At this year's IMS2011, the IEEE Microwave Theory and Techniques (MTT) Society awarded Bill Oldfield the Microwave Application Award in recognition of his contributions to the field of microwave technology and engineering. Bill has been called an "industry pioneer," and I was curious to hear his thoughts on all things microwave. Graciously, Bill agreed to answer our questions, revealing his self-deprecating humor, experience, and enthusiasm for "all things microwave."
Interestingly enough, it all began with a hitchhiker...
RF&MW Designline: You have won the IEEE 2011 Microwave Application Award in recognition for your work on coaxial connectors, can you tell us some of the highlights of your work in that area?
One area where Wiltron and then Anritsu often led the T&M industry was in frequency range. We were the first to offer 40 GHz systems, then 65 GHz, then 110 GHz. So, the general highlight of my career was to always stay ahead in that area.
To move systems up in frequency, a new connector is needed, along with a lot of other components. I generally made passive components. I guess I was not smart enough to make active components. I have 31 patents and only 7 are connector-related.
They call you an "industry pioneer" what do you make of that?
I have always liked to make stuff. To keep ahead of our competition, we had to make stuff that they had not already built. I was fortunate to be able to make stuff ahead of the curve.
You have worked in the microwave & RF industry since 1961, what are some of your observations about how the industry has changed?
When I started in 1961, we took data one frequency at a time. We had signal generators and tunable klystrons, and you could sweep the frequency simply by turning a dial. We hooked up a pot to the dial with a battery and an XY plotter, and were able to make a swept plot. In those days, 18 GHz in coax was high tech and most signal generators had only an octave range. At Wiltron, we made the first network analyzer that measured amplitude and phase in both the forward and reflected signals. The widest coverage was an octave. Now, we make a VNA that covers from 70 KHz to 110 GHz.
Simulation software is another big change. In fact, any software was unknown when I started, so there was a lot of cut and try in designs. There was no computer correction in test equipment, so the instrument had to be accurate without any computer correction.
Tell us a bit about how your role has changed over the years, what did you do when you first joined Wiltron? How did things change as the company grew over the years?
I started working as a design engineer and still do the same thing. They tried to make a manager out of me, but I do not like to manage people. They almost fired me at one time, because I was a poor manager, but they decided that I could contribute more if they just let me make stuff.
What's the strangest or funniest thing that ever happened to you on the job?
The funniest thing was not actually of my doing. A magazine published the papers that would be given at the 1983 MTT conference. They also went around and asked pundits what they thought was the future of various things in the industry.
One question was, “Do you think there will ever be a 40 GHz coax connector?” The expert they asked was from H-P and he went on at great length about how this was almost impossible. This took up the bottom third of the page. On the same page was the outline of a paper that I was giving introducing a 40 GHz connector, the K connector, as well as a 40 GHz test system in coax.
On a more personal level, I often wrote an April 1 memo that made fun of things happening in the company. Once I wrote that H-P was giving up the T&M business because of a poorly designed thing that we had made.
The memo was sent out to everyone in the company and more or less invited feedback. Almost everyone sent in a comment and in their reply pressed Send to all. It completely overwhelmed our computer and little work was done that afternoon. I caught hell from management.
What caught you the most by surprise in your career?
The thing that surprised me the most was the industry reaction to the connectors that I designed. The K connector was not an invention; Maury Microwave had proposed a similar design. My contribution was to make it user friendly and fairly inexpensive. I have always said that designing a higher frequency connector was merely dividing by two. Yet, people still are amazed by each new connector.
What, if anything, do you wish you had the opportunity to work on? Conversely, what are you really glad you had the opportunity to work on?
I would have liked to work on MMIC technology, but it came a little late in my career for me to make the change. I am kind of a stick in the mud and did not have the personality to try something new.
I like to tell the story of how I happened to work in the microwave industry. I was looking for my first job in the Boston area with little luck. I picked up a hitchhiker and asked him where he wanted to go. When I dropped him off, I noticed an electronics sounding company name across the street. I went over and asked what they did. They told me, “Microwave components.” I had no idea what a microwave was. They hired me anyway. I’m glad they did because I have really enjoyed the microwave industry.
Is there anything you wish had happened in RF/microwave design that didn't? If yes, what is it and why?
The use of the frequencies above 70 GHz has not taken off. There is such potential there. More and more active devices are able to work up there and the lack of these parts in the past limited the ability to make reasonably priced systems. So, I hope there will be a use for the 220 GHz coax connector that I am presently working on.
What words of wisdom would you like to share with recent EE graduates? For instance, what's the secret to engineering success in our industry?
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes but learn from them. An amazing number of inventions were the result of mistakes. You must be willing to admit mistakes and move on. Always bounce your ideas off your co-workers but don’t give up on an idea if it does not get a good reception.
I usually try to have at least three possibilities for creating a new design and work at all of them in parallel. You should always listen to the people who will have to make your designs, they often have good suggestions. Work hard.