Founder (Ret.), Syntonics LLC
By David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project
November 6, 2023
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is Monday, November 6, 2023. It's my great pleasure to be here with Bruce Montgomery. Bruce, great to be with you. Thank you so much for joining me today.
BRUCE MONTGOMERY: Well, I'm pleased to be here, and I'm looking forward to the session.
ZIERLER: To start, would you tell me if you have any current titles and institutional affiliations?
MONTGOMERY: No, I'm mostly retired. For the rare business email, I sign myself as a founder of the company that I started in the late 1990s (Syntonics LLC). But even that is a highly attenuated relationship anymore.
ZIERLER: What about consulting? What's interesting to you more broadly in industry?
MONTGOMERY: Well, I'm now–what am I? I guess I'm 71. I worked long hours for decades. A 60-hour week meant I was on vacation for a couple of days. And I discover, having moved to a very quiet corner of North Carolina, and having a house that is a major fixing-up project, that I'm quite enjoying being Harry Homeowner. I think if somebody called me up for a consulting gig, to help write proposals, for example, of which I did a lot in my career, I'd probably say, "No, thank you." [Laugh]
ZIERLER: Tell me about the house renovation. What's keeping you busy these days?
MONTGOMERY: We bought a house that was built in 1948, right after the War, by a fellow who had a relationship apparently with Mount Airy granite. Mount Airy, North Carolina has the largest open-pit granite mine in the world, I think. But Mount Airy is a little more famous as "Mayberry." It was the hometown that Andy Griffith had in mind for the TV show. Mount Airy granite is white with black speckles, and the guy who built our house clad the house in Mount Airy granite, and there's lots of it inside too: the fireplaces in the house are all granite. It can blow pretty hard and rain pretty hard here, and if you're inside the house, you don't notice. It's one step away from owning a castle. However, given the string of previous owners — and there have been a lot of them over 75 years — the last major renovation was in the early 1980s, and most of the mechanicals in the house have been ignored since then. When we bought the place, the electricity worked, the plumbing worked reasonably well, but none of the other systems did. The water heaters, the HVAC, everything dated from the 80s, it was 40-plus years old, and it was no longer working. I've gotten to know all the contractors in Alleghany County, which is where we live, in the northwest corner of North Carolina. And everybody here is nice, and it's really out of the way.
ZIERLER: Besides the success that you achieved as a businessman, from a technical perspective, what would you call yourself? Are you an electrical engineer, a systems engineer?
MONTGOMERY: My technical degrees are in structural engineering. Of course, being a BS from Caltech, it's called engineering and applied science. When I was at Caltech I discovered that I could get reasonable grades and understand the material in the engineering and structural engineering topics, in sharp contrast, for example, with the theoretical math or other theoretical topics. [Laugh] Caltech was where I learned that I am not a scientist, I'm an engineer. There's a big difference. I went to work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the summer after junior year, stayed there through the launch of Voyager. Through sheer dumb luck, I walked in the door just as they were starting serious engineering on Voyager, and I walked out of the door after launch ops for Voyager 2. When I was at JPL, I got a master's in structural engineering. I was working in the structures section of JPL, which was then section 354, and probably still is.
But then [after JPL], I went to business school, and I learned how to tie a tie and wear a suit. My first job out of business school was with Booz Allen & Hamilton, which at that point in time was a very different company than what it is today. I worked in the government side for a couple of years, I worked in the commercial side for a couple of years. [Then I joined the Fairchild Space Company.] Spent the first half of my career in scientific spacecraft, basically. And then, in the early 90s, decided that [the spacecraft industry] was not going anyplace very fast. Things had really slowed down, so I made a conscious decision to get involved with something else, and it ended up being defense electronics. I spent the second half of my career being a structural engineer by training running an electrical engineering company. But by that point in time, I was a manager. Turns out that good engineers can endure all kinds of ignorant management, and we chugged along pretty nicely for 20-plus years.
ZIERLER: Are you drawing on your engineering skills in the renovation of the house? Is that relevant at all?
MONTGOMERY: To the extent that anybody who's an engineer can fiddle with plumbing, fiddle with wiring, and hold a paintbrush, yes. Although, I don't think I really had to go to Caltech to have mastered those skills. In fact, I was involved during my career in four different technology startups. And in one of them, a very bright fellow, who was our VP of operations, observed that the real money was not in technology, it was in things like lumber yards and plumbing companies. And I've come to think that that's probably correct. There are notable people who've made lots of money in technology. But in general, if you have a choice about it, own a lumber yard. You'll retire with a bigger portfolio.
ZIERLER: What have been some of the game-changing technologies that have really driven your career from one project to the next?
MONTGOMERY: Oh, wow. I have not had a particular technology-driven career, at least I don't think about it that way. I guess in a sense, when the spacecraft industry really slowed down in the 80s and 90s, it provoked me to get out of spacecraft engineering. I was then working for the Fairchild Space Company, which was the smallest of the seven spacecraft primes in the United States, and it doesn't exist anymore. It was acquired by Orbital. And in fact, I was an employee of Orbital for my last year or 18 months of the company. But then, I left for a venture-funded electrical engineering company, a telemetry-processing company. It was a very much FPGA-oriented kind of thing. By that point in my career, I was really thinking more about the business aspects of the business, not the technical aspects. And by the time you get to modern electronics, it's all OJT and what little you remember from your high school physics class: Ohm's law, Kirchhoff's law, that kind of stuff. Once in a blue moon, it [technology] crops up, and you can think about things, but mostly, you're running businesses, and chasing customers, and managing people, and writing proposals, and winning jobs, and so on, and so forth.
ZIERLER: I can't help but ask, but with Orbital, was there a connection with Dave Thompson?
MONTGOMERY: Slightly. I had been aware of David and the other couple of founders fairly early on, back when they were a pretty small company. They were also in Washington D.C., which is where I was at the time. Orbital was in the suburbs of D.C. in Northern Virginia, I was in Maryland. I thought Orbital was such a cool story that for a series of years, I made it a point when we were at the same trade show to walk by the booth and introduce myself yet again to Dave Thompson, who had gotten his master's at Caltech. (I'd been at Blacker, I'd been a Blacker troll for four years.) We'd chat, he was always very polite. Trade show people are very polite. And when Fairchild was acquired by Orbital, as I recall, I went over and interviewed and met his chief scientist, Antonio Elias. I thought Orbital was pretty interesting, but it didn't grab me. By that point in time, this was the mid-90s, Orbital was doing really well, but I'd concluded that wasn't the direction I wanted to take my career. I wanted to get involved in something that wasn't spacecraft, that wasn't subject to congressional funding so much. I was tickled pink to see that Orbital went on to do wonderfully, and Dave Thompson, who I think is now the chairman of the board for Caltech, great guy, very successful, richly deserved that success. I admired from a distance. But my personal interaction with him was a brief interview and a bunch of hand-shaking once a year for a period of years.
ZIERLER: Is there a family connection? What brought you to North Carolina?
MONTGOMERY: Left-handedly. We lived in Maryland for my entire working career after JPL. My first job out of business school was in Maryland, and 45 years later, I awoke with a start to realize I'd been in Maryland the entire time. But my sister had a vacation house in the Blue Ridge, and for some years, maybe five years, the whole extended family got invited down, and we went and had a big family reunion kind of thing. The whole family would show up and we would have a great time on top of this mountain where they bought this house. It's a very pretty area, very interesting area. And so, when five years ago I started thinking about selling the company and exiting, asking "Where are we going to live?" both of us liked the idea of North Carolina. We started looking in the northwest corner. And then my oldest son, who lives and works in Raleigh, North Carolina, built a vacation cabin out very near to where we currently live.
Nowadays, of course, all things are bought and discovered on the internet, so we were looking at houses that were coming up for sale. We found this house and we thought, "Boy, does that look neat!" We went to see it last winter, the house we're in right now. Also had the house inspected, read the inspection report, and there was a lot of fixing up and renovation to do. But I decided we were going to be in a position to do that, and if we were willing to put up with the aggravation, we'd have a really cool house.
The fact that my son had a vacation cabin 20 minutes down the hill from here kind of cinched the deal. Here we are in Alleghany County, a county of 12,000 people, of whom about 2,000 live in the county seat, which is the only town in the county. And the other 10,000 people are smeared over a very lumpy, hilly terrain chock full of oaks, and pines, and all kinds of trees, and farmers' fields where some poor guys back in the 1800s and early 1900s dug up all the trees and all the stumps and made a field for themselves, and have had, over the past 150 years, variously crops, and tobacco, and cattle, and dairy. Now, the big crop in this region is Christmas trees. I've read that some large fraction of North America's supply of Christmas trees comes out of this corner of North Carolina and Tennessee, and maybe a little bit of Virginia, kind of where those three states come together.
ZIERLER: Let's go all the way back now. Tell me, as a high school student, how did Caltech get on your radar?
MONTGOMERY: That's a really good question, and I don't recall very clearly. I knew I was going to college way before high school. It was an unwritten assumption. My folks had both been to college, I was going to go to college. And it was going to be something in the sciences. And then, I got to sometime in my junior year, and I knew enough about Harvard and MIT that I thought, "I'll apply there," and also discovered that Caltech existed. I don't remember precisely how the discovery happened. It's conceivable that it was a friend of mine, Greg Nelson, who discovered Caltech and told me about it. But in any event, sometime I think in junior year, we both discovered Caltech and thought, "Gosh, that's really cool." He and I both went to Caltech together out of the same high school, which doesn't happen very often, but it happens. And we were roommates freshman year.
Once I graduated, I turned into an engineer and a businessman with a MS in structures and an MBA. Greg went on to Harvard and eventually got his PhD in Cell and Developmental Biology. He's grazed in the groves of academe his whole life, the Caltech dream.
Somewhere along in our junior year, we became aware that Caltech existed. And then, in our senior year — I've lost track of the timeline exactly — Caltech, at that point in history, and maybe for a while afterwards, made a point of sending out faculty to interview the high school students. My understanding is they interviewed most of the applicants in person. They'd go on the road for a week or 10 days and they went to a bunch of high schools and talked to a bunch of kids. And the fellow that came to Minnetonka High School, in Minnetonka, Minnesota, which is a western suburb of Minneapolis, best-known perhaps for Tonka Toys, interviewed us both, commented a little surprised that it wasn't common to have two guys out of the same high school, but he supposed it could happen. And at the end of the interview I remember him saying something along the lines of, "Well, I guess if we're going to take one of you, we've got to take you both." That ended up being what happened. In the Fall of 1970 Greg and I, and a good friend in our circle of friends who went to Pomona, all piled into Greg's car. He'd inherited his car from a grandmother. And we piled everything into the car in August of 1970 and drove out to Pasadena from Minneapolis.
ZIERLER: Oh, wow.
MONTGOMERY: Took two weeks. Had a great time.
ZIERLER: If I have my chronology right, you started the same year that women undergraduates started at Caltech.
MONTGOMERY: That is correct. There were about 35 in our class.
ZIERLER: Did you know that coming in? Was that newsworthy for all incoming freshman, that this would be the inaugural coed year for Caltech?
MONTGOMERY: Yeah, we knew it before we arrived. And of course, 18-year-old males are only too intrigued with the concept that there might be 18-year-old females around, or 17-year-old, or 16-year-old, or however old they are when they come. And one of my memories of freshman year is that if you saw a knot of about eight guys going across campus in a group, you knew it was because there was a girl in the middle. And they were all talking to her and walking her across the campus.
Now, Caltech males at that point in history, and I would venture to guess yet today, tend not to be socially real sophisticated and tend not to have been the guy that dated all the cheerleaders in high school. At least all the guys that I knew were in that category, including Greg and me. But we decided we were going to try to work on that freshman year. And in fact, I started dating a girl freshman year who is downstairs doing something in the house right now. We've been married 50 years next August. She basically spent four years at Caltech when I was an undergraduate. She lived in the Glendale / Pasadena area.
ZIERLER: What was it like when you first arrived on campus? What were your early impressions?
MONTGOMERY: Ah. I have one very distinct memory. I told you three of us drove out from Minnesota. I forget where we stayed the night before we arrived, but we stayed close enough that we could get up in the morning and drive into Pomona. We dropped our friend off in Pomona, and then we got out the map and looked. You could either take a very direct route on a big red line called Colorado Boulevard, which is a major road and went right from Pomona to Pasadena, just a couple blocks away from campus. Or you could go way south and get on the freeway, take the freeway all the way west, then have to come back north. That didn't make any sense to us. Why in the world would you do that? So we headed west on Colorado and discovered that, unlike in the Midwest, it is possible to have a road that is that many miles long with a traffic light on every block. Even in 1970, there was a traffic light on every block. And it took us hours to drive on Colorado Boulevard from Pomona into Pasadena.
But we got there, and got checked in, and got into the room they'd temporarily assigned us. And I remember also noticing, particularly when we were unloading the car and you're kind of breathing a little bit heavily, you sort of got that funny feeling in the pit of your stomach like you do when you've been swimming heavily or something. We got to bed at some hour, I don't remember, and got up the next morning, and this room had a teeny, little balcony, either Blacker or Ricketts, on the side of the houses that faces the Athenaeum. One of us, I think it was me, walked out on this teeny, little balcony – because if you've got a little balcony, you've got to walk out on it, right? – and looked around, and said, "Go to hell!"
Overnight, somebody had built a wall of stone thousands of feet high just a couple miles over there. It had not been there the previous day. But there was this entire mountain range, and it had sprung up overnight. Of course, "What's going on?" It was smoggy enough the previous day you couldn't see the mountains. I suppose, looking back on it, if we'd known where to look, you could've seen the ridge line. But we didn't know where to look, and it was so smoggy that we were feeling cruddy breathing. And we didn't see the mountains until the next morning when it was nice and clear. That was one of my distinct memories.
Incoming as a freshman is such a chaotic, different experience that I don't have a lot of clear memories other than some spots of memory about rotation. Most of my memories are about once I was settled in and living in Blacker House. I have some memories of the freshman orientation, which happened up at Yosemite, as I recall. But I don't remember how we got there or how we got back. I don't think there was a bus, I think there were a bunch of cars that all took students and drove up there. We camped out in tents, and we had the bears show up and eat food that somebody'd been careless to leave near the ground. We went through rotation, I think we both decided we liked Blacker the best, and that's where we ended up. We ended up in a bunk double freshman year. And that was a good way to start with a high school friend as roommate because it's such a stressful thing, getting dumped into Caltech. Even the smart guys had something of an adjustment, and I was not one of the smart guys.
But the classes were, of course, all being taught to the smartest guys in the class. The math class was being taught to the guys who'd already had a couple years of college math, and the physics classes were being taught to the guys who were already good at physics, and the chemistry classes to the guys who were going to be chemists. And for sort of a not-particularly-distinguished-in-any-topic kind of guy, boy, was that an adjustment. But I had Greg, and he was going through the same kind of adjustment. And it turns out, the other guys in the house were going through the same kind of adjustment, and so we all adjusted together, and stayed up late, and ate pizza, and then decided to do our homework and all the other things that freshmen do.
ZIERLER: Were you on the engineering track from the beginning?
ZIERLER: Was it possible that you could've focused on science?
MONTGOMERY: I came into Caltech thinking I wanted to be a chemist; I'd had a fabulous chemistry teacher in 11th grade. Then, when it came time to declare my major, which I think was sometime sophomore year, I concluded that I was maybe a little more practical than I thought, so I declared in chemical engineering. And that lasted until my first class in thermodynamics, which is a story worth capturing for the archives.
The introductory thermo class, which was my junior year, was taught by W. Duncan Rannie, who at that point in time was, I think, professor emeritus and had been a key contributor to the development of the turbine engine during World War II. He knew his thermo. And so, I walk into class, and it was a class of 30 of us, maybe 40. And for three weeks, he proceeds to fill nine boards a day with all possible partial differential equation combinations of seven variables: H, P, S, T, V, so on.
And it just dumbfounded us. Now, there are two or three guys in the back who had been to King's College in Hong Kong, and they'd already had thermo, so they had some notion about what this guy was talking about. But the rest of us, at least my friends, a guy from Lloyd, a couple of guys from Blacker, we were just gobsmacked. And Keith, my friend from Lloyd, was a good student. He was getting As and Bs. (I didn't have that problem.) But he was equally flummoxed by what was going on. We all took the midterm at the three-week or four-week point, and we all failed it, more or less.
The midterm was on a Tuesday. On Wednesday, Keith went in to see Dr. Rannie and said, "Dr. Rannie, I'm really sorry, but I'm going to have to ask to drop this class and try it again next year. Because I'm just not grasping the material." He was the first one to get to Rannie that day. And Rannie, who had a pretty distinct Scottish accent, as I recall, said something to the effect of, "Well, I understand you had trouble, but I'm just buffaloed because the entire class had trouble. In fact, there are only a couple guys in the class who didn't flunk the midterm. And because I was just reviewing the first year's material for the second-year students, I can't possibly understand what could've happened."
There was this long pause, and Keith says, "Dr. Rannie, we are the first students." He, Rannie, comes into class on Thursday very apologetic and says, "I am so sorry. I thought I was reviewing the first year of thermo for the second-year students. And now, I discover you are the first-year class. And we did the entire first year in the last four weeks. So we have a choice. We can either go back and do it all again, but that would be boring. Or we'll just go forward from here, but we'll do it slowly with sympathy and understanding." That day or the next day, I was in the engineering office, saying, "Can I please change to structural engineering?"
Because I could understand those classes. In those classes, I could understand the lectures, I could do the homework, it made sense to me, and I was accreting knowledge as I sat through the lectures, which was not what was happening in some of my other classes. The professor who ran the engineering department then, whose name escapes me, he and I are standing at a counter in the Engineering office, and he quick whips through a calculation of my GPA, and his first calculation was that my GPA wasn't good enough to change majors. But then, he discovered a math error and said, "Oh, no, you're okay." I could change. I changed majors to structural engineering, and my grades went up for the rest of junior and senior year. And that's how I came out as an engineer, having gone in as a chemist, with this thermo class in the middle.
ZIERLER: Did chemical engineering ultimately put you on a path to structural engineering? Or how did that happen?
MONTGOMERY: No, I started in chemistry, but I figured out I'm more of an engineer, so that must mean chemical engineering. Tthat lasted until that thermo class, then I said, "Okay, if it's got anything to do with thermodynamics, that is not the career choice I'm going to make. And structural engineering has nothing to do with thermo, so there, that's fine."
ZIERLER: On the social side of things, I'm curious if you were involved in some of the legendary pranks that went on, both within and beyond Caltech's campus.
MONTGOMERY: I am proud to tell you that I've got two, count them, two stories in the very first Legends of Caltech. As a matter of fact, these two stories, which were good enough for me to write them up and send them in, enough time had passed that I was willing to write them up. I figured the statute of limitations would've expired. The story of hanging Fleming's bell is mine, was my idea, and we did that.
ZIERLER: Tell me, what is the bell, and what's the prank?
MONTGOMERY: Well, Fleming has a dinner bell. It sits in a cradle in the dining room. It's a good-sized bell, the size bell you'd ring to call the kids into class maybe. And it's in a fancy holder with an axle going at right angles through the handle, so it can swing back and forth like a bell in a church belfry. Because school was hard, I looked for other things to do. And it occurred to me that if we stole that bell, we could probably glue it to the wall of Millikan near the top of the library … so we did. Blacker at that time had a senior who was into technical climbing. He had all the equipment you'd need to go mountain climbing. His view was that climbing from the top story down was no big deal.
I designed a cradle that, in principle, you could lower the bell into, catching the axle of the bell. There's a sketch in the Legends that shows it to you. The act of dropping the bell into this cradle would cause its latches to cam over and capture the bell, so you couldn't get it out easily. It would go in, but it wouldn't come out. Greg Nelson, who was no longer my roommate but had artistic capabilities, painting the cradle's base plate to match the grey stone wall of Millikan [Caltech Hall].
And so, we did just that. We slipped into the Fleming dining room late one evening, and being very careful to grab the clapper so it couldn't clap, reached up, grabbed the bell, and then scuttled back out through the kitchens. We had master keys to the kitchen. Which, of course, most people did. The kitchen is in common between the four houses, so if you go into the kitchen, you can go out into the dining room of any of the old houses. We went into the kitchen and out into Fleming, got the bell, came back. Of course, Fleming woke up to this the next morning, was rampaging around the campus for a couple of days, trying to figure out who in the world had stolen the bell.
We finished up our preparations, and one evening, a school night, the group of us let ourselves into Millikan because we had all the keys we needed to do that. Actually, we went in when it was still open but just never went out, and let ourselves out onto the roof. The senior climbed down and glued our cradle contraption to the wall of Millikan. Then we had to wait several hours to make sure the glue was well-cured, because we did not dare damage the bell. If anything happened to the bell, it would stop being funny.
Ray Lem, and I let ourselves into the air handlers on the roof of Millikan. And you just haven't lived until you've spent a few hours in one of those air handlers because they're blowing thousands of cubic feet per hour. It was really loud. But it was a good place to stay. We tried to snooze from 2 am or whatever until 6 am. Finally, when there was enough light to see what we were doing, we went out, leaned over the wall, carefully lowered the bell down into the latches, they clicked over, the bell was seized, we went home and went to bed. I didn't wake up until about noon.
I walked over to Millikan to see what was going on. Somebody had seen the bell pretty early that morning, and the Flems had been up on the wall all morning, fishing for their bell, trying hard to get it, but being very careful because if they dropped the bell, it was on them, not on me. The latches held, and the whole thing worked pretty well. I was standing there watching it, probably with a couple other guys from Blacker, I don't remember. And then, shortly after I got there, around lunch hour, they finally finessed the thing out of the contraption that was holding it to the wall, rescued their bell, then proceeded to break off the cradle's arm so that couldn't happen again. The cradle's plate was glued to the wall for years. But finally, in about '75 or '76, they steam-blasted the whole exterior of the library, and the plate came off at that point in time. It's not there anymore.
ZIERLER: Was the main purpose of the pranks that it was one house pranking another, or would it go beyond the house system?
MONTGOMERY: I don't recall ever hearing a story outside of Caltech. The Flems stole the cannon from the academy down in San Marino, so I guess that's outside Caltech. And that happened while I was there, in fact.
ZIERLER: What about the rivalries with MIT? Were students ever involved in those kinds of things?
MONTGOMERY: Travel was too expensive at that point in time. The MIT stuff all happened when it got cheap enough to travel, and you could go there, or they could come here, whichever way it went. That was fun to watch from a distance, but that was much later. I guess there would have been a rivalry if it was possible to have intercourse, but it just wasn't. It was 3,000 miles away, plane tickets were expensive, it was too far to drive, and so on. It was mostly house-oriented stuff, campus-oriented stuff.
ZIERLER: That was one, what was the second prank?
MONTGOMERY: That came later. I went to work at JPL after junior year, then went on full-time. I'd graduated early. I finished up all my classes in the March, April '74 timeframe. Working at JPL meant a salary, which meant I could get married. By then, I'd had a girlfriend of four years. She'd been living at Blacker but going to school at Oxy.
I went to work and got lucky. I was one of six guys who got to be cognizant engineers on the structure of the Voyager spacecraft. Cognizant engineer is a construct JPL uses. It means the engineer that's kind of responsible for all the aspects of some subsystem. In this case, structural subsystem. One guy was responsible for the high-gain antenna, one guy was responsible for the booms, the magnetometer boom, in particular, and so on, and so forth. For me, they gave me the piece of structure that had no interfaces outside of JPL. It was the TCAPU truss that holds the last stage, the kick stage, to the bus of the spacecraft. It had all the propulsion subsystem mounted on it. We built five. Two of them flew and they're both a long ways away now.
As a fresh-out, Management assigned me the most senior designer in the design shop. Voyager was designed with pencil on plastic film. "My" truss was the first graphite epoxy primary structure, I think, from JPL. It was a bonded graphite epoxy truss structure with machined end-fittings. All of the crazy angles were trig'd out by hand using trig tables, and double-checking your math, and I'd do the calculations, and the designer in the shop did the calculations, and we all concluded that the calculations were right, so we'd go ahead and machine the parts. CNC was just coming in, so some of the machining was by hand, and some of it was CNC. And the whole thing got bolted and glued together. I also ran a development program to qualify the bonding process, to make sure we were getting solid joints. Because with bonded joints, it's a hard thing because you can't test it until after you put things together, which is a bad time to find out you've had a problem. We went through a development program, and I've still got broken pieces of broken epoxy tubing that I've very carefully kept to this day. Martin Marietta in Colorado fabricated the tubes for us, as I recall.
The truss structure was festooned with the propulsion subsystem: the little thrusters that keep the spacecraft oriented, and all of the plumbing, and the valves, and the filters that go along with it. This was a monopropellant hydrazine system, as are most spacecraft. All of the valves, and filters, and suchlike were mounted on a plate. It was a big, flat, complicated machining of magnesium. And I've told you that Voyager was designed with pencil on plastic film. These drawings, of course, are full of gibberish to anybody other than the designer, the engineer, and maybe the boss who's checking the drawings. At some point in time, it dawned on me that it would be simplicity itself to add a detail, because these parts get serial numbers and part numbers stamped on them with epoxy ink. It's done by the inspectors.
The part is fabricated, it comes in, it gets inspected, when it passes inspection, they stamp with black epoxy ink the part number, the serial number, and whatever else needs to be there. I simply went in after hours, hung around late, I don't remember how I did it, but I went to the drawing of the valve package plate and added the instruction, "With all the other things that you're stamping on this, please stamp DEI/FEIF here." That is, Dabney eats it, Fleming eats it faster.
And so, they did because it was just more gibberish to the inspector doing the stamping. Of course, it was meaningful to me, but I didn't dare breathe a word of it to anybody. And like I said, the first Legends of Caltech was done 15, 20 years after I graduated, and I figured that was long enough that I dared put the story in. But DEI/FEIF is on Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 and the Voyager show model down at the Air and Space Museum. There were five plates and five structures built, and all of the ones that survive have Dabney eats it, Fleming eats it faster.
ZIERLER: When the aliens discover the Voyager Spacecraft hurtling through interstellar space, they'll have an idea of the house rivalry at Caltech!
MONTGOMERY: No, they won't have the faintest notion. It'll be eight symbols to them. They'd probably have PhD candidates writing their dissertation, "What could this possibly mean?"
ZIERLER: Did you interact with Ed Stone at all at JPL?
MONTGOMERY: No, I did not. He was very much more senior than I was. I was a fresh-out engineer, and I was only there for four years, '73 through '77, the beginning of the engineering of Voyager through launch ops in the summer of '77.
ZIERLER: Was anyone talking about the possibility of the miraculous longevity of Voyager, that we're coming up now on possibly 50 years? Were people talking in those terms during the building phase?
MONTGOMERY: No. It's always been the case that the stuff JPL does has to be highly reliable. And cost was no object. Things were designed conservatively, but even then, they were conscious of adjustable software or firmware that could be revised remotely. But I think it would be a pleasant surprise to everybody that the spacecraft continued to work five years after their principal missions, after going by the principal planet. One of the Voyagers went just by Jupiter, and the other one went by Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and basically made what was called the Grand Tour. Everybody wanted it to make it out to Neptune, but I'd be pretty confident that nobody could have dreamed in their wildest dreams that they'd still be getting data back at five baud or whatever the current data rate is. It's preposterously low now.
There was a news thing I read in the last month that they just updated the firmware on Voyager to compensate for a problem with something that's not working very well anymore. Something in the attitude control system, I think. But they're still talking to the sucker, and they're still getting back data from the particle physics instruments. Of course, all the imaging instruments were done when they passed Neptune. But there are some physics experiments, particle detectors there are still operating, and they're out in really deep space. The scientists are still interested in the data. It dribbles back at a preposterously low data rate when they can put one of the big dishes of the Deep Space Network on it and listen. It requires the biggest dishes we own and cryogenically cold receivers. Then, you can get data back at five baud, or three baud, or seven baud, or some preposterously low rate. But by God, they're still ticking.
ZIERLER: Did you ever give thought, or was the opportunity presented to you, to stay at JPL long term? Could you have made a career there?
MONTGOMERY: Oh, absolutely. But in '75, '76, '77, NASA had decided that going forward, we'd no longer use expandable launch vehicles, we'd use the Shuttle. Everything would go to orbit in the Shuttle. The Shuttle was cheap, reliable transportation to orbit. But JPL, which for much of its history had three, and four, and six launches a year, it slowed down to where Viking had just launched shortly before I came on board and, in fact, got to Mars. Janet and I went over to Ambassador on the west side of Pasadena that has a big auditorium at, like, 3 in the morning and watched the first images come in from Mars on Viking, one raster scan at a time. We sat there for a couple of hours watching the first image come in, which was of a reddish desert. But that was pretty exciting.
But it'd been a couple of years since the previous Viking launch, then Voyager was going to be the next launch, then there was nothing. Well, there was stuff on the books, but it was way out in the future. JPL had gone from being a frantically active, interesting place to really slowing down. A lot. All the guys who, I guess looking back on it, must've been in their 40s and older, were far enough into their career that they weren't going anyplace. But my boss, who I stayed in touch with until he died, was kind of shaking his head mournfully at how slow things had gotten. And I saw all of that. And while Voyager was fabulous, and I got really lucky walking in just as it was picking up steam and leaving right after launch ops, there was nothing else anytime soon. I went back to business school and learned how to tie a tie and wear a suit, became a consultant, then became a general manager, where you know less and less about more and more. I could have stayed at JPL. I would've been welcome to have stayed. I think they were happy with me. Of course, they didn't know about DEI/FEIF yet. But I didn't, and I'm glad I didn't.
ZIERLER: Where is Cal State LA for your degree in structural engineering? Where does this enter the picture?
MONTGOMERY: Well, when I was full-time at JPL, my roommate, another young engineer, pulled out a course catalog and was thinking about taking a class or two. And I looked at the catalog too. Caltech is pure theory. I'd had classes in the theory of structures. But I'd never had actually any real design in structure. Like, how big a bolt do you use to clamp together these pieces of steel? Or how much re-bar goes into a concrete column? None of that's relevant to spacecraft, but the theory and calculations for structures all are the same. It clicked fairly abruptly to me that, "You know what? JPL would pay my tuition, and I could go evenings. Cal State LA is set up for people that work full-time and go to school in the evenings."
I'd finish up my day at JPL, and it was an early day. I think we started at 7:30 and got off at 4, something like that. And then, on evenings when I had class, I'd drive down to Cal State LA, which wasn't that far away, a half hour or something, and go to a class or two. I knocked out a master's in 18 months that way, which was great. A lot of the people teaching the classes were adjunct professors. They were guys that did this as a living in their day job, and then taught evenings for extra money or for fun. I had a couple just fabulous instructors, had a great time. Never applied any of it. I got my PE license. I was careful to get that and keep it for a while in Maryland. It never became relevant in my career. But it was fun to do, and who knew? It might have been useful. Since high school, I was very clear in my thinking that whatever you're going to do for education, you wanted to knock it out just as fast as you could so you could get on with life. And like I said, when Greg was still working on his PhD up at Harvard, I was married with a kid and a house. I was really anxious to get to where I was making money and moving ahead in my career.
ZIERLER: What prompted you to the pivot towards business school?
MONTGOMERY: Caltech. It was clear to me that I was not going to compete with these guys in scientific subjects. But one of the principal lessons of Caltech to me was, I could work harder than anybody I knew. I could put in the hours. If it was a sufficiently challenging academic subject, I wasn't smart enough to master it. Caltech rubs your nose up pretty hard against things that you simply are not capable of understanding. Some things, you can eventually understand. (For example, after my third class in differential equations, I finally understood them and I could solve real-world problems. Never used it, but I could do it at the time.) I could work hard and I didn't want to do science. That was clear.
But engineering and business? That was problem-solving, that was building stuff. I was kind of the Wolowitz character in the Big Bang Theory. He's the engineer. The science types made fun of him, but he was the engineer. And he built things, and I built things and had fun doing it. And in fact, the company that I eventually founded was an electronics company that only built and sold things we'd thought up, invented, developed ourselves. I got to build stuff for most of my career, although by the end I was supervising the guys who were doing the real work. I was just making it possible for them to get the work done.
ZIERLER: How much of a learning curve was business school for you? Did it come easily? Was it intuitive? Was it brand new?
MONTGOMERY: It was easy. One of the real distinct upsides of Caltech, for which I have an inordinate affection, is that it got the hardest thing in my life out of the way early. There's nothing else I could do that was anywhere as hard, as mentally stressful, as Caltech was. Surviving that and getting to graduation? Everything else afterwards was easy. Business school was easy, it was straight As without lifting a finger. The material was all pretty interesting, particularly the quantitative stuff. And very useful. I used stuff out of business school my whole career, accounting in particular.
Now that I look back on it, people who are hardcore design engineers are a thing, and I'm not that thing. People who are hardcore research scientists are a thing, and I'm not that thing either. I was a generalist businessman. Caltech was fabulous background. Because I worked in spacecraft until the mid-90s, by the time I got out of JPL, although I hadn't had any exposure to the electronics of spacecraft, it had gotten me to the point where I could be a sponge. I could hear something about spacecraft engineering, and it would stick, it would make sense to me. And that's kind of what OJT is, on-the-job training. You get to the point where you understand what's being said, and you retain it. And to this day, I could teach at least a simple class in spacecraft systems engineering because it's all kind of branded in there. But business school was perfectly natural for me.
ZIERLER: What were your options? What were your opportunities after Carnegie Mellon?
MONTGOMERY: Ah. I thought I wanted to go to work for an industrial company, and I interviewed with a lot of them. I did one or two practice interviews. At this point in history, this was 1977 and '78, a lot of the brand-name companies came to the brand-name business schools to interview, looking for people to hire. Industrial companies, however, weren't among them. I did one or two practice interviews. I did a practice interview with a consulting company called Booz Allen, and I might've done another one as well, but I was really focused on going to work for an industrial company, a company like General Electric, or DEC, or Cincinnati Milacron, or Beechcraft. And I interviewed at all these places. None of them had a job that I thought was particularly interesting. They all seemed pretty boring. Whereas the consulting gig seemed pretty intriguing.
At this point in history, one wrote a physical paper résumé, put it in an envelope, mailed it to the executive at the company, hoping he'd open the envelope and not throw it out, but hand it off to HR and say, "Have this guy in for an interview." It was a written job campaign that you did, and I did that, and I got invited to half a dozen different companies, and none of them were all that interesting to me. Digital Electronics up in Boston, GE in Lynn, a bunch of different companies. It was all quite interesting, and I got to see some interesting stuff. I got to see what was then the F-16 assembly line down in Fort Worth at the General Dynamics plant. That assembly line is a mile long. It was built in World War II for the B-24s, I think, or the B-17, one of the bombers, and is a building a mile long and 100 yards wide or 200 yards wide. It's quite something to see.
But at the end of the day, I ended up accepting a job offer from my practice interview with Booz Allen & Hamilton. I could've saved myself months of effort and aggravation if I'd have just known in the beginning I was going to go to work for Booz Allen. But that's what I did. They had a practice working with the Navy in Washington. It turned out to be pretty boring work, but for two years, I worked in and around the Pentagon and learned a lot about the military, how it worked, what the jargon was. After the boring first two years, I switched over to a different group on the commercial side of the house doing industrial engineering projects for airplane final assembly lines.
If I'd kept at that, I would've been in every aircraft final assembly line in the country, and there were a bunch of them back then, and they were all really interesting to me. That was right up my alley. But the job was 100% travel, and we'd just had our first son. Before I'd even started, Janet said, "This is a bad idea." And by the time I came to the end of that period, she was saying with deep conviction that I was either going to get a new job or a new wife. So I got a new job at the spacecraft company in Washington, which was then Fairchild Spacecraft Company. There was a whole series of people at Fairchild who had been at Booz Allen, and one brought the next along. There was a lineage of four or five guys in a row that had come from Booz Allen to Fairchild, and I was one.
ZIERLER: Did working at Booz Allen require you to get a security clearance?
MONTGOMERY: Yes. Working at JPL did too. I had a secret clearance to go on the Cape for the launch operations. I've had a clearance my entire career until I left Syntonics.
ZIERLER: Was Booz Allen an exciting place to work?
MONTGOMERY: The first two years was boring but highly educational. The next two or three years was really interesting and highly dynamic. A young person's game, it was traveling full-time. For example, we had a long stretch at Rockwell at LAX. Their offices are just off of LAX outside of the airport. I'd get up Monday morning, and the cab would be waiting for me because we had a standing appointment, and I went to National [DCA], and I flew to LAX, and I'd walk in the office out there about 10:30 in the morning, and I'd be there until Friday at lunchtime, then I'd go back to the airport, hop on, and come home. I did that for a couple years, going to L.A. or to Austin, Texas, or to Tulsa, Oklahoma, or to Atlanta. Whatever aerospace plant we were working in then. And for two weeks or two months, or maybe sometimes five or six months, I'd just commute to work on the airplane and be there all week. I had a fabulous time. But that's no way to have a family either. And Janet's still a little sore on the subject.
ZIERLER: Tell me about the opportunity at Fairchild Space.
MONTGOMERY: That was the first of my startups. Fairchild was funding a new business venture, Leasecraft, founded on the premise that the Shuttle was cheap, reliable transportation to orbit. I got hired in as the business analyst for the project because I had a spacecraft background, and I had an MBA, and I could put a sentence together. I was the financial analyst, doing pro forma financials, showing just how wonderfully rosy the future could be, helping to write proposals. And then, after a couple of years of this, Fairchild got into trouble on an Air Force program up at Republic Aviation. They owned Republic at that point in history, and they were doing something called the next-generation trainer for the Air Force. They got into serious trouble, they got a stop-work from the Air Force.
And when the government money stops coming in, and you've got a staff of a couple thousand people working, and the Air Force money is providing the payroll, that puts the corporation into a world of hurt financially. They were forced to turn off the Leasecraft project at their Fairchild Space subsidiary in Germantown, Maryland. And then, a couple months later, Challenger exploded, proving that the Shuttle was not cheap, reliable transport to orbit; the whole Leasecraft premise was flawed.
Until Challenger, there'd been enough Shuttle launches that people had gotten over their apprehension. People sincerely believed that the Shuttle was going to be cheap, reliable transportation to orbit. Well, maybe not cheap, but reliable. And Fairchild had an initial target product that was so valuable that involving the Shuttle to manufacture it was economically viable.
The world had learned how to train bacteria to generate certain proteins. The problem was, separating the protein out of the soup was really difficult. You could separate the desired protein by a process called electrophoresis, but electrophoresis in a gravity field wasn't good enough. It had to be electrophoresis in zero gravity. The protein they were refining was erythropoietin. It was a miracle drug. You inject a tiny amount into a person that's just had a stroke, and the clot dissolves magically. Boom, right now. It was something that you could generate tens of grams of on orbit. You pick up a couple thousand pounds of soup and refine out of that, over a period of weeks and months, several tens of grams of this protein, which you could sell for a gazillion dollars. It was wildly profitable, way better than the alchemist's dream of turning lead into gold.
McDonnell Douglas was supplying the payload to refine the erythropoietin. Fairchild was going to provide the spacecraft bus that would fly the payload around in orbit while it was refining, and the Shuttle was going to haul the cans of soup up and the finished product down. Haul up a can of soup, refine it in orbit, bring back down the leftover soup and a few tens of grams of this refined protein.
That was the business, and it was commercially very sensitive. I didn't know until years later most of the story. Certainly couldn't name the protein, it was a serious industrial secret. Then Challenger exploded. Leasecraft got turned off because of the financial problems with the corporation, then a couple months later, Challenger exploded and proved the whole thing was a bad idea to start with. Since then, man has learned, I think, how to do this refining without having to go to zero gravity. Technology marched on, and they solved the problem other ways. But that was my first startup.
ZIERLER: I wonder when Richard Feynman achieved national fame for his explanation for the Challenger tragedy if that brought you back at least mentally or emotionally to your Caltech days.
MONTGOMERY: I certainly paid attention because I brushed up against Feynman a fair amount. I'd been to a party at his house. I think it was my junior year. Somebody in Blacker got Dr. Feynman to say, "Yeah, sure, fine, come on over." Blacker House invited itself over to Feynman's for a party one weekend. And the guys who were more secure in themselves, and gals, I suppose, by then, sat upstairs and talked with the great man. But I stayed downstairs necking with my girlfriend. Most of us were downstairs listening to music and having a good time at the Feynmans.
Then, a year or two after that, there was a big science-fiction conference in L.A. Somebody had figured out that it was going to be in town, and got famous science-fiction authors to come to campus and do a panel in Beckman in the afternoon. It was Robert Heinlein, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournell, Harry Harrison — pretty much everybody famous except for Isaac Asimov. Asimov was on the East Coast, and he didn't fly, he would only take the train or drive, so that was too much for him.
There were seven or eight of them on stage. At one point, the topic of time travel came up. One of the authors on the stage said, "You don't have to ask me, let's ask Dr. Feynman." It turned out Feynman was sitting right behind us. You hear this Brooklyn truck driver speak up. There are recordings, so you can still hear him. Richard Feynman sounds, for all the world, like a Brooklyn truck driver. He gave a professional sort of answer about time travel. My memory is, it was along the lines of, "No, probably not." We brushed across him a couple of times. And he stuck out in a crowd back then. If you were at Caltech, you knew who Feynman was. I never had any of his classes. I wouldn't have been good enough, and he'd stopped doing the freshman stuff a couple years earlier. But I paid close attention whenever he showed up in the news, so I certainly paid attention when he showed up in the Challenger investigation.
ZIERLER: What were some of the key challenges in launching a startup?
MONTGOMERY: My first one was Leasecraft, where I got hired into somebody else's idea. That's intrapreneurial, inside a company. My second one was, too. When Leasecraft blew up, I wanted to stay with Fairchild, and they wanted to keep me, so I ended up being a program manager for engineering services work. I ended up going down to Greenbelt, Maryland, which is about 45 minutes away, and starting up a new office. I proceeded to grow the technical services division up to a 200-plus employees and lots of revenue by the mid-90s, when I left.
I left for a venture-funded startup. My first two intrapreneurial things, the challenge was winning the contract. Because once you'd won the contract or contracts, then you could hire the people and do the work. That's very operationally oriented. The venture funded startup in the mid-90s was a crazy story, and we don't have enough time for it, but it was initially all about writing business plans and getting funding. Which eventually happened. It was funded by a Malaysian venture money fund that was running money for Saudi princes. They used a shell Canadian company to flow the money through. It's a three-beer story at least. But I got to see it in person. It was fun to watch.
Then, having had those experiences, my fourth startup was my own company in '99. I bootstrapped the company. You get contracts, use that to pay the employees, hire more employees, and write more proposals and win more contracts. We got started as a high-tech electronics company in the beginning, doing time and frequency work with ultra-stable oscillators. That was a bust. But then, we got into RF-over-fiber, electrooptic links to transport RF signals. To connect an antenna a great distance away to its radio over an optical fiber. It's something for which there's almost no call in the civilian world. There's some civilian use, but it fits a lot of military situations. Our customers were mostly military customers. My early education at Booz Allen about who the military was, how to read a uniform, that cultural background turned out to be useful many years later in that fourth and final startup that called Syntonics. (Janet came up with the name.)
ZIERLER: I was going to ask, at Fairchild, did the end of the Cold War affect things for you and for Fairchild?
MONTGOMERY: Yes. When peace broke out in 1990, Fairchild industries, which had a tough time financially, had been bought in the late 80s, right at the end of the 80s, by Matra, which was a French aerospace company. And poor Matra managed to buy Fairchild at the peak of the market. Then peace broke out, and a lot of the business went away. Five years later, Matra sold off Fairchild Industries in pieces. The Fairchild Space part was sold to Orbital in '94. Peace breaking out caused the rapid consolidation of the aerospace defense industry, and Matra, which had bought high and sold low, got out of trying to have a company in the US. What was left of Fairchild Space ended up being absorbed into Orbital. And a couple years later, the large Fairchild campus in Germantown, Maryland was closed down and sold off for other uses, and all the staff of Fairchild Space moved to Northern Virginia, or decided not to move, in which case they weren't employees anymore.
ZIERLER: How did you make out financially as a result of all of these changes?
MONTGOMERY: I was just an employee at Fairchild. It had no effect on me. The first time I had equity in a company was the venture-funded startup in the mid-90s, TSI Telsys. That was a weird story because the executive we'd recruited to run the startup ended up not running it. Instead, it was run by the guy whose idea it was to start the company, a government employee who'd been a technician and eventually a manager at NASA. He was a very charismatic fellow. But it turned out that as a company manager, he was a disaster and he ran the company into the ground. I left after a couple years. By then the Blue Sky laws had expired on my shares, and while the shares weren't worth much at that point in time, they were worth enough to buy a used car for my wife and to put my oldest son through Virginia Tech. The company limped on for several later, then finally closed.
ZIERLER: Would you say your venture with this company was part of the so-called dot-com boom in the mid- and late 1990s?
MONTGOMERY: It happened at that time, so I guess it must've been. I think that might be why the Malaysians made the decision to put the money in. They lost all their money so far as I'm aware. I'm sure that's probably part of it, but I didn't think of it that way at the time. Of course, we were in the middle of it. And what we were doing was not IT, it was high-speed data processing for spacecraft telemetry. It was kind of spacecraft, and it was kind of electronics, and not really commercial dot-com. But it happened at the same point in time, and looking back on it, yeah, that might've had a positive influence on the Malaysians' decision to put the money in.
ZIERLER: I'm thinking around this time, we see the explosion of fiber-optic networking and the use of personal computers and home internet. Were these broader technological social changes relevant at all for the company?
MONTGOMERY: No. I don't think so. And they weren't particularly relevant for Syntonics either, although I guess it had sensitized people to the fact you could do interesting things with optical fiber. And our principal business came to be running radio signals over optical fiber. Those are analog signals. When most people talk about fiber, they're talking about digital over fiber, zeroes and ones going down the fiber. Our technology was analog technology, transmitting waveforms down the fiber. Because it was such a specialized thing, and mostly military-oriented, I don't think it had a lot to do with the broader cultural things that make it into the newspaper. It was niche-ier and nerdier than that.
ZIERLER: When does RF technology really become interesting and important for you?
MONTGOMERY: In the early 2000s, when we won a contract to develop an RF-over-fiber system for the Joint Special Operations Command. The special operations community of the United States is broken into two pieces, 90% of it is white, out in the open, and 10% of it is black and very closed-mouthed; that is the Joint Special Operations Command, JSOC. There's an element of JSOC called the Joint Communications Unit, JCU, that wanted RF-over-fiber capability. They told us a story over time, but much, much later, I came to believe that what they really were interested in was providing radio communications down in tunnels. In any event, we won competitively a development contract, and that got us into the RF-over-fiber business, which was central to how we made our money for years thereafter.
ZIERLER: How did it contribute to the national defense? What did it allow the military to do that wasn't possible otherwise?
MONTGOMERY: RF-over-fiber lets you move the antenna kilometers away from the radio. Normally, a radio is connected to its antenna directly. That's what you're accustomed to in civilian stuff, your transistor radio, a walkie-talkie, anything like that. But if you're going to remote the antenna, like a ham operator might have a radio in his basement and an antenna tower out back, you connect the two with coaxial cable.
The length of the coax cable, how long it can be, is a function of the frequency. Because of ohmic losses, resistive losses, heating up the coax cable is a real thing, and the higher the frequencies, the worse the problem. Low-frequency radio can have coax cables maybe 100 yards long. But high-frequency radio can only have a coax cable that's quite short. In fact, if it gets high enough in frequency like radar, which tends to be pretty high frequency, you can't even use coax cable anymore, you have to go to waveguide, which are these rectangular tubes. It looks like plumbing, except they're rectangular tubes guiding high-frequency radio signals around. If you ever see a radar, you'll see that there's this plumbing on the back of it, that's waveguide.
That's the world of transporting radio signals over copper; distances limited to feet and yards. But if you use lasers and detectors, and use the radio signal to modulate the laser, you can shine the laser light many kilometers down an optical fiber with not much loss. There's some loss, but not much, a couple tenths of db per kilometer. And it's frequency-independent. You have to get the right laser and right detector, but if you're willing to pay for the electronics at both ends of this active link, you can take a radio signal 10, 20 kilometers, or further over optical fiber.
In general, we find our stuff being used in military command centers where they're in a building somewhere, and the antennas are on the roof, or in the field next to the building, or on the other side of the airfield. The antennas can be quite a ways away. For example, when the airplane hit the Pentagon 22 years ago, it hit directly on a Navy communications center, which was on the top floor of the building. It was there in part because it was right under the roof. Its antennas were on the roof with its radios underneath, inside the room, connected by short coaxial cables. Our very first commercial sale was to the Pentagon Renovation Project. Over a period of years, the Pentagon was completely rebuilt, one segment at a time, until all five segments were rebuilt. Now, there are radios in the basement and the sub-basement connected to antennas on the roof of the Pentagon, hundreds of yards away, using our RF-over-fiber equipment. DoD didn't buy much of it at the time. But they bought enough to encourage us to keep us going.
ZIERLER: I wanted to ask what that day was like for you on 9/11.
MONTGOMERY: Ah. Syntonics had just started. We were in our second year and we spent our first three years in a tech startup incubator run by Howard County in Maryland.
I was sitting at my desk in the incubator. Somebody said something about a plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York City. Well, that's not the first time that sort of thing has happened. A B-25 hit the Empire State Building after World War II. I'm a pilot although I'm not actively flying; I got my license when I was 18 and flew when I was home at Minnesota. But I've always been interested in aviation. I thought to myself, "That's queer as a three-dollar bill," because it was beautiful weather that day. The B-25 that hit the Empire State Building did it in a thick fog. Because there was no fog, I thought it's got to be a light plane with an inexperienced pilot. There's got to be some weird story. Then I walked down the hall to the break room where the TV was going. And I think it was after I got there that the second plane hit, whereupon it became instantly clear that this was enemy action.
It's easy to forget how abnormal it is to the Western mind that combatants are willing to commit suicide to get their point across. The fact that there's this whole crew of crazies who were willing to commit suicide so they could kill a lot of other people took a lot of adjusting to. In subsequent years, we have become more aware there are people that crazed. The Israelis got that lesson in spades October 7. It's a slow-motion suicide, but Hamas is committed suicide. Al Qaeda did it back in 2001. ISIS was out of the same mold. We're living in a period of time where the Islamist culture is extremely dangerous. It's like a rabid dog and there is no cure for it. You have to outlive it. It was extremely sobering.
About mid-morning, everything had kind of ground to a halt from the business perspective and everybody was looking over their shoulder, feeling queer about the World Trade Tower and the Pentagon, asking, "What is going on?" and wanting to go home, get with the family, and watch it from there. So we did. My memory is that we were probably back at work the next day. But of course, we were absorbed in the news for months and years thereafter.
ZIERLER: Of course, it would've been impossible to assess in real time, but what was the impact on Syntonics?
MONTGOMERY: The next 10 years resulted in heavy funding for DOD.
ZIERLER: Because Syntonics had expertise relevant in the War on Terror?
MONTGOMERY: Yeah, we were beginning to do this RF-over-fiber stuff, and various pieces within DOD were our customers. And they were being heavily funded. When the Joint Communications Unit wanted to use this RF-over-fiber technology, it was easy to get the money, and they had a competition, and they selected us, and they funded us $1.5 or $2 million by the time it was all over to develop the very first RF-over-fiber system suitable for tactical radios in a tactical environment. Today, that couldn't happen. That money's not available. The tide of R&D funding was rising, and as a little tech startup, we were the beneficiary of that. We bid and won a bunch of SBIR programs, Small Business Innovation Research. And basically, as I said, we bootstrapped the company on SBIR contracts and product orders that resulted from those SBIR contracts. We built up a whole product line of RF-over-fiber stuff.any and less as a technology startup, "Let's give them an SBIR and see what happens."
ZIERLER: What kinds of translational capabilities were there, as you were explaining, where this is technological not just relevant in a national security context, this is not just something of interest to the Pentagon?
MONTGOMERY: The commercial application tends to be at communications portals, where you've got a whole field full of high-gain antennas pointed at geosynchronous communications satellites. But your control center doesn't want to be colocated with that field, it might want to be downtown. This happens all the time in Europe, by the way. Europe's a big market for RF-over-fiber. And so, they transport the radio signals over optical fiber from the antenna farm out in the countryside to the building downtown where the control center is. And that's an RF-over-fiber application. That market is one Syntonics never pursued, it's done by other small specialty companies. But that's a civilian application.
ZIERLER: How did Syntonics grow? How many employees did it start with, and what was its trajectory?
MONTGOMERY: It started with three of us. None of us were getting paid exactly, but it got to where in the first year, we were getting paid something. [Laugh] My salary was up and down like a yoyo over the years, depending on how the business was doing. And we grew eventually to be 30-some people, $6-8 million in sales, $10 million in a good year. It was a highly nerdy company. We'd succeeded in collecting a small group of very capable, bright engineers, out in the three-sigma tail of the distribution. And we would add staff in production when we had a big contract, then when that work tailed off, those technicians left and did something else.
After about five years, we hit on the killer app for this technology, which was related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It turns out that the Army had decided to start using aerostats in a big way. An aerostat is a blimp on a tether that hovers over the landing point. And if you put cameras up there, or radar, or other sorts of sensors, it can be extremely useful in a permissive environment. In Iraq and Afghanistan, we were dealing with adversaries that were very unsophisticated technologically. Of course, Americans always like the high-tech solution anyway. But there were all of these forward operating bases with aerostats. And one of the very early aerostats, maybe the very first one, went up outside Sadr City in Baghdad, and a senior NCO in charge of communications looked up and said, "If I had my antennas up there, a couple thousand feet in the sky instead of here on the ground, I could be talking all over Baghdad as opposed to not being able to talk to hardly anybody." Her Unit had Humvees going up and down the alleys of a slum area with two- or three-story buildings and very poor radio communications. Tactical radio is pretty much line of sight. It really helps if the two antennas can literally see each other. You can get some coverage if you can't have a direct line of sight, but it really helps to get an antenna up high in the sky. That's why antenna towers are tall.
She said, "That aerostat could be an antenna tower if we used the optical fiber in the tether to connect the antennas up in the sky to radios on the ground." Well, she was right. It's a long story that we'll omit here. But that led to a series of large contracts for Syntonics to first develop, and then sell these systems that let the military put the communications antennas up on the aerostat but keep the radios on the ground. RF-over-fiber equipment makes the aerostat lighter because the heavy radios stay on the ground. Also, these radios are mostly COMSEC devices, they have encryption built into them, and there are physical security requirements. It's a whole lot more secure to keep the radio in the command post on the ground.
ZIERLER: Who were some of the key non-military customers for Syntonics over the years?
MONTGOMERY: We only had a couple. A sexy example is that we supply the RF-over-fiber equipment for the deepest diamond mine in North America. Now, you didn't know that there were diamond mines in North America, but there are. The one that became a good customer of ours is called the Diavik Mine. It's an Indian name. It's just this side of the Arctic Circle. It started as an open-pit mine, and they dug that down as far as they could. Then, they built a more conventional underground mine below that. It turns out that radio communications is a mission-critical thing to them. Everybody's got to have a radio, every vehicle's got to have a radio, and it's got to work all the time.
To distribute a radio signal underground in tunnels, they run bidirectional amplifiers. There's a whole scheme using leaky coax to provide antennas in tunnels, so all the radios below ground could talk to all the other radios below ground, plus back up to the communications center on the surface. Our RF-over-fiber equipment is the long-haul connection from the radio room on the surface down to all these different bidirectional amplifiers underground. Bidirectional amps are built by other people, it's a technology that's been around for a long time. But the long-haul RF, a couple of miles of optical fiber to get down to a particular tunnel and keep it illuminated with RF, that was equipment developed and sold by us. Diavik has been a good customer over the years. As long as they're mining diamonds, they'll continue to buy our equipment.
ZIERLER: I asked about the end of the Cold War, 9/11. What about the financial crash of 2008? Did that impact your company at all?
MONTGOMERY: Not at all. Had nothing to do with our business, which was then very focused at that time on our first aerostat contracts for DOD in Iraq and Afghanistan. The funding for Iraq and Afghanistan was strong, and perturbations in the commercial world had nothing to do with our business.
ZIERLER: That's because the War on Terror needs to be prosecuted no matter what the housing market is doing. They're unconnected, basically.
MONTGOMERY: That's right. And it happened not to affect us personally, either. You could imagine that it might've done that, but it didn't. I was lucky in that regard.
ZIERLER: You said the company grew to 30 people. What about your own leadership? How did your responsibilities change over the years?
MONTGOMERY: Well, I was always the founder and the head guy in charge. By that point in time, I'd knocked around enough in the business world to have a fair notion of how to get along with engineers. I was the guy who started the place and hired the people. It eventually got big enough that my managers were hiring people. But it was a happy little company. We might've touched 35 briefly a couple times. Small companies reflect the personality of their owner very strongly, for good or for ill. And in our case, we were a happy company with interesting work, worthwhile customers doing important things, and it stayed that way until I left.
ZIERLER: Of course, wars with state actors have definite endings, like World War II. The War on Terror, there's no clean ending to it. But in your memory, when did the War on Terror start to feel like it was winding down from its most intensive days after 9/11 and for at least a decade thereafter?
MONTGOMERY: Oh, our business took a big downturn in the 2013, 2014 timeframe, when the Army stopped fielding big forces. We'd had these large contracts to supply our equipment to aerostats. And when the Army started pulling its aerostats out of Afghanistan and putting them in storage, that was kind of the end of that nice piece of work.
ZIERLER: Were you prepared for that? Did you have a sense that at some point, these contracts would end?
MONTGOMERY: Oh, yes. We saw it coming. But the pilot flying the airplane only has so much control authority, and if you get a strong enough downdraft, you are going to lose altitude, no matter what the pilot does. I did have the vision that by the mid-teens, people were beginning to fly drones, little quadcopters, hextacopters, octacopters, and those can hold an antenna up in the sky. If you put power up the tether, they could fly forever, in theory. And if you put an optical fiber up the tether, you can do some interesting RF-over-fiber things, or you can just fly a radio. There are lots of things you can do with a tethered drone. Most people think of drones as free-flyers, but in fact there are perfectly valid uses for tethered drones. And there are several companies that made a go of it. I spent a lot of money trying to get into that business, and the jury's still out. But we have not had a smashing initial success. Other companies have had the big initial successes.
ZIERLER: What explains that? What was your company missing, either in terms of context or the technology?
MONTGOMERY: Part of it was that we were bootstrapping. Other companies had venture backing that let them spend a lot of money quickly to come to a product quickly to get to market quickly. We didn't do that. I was working reasonably astutely, I thought, to bootstrap us into that business, but it was never quite enough and never soon enough.
ZIERLER: When did you start thinking about retiring, and was there a succession plan in place for that?
MONTGOMERY: Five years ago, the 2017-2018 timeframe. When you own a company, you don't get to walk down the hall to HR and give two weeks' notice. There are a lot of different ways you can exit a company as the founder. But Syntonics wasn't big enough for an all-cash sale to a big company. The only one that I thought was viable was selling to a private equity group. And so, after a long period of introspection, poking around, and researching, that is, in fact, what happened. And that sale closed in December of 2020. My last involvement with the company was over July of this year. I'd been in a consulting role for a bit.
ZIERLER: You really were there for the beginning of COVID and the transition to remote work.
MONTGOMERY: Oh, yeah, the entire COVID thing. Yeah.
ZIERLER: Was that an easy enough transition for your employees? Was working from home a viable option?
MONTGOMERY: We got lucky. First of all, very early on, we got a couple of different emails, one a generic email to industry, and one specifically from a government contracting officer, saying, "You are essential. You will continue to work. Don't think about slacking off." [Laugh] And also, just by happy chance, January of that year, others in the company – by this point in time, I wasn't involved in this kind of stuff – had said, "We ought to implement this thing called Microsoft Teams that lets you have remote meetings." So I went from hearing about Teams for the first time early in 2020 to using it heavily by the 1st of April. And in an engineering-oriented company, it is frequently the case that where people are sitting is almost irrelevant to getting the work done. A lot of people started working from home, and a lot of people also continued coming into the office, but pretty much everybody had their own office. We were pretty careful about staying apart from each other.
But we gave up wearing masks very early on. Caltech had the effect of making me kind of an empiricist, and it was known before COVID that cloth masks made out of old neckties or whatever people were doing are almost irrelevant to aerosol viruses, respiratory viruses. Masks are play-acting that makes people feel good but has nothing to do with stopping the transmission of the disease. We basically ignored the masking mandates inside the company, because we didn't have to be in the same room with each other, and got very facile with Teams. It got to the point where my financial lady two doors down, we'd ring each other up on Teams just because it was easier than getting up from our desks and walking 50 feet. [Laugh] It made us very lazy, but it's very practical and worked out well for us. And of course, three or four years later, it's clear that a lot of what went on with COVID was a dreadful mistake. It damaged the economy in a way that's hard to recover from, and it was medically mostly unnecessary. A lot of things that were believed at the time, that were acted on at the time, turned out to be not technically sound. The politicians were getting bad advice. But Syntonics skated through.
ZIERLER: I wonder if you can reflect on the balance of, in your transition to a consulting role, how to continue to exercise leadership and perspective after all that you've done while also giving breathing room to the new generation of leadership.
MONTGOMERY: The private equity group that bought us proceeded to make a series of errors of omission and commission, a lot of it over my vigorous objections. But they owned and controlled the company. It's a well-trod but sad path where the founder of the company was increasingly unhappy with where things were going, and that's where it sits right today. The company may survive or may not. They took actions and failed to take actions in the very first year or two that were just catastrophic for the company. I don't want to go into it. But we went from being a happy little company to being an unhappy smaller company, and I'm not optimistic that, five years from now, the company will even exist.
ZIERLER: Well, for posterity, bringing the conversation right up to the present, what's the case that you would make for its ongoing success? What does it have to offer?
MONTGOMERY: There are a couple new technologies that are really promising. We've been, for several years, developing an extremely small, low-power, lightweight radar that was originally intended to be worn by soldiers, but I think more realistically, we'll have it put on tactical vehicles. It will tell you, when a bullet whistles by, where the bullet came from. It'll put a dot on the map where the sniper is. There's an error ellipse, but it's pretty small.
I'm assured by people who know that when you're being shot at, it's extremely difficult to tell where the shot came from. A shot-detection radar capable of putting a dot on a map in real time is extremely attractive, and we've been funded by the Special Ops Command for several years now to develop that. We're currently between contracts, but hope to have a vehicle version funded here in the next some months. One of the things about working with DOD sponsorship is how extremely slow it can be. Just glacial. It's really distressing, actually. It becomes so bureaucratized that slow decisions are not left to chance. We've been at it for so long that the whole business case, the premise from DOD's perspective has actually shifted ground. Anyway, there we are. But bullet-detecting radar, there's a big future.
ZIERLER: There's a big future there, whether or not the company survives to be a part of it.
MONTGOMERY: Yeah. Well, my CTO, whose brainchild this all is, I think will see it through whether it's at Syntonics or maybe some new location. We'll see. I'm still paying close attention to the company, I'm just not involved.
ZIERLER: Now that we've worked right up to the present, for the last part of our talk, I'd to ask a few retrospective questions, and then we'll end looking to the future. First, just as a Caltech alum, have you remained connected? Are you an active alum? Do you keep in touch with any faculty or fellow students?
MONTGOMERY: I write a nice check every year. I have a deep affection for Caltech, because when you go through the fires like that, you end up either hating it or loving it. You can find examples of both, I'm pretty sure. But I'm hoping to be at the 50th reunion, which is next spring for us. It's not a done deal, there are still some complications. But I'm hoping to be there. And I love going to campus. There are several business trips I've had where I stayed at the Athenaeum, which is something you can do if you plan ahead. I stayed in the Einstein Suite upstairs a couple times. It's a nice room.
ZIERLER: What's that like? I haven't been in there.
MONTGOMERY: Well, it's a modest hotel room with a very modest 1930s kind of bathroom. But it does have a sleeping porch, and it's the Einstein room. [Laugh] It's a very comfortable room. It's not ostentatious at all. But the rooms in the Athenaeum are all pretty spartan. I don't think the sleeping porch is active anymore like it was back in 1970. But it's a pretty cool place to stay. And if you live far enough away, 500 miles or something, you can be a member of the Athenaeum without dues. Instead, there's a slight surcharge when you do use the Athenaeum. I've gotten enormous, indescribable pleasure from checking into the Athenaeum, walking out onto the sleeping porch, and looking at Blacker house. Four very formative years. We were rambunctious. It had elements of Animal House. We just had a fabulous time. If it had not been for the homework and the tests, it would've been the best four years of my life.
ZIERLER: In all of your work in business and in engineering, what has stayed with you from your Caltech education? Either your approach to problem-solving, or confidence in being able to tackle something really difficult. What's been so important for you?
MONTGOMERY: Having survived that four years, I have always just assumed out of hand that I would succeed at something if I worked at it hard enough, and it's been more or less true. I've had stretches of my career where I was working 70, 80, 90 hours a week. But that was just hard work. It was easy. Like I said, Caltech got the hardest thing in my life out of the way early. Everything else has been easy. It might require long hours and some amount of stress, but it's all been easy since then.
ZIERLER: In all of your business pursuits, what are you most proud of?
MONTGOMERY: Syntonics. It was a very fine little company, and we did some very innovative work. And the products that we put in the field for the soldiers were brick shit houses. They were solid. It was good engineering, well-built. The guy I had double-hatted as VP of engineering and VP of operations was a very good engineer who came out of Northrop. His attention to detail in both engineering and operations made our products world-class, as good as it gets. Not that we didn't have problems sometimes, but they're products to be proud of.
ZIERLER: Finally, on that note, looking to the future, whether or not the company survives, what is the legacy? What is the legacy of the technology? And what does that mean for the United States?
MONTGOMERY: Such a grand question for such a specialized technology. I don't think there's any large message because of it. It's an interesting piece of technology. It will eventually probably be replaced by digital techniques. But it's going to be another 5, 15, 25 years. Hauling analog signals around over fiber is only being done because it's not possible to do it in the digital domain. A to Ds just aren't fast enough, they don't have enough bit depth to do what needs to be done. But people are working on it. There are cryogenic devices the size of a small refrigerators that are capable of handling RF frequencies up to some relatively low number. And I assume that eventually, it'll be possible to digitize these signals at room temperature and haul them around digitally so that you don't have to haul them around in an analog fashion, which is what we're doing with our technology. I think it'll be overtaken by digitalization, but it's still in the future. It's still a ways out.
But if you can do it digitally, it's just a whole lot easier. And you can shoot digital signals 100 kilometers down optical fiber, whereas an analog signal can only go maybe 20 kilometers for reasons of loss. And it's possible to reconstruct a digital signal in a way that's not possible with analog signal. If you lose an analog signal, it's lost. There's nothing you can do about it. But with forward error-correcting techniques, you can really trash up a digital signal and still recover the original information. That's how they're talking to Voyager, using Reed-Solomen forward error correction. JPL can drag a signal out of a complete mash of noise.
ZIERLER: I can't help but enjoy how you bring it all back to Voyager. It's a perfect bookend for your career.
MONTGOMERY: There you go. Like I said, there was an item in the news just a few days ago about how JPL still talking to Voyager, and it made me grin. I was very pleased. I had nothing to do with the Voyager electronics, but it still made me grin.
ZIERLER: Absolutely. It all goes back to Voyager. Bruce, this has been a wonderful conversation. I'm so glad we were able to do this. I'd like to thank you so much.
MONTGOMERY: Well, you're welcome.