Carl V. Larson (BS ’52, Mechanical Engineering)

2016 Distinguished Alumnus

Carl V. Larson

(BS ’52, Mechanical Engineering)

For his accomplished career in the electronics industry. Over the course of three decades, Larson held numerous and diverse leadership roles in fields ranging from engineering to marketing. Larson is also being celebrated for his sustained commitment to the research, students, and alumni of Caltech.

In 1950, when Carl Larson was still a student at Caltech, he paid a visit to the office of the Institute’s cofounder Robert Millikan, then 82 years old and retired, and asked him to sign a copy of his autobiography. More than 60 years later, Larson brought the book back—set on a wooden stand that he personally handcrafted—and offered it as a gift to Edward Stolper, Caltech’s provost. 

“It was a way to say that Caltech has had a profound impact on me, personally, and that it continues to have a tremendous impact on the world,” Larson says.

Throughout his life, Larson has been a witness to and champion of that impact. 

“The Larsons have been longtime, loyal, and indeed remarkable friends to Caltech and to me personally,” says Provost Stolper, who is also the William E. Leonhard Professor of Geology. “Their support of Caltech and their belief in the distinctive role that the Institute can and must play in education and research has been unwavering and inspirational.”

Larson grew up on Mercer Island in Lake Washington, at a time when it was only accessible by ferry and there were about 300 residents. “It was incredibly isolated and quiet,” Larson recalls. He arrived at Caltech in 1948 with the intention of studying chemistry, but switched to mechanical engineering. 

“I had the utmost respect for the theorists, but soon learned I wasn’t one of them,” Larson laughs. “Maybe it was survival. I figured, ‘Better to graduate as an engineer than flunk as a chemist or theoretical physicist.’” After graduation, Larson joined the military, serving three years as a meteorologist stationed in South Korea and Japan. 

When he returned, Larson landed at the epicenter of the electronics revolution: Stanford Industrial Park, now known as Stanford Research Park.  Conceived by then-provost of Stanford, Frederick Terman, the park was established as a university-owned industrial center, leasing office space to new technology companies such as Hewlett-Packard, General Electric, and Lockheed. Larson secured a job as an engineer with the park’s first tenant, Varian Associates, which sold the first vacuum tubes that could amplify electromagnetic waves at microwave frequencies, called klystrons. Unlike standard glass vacuum tubes, klystrons were imposing metallic devices initially fabricated by hand.

“I didn’t know a microwave from a banana,” Larson says. “But I had my Caltech training, which allowed me to learn and adapt quickly.” As Varian grew, Larson found himself working on a variety of projects involving mechanical, chemical, and electrical engineering. But he soon became interested in the business aspects of the company, and began taking business classes at Stanford, part of a program offered to employees of the industrial park, another idea of Provost Terman’s. He also met and began dating Shirley, who was then working as Terman’s assistant, and they were married within a year.

A vector has two properties: direction and magnitude. Caltech’s leaders set new directions. Shirley and I, to the extent that we can, help with the magnitude.

Carl V. Larson's (BS '52, Mechanical Engineering) acceptance speech at the 79th annual Seminar Day on May 21, 2016.

Larson eventually switched from engineering to marketing for Varian, helping to secure contracts to provide scientific devices to other universities and private firms such as Bell Labs. “Because I understood the science, I was pretty good at speaking with other scientists and showing them how our instruments could help them, so I was successful,” Larson says.

In 1974, Larson left Varian and followed one of his coworkers, Renn Zaphiropoulos, who founded Versatec, one of the first companies to offer commercially viable electrostatic printers—a stepping stone toward today’s laser printers. “Zaphiropoulous was a genius inventor who taught me a great deal. I was able to help on the business side,” Larson says. He stayed with the company, which was acquired by Xerox, until he retired from his position as a vice president in 1987.

In the decades since, Carl and Shirley Larson have maintained an active relationship with Caltech, often providing behind-the-scenes leadership. The couple served on the committee for the “There’s Only One. Caltech” fundraising campaign, which ran from 2002 to 2008 and garnered $1.4 billion. Shirley has been a member of the Athenaeum House Committee and helped spearhead a comprehensive renovation of the historic facility. Larson has served as a member of the Alumni Association board, as president of the Caltech Associates, and as chair of the board for Caltech’s signature Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program, which introduces young scholars to the rigors of research under the supervision of faculty mentors. 

“Carl was instrumental in helping SURF learn how to better tell its story to reach a broader community,” says Candace Rypisi, director of student-faculty programs at Caltech. “The SURF program has had a profound impact on generations of students, and though they are humble about it, Carl and Shirley have had a profound impact on SURF.”

“There is really no program quite like it,” Larson said. “The fact that incredibly bright students have the opportunity to gain hands-on experience under the close guidance of exceptional mentors—it’s an example of why my wife and I believe in Caltech.”

In 2015, the Larsons extended their support to endow a leadership chair for Caltech’s provost, providing a source of flexible funding that Edward M. Stolper, the first holder of the chair, and his successors can use at their discretion to quickly address emerging priorities and seize opportunities that will help move the Institute’s research and educational programs forward. 

“Their generosity in establishing this chair will make a big difference in the effectiveness of all Caltech’s provosts as stewards of the Institute’s academic priorities and will give Caltech a competitive edge for generations to come,” says Stolper.  

As Caltech looks toward the future, Larson felt that it was fitting to revisit the past with his gift of Millikan’s book.

“A vector has two properties: direction and magnitude. Millikan, along with [George Ellery] Hale and [Arthur Amos] Noyes, set a direction by creating a place where the best fundamental research could be conducted and taught,” Larson says. “Today’s leaders continue that philosophy and set new directions. Shirley and I have been grateful, to the extent that we can, to help with the magnitude.”

by Ben Tomlin, Wayne Lewis

photo credit: Scott Council

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