Born in Washington, D.C., to a family of poor Irish immigrants, Russell Varian and his family moved to Halcyon, California, in 1914. Varian planned to study social sciences at Stanford University, but his reading skills were so poor that he had difficulty keeping up with the assignments. He switched to physics. Even though his math skills were weak and he took six years to graduate, he finally received his degree in 1925.
Varian returned to Stanford later that year to begin graduate work. Initially he planned to determine the Compton shift of copper, but French physicist Louis de Broglie had already determined the Compton shift for iron and zinc, so Varian designed a gas-filled X-ray tube to measure the relative intensity of the Compton shifts. Varian received his master’s in 1927 and spent five months with Humble Oil, during which time he received a patent for a vibrating magnetometer. Varian then had a succession of jobs, including working on early television systems for Philo T. Farnsworth and Company. Stanford University rejected his application for its Ph.D. program because of his poor math and reading skills, so in 1935 he began working with his brother, Sigurd Varian (by now an ex-pilot, grounded by recurrent bouts of illness), on ideas for detecting airplanes by high-frequency radio signal.
Varian’s idea was to develop an “electron tube” capable of directing a beam of electrons, which could be used in a number of different applications. Sigurd approached Stanford University, which provided use of a lab and $100 in materials. By the summer of 1937 the first klystron tube, as it was called, had been constructed, and it was formally introduced in the Journal of Physics in 1939. The British lost no time in adapting klystron technology for use in radar stations, which helped defeat the Luftwaffe’s onslaught in the summer of 1940. Further research work on the klystron tube was subsequently underwritten by Sperry Gyroscope Company, and the Varian brothers, along with Stanford graduate student Edward Ginzton, moved to Sperry’s laboratories in Long Island, New York.
In 1948 the Varian brothers founded Varian Associates to further their work. Russell was named president of the company, and Varian Associates developed a number of important new instruments, including nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) technology and the medical linear accelerator.
Russell and his wife, Dorothy, were active conservationists, and in July 1959 Russell died of a heart attack while scouting prospective locations for Alaska’s new national parks.
Russell Varian's 1937 notebook entries that were the basis of the klystron tube. Courtesy of Varian.