Remembering Art Fong

Keysight looks back at “Mr. Microwave”

Art Fong

Art Fong

July 24, 2012 – Keysight salutes the life of Art Fong, who passed away earlier this year. Although Art retired from Hewlett-Packard before Agilent was launched, he is a critical part of our company’s history. Art was the sixth R&D engineer hired by HP in the 1940s and the company’s first Asian-American employee. When he passed away, his memorial service was hosted at Agilent headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif.

Over his long career, Art was responsible for many of the inventions and innovations behind Agilent’s current measurement technologies. In the mid 1960s, 27 percent of HP’s total revenue came from his designs. Attenuators that he designed in 1959 were still listed in Agilent’s 2005 product catalog. These accomplishments earned him the HP nickname “Mr. Microwave.”

“Art’s career at HP is legendary,” says John Minck, a fellow HP engineer and the company’s unofficial historian. “From a long list of signal generators across the microwave spectrum to the blockbuster HP 8551A spectrum analyzer, Art’s project leadership was unparalleled in microwave test equipment annals.

“His decades at Hewlett-Packard gave HP significant revenues, which helped enormously in the company’s stellar growth in the mid-20th century.”

“Art was a role model for all HP engineers,” says retired Agilent CEO Ned Barnholt. “He was smart, innovative and a team player who was always willing to help others. He was also down to earth and a real nice guy. He will be missed.”

A lifetime of contribution

HP 8551 spectrum analyzer

HP 8551 spectrum analyzer

Art Fong was born in Sacramento, Calif., in 1920, the son of Chinese immigrants. He was expected to follow his father in the family’s grocery business, but instead he went to college at the University of California in Los Angeles and in Berkeley.

While Art was attending UC Berkeley, the United States entered World War II. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1943, Art moved to Boston to fulfill his Navy commission. He did research for the U.S. Department of Defense at the MIT Radiation Laboratory, where he contributed to the development of radar.

Another California technologist, Bill Hewlett, was serving in the Army Signal Corps and heard of Art’s radar work. In 1946, after the end of the war, Bill visited Art and offered him a job at Bill’s small startup, Hewlett-Packard. The deal was finalized that evening with a handshake. Art never even asked about salary until he showed up for his first day of work in California.

Art served HP for the next 50 years—40 years as an employee until he retired, followed by 10 years as a consultant. Over that time, he made significant engineering contributions to HP and the measurement industry, including impedance-measuring instruments, a line of signal generators, and the first calibrated microwave spectrum analyzer.

An invention ahead of its time

Police Radar

Police Radar

Among Art’s most important and interesting innovations were his contributions to radar technology.

“While we were at MIT Labs we had talked about [a police radar] with various people, but nobody had built one,” Art recalled in a 2009 interview. “I got to HP [and one day] I was up in San Francisco in one of those surplus stores. I saw all that x-band gear up there, and for fun I bought a parabola to build one.

“One coffee break we all went outside and I wanted to show the radar. Hewlett even joined us for a bit and said, ‘That’s real nice, Art, but we don’t want to make something like that. We’re in the instrument business.’

“It was about 20 years later before the commercial police radar came out. Of course, they’re a lot smaller. The one I made just helped prove that the idea was there.”

From the HP blog, “The Next Bench.”

“Dad loved working for HP,” Art’s daughter Sheryl recalls. “It was the perfect place for someone who was smart, creative and hardworking and was given the freedom to work on a project to its completion.”

Throughout his life, Art remained modest about his many contributions. “I was just one of the guys,” he said about his years at HP. “What drives me is I like to see something work.”

Art and his wife, Mary, established scholarships and fellowships for UC Berkeley and Stanford. Their many philanthropic contributions went to places such as the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, Stanford Hospital and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital.

Art passed away peacefully at his home on May 17, 2012, at the age of 92.

A celebration of life

Art’s memorial service included his wife of 69 years, his four children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Guests also included many long-time employees of HP and Agilent.

“Art never changed, he never seemed to age,” said retired HP Vice President Paul Ely. “Throughout his life he continued to exemplify integrity, trust and the best of the HP Way. Art brought peace, calm and laughter to all around him. It’s no wonder he was so widely admired.”

“His engineering style was always helpful, his vision clear and concise,” John Minck recalled. “I still remember Art, when asked a typically uninformed marketing question by me, would pull out pencil and paper and in a very small script and diagrams lead me to the right answer for a customer.”

“I was at the management meeting where [HP Manufacturing Vice President] Bruce Wholey was forecasting the size of the spectrum analyzer market,” said Alan Bagley, another coworker. “He wanted to show that Art’s new instrument would be very profitable if it only reached 40 percent of the market.

“A year or two later, HP had reached 300 percent of that projected market number. What Art had done was redefine what a spectrum analyzer was. The Hewlett-Packard Company had to form a new division to handle the business.”

Interesting facts

HP Team Visiting China

HP Team Visiting China

  • Art had the same birthday—February 11—as famed inventor Thomas Edison.
  • Art had no plans to attend college. One of his high school teachers, convinced of Art’s potential, applied to UCLA for him.
  • While working at MIT during WWII, Art also moonlighted at the Browning Laboratories, where he developed the first AM/FM radio receiver.
  • As the first Asian-American technologist in Silicon Valley, Art faced many cultural barriers. In 1946, it was illegal for Chinese-Americans to rent or buy property in desirable areas of Palo Alto, Calif. Art had to purchase his property near the city limits.
  • Art didn’t earn a master’s degree in electrical engineering until 1968, from Stanford University.
  • In 1979, Art went with HP President John Young to the just-opened People’s Republic of China as a technology lecturer. He would return to China three more times to help the country come up to speed on engineering innovations.

One of the best stories came from Art’s grandson, Christopher Wong, about a time his grandfather was caught speeding:

“Grandpa was ‘coasting’ probably around 75 or 80 miles per hour down this stretch, and sure enough there was a highway patrol officer waiting at the bottom to catch us.

Art Fong with his HP Badge

Art Fong with his HP Badge

“After stopping us, the female patrol officer walked up to the door and asked Grandpa, ‘Hi, sir, do you know how fast you were going?’ to which he responded innocently, ‘I don’t know officer, but it was probably a little fast.’ She pulled out her radar gun and it showed his speed limit easily being over the 45 mile per hour limit for the road.

“He smiled. ‘Hey, did you know I helped invent radar?’ he said very matter-of-factly.

“She looked at him skeptically. ‘Yeah, I’m sure you did.’

“Well, this was Grandpa’s cue, and he launched into his back story about his time as a young engineer at MIT in the midst of WWII working on secret projects, complete with details, all while she started to write him up a ticket. She nodded courteously as he went on with the story, but clearly she wasn’t buying it as an excuse out of the ticket.

“As he wrapped up the story, she handed him the ticket. She said, ‘That’s a nice story, sir. Here’s your ticket. You’ll receive further notice of instructions in the mail in two to three weeks.’
“‘What, you don’t believe me?’ my grandpa replied, exasperated.

“‘Uh, no. But I wrote you a ticket for speeding 50 in a 45 zone, rather than 75 in a 45 zone, since you were so entertaining.’”

Agilent History Timeline

200 Audio Oscillator Exhibit

Watts November 1945

Watts November 1945

Prototype 200 from 1938: External View

Prototype 200 from 1938: External View

Prototype 200 from 1938: Internal View

Prototype 200 from 1938: Internal View

Note from Bill to Dave 1938

Note from Bill to Dave 1938

“In the late 1930’s audio-frequency oscillators were expensive, complicated to use and had problems with instability and distortion. Bill Hewlett’s solution was to use a light bulb in a Wein-Bridge oscillator circuit to regulate the output of the circuit without causing distortion.”

The 200A Audio Oscillator was our company’s first test and measurement product. Developed during the 1930’s it was cornerstone of the “garage-based” Hewlett-Packard Company. After splitting off from HP in 1999 Agilent likewise traces it test and measurement roots back to this first instrument.

In the late 1930’s audio-frequency oscillators were expensive, complicated to use and had problems with instability and distortion. Bill Hewlett’s solution was to use a light bulb in a Wein-Bridge oscillator circuit to regulate the output of the circuit without causing distortion. The result of this design was the 200A, which was more accurate, smaller, easier to use and less expensive than those of their competitors.

The audio oscillator itself was an instrument for generating alternating currents within the audio spectrum. As an “audio” oscillator it was designed to produce audio frequencies (or normal sound waves) within its range. In the case of the 200A this was 35 to 35,000 cps [cycles per second].

200A Audio Oscillator Production model for 1939

200A Audio Oscillator Production model for 1939

In an article in the company newsletter, Watts Current, from November 1945 a few applications of the 200A were described. The most typical was to produce a steady signal to test radio loud-speakers and the audio amplifier section of radio receivers. Other applications mentioned was the instrument’s use for geological surveys done by the oil industry, to test the strength and speed of aircraft propellers, and in one case it was used to shake a concrete block to determine its strength and durability. Probably the best know application was actually for the model 200B and this was for its use on [the soundtrack] of the movie Fantasia.The 200 series audio oscillator was a remarkable instrument. Launching the company it was introduced in 1939 and continued to be manufactured until 1953 when it was discontinued in favor of the new model 200CD which replaced it. In this form the 200 series audio oscillator remained in the product until May of 1985 when the model number was finally retired.

HP5340 Auto Frequency Counter

Fig. 1: HP Journal Cover

Fig. 1: HP Journal Cover

Fig. 2: Block Diagram of the 5340

Fig. 2: Block Diagram of the 5340

Fig. 3: Image from final appearance in the 1994 HP Catalog

Fig. 3: Image from final appearance in the 1994 HP Catalog

Measuring frequencies from low audio all the way to microwave has always required many different counters or counter plug-ins, a good deal of range switching and cable changing, and at least -7 dBm (100 mV) of signal. Not any more…”

This quote from the April 1973 issue of the Hewlett-Packard Journal described the company’s newest and most innovative frequency counter of its time. As seen in the image right, the HP5340 was featured on that issues cover. The cover also shows the instruments power splitter and two wide band thin-film hybrid samplers.

Developed at the Santa Clara Division, it was introduced in 1972 and brought automatic, precise frequency measurement to the microwave community for the first time. With a range of 10Hz to 18GHz it cost $5,340 at the time of its introduction in 1972 and remained in production for 22 years.

Among its features the HP5340 was also compatible with the new HP Interface Bus system that allowed it to be integrated into an automatic measurement system of up to 15 devices.

The article in the HP Journal was written by the HP5340’s project manager, Dick Schneider. His key collaborators on the project were Roy Van Tuyl and Al Foster. The team (seen here in 1972) responsible for its development included Jerry Merkelo and Bob Hall who developed the thin-film sampler; Art Bloedorn who developed the phase-lock loop; Al Foster for his work on the bus interface design; Rory Van Tuyl for the design of the sampler driver, VCO’s and direct count amplifiers; Bob Maldewin for the power supply design; Glen Elsea for the mechanical design; and Dick Goo who worked as the engineering aide and technician for the project.

5340 Team from 1972

5340 Team from 1972

Although the HP5340 was discontinued in 1994 it’s many years in production serve as a testimony of the strength of its design.