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Stanford Oral History Collections

White, Robert L.
White, Robert L.
White, Robert L. and Marine-Street, Natalie J.
Corporate Author:
Stanford Historical Society
Robert L. White, the William E. Ayer Professor of Electrical Engineering and Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Emeritus, chaired the Stanford Department of Electrical Engineering from 1981 to 1986. He is an expert on the medical electronics of the artificial ear, magnetic materials, and the atomic origins of magnetic properties. In this two-part oral history, he reminisces about his childhood in Plainfield, New Jersey and offers memories of his public school education and his parents and siblings. He also discusses his experience at naval radio training school during World War II and his undergraduate education at Columbia College, which he pursued with the help of scholarships and the G.I. Bill. White recalls his experience at graduate school at Columbia University where his advisor was physicist Charles H. Townes. He describes Townes’s personality, his system for training graduate students, and the intense work regimen of graduate school. White also describes his thesis on microwave spectroscopy and gases and the apparatus on which he performed his research. White explains how he met his future wife, Phyllis Arlt, when they were both in high school and how their relationship evolved while he was studying at Columbia. White recounts the positive post-WWII conception of physicists and the rich job market available to physics PhDs. He discusses his recruitment by Hughes Research Laboratories in southern California, the management environment there, his research on magnetic materials, and the ironic consequences of another scientist’s successful research on the material, ruby. White also details his move to the laboratories of General Telephone & Electronics (GTE) in Palo Alto. He recounts his team’s discovery of a red phosphor useful in color television technology and the difficulties the company encountered in having two laboratories--one in Bayside, New York and the other in Palo Alto, California. White relates his decision to leave industrial research for academia and the factors that influenced his decision to join Stanford University’s School of Engineering, including his interaction with Fredrick Emmons Terman. He describes the growth and character of the Electrical Engineering Department, the process of obtaining grant funding, the benefits of academia for family life, and a memorable sabbatical at Oxford University. White discusses the shift in his research agenda around 1970 when he began to work on the development of a cochlear prosthesis or cochlear implant for the deaf. He describes the engineering challenges involved, the way his group’s device worked, and interactions with other groups doing similar research. He also recounts the resistance to his work on cochlear implants from some segments of the deaf community. Reflecting on his chairmanship of the department, White describes the factors he looked for when admitting graduate students, how faculty recruitment worked, the changing student population, and some of the memorable faculty and alumni of the department, including John Hennessy, James H. Clark, and William Shockley. White describes teaching quantum mechanics to engineers and his approach to mentoring engineering graduate students. He also discusses the impact that the founding of the Integrated Circuits Laboratory had on the department and describes how he handled the situation when Vietnam War protestors visited the department. White comments on the time he spent as director of the Exploratorium, an interactive science museum in San Francisco, and he describes his involvement with the early venture capital industry in Silicon Valley as an investor in and consultant for the Mayfield Fund. He concludes the oral history with a description of what his company, MagArray, Inc., is working to accomplish and some reflections on his career at Stanford.
Robert L. White, Stanford Historical Society, oral histories, interviews, higher education, professors, Stanford University--Department of Electrical Engineering, Stanford University--Department of Materials Science and Engineering, biomedical engineering, cochlear implants, medical electronics, engineering--history--United States, engineering--Study and teaching, Exploratorium, General Telephone and Electronics Corporation, Hughes Aircraft Company--Research Laboratories, lasers, magnetics, masers, rare earth metals, Charles H. Townes, and venture capital
September 24, 2015 - September 29, 2015
Stanford Historical Society Oral History Program interviews, 1999-2012