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.

"He was really a model of what an engineer and a scientist should be," said Davis, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and winner of the 2011 Gruber International Prize in genetics.

These types of accolades and stories were common for that era. Such cooperation and enthusiasm was part of the early culture of the valley.

In her book, "Regional Advantage: culture and competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128," author AnnaLee Saxenian examined why Silicon Valley flourished 20 to 30 years ago while the burgeoning high-tech environment along Route 128 in Massachusetts declined. Saxenian suggests that the difference was Silicon Valley developed a decentralized and cooperative model of innovation while Route 128 came to be dominated by independent, one might say self-focused, companies.

Silicon Valley had a motto, Saxenian noted, that "competition demands continuous innovation, which in turn requires cooperation among firms."

Davis told the story of how once he had been called to Washington, D.C., to speak at a hearing about genome project funding. The hearing turned surly when accusations began to surface that the researchers, often task-driven types, weren't doing enough to share their progress.

In a critical moment of silence before the microphone, Davis suddenly remembered how Roberts had come up with the idea of developing computer-aided designs of their research and posting them on the Internet as a way of shedding more light on their work. It was something that Roberts had essentially done on his own.

Once Davis shared this story, the hearing took a decided shift in tone, from hostility to praise. "I don't know what would have happened if Les had not put up those CAD drawings," he said at the memorial, adding, "He probably saved my career."

These stories were all interesting. But, to many of us, Mr. Roberts was just the man who, with his similarly congenial and learned wife Barbara and their six children, always sat in the front row at church. They taught Sunday school. They led the backpacking trips for our youth group. They were always available.

As a teenager, I thought a rock was just something to kick. To Les Roberts, it was a conversation-starter. It began with an observation of what type of rock it was. Sedimentary perhaps. Maybe metamorphic. Then he would talk about the elements, conditions and years that combined to form and shape that rock. Then somehow the conversation would turn to something about the universe. And then, before you knew it, you had a backpack on your back and you were joining him and others in exploring the nether reaches of the Sierra Nevada or the Grand Canyon, sharing your high school troubles and discovering new things about the world and yourself. And so by the time it was all over, you feel you had really been some place. Like that rock.

Les Roberts read voraciously, rode his bike to work every day and preached the principles of "leave no trace" in camping long before it became fashionable.

He died on Feb. 28 at the age of 87. I have no doubt, with all of his ideas and developments, he could have led a life with more wealth. But I doubt he could have been a richer man.

The last time I saw Roberts, we were in the fellowship hall of the church in Palo Alto where I was baptized. There, he recruited people, including me, once a week to help him clean up after a meal for the homeless.

I remember standing next to him as we listened to a disheveled taciturn man, a frequent diner at the program, sitting at a piano, filling the hall with classical music. It was this man's way of saying thank you to all of us. And as Les leaned on his mop, we talked about the complexities of the human mind and other mysteries of the universe.

These are moments that, to me, are testament to a generation of people who not only saw value in sharing knowledge but saw value in community service -- and saw value in leaving the world a better place than they found it.

The question that keeps pinging back to me is this: Are we being the people the next generation will remember and mourn?

I hope so. But I have my doubts.