short radio wave) tube technology," wrote Norman Pond in "The Tube Guys." "The klystron directly led to the invention of microwave radar. ... This capability became the Allies' single most important technological advantage during (World War II) and directly affected the outcome."

"The (klystron) tube was the first practical source of microwaves, and its invention initiated a search for increasingly more powerful sources, which continues to this day," wrote George Caryotakis in his 1997 paper "The Klystron: A Microwave Source of Surprising Range and Endurance."

That search led to microwave-based technology in cellphones, GPS devices, Wi-Fi and microwave ovens. Today the klystron tube can boost signals so much, they can be transmitted to other planets.

"Klystrons ... amplify low power microwave signals up to higher power, much higher power," Bob Fickett, president of Communications & Power Industries, formerly Electron Devices Business of Varian Associates, told IBD. "The amplification can be as high as 100,000 times the level of the input signal."

Big Connection

Varians' Keys
They combined problem solving, knowledge of physics, mechanical skills and entrepreneurial drive to invent the klystron microwave amplifier.
Overcame: Poverty, dyslexia, serious illnesses.
Lesson: Vision and collaboration of complementary skill sets can produce next-level results.
"Sig had been the other party to Russell's thought processes for so many years that he was one of the few people who could follow his reasoning and could build just about anything Russell proposed. They made an extraordinary team," said Dorothy Varian.
Michael Fazio, associate director at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, Calif., said: "Klystrons are the high-power RF (radio frequency) source of choice where nothing else will work. We depend heavily on radar systems and satellite systems powered by klystrons."

Fickett notes some of the projects for which CPI makes klystrons:

• Satellite broadcast systems of major TV and Internet providers.

• Radar systems aboard satellites such as NASA's CloudSat Earth observation vehicle.

• Military radar systems, such as Aegis, Phalanx and Hawk.

• Scientific linear accelerators (linacs) such as the Linac4 used at the European Organization for Nuclear Research on the Large Hadron Collider. This generates subatomic-particle collisions to help physicists understand matter and the origins of the universe.

• Varian Medical Systems' High Energy Clinac radiation therapy machines for cancer treatment.

All from an invention by brothers who are hardly household names.

Russell (1898-1959) and Sigurd (1901-61) Varian were the eldest sons of Irish immigrants.

Russell was born in Washington, D.C., and Sig in Syracuse, N.Y.

By 1902, it was westward for the Varians — to Palo Alto, Calif.

Early on, the family nurtured plans for Russell — the thinker — to invent something that Sigurd — the tinkerer — would build.

The example of an uncle, who had patented photolithographic processes, served as inspiration.

"For boys like Sig and Russell, who were from a poverty-stricken background, inventing something that would make money for them seemed like the only way to really get ahead," wrote Russell's wife, Dorothy Varian, in "The Inventor and the Pilot."

Though curious and with an excellent memory, Russell was dyslexic. Teased as ignorant by classmates, he failed four grades.

A Stanford University professor helped him overcome his disability, but Russell always read slowly.

Russell was nearly 17 when he started high school, 21 when he entered Stanford. After flunking a key exam, he was bedridden with a serious infection, then worked to pay hospital bills. He finally finished his undergraduate degree at 27.

After completing his master's in physics, Russell looked for six months before landing a job. His first patent came for a device that located oil. Then he hooked up with TV inventor Philo Farnsworth, patenting 11 inventions.

Sigurd's route was through California Polytechnic State University. After dropping out, he joined Southern California Edison, worked on power lines, spotted an airfield, bought a plane, became a barnstormer and by age 28 was in Mexico flying for Pan Am.

All the while, the Varian boys corresponded about inventions.

In 1935, Sig moved with his family back to California, and soon the brothers had a solid idea. Sig's flights over unmapped terrain had pinpointed the need for safer navigation instruments. And flying near the Panama Canal got him worried about that strategic area's vulnerability to enemy air attack.

Russell knew that a system to locate airplanes or navigate in low visibility required high-frequency (short) radio waves because increasing a wave's frequency increases its transmission accuracy.

The Answer

But how to produce high power at high frequency?

Fortunately, his friend Bill Hansen already had invented a resonator for this and let Russell use it in what became the klystron.

In exchange for splitting any returns on their invention, Stanford gave the Varians $100 in materials, plus access to a lab, equipment and faculty consultation.

In June 1937, Russell hit on the klystron's key: the velocity grouping principle of electrons. He compared it to cars bunching and flowing in traffic, and it solved the problem of high-frequency failure.

After Hansen and the brothers worked out math and design issues, Sig built the device. By August, Sig had it working, demonstrating their invention's validity.

The klystron needed more money and better equipment for improvements. And the Varians, living off their savings, needed pay.

Stanford made a deal with Sperry Corporation for exclusive klystron patent rights in exchange for annual research-and-development grants of up to $25,000. Russell and Sig got $208 a month ($3,430 today).

By 1941, Sperry moved most klystron research to Long Island. The Varians, Hansen and other klystron researchers relocated to New York for six years.

British scientists who read about the Varians' klystron then developed a transmitter for airplanes: the cavity magnetron.

Beating The Axis

Microwave radar was crucial in the Allies' World War II victory, giving them an edge over Nazi and Japanese capabilities.

In "The Invention That Changed the World," Robert Buderi noted that after the Germans analyzed a microwave aerial set from a downed British plane in 1943, Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering declared, "We must frankly admit that in this sphere the British and Americans are far ahead of us. I expected them to be advanced, but frankly I never thought they would get so far ahead."

While working at Sperry during and after the war, Sig in particular paid attention to klystron projects too small for Sperry, but perfect for a startup company.

In 1948, he, Russell, Hansen and a few other researchers founded Varian Associates in California with $23,000 in equipment and startup capital. Soon they secured a contract for making klystrons for use in guided missiles.

Russell landed 69 patents, 40 related to the klystron. An avid outdoorsman, he died of a heart attack on a 1959 trip to Alaska. He was 61.

Two years later, Sig was flying equipment to his second home in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, when his plane crashed in an emergency landing. He was 60.

A remarkable partnership ended, but the Varians' legacy endures.

Varian Associates, which developed four main divisions, grew to $1.5 billion in annual sales by 1998.

Its device group operates today as CPI, with annual revenue of $420 million.

In 2009, Agilent Technologies (NYSE:A) acquired instrument maker Varian Inc. for $1.5 billion. In 2011, Applied Materials (NASDAQ:AMAT) bought Varian Semiconductor for $5 billion.

Varian Medical Systems (NYSE:VAR), which uses klystrons in radiation therapy devices, had $3 billion in sales last year.

"The klystron is responsible for curing many cases of cancer each year and has helped NASA put men on the moon," said Fickett. "Klystrons were essential in discovering the Higgs boson (a subatomic particle that physicists theorize gives our world form). These things would not have been possible without the klystron."





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