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The Spirit of Tek

OPB | May 3, 2010 9 p.m. | Updated: July 25, 2013 1:48 p.m.

Woman assembling scope, ca 1950s

Woman assembling scope, ca 1950s

Courtesy vintageTEK.org

In 1946 the field of electronics was exploding. Radiomen Howard Vollum and Jack Murdock were home from the War and decided to start their own business. The company was Tektronix. The product? An indispensable piece of test equipment that engineers couldn’t work without. In The Spirit of Tek you’ll meet some of the people who built a unique company that changed the world.

Four young entrepreneurs decided to start an electronics company in Portland, Oregon.  It was the right idea at the right time.

Howard Vollum was fresh from the U.S. Army Signal Corps.  Jack Murdock was home from the Coast Guard.   Both were radiomen eager to build new careers. Along with fellow “Coastie” Miles Tippery and accountant Glenn McDowell, they decided to start their own business and signed incorporation papers in December 1945.  They named their company Tektronix.  

Both Murdock and Vollum wanted to build a small, family-like company. Tektronix employees were hired on the basis of talent and knowledge.  All were encouraged to experiment, take risks and seek excellence in an informal, egalitarian culture.  The company quickly became known as a freewheeling research factory that led the world in innovative, state of the art oscilloscopes and hundreds of related products.  Tek engineers were engaged in continual research and constantly testing new ideas to make better products.

From the start Tek scopes were a huge success because no other company could match their quality, accuracy and design.  Tek produced a wide variety of scopes to meet the needs of the many industries they served including the computer, automotive and aircraft industries.  In addition Tek scopes were indispensable in the development and improvement of television and helped send men to the moon.

By the early 1980s Tektronix had ballooned into a billion dollar company and had become Oregon’s largest private employer.  But its size and success would also bring change.  Ideas for new products and projects were often lost in the pipeline and many of Tek’s best and brightest had begun leaving the company to start their own.

The exodus of top employees from Tek would help seed Oregon’s Silicon Forest in Washington County - and help transform the state’s traditional lumber and resource based economy to one of high tech manufacturing instead.

Today a leaner Tektronix employs about 4500 people worldwide and continues to produce oscilloscopes at its headquarters near Beaverton.

The Spirit of Tek explores the history of a unique company through engaging archival film and photos, and the eyes of some early employees who remember the heyday of a company that changed the world.

The Founders —

Howard Vollum was a 1936 Reed College graduate with a degree in physics. It was his idea to build an indispensible electronics test and measurement tool called an oscilloscope. While he was in the Army during World War II, Vollum had worked with and built scopes of his own, and knew he could build a radically better product than was currently on the market.

Photo: Howard Vollum receives an honorary degree from the Oregon Graduate Center, the facility he helped found in 1963. Courtesy of Oregon Graduate Institute of Science & Engineering.


Jack Murdock had opened his own radio repair and appliance shop after graduating from high school in 1935. He had a keen interest in organizational detail and human relations, and took the role of Tek’s General Manager.

Photo: Jack Murdock was an avid outdoorsman, figure skater and pilot. Courtesy of Pearson Air Museum.


Miles Tippery managed assembly and personnel. His wife, Nellie helped with hiring often conducting preliminary interviews and testing.

Photo: Miles and Nellie left Tektronix in 1953 to pursue other opportunities. Courtesy of Nellie Tippery.

Glenn McDowell left Tektronix in 1948 becoming the sole owner and manager of Tek’s retail and repair shop, Hawthorne Electronics, in southeast Portland.

Resources

 

Books

Marshall M. Lee, Winning with People: The First 40 Years of Tektronix

Gordon B. Dodds and Craig E. Wollner, The Silicon Forest, High Tech in the Portland Area 1945-1986

 

Articles

Taking Root in the Silicon Forest, High-Technology Firms as Surrogate Universities in Portland, Oregon,” Heike Mayer

Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 71, No. 3.

Planting High-Technology Seeds, Tektronix’s Role in the Creation of Portland’s Silicon Forest,” Heike Mayer

Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 106, No. 4, Winter 2005

 

Web sites

The Oregon Historical Society

VintageTEK.org

Washington County Historical Society & Museum

M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust

Tektronix, Inc.

Tektronix Retiree Volunteer Program

 

Broadcast Date: May 03, 2010

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OREGON EXPERIENCE is a co-production of Oregon Public Broadcasting and the Oregon Historical Society.