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GULLIXSON: Tribute to an engineer of a bygone age

It's small comfort, but I suppose we should consider ourselves fortunate when the news of a friend's death leaves us with a sense of emptiness. Fortunate, I say, only because it's evidence of the impact that person had in our life. And as you grow older, you realize how those individuals are precious few.

Such was my reaction when I learned recently of the death of my friend Les Roberts.

You can be forgiven if you don't know the name. Roberts was not famous. With his slight, albeit sturdy, build and small stature, he would hardly stand out in a crowd. But his contributions to science, engineering and, in his own way, to the early development of Silicon Valley and its culture of knowledge-sharing was significant.

Les was one of those people who had an insatiable curiosity for all things, and his joy of discovery was infectious.

"If you asked Les what time it was, he would show you how to build a clock," a coworker said of him during his memorial service in Palo Alto earlier this month.

He also was something of a dying breed, an engineer who went into the business not to make a killing but to make the world a better place. It's a world, I fear, in an era of venture capital, IPOs and profit-driven motives, that has been knocked off its axis.

Today, we don't even own the right to unlock our own cellphones, meaning that if you change carriers, you most likely will have to buy a new phone. So much for technology sharing.

After earning his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford in 1951, Roberts worked for Huggins Laboratories and then Watkins-Johnson where he designed high-efficiency traveling wave tubes. We're still benefiting from those developments, I'm told. "Things he designed are still pinging back data to us" from Pioneer and Voyager space probes, said one of his former apprentices, now a professor at UCLA.

Later, Roberts became interested in medical engineering and developed technology for cochlear implants, small, complex electronic devices that provide a sense of sound to a person who is profoundly deaf or severely hard of hearing. Today, roughly 42,600 American adults and 28,400 children benefit from these implants, also known as "bionic ears."

Later he helped develop technology for angioplasty systems and high-speed DNA synthesizers. Then he landed a job as a research and design engineer at the Stanford Genome Technology Center, where the director, Ronald W. Davis, essentially gave him license to do what interested him.

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