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May 18, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Art Fong: A lifetime of innovation and philanthropy Art Fong: A lifetime of innovation and philanthropy (May 18, 2005)

Accomplished Hewlett-Packard employee quietly gives back to community

by Jocelyn Dong

Art Fong's love affair with engineering began in childhood with a block of wood, a sail, and an insatiable curiosity.

"I remember playing in the rainwater," the now-85-year-old said of his experiments with handmade sailboats. "But they kept tipping over. I kept wondering why."

After consulting library books and learning about a keel, Fong put a nail in the ship's bottom. It sailed beautifully.

That fascination with a toy boat launched Fong into a lifetime of achievement, as an innovator at Hewlett-Packard Company whose inventions generated nearly 30 percent of the company's revenues at one point; a participant in some of the world's most historic events; and a community-minded philanthropist.

The son of a grocery-store owner could hardly have predicted his future. Growing up in Sacramento, his Chinese-American family expected Fong to follow in his dad's footsteps, enlarging the small shop into a supermarket.

But engineering was his natural talent, one recognized by others. Hearing that Fong had no plans to attend college, a high-school teacher applied to UCLA for him, convinced of Fong's potential.

Fong thrived in college, first at UCLA -- at that time a junior college -- and later at the University of California at Berkeley, where he got his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering.

The United States entered World War II while Fong was at Cal, and after graduation, he and his new bride, Mary, moved to Boston to fulfill Fong's Navy commission.

It was there at the MIT Radiation Laboratory that Fong contributed to the development of radar.

Sitting at a large, round dining table in his modest Palo Alto home recently, Fong recalled the trying times of war. The French were defeated; the British were under attack. The Americans were going on bombing missions. There were neither guided missiles nor night-vision apparatus in those days.

"Then came the turning point where we were bombing them day and night," Fong said. Using radar, the pilots could see the German trucks and factories in the dark, and successfully destroyed them.

At the lab, Fong and the other scientists rejoiced.

But that wasn't all the engineer was working on. Moonlighting at the Browning Laboratories, Fong also developed the first AM/FM radio receiver, which the company marketed a full year before its competitors.

In 1946, Fong's life took a new direction when he received a visit from William Hewlett, who was then in the Army Signal Corps and knew of Fong's radar work. By the end of the evening, the deal had been sealed -- Fong would return to California to become one of about 100 employees of the fledgling high-tech company.

Over the next 25 years, Fong made major engineering contributions to the company, and the field, including impedance-measuring instruments, a line of signal generators, and the first calibrated microwave spectrum analyzer.

Recently, he brought out the simple 1950s prototype of one of his innovations -- a hand-sized attenuator, which reduces the amplitude of signals -- and nimbly unscrewed the panel, showing a visitor the circuitry, camshaft and plastic gears.

Entire HP divisions have resulted from his work. In recognition of these and other contributions, he received rare honors from HP, the Cal Engineering Alumni Society and IEEE, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. He was asked to be the U.S. delegate for a commission that developed standards for measuring instruments in the late 1960s, and has been a member of the U.S. National Security Agency advisory committee to improve digital data security.

During this time, the industrious Palo Altan also picked up a master's degree in electrical engineering from Stanford University.

For all of his accomplishments, Fong remains refreshingly modest. Asked how he felt, knowing his innovations have become standard worldwide, Fong paused, bowed his head slightly and searched for the words. "It felt good to...," he said, his voice trailing off.

Then he switched to talking about the camaraderie at HP, where he felt nothing like a towering leader. "I was just one of the guys."

When colleagues asked for help, it was all about the engineering for Fong -- that, and helping out a friend.

"I would go away for a week and come back with a solution for them. We were all buddy-buddy," he said. "What drives me is I like to see something work."

Those interests -- engineering and helping others -- became a recurring theme in Fong's life. In 1979, he was one of 10 engineers who went with HP's president, John Young, to the just-opened People's Republic of China to lecture on technology. Fong returned three times, interested in bringing the Chinese up to speed on engineering innovations.

"They were so far behind," Fong said. "That really hurt everyone. It even hurt me, to look at that."

He and his wife also initiated the Fong Family Scholarships for Cal engineering students, donating more than a million dollars to date. The funds are for juniors entering their senior year. Recalling his own Cal experience, Fong said, "That's when I ran out of money."

Locally, he and Mary have donated to Stanford and to the Palo Alto Medical Foundation's new El Camino Real campus, for which they also served on a planning committee. He's also taught seniors to use computers at Avenidas.

Ever the tinkerer, he's still up on the latest technology, bemoaning his "outdated" three-year-old computer and mentioning that he has much to learn from one of his daughters, an IT professional, and grandson. Fully retired from HP in 1995, one of his projects these days is converting his family's films to DVD.

Fong has four children and five grandchildren, of whom he speaks proudly. He is pleased to be receiving the Lifetime of Achievement Award from Avenidas, joking that he was a bit surprised, since it's not an engineering society.

But it's no surprise that he turned out an inventor. After all, the grocery-store owner's son noted, he was born on Feb. 11. That was Thomas Edison's birthday too.

Senior Staff Writer Jocelyn Dong can be reached at jdong@paweekly.com.


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