Howard Vollum

Howard Vollum, Engineer and Philanthropist

Always the scientist-engineer, Howard Vollum was naturally drawn to the neuroscience laboratories at Oregon's medical school where his oscilloscope could be applied to research. His interest in experiments measuring bio-electric phenomena resonated with medical science and later provided philanthropic motivation. Among the many generous gifts that Vollum's estate spread across Oregon's landscape was the endowment of an institute for advanced biomedical research at OHSU. In the mid 1980s, as he stood overlooking the city from the top floor of the building still under construction, Vollum commented that of all the philanthropic things he had done, this one had given him the most pleasure. It is fitting that the institute bears the Vollum name.
Jack Murdock, Howard Vollum, and the 511
When Howard Vollum, as president and chief engineer, cofounded Tektronix Corporation with Jack Murdock, he never intended to build an empire. The 1945 articles of incorporation of their Portland company stated the purpose as: "to install, repair, service and sell, purchase, manufacture and otherwise acquire and deal in radio and other instruments." But it was the "other instruments" they really had in mind, specifically the cathode-ray oscilloscope.

Vollum, a brilliant if reticent young man with a physics degree from Reed College and a Legion of Merit medal for his wartime work on radar in the Signal Corps, decided that Tektronix would try to improve upon the woefully inadequate oscilloscopes of the day. Instead of the murky pictures of electronic signals provided by existing machines, he wanted to make precise measurements. As Murdock began stockpiling all the surplus electronics the company could afford, Vollum went to work in the basement of his parents' home and created a monster called the 501, weighing almost as much as its creator. Despite its size and used parts, it worked well. Its commercial successor, the 511, was launched in 1947, the first calibrated instrument that let engineers precisely measure observed electrical events.

In the new production plant, an industrial democracy that would permeate Tek culture for the next 40 years prevailed. People were called by first name. There was no clock to punch because employees kept track of their own hours. There were no privileged parking spaces. "Here, your only status is the status you earn," Vollum would say. "And when you have that, you don't need status symbols." Because Vollum knew that some of his best ideas came to him in the middle of the night, he gave all his engineers keys to the plant and bade them come and go as they pleased.

Rather than recruiting a team of Ivy League experts, Vollum hand-picked his own managers from within the company. He often ate lunch with assembly line workers and machinists in the cafeteria. He walked from bench to bench and immersed himself in the details of every project, at least once raising the wrath of board members who preferred that he spend more time at directors' meetings. Vollum's collegial management style paid off. By 1951, the company had 300 employees and sales of $4 million; by 1959, there were 3,000 employees with sales at $32 million. Tektronix had become the preeminent manufacturer of oscilloscopes and other test equipment, a leadership position that held up through the early 1970s when Howard Vollum relinquished the presidency.

—Adapted from "What's Up With Tek" by Ted Katauskas, Oregon Business, February 2000