HP People Stories - Bob Brunner

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HP People Stories


Mr. Enthusiasm - Bob Brunner


I don't remember ANY employee in all of HP who was more upbeat and enthusiastic than Bob Brunner. Even when his job assignment was Sales Manager of oscilloscopes, with the competitive mountain of Tektronix to climb, he approached his task with his typical positive attitude. We are indebted to Bob's daughter, Nancy Grove, to Paul Carlson, of the Tennessee Land Trust, and to Cort van Rensselaer, who was a contemporary of Bob's in those early HP years, for some remembrances in contributing to this HP People Story. He achieved a 34-year career with the company he loved.

Bob was a true "old-timer," having joining HP in 1950, after obtaining his MS degree at the University of Illinois. Annual revenues were $2 million dollars. There were only 146 employees, and HP was breaking out from the WWII era, with a flurry of new high-tech products, and a fledgling organization that was just learning how to be an intermediate sized company, and to get organized.

Born in Seattle in 1921, Bob was 15 when his father died. He and his sisters went to work to support the family. His first jobs were as a paperboy, at the Seattle Public Library, and as a radio repairman. Always a tinkerer, Mr. Brunner showed his mechanical aptitude at an early age when his church needed some chimes for a pageant it was hosting. His solution was to dismantle his mother's grandfather clock, take out the chimes and deliver them to the church. As the hours passed, his mother noticed her clock wasn't chiming and confronted her son, who admitted he had borrowed them for the church. Today, Nancy notes that the grandfather clock with the chimes - is in perfect working condition in the Brunner/Groves' Atherton home.

He started his undergraduate work at the University of Washington but was interrupted by World War II, joining the Navy as an enlisted man and later was commissioned as an officer. He worked on early radar devices in Cosco, Maine, establishing himself as an expert and winning a scholarship at the University of Illinois. After the war, he enrolled at the University of Illinois, earning his bachelor's degree and a master's degree in electrical engineering. Upon graduating, Mr. Brunner had several offers from major companies. He chose HP, despite more lucrative offers from several others. "My mom asked him why he accepted the HP offer when he could have made more money elsewhere," Nancy remembers, "He said, 'Because I have used their instruments and they are of the highest quality. I want to work for that company.' "

Bob joined HP as a development engineer, when that was a very close knit group, who not only worked together but they and their wives socialized together. Bob and Virginia (Gini) quickly established friendships that have lasted more than half a century. Cort remembers being treated to gourmet meals in their small College Terrace home.

HP 202A Oscillator developed. As his first HP project, Bob developed a unique ultra low frequency function generator (HP202A) which was highly-innovative, and the first of its kind. It cleverly depended on generating a square wave that was as low as 0.08 Hz. He then integrated the square wave, to form a triangular wave, and then diode-shaped that into a sine wave, all of which waveforms, were individually-selectable for output. This instrument was used in mechanical testing, such as earthquake simulation. The oscillator was a great commercial success, due in a large part to Bob's efforts in making field trips to customer sites to promote it. It endured for decades.

The road show "circus" is ready to pack up and move out across the desert.
Note that these movers wear ties. Bob is on the bottom of the large transit case.

Those experiences showed Bob that he liked selling, so in 1952 he moved his family to Southern California and took a position with Neely Enterprises, HP's sales representative. He brought some much appreciated technical talent to Neely, where he conducted many educational seminars for customers. These were the years before Neely was bought out by HP. Because of his energy and enthusiasm, he became known within Neely as "Bouncing Bobby."

One of the jobs assigned to Neely's junior engineers was to organize their annual Road Show. In the early years, this amounted to maybe 5 or 10 station wagons laden with instruments and sales people, making their way across the desert. In later years, it was a large cargo van, accompanied by the station wagons full of people. Neely Road Shows were legendary events, and while I won't say there was much after-hours drinking, I can remember that there were reports that many participants drank their breakfasts of silver fizzes and Bloody Mary's.

The “breathing zero” demo. Bob was probably the most creative designer of the Roadshow, ever. His specialty was in finding particularly interesting demonstrations of our equipment. For the engineers reading this, you will appreciate several examples. The first was the so-called 100 breathing "O's." In the late 1950's, HP electronic counters had just been designed to be able to print out their numeric display count. In today’s age of a multitude of data buses, it sounds crazy, but the first electronic counters could not communicate their number displays with the outside world.

That newest counter technology arranged for each digit, represented by a "decade" counter module, to create a staircase waveform, stepping up one 10-volt step, 0 to 100v, with each increase in its number count. So, when the numbers were continually increasing, the output was a staircase voltage, which told the associated printer which number to print.

Bob arranged one decade staircase voltage to drive the horizontal input of an oscilloscope, and the adjacent decade, which was going 10 times slower, to drive the vertical input. These two staircases thus created a 10 x 10 matrix of 100 dots on the scope. Bob then added in a small Lissajous circle at each dot intersection, and used an audio oscillator to slowly open and close the circle. This made a display of 100 "breathing" zeros, in and out. Such a dynamic display, of course, quickly caught the eye, from all the way across the room. Which then allowed us to talk to customers about HP's magnificent "printing counter."

In the interest of full disclosure, Bob's demo was not really called the 100 breathing O's, even though that is what it looked like. The O's term that was really used, was one that describes a human body part, which I will not write down, but it starts with an A and has 7 letters.

The anvil demo. During those years, in addition to representing HP, Neely also represented Varian Associates. One of Varian’s high-tech products was a tiny Klystron tube, which was used as a local oscillator tube in ground-to-air missiles. As such, it had to perform with great frequency stability, even in the severe mechanical environments of shock and vibration, especially at launch time. Bob's display consisted of a regular shop anvil, arranged with the Varian Klystron on the end of a flexible rubber waveguide, which could be smacked against the anvil. So, in the large display hall, every so often, one would hear CLANG, CLANG, CLANG. It absolutely would rivet your attention when the CLANG started, leading you to go look.

The genius of Bob's demo was that HP had a new frequency stability measurement instrument, called a transfer oscillator. He arranged the demo to monitor and display the microwave frequency stability of the Klystron (its most important parameter), through the flexible waveguide, during the time it was clanging against the anvil. This showed the Varian Klystron's remarkable mechanical performance, and in turn, sold the technology of our new HP frequency-measuring instrument.

Back to HP, Palo Alto. After a few years, Bob was promoted to sales manager of the Neely organization, where he obtained valuable experience for his future HP career. Then, in 1963, after Neely Enterprises became part of HP, Bob decided he wanted to return to more technical work, so he and his family moved back to the Bay Area. Bob served as sales manager of the Oscilloscope Division, working for Cort. But, about that time, Cort was in the process of moving the oscilloscope Division to Colorado Springs, and was unable to talk Bob and Gini into making another move. So Bob took on a newly created position as corporate engineering manager, reporting directly to Bill Hewlett.

The Brunnergram became a highly useful and popular
Indicator of the status of a project

Corporate Engineering Manager. In this job, Bob kept track of hundreds of HP development projects in product divisions throughout the world. One of the key HP management processes was an annual visitation by top management to each product division, with the objective of reviewing the progress of all the new product design projects. Making this diverse effort understandable was a major chore, so Bob invented a unique review chart which showed graphically the progress of each project and its contribution to HP goals. These charts resembled crawling insects, so Bob called them "Beetlegrams." Everyone else called them "Brunnergrams."

The example shown above is not a real Brunnergram, just a diagram showing its elements; the 4 phase checkpoints (Investigation, Prototype, Pilot, Production). Time estimates plot on the horizontal axis as dates. On the vertical axis, those checkpoints are indicated by the budget burn rate. In this example, everything was going well through the prototype checkpoint, shown with an "o." The lines are perpendicular, meeting both the time and the budget estimates, at the completion line. But then something went wrong and both the time schedule and the budget estimates got pushed out, and the connecting lines began to go parallel to the project centerline, and finally closed both over financial budget as well as 8 months late on the schedule. This concept was an extremely useful project tool which gave the status in one glance for those important meetings.

In 1969, Bob became International Marketing Manager for the Instrument Group. This was a perfect assignment because it gave Bob and Gini (who often accompanied him) the opportunity for extensive worldwide travel which they loved. It also created another group of HP friends for Bob - the HP international marketing managers.

When Bob found that most of these managers shared his love of skiing, he organized group ski trips to coordinate with the time of their annual US sales meeting visits. This group had continued meeting annually, mainly for socializing, now that they are retired. Another convivial event Bob participated in was the annual houseboat expedition. A number of HP old timers take a long-weekend cruise on the San Joaquin Delta each fall. There is a lot of camaraderie. It is rumored that Bill and Dave stories are told, with many suggestions to reinvent the company and solve some of the recent negative organizational developments. Bob's special contribution was a gourmet multi-course dinner which he prepared ceremoniously, wearing a chef outfit with a big white hat, embroidered with the title, "The Floating Gourmet.".

Retirement. After his retirement in 1984, Bob continued his active life style and travel, turning his attention to world affairs and supporting the Hoover Institution at Stanford. Paul Carlson of the Little Tennessee Land Trust recalls the generous side of Bob and Gini as they concentrated their attention on developing her family's North Carolina property. The land trust was established to protect the banks and watersheds of the Little Tennessee River. But the land trust itself, near the family farm on which Gini was raised, is in Western North Carolina. Bob and Virginia were always keenly interested in and supportive of the progress in the Land Trust, and late in 1999 they stepped forward with an unexpectedly large donation to the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy which allowed LTLT to grow into the strong organization that it has become over the past year.

They traveled extensively, ultimately visiting every continent, even taking their granddaughters on a trip to Ant­arctica. The Brunners were thoughtful travelers who es­chewed tour guides, preferring to experience the country on their own. "They made friends all over the world, because they never had that sense that Americans are always right," Nancy said. Her father, she said, "always was able to learn from people when he was traveling."

Bob was a serious avocational woodworker. The adult Nancy used to kid him about being a master of the "perfectly engineered, unfinished project." In Southern California he built her the ultimate playhouse, with tile floors, screens, and window ledges, and even a Dutch door-on its completion. She used it more as a refuge to dream about boys than as a playhouse! The desks--the magnificent rolltop desks he crafted for his grand daughters from an old oak tree on family land in North Carolina--were completed before either Liz or Emily went off to college. They were built piece by piece, by taking apart Gini's grandfather's rolltop desk and copying it, piece by piece.

Nancy remembers, "When we left the hospital after my Dad's death, my husband, Bill, my Mom and I let ourselves into his woodshop, to breathe deeply the smell of sawdust (which is what, growing up, I thought all Daddies smelled like.) We reminisced over where each shop machine came from. There was the HP-35, thirty years old, hanging in its place on the wall, fully charged, its Reverse Polish logic perfectly functional (is there any other way to build a calculator?)"

"He had a compelling faith in the goodness of human nature, which I believe allowed him to communicate so successfully in so many different cultures without benefit of formal language training. He treated everyone he met with the same dignity and collegiality, whether the Hispanic gardener whom he worked alongside rototilling and pruning, or the Japanese or Indian CEO whose company would become allied with Hewlett Packard. He wanted everyone to be on his team. There was nothing he loved so much as a good joke, especially when the joke was on him.”

"Some are infamous now. Most of you know the story of his photography session at the Taj Mahal in the late 70's, when visitors were still allowed on the grounds at night. Adjusting his lenses to capture the beauty of the full moon, he was interrupted by a young man. "Sahib, what camera you use?" Daddy tells him. "What film you use, Sahib?" Slightly annoyed, Daddy tells him. "F/8, 15 minutes," the youth advises. Daddy had already selected another setting and timing, but then took a second exposure with the recommended settings. Sure enough, he'd tell listeners with a hearty laugh, the kid was right. The second picture was better."

"He raised his one daughter and his two granddaughters (and three female dogs) with the same basic goodwill, good humor, and sense of fair play. At age seven, I would sit on his lap in the evenings and we would play "Fox and Hounds," an arithmetic game which required me to keep up with a string of sequential calculations. Later we would watch for satellites in the sky, or find the constellations. He never, in two generations, learned not to ask, "Did you learn anything in school today?" And among my early sewing lessons was sewing up holes in my socks, because seeing me in holey socks was a reminder of Depression times, and was not tolerated. Despite our differing political views, he was always willing to consider the other side of the issue."

Before husband Bill came into our lives, during my eight years as a single mom, he and Mommy became surrogate parents for Liz, and he gained a whole set of new nicknames: 'Old Reliable,' 'Big Old Granddaddy Bear,' 'Three Feathers.' He taught both girls the basics of woodworking, helping each of them build and finish a very nice footstool. Our church has a special prayer for teenagers and their parents, and I'll share a line with you: 'Carry them all safely through this journey, so that one day they may stand together as adults and friends, a joy and comfort to each other all the days of their lives.' I feel so fortunate that this prayer has been answered for the three of us." Bob died in 2001, Gini, at 91, is currently a resident at Palo Alto Commons.

Kaleioscope, by Gini. In 1997, Gini published a remarkable book, with that title, which chronicled their numerous travel adventures. It records their amazing experiences around the world. The Table of Contents alone lists 30 chapters, each representing one extensively-described trip. She notes that they have circumnavigated the globe SEVEN times. Their last global trip was in a specially chartered 757 which carried 86 like-minded folks on a 28 day excursion, stopping at places like Easter Island. It landed in every continent, except for skimming close-by Australia.

You can infer that they were enthused for exotic travel. Perhaps the best illustration of that shows in this picture, which literally places them at the VERY TOP of the world, the North Pole. How do you get to the North Pole in reasonable comfort? Well it seems that the Russian Polar maritime technology has conquered the ice cover of the Arctic Ocean with a massive ice-breaker ship that is 500 feet long, powered by two atomic reactors, provisioned for 8 months at sea, with fuel good for 4 years. It can break across ice 15 feet thick, more if they back up and hit it twice.

The ice-breaker, Sovetskiy Soyuz, is the orange object in the background, which navigated to 90N latitude. Some 100+ intrepid adults and a sprinkling of children were in the tour group. It is surprising to me that their maritime service offers these open civilian tours, providing this remarkable opportunity to adventurous people. The occasion was beautiful clear weather, travelers had time to hit golf balls, get tethered with a rope around the waist and jump into the freezing water, momentarily. For further interest, an automobile was lowered onto the ice, driven around a bit, and later auctioned to the highest bidder. Two on-board helicopters were available for air observations.

Nancy relates that Bob took this tour with one of the VERY early Trimble Navigation Devices, way before the GPS was ever on the market. He kept taking readings, but the readings kept changing. When he finally felt confident that he had identified the North Pole with the GPS, he showed the captain, who disagreed. They apparently had quite a lengthy discussion over exactly where the North Pole was. (No doubt the photo was taken at the captain's choice of 90N!)


-- John Minck




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