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Inventor whose oscilloscopes played key role in the electronic age

Charles Howard Vollum ’36, trustee

A picture of Howard Vollum

Howard Vollum works on a Tektronix oscilloscope, circa 1950. Courtesy of Special Collections, Eric V. Hauser Memorial Library, Reed College.

Electronics pioneer, philanthropist, and one of Reed's truest friends, Howard Vollum died February 3, 1986.

“Howard was as good and decent a human being as one could hope to know,” said Reed president Paul Bragdon [1971–88]. “He had an unselfconscious, spontaneous recognition of the dignity of other human beings... modest, humble, down-to-earth, independent, and original in his thinking, and curious, endlessly curious, to the end of his days.”

A creative scientist with a talent for working with people, Howard was a key figure in the field of electronics. The revolutionary new oscilloscopes he developed became essential pieces of equipment in a vast array of industries, and Tektronix, the company he co-founded, is often considered the first high-tech company in Oregon, and frequently credited with seeding the so-called "silicon forest."

Born in Portland, Howard initially attended Columbia University (University of Portland) then transferred to Reed, where he majored in physics. During his junior year, he designed and built a new kind of cathode-ray oscilloscope, an instrument that that measures electrical signals. He refined this device for his thesis, "A Stable Beat Frequency Oscillator Equipped with a Direct Reading Frequency Meter," written with his adviser, Prof. Marcus O'Day [physics 1926–45].

Howard served in the US Army Signal Corps during WWII, where he worked on developing radar for artillery targeting. After the war, Howard founded Tektronix, together with M.J. (Jack) Murdock, which quickly became the foremost manufacturer of precision oscilloscopes in the world. Many Tektronix associates credit Howard with personally creating the intellectually charged atmosphere that encouraged personal growth and attracted the best engineering minds to the company. The motto he chose for the company was “Committed to Excellence.”

As the Oregonian eulogized, "Vollum liked to stimulate and make a difference." Howard and Murdock realized early on that lock-step procedures and management techniques had no place at Tektronix. They were responsible for a number of enlightened innovations, including employee profit-sharing plans, elimination of the time clock, and a willingness to promote senior executives from lower and middle management. There were also incentives for Tektronix engineers to be creative risk-takers. Given his extraordinary achievements, Howard could have been exceedingly vainglorious, but he was the antithesis of that. His friends and colleagues consistently described him as a man of "quiet genius" and humble bearing.

All Tektronix workers, for example, were on a first-name basis. He was Howard to all who knew him. "I can't think of anybody who was less affected by wealth," said Derrol Pennington ’38, who worked at Tektronix for 25 years. Derrol remarked that there were no special parking places at the company. The offices were plain and open and Howard’s office was no more elaborate than anyone else's. "He was very unassuming," said Derrol, "but quietly and insistently challenged others to constantly do their best. He had high expectations of people, but he left you alone."

Derrol recounted the day that Howard and Murdock decided to make cathode-ray tubes instead of buying them from other companies. He was called into Howard’s office and told, "You get the building, hire the people, and start making cathode-ray tubes." "I did sort of a flip-flop," said Derrol, "but it was wonderful; very exciting."

Over the years, Howard and his wife, artist Jean Kettenbach Vollum, whom he married in 1950, gave millions of dollars, most of it anonymously, in support of education, research, social programs, and the arts. The Vollums generous support for Reed came at a time crucial to the college's survival. The college has established the Howard Vollum Chair in Science, an endowed professorship "to honor Howard Vollum's enterprising spirit and genius." The Vollum Award for Distinguished Accomplishment in Science and Technology was created by Jean Delord, A.A. Knowlton Professor of Physics [1951–88], in 1975. The award recognizes and celebrates the exceptional achievement of a member of the scientific and technical community of the Pacific Northwest. Additionally, the Vollum College Center was named in honor of the couple’s commitment to the college.

Shortly after Howard's death, the Reed faculty adopted a memorial resolution about him. It spoke of the "extraordinary legacy" he left to the college, to Portland, and to the Pacific Northwest. He was ". . . a scholar in the full sense of the term. He remained a master of the field of electronics during his whole life. He was constantly occupied with fundamental questions and he would discuss possible solutions whenever he found an interlocutor who understood the problem . . . He was a man of few words but clear ideas . . . [He] was an innovator . . . [The Vollums] have made Portland in uncountable ways a better place to live in, and have provided Reed with unwavering support . . . His departure leaves empty a place that cannot be filled, particularly at the college with which he was associated for so many years. He leaves us a legacy unique in the life of the college. We are proud to count as one of our own a man of such accomplishment, simplicity, and generosity of heart."

Decorated for his contribution to modern radar technology during World War II, Howard was the recipient of countless awards and honors, including the distinguished service award in the Field of Human Relations from the National Conference of Christians and Jews (1975), and the first officer of the First Order of the White Rose presented by the Government of Finland (1982). In 1981, Howard and Jean received the Governor's Award for the Arts from the Oregon Arts Commission and, just over a week before his death, the couple was awarded the first Ecumenical Humanitarian Award from the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon.

"Reed meant a lot to Howard," said Bragdon. "Although he was by nature reticent, he would on rare occasions speak eloquently to friends of the significance of his experiences here—of coming here as a young man of modest means from Sellwood, of working with his fellow students, of the opportunity to work on instrumentation and special projects, of the presence, inspiration and tutelage of Prof. Tony Knowlton [physics 1915–48]. Whatever Reed may have given to him he more than gave back . . . . His absence will be conspicuous in any company of which he's been a part." 

Howard's survivors were Jean and their five sons, including Charles Vollum ’74 and Stephen Vollum. Jean died in 2007. Two of their grandchildren, Alix Vollum ’12 and Nicole Vollum, have also attended Reed.

Appeared in Reed magazine: Spring 1986: “Howard Vollum, ’36, electronics pioneer, was Reed benefactor”

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