If you lived in Croatia, Tanzania, Yemen, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, El Salvador, Bolivia, or almost any of the 195 sovereign countries recognized by the United Nations, and if you are involved with television engineering or production, there's a small town in the Sierra Foothills of Northern California who's name you would probably know. Even in most places in the United States, you wouldn't know it as a place, but a brand.
I'm writing a book that will explain how and why that is so and the impact it had not only on two small towns, Grass Valley and Nevada City, the surrounding area, but also on the entire television industry. At one time it was claimed that more people per capita worked in the television industry in this area than anywhere on the planet, including places like New York, Los Angeles, or London. The book is going to resolve if that per capita claim is, or was ever true, and will never-the-less demonstrate how being an important part of the industry has affected the area. Most people who live in the local area don't know these facts. Yet the television production movers and shakers regularly pilgrimage to the area to hobnob with the technical wizards that help make their visions a reality.
The Grass Valley Company which started the phenomenon in the area, originally grew out of the D.G.C. Hare Company, founded in 1949 in Connecticut by Dr. D.G.C Hare. The company mainly produced audio and data recorders along with other special projects for the Navy, MIT, and a few others. The company was a hand to mouth operation financially and in 1955 Hare sold his company to Sangamo Electric Company. In 1958, at the urging of fellow Stanford alumnus Charles Litton Sr, Dr. Hare moved the company, with the blessing of Sangamo Electric, to the small town of Grass Valley, Ca.
Litton and Dr. Hare had gone to Stanford together and Litton had a company, in the 'Silicon Valley' area long before it was known by that moniker. Varian produced high power vacuum tubes, known as magnetrons, which were used for radar and microwave applications. Litton had moved his company out of the bay area in 1953 and up into the Sierra foothills after he fell in love with the area. Up until that time the town of Grass Valley and the adjoining town of Nevada City survived off the lumber industry and rapidly diminishing gold, and other related mining. While Litton and Hare's group were allies at first, that relationship didn't last.
Shortly after the move to Grass Valley, Dr. Hare also had a falling out with the Sangamo management, and they split official ties. However, Hare and his group continued to produce product for Sangamo. That group of people literally became the 'group' in Hare's new company - The Grass Valley Group, formed in 1959. The Group brought several creative and key engineers together to find a way forward with his new endeavor.
The new company under Hare's direction continued to live a few payroll cycles away from oblivion. New products from the company came and went. They created a device for the state department that let diplomates know if their phones were bugged, and if so, the device would generate noise to mask any conversation in the room. They built an early fax machine geared for railroads that would scan waybills at high speed during the day and transmit them at lower speed at night when phone charges were lower. They produced and sold sound equipment that was installed into movie theaters. Partially from that, they produced a line of audio amps that were mainly sold to radio broadcasters.
As they managed to acquire income it was invested into creating a campus where engineering and creativity could flourish. Sometimes through hard work, and ingenuity, and sometimes with a bit of artful misdirection there emerged the original standalone facility on Britney Springs, on the cuff of the prairie and Sierra foothills east of town.
But by 1962-63 the company was facing financial peril again. It was at that time an ally with San Francisco station KGO, an ABC-owned television station, suggested that if they made some refinements to a video distribution amp, ubiquitous in television stations, that they might be able to compete against the likes of the then giants RCA, and GE among others. Some thought that idea preposterous, but in short order they produced their first model. From then on when opportunity sprang up, the group was able to respond quickly to the new avenue presented to them. Responding to an emergency situation that ABC had leading into the 1964 Republican Convention gave the Group their big break with that network.
From the products that were rudimentary processing equipment used by television broadcasters, the group produced more exotic and complex systems that moved the company up the professional television broadcaster food chain. They pushed product lines that had been pioneered and developed for twenty years by the industry leaders of the day and soon had the entrenched players following Grass Valley's lead in innovation.
The Group became the dominant player in video production switchers. These are devices that allow all the layers of graphics, effects, and a myriad of sources to be integrated into a complex mosaic of video. Oh yeah, this is all done in real time while the newscast, sporting event, or entertainment show is happening.
By the mid 1970's the group had enough of the high-end video market that one of the props used to destroy Princess Leia's home planet of Alderaan in the first Star Wars film, was a video 'fader bar' on a Grass Valley 1600 video production switcher as seen below. This was the second generation of video switcher production equipment developed by The Group.
Grass Valley continues to dominate this segment of video production equipment. While the group's equipment was quite impressive then, it pales in technology and capability to what they offer now.
This equipment is now so capable and complex that a priesthood has grown up around its use. This equipment can be compared to an aircraft that can do acrobatics. Students pilots might not be able to do any more than land and take off and keep its wings level, while a select few can begin to demonstrate what the aircraft is truly capable of doing. Another analogy might be to a Steinway concert piano. A first-year student won't even begin to do the instrument justice compared to a concert maestro. There's an elite group of people who are in demand to operate this broadcasting gear at the marquee sporting and entertainment events that are televised. While just about every television facility has one or more people who can operate this equipment at a local, less source-intensive level, only a few can take 50-100 cameras and other sources used at the Indy 500, Superbowl, etc. and make them all appear seamlessly integrated into a live program.
The book is going to look at how Grass Valley, as the company is known now, sans Group, which was dropped from its name many years ago, had developed the video compositing and effects technology. At times that meant betting the company. There were many successes, and a few setbacks that have occurred over the years. It will also look at the people and culture that design, manufacture, and equally important, the people who make this equipment 'sing' when in use. In addition, we will look at the people interface to this equipment, that is, how users operate this equipment, and how the interface that was first introduced over 60 years ago, still dominates offspring that are hundreds of times more powerful today than it was then. Again, a reference back to the piano is in order, whose keyboard layout has endured for hundreds of years.
Internally the company is still often referred to as the Group. The brand is so strong that many in the television industry simply refer to it as "Grass." The book will also cover the trajectory as to why the Grass Valley logo is purple when you would think it would be green. It was green until quite recently.
The story will include how the group was sold into larger corporate entities, and spun back out to holding companies, more than once, and its current corporate linage. Several prominent players in the industry have had part or all of their companies intertwined with the group, and today it is the Grass Valley name that survives, minus the green lettering. While the group's employment in the area is greatly diminished from what it was, it is still an important part of the area's financial picture.
But the story of the towns of Grass Valley and Nevada City involves much more ingenuity and engineering swagger affecting the television industry than just the namesake company. We will look at how a mini Fairchild-effect occurred in the area. Like Fairchild Semiconductor started in San Jose a couple of years before the group, E Unum pluribus occurred - from one, many. A few of the companies that arose from Fairchild, many second, third, 10th generations out, include Intel, AMD, Altera, LSI Logic, National Semiconductor, and SanDisks. Some have come and gone like NeXT Computer, and Amdahl. These early companies produced a 'food chain' that became "Silicon Valley." Companies that serve the first-tier companies, that is the ones with names you know, like the ones just mentioned grew to supply the goods and services that these first-tier companies needed for the area to reach critical mass when it came to making San Jose and the San Francisco peninsula into its namesake today. They are the companies that make test and production equipment to allow the Intels to produce microprocessors and other electronic parts.
A similar thing on a smaller scale happened with the Grass Valley and Nevada City area and the group. A few of the known spinoffs include Graham-Patten systems, NVision, Ensemble Design, AJA, Telestream, and Sierra Video. I know there are those I've left out. I intend to find those. Also, I will look at the collaboration that has taken place between the Grass Valley entities and those from around the world. The book will tell the stories of these endeavors; their trials and tribulations, triumphs, and setbacks.
There is another book that looked at the early history of the areas influence on television. That book "The Inscrutable Dr. Hare, A Legend of Grass Valley" by Bob Robertson, was written in 1996 and it covers the life story of Dr. D.G.C. Hare, and his founding of the Grass Valley Group. It describes his genius in guiding and building a company that fought all odds and became an industry icon. The book winds down its narrative in 1973 when the company was acquired by Tektronix, and wraps it up in 1984, the year the company celebrated its 25th year, and at the end of that year, the passing of Dr. Hare.
The story has marched on since then as the company has ridden the technological wave that has transformed the industry. Some would claim that the group was instrumental in creating some of that wave. And as mentioned, many others in the area have picked up and carried on the innovative torch that has kept the towns relevant to broadcasters today.
Below is a the latest proposed table of contents. I know of at least 45 enities that currently, or have existed that most likely would not have if Charlie Litton Sr. hadn't moved to the area. The fact that one of those entities is not listed in the current TOC doesn't mean it won't be covered. But if you want to be sure that I'm aware of it please email me with the pertinent facts and story, and I will gladly consider it.