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Charles Litton, Engineering Hero

Charles Litton was a magician of glass vacuum tube manufacture, father of the first practical glass-blowing lathe to mass produce tubes and other glass-based radio components.

Charles Litton, Engineering Hero

January 19, 2012

Charles Litton was born in the Bay Area and graduated with degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering from Stanford in the mid-1920s. In the heyday of radio, Litton was a magician of glass vacuum tube manufacture. He designed and built the first practical glass-blowing lathe, using it to mass-produce tubes and other glass-based radio components. In 1932, he founded Litton Industries.

In 1936, at Fred Terman's request, Litton volunteered to help Stanford create a tube research lab. Terman later wrote to Litton of one "Dave Packard" who had accepted an assistantship in the lab funded by a $1,000 grant from Litton. "I think he is the best-qualified man that one could conceivably hope to find," wrote Terman.

During WWII, Litton helped Raytheon develop the magnetron, a microwave-generating electron tube that greatly enhanced the range of radar at a time when the U.S. very much needed a defensive edge. In the years following the war, large defense contracts helped Litton Industries grow to rival the great companies of the East Coast and lay the technological foundation for the revolution that would transform Silicon Valley in succeeding decades.