Heritage of Innovation: Interview with Art Fong

Are there lessons we can learn from the people who innovated before us? The Heritage of Innovation podcasts are a series of interviews I will be conducting with people who created killer innovations that changed the world.  We will relive some great milestones in the history of technology and learn lessons on the nature of innovation from the people who were the driving force behind some of the world’s most important breakthroughs.


Art Fong, the 6th R&D lab employee of Hewlett-Packard, has a long and storied career as an inventor and innovator.  Attenuators designed by Art in 1959 were still listed in the Agilent Technologies catalog in 2005.  He and his wife, Mary, are also dedicated to education.  They established the Fong Family Scholarship Award to UC Berkeley engineering students demonstrating scholastic achievement and financial need.  Today, as part of our ongoing Heritage of Innovation series, I’d like to share some highlights from my interview with Art, some photos, as well as the full podcast.



Photo: Art demos the first police radar, built with surplus military parts, as Bill Hewlett and engineers watch.  

One of Art’s most important and interesting innovations was his contributions to radar technology. “While we were at MIT Labs we had talked about [a police radar] before with various people, but nobody had built one.  I got to HP [and one day] I was up in San Francisco in one of those surplus stores...I see all that x-band gear up there...and for fun I bought a parabola [and other supplies] 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 twenty 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.”

During his time at HP, Art often worked closely with Bill Hewlett.  One of his most memorable moments was with the company car, a Mercury station wagon.  “We had an IEEE meeting up in San Francisco once, and we were all in the station wagon.  We came up to a road that was just being built, and [they never] put the pavement in.  There were all sorts of [holes] and ruts.  And Bill says, ‘let’s see now, there must be a speed where I can just hit the tops of the bumps and it would be a smooth ride.’  We went all the way from 50 to 100mph.  He was a reckless driver!  We never did find that speed...”  

You can download the full podcast here or read more about Art’s history in this pre-interview Q&A. Be sure to check out some of the great photos from the interview here at our Flickr site.

Heritage of Innovation Preview: Excerpts from an Interview with Art Fong

In the last Heritage of Innovation podcast Phil McKinney spoke with Dave Cochran, who was part of the HP-35 calculator team.  For the next interview in the series, which will be posted soon, Phil interviews Art Fong, who was personally recruited by Bill Hewlett to Hewlett-Packard in 1946.


Prior to joining the HP team, Art had many groundbreaking achievements in his career.  He was a part of the development of the first AM/FM radio and radar technology, which became an integral part of the World War II efforts against the Axis. 


During his time at HP, Art made major engineering contributions to the company, with innovations such as impedance-measuring instruments, a line of signal generators, and the first calibrated microwave spectrum analyzer.  At one point, his innovations generated a staggering 30 percent of HP’s revenue.


He’s been a member of the U.S. National Security Agency advisory committee to improve digital data security.  Art also traveled to The People’s Republic of China with HP’s former CEO, John Young, to give lectures about the current state of technology.  He and his wife Mary Fong are also philanthropists through the Fong Family Scholarships for deserving Cal engineering students.  In addition to our interview, you can also watch a recent interview with Art and CBS Channel 5’s Sue Kwon


The following are excerpts of Phil’s interview with Art.




You’ve had extensive background of innovation, both before joining Hewlett-Packard and during your time at the company, and you’ve contributed to many milestones that had a great impact on the world.  Can you tell us about what inspires and motivates you when you’re developing new innovations?


I like to see how things work.  As a boy, when I would play at a pond in Sacramento my sail boat kept tipping over.  While at the library one day, I looked up sail boats and found they all had keels.  So I put a nail into the bottom of the boat, and it worked – the boat sailed upright.  When I was young I had built radios and transmitters, and I had lots of tinkering experience. 


We know that your help with the development of the radar was a significant contribution to the war efforts.  It must have been a very stressful time during the war- what were some of the challenges that you faced during the development phase, and how did you overcome it?


My contributions to radar are all in the microwave measurements area, because most measurements had never been worked on.  Very little information was available in literature and you had to search around to discover some leads.  There were about 3,000 members in the lab and if you were lucky you could get information from someone.  But most of the time, I had to dig it out for myself.  Fortunately, I was able to finish what I was working on because the projects had generous deadlines.  I never kept track of time; instead, I often worked 10-12 hours a day and on weekends.

How does it feel to be a part of and the reason for so many of the world’s most important technical achievements?


It feels great!  I love solving scientific problems - not emotional ones - and I see problems or something that needs improvements every day. 


What advice would you offer fellow innovators and engineers?


That is a tough one.  Every generation has different goals.  They are a lot more educated today.  But I would offer that when the going gets tough, go backpacking, fishing, skiing, so forth.  Relax.  It gives you a break when your problems are all mixed up in your cranium.  I found sudden answers while looking at the clouds, a falling star, or a fawn.  Thinking of problems while in a new environment often leads to a new path to the solution.


Be sure to check back soon for photos of the interview, as well as the full podcast coming soon!

Message Edited by Frosty on 07-21-2009 08:48 PM
Message Edited by Frosty on 07-28-2009 03:13 PM
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