From the 1950’s to the 1980’s, Hughes Aircraft Company was the place to be if you were an engineer: a creative environment where engineers were given freedom to solve problems in their own way, and talent abounded. Founded by the famously eccentric businessman Howard Hughes and based in Playa Vista, Hughes Aircraft was at the forefront of military electronics, inventing and perfecting things like lasers, radar, guided missiles, geosynchronous satellites, and cell phone signal processors. Ken Richardson, USC Viterbi alum, donor, former president and COO of Hughes Aircraft Company and author of the recently published book "Hughes After Howard", looks back on his time at Hughes and how our country’s emphasis on science and technology has changed during his lifetime.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO WORK AT HUGHES?
The company was started by Howard Hughes, but all our growth and development came after Hughes was separated from the company in the 1950’s. But, his spirit was our credo: if you’re going to do something, design something technically, do it better than its ever been done before. In other words, break the boundaries. We inspired all of our designers to leap forward. And do it with excellence.
We had 22,000 engineers, 4,000 of whom were Ph.D.s, and we gave them all unbounded freedom to create. That’s rare. It happened before with Bell Labs, but today, there’s nothing like that. It was quite an inspirational environment because you have a chance to associate with absolute unbounded brilliance. Many people had much bigger IQ’s than I. But I tried and perfected people skills so that whether someone was a brilliant scientist or a machinist on the factor floor, I loved talking to them, and they loved talking to me. We could communicate. We had a major mission to accomplish, and we knew that there was this freedom to do it in whatever way we could best get there but we were a family and we could help each other and so forth.
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT A FEW OF YOUR MOST EXCITING PROJECTS IN YOUR TIME AT HUGHES AIRCRAFT?
I did get involved in many different projects. I’ll name three: one was the weapons system and missile for the F-14 tomcat in 1970 where I, in effect, learned every one of the technologies we had at the company. It consisted of about 35 electronic boxes plus a guided missile and lots and lots of support equipment: a radar computer, a guided missile, displays and controls, operator. I not only got to run that, but I got to test fly it. I got to make 2 missile shots, both of which were successful.
Another one was the radar system for the F-18 Hornet. Building that was a very difficult competition against Westinghouse, which we did win. For that, we developed about 10 or 15 new breakthroughs in electronic radars and computers, and it became the largest production program of the company in history. Its principle purpose was air-to-air fighter combat—that’s the most difficult thing to do. Then, it also did air-to-ground mapping and target-finding and identification of other aircrafts.
Then, the third one: I was very fortunate to be appointed president of the missile systems group in 1983, which consisted of about 14,000 employees. We had about 15 different missiles in development and about 10 in production, so there was a gamut of things to do. The reason that was exciting was that in effect I ran a whole business. Another reason this was exciting is that guided missiles themselves are very exciting. They have eyeballs, a brain, a propulsion system, they have aerodynamics, so in effect, they’re a very fast airplane with loads of brainpower. In one case, one of the missile we were working on was an anti-tank missile which we produced 800,000 of them for 42 countries around the world. And I got to shoot one of those against a moving tank…and I hit it! I was just an engineering/manager kind of guy, but I managed to do it.
WHAT DO YOU THINK WAS HUGHES AIRCRAFT'S MOST IMPORTANT TECHNOLOGICAL CONTRIBUTION TO MODERN LIFE?
In my recently released book, Hughes After Howard, I cite 60 things that are quite remarkable. I think from a public standpoint, the one that was most used and benefited the world the most was that we finally perfected the laser. Many companies and many scientists have tried to do that since Einstein thought of it in 1917; by 1960, we finally did it—we brought it to reality. Lasers are used in practically every phase of life you can think of: entertainment, communications, and weaponry.
Number two would be the synchronous orbiting satellite. Worldwide communications are possible if you have 3 satellites, fixed in their positions, moving exactly as the earth rotates. Another adjunct of that is DirecTV, a service that many people currently have. For the first time we were able to relay 200 channels of television to one of these geosynchronous satellites, which can then be received all over the united states by a little antenna only 18 inches in diameter.
The third one is cell phones and iPhones. What did we do there? Two things: we invented and perfected ways to miniaturize computer electronics, both memory and circuitry, in ways that had never been done before. The other thing is called a programmable signal processor. In each one of those phones is a computer, but it’s got to analyze all the data that comes in, process it, and convert it to sound or pictures, and that process is extremely difficult; and we perfected that. The ones that we did back in 1980 operated in 38 million performances per second, and today those systems are about 1 billion performances per seconds, but we were at the forefront of this technology.
YOU STUDIED FOR A MASTER’S DEGREE IN MECHANICAL ENGINEERING AT USC. HOW DID YOUR TIME AT USC INFLUENCE YOU?
One of the main reasons I came to Hughes is through a master’s fellowship program while I was at USC. We had 120 people from all over the country, and we worked 5/8ths of the time and then we went to school and got our master’s degree in two years. USC was very attractive to me as a master’s program. It did open my eyes a bit to other technologies, and I got to be exposed to different cultures from both the people at the college, as well as the whole campus. And, it was a strong draw for me to say I was going to Hughes Aircraft Company, which was this mysterious forefront electronics company.
HOW WERE YOU ABLE TO RISE TO THE LEVEL OF PRESIDENT--WHAT'S YOUR KEY TO SUCCESS?
Pure, raw luck. And, I’m sincere about that. There was a lot of competition for growth in the company, so I really was fortunate in many cases along the way.
But, what in retrospect, did I do to deserve to move ahead? I’ve always had the philosophy given to me by my parents. They said: get as much education as you possibly can, pick a worthy mission and proceed with zeal and perseverance, and work on your people skills because if a brilliant inventor comes up with a great idea, you really can’t make it happen without a whole team of different people cooperating together to meet that mission. So learning people skills is absolutely vital. I didn’t know that back when I first started in the company, but it became quite apparent over time.
I could go one step further and say that I got that marvelous master’s degree from USC. If you went to Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, you’d have the same sort of thing. USC master’s degree in engineering is a great degree. After, USC, I decided to go to UCLA and get another degree in business—back then it was a leading business school—and, therefore, I had a global outlook on business and technology rather than a deep-seeded knowledge in any given subject area.
HOW HAS AMERICA CHANGED DURING YOUR LIFETIME IN TERMS OF OUR APPROACH TO SCIENCE AND TECH ADVANCEMENTS?
Unfortunately, it’s a depressing subject. The American Academy of Sciences and several engineering institutes have analyzed where the United States stands in terms of technology advancement. At the present time, their analysis says that for 100 years, we were the leader in technological advancement. We are now ranked about number 25. I think that’s pretty atrocious.
Other things: Being a mother in this country, we are ranked No. 7 in terms of quality of life, stillbirths, and births/deaths…No.7….how could that be? In energy efficiency, we’re No. 14. Even China is more energy efficient than we are, even though we’re criticizing the heck out of them for using all the coal. There’s three numbers there that say there’s something really wrong. So what do I think about it? I’m not very happy.
WHAT CAN WE DO TO MOTIVATE OUR CITIZENS AND LEADERS TO RESTORE SCIENTIFIC ADVANCEMENT AS A PRIORITY IN THIS COUNTRY?
My view is, that the leadership does not have a mission, something that would unify the whole country so that we’re all willing to do something, contribute our energy, talent, and money to make it happen. We’re all in another rowboat; it would be nice if we were all rowing in the same direction. What is a mission? You can site several wars where the country got united because if you weren’t, we wouldn’t survive. So that’s pretty straightforward. What about the non-war things? Look back in the history of the United States: the transcontinental railroad, getting electrical power everywhere, getting the telegraph communications system to work properly, getting the phone system to be all over the country, getting the road system, building the panama canal, going to the moon. These were missions where we could unify ourselves.
If you have such a mission and if it is approaching a new boundary, the way you solve it is through technology. Now, how does that motivate people and kids? They want to get into technology because that’s where the money is. Of course, it’s exciting, too, but that’s where the employment gains are.
But, whatever the mission may be, you have to sell it to a population to get them to agree that’s a good thing to do. That’s an extremely difficult thing to do. None of the current politicians in Washington can do that—they just don’t seem to inspire anyone about anything. But, I wouldn’t have that capability either because I was a business leader not a politician.
You also have to have a mission that is good for our country. The only thing that occurs to me right now is energy—to solve the energy problem. We are completely dependent on our oil system, but there are many things that are much more efficient and I think there is a lot of technology out there to make that happen. I’ll cite two things: soft coal and nuclear energy. There are enormous deposits of soft coal in the Midwest, which nobody likes to burn because it’s inefficient and it puts out a lot of pollutants. But, one of our great inventors, Hal Rosen, the guy that really made the synchronous satellite system work, has quite a marvelous set of ideas about how you can liquefy coal in an efficient way so that it’s carbon output is much less and the pollution is much less. But, he hasn’t been able to get anyone in the government interested.
And the other one is nuclear power—it’s almost unbounded in its potential. What’s the problem there? Fear. But, it’s always good to look at the numbers. There have been 3 major accidents, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima. And, in 70 years, as far as I know, there is only 300 people that have died due to radiation. In Chicago, in the beginning of this year, there were 350 murders. I think we get thousands and thousands of deaths every week from traffic accidents. Why don’t we fear driving? Why do we fear we’re all going to die from nuclear power when there has only been 300 deaths from reactors in history? But, again, it’s a political sales job. And the numbers speak for themselves.