Perham Collection Creator Profile: Charles Litton

Among the many Bay Area radio hams in the 1920s who later became leaders in electronics was Charles Vincent Litton (1904-1972). He built his first ham set at age 10, and as a college student had two 100-foot towers at his family home in Redwood City, enabling him to transmit as far as Australia. After receiving both trade and college preparatory training at Lick-Wilmerding High School (San Francisco), he headed to Stanford University where he received his bachelors, 1924, and masters degrees, 1925, in electrical engineering.

Even as an engineering student, he showed a special talent for making radio parts and blowing glass vacuum tubes. “He was a gifted designer, who could do the seemingly impossible with metal and glass,” recalled former Federal Telegraph chief engineer Leonard Fuller. At the time, RCA owned most of the vacuum tube and radio patents, making it difficult for new companies to compete. Litton, at age 23, devised means for tube manufacturing that were so different they could not be considered to infringe on existing patents, drawing grudging praise from RCA patent attorneys. A year later, in 1928, Litton was put in charge of creating a tube production department at Federal Telegraph Company.

Charles V. Litton at early Model F lathe, about 1936 (Jane Morgan Papers, History San Jose)

When Federal Telegraph moved east in 1931, Litton started his own business in Redwood City, and later San Carlos. Litton Engineering Laboratories produced an ingenious invention of Litton’s: a glass lathe which could make radio transmitting tubes of uniform high quality, quickly and in great numbers, paving the way for large-scale commercialization. Litton Labs became the leading source of precision glass-forming machinery in the United States, and Litton’s technology was integral to the work of such companies as Varian Associates and Eitel-McCullough. Expanding and changing in the post-World War II economy, Litton Labs became Litton Industries Inc. in 1947.

View items related to Charles Litton in the Perham Collection of Early Electronics