Sigurd Varian graduated high school in 1920 and entered the California Polytechnical School but soon left because the courses failed to interest him. In early 1922 he went to work for the Southern California Edison Company stringing high-power lines, but he did not see his future as connected to the grid. Like many young men of the 1920s, he became enthralled by flight and soon became a barnstorming pilot. For much of this time he was also intermittently ill with tuberculosis. However, Varian’s enthusiasm for flying affected his brother, Russell Varian, and both men worked on ideas to improve the primitive navigation equipment then available. Disappointed by their failure to design a successful radio compass, Russell sketched out the first designs for the klystron tube in 1937.
Sigurd approached Stanford for help, and the university let the brothers use lab space, equipment, and materials in the physics department. The university also put the brothers in touch with Sperry Gyroscope, which agreed to support the research in exchange for exclusive patent rights. Soon the brothers were joined by other brilliant young engineers, including Edward Ginzton, and they eventually moved to Sperry’s main manufacturing site in New York.
During World War II the brothers built klystron tubes for military purposes and helped initiate the postwar microwave technology revolution, which spawned numerous breakthrough devices, including high-energy particle accelerators, communications satellites, and, ultimately, the cell phone.
In 1945 Sigurd continued to work for Sperry, while his brother returned to California and Ginzton took up a teaching post at Stanford. By 1948 with the cold war looming, it was clear that there would be an expanded role for the kind of new military technologies the Varians had developed over the previous ten years. Sigurd was convinced that it was the right time to launch a new enterprise. Along with Russell he had high hopes for nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) technology, and with $22,000 they formed a new company to develop these technologies further. The brothers named their new enterprise Varian Associates, to acknowledge the contributions of others on whom the company depended: Ginzton, Fred Salisbury, Myrl Stearns, and Russell’s wife, Dorothy.
While Varian Associates was a leading technical innovator in the 1950s, the same could not be said for its financial performance. When Sigurd died in a freak aircraft accident in 1961, Ginzton left his teaching position at Stanford to become CEO. Ginzton soon imposed financial discipline and Varian Associates grew comfortably throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Today Varian, Inc., is one of the world’s largest instrument businesses, with annual sales of nearly $1 billion.
Varian headquarters in San Carlos, California, 1948. Courtesy of Varian.