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The Inventor and the Pilot

Historical Figures

The Varian brothers fought hardship, poverty, and struggled with significant health issues, and yet created one of the first companies in Silicon Valley

Marco Carlone / Aug. 16, 2022, 3:24 a.m.

Cover of the book by Dorothy Varian about Russell and Sigurd Varian

The Varian brothers are best known for the Silicon Valley company that still bears their name, Varian Medical Systems. However, many people may not know the truly inspirational story of the two incredible men behind this company.
Born to poor Irish immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, both Russell and Sigurd Varian faced financial and significant health challenges all their life. Russell, the older brother, was dyslectic. This at a time when learning disabilities were not well understood or tolerated. His disability made Russell a slow reader and writer, which is an important disadvantage to advanced study, especially in a field as challenging and unforgiving as physics. Through his sheer determination, Russell was able to study physics at Stanford University, and complete a master’s degree.
Sigurd, the younger brother, was less academically inclined, but had incredibly mechanical and engineering skills. In the early 1920s, he saw that aviation was an industry with a future, and so he became a pilot and flew commercially for Pan American Airlines. He was a chronic sufferer of tuberculosis, which often kept him bedridden for months at a time.
Sigurd, however, was a talented and self-taught engineer, and quickly realized that navigation was key to making aviation safer. He brought this problem to his older brother Russell, and the two brothers put their heads to the problem, and together invented the klystron, which has come to have a very important role in airplane navigation and radar.
Sigurd was such a talented engineer, that he also solved the problem of building grids for vacuum tubes. Without a grid to act as a gate between a cathode and anode, vacuum tubes are more difficult to control, and their use is more limited. By adding a gate, in the form of a grid, in between the cathode and anode, the device can be controlled much more precisely, much like the gate in a transistor. But by their nature, the grids for vacuum tubes are very small and delicate, and thus difficult to manufacture with consistent quality. Russell, the mechanical genius that he was, developed an etching technique that allowed high and consistent quality of grids for Varian’s vacuum tubes. This innovation, almost as much as any, guaranteed Varian’s commercial success and place in many industries (communication, medical, vacuum, defense).
Throughout all this, the Varian brothers were also fighting poverty. Many times, either of the two had to put off their careers and ambitions when they didn’t have enough money to get them through their projects and ideas. They both died too young, at around the age of 60, Russell from heart disease, and Sigurd in an unfortunate plane accident off the coast of Mexico.
The two men founded Varian Associates, which was among the first companies in what is today, Silicon Valley. Their story is beautifully told in the 1983 book “The Inventor and the Pilot” written by Dorothy Varian, the wife of Russell Varian. It is well worth reading for anyone interested in the rich history of linear accelerators and radiotherapy.

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