The Perham Collection

De Forest Spade Responder photo

De Forest Wireless System Responder, No. 271, ca. 1903

The Perham Collection of Early Electronics is the legacy of radio pioneer Douglas McDonald Perham (1887-1967), an early wireless experimenter and radio broadcaster. Perham, a talented technician, was also a life-long collector. The collection parallels Perham’s career and documents early electronics in the West, particularly the Santa Clara Valley, from the early 1900s to 1960. Today’s collection includes more than 2,500 objects and 1,200 photographs, and more than 200 linear feet of manuscript collections. Rare books, trade manuals, ephemera and other printed material are also part of the collection.

Perham, Albertus and Jensen photo

Douglas Perham, C. Albertus, and Peter V. Jensen with 1910 Poulsen arc transmitter, built by Poulsen Wireless in Palo Alto, Calif.

Doug Perham’s career spanned the first 50 years of commercial electronics in the West — from his first teen-aged experiment with a Marconi coherer in 1898 to his retirement from Varian in 1953. As Federal Telegraph Company’s first American employee (1909), he built the company’s first four Poulsen arcs, and worked with Lee de Forest’s research team (1911-12). He installed experimental and commercial Federal wireless stations throughout California and Texas. In 1922, he built and operated one of Iowa’s first licensed radio broadcasting stations, WJAM, and the first affiliated with a newspaper (The Cedar Rapids Gazette). Coming back to California in 1928, he worked for many local firms, including Federal, Heintz and Kaufman, Dalmo Victor, Ampex and Varian Associates.

Lee De Forest Tube Queen photo

Lee De Forest crowning the Tube Queen (photo credit: Leo Choplin)

Perham’s enthusiasm for preserving and sharing the history of his field led him to a lifetime of collecting. His collection documented some of the earliest commercial work in electronics in the U.S. and on the West Coast. Many friends and associates helped him add to his collections well into the 1960s, including Ralph Heintz, Lee de Forest, and Russell Varian. Perham’s original electronics museum, displayed at New Almaden during the 1950s and 1960s, is the heart of History San José’s Perham Collection of Early Electronics.

Perham’s collection was acquired in 1963 by the Perham Foundation, a non-profit group made up of local electronics pioneers (many of them Doug’s personal friends). In 1969, the Foundation raised funds to construct the Foothill Electronics Museum at Foothill College in Los Altos, California. The Museum, opened in 1973, was operated by the College until 1979 and by the Foundation and its many volunteers until its closing in 1991.

Ruth Peiser amateur radio photo

Ruth J. Peiser, 22, of San Francisco, operates her amateur radio station W60K, ca. 1928

Building on Doug Perham’s extensive collection of electronics apparatus, the Perham Foundation had continued to collect objects, photographs, publications, and archival collections. Especially significant was the gift of the papers of radio and motion picture pioneer Lee de Forest, by his widow Marie. Other manuscript collections include the papers of Jane Morgan, author of Electronics in the West; documentation about Federal Telegraph, Globe, and other early wireless companies; the Eimac archives; materials regarding San Jose radio pioneer Charles “Doc” Herrold; and other collections regarding early radio and television, and electronic surveillance.

Douglas Perham at Almaden Museum photo

Douglas Perham holding a Varian klystron at New Almaden Museum, 1956

After twelve years in temporary storage, the Perham Collection was given by the Perham Foundation to History San José in 2003. (Badly damaged objects, duplicative material, and toxic items were not included in the gift). Today, the “Perham Collection in Early Electronics” is maintained as a separate collection, and again focuses predominantly on the first fifty years of the development of the electronics industry in the western United States, particularly the South Bay region. The Collection augments existing HSJ collections documenting the evolution of the electronics industry in Silicon Valley and, more generally, the intersection of technology and society in this region.

Scholars have been especially interested in the work of Lee de Forest, the evolution of early West Coast electronics companies (particularly Federal Telegraph Company), the area’s pioneer radio experimenters, and early klystron tube development. In 2009, an exhibit celebrating the 100th anniversary of Doc Herrold’s first regular wireless radio broadcasting, sponsored by KCBS, was installed at the Tech Museum in San José, and later at San José City Hall. Objects also are on loan to exhibits at Fry’s Electronics (Sunnyvale), Campbell Historical Museum, California Historical Radio Society, and the Hewlett-Packard Garage site.

Perham Collection Online Exhibit in partnership with Google Cultural Institute
For more information on Lee de Forest, visit www.leedeforest.org.
In the News: Cassidy: Wild Silicon Valley treasure trove will be tamed, San José Mercury News, 13 January 2012

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