Spring Table of Contents / Home / TIMe, David Pozar and Rick Adrion
HETHER YOU tune your television to CNN for the latest on U.S. relations with Iraq, or to HBO to watch John Travolta go up against Harry Belafonte in White Man's Burden, you're one of more than sixty million Americans who subscribe to cable TV. Belafonte's mellow baritone and Saddam's dour visage arrive in your home only after being beamed up to satellite stations 36,000 kilometers away from Earth, down to another point on the planet, and over to you in your living room. And the industrial pioneer of these everyday amazements is a graduate of this campus: Sidney Topol `47, who said in a recent interview, "I wanted to have something to show for my life, to make a contribution."
It would be hard to overstate how much Sidney Topol has to show for his life, given the explosion of change that has occurred in the exact areas on which his career homed in. Today, the term "email" has entered the English language as a verb (as in "email me your resume"), cafes peddle foamy latte with Internet access on the side, and the synthetic jingle of cellular phones goes unnoticed amid the babble of the Student Union. But in the 1940s, when Topol was a student at the then-Massachusetts State College, not only was there no student union "this was a teeny-weeny school then," he emphasizes but television had scarcely been developed, transistors were several years in the future, and the airwaves were free to anyone who wanted to transmit a signal. Topol learned of America's entry into World War II not in a TV lounge but over the radio with his Lewis Hall dorm-mates; he recalls hovering around that instrument, listening to the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. "We all knew we were going," he says.
In retrospect, Topol acknowledges that the war gave him his start. At seventy-three, he retains the boyish demeanor of the MSC freshman who had skipped fifth grade and was consequently "much too young to be in college." His silver curls peek out from under a baseball cap; he gazes at you with eyes that still reflect the ingenuousness of that sixteen-year-old boy. "The girls were far more mature than me, and I had a hard time fitting in," he says. Topol had been in college for a year and a half, and was still only eighteen, when he volunteered in 1943 for induction into the Army Air Corps. The Army started training him in meteorology, then decided it had too many meteorologists, and ended up making him a radar specialist instead. Finally, after the armistice, it sent him to Tokyo to help set up microwave radio links for military use. With this work, Topol took his first step into the ethereal, wide-open field of wireless communications.
After the war, Topol in short order completed an undergraduate degree in physics at UMass, put in a stint at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., and enrolled in a master's program at the University of California, Berkeley. But by then it was the early 1950s; he "didn't want to be in school"; he was "anxious to work." When he was offered a job in the antenna design department at Raytheon in Newton he left graduate school to begin a career that would change the world of telecommunications.
Topol's work at Raytheon on the first portable television-relay links brought TV crews out of the studio and into the streets. Like the microwave links he'd installed in Tokyo, television-relay links work by bouncing signals in succession, like buckets of water in an old-fashioned fire line. The buckets, however, were formerly very bulky. Topol's success in miniaturizing vacuum tube equipment and reducing its energy requirements made mobile equipment cost-effective, and enabled camera crews to transmit live telecasts from remote locations. The technology Topol developed in the early fifties is virtually unchanged today; it is a direct result of his technical innovations that we can step from festivities commemorating the artist Botero on the Champs Elysée into the mayhem on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras, at the flip of a channel.
In the 1960s, while the Lunar Surveyor was on the moon preparing NASA for Neil Armstrong's small step, Topol and his team at Raytheon were building something almost as big down here: the first global-scale "Earth stations" satellite dishes for the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (INTELSAT). These "giant microwave dishes," as Topol calls them, literally bounced voice and television transmissions off orbiting satellites and dispersed them around the globe. Satellite communications of this kind permitted the first transoceanic television broadcasts, and meant that signals could be transmitted across huge distances without the need for relay links, let alone cumbersome wire connections. INTELSAT later used these connections to televise the Apollo moon landing all over the world.
WHEN ASKED HOW he got the contract for INTELSAT, Topol reveals something of the business acumen that would power the next, entrepreneurial phase of his career. "Humility was very important," he says circumspectly. "They had to believe they controlled you, and they had to believe you could deliver."
In 1971 the chairman of a small, twenty-year-old Georgia telecommunications company offered Topol something he had always wanted "free rein and the ability to make the decisions" and he left Raytheon for the presidency of Scientific Atlanta. For this native Bostonian, the move to Georgia "was more like moving to a foreign country than moving to Italy," where he and his wife had also lived for several years. "It took them a while to trust me in Atlanta," says Topol, whose speech is now marked with both the absent R's of the Northeast and the languid rhythms of the South. "But they finally did."
It was exactly the right time to make the move. During the 1970s, people who couldn't get good reception of regular broadcast channels were paying entrepreneurs like Amos Hostetter of Continental Cable Vision to have television brought to them through cable. Moreover, it was becoming clear that even people who could get decent reception were willing to pay for more channels and better programming. Aware of what satellite communications could do, and thoroughly versed in the technology required to build Earth stations, Topol had what he calls a vision: that cable companies could use satellite links to deliver uncut movies and a profusion of sporting events from all over the country and indeed the world.
Convinced that the future of cable TV was in satellite communications, Topol set about making the future cost-effective by stepping up the production of Earth stations. Using a technique called "forward pricing," he began selling dozens of these now-familiar dishes "for what they would cost if they were being built in hundreds." He encouraged RCA to do the same with the transponders, or signal receptors, on the satellite it owned. He erected an Earth station on the front lawn of Scientific Atlanta, and in general "demonstrated to anyone who was willing to listen how satellite communications could be used in cable television." Within a short enough time that the forward-pricing strategy paid off handsomely, satellite communications were the standard in cable television and Scientific Atlanta the national leader in microwave satellite communications technology. In the nineteen years that Topol served as president, CEO, or chairman, the company's sales vaulted from $16 million to $600 million.
Those were the years of "not being able to build Earth stations fast enough," recalls Topol. The explosive growth was a marketing as well as a production phenomenon: a 1979 Nieman Marcus catalog offers "His and Hers Backyard Earth Stations." Privately owned satellite dishes, the price of which could be met only by the most affluent and chic (or those most desperate for reception) could not only bypass Earth-bound broadcast signals, but circumvent the need for a cable provider altogether by putting the consumer in direct contact with satellites. Backyard Earth stations are now a common alternative to cable service.
IN 1987, WHILE STILL SERVING as director and chairman of the board of Scientific Atlanta, Topol became chairman of the Advanced Television Committee of the Electronic Industries Association. In that capacity he became a champion of high definition television (HDTV), a technology that enhances video images by using digital, instead of analog, encoding techniques. According to Chris Hurley `87 of New England Cablevision, digital encoding improves image quality by, among other things, providing "self-correcting mechanisms which can fill in gaps when portions of an image are lost in transfer." Topol's belief that HDTV will literally change the face of television has placed him before Congress and in White House briefing sessions to testify on its behalf.
Now retired from Scientific Atlanta, Topol finds he can't simply relax by the pool at his vacation home in Florida. Though he's replaced his suit and tie with chinos and slouchy cotton sweaters, he can't help but refer to his canvas knapsack as his "briefcase." He is president of an investment and consulting firm called The Topol Group, and has been the motivating force behind the establishment of TIMe, the Telecommunications Institute of Massachusetts at UMass (see sidebar). Perhaps the most remarkable contribution he's made to UMass, however, is the recent donation of his professional papers to the university archives.
The sixty-five linear feet of letters, clippings, oral histories, engineering notebooks, and various other items that make up the Sidney Topol Papers chronicle both the life of this telecommunications pioneer and the development of the industry in which he has been a lodestar. Among the objects displayed this winter at the W.E.B. Du Bois Library were pictures of a teenager clad in the uniform of a second lieutenant; original schematics for the development of new antennas; and a 1991 letter from former president Jimmy Carter that reads, in part, "Through your extraordinary foresight, talent and perseverance, Scientific Atlanta has developed into one of our nation's greatest technological assets. Your leadership has put our city and state in the forefront of advanced communications . . .."
Related Links: Antenna Lab / Wireless Communications Center
IN THE WHIZZING WORLD of telecommunications, one thing seems to be constant: fast is never fast enough, free can always be freer. "People are getting sick of having to wait to get on the Net," says David Pozar, a professor of electrical and computer engineering; we're also weary of searching for wall outlets. For those impatiently awaiting the day when we can lounge by a stream with our laptops and still be online, says Pozar, the TIMe has almost come!
"TIMe" is the Telecommunications Institute of Massachusetts, founded on campus last year in response to some startlingly positive numbers. According to a recent study by UMass management professor Craig Moore, the telecommunications sector in Massachusetts experienced a 61 percent growth in employment and a 290 percent growth in sales between 1993 and 1996. It was figures like these plus what computer science professor Rick Adrion calls the "cattle-prodding" of industry leader Sid Topol '47 that led to the founding of TIMe as a catalyst through which state, industry, and academic players will attempt to keep Massachusetts at the top of the telecommunications heap. "TIMe hopes to link up all our efforts in telecommunications research, education, public policy, and technology transfer," says Adrion, who is acting director of the institute.
High on the list of research efforts TIMe is encouraging is the development of wireless Internet access, using microwave communication in lieu of modems and phone lines. Pozar has already developed lightweight, compact microwave antennas the size of a John Grisham novel; microwave access, he says, will not only be wireless, but also much faster than phone connections.
Another priority is supporting MITI the Massachusetts Information Turnpike Initiative, which has already electronically linked the five UMass campuses through fiber-optic wire running the length of the Massachusetts Turnpike. Soon, says Adrion, "Classrooms on the five campuses will be wired up to MITI with real-time conferencing equipment. Classrooms will be able to interact, and people will be able to offer courses on one campus and make them available to all the others." With TIMe's help, initiatives like MITI can be expanded to other forms of distance learning, and perhaps even to industry.
There are also policy contributions to be made. Rapid advances in telecommunications are daily raising such questions as, Who has intellectual property rights to online materials? To whom do you pay taxes if you buy something on the Net? In supporting academic studies such as Moore's "Connect to the Future" and computer science professor Susan Landau's "Privacy on the Line," TIMe hopes to help define future public policy.
Finally, there are financial gains to be reaped. TIMe's role in technology transfer, which is Adrion's real baby, blurs the borders between academic pursuits and commercial interests, allowing students and faculty to work on high-tech applications that can later be licensed to industry. Combining commercial and academic interests not only gives students practical experience, but also funnels private money into the university.
The collaborative mentality represented by TIMe has already produced the first statewide technology-development initiative: a proposal submitted to the National Science Foundation by a coalition of dozens of academic, industrial, and governmental partners will, if successful, be matched by the university and establish a multimillion-dollar Center for Scientific and Technological Excellence at UMass.