HP People Stories - Lyle Jevons

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HP People Stories


Lyle Jevons

Lyle was a life-long Ham Radio enthusiast

Although retired from HP since the mid 1970’s, many of the people from the old Microwave Division remember Lyle well, and his personal impact on HP microwave business. About 1960, Bruce Wholey hired Lyle from another microwave company, PRD, the Polytechnic R&D. It was a business spinoff of the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn. Lyle was an application engineer and was known to HP field sales engineers as a very helpful person for the PRD sales people.

In his early career, Lyle told of working on instrumentation for Halliburton, when that was a well-known supplier to the oil well industry in the Bakersfield, CA area. He later moved to Hughes Aircraft, and worked on their MA-l fire control radar system, at a time when owner Howard Hughes was still out in public.

Lyle told of working nights, on the Hughes Company flight line, after midnight, readying a fighter for a radar test mission to the California high desert gunnery ranges, north of Los Angeles, the next day. The Hughes airstrip is still in Los Angeles, just about 3 miles north of LAX, with its runway running parallel to LAX. Some nights, as they worked, a well-maintained DC-3, with a large bay window on one side, would land, and taxi over to the project workers. Pilot Howard Hughes, in old sun-tan pants would get out, roll up his sleeves and work along with the engineers.

Lyle gained most of his HP fame during the introduction of the HP 8551A Microwave Spectrum Analyzer, in 1964. This was a brand new product sector for HP, with the main competitor being Polarad Corporation of Long Island, NY (not the film-maker, Polaroid, nor PRD mentioned above) Their spectrum analyzer business was about $5 million, out of a total market of about $8 million. They sold mostly single-band tuning analyzers, and their instruments went for about $5,000 while Panoramic, Inc., also of Long Island, came in with a multi-band (using first LO harmonics) spectrum analyzer at about $7,000. Little foreign competition existed.

Lyle was working as Microwave Application Engineer in our Microwave Division marketing at the time. He correctly predicted that the HP field engineers would not be able to come up to speed quickly, on applications and measurement techniques for this brand new technology. He proposed for our microwave marketing to buy him a Ford Econoline van, equip it to mount the HP 8551A in a rack at the rear doors, for easy access in testing in the field, or for removal to demo inside. He added an Onan AC power generator, and to take the show on the road. While not intuitive to us in management at the beginning, it turned out to be an enormous success, and talked about for years as a classic solution to introduction of brand new technology.

The reason was that the HP 8551A was NOT AT ALL like previous competitors. The HP unit swept the first local oscillator, making a sweep width of 2,000 MHz, vs 150 MHz of Polarad. It measured down to 10 MHz, covering RF, VHF, UHF and low microwave IN ONE SWEEP, stunning performance.

Lyle spent probably 6 months on the road, slowly moving across the country, working with customers, always in the company of the local FE, and thereby teaching each one those new applications at the same time he was selling to the customers. We began to see orders arriving from customers, often tracking Lyle's travels. We also began to hear from the successful field engineers as they praised the work of Lyle. And the applications stories also arrived from the FEs.

A typical application was in the Antelope Valley, about 50 miles north of Los Angeles, the home of Edwards AFB. Accompanied by an Air Force Colonel, who was the frequency-control officer at Edwards, Lyle parked the van alongside a phone booth at a desert intersection of Route 15 and 66, north of the base. These were years before cell phones. The USAF Colonel's problem was that there were three long-range surveillance radars, NASA, USAF, and FAA, all operating at S-band frequencies, on three separate mountain peaks, whose signals were interfering with each other.

It was the Colonel's job to straighten things out. The new HP analyzer, with its exceptionally-broad, 2,000 MHz sweep width, could see all three radar signals at once. The 60 dB dynamic range revealed the radars' signal spectrum modulation "skirts," which were overlapping each other. The Colonel got on the phone booth phone (before the days of cellular), calling each radar technician in sequence, and unsorted them quickly. Lyle reported that, as he drove away that day, the Colonel offered him $100,000, if he could have kept that demo analyzer.

Lyle’s applications trip was a long one, and not as glamorous as one might think. Lyle would get to feeling sorry for himself. Although he technically reported to me, as Marketing Manager, maybe once a month Division Manager John Young, would come over to my desk in the morning, with the exclamation, "Goddamn, Jevons, he called me at home last night at 2:00 am to resign. He had been drinking a bit. I had to spend an hour talking him out of it."

John also agreed to an unusual process for Lyle’s expense accounts. Lyle HATED bureaucracy, so John arranged for his own secretary to actually fill out Lyle’s expense reports once a month. Lyle would mail in all his expense receipts, and tell her how much money he withdrew from a particular sales office petty cash, and tell her how much cash he had on hand at the beginning and end of the period. She managed to compute his line item expenses and John signed them. Can you imagine any other HP employee being allowed to do that? I don’t think so.

The next year, Lyle shipped the entire van to Europe. He used the same technique of customer visits with the FEs. Lyle enjoyed himself in Europe, but at some border crossing, one afternoon, the customs people were giving him a hard time. Then they noticed several 3/8-inch puncture holes on the sides of the van. When Lyle was asked about them, he simply smiled and said, "Indians." That made things more friendly, and he passed easily.

Lyle, at his fly-in airstrip at his home in Arizona

Lyle was a man of varied interests, one of which was that he was a confirmed theatre organ buff. He was personal friends with Howard Vollum, president and founder of Tektronix, with many contacts in an organization of theatre organ aficionados. He told of the last days of life for the massive Wurlitzer organ, at the Fox Theatre in San Francisco, before they tore down the old place. Thousands of theatre organ fans showed up for concerts that ran from midnight to dawn. Lyle was part of the behind-the-scenes crew which worked the fan room, where they had to keep wet towels on the drive motors for the air blowers, which heated up so much from hours of playing.

Lyle wasn't well suited personality-wise for factory marketing routines. He transferred to the F&T Division to take on a applications promotion role for their new Computing Counter, and transferred to New Jersey to have a resident field location. In his home there, Lyle built his own aerobatic airplane, and flew it. He was a ham radio operator who worked on amateur radio high-tech experiments like moon-bounce tests.

He retired from HP to his own small fly-in ranch, just outside the boundaries of the U.S. Army's Fort Huachuca, near Tombstone, AZ. The base was a major testing area for military communications and battlefield signal environment simulations. We kept in touch. One day, Lyle called me, "John, what do you know about VAST?" I said, "It's a $4 billion dollar program for the Navy, for automatic testing of avionics on U.S. Navy aircraft carriers. Each unit has 16 racks-full of equipment, running with a Varian computer, and costs about $500,000. Why do you ask?"

"I've got one."

"Wait a minute, Lyle, you didn't hear me. These things cost 1/ 2 million, etc, etc."

"I've got one."

And indeed he did. It turned out that in his work with military friends on the MARS Ham Radio Club, at the base, the club got first refusal on any electronic equipment that was scrapped. So when this huge testing system was scrapped, because it couldn't be fielded on a ship, the MARS Club brought it to Lyle's fly-in hanger, just off the base. They did salvage because all of the equipment had gold in the printed circuit boards and relays. In Tucson, there were salvage companies which ground up such components and retrieved the valuable gold. The club used proceeds to help fund their Ham Club operations. Lyle was asking me to see if I could find operating manuals for several pieces of HP gear that were part of the system.

In his retirement, Lyle told of signing on as flight engineer with a crew of retired airline captains, who were flying a 707 freight charter, to and from Australia. The mission was to fly back a load of 20 tons of mutton. The 707 was of British service, configured with Decca (UK) avionics, and some electrical controls that Lyle wasn't all that comfortable with. The flight out was uneventful, LAX to Hawaii to Guam to Adalaide to Alice Springs. The mutton was not frozen, with the idea of a short return flight. On the leg back to Guam, one jet engine bearing began to overheat. They shut it down, but did not declare an emergency, or report it to the ground, fearing any delay would cause obvious spoilage with the load. So they took off with four engines, and immediately shut down one. On to Hawaii, same technique.

On the Hawaii-to-LAX, other things went wrong. The shut-down engine used no fuel, while the others used too much. But Lyle couldn't find any on-board instructions on how to transfer fuel between tanks. In the process of trying to find the right switch combinations, an electrical fire developed in the control panels. This burned out their long-range radio. So Lyle got the fire out, used short-range radio to relay messages to LAX, via other in-bound flights, and finally landed with the mutton in LAX. Typical Jevons, overcoming adversity unabashed.

Lyle passed away on Easter Sunday, 1988.


-- John Minck




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