Special Products Division – Ampex, Inc., 1968 – 1972

In the Fall quarter 1967 I fell prey to clinical depression – a condition that lasted approximately 5 years. I began therapy in 1970 and by 1971 I was able to return to college. Until then, I was unable to sustain the schedule and motivation of a full-time student and realized I had to leave school and seek employment.

I answered an ad for technicians at Ampex, Inc., the premiere manufacturer of magnetic tape devices and systems in Redwood City, CA, at the northern end of what came to be known as Silicon Valley. Upon reviewing my rudimentary resume covering my co-op jobs, the interviewer commented that it looked more suitable to a Junior Engineer and asked if I would be willing to sit for a test. Would I – that was what I had learned to do over the previous 4 years! When I emerged I was told that my time was the shortest on record, and I was offered a position at the Special Products Division.

I consider Special Products as the place where I learned the craft of engineering – not only how to design but how to use all the tools such as drafting, component catalogs and documentation control as well as advanced test instrumentation. The division was tiny by company standards – about 150 workers, and had to be able t0 design, build, deliver and support any device for which a customer could pay that was not normally manufactured by Ampex.

I was first put to design of analog electronics for high-speed tape duplicators (that churned out music cassettes at another of Ampex’ divisions). These circuits had to maintain high-fidelity audio quality standards at a speed (and therefore frequency) step-up of 40 times.

By the end of 1969 I was transferred to the PYRAMID project, a large-scale audio-visual information retrieval system for installation in colleges, which delivered audio lectures illustrated by still video images to student access positions. PYRAMID was controlled by a Data General Nova minicomputer and could be programmed for interactive learning – the tape would stop when a question was posed to the student and would resume when a response was given at a keypad. Under direction from the computer the tape would move forward or back and change tracks so that it would either proceed or give a reply to the student’s response and come to a stop at the next question or return to the original question. This can now be performed by a CD-ROM enabled laptop, but in 1970 it took racks of tape master and buffer drives, 14-inch video disks and the minicomputer with its specialized computer interface electronics. I was put in charge of supporting those interface electronics.

In 1971 Ampex began a period of contraction and decline, and by the end of the year the PYRAMID system had been moved into the Videofile division, where I finished my employment before taking educational leave to complete my degree work.