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Charles R. Trimble

Charles R. Trimble

Caltech Trustee

By David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project

August 31 and September 2, 9, 10, 14, 21, 2021

DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is Tuesday, August 31st, 2021. It is my great privilege and honor to be here with Charles Trimble. Charlie, it's great to see you. Thank you so much for joining me.


ZIERLER: To start, would you please tell me your current or most recent title and institutional affiliation?

TRIMBLE: Given that I am now 80, I guess I would say the title that I have to use is Trustee of California Institute of Technology.

ZIERLER: That's number one for you?

TRIMBLE: That's number one for me. Given the campus opening up this fall, I'll be able to get back on campus, which is something that I love to do now.

ZIERLER: Physically, where are you located these days?

TRIMBLE: At the moment, I'm located just west of Austin, Texas, on Lake Travis. I'm often on a retreat on Shaw Island in the San Juans. Other than that, I travel.

ZIERLER: You come to Pasadena as necessary, though?

TRIMBLE: Actually, I was coming to campus about ten times a year before COVID hit. That has all been put on hold for the last 18 months, but it looks like the veil is lifting.

ZIERLER: Charlie, I want to return back to your interest and involvement with Caltech, but more broadly, I know you serve in an advisory capacity on many boards. What are some of the other things that are most important to you these days? What else takes up your time?

TRIMBLE: I'm actually winding down my board activity. I'm still on a "micro-camp" public board in the communications area at KVH. Unfortunately, the biotech company that I had been mentoring for the last couple of decades probably is going to go under. I've got a couple of family members that are ten and 11 that I am planning out a whole series of trips for. The national park tour into May, June this year—11 parks in 14 days, Denver to Los Angeles, national parks. Costa Rica, Christmas. Galapagos in late May, early June. Oh, and with the associates, my wife and I just went down the Colorado River on a rafting trip. We are scheduled to go to Antarctica in February. So I guess I'm in the Caltech bucket list phase of my life right now.

ZIERLER: What about Trimble Inc.? What is your involvement or connections there these days?

TRIMBLE: I have good relationships with the new CEO and a few of the people I still know. I took part in a three-CEO video for Trimble, I being the first and Steve Berglund the second, and Rob Painter now the third. Other than that, I simply left in 1999.

ZIERLER: I'll ask a fun question now, just to get a sense of where you see Trimble Inc. today relative to its origins. If you were able to take a time machine back to 1978, knowing what you know now in terms of what the company has achieved, would you be surprised or not? In other words, was your vision at the founding, do you see that as the origin story for what Trimble Inc. is today?

TRIMBLE: Well, if not at the founding, not all that long after, I had a goal of getting the company into the S&P 500. That was my long-term goal. I'm actually happy to see that many of the things that are currently driving Trimble to all-time highs were things that we put in place at the time of public offering in 1990. So the vision of getting to an S&P 500 company really was tied to what I saw in the GPS opportunity, and that's something that basically landed in my lap in the Spring of 1982.

ZIERLER: As you say, right now Caltech is at the top of your list. Let's develop that a little further. Why, of all of the things that you could be involved in, is being involved in Caltech so important to you?

TRIMBLE: I understand how to monetize electronics. I think I understand how to monetize biotech. I didn't succeed at that, but I know it. Now, those issues pale in comparison with the discovery of knowledge, but they're fundamentally two things that drive me. One has to do with creating things that didn't exist before, and the other has to do with understanding knowledge.

ZIERLER: And Caltech is a great place to do that?

TRIMBLE: Caltech is a wonderful place to do that. Actually, I had always viewed academia as having a slower time clock than the commercial world. Which is true, but I find now that I truly can affect and speed up the pace of high-risk research. That's what strikes my interest in terms of the time I put into Caltech.

ZIERLER: There's a range of options that you have in terms of how to give of yourself to Caltech. What are those options, and what has been most important?

TRIMBLE: Clearly, first on the list from a development standpoint is money, and second is time. My prioritization flips those around, but they're both very, very important.

ZIERLER: Who were some of the people, both on campus and in the broader Caltech world, that you consider partners in your emphasis in supporting Caltech? Who are some of the people that you work hand in glove with to make these things a reality?

TRIMBLE: The question is slightly more complex than it has been framed. My interests across Caltech span across many of the engineering and scientific disciplines. Certainly there have been some very key people in terms of basically opening up the door, so to speak, to understanding how Caltech works and breaking down the initial barriers. I guess the first person I would name there would be Ed Stolper. Ed came into my life first as a GPS division chair, soon after I had been asked to join the Board of Trustees. Ed picked a few advisors from the trustees that he would spend a little bit of time with each year talking about things, and then we would end up being on his visiting committee.

In many ways, the first invitation coming from Ed and GPS was a bit of a surprise. The common joke was that he had a different GPS. It is true that I had sold Caltech a series of survey equipment, very high accuracy survey equipment for monitoring tectonic plate movement, while I was at Trimble, at factory cost, which gave Caltech a real edge in terms of writing grant proposals to use the equipment. That had been my connection with geology. I had failed to take the introductory course in geology from Bob Sharp. I have poor eyesight, so finding minerals out in the field was not one of my strengths. But Ed invited me to campus and set up interviews with about half his faculty in the division over the course of three days, so I got a really good picture of the range of things that were being done there. That was followed soon after by the appointment to the visiting committee, and for reasons again that I don't fully understand, I was the only trustee who hadn't been to a prior visiting committee, but I had been selected as chairman.

At the time, I really didn't know the status of the division in terms of graduate school rankings. I had to be informed by Andy Knoll, a seminal professor from Harvard, that without question Caltech had the best Earth science program in the country. So that actually is how I started, and I have continued my interest in that division. While Ken Farley was division chair, I was really quite close with him and I worked in terms of setting up the chair council for GPS. Now, John Grotzinger is leading it, and actually I've gotten really involved with some major things in the division, certainly under John.

So Ed Stolper was really, really important. Steve Mayo, division chair of BBE, who has stepped down, was helpful. Adam Wierman, a relatively young computer scientist that is now responsible for IST, I've been very much involved with him. And the list of professors and projects, they range from Dianne Newman and Woody Fischer and Tapio Schneider, Joe Parker, Andrew Stuart. Of course Azita now heading EE.

Basically what I found was that very small increments of money can allow a professor to do something quote "risky" unquote. Now, it's called risky because it's risky from a standpoint of getting grant approval. It's fundamentally seed capital for a new idea. $50,000 is the increment that allows a professor to try something out. It has been shown, over and over again, that well over 80% of these pan out. I would never have run an R&D lab in a commercial sense for 80% of the starts worked; you're not pushing hard enough. So I came across this as a really important thing that I could do around Caltech to make things happen.

The other interesting thing that came out—sometimes I can find things that I just simply say yes to, but other times, when groups of professors come together because they're interested in an area, supplying them with funds so that they can call for one-page proposals that can be reviewed in three weeks and a decision made on funding for the area, is a good way of handling many cross-disciplinary activities at Caltech. This was first done as an experiment that Ed did while he was provost. He gave Dianne Newman I think at the time $400,000 a year for several years to hand out small grants, $50,000 grants, to people that use microbes in some of their research. It turns out that Dianne had found that there were somewhere between 27 and 30 professors across campus that used microbes in some way in their research.

That model had worked, so I used the same thing in IST under the name of the Carver Fund. I was putting in $200,000 a year. Oh, by the way, part of the reason that I have money to give is that while I was still running Trimble, when we did a secondary offering, I gave Caltech a couple hundred thousand shares of stock, which never specified how it was going to be used. Seven or eight years ago, Ed Stolper called me in and said, "You know, Charlie, that has now grown to over $8 million dollars in the endowment. That's large enough that some useful things can be done with it. Let's figure out what we want to do with it." So we came to an agreement that the fund would be something that the provost and I had while I was alive. If we agreed on a project, it was spent on that. If we didn't agree on a project, the money was left in the endowment. And when I died, the money went to the provost to have as a discretionary fund. So that actually gave me several hundred thousand dollars a year to play with that's over and above the annual giving that I do.

ZIERLER: Charlie, when did that agreement start? What year was that, roughly?

TRIMBLE: I'm losing track of time. It's probably eight years ago. The first person I gave money to actually was John Eiler, and John Eiler had this crazy idea about looking at the position of the isotope atom in the molecule as a way of determining how that molecule was formed, and that from a forensic standpoint, it would be very useful to know temperature and pressures and all that, that occurred at the time. The isotope atoms that they're interested in are carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen, which have reasonable abundance. They're not non-existent.

The only thing you needed was a mass spectrometer that was five orders of magnitude better than anyone had. The initial thing to prove it out was, could you tell the difference between a methane atom that had one carbon-13 or one deuterium? From the simple Bohr model, the atomic weights are almost the same, but they're not quite, and the bonding energies are slightly different. So I agreed to provide a million dollars for John Eiler to get this piece of equipment. I ended up giving $500,000, but by the time he had used the first $500,000, the oil companies were finding that just being able to look at a methane atom told them whether ground water contamination with hydrocarbons was coming from animal sources or geological sources. They started buying the same equipment that John had in his lab from Thermo Fisher. Thermo Fisher came back to John and said, "This could be really pretty exciting. We have this mad Russian that has this crazy idea. We'll build the equipment for free, give you a technician to support it, if you will evaluate it." Well, that is the basis of the third generation machine that John Eiler now has in his lab in the basement of Mudd. Anyway, that was the first one. The second one—

ZIERLER: I'm sorry to interrupt, but before we go on, what about this research spoke to you? Why did you want to support this specific line of inquiry?

TRIMBLE: Because fundamentally, if you can come up with a new measurement tool, you have the possibility of parceling out answers to questions that you couldn't have answered before.

ZIERLER: Like what? What are some of those questions?

TRIMBLE: For example, the whole commercial reason that oil companies that were doing fracking wanted to know whether the hydrocarbon product that was found in wells came from biological sources or geological sources. If it were biological sources, fracking wasn't causing the problem. If the groundwater contamination had been geologically produced, then fracking clearly was generating it. But certainly in due time, figuring out how a molecule or a mineral had been formed tells you a lot of what was going on in terms of the geology at the time. This has been well over half a dozen years since I've been on this particular topic, so I actually would have to go back and get a refresher from John Eiler. But I assure you if you have a conversation with John Eiler—John Eiler is famous; actually, he was the one that definitively answered the question of whether a given species of dinosaur was warm-blooded or cold-blooded by looking at the isotope arrangement from a very small sample of a tooth. He could tell that the tooth had been produced at a given temperature.

ZIERLER: That's some impressive science.

TRIMBLE: Yeah, it is. It's basic science.

ZIERLER: As you say, now that he's on to the third generation, that suggests the research has been a big success.

TRIMBLE: It has been a huge success, and his students have been inordinately successful in going out and getting academic jobs as well as commercial jobs. Being a professor isn't in a growth industry. On average, you get to replace yourself once in your lifetime. So if you can actually have students that end up in tenured positions at top universities, multiple students, you have clearly been a success.

ZIERLER: Let's move on to the second project, as you were saying.

TRIMBLE: The second project was Sarkis Mazmanian and the gut-brain interaction. Ed came to me and said, "Caltech has to invest in a cryo microscope." A cryogenic microscope. That one didn't strike me.

ZIERLER: Why the importance of a cryogenic microscope? What was Ed concerned with?

TRIMBLE: If you want to look at what the COVID virus really looks like in three dimensions, you need one. As a matter of fact, the little picture of the balls with the spikes coming out come exactly from that. In biology, anything having to do with virology, it's incredibly important. Also, just the ability to freeze a protein and to be able to actually see it in three dimensions. That's why these things cost $10 million.

ZIERLER: Who has one?

TRIMBLE: Well, all of the top biology programs in the country have them. The thing that really intrigued me about John Eiler's was that he was creating the instrument, which he could then use.

ZIERLER: Besides being impressive, is it also more cost-effective to create it than to buy it off the shelf?

TRIMBLE: I'm not sure of that, but it turns out that if you create it, you're opening up a new window to look at science. If you're buying it, the window has already been opened up. You just are using the cleverness that you have to apply it. This is the difference between—well, they're all steps on the road to actually making something useful for the common man. The most fundamental is the most basic. As you move down the spectrum, it becomes more and more applied.

ZIERLER: And what was your reaction to Ed's idea that this was something that Caltech should have?

TRIMBLE: I agreed that Caltech had to have it. They had to have it to do the research, because the cleverness would come in ways other than having a new window, if there's a new window of figuring out how to best use it and how to apply it to problems that hadn't been solved before, or have been solved before in a fashion that allowed you to really make progress in a given area.

I wasn't interested in that, but I was interested—it turns out at the same time, UCLA was making a strong pitch to poach Sarkis and offering him a great set of packages. I loved what he was doing in terms of the effect of gut bacteria on the immune system and on certain diseases. This, at the time, was really pretty new. He fundamentally has pioneered this. He actually is still a professor, but he has a startup that is looking into ways of providing treatment for some types of autism, some types of Parkinson's. Now that's starting to get to where the general public—it's not to the point that there's something that can be given as a prescription, but certainly they are in trials. The really neat thing is when you find disorders that are caused by bacteria, treating the bacteria rather than trying to treat the symptom in the human body has the potential for a huge breakthrough in medicine.

ZIERLER: Is this an antibiotic type of approach?

TRIMBLE: I suppose you could call it an antibiotic approach, but it is as much a probiotic as it is an antibiotic. We've got more cells in our gut from bacteria than we have in the rest of the body. Some of them are good, and some of them are bad. Some of them do us lots of good, and some of them do us lots of bad. Unfortunately, the broad spectrum antibiotics that we're given as a prophylactic for a root canal kills both. So yeah, the orthodontist doesn't have to worry about you getting an infection in the mouth, but you'll probably get a cold, because it wiped out the good bacteria that were in your gut that were protecting your immune system.

Sarkis believes that he has found the bacteria that secrete the chemical that leads to pre-Parkinson's and another that has to do with a form of autism. Now, in both cases, there's a wide spectrum of problems that have been grouped under the name Parkinson and the name autism. We're not saying that anything universal works here yet, but it looks like there is a way forward. Certainly there is a very strong connection between the gut and the brain. That's two.

Three, the global climate modeling. When Ed first brought me to campus, one of the people that I talked to was a very young professor by the name of Tapio Schneider. I've forgotten—it was sometime during Ken Farley's tenure—Tapio and his wife were recruited away to Europe to an institute, Zurich Institute. Fortunately, Caltech does not give up on professors that have succumbed to an offer and gone somewhere. They are given leave of absences. In the majority of cases, they come back. That certainly happened with Dianne Newman and her husband Jonas, who were poached by MIT, and it happened with Tapio. John knew what I thought of Tapio. I can remember receiving a call saying, "Charlie, I think we're very close in terms of getting Tapio back, but I believe we could seal the deal if you would offer to give Tapio $100,000 towards his cloud modeling research. The fact that it's coming from you, and you're a trustee, would mean an awful lot." So I did, and he immediately called somebody else that was on the chair council and said, "Charlie has done this. Will you do it?"

But anyway, Tapio came back. Tapio said, "I believe the state of satellite observation and the state of computers are now at a point where it would be possible to put together a real global cloud model." Now, you want a global cloud model because the variation in clouds have a first-order effect on the amount of energy that the Earth receives from the Sun. So unless you can correctly model the clouds, you have really very little hope on having an accurate climate model. As a matter of fact, there are some 30 climate models now. A climate model is certified if it will tell you what happened in the last 100 years. That's why they all match for the last 100 years, and they all diverge going forward. The climate models don't even agree as to whether the Earth will warm or cool if clouds are there or they go away.

ZIERLER: That's a major flaw, obviously.

TRIMBLE: Well, yeah. Some of the models clearly are right, and some of them are wrong. But in the ensemble average, they're all used, because it's like trying to fit history on the stock market. Anyway, but Tapio said, "We understand how to model clouds. We know the partial differential equations. The problem is you have to operate at the meter scale." So the world's biggest supercomputers could handle something that's 100 kilometers by 100 kilometers. If you want to do clouds globally, the smallest size you can do globally are about 100 kilometers by 100 kilometers.

ZIERLER: Is that to say this is impossible, or it has to be a patchwork approach?

TRIMBLE: This is to say that you have a gap in what you need to go across, of 12 orders of magnitude. 12 orders of magnitude! Now that is LIGO territory. They had to cross a gap of 12 orders of magnitude to get the first LIGO signal. In my career, I have crossed gaps of six orders of magnitude twice.

ZIERLER: What were the two?

TRIMBLE: One had to do with GPS and the other had to do with a small biotech company that made a pregnancy-type test approach work for detecting cervical cancer. But six orders of magnitude is truly tough. I would normally consider 12 in the "too hard" category. But Tapio had said to me, "I believe things are right, and I am willing to spend the next ten years of my life making this work."

It's clear that you never get the 12 orders of magnitude all at once. In fact just recently, there's a group in applied math that figured out how to use machine learning on a system of partial differential equations to pick up three orders of magnitude in compute speed. Clearly, since clouds are from a system of partial differential equations, immediately you've picked up three orders of magnitude. Also, over the course of the next ten years, you can probably expect that you're going to get two to three orders of magnitude just simply in compute power. You're certainly not going to get 12 in compute power. So that left six to go.

In any event, what I did was I basically funded a collaboration between Tapio and—oh, and the problem is, to solve this problem that Tapio wants to solve requires a heck of a lot more than Tapio and his lab. The real question was, where was the money going to come from? This project got underway in 1960, 1970, and it was clear that they weren't going to get any money out of federal funds, so the funding was going to have to come privately. So the first task was to de-risk it enough so that we could get significant private philanthropy support.

ZIERLER: If I may, why would the federal government not be interested in funding this kind of research?

TRIMBLE: Who was in the White House, and what was the political situation with regards to climate modeling and Earth warming?

ZIERLER: Very low interest at this point, you're saying. What about pressure from the fossil fuel industry? Was that a factor as well, would you say?

TRIMBLE: No. Because first of all, the fossil fuel industry isn't going to worry about climate modeling, because you're decades away from climate modeling having any immediate effect. The thing that you would hope to do by having a decent climate model is to be able to make rational decisions on remediation. We're not going to solve the problem. The global warming thing is frankly an energy policy problem. The way I state it, there's no way we're going to keep the rising middle class in Southeast Asia from wanting to use more energy. And there is no way that we are going to convince the lower middle class in the United States to pay for that.

ZIERLER: Through taxes and climate credits and things like that?

TRIMBLE: Yeah, or raising prices. So that's the problem. That is, as I see it, the nub of the whole problem behind climate change, global warming, whatever you want to call it.

ZIERLER: It's the nub of the problem insofar as that the world overwhelmingly relies on fossil fuels for its energy?

TRIMBLE: Yeah. But if you're not willing to use the nuclear option, it's really tough.

ZIERLER: We're stuck with fossil fuels for the time being, is what you're saying.

TRIMBLE: For the time being. It's an issue we have to deal with. There's no question about it. But we need time. I don't believe that we can go cold turkey. But beyond all that, you really need to have models that you can trust about what could be happening. For that, you need decent cloud modeling, modeling of the oceans, and modeling of the carbon cycle.

I got a collaboration going between Tapio and Andrew Stuart. Andrew Stuart was a newly hired Bren Professor of Applied Mathematics. He's from England. Most of his work had to do with things dealing with inverse Bayesian techniques, but the computational requirements of doing inverse Bayesian is quite high. I knew that there had to be developments in applied math if Tapio was going to bridge the gap, indeed, beyond the one I just described. But what Andrew had come up with earlier was to be developing inverse techniques to produce essentially the same answer.

I got the collaboration going, and one of the requirements of the initial grant was that they hold a workshop. Turns out if you want to get things to happen, what you want to do is bring in a workshop where you bring in the absolute top people in the field, and anybody that comes has to talk. Tapio organized this, and we got the scientific experts from several of the major philanthropies also to come. Because clearly by their listening to the efforts from people around the world, and listening to what is being proposed, they can do their due diligence. I did the first one. It was on clouds. It was so successful that another philanthropist paid for the next three.

ZIERLER: How was it so successful? What were you relying on to make that determination?

TRIMBLE: It was on cloud modeling, and we had solved two problems. There was genuine excitement in the field with the approach. We were truly worried that—a thirtieth model, Caltech is really late to the game. Everybody has gotten their own funding. They're not going to share their funding with Caltech. And it could be viewed as competition.

ZIERLER: Who are the other players? Who is Caltech competing with?

TRIMBLE: Well, it's not really a compete, because it turns out that NOAA—Princeton is running a big center. You're going to have to get from Tapio who all of the quote-un-quote "competitors" are. But in actual fact, what became clear was the scientists that are running these other centers are truly frustrated by the constraints they are placed under. I remember the scientific lead for the Princeton group said, "The federal funds specifically prohibit me from working on anything having to do with a model that is more than 12 months out." I can remember saying to him, "Don't you have the ability to garner soft money?" He said, "Yes, but my boss tells me that if I get too much soft money, that the hard money is going to be reduced by the amount of soft money."

The other one was it became very clear that Caltech didn't want to run the model. They wanted to create it basically and give it away. The last thing they wanted to do was to run a model. Now, most of these centers, of course, want to run models, because that's what they're paid for. The other thing that happened as we got—okay, we got to this point, so there wasn't a problem there with regards to competition, and people were excited that just maybe—not definitely, but just maybe, there might be something here. It is really risky. It is the sort of thing that I would say virtually no one that was in an established position would want to have staked their career on. On the other hand, it's something that graduate students and postdocs would die to work on.

ZIERLER: Because this is the future.

TRIMBLE: This is the future. The other thing that started happening was it was clear that the alliance that needed to be put together had to do with more than clouds. It was going to have to do both with the oceans and with the carbon cycle. MIT had worked for quite a while on a global model. They did have a global oceans model, and they thought they were going to get at climate science from the oceans.

Interestingly enough, if you go back in history, Caltech had to decide whether it was going to deal with oceanography or planetary science. It couldn't deal with both. It chose planetary science because of Woods Hole and MIT. That is an MIT professor, Raffaele Ferrari, who was Tapio's classmate at Princeton. He headed the oceans climate work at MIT. So clearly, they wanted to join.

A JPL researcher—I'm blocking on his first name, but his last name was Frankel; he now has an appointment in GPS—discovered that by carefully tuning a spectrometer on a satellite, you could detect the fluorescence that is given out by plants when photosynthesis is taking place. This means from space, you can measure the amount of CO2 uptake that is actually coming due to plant life on Earth. So JPL with a carbon cycle model and also a land model that's all the lakes and rivers, which are clearly important, MIT with the ocean model, and Tapio with clouds, formed—oh, then they also picked up the Naval Postgraduate School because of a software approach that allowed modeling to be done at different scales inside the same program. Those four came together and it was those four that actually we got funding from private philanthropy at the rate of $5 million a year. Tapio is heading it. It's called CliMA—C-L-I-M-A—now. That was a big one.

ZIERLER: Your original involvement was essentially seed money to get the collaboration started?


ZIERLER: And you had that vision for what it needed to become?

TRIMBLE: I bought Tapio's vision. There's no question that if I hadn't believed that he was the preeminent cloud physicist in the world who was going to put ten years of his life into this thing, there is no way I would have done anything. It was in the "too hard" category. But I had faith in him, and I backed him. And I backed him in a high-leverage environment because I didn't have enough money to pay for the whole thing. Not even close.

ZIERLER: Where is Tapio's research now? How has the project progressed?

TRIMBLE: I will see him in October. I've had a couple of phone conversations. It looks like they are ready to try running at least the combined oceans-cloud model. They believe they can get that running by the end of this year. By the way, they're using an MIT-defined public domain new software. I'm blanking on the name at the moment, but it combines the features of Python, which allows you to do things at a very high level without requiring that you go to other programming languages as you get closer and closer to the machine language barrier of the machine you're going to operate on. You get to do everything inside of the same language. That has proven to have sped up the joint software development.

There is a house that was called the Provost House, but the provost never lived in the Provost House. This house was given to this climate modeling alliance. Before COVID, if I went over there, I would see postdocs and grad students from both MIT and Caltech working over there together, every time I went over. But to that, they were able to add some really brilliant computer scientists that are willing to work with peanuts because this is going to save the Earth.

ZIERLER: That's a real commitment.

TRIMBLE: A huge commitment. Anyway, it's going incredibly well. Tapio said, "As opposed to most of the other things having to do with COVID, we all knew each other, and we could work remotely, because we were working on computers anyway."

ZIERLER: In some ways, perhaps it was an even more productive time for the group.

TRIMBLE: Well, I'm not sure I would go quite that far. I still think that there is a real value in face-to-face on occasion.

ZIERLER: What's your sense of this research in terms of the basic science and applications in terms of mitigating climate change once we better understand the role of clouds?

TRIMBLE: We know enough from the clouds now—we know that the simplistic mitigation technique would be disastrous.

ZIERLER: Which is what? What is that simplistic technique?

TRIMBLE: To put sulfur compounds into the upper atmosphere to shield the stuff from coming in.

ZIERLER: Geo-engineering synthetic clouds, essentially?


ZIERLER: Why would that be disastrous?

TRIMBLE: Well, no, not synthetic—the problem is, and Tapio has found, that the cumulus clouds work because the layer above the clouds is cool, and that keeps the cloud together. If you apply heat to the top of the layer of those clouds, they dissipate.

ZIERLER: Who would be applying the heat?

TRIMBLE: The sulfur, you would prevent heat from coming in, but you would prevent heat from leaving.

ZIERLER: So it would be catastrophically—?

TRIMBLE: There apparently is a six-degree hysteresis that once you lose your clouds, you have to cool the temperature by six degrees to get them back. That isn't completely known yet, but it is highly likely. So, no, in the beginning, we better be working on some other things, like playing like the Dutch and putting up dikes. That's probably what we want to do first.

ZIERLER: Are you against all forms of geo-engineering, or is just this particular one problematic?

TRIMBLE: Hey, I'm not against anything. The whole purpose of the model is so that you can test them. The model isn't done yet, so these early results may not be the final results. Human beings are figuring out a way to work through this problem, one way or another. I don't see the point of science as being a point of policy. I see the point of science as being, if you will, the canary in the mineshaft to tell you what is likely to happen by that remediation effort.

ZIERLER: And this is the way to understand these questions?

TRIMBLE: I know of no other way. So no, this is not basic research. This is as close to being applied as you can get. But it's also something that you would not be able to get private industry to do.

ZIERLER: Why not?

TRIMBLE: With the exception of one of our Silicon Valley or big tech billionaires, I don't know of anybody that has the funding to pay for it.

ZIERLER: Forgive me if it's a naïve question—what about the energy industry?

TRIMBLE: I would much rather be looking at other energy alternatives The far-out alternative that I don't know where it is from a research standpoint, but theoretically, you should be able to burn nuclear fuel in such a way that you get rid of the very long lifetime decay elements. Apparently, there are severe material science problems with doing this, because the heat involved is really very, very high, and you've got to contain it. But certainly burning nuclear fuel would allow us to actually use all of the nuclear waste that we currently have.

There are people at Caltech that are worried about energy, and I don't know if there's anybody at Caltech worrying about this as an option. I had been given this approach by Tom Tombrello, who used to be chair of PMA. I think he has now passed away. But it was six or seven years ago, I basically heard this idea. Aside from doing a decent job of just designing what we know how to design, which will work—and clearly you can dig a hole that's basically a mile deep. The reason that you can't store the damn stuff now is you have to be able to recover it in 100 years. That is the requirement. If you could store it in such a way that you didn't have to recover it, there are ways, I believe, of doing that. Digging the hole a mile deep and storing it at the bottom.

ZIERLER: But burning it negates all of those concerns?

TRIMBLE: Burning it negates all of those concerns, but there's the problem of being able to control the heat of the reaction.

ZIERLER: I'm curious if you're following what is happening at the Resnick Sustainability Institute and if these issues are relevant in terms of partnering with the research that's going on at the Resnick Institute.

TRIMBLE: What you have to realize is—I know what the Resnick Institute was doing before Steve Resnick's major gift. Jonas Peters is certainly one of our stars. He has figured out how to catalyze the production of ammonia, which would save an incredible amount of energy if you used that approach. I know that Harry Atwater has now just taken over ENAS, the division chair of ENAS. I know of him, but I don't know him. I do know that mechanical engineering several years ago staked out energy as being a primary area of focus. But I'm not involved with that, so I don't know it.

The part of engineering and applied science that I'm—I know the things that spawned out of EE. Those were the things that spawned out of what Carver did. The parts of it that I don't know are parts that he wasn't directly involved in. Information science, applied physics, applied math, computer science, medical engineering. It's now in the BBE, but they've got a biomedical engineering operation going over there. I'm familiar with those, but I'm not familiar with the aeronautics or the mechanical engineering. Now, the Resnick Institute and the Resnick funds will clearly reach across campus on the sustainability. But before the major gift, Steve Resnick frankly was more interested in water in the Central Valley and the Sierra snowpack than he was some of these totally basic research questions.

ZIERLER: Although fundamentally it's all connected, of course.

TRIMBLE: Yeah, although you can get some answers that are useful for the Central Valley without fully understanding the rest. That's a good idea, too.

ZIERLER: Was there a next project? This has been an incredible parade of issues, year after year.

TRIMBLE: Yeah. Certainly I backstopped the Carver Fund, and the interdisciplinary stuff across campus that came out of the $50,000 awards that were given out. That continues. EE has glommed onto some of that, and they're extending it. I am supporting an effort in evolution. It turns out that there are about 20 professors across campus that are interested in some aspect of evolution, and so I started that one by going to Steve Mayo and saying—well, it's Joe Parker, and come on, I'm blocking on his name at the moment, over in GPS. But anyway, Joe Parker is the spark plug for this thing. He's the guy that was interested in beetles, and it turns out the social behavior of his beetles that have evolved multiple times in our generation—by looking at the social aspects, you can start to tease out how the evolutionary process works, so his beetles are probably going to become a new model system in biology. There's the fly. There's the mouse.

I went to Steve Mayo and said, "If you and John Grotzinger will each put up 50K, I will put in 100K to start a group of professor-selected topics in evolution." They agreed, and they put out a request for bids, and they got 27 proposals. Steve looked at them and threw in another 50K, and this is continuing now. It has survived the transition of division chairs. Richard Murray—I love Richard Murray. I knew him when he ran ENAS. He decided he couldn't run the Division, keep his family life alive, and do his research at the same time. The division was just too large. That's why he actually stepped down after five years. He didn't run a full term. But he's an amazing Techer.

In fact, there are a fair number of key professors around campus that either got a BS or a PhD at Caltech. Doris Tsao dual majored in math and biology. She's the one that decoded how the monkeys recognize faces. By probes going into the brain of the monkey, she can pick off the neuro signals and have a computer-generated picture of what the monkey saw that people can pick out of a panel of 80 faces, and pick them correctly better than 80% of the time. So she solved that problem. She was a Caltech undergraduate. Richard obviously was Caltech.

ZIERLER: Not to mention Carver Mead.

TRIMBLE: Carver is obvious. He went directly from a PhD to assistant professor.

ZIERLER: Charlie, I have to ask, given the fact that so many eminent Caltech professors are themselves alumni of Caltech, what does that tell you more broadly about Caltech?

TRIMBLE: Caltech has this brutal way of teaching you how to attack really difficult problems. You come away with an understanding that you don't have to know how to solve a problem to be able to attack it. The two things—that was one, and the second thing that I got out of Caltech was actually from a professor by the name of David Middlebrook. He taught a course on generating simplistic models to solve impossibly difficult problems. The course was you got a problem once a week. No midterm, no final. You had to solve the problem on a page, one page. The subject matter depended on what he was interested in at the time. He was interested in semiconductor physics at the time, which was very valuable for me, so putting together simplistic models.

Aside from having a breadth of content that allows you to—you've learned how to learn—you can basically walk down any hall and open any door, and if you have to go into the room, you can figure it out. That's what a Caltech undergraduate education gives you. I know when I first started work at Hewlett Packard, I'd give myself two days to find an answer by going to the library. There are no longer libraries, but you've got them in front of you now. Then I would sit down and derive it.

Now, Caltech, in all truthfulness, if you look at the top research universities around the country, it's a revolving chair. Postdocs, grad students, professors, students, they migrate around. Caltech views Stanford, MIT, Harvard, Princeton, Yale as their peers. There are other places that are really great, but Caltech is the smallest of all of those. There are places that are much larger—obviously Berkeley, obviously Chicago. And actually from [the perspective of] advising high school students where they should go, if you test well and you can test 1500 on the morning SATs and you've had a good background in high school, you ought to choose between the top five, based on your personality, because the personalities are different.

I probably did better at Caltech than I would have done at Stanford, because no one got the right answer on an exam at Caltech. Everything was partial credit. I always would drop a minus sign or a factor of two on a page of algebra. You go to Stanford; you'd better get the answer right. That's not saying it isn't good, because I took a lot of courses when I first joined HP. They bribed Stanford to take part-time students by paying double tuition, so I took a course a term at Stanford for the first several years I was at HP, having something to do with what I was doing.

ZIERLER: To go back to the question, that unique style of learning, I've heard it called military boot camp for basic science.


ZIERLER: What then explains the prevalence among Caltech faculty of being Caltech students themselves? That that's just the best way? It's the best environment for them?

TRIMBLE: It turns out that with the possible exception of MIT, the thing that distinguishes Caltech undergraduate education is mathematics. Unless you're in the biological sciences and some chemistry, you've got to take three years of math, and probably four. We saw that with the grad students that were coming into Caltech. I saw it, as an undergraduate. The junior year differential equations course that all engineers and physicists that didn't take the mathematicians course had to take, and basically all incoming engineering students for the graduate school had to take, they had to separate the undergraduate and graduate sections, because everything is graded on the curve, and the graduate students had to maintain a B average.

Clearly, the quantitative aspect and the quantitative reasoning that is associated with a Caltech undergraduate education, you don't get that at Stanford. The others, I don't know. MIT is very similar to Caltech. I had a cousin that was three months older than I was, that went to MIT. I visited a couple of his classes. I concluded they were slightly easier, but I could have been biased.

ZIERLER: [laughs] Earlier you mentioned the Carver Fund. Just to make sure I have it correct, you're referring to the Carver Mead New Adventures Fund.


ZIERLER: Were you involved from the inception?

TRIMBLE: Oh, you better believe it.

ZIERLER: Tell me about that. How did that come about?

TRIMBLE: It was an IST meeting. Phil Neches was chairing the meeting. The subject had come up for using the council to commit to raising a fellowship, a graduate fellowship. I said, "Carver is worth an awful lot more than that. He has touched an entire generation in Silicon Valley. We certainly could come up with something better than that." Actually in the beginning, the first brush name actually was from Phil. It was the Carver Crazy Ideas Fund. Now, this didn't get any traction from development. The wisdom was that you can't raise substantive money in somebody else's name, so it just sat there. One December, my father said to my wife, "I want to write you a $14,000 check." My wife said, "I don't want it. Give it to Caltech." So she basically gave the $14,000, and that was the initial money in the fund.

I was told by Ed Stolper that Bob Sharp had said, "If you want to do something, the problem is first money. You get first money, and then development has to figure out what to do with it. And if you specify, that's what the money has to go for. So if they want to use the money, they've got to collect more money." Anyway, this thing sat there for a year. Finally, Phil said, "We've got to get this thing going." He, Ted, and I all put in 100K. I wanted to be giving my money not for endowments, but for current usage. I thought these sorts of things are wonderful for people that don't know how to spend their money at Caltech and want to help Caltech. There are lots of those people, thank goodness. When I think about it, I'm not sure how many people like me the provost would want. But then I'm being very much a Techer.

ZIERLER: What does that embody for you, Charlie, being very much a Techer, in that regard?

TRIMBLE: I'm not so much a joiner, but I get passionate about things that I think are important. We used to say in the student houses, "Don't run for an office. You might get elected."

ZIERLER: [laughs] Tell me about the idea that the Carver Fund even supports quote-unquote "crazy ideas," ideas that are way out there and nowhere near being ready for proper proposals in industry or government.

TRIMBLE: What you have to understand is the official Carver Fund got started the way I just described to you, but then I decided that we really needed to expand. It hadn't collected enough money to give out very many proposals. I had $400,000 a year from this thing that I had done earlier with Ed Stolper, that I got to put. I committed, for a couple of years, putting $200,000, calling it the Carver Fund, under the auspices of IST, which was Adam Wierman. It specifically was to be done on the basis of these $50,000 grants that actually got modeled from what had already been done in Dianne Newman's biology group, microbes group. I was mirroring that, just to see whether that would work. But that's the whole point of the fund.

One of the outcomes can be that enough progress is made so that the Rothenberg money, which is a bridge to commercialization, could come in and provide some money. A grant could be written to provide more money. Often times, grants were written to provide more money. What's even better, I found—for those first two years, I talked to every professor that had gotten one of these grants. I can absolutely remember the conversation with Frances Arnold, because Frances Arnold got a grant for using AI to speed up enhanced evolution. I talked with her for a while; it turns out that it was one of her students that came up with this idea. The student actually wrote the grant and got the grant.

It became obvious that by doing $50,000 grants, what you were also doing was—and they were grants—I was pushing really hard for the grants to be interdivisional, involve people across divisions, because basically in a collaboration, each side knows what they can bring to the collaboration; they just don't know whether the collaboration is really going to work or not. Especially if there's a student that wants to do this, it's perfect. A professor doesn't do something crazy at the risk of wasting a grad student a year. If however the grad student comes up with the thing that's crazy, well, that's sort of okay.

ZIERLER: [laughs]

TRIMBLE: So this clearly is something that helps both the professor with the idea, and I'm finding as I go around now more and more, professors are asking their students to come up with the projects. They're getting good enough at writing broad-based grants that can be applied to almost anything. I know Sarkis does it, and I know that Frances does it. But no, there was no question that the crazy ideas part of it—and the trouble is, what's called a crazy idea is not at all crazy, because most of them work out!

ZIERLER: Maybe "far flung" is a better term.

TRIMBLE: "Far flung" is a much better term.

ZIERLER: How does this approach honor Carver's way of doing science? How do you see the connection there?

TRIMBLE: It's pretty obvious. He started doing analog circuits to create a fly eye, for example. He got very interested in artificial intelligence. Certainly he probably more than anybody else created the merchant semiconductor industry, which I was an incredible beneficiary of. I couldn't have done what I did with the GPS if that hadn't been taking place at the same time. I mean, this is Carver. Nothing is sacred. He has no problem admitting that he was wrong. He has this wonderful statement—the only time you learn something is when you're wrong. If you're right, you didn't learn anything. And yeah, he has been wrong on many things.

Actually, I found that one of the most important things commercially was giving people the freedom to make mistakes. The last thing in the world you want to do if somebody makes a big mistake is to fire them. You want them to figure out—you want them to use their creativity to figure out how to get out of the hole that they've dug for themselves. You fire them, you've got to find somebody else that is going to solve a really hard problem. It makes no sense. Now, you don't accept people making the same mistakes repeatedly. I think Einstein said a mark of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. But no, the Carver Fund is Carver.

ZIERLER: What have been some of the most exciting things that have come out of the Carver Fund so far? Too many?

TRIMBLE: Well, no, hey, the problem is I just had a couple of years of complete brain fog. You've got access to Caltech videos, so go back and replay the video that was taken where the Carver Fund was celebrated. We were a little over two years into it before, and that was when we started really getting substantially more money to build it up. I had a three- to five-minute capsule in there where I laid out some of the big things that had happened during the first two years. What I'm thinking about now are the funds that—the projects that were started in the Fall of 2019. What you're asking me for is to remember the projects that finished in 2018. That's going back three years, and I'm having trouble.

But there are some projects now that I think are really neat. One was done with—what's his name?—he teaches the junior level big data course. He teaches the seminal course. Yaser. Yaser was going to use AI and a simple stethoscope-mounted sensor to be able to do remote sonic imaging. $50,000, and this is what he is proposing to do. I talked to him, and he has a researcher that is a Caltech graduate that is an MD/PhD with UC Irvine. That is the medical contact. Then he had an electronics postdoc. If you ever know Yaser, and when you're talking about AI, he says, "The first and absolute thing you have to have, if you expect to do anything with AI, is data." So what is Yaser's first problem? There is no data.

With his researcher at UC Irvine, they've got to go collect data. So they collect data. Then they generate a sonic device that works in much the same way that you would have beam steering radar. By the end of the year, you could actually see the artery, and you could see the pulse going through the artery. They were doing it on the neck, because there's some medical thing where problems with the artery in the neck are important, and I've forgotten what they are. Anyway, that was a neat one.

What's going on now—there's one that Azita is doing where she is trying to couple AI with really crummy analog sensors so that you can avoid having to do anything digitally with implantable devices in a human being. This combination of something that can monitor and correlate, that is ultra-low power, that is implantable certainly was something that was done.

Another one that—Axel Scherer—if you bring points of metal very close together you can actually form a triode out of them. They're incredibly close, but it's metal that can be laid on a semiconductor material. The idea is these triodes can operate at incredibly high frequencies. So one of the Carver awards just before COVID hit was to fabricate a flip-flop. You were basically using the iliac flip-flop, which had nine vacuum tubes flip-flop. They're now going to make these out of just little metal conductors. That is a crazy idea. Now, if it works, if you want to get the 50 to 100 gigahertz speeds, you're going to have to—you can't use wires to interconnect things, because the amount of time it takes for the electrons to travel down the wire is significant. You have to optically connect, so you're going to have to make this flip-flop such that it has these metal connectors and these optical couplers that will make something that should be able to toggle at 50 to 100 gigahertz. Now, why would you want this? Well, if you need certain functions on a really high-speed computer, since it's simply metal, you can put the metal on the final layer of oxide that's on a semiconductor chip, and you can just simply add this as an enhancement to underlying computational capability. This would be a way of getting into substantially higher frequencies.

ZIERLER: Which can yield what? Where would this research go?

TRIMBLE: Your supercomputers would now operate faster. Moore's law was never a law; it was an engineering challenge. We are not accomplishing it. That has slowed down. Now, the tricks that are being played are the tricks that people like NVIDIA play for putting specialized computational engines with general computational capability. And then of course the multi-core arrangements, this is just another way of putting an enhancement in. In many ways, I did the same thing—not on the same chip, but I did the same thing with GPS. I produced a custom semiconductor that did everything required to compute the GPS given that you had memory and that you had a microprocessor. My model was microprocessor, GPS, chip, memory. That's what NVIDIA does for AI, so the usefulness would be along the same line.

I had an uncle that his last job actually was being able to play while he ran the NSA supercomputer. At the time, they were trying to make sense out of data that came in, and so they were trying to figure out how to slice it. In those days, the supercomputers weren't fast enough to be able to rotate an image for us, so that you could see a cube, for example, rotate in front of you on a screen. To do that, you used an analog computer that drove the display, so that you rotated things in analog after you had computed them. What the particular application of this high-speed thing is, I don't know, but I'm sure there will be one. When people like Tapio—if he had 12 orders of magnitude more compute power, there would be no problem. Our desire for computer power is limitless.

ZIERLER: Obviously you're talking about classical computing.

TRIMBLE: Well, all right. I think I fall more in the Carver camp. Quantum computing—however, before we get to quantum computing, we're going to get to quantum sensors, and we're going to be able to use the phenomena for all sorts of measurement capability long before we're going to be able to have a megabyte of memory. I don't believe that I will see useful quantum computing in my lifetime. That doesn't say it can't exist, but when you look at the biological system—in fact, I asked this question to Gordon Moore once, and I think Gordon was a Caltech graduate, but I'm not positive; that has to be looked up. I said, ones and zeros in silicon are solid ones and zeroes. In biology, we can make things that are ones and zeroes, but there's a probability function that they are a one or they are a zero. And to the extent that you're trying to live in a world where your ones and zeroes are all probability functions, and you are going to have devised your mathematics so that this makes sense, and there's no reason we can't get there, because that's how the biological world works. But that's as long ways from where we are.

And basic research? Fun. But change the world in the five- to ten-year timeframe? No way. In fact, I was asked that question at one point—"What is this industry going to look like ten years from now?" Well, if you've got a ten-year limit on something, the things that are going to be really important are already visible. You just have to figure out what they are. Because things don't go from—it used to take 20 years or more to go from the original thing to something that actually a significant number of people could find useful. You can take electricity. You can take the telephone. You can take the airplane. You can take the automobile. Wonderful factoid—Mercedes at one point did a market survey as to how many cars this automobile market would support. The answer came back 10,000, and that was the number of chauffeurs. Or how many Xerox machines would be used. Market survey—few. The professors at MIT that came up with the hysteresis loop involved in the magnetic core—somebody, I've forgotten who it was, it might have been AT&T, wanted to license it. They were offered a hundredth of a cent a bit or $10,000. They picked the $10,000.

ZIERLER: Wow. What's the lesson there?

TRIMBLE: The lesson is, when you're at the basic research level, it's still a long ways before you're actually there. There is this continuum. At the moment, most real quantum elements need to be at temperatures near absolute zero. Until Carver and company can break through on—I'm blanking on the name of it again; it's how you generate a current with no resistance. I'm blocking on the name. Anyway, that's one of the things he's playing with at his lab on campus right now.

ZIERLER: I'd like to ask broadly, to go back to this amazing arrangement that you've achieved with the provost in terms of deciding on what kinds of research projects to fund, given your long association with Caltech and your desire to support excellence at Caltech, do you see this arrangement as part of the larger process of how science is supported, or is it unique? Is it innovative in and of itself?

TRIMBLE: For people like me who feel like being on campus is like being a kid in a candy store, the approach that I've got works really well, because it guarantees involvement, and it guarantees that you're getting—in my case, I'm getting 15 to 20 new projects a year. I love the projects where a grant has been given and I haven't the foggiest notion of how they're going to solve it. I get to be the fly on the wall and see the progress. So for somebody like me, it is fabulous.

Now, in part, I think part of the reason I'm given such freedom to do this stuff is that the $400,000 a year that I'm giving out from the fund that is joint controlled by the provost, I also have annual giving, and I basically abuse the tax laws for the giving. I'm basically sheltering 50% of annual earnings by giving. So I have that money to give in addition to the $400,000 that I—with Ed Stolper, sometimes he suggested things, but he got to the point that he just wanted to talk about them, and we came up with something. With Dave Tirrell, since I had been funding—I've been mostly funding these professor groups that are into a subject, handing out things. He's happy with that. For COVID, I used up some of my money to fund Steve Mayo and his work that he was doing on coming up with a vaccine.

I'm involved with three of the chair councils, so I know what the division chairs are viewing as important. As a matter of fact, I won't make a grant without first having checked with the relevant division chair, just to be sure that the money is needed. There are some researchers that are doing amazing stuff but they don't need any money, Doris Tsao being one of them. I would give her money in a heartbeat if she needed it. On the other hand, there's another one in biology that does need it, Lea Goentoro. She believes that you can trick the body's DNA into digit regeneration. She shows that she can regenerate legs on fruit flies, which have no biological reason whatsoever to ever regenerate, because they don't have enough lifetime. She can regenerate digits on mice. It's all done by the food that she feeds the animal.

Now, the $50,000 grants are a crazy and high probability of things like Tapio did or Lea is doing, I do consider to be extremely high risk. But the fact of the matter is, a Caltech professor is willing to devote basically her most precious resource, and that is time, going after something, and if it is successful, it changes the world.

ZIERLER: To what extent does your status as a senior trustee make things easier or more efficient, in terms of funding the work that you want to do?

TRIMBLE: It makes it easier, because I have commitments to be on campus, and therefore I will plan to spend more time on campus talking to people. It means that I have a little more, but not much, interaction with Caltech faculty, because of it. Division chairs, three- to five-minute sorts of things, and maybe a lunch or a breakfast. Because I am a trustee, I understand what the administration is trying to accomplish, and I understand how some of the administrative part of campus works. So I am tied to campus. I believe that I have slightly more value in taking up a professor's time, because I'm also a trustee that cares, and that does make a difference.

But other than that, the hardest problem for anybody doing what I'm doing is to break into the system, in terms of having easy communication paths. In my case, I've got the guaranteed ability to at least get a breakfast, if not something else, with John, with Harry Atwater, with Richard Murray, with Alan, and certainly with Tapio or any of the professors that I have developed good relationships with.

I use the funds—and anybody could do this—for example, anybody that contributed to the Carver Fund should be able to find out who the winners were and get appointments or take to lunch the professor that is doing a project that they're interested in. Anybody can do that. Because I'm a trustee and I live more than 500 miles away, I get the Athenaeum and I only pay for services, so this lunch thing really does work. If you're a local person, it probably doesn't, but if you fly in from San Francisco and stay overnight at the Athenaeum, you have privileges of the dining room, and so you can use that. Anybody could do that.

ZIERLER: Last question for today, I think, as we round out a tour d'horizon of your current work at Caltech. Hopefully next session we'll go back and develop your personal narrative, your own background. That's a question we've all been dealing with. This year and a half of the ongoing pandemic, what have been some of the biggest takeaways for you, both academically, scientifically, politically, all of the above?

TRIMBLE: I certainly have living environments which no reasonable person would object to under the definition of house arrest. I've got a community I can walk in. I exercise by walking to a lake and swimming and that sort of thing. None of this has ever been impacted. I've been able to find a flight or flights and get from Austin to the place on Shaw Island without eating in a restaurant and without staying overnight at a hotel, and I've been doing that since before I could get vaccinated. So in terms of that, it has been great. In terms from feeling isolated from Caltech, I feel isolated.

ZIERLER: Zoom is not an effective substitute.

TRIMBLE: Zoom, on a one-on-one, will work, but I am not able to work well in a meeting environment, partially because I've got poor eyesight, and I can't use the visual cues on the screen. Zoom works for one-way communication. I feel guilty imposing on people's times without some excuse. See, if I'm on campus for a board meeting, I've got an excuse to set up appointments with ten different people. I don't really feel I have that excuse. I should, I could, email them, and I'm sure that everyone who would have said yes to a face-to-face meeting would have said yes to a Zoom meeting. But I don't do it. So, it did not work for me.

The Athenaeum opens the 8th of October, and I have a room there starting on the 13th. I'm back. I've had, in over a year and a half, maybe five phone conversations. I absolutely had to have a phone conversation with Richard Murray when he took over for BBE, because I needed to set things up again for Lea and for the things in evolution. I have talked to John Grotzinger twice. I think I've talked to Adam twice. But that's it. Now, in the Zoom meetings that have been set up, I often will get on the Zoom meeting before the meeting starts and I can have a few words with Azita or somebody like that. But it doesn't work.

ZIERLER: Charlie, in the way that you see a worldwide problem like climate modeling, where Caltech has a pivotal role to play, what about in all of the various ways that COVID-19 needs to be understood and mitigated, or even preparing for the next pandemic? Do you see a role for Caltech?

TRIMBLE: Well, they're doing it. That absolutely is going on. I'll get a better understanding of where things are, but I have no doubt that—the collaboration that I started supporting in the beginning, which was between Pamela and Steve, I'll be very surprised if something doesn't come out of that. Caltech is finally getting a lab where they can actually have viruses. There's no question that this is an important area. And the stuff that Sarkis is doing with the microbiome is really important. There we have our single-celled organism and our less than single-celled organism that are pathogens to humans.

The stuff that Dianne Newman is doing with cystic fibrosis—she's using geobiology techniques to discover that you have to get through the bacteria that are in the lungs. It isn't something that you can treat the skeletal human for if you want to solve the problem. Unfortunately, the bacteria that are in the lungs are in an antibiotic environment, so they're not the same as the same bacteria would be out in the open. So yes, I think there's a lot going on there. I think Caltech is going to have a major effect in this whole new biology area, understanding how the brain works. I am sure that with the Resnick funds, this whole issue of sustainability is going to be improved.

One of the pushes that I've been on, and I was on with Phil as well, had to do with the push for computer science. Five years ago, we got a major increase in the number of appointments in applied math and computer science. It isn't the gaming environment; it's basically computers and the changing nature of computers are going to be changing applied math that is useful. That is also going to change the way science is done. This whole business of running out of compute power or—not running out, but having problems that take me back to where I was when I first started, where there wasn't much compute power and you had to be really clever to accomplish things.

The example with GPS is the first GPS I built had five computers, one for each channel and one to pull everything together. I had a brilliant software—well, he was an electrical engineer—a software engineer from Caltech who kept writing improved Sparse compilers every time we needed to change a couple of instructions, because we had run out of the instruction space for our computer. That's what I started. The last time I was involved with Trimble, I was shown that they can solve the entire GPS problem in a cell phone.

ZIERLER: And thereby literally put it in the hands of everybody.

TRIMBLE: Yeah. For a long time, GPS had become a cell on a cell phone chip. But now you can take—and I'm not talking about the straightforward GPS; I'm talking about the high-accuracy GPS, or the one-foot-level GPS—can be solved now on a cell phone. So we're going to be re-entering a world where our problems are going to outstrip the obvious computational resources for their solution, and we're going to have to become, again, more efficient in terms of how we use that resource.

The body, for example, you look at the eye, and the bandwidth constraint on information flowing from the retina to the brain is truly extreme. And yet, our view of what we see is mostly made up of what we expect to see plus a little bit of input that comes in from the eye. And so, biological systems operate at far slower bandwidths and with far less obvious capacity than we have available to us in our supercomputers today. Understanding this and understanding how to make use of this is going to change the world.

ZIERLER: Last question for today. Hopefully soon enough we'll get out of the pandemic and you can come back to Caltech. What are you most excited about? What is the magic that you're most excited about getting back to, that can only be achieved from physically being at the Institute?

TRIMBLE: Hey, the first thing is a rapid-fire catch-up on where the world is. That will happen in October or November, because I have meetings in both October and November. I should be able to touch base with a tenth of the faculty during that period. At that point I can start then thinking about, "All right, what needs to be pushed now?"

ZIERLER: Is there a tremendous amount of latent energy that you think will be unleashed sooner than later?

TRIMBLE: Do I think there's a lot of energy? Well, I honestly don't know, because depending on the field that one was in, the experience has been vastly different. So there is no question that I'm going to be in a much better place. Whether everybody—well, everybody is going to be in a better place. There's no question about that. And certainly undergraduate experience can restart. Even the graduate student experience clearly wasn't the same, even those that had access to the labs. I had a nephew who just got a PhD in BBE. They had four-hour time slots in which they could use the lab on a rotating 24/7 basis. There will be a new normal. I'm positive that there are things that will be learned. Certainly the teaching technologies and the way disseminating lectures I believe will have changed, and will have changed for the better. Because at that point, the classes can really be a give and take between students and a professor. I see that as huge. That again actually puts value on a small institution like Caltech that things can be done in a very personal manner.

ZIERLER: That's a great place to leave it until next time.

[End of Recording]

ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is September 2nd, 2021. I am greatly honored to be back with Charlie Trimble. Charlie, it's great to see you again.

TRIMBLE: Great to be here.

ZIERLER: In our first session, we did a wonderful tour d'horizon regarding all of your current interests and work specifically with regard to your generous support and interest in the science at Caltech. Now, let's take it back to the beginning for you. Let's start first with your parents. Tell me about them.

TRIMBLE: My father was born of American missionary parents in China. My grandfather ran a field hospital in China, so my dad spent the first 11 years of his life there. The family was basically kicked out of China because of the civil war going on in 1928. Settled in Tacoma, Washington. My father went to the university—well, it was College of Puget Sound at the time—majored in chemistry. Just before the war, he was working for Shell Development in Emeryville, which is in the Bay Area, and he was going to Cal. There he met my uncle, who introduced him to my mother.

Her father actually was I guess the fourteenth child of a Pentecostal minister in the Dominican Republic. He ran away from home at 14. As I know the story, he quit a $35,000-a-year job in 1936 because he didn't like the morals of the owner. For the rest of his life, he would find a hilltop and build a house and sell it, and repeat the process, basically once a year, until the year before he died. So my mother grew up in this environment which was truly a rags to riches roller coaster ride.

It was still during the time that it wasn't obvious that girls went to college, and so my mother had started higher education at a junior college in L.A. when her brother asked my grandfather whether it be all right if he asked my mother to come up and keep house for him. So that's how my mother got into Cal. That's where my mother and father met. My father figured out how to produce trinitrotoluene from petroleum products, as opposed to from the coal tar industry, just before the start of the Second World War, and was not allowed to enlist. Dad hated things that involved high tension and high emotion, and he always thought he wanted a simpler life. During the war, he grew vegetables hydroponically in our back yard, in El Cerrito, which is very close to Berkeley.

My mother's father at the time—right at the end of the war, my mother's father was developing avocado property south of L.A., in the general area of Fallbrook. I'm not sure whether my father leaped at the chance or was talked into a 14-acre avocado ranch, but by the time I was going to go into the first grade, the family was moving down to Fallbrook to live in a used brick house that had been built on a ridge overlooking the Palomar range, where there was 14 acres of avocados. That actually takes my parents up through the point that I am about six years old.

ZIERLER: To go back to your father and his family's experience in China, what church were they part of? What was that overall missionary organization?

TRIMBLE: It was the Methodist Church.

ZIERLER: Do you have a sense that in those 11 years he was there, did that exert a formative influence on him?

TRIMBLE: Well, it certainly exerted an influence on him. In his later life, one of his great joys was being able to go back [laughs] and try to find the house that he grew up and the field hospital. Actually the president of UPS did a trip to China in 1972, and he was part of that trip. The Fujian province was still not open to tourism at the time, but he later was able to get in. Certainly he found where the house and the field hospital were. They had just recently been torn down, so they weren't there. But my grandfather wasn't the only one there. His aunt founded the first girls' college in China, in Fuzhou, and there is still a building with the name "Trimble Hall" on it today. The school has basically separated. Hua Nan College and Fujian Normal can both claim heritage to that school. My brother has been quite actively involved with that sort of thing, of late, and so was my father in his later years.

ZIERLER: From your parents, from your dad specifically with science, and both of your parents, particularly your mom and her abilities to get a degree when that wasn't so easy, in what ways did they instill a respect both of science and education, even from a young age, for you?

TRIMBLE: My mom never actually graduated. She basically got married at age 20. But education was really very important. I can remember being drilled on the multiplication tables when I was four. I had this memory of being in a kitchen, looking at the cutting board that had been pulled out of the counter. I could not see the top of the cutting board. But I certainly had been taught my multiplication tables by the time I was a little over four. My mother read to me vociferously, so that by the time I started school, I was certainly familiar with all of the children's classics. I'm not talking about Cat in the Hat or that class of things. It's Heidi, Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer, those sorts of things. Clearly my mom was very, very interested in education.

My father was somebody I could always go to with questions, whether they be math, science, or even—in those days, I can remember certainly in high school when I was writing papers, he would read my first draft. My spelling was atrocious, and so I would get the misspelled words underlined, and he would indicate when transitions were necessary between paragraphs and that sort of thing. Later on, he would drive me to the library in San Diego to do research on papers. So education was clearly very important to them.

ZIERLER: From both of your parents' backgrounds to your upbringing, did you grow up in a more religious or a secular household, would you say?

TRIMBLE: I was clearly in a secular household in the sense that my father absolutely rebelled against the traditional Methodism that he was brought up in. But I was very involved as a young teenager in Boy Scouts, and so there was an affiliation with the local Methodist church, and I did go to Sunday school and I did go to church. I certainly was familiar with the Bible. I can remember a discussion that my mother had with my brother and I when my brother was still very young. She was going through the Ten Commandments and she got to "Honor thy mother and thy father so that thy days may be long in number," and my brother just broke out into this great peal of laughter. What a ridiculous statement!

ZIERLER: [laughs]

TRIMBLE: So yes, in terms of awareness of Christian thought, there's no question that that was there. The Christian/Western morality was there. My mother picked the Protestant denomination based on the minister, not on the denomination. So the household really was secular.

ZIERLER: Did your father's rebelliousness—do you see that as being rooted in his scientific sensibilities?

TRIMBLE: No. Maybe rebelliousness is too strong a word. He just wanted to ignore the extensive ritual that was associated, and the rules. In no part of my upbringing would I say that I ever was aware of—well, in no part of my childhood was I aware of the Scopes Trial and the conflict between the ideas of evolution and intelligent design.

ZIERLER: You would have been very young at the time, even a toddler really, but do you have any memories of the United States being in World War II?

TRIMBLE: Absolutely. The blackout curtains. The air raid sirens. The—how do I want to say it?—the coupons that were used for gasoline and various food items. No, I was aware that the war was going on, there's no question about that.

ZIERLER: This was because the threat of a Japanese attack was real on the West Coast?

TRIMBLE: It was considered real, yeah. The house we were in was on a hillside that overlooked the Golden Gate Bridge. The Bay Area was certainly one that locked down.

ZIERLER: We got up to age six for you. Did your family move at that point?

TRIMBLE: My family moved, yeah, from El Cerrito to Fallbrook.

ZIERLER: Was that a step up, socioeconomically?

TRIMBLE: That's hard to say. The lawn and the house in El Cerrito still exists, and it's still very much in a middle class neighborhood. While certainly the ranch house that had been built by my grandfather was quite nice, it was unconventional, and it was at the top of a hill where you basically went up a quarter of a mile long dirt road to get to. As a matter of fact, when they first moved down, the county roads were still gravel, that the road to the house led off of. So I would say that my whole life was really middle class.

Now, on the ranch, we had a good life, but there was no money. We grew vegetables. We had orange trees that would produce oranges all year round. For a while, my parents had raised chickens and rabbits, the rabbits for the pelts. I took a school bus which picked me up at the bottom of our road to school in Fallbrook, which was seven miles away, when I was living down there. At the time, I thought people in town who had a $10,000-a-year income were rich.

ZIERLER: [laughs] Growing up on the ranch, surrounded by nature, did that inform your own scientific sensibilities even as a young boy?

TRIMBLE: Growing up on the ranch was absolutely fabulous. A lot of the activities from age 11 to 14, 15 were driven by achievements in Boy Scouts, which did involve a lot of outdoor things, did involve nature things. But I wouldn't say I became a biologist or a geologist because of that. In fact, I didn't. But it was a very free time. It turns out that I never took school very seriously until about the seventh grade. In the seventh grade, I had a teacher that basically was really good at journalism, and she had a journalism club after school. I ended up writing a small weekly article for the weekly Fallbrook newspaper. That was when I first started actually caring much about what happened in school. The other thing that changed at that point—I was still in the seventh grade—on a Boy Scout paper drive, I picked up a Caltech catalog [laughs]. I read it, and I decided that that's what I wanted to do.

ZIERLER: What was in that catalog that spoke to you?

TRIMBLE: It was the hardest school in the country to get to.

ZIERLER: [laughs]

TRIMBLE: I mean, it's the wrong reason, but it turned out it was the right choice for me.

ZIERLER: [laughs] You said it didn't make a biologist or a geologist out of you. Growing up, were you a tinkerer? Did you have chemistry sets, model airplanes, things like that?

TRIMBLE: Okay, yes. There weren't Legos in those days, but there were erector sets, and there were electric trains, and there were ham kit radios that you could put together, and chemistry sets. I did all of that stuff. The real focus on science, it hit me the same way it probably hit lots of people of my generation—when Sputnik went up, it completely sealed the deal in terms of technology.

ZIERLER: In terms of the importance of technology, you're saying?

TRIMBLE: The importance of technology and the fact that that's what I wanted to do. There were pop cans that used to have little conical shaped things coming up before you had the top that you had to use a can opener to open. We built brick rocket launchers and put in small amounts of gasoline and a fuse and lit it, and fired things off. The sort of thing that you would truly shudder at if your child did.

ZIERLER: [laughs]

TRIMBLE: But the ranch was totally self-contained. We had our own gas tank and a crank pump to pump the gas. My father found to almost his horror that it took seven years before avocado trees got mature enough to be economically productive, so he ended up having to work in L.A. at the Socony Mobil—well, it became Mobil Oil, finally—labs in Torrance, and he did research work there during the week, and then came down to the ranch on the weekend and ran the ranch on the weekend.

That worked, and my mother stayed there full-time working on—keeping the rabbits and chickens going, until she got sick. Then that clearly wasn't going to work anymore, so she couldn't stay on the ranch during the weekends. But when dad finally moved down to the ranch full time, he took over as manager of the local water company, because he could measure the salt content of the water coming out of the wells, from the local underground river, and knew how much Colorado River water had to be mixed with it so that it would be tolerated by the trees. This is pretty bad, when Colorado River water has to be used to improve your local groundwater! But that was indeed the case.

ZIERLER: What turned around for you in seventh grade when you started to get serious in school? Was it your realization that you could learn math and science at a higher level?

TRIMBLE: No, it was that I could get A's if I wanted to. Actually I was quite fortunate, because certainly in the high school, there was a math, chemistry, and physics teacher—there were two teachers that taught those subjects, and they decided to teach accelerated classes. My freshman year, they crammed two years of algebra into one, and the next year, it was geometry and trig into one. Then there was two years of calculus. The math turned out to be very, very good. Obviously the physics was pre-calculus. It was algebraic. But chemistry and physics were very, very solid. In addition, there was a really good history teacher that taught both world history and U.S. history, and a very good English teacher, so I was truly lucky, in frankly a backwater setting, to have a good education.

ZIERLER: Does that speak to California's overall support for public education, at least in those years?

TRIMBLE: Never thought of it in a political sense, but yes, that's clearly pre-Proposition 13, and yes, there was more money for schools.

ZIERLER: What teachers really exerted an influence on you in a positive way in high school?

TRIMBLE: The math, chemistry, and history teachers clearly exerted real influence. Later in high school, it was really very simple. Because of Sputnik, there was this tremendous shift to teaching to the top of the class. As a matter of fact, the second-year calculus used the text that was used for freshman math majors at Stanford. There were seven people in the class. Three of us were getting it; four were being carried. So this truly was extraordinary.

ZIERLER: Was Caltech always there in the back of your mind, or were there other schools that you were thinking about?

TRIMBLE: No, Caltech was it. Caltech was going to be the only school that I was going to go to and pay private school tuition. My safety school was Berkeley.

ZIERLER: What about Stanford?

TRIMBLE: No way was I going to pay tuition to go to Stanford.

ZIERLER: I'm sure the tuition was comparable. What does that really tell you about your extreme interest in Caltech?

TRIMBLE: Well, no, there's no question—I was hard over. You don't really have the story yet. The questions you've asked haven't elicited the real story. But yes, Caltech, since the seventh grade, I never wavered.

ZIERLER: I know so far about the catalog. But were there professors, were there luminaries that were public figures or that you were aware of? Was that part of your interest as well?

TRIMBLE: No. Well, hey, certainly as I went through high school, we subscribed to Scientific American, and so I knew about Gell-Mann, and I knew about the particles, subatomic particles. So I was certainly aware of what was coming out of Caltech, and that Caltech was highly prized as a place where you would go for science and technology.

ZIERLER: And the fact that it was so hard to get into made it even more alluring to you?

TRIMBLE: Absolutely.

ZIERLER: Because it suggested that it was a place only for the best.

TRIMBLE: Absolutely. And it's funny—they're going to be out of order now, but I have a cousin, I think I told you, that's three months older than I am, and he decided to go to MIT. My uncle during the war had been at the Rad Lab at MIT and had taught there. My uncle's comment when he found that both Dale and I were going to go to the schools we were going to go was "I really don't know why anybody in their right mind would choose to go to a place that absolutely tears you down before you get built up again."

ZIERLER: Interesting.

TRIMBLE: So I knew that it was a boot camp. As a matter of fact, at the time, the numbers were really very simple. There were 180 students that came in as freshman, and 120 of those graduated. The third that didn't graduate—well, they often went to Cal and Stanford and other places like that. But in those days, Caltech did not have a problem of the lower quartile, because the lower quartile simply left. Well, somewhere along the line, Stanford and Cal decided that they didn't like the fact that they were taking Caltech rejects, and so they refused to accept Caltech students that weren't earning at least a B average. Well, if you're earning a B average, you're not in the lowest quartile. They would accept people—Cal will accept people from the community colleges with a B average, but not Caltech.

ZIERLER: [laughs]

TRIMBLE: Anyway, Caltech was a bit of a different place then. Now, it hasn't completely changed, because from everything that I understand from the student experience committee and my interaction with students, the first two years are still a pistol bitch! But it's not quite the same.

ZIERLER: What year did you arrive at Caltech?

TRIMBLE: 1959.

ZIERLER: Was smog an issue? Do you remember smog being a problem?

TRIMBLE: Boy, do I remember smog. There were only a few days a year that you could see Mount Wilson. Probably it was more than a few days, but very often you couldn't see it. You certainly couldn't see downtown L.A. I can remember only twice, with binoculars, being able to see Catalina. No, it was a huge issue. And at times, when it would get bad, we would say, "To hell with it" and go off and go up to Mount Wilson and hike for a while up at Mount Wilson.

ZIERLER: Could you get above the smog line?


ZIERLER: So it was literally a breath of fresh air to get up that high?


ZIERLER: What are some of the earliest memories you have when you first arrived on campus? What sticks out in your memory?

TRIMBLE: The first memory is—the north houses hadn't been built. If your parents didn't live 500 miles away from campus, you had to live off campus. I actually took a room in a house which basically is currently where Moore Walk comes into Holliston. It was the house that was next to Steele House. They had four rooms that they rented out to Caltech students. For thirty dollars a month, I got a room. I got my own room, and I shared a bathroom. I belonged to Throop Club. Throop Club was the club for off-campus undergraduates. It was in an old redwood structure next to the cafeteria, which was fondly called the Greasy Spoon. In Throop Club, I learned to major in bridge, and there were about 20 of us every night that would go down to Lake Avenue and have dinner along the counter of the drug store. We made the gals that were serving us at the counter read the answers to "Dear Abby," and then we would guess the questions.

Out of that group came first the—what do you want to call it?—it's the name for underground journalism. We decided that The California Tech as a newspaper for Caltech was far too staid and really wasn't any fun, so this group started publishing a four-page mimeographed rag that we used the mimeograph machine at the Y and distributed it for free. This was The Little K. The California Tech eventually took on some of the features of The Little K. But The Little K came to a demise because the Institute frowned at some of the satirical journalism that was going on. I think the issue that finally doomed it was the article about faculty wives.

On the social life, that was my earliest memory. My earliest memory academically, I can remember feeling absolutely devastated with the first-term final in freshman physics. In those days, we were graded as freshmen. There was no pass or fail. I felt absolutely devastated about it. I got it back; it was a 31. Then I found that the class average was 17 and that 31 was an A-. So this is "Welcome to Caltech."

ZIERLER: [laughs] You mentioned Sputnik, being there only two years after. Did you have a sense that this would really spur a boon in the federal government's support of science?

TRIMBLE: Frankly, I didn't think that deeply about the economics of higher education. I did know that it immediately spawned a shift in teaching at the high school level.

ZIERLER: Did you feel the Cold War during your undergraduate years? Was that palpable?

TRIMBLE: Well, it was extremely palpable, because the parts of the story that we've skipped over—to answer your question, when I was a sophomore in high school, my uncle suggested—he was visiting. He was a civilian advisor for the Air Force at the time, working out of Wiesbaden. He suggested that it might be a good idea for me to spend a year studying in Germany between high school and college and becoming emotionally independent before I go off to college. I thought that that was a neat idea, but I wasn't willing to waste a year on it. So I decided to take my junior and senior years of high school at the same time, which I did.

ZIERLER: You doubled up, essentially.

TRIMBLE: I doubled up. This led to a whole series of problems, because even though I took two summer courses, the high school I was in had six classes, and one of them had to be PE, and you needed 200 units to graduate if you were going to college, and 220 to graduate otherwise. You could get a maximum of 240. I was only going to have 180 by having three of the four years, so I had to pick up 20 during a summer. I picked up elementary German and analytic geometry as correspondence courses. That gave me my 200. But when I put the rest of the schedule together, I did not have room for four years of English. I had room only for three years of English, but four years of English were required for a college prep diploma.

My mother at the time was on the high school school board, and they were in the process of firing the superintendent. The superintendent wasn't about to graduate me without having that box checked. Fortunately, the nephew of the rancher next door was a fellow by the name of Bill Cochran who was a professor of chemical engineering at Caltech, and on the admissions committee. I asked him if Caltech would require a high school diploma, and he said, "Well, I think Caltech would view a year studying in Germany as worth more than another year in high school." So I had the problem solved. My mother was apoplectic. The ranch sold at Christmas time, and she found that South Pasadena had a high school where 95% of the graduates went on to four-year schools. So the family found a tiny two-bedroom apartment, duplex, in the southern end of South Pasadena, and we moved to South Pasadena.

ZIERLER: What were the circumstances of selling the ranch?

TRIMBLE: My father had tried to get me interested in farming, but it became really obvious that that wasn't going to work. I had gone through the process of realizing how much money kids got for their calves at the county fair, and so I did a deal with my father that, all right, he didn't have any problem with my calf eating grass between the avocado trees, and I could raise the calf, as long as I wanted. When I decided it was time, the calf would be slaughtered, and he would pay me the graded rate of the meat as posted in the L.A. Times. So I did that for a year. I started out really well. I found that for three dollars, I could get a four-day-old calf. But what I didn't realize, and I only discovered at the time of grading, that a dairy calf is canner and cutter at three days and at one year. It doesn't change. So I was producing the lowest grade of beef in theory. But during the time that I was raising Oscar, his sides were getting sort of bloated. Yes, the scout master was really well versed on cattle and he said, "Well, that's because all he's eating is grass. If you want to solve that problem, you have to feed him some grain." So I would buy grain.

Oscar got up to be 600 pounds before he was taken away, and he produced—prime beef produces usable beef that is 60% of hoof weight. Canner and cutter is supposed to be about 40%, 35 % to 40%. Well, Oscar produced 65, so my dad got a really great deal. Well, the family got a really great deal. I totaled up my expenses; it was $100, and what I got was $101.

ZIERLER: The economics did not make sense to you.

TRIMBLE: The economics did not make sense. Also, my father offered to sell me on time a couple of rows of avocado trees. I would take care of them and pay him back out of the proceeds. I did that for a year and came to the conclusion that I actually made more money working for him at ten cents less than he was paying the Mexican laborer. I wasn't able to produce as much as the Mexican, therefore I shouldn't be paid as much. So no, it had been very clear that that wasn't going to work, and that we were destined for technology, not for farming. It took about a year and a half to sell the ranch.

ZIERLER: Was the proximity to South Pasadena from Caltech useful? Was that good for you?

TRIMBLE: My father absolutely insisted that I could not live at home. He said, "I lived at home when I went to college, and that was a real mistake." In a way, I didn't have to fly across the country to come home for Christmas, but I really was totally into Caltech. The proximity wasn't important at all.

ZIERLER: Let's return to the story about Germany. What was exciting to you about that?

TRIMBLE: It was completely unknown. When I went over, the first thing that happened was I attended the Goethe-Institut in Bad Reichenhall. The Goethe-Institut was set up as a school to teach foreign students German so that they could go to the universities. My aunt had spent four months there to become absolutely fluent in German, and so that's where I went for the first four months.

It was then decided—at the time, I was 17. If you look at the German school system, they run an extra two years, and then the men spend a year in military service before starting college. My uncle actually decided that I would be better off being put in the hochschule, which is the German high school, than the university, which was totally unstructured, so I ended up spending six months at the hochschule in Augsburg and actually living in a—I'm not actually sure of what denominational thing it was, but it was definitely a boarding school that fed into all three of the high school tracks that were there in Germany.

ZIERLER: Did you pick up German? Did you take any German in high school beforehand?

TRIMBLE: I took my correspondence course during the summer. And did I pick it up? Yeah, I did. Actually, I've got a story on this one, too. I would visit my uncle occasionally, and I can remember coming back in the spring. Every time I visited him, he would get into these philosophical discussions, which would force me to question absolutely everything I believed. He would take the opposite point of view, regardless of whether he agreed with what my belief was in the beginning or not. In some ways, this was a bit devastating, because I had been really good at debating in high school. I had belonged to Junior Statesmen and I was involved in that. But I couldn't beat my uncle at anything! I was absolutely beaten every time. Anyway, on this occasion, I come back, and I find that I'm coming out with a German word before I can think of the English word. And then even when I'm coming out with the English word, I'm saying it in German sentence structure. So yes, I did cross the barrier, and I was totally fluent.

ZIERLER: I wonder if that has ever helped you, scientifically.

TRIMBLE: It has helped me in business. It didn't help me scientifically, because when I came to Caltech, I thought I would pick up some really easy units on scientific German. I had a book that my uncle had. It was Courant and Hilbert, Methods of Mathematical Physics. So I said, "Fine." Well, no. I had that book. Anyway, I went in and I found that the course at Caltech was really just a project. It was a translation project. So I was to bring in a book, and then I was to be told how many pages I had to translate.

So I bring in Courant and Hilbert, and he said, "Oh, unfortunately, that has been now translated up until page 167." I said, "Fine." So I went back. It took me three hours to get through the first page. Another three hours to get through the next page. I finally gave up. My senior year, I took a course in partial differential equations at Caltech. The text was Courant and Hilbert Methods of Mathematical Physics, which had now been translated. The first chapter gives all known solutions to ordinary differential equations, and it goes on from there. So I struck out on German being useful scientifically. [laughs]

ZIERLER: So I understand the chronology, you went to Germany with your Caltech acceptance in hand?

TRIMBLE: No, no—with my Caltech acceptance assured, but not in hand. The November SAT tests that I took were the first time I had taken SAT tests. I got 715 in the math and 590 in the English, which would not have cut it for Caltech. But in May of that year, I had taken them again, and I had gotten 797 in math, and 715 in English, which definitely did cut it, so I felt sure before I went to Germany that I would be able to get in. I wasn't accepted, but I felt certain that I could get in, that I checked all the boxes.

ZIERLER: And you applied from afar? Did you get your admissions acceptance by mail in Germany?

TRIMBLE: I officially applied from afar. I may have gotten my acceptance in Germany? My acceptance may have been sent to my parents who were still in South Pasadena, and I was told by them. Another part to the beginning Caltech story—when I got home that summer and I received the package from Caltech, the thing I remember most was the statement, "You will have a harder time adjusting to college life than those who had to work in high school." Well, true, I had doubled up my junior and senior years, but I can't say that I actually knew that I didn't have to work in high school. But there was no question that that advice was really necessary for most of my compatriots, when I went to Caltech.

ZIERLER: I'm sure I know the answer, but I can't help but ask—did the experience in Germany make you rethink your educational interests? Did you ever think about staying in Europe for your college experience? Or it was Caltech unwavering the whole way?

TRIMBLE: Oh, it was Caltech. I was clearly coming back to Caltech. I loved the fact that I understood, from the standpoint of a teenager, another culture. I had traveled the last two months I was over there. You could get a Eurorail pass for a couple hundred dollars that would give you two months of unlimited second-class train travel. So I did that; I used it. I decided to save money, I would pick cities that were overnight apart so that I would sleep on the train, even though I could find a room and a continental breakfast for a dollar in every capital except London, and London cost two dollars. I had traveled extensively in Western Europe. I had not crossed into Eastern Europe at all. I had not gone to Berlin. This has all been brought up because you asked the question, was I cognizant of the Cold War during my time at Caltech. The answer is obviously yes, because I was clearly cognizant of it from my experience in Germany.

ZIERLER: Did you feel the Soviet presence in East Germany? Was that palpable?

TRIMBLE: Yeah. There was no way that I would have tried to have gone to Berlin. While in Bad Reichenhall, there were paths that you could take that crossed over into Austria where you could get dinner at an inn. So crossing back and forth across a border in Western Europe was absolutely trivial. The Iron Curtain was the Iron Curtain.

ZIERLER: When you got to Caltech, how well-formed were your scientific interests? Did you have an idea of the course of study you wanted to focus on, or were you wide open? You wanted to soak as much in as you could?

TRIMBLE: I thought I was interested in math. What you have to realize is nobody declared a major until the end of the sophomore year, when I first joined Caltech. Most of the courses were prescribed. There were one or two slots that were open, but everything else, everybody took the same course. I thought I was interested in math, and actually it was early in my sophomore year, taking a course in linear algebra, I think I actually dropped the course because there was no way that I was getting it. Math majors at Caltech are certifiably brilliant, and usually lazy, because the only people that could play in that sandbox were certifiably brilliant. So math was out. Second choice obviously was physics. I was going to go into physics. The end of my sophomore year, my physics advisor was absolutely insisting that I take the junior level mathematicians math course. I had seen several of the people that were a year ahead of me that I thought were awfully bright flame out on that course. Besides, one of the topics was point set theory. Point set theory is where, if you've got a point A inside of a circle on a plane, and a point B outside of the circle, prove that you can't draw a line from A to B that doesn't cross the circle. Well, to me, that was totally self-evident. I understand now why, if you want to work in 13 dimensions or 11 dimensions, you want to be able to do this. Intuitively, I'm good at three, and I'm okay at four, and life has not required that I go beyond that.

Anyway, that meant that I had to change from physics to engineering, because that was all that was left. Fortunately, I got—oh, interesting story—when I went to the dean and said, "I want to switch from physics to engineering," the dean said, "Most of the time, people make divisional option changes for GPA reasons. You're moving from a place where you have a B+ to a place that you have a C+." I had taken a survey course in electrical engineering, for which I had gotten a C+, instead of taking geology, so that was my option GPA when I switched to engineering. But Engineering and Applied Science, in those days a BS degree was principally awarded on the basis of engineering and science. It wasn't by option. I was really fortunate to get Charlie Wilts as my advisor.

ZIERLER: Was he the reason of your initial interest to switch over?

TRIMBLE: No. I was given him—it was chance. It just happened. Charlie Wilts—Engineering and Applied Science in those days, anything your advisor is willing to sign off on is okay to graduate. I wanted to continue taking physics, and I wanted applied math. Then I wanted some other things which were moving in the EE direction. Throughout all of this, my assumption was that I was going to get a PhD. There was no question in my mind, and there was no question in my family's mind, including my cousins. I would be the one that got the PhD.

ZIERLER: In electrical engineering? That's what you would stay on for?

TRIMBLE: Well, no. At first, it was math. Then it was physics. And then it was electrical engineering.

ZIERLER: Charlie, let's start with the math, just to get a sense of your interests and your abilities at this point. With math, given the fact that you also had interest in physics and then ultimately in electrical engineering, was it more applied math or even pure math that you were interested in?

TRIMBLE: Clearly it's applied. The pure math was what I was rebelling against. The pure math is absolutely necessary if you want to be in theoretical physics. It is not necessary for experimental physics or engineering. I wanted the applied math that was associated with those.

ZIERLER: Now in physics, was it experimental physics, or you tried your hand at theoretical physics as well?

TRIMBLE: Caltech didn't give you any choice. If you looked at the undergraduate program, I was minus one course from having a degree in physics. It was Physics 108, which was the senior-year classical mechanics course I didn't take. I did take the senior year quantum mechanics course, and I took both of the physics courses my junior year, classical and quantum. There was no way at that stage in my development that I understood—I didn't really understand what the research activity of graduate school was involved in. Undergraduate research was not common. I ended up doing a little bit of it associated with part-time work in materials science, and there I was just given a project—"Purify and form a single crystal of silver chloride." I designed a zone refiner, and if I had had more time, I think I would have actually gotten things to work. I got to the point that I could make a crystal, but it wasn't pure enough that the silver chloride didn't turn black on light. Anyway, no, I didn't have any real understanding of what went on. I knew that there was a project in engineering that one had to do for a thesis and a bunch of course work. So that was my whole picture of what graduate education was.

ZIERLER: Among the physics professors, what were some of your favorite classes or even professors that you really enjoyed?

TRIMBLE: Oh, well, Tommy Lauritsen taught the Leighton quantum mechanics course. I remember first-term final, him coming in and saying, "The results of this final make me both sad and happy. In a way, sad, because I designed this test to have a class average of 50, because that's what I thought I could do on it. And happy because the class average turned out to be 74." Well, I got a 54, and the story goes—there were two girls in the course. All seniors in physics and all graduate students coming into physics had to take this course. Caltech was really biased in terms of who they accepted in women for graduate school, so these two gals were certifiably brilliant. One of them on this final got 100, and the other got 99.

ZIERLER: [laughs]

TRIMBLE: I truly remember that. I remember him. I don't remember a name, but I can remember a junior course where a professor handed me back my homework when I had forgotten to put my name on the homework. This in many ways speaks to Caltech and speaks to small classes and real interaction.

ZIERLER: That's not happening in a big lecture hall.

TRIMBLE: It's not happening in a class of 50.

ZIERLER: You mentioned women. What about Black students or Asian students or international students? Did Caltech's undergraduate body really have any kind of diversity during your time?

TRIMBLE: Yeah. Chinese. The first year that I lived on campus, my roommate was Chinese. He was brighter than I was, more liberal than I was, and needed less sleep than I did. So certainly in any of the humanities courses, he did better than I did. Because I crashed the end of my sophomore year, and I realized it was sleep deprivation, I moved back off campus so that I could get eight hours sleep a night.

ZIERLER: Your switch to engineering—I'm curious, just to foreshadow ahead, did you have any entrepreneurial or business-oriented notions as an undergraduate, and perhaps you saw that engineering might be a pathway to that kind of a career?

TRIMBLE: Certainly I made the switch to engineering before I started firming up what I wanted to do. But as an undergraduate, I ended up taking all of the economics and psychology courses that were offered, including a reading course in economics. I had read The Organization Man, and I decided that I really wouldn't do well in that environment. As a matter of fact I proved that, because I failed the IBM psychological test.

ZIERLER: [laughs]

TRIMBLE: So I certainly knew that I was going to have to follow the entrepreneurial route by the time I entered my senior year. Halfway through my senior year—actually, it was at the end of the first term my senior year—I made the decision that I wasn't going to get a PhD; that I was going to return to Caltech and get an easy master's degree, and then go to Harvard Business School and play the interface between business and technology. I made that decision again for the wrong reason. There was a lab course, a senior year electrical engineering lab course. I did all the work. My lab partner got an A and I got a B, because he wrote a prettier lab notebook. I decided I had had it. Since there were no requirements, I dropped the course, the lab course. It was a three-term running course. I apparently was the first person ever to have dropped that course and not taken it the second term. Turned out that nobody took it the third term. So it became a required course. [laughs]

Basically at Christmas time, my senior year, I had made the decision that I was going to come back for an easy master's degree and go to Harvard Business School. The next term, I went to the head of the—well, actually, I didn't do this until my master's year, but I went to the head of the psychology department. I said, "I've read all this material on Harvard Business School, and it appears that people are divided into 90-person sections to take all courses together, and that success is determined by the group norm that is formed by the 90-person section."

So I went to the head of the psychology department and said—Professor Weir, I believe—I asked him, "How do I affect group norms?" And after he got me to explain why I was interested in this, he said, "Well, I actually can't tell you, but I can tell you how you will find out. Go to this section of the library"—which at this point was in the basement of Dabney—"and start at this Dewey decimal number. Pick up a book starting with this number. Read it until it doesn't interest you anymore. Put it back and pick up the next book." I went through two columns of books, and I came away with a feeling that I knew how to do it. Actually, it's reasonably simple—speak up, early and often.

ZIERLER: To draw a parallel to your high school experience where you were a young man in a hurry and you doubled up your junior and senior year, was part of the calculus in not pursuing a PhD that you knew you wanted to go into business and that a PhD wouldn't necessarily help you in that path, so why spend the extra time?

TRIMBLE: No. The decision actually came down to how long it was going to take me to get a PhD after I got a BS. I had come to the conclusion that I wasn't going to be able to do it in three years. I did have a roommate that got it in three years, in physics. No, it was aero/astro. He had undergrad in physics. But it was going to take me five. I didn't really want to be a slave for another five years. Besides that, even though I was positive I could get it, I could not play at the top levels of academia. I simply was not bright enough to do that.

ZIERLER: Maybe since you speak German, maybe you didn't have the sitzfleisch. Maybe that was it.

TRIMBLE: Well, I don't know, but I'm not Carver. He's got 15 IQ points on me. I clearly wanted to do something where the people that could be at the top level of academia couldn't survive, and that was the interface. I actually believe this is true. Very few people that are a lot brighter than I am don't make it in business. Actually, I've only learned that later. It's not popular sociologically, but an easy model is that you can communicate with people that are within about two standard deviations of yourself. That's 30 IQ points. At 165, you probably can't communicate with most CFOs in the Valley. And if you can't communicate with your CFO, you're not going to make it. You have to have an intermediary. I actually found this in later life. I could tell engineers how to write test procedures, but I couldn't write test procedures for technicians. Now, there are some people that do cross this boundary, but not many.

ZIERLER: What skill does that require, do you think?

TRIMBLE: There are professors at Caltech who can speak at a level that can be understood by the college-educated, without speaking down to the people that are between them and the people that are college-educated. I'm putting probably the centroid of the college-educated at maybe 125, maybe 130. 135 is generally what's used—they're not giving the number anymore—for the gifted and talented programs in most of the elementary and high school settings across the country.

ZIERLER: You mentioned Carver. It's a question I've been waiting to ask. When did you first meet him?

TRIMBLE: Senior year! Wonderful story! Carver had this amazing ability to stand up at a blackboard and throw up resistors and capacitors and transistors and create things. He had decided that he was going to teach us synthesis. Now, we were really good at analysis, but synthesis, no. I was taking about 65 units, working ten hours a week, and I wasn't getting it. We got to the midterm. I didn't get it. I dropped his course. He never forgave me. I came back the following year to get my easy master's degree. My teaching assistantship was to grade the homework of his course. That created a lifelong friendship.

ZIERLER: Did Carver ever try to convince you to stay on for the PhD?

TRIMBLE: No. But certainly David Middlebrook made the offer.

ZIERLER: I wonder also, besides sort of gaming out your intellectual abilities, of course getting the PhD requires a hyper-focus in a particular area. Maybe that was just simply not your approach. Maybe that was part of it as well?

TRIMBLE: No, no. Because what I did as my first project for HP would fully have qualified for a PhD. By the end of my master's degree, I had taken all the coursework. Well, with one exception—the Smythe E&M course that Carver thinks is utterly absurd, but was still being required because that was the only thing that Smythe could teach and he was still around. With the exception of that course, I had taken all of the courses I needed for a PhD in electrical engineering by the end of my master's degree level. All I had was a project. What I ended up doing at HP—I didn't know I was going to do this when I got there—was I was to create a biomedical computer that could pull brain waves out of the noise. These were evoked responses, so they're not random brain waves; they're brain waves that are caused by something. But that was my first project. It did take me four years to get it to the marketplace.

ZIERLER: Before we leave Caltech entirely, a few more questions. First, what was Carver working on when you met him?

TRIMBLE: Whatever it was, he wasn't into LSI yet.

ZIERLER: It's before?

TRIMBLE: It's before. Middlebrook was into semiconductor physics. That was useful for me later when I served as engineering manager for an IC facility. But I don't know what he was working on. As for the engineering PhD program at Caltech the course program lasts five, maybe five and a half years, maybe six years, in terms of number of years that people are taking courses. That isn't true, for example, in biology. Biology is a lab program, so you don't really have very many courses after you come in as a graduate student. My whole view of Caltech and professors was from the perspective of somebody who took courses. Again, undergraduate research had been done as a thing. I made money part time by being a technician in the synchrotron lab and doing other technician work, but there was no lab sorts of things you were brought in to do. I did what Caltech absolutely hates people to do, and that is to take 60-, 65-unit overloads on an every-term basis. I found that the number of units that I took didn't affect my GPA. I couldn't call the grade I was going to get on any given exam. Was I able to make real progress on the problems that were put out, or did I make less progress? I was going to get between an A and a B in every course. Well, maybe an A- and a B in every course.

ZIERLER: Was there a senior thesis?


ZIERLER: And why stay on for the master's? What was the value of that, that you saw?

TRIMBLE: The value was in the credential and the fact that there were still things that I needed to learn.

ZIERLER: Like what? What holes did you need to fill?

TRIMBLE: I certainly filled holes in E&M. I hoped to fill a hole in computer science. Unfortunately, it ended up being more on Boolean logic, nothing having to do with computers. They were basically courses that were part of the program for getting a PhD in electrical engineering. I presumed that the fact that there were required courses there that I hadn't taken indicated that at least somebody thought it was important.

ZIERLER: To foreshadow to GPS, did you take any courses in general relativity?

TRIMBLE: I got that in sophomore physics. Well, special relativity. That was sophomore physics.

ZIERLER: What was your interaction like with computers during the Caltech years? What did computers look like, and what could you use them for as a student?

TRIMBLE: I got through Caltech with a ten-inch steel slide rule and a magnifying clip on it. Because at Caltech, if you could get the first digit, a guess at the second digit, and you knew the order of magnitude of the problem—one point x to ten to the alpha, and you knew alpha—that was all you needed for an answer.

As for computers, there was a Burroughs 220 on campus, and a Burroughs 50 on campus, [by the time of] my master's degree year. That computer, the Burroughs 50, was accessible to students. It had a drum memory, and the bits that still worked on the memory had been mapped. If you were really clever about how you wrote your machine language program, you could use this to solve a problem.

I actually spent about six weeks simulating my zone refining problem on this Burroughs 50 computer. In today's parlance, it was a good start, and I got to know what I didn't know. I'm not sure that I got to the point that I did a better job of answering the question. My computer literacy exploded when I went to HP, and within the first month, I must have been told twice or three times by my boss, "You should go over and take the non-credit course on programming the ALGOL computer, the Burroughs computer, at Stanford, because we have access to it." So I learned programming and I started using computers at HP, and that was my start.

ZIERLER: Two last questions for today as we round out your time at Caltech as a student. To foreshadow really right to the present and your long devotion to supporting Caltech, do you remember as a student having a sense that Caltech had given so much to you, and you hoped to achieve success and to give back? Do you remember thinking along those lines even as a student?

TRIMBLE: Honestly, no. And the reason is it would have been out of character, because I'm totally future-oriented. I'm always looking at the next step. The past is almost immaterial. The present has to be put up with. But it's what is in front. It was certainly much later in life that I came to realize really how lucky I was to have gone to Caltech, and then how much I enjoyed being around Caltech people. Certainly now because I'm thinking about it from a trustee perspective, what is it that I can do to pay back that is more than just money that I've earned, to help make the institution be better? That's something that really became an awareness later in life as it became the future that I needed to deal with, not the future that I had directly in front of me. Because in many ways, I'm willing to deal with a five-year time horizon, which is roughly fixed, but ten is a little too long. I want to focus my energies basically on the next five years.

ZIERLER: You mentioned a Harvard MBA. Let's talk a little bit more about your motivations in thinking about pursuing an MBA.

TRIMBLE: I, maybe rightly or maybe wrongly, believed that if I had a Caltech master's degree and a Harvard MBA, I would have basically the perfect set of credentials for opening doors in technology businesses. In retrospect now, I wouldn't have been able to have made as much use as the Harvard MBA as I thought it would give me, because I'm not really a social person, and I'm not really a person—well, to use an old phrase—that collects a Rolodex. Given that I probably wouldn't be able to excel on the networking aspects, I'm not sure that the degree would have been as valuable as I thought it would have been at the time.

ZIERLER: Just like it was Caltech or bust for undergraduate, for MBA programs, this is how you felt about Harvard?

TRIMBLE: Oh, yeah. Actually, Harvard accepted me immediately out of a master's degree at Caltech. I basically said I couldn't come at Labor Day, a week before I was supposed to show up. Two years later, I applied again, and I got accepted again, and I rejected it again, again at Labor Day.

ZIERLER: [laughs] A pattern. Charlie, what kind of recruiting was there on campus? Would there be industry reps? How did that work?

TRIMBLE: Yeah, there were, both for summer jobs and for permanent employment. There was a recruiting season. We signed up for it. The recruiting took place in the top floor of Throop. It was a domed sort of thing. It turned out that it was hard to get summer jobs. My senior year, I did get a great summer job, but it was the only offer I got. I got 30 rejections. As a matter of fact, the standard practice was to post the—we called them TS letters, "terribly sorry" letters—on our door, and so I had 30 on my door my senior year, and I had 30 on my door my graduate year. But the person that was recruiting for HP was a Techer by the name of Al Bagley. Al, at the time, was in charge of the Frequency and Time Division at Hewlett Packard. Al had driven Hewlett Packard into the digital domain, basically.

At that point in time, Hewlett and Packard were running the company, and there were two division managers that actually could have been considered in the wings to replace them. Al Bagley was one, and John Young was the other. Al had hired me for a summer job, and he ended up during that summer bribing me into staying, and there is a story associated with that. So now we are to the number four Techer that has had a real influence on my life. Certainly, Charlie Wilts, Carver, David Middlebrook, and Al Bagley now. And the fifth one is somebody that I hired out of Caltech.

ZIERLER: That's a great place to pick up for next time, Charlie.

[End of recording]

ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is September 9th, 2021. Once again, it's my great honor to be with Charlie Trimble. Charlie, it is great to see you again.

TRIMBLE: Great to be with you, David.

ZIERLER: Today, I'd like to set the stage and provide some historical context for the world as you saw it, circa 1964 and 1965, as you began your professional career at HP. I'll return to a comment you made earlier that I'd like you to develop a little bit more, and that is your recognition at the time that HP was transitioning from an analog to a digital world. I wonder if you could describe a little bit about what the analog world looked like at that time, and why there was both the business and scientific imperative for HP really to be at the vanguard of the digital revolution.

TRIMBLE: Whether what I have to say is at the level that the digital revolution now means, I don't really know. Anyone that has looked into HP history knows that HP actually got its start before World War II, I guess it was 1939, with an oscillator project, an audio oscillator, that was used in Disney's movie, the Fantasia film. So the beginning period at HP had to do with the generation of test equipment, largely for other electrical engineers. It's the next bench syndrome concept, where you see what the problems that the engineer that is working next to you has, and you come up with a solution to help mitigate them, or to solve them. This was the basis of the HP instrumentation business model.

In the very early days, you had a whole line of oscillators starting from the original audio oscillator up through microwave signal generators, then moving into oscilloscopes and I want to say spectrum analyzers, but fundamentally, instrumentation that dealt with the frequency domain. My mentor at HP, Al Bagley, when I said he drove them into the digital domain, he recognized that one of the most fundamental standards known to man in terms of accuracy and repeatability was frequency. If you could convert the measurement that you were making so that you would use the power of the stability of a crystal oscillator or later a caesium standard, if you could transform the measurement into one where you were comparing it against a frequency standard, you could generate something of higher repeatability, accuracy, and precision.

He had pioneered a series of things called counters, which would digitally read out the frequency that was applied to the input. This was done first with vacuum tubes and later with transistors and still later with integrated circuits. But this whole area of digital counting was half the basis of the Frequency and Time Division, which was the division he was heading. He took responsibility for frequency standards, and he took responsibilities for counters. It was into that environment that I joined HP, first as a summer job in June of 1964.

ZIERLER: Was the digital revolution something that you were aware of that was happening at Caltech? In other words, was Carver thinking about a transition from analog? Where were those things when you were a graduate student?

TRIMBLE: The big deal when I was a graduate student really centered around semiconductor physics. It's the applied physics form. That was going to lead Carver to the LSI and the scalability thing. But that really wasn't at Caltech at that time. Carver was interested in this. David Middlebrook was interested in this. I don't really know the timing, but given that Carver probably had the responsibility for creating an awful lot of the EE-looking options that exist today, you probably have that history from him. But no, it was semiconductor physics.

Digital integrated circuits were something that was coming on the horizon, commercially at least, about the time I joined HP. Those were the days when there were all sorts of different logic forms—RTL and T squared L and MECL were all names for relatively small integrated circuits that were different circuit embodiments that created gates and flip-flops. Certainly, the computer science course that I took at Caltech, which actually was taught by a visiting professor from IBM Labs, the whole concept of creating stuff out of "ands" and "ors" – this ties back to Shannon and it ties back to, actually, Shannon was dealing with things with relays.

The computers that existed at the time were not transistor-based; they were vacuum tube-based. You built your flip-flops fundamentally out of—well, at least the ILLIAC, I believe, had a nine-triode embodiment for a flip-flop. So think of nine vacuum tubes to create a flip-flop, one bit. This is so much in the Dark Ages with regards to where we are now, it's really hard to conceive. In many ways, I was really lucky, because this whole area was emerging about the time I had gotten a really sound foundation in applied physics and applied math, and really interestingly enough had no confidence that I could sit down and whip out a design of anything, but knowing that if I put my mind to it, I could solve basically any problem that was solvable.

ZIERLER: Circa 1964 or 1965, as you were thinking about potential professional opportunities, was HP considered like the hot place to work in the way that maybe a Google or an Apple would be today, for young electrical engineers?

TRIMBLE: Oh, absolutely. Well, for me, it worked really well, because looking at Al Bagley, I realized that he was the antithesis of the organization man, and any organization that could have accommodated him in this leadership role could not be all bad. No, at the time I started out, I had no idea of how to monetize invention. I certainly didn't understand how to drill down and figure out what the customer needs were and what I had to do in terms of coming up with solutions that people would actually want at some point in the future. In many ways, I had the background and I had a blank slate.

ZIERLER: Another thing that I'd like you to develop further—you mentioned that the opportunity to transform your summer position at HP into a full-time career, there's a story there. I'd love to hear it.

TRIMBLE: When I left Caltech, I had my acceptance to start at Harvard Business School early in September, right after Labor Day. I viewed the summer job at HP as really my only opportunity to understand what a working engineer did in the real world. The first project I was given was laid out to me in very broad terms. I later came to realize that I was expected to come up with optimized resisters to make a given design function optimally, but that was not the problem I was given. It was described to me that if you wanted to count a frequency that was higher than your flip-flop could toggle, there was a way of doing it. Instead of trying to record the ones and zeroes in the initial flip-flip—I mean, the initial flip-flop, obviously if you cascade them, the initial flip-flop has to operate twice as fast as the next one in the line, and so on down. So the entire problem in terms of counting a higher frequency rested in this scheme with generating the first flip-flop that would operate a very high frequency.

However, if you would instead basically generate a shift register, which if you want to divide by ten, you would have five elements in your shift register, and at the end of the register you would feed back the negative output of the last flip-flop and you would form a Möbius ring, this would force the flip-flops to only have to shift or toggle at a tenth the rate of the incoming signal. This was obviously something that Al Bagley had come up with. It was his crazy idea, and this was the job that I was given. They gave me a suggested form of a circuit that could accomplish this. They gave me the transistor that they thought—it was a 2N708, if I remember correctly. It was a relatively expensive transistor that had a relatively high-speed capability. Well, the speed at which gain would—the frequency at which gain would drop to one was relatively high. So I was given a suggested design.

Certainly this was the first time that I had ever faced this class of problem, but I started trying to analytically go through and optimize it. It was a multi-variable problem. After a couple of days of doing that and just chasing my tail, I realized that there was a possibility of graphically showing the regions in which you got performance. I could deal with each of the variables as levels of a graph. Well, they were areas on a graph. And by then superimposing these graphs over each other, I could see the region in which I could look for optimal solutions.

ZIERLER: Charlie, was this more of a eureka moment, or was this more the grind of working day in and day out and figuring it out bit by bit?

TRIMBLE: The first part, I figured out relatively soon how to sub-optimize each of about five different variables. However, that did not help me optimize a general solution. And the graphical approach wasn't a eureka moment, because I had no idea when I actually started down that path that it was going to work. The eureka moment came when using that, I could pick the component values that fit into the circuit, I could put them into the circuit, and it worked.

This project I believe—well, I was given an approach, but in the process of implementing this, I actually had to go through getting a PC board laid out that was going to have all of the components on it that you would plug in and then be able to test it. Of course the eureka moment came when the whole thing worked. I think I was expected to spend my whole summer coming up with this, and it was worth an engineer spending a whole summer, because I would pick up probably a factor of four or five in terms of the highest frequency that a counter could actually count. That was a big deal, because over time—this was the progression that occurred in these products, and the products were in relatively high demand in the aerospace industry and other electrical engineering companies that were doing design work. That was the output of what Hewlett Packard did.

ZIERLER: Is this all the story that got you from the summer position into the full-time work, or is this already after you are full time?

TRIMBLE: No, this is the first four or five weeks of the summer.

ZIERLER: Wow, that's a formative summer. That's a busy summer.

TRIMBLE: Oh, you better believe it! My whole point was I had to go through this so they would give me another project. This was my chance at this class of experience. I think I related to you the story—it was about two thirds of the way through the summer, and I was in the lab working at about 6:30 at night. I thought I was alone. Al Bagley comes up and in his dry way, he says, "Charlie, oh, Trimble, what's wrong? Can't you get your work done in a normal working day?"

ZIERLER: [laughs]

TRIMBLE: And then he sits down and we talk. That went on and I was dead set to going to Harvard, and two days before I was to leave, he calls me into his office and throws out this problem of evoked responses, basically pulling brain waves out of the noise. He said, "Well, we have a major program going on to build multichannel analyzers." These are basically digital histogram generators that if you're looking at radioactive probabilistic sort of things, you want to have. This is the two-dimensional counter, basically, for probability distributions.

What I didn't realize at the time and I learned later—what he really expected me to do was to come up with a plugin that would go into that major instrument that had 20 people working on it. But certainly when I accepted the challenge, I had no idea of this, and later, I had no idea of this. I came up with enough innovation that he decided that I ought to make my own computer of average transients and not live with a plugin that had the restrictions that would have been placed on doing that. So my transition was really that. I overachieved as a—well, I say overachieved; I have to do this lightly, because at one point after I had my printed circuit board fabricated, I actually had to ask one of my associates which lead was the emitter on the transistor. I understood band theory, I understood how transistors worked, but I certainly—partially because I refused to continue taking the lab course my senior year—I never had played with a transistor.

In any event, I started learning how to become an engineer. I certainly didn't learn how to become an engineer, but I started the process of learning. I think it must have been Al Bagley—well, it was Al Bagley who decided he wanted to convince me to stay, and he was willing to do virtually anything. The price I paid was that in the same time frame that this multichannel analyzer came out with 20 people working on it, my project peaked at four, and the complexity of the projects were equivalent. So the price I paid was to be seriously underfunded. Now, the positive for me was that Al was an arch analytic. He had trouble making up his mind. I could basically do anything I wanted to do. I would tell him what I was going to do, knowing full well that he probably wouldn't tell me not to do it, but I took full responsibility for the outcome.

Certainly it was following that first summer, as I was evolving the design of this project, what happened is it's like solving any hard problem; you don't have to know how to solve it to attack it, and you keep working at it and recycling your answer. At one point I can remember asking the engineering manager of the division, "How do I know when I have put enough into this phase of the project?" He looked at me and said, "You will know."

ZIERLER: What benchmarks did he know that he was waiting for you to find that you would see yourself? What was he looking for, from you?

TRIMBLE: He had no idea of what I was doing. Actually the benchmarks were pretty obvious. I had to come up with them. There were project reviews, and projects did get cancelled, but as long as there were real promise, progress against a hard problem was valued more highly than being super accurate in terms of how long it was going to take. But then I was really very impatient with myself, and so I probably was more disappointed in the length of time that things took than anybody that was supervising me.

ZIERLER: Given the fact that you were given the freedom to work on this hard problem, to what extent does that suggest that more broadly you were working in a basic science environment, where you're just trying to figure stuff out, and your work is not necessarily connected to the bottom line of the company? And to what extent was Al sort of just giving you an education prior to doing work that would be more readily useful to the company?

TRIMBLE: Al was making a relatively small bet on me. If you look at it as an investment strategy, this is the part of your portfolio that is speculation. And yes, by working on a problem where it really wasn't defined—it was neither defined nor was it obvious how to accomplish it—the approach is clearly applied science. Because I basically had to find ways of accomplishing things. Basically there are no textbook results that you can go to, to tell you how to do it. Many of the engineers in the lab actually came out of Utah and Utah State at the time. Those kids could whip off designs—in an interview, a college interview, they could whip off designs of circuits and things. The best of them were really very good at the craft of engineering, of creating something inside of a totally known environment or a largely known environment. I was given the opportunity basically to cut my teeth on the outer edge of this.

With the project that I was given, somebody else had come to the conclusion that if I were successful in producing this, or figuring out how to do this, there would be a market for it. Later in my career at HP, I went through the process of figuring out how to determine, shall I say, the probability of having a successful outcome. Government contracting does not require—and as a matter of fact doesn't use—much company-generated innovation. They are told what the product should look like. There is some give and take. But R&D is not done on speculation. HP was different in this environment because the R&D was done on speculation. There was no guarantee that any product that was developed at a lab at HP would actually result in a commercial success. The success of the company depended on engineers figuring out solutions that other people would want to buy.

Going back to the next bench syndrome, when you're designing products for other engineers, you've got a really easy beta test site right next to you, and you can get feedback immediately as to whether it's useful, or what should be changed. When you're not doing things for other engineers, which I wasn't for this biomedical computer, it was a completely different world. And it really did consume the first four years of my life as a practicing technologist.

ZIERLER: What were some of the broader research questions that surrounded this initial project? What were, best-case scenario, the outcome of successful research in this work?

TRIMBLE: You've got to realize that, first of all, we take computers for granted. We take microprocessors for granted. None of this—well, the computers existed in the very large scale. I did have access to the Burroughs 5500 at Stanford, which I did use to simulate the digital designs that I was coming up with. But what I was creating was a special purpose computer without the use of microprocessors. Basically the tools I had were flip-flops and gates. I had to build state machines. I had never taken a course in state machines. I had never taken a course in digital signal processing. All of these things basically were learned.

I did manage to take a couple of courses in biomedical engineering at Stanford, and I learned in those courses that when dealing with the biomedical community, simplicity trumps flexibility and precision, the products that had a switch that gave you low, medium and high for noise rejection sold much better than systems which allowed you to optimize it. These are human lessons and people lessons as opposed to fundamental research.

The first realization that I got and on the signal average was that yes, you could do a job of pulling information out of the noise simply by adding the signals that you get from evoked responses in phase. What you will see is a picture which is growing, and at the same time it's growing, the noise on the top of this picture is going to be decreasing. But I looked at that from a human factors standpoint and said, "That isn't really what somebody wants to see." Because human perception is driven towards and is based on looking for things that change. The noise reducing is what you wanted, but the growing signal was not. Or the growing baseline was not. I wanted to figure out—and to do that, you needed an average, not a sum. Well, there was no way of dividing by N.

And again, this predates most of the computer science. The applied math that's associated with a lot of computer science now is looking at the world in terms of algorithmic-based reasoning as opposed to closed-form reasoning. The physics of classical mechanics and basically all of physics or certainly all the physics that I learned at Caltech, was directed toward deriving closed-form equations for being able to understand and predict behavior. But when you're dealing with a computer, certainly we know today that you want to use a digital stepwise algorithmic approach to the solution of many of the problems.

This certainly wasn't in my knowledge base, and it certainly—there may have been people at Caltech that did understand that, but I didn't. As a matter of fact, my fourth year of mathematics, applied math, was partial differential equations which was again closed form. Basically all computer science approaches to the turbulence problems and a lot of the other things now are all algorithmic-based, largely because partial differential equations have major areas where there is no solution. In any event, certainly—so the first thing I really had to solve, which actually is trivially derived when you sit down to do it, was an algorithmic way of achieving an average—A sub n = A sub n-1 + plus a correction factor. So the new average is the old average plus a correction factor. Then if you want to get a real average, you have to divide by N, to get this correction term.

Well, that was impossible, or it certainly was impossible with the tools that I had available. I came to the realization that if you would divide by the nearest power of two, you lost something but it wasn't clear how much you lost, but you could get an average which was stable. So based that hypothesis I went and simulated this stuff. I did a fair amount of simulation. I later came to the conclusion that you lose about four tenths of a dB of signal-to-noise ratio enhancement by using the nearest power of two, which for all practical purposes was in the noise. That was a seminal understanding point. The other was that if you kept N running, you got a true average, but if you fixed N in your correction factor, you got a moving average. So if you had something that was time-varying, you could follow it with some signal-to-noise ratio enhancement. Obviously there was a limit to how much you would get, but then you could follow the change.

Now once I got—later, as again these were more courses that I took at Stanford—I took courses in Fourier transforms, this whole time domain versus frequency domain and understanding how things switch back and forth, choosing the domain that you're going to use depending on the instruments you have and the problem you want to solve—the theory of why all of this worked was much more obvious. But again, this is background I didn't have, and actually, the basic algorithms that I described to you, HP got patents on. I was really excited about the fact that I was generating patents until the head of the Patent Department came over a couple of years after my original patent—my original formula had been patented in the biomedical world—and showed me a patent that had just been issued to IBM for the same formula in a different field.

Now, HP could care less about that, because they were using patents as freedom to operate, and they traded them with the other companies so that nobody sued anybody. They certainly didn't have to worry about IBM, because they had cross-licensing arrangements with IBM for all the patents. But that soured me for a while on patents, and it was only much later that I realized, especially if you're a small company, you desperately need a good patent estate.

ZIERLER: Tell me about the industries or even specific clients who were interested in this research.

TRIMBLE: What I'm doing now is I am building an instrument that is going to be of value to people that are doing research. That is what the product is. It won't be purchased by another engineer, but it will be purchased by perhaps somebody in a psychology department, or some professor doing research in biology. The two really obvious places had to do with studying children that weren't responding, and figuring out whether they were impaired with hearing or vision. By looking at the brain waves that are evoked from either a sound or a flash of light, you can get a fair amount of info about this. Also the latency in terms of the response of the brain wave to the stimulus is of interest. These actually I think were the two features or the thoughts that Al had when he came up with trying to do this as an instrument.

ZIERLER: You also mentioned taking classes at Stanford. What were the kinds of classes that you felt you needed to supplement your Caltech education?

TRIMBLE: Anything that I hadn't already studied that related to what I was doing. Clearly, if somebody else has figured out answers to parts of the questions that you are looking at, it's an awful lot more efficient to be able to build on those than to have to start and recreate everything yourself.

ZIERLER: I wonder if you ever crossed paths with Mohamed Atalla.

TRIMBLE: Doesn't ring a bell. Maybe if you told me more about it.

ZIERLER: He was part of the HP Associates. He invented the MOSFET at Bell Labs.

TRIMBLE: Oh, all right! Yes. HP Associates was—but they ended up being big in the whole LED environment, light-emitting diodes. I was much more familiar with things that are coming out of the LED work. That took a long time to take off, too. Yeah, there were several different facilities at HP that—well, three or four, certainly three—certainly HP Associates had their own processing capability. There was a silicon-on-sapphire approach that was taken, and I think largely because F&T had both a bipolar and a MOS IC facility that in the bipolar sense, we could put down 500 matched transistors on a chip of silicon and we could do a couple thousand gates on an IC with a seven- or nine-mask MOS, CMOS process. Certainly HP Labs and some of the operating divisions were into this very, very early. I can remember in 1965, Bagley bringing in Integrated Circuit Engineering, a consulting firm, to basically teach us about integrated circuits. This was preparatory to his putting in the integrated circuit facility in Frequency and Time.

ZIERLER: Were you aware of any defense contracting work that HP was doing in the 1960s?

TRIMBLE: They hated defense contracting work. The reason they hated defense contracting work is there was a period—they were doing some with the government, and especially selling oscilloscopes. There was a time when there was a major downturn in business. So HP bid an oscilloscope contract to the government essentially at factory cost, so he could keep his employees working. They got the contract. But then the government came after them for overcharging for all the other oscilloscopes that HP had made for them. So Packard vowed not to take government contracts. In fact, actually I've got a story I can tell you—my last job at F&T, working for Bagley, was engineering manager of the IC facility there. Hughes desperately wanted access to our ability to put down matched transistors on a chip for making a high-speed A-to-D converter for one of the aircraft programs. I think it was the F-18 program. We finally agreed that we would sell them chips at nine times our factory cost and they would do absolutely everything to qualify them for the military.

ZIERLER: [laughs]

TRIMBLE: So there was very, very little [laughs] contracting work that went on with the government.

ZIERLER: Were you following at all Japan's increasing importance in electronics?

TRIMBLE: You better believe it! They were taking over. As a matter of fact, when I started with the GPS program, I knew I had to get to $100 sales price on GPS or the Japanese were going to teach me how to do it. So yes, I was really aware of that. I watched the whole thing.

ZIERLER: Did you ever travel to Japan? Were you ever involved in HP's efforts to work with the Japanese?

TRIMBLE: No. I think they had an operation in Japan, but the problem with that is that, as a foreign company, you couldn't get first-rate students out of Tokyo University. You could only get second-rate students.


TRIMBLE: Because the first-rate students went to Sony Research or Hitachi Research. They did not go to a foreign company.

ZIERLER: Did Al Bagley remain a mentor to you?

TRIMBLE: Yeah. He was clearly a mentor to me while I was at HP. I did talk to him about things after I left, but I would say that after I left HP, it's sort of like with your parents, the difference between being a child and being an adult. My year in Germany did indeed complete the transition for me inside my family. My mother and father were very close friends after I came back, but it was no longer a parent-child or child-parent relationship. I can say the same thing with Al. After I left HP, I was an adult.

ZIERLER: In the professional sense of the word.

TRIMBLE: Yeah, in the professional sense of the word. But seeing Al's struggles inside of HP, in executive roles, which I did get to see while I was—I was there for 14 years, and the transitions that occurred at HP basically occurred over that period of time.

ZIERLER: Now, when you say struggles, do you mean budgetary, administrative? What was he dealing with?

TRIMBLE: Approaches to running the business. I will never forget a comment he made to me. Oh, it was about 2:30 in the afternoon. He was sitting having a cup of coffee in a deserted cafeteria. I walked through. During the conversation, he made a statement that I've kept with me my entire life. And that was, "Management is the process of learning to work with those that you hate."

ZIERLER: [laughs] That's great.

TRIMBLE: Looking back on it, that clearly represented the struggle that he was having with John Young. He ended up being John Young's chief engineer. [Trimble breaks for phone call] I have nothing that I'm trying to hide. I have an island in the Bahamas, small, it's 25 acres. But it's right outside of Marsh Harbor. The main house was absolutely devastated by the hurricane two years ago, so I'm in the process of rebuilding. Fortunately, my caretaker actually can manage a team of Haitians, and they started camping out on the island—no water, no electricity, nothing, no tractors—and the house is now—the shell is back together, and I'm in the process of putting in the kitchen. The quote I got from the local supplier was absurdly high, so I decided that I was going to do this through Home Depot.

ZIERLER: I didn't know Home Depot served the Bahamas!

TRIMBLE: No, they don't. But they will deliver to Tropical Shipping in West Palm Beach, and Tropical Shipping will consolidate and transfer to Marsh Harbor. If I had been at home, life would have been simple, but everything fell apart Monday, and things are going back and forth. So that's what it's all about.

ZIERLER: Progress, indeed. I hope you're making the house a little more hurricane-proof than it was last time, too.

TRIMBLE: Actually, what happens is after 40 years, rebar in the Tropics corrodes, and when the rebar corrodes, the strength of the thing that holds the tops of the walls together decreases. So yes, there is a lot of new rebar, and it's actually constructed more soundly than it was originally.

ZIERLER: To get back to Al Bagley and this amazing comment about the management culture, I'll just ask you if you can editorialize right to the top. Were the issues that Al was fighting against, did they go all the way to Bill Hewlett and David Packard, or had HP gotten so big at that point that there was a bureaucracy that even the founders couldn't control with regard to just doing the most important research and not having too much fat around the edges?

TRIMBLE: Some of this is a guess. I was in the last cadre of engineers that came in that actually ended up presenting to Hewlett and Packard personally. My projects got presented. I knew both of them. Certainly I copied the HP culture or I adopted the HP culture during the period of time when my company was growing at 40% a year plus. Actually, I would say that Al Bagley was more aligned to operationally the way that Hewlett and Packard operated, but was probably less effective at monetization than John Young. John Young played the good guy/bad guy game with Paul Ely. Many companies do this. He had a brilliant—I almost want to call him an attack dog. The phrase—in many ways he was similar to Andy Grove, if you know the Andy Grove/Gordon Moore story. That was John Young's management style. So in some respects, Al was more result-oriented and putting responsibility on the individual. I would say Paul Ely was much better at instilling fear. So yes, there were differences in style. But then, Hewlett and Packard were very different people, too. Packard was the businessman; Hewlett was the engineer. They managed by objectives, and they basically had nine principles that were the quote-unquote "HP way" that Packard said, "Well, we wrote down, because this is what we want to have happen. It isn't what we always do."

ZIERLER: It's aspirational.

TRIMBLE: Yeah. But in terms of management, the way you're dealing with people, and all that.

ZIERLER: Do you have a specific memory of when the term "Silicon Valley" started to be used?

TRIMBLE: I don't have a specific memory. My guess is that it would be around the time that Intel was formed. You started out with Shockley and Fairchild and National. Well, it was Motorola, Fairchild, Intel was the movement, fundamentally. Shockley was an offshoot. I'm not quite sure where National Semi came in.

ZIERLER: For your group, in F&T, who did you see as the key competitors to HP?

TRIMBLE: We had a relatively dominant position. There were companies like Beckman Scientific. There were companies that made—I think HP was about a $125 million company the year before I joined. With the exception of Tektronix, which was dominant in oscilloscopes, I think they were the dominant player in the scientific/engineering instrumentation business. Beckman was clearly a second.

ZIERLER: As you rose in seniority at HP, did you have to take on administrative responsibilities in your own right?

TRIMBLE: It depends on what you call administrative. If you're a group leader, you still have to do reviews, and you hire. You budget. You negotiate. If you're a section manager, you have multiple groups reporting to you. Clearly when I ran R&D for the IC business, there was even more. But until my last job, I didn't have a secretary. I had access to a secretary. I had access to finance. I clearly knew the rules in terms of how to budget and how to get around things. I had figured out how to move money. If I hadn't spent all of my money in a given year, I figured out how to move money to the next year. So I had learned that part of the business, which I would guess any rising manager would figure out.

ZIERLER: Did you become a mentor in your own right? Did you have people whose careers you helped foster at HP?

TRIMBLE: Absolutely. And I became head of the recruiting team for HP—that was Al's job—at Caltech. I clearly pushed that. My greatest failure actually occurred when the IC tester which I had—I had gone out, I had researched, I had sold, I had gotten the final prototype approval, it was going to cost a negative $800,000 the following year, and then it was going to be profitable—and John Young had gone from having a $1.5 million discretionary budget for things that weren't absolutely essential to being $800,000 negative. Because of that, my project was cancelled. This was probably—I considered it the greatest failure. Interestingly enough, my remembrance there does go back to Paul Ely. I may have made this comment to you. We were going over to the nineteenth hole and he said to me, "Trimble, your problem is you're not tough enough."

ZIERLER: What did he mean by that?

TRIMBLE: You can only guess, but I certainly—well, I don't view myself as a street fighter. I knew when I was starting my company that the highest risk was getting the company to $2 million a year in revenues, because once I got there, I could start hiring people that would be better at that than I was.

ZIERLER: By risk, you mean you have to spend money to make money.

TRIMBLE: Yeah, but if I were going to lose it, I would lose it because of a street fight, because I didn't have the people to cover my own weaknesses.

ZIERLER: Weaknesses meaning like a certain lack of ruthlessness?

TRIMBLE: Well, ruthlessness may be it. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and any reasonable manager hires to cover their own weaknesses. Because you're operating as a team, and you need to accomplish something, so you have to have a team that does it. When I say ruthless, I'm not willing to shade things, and I'm not willing to be part of activities that shade things. But you don't always have to be as understanding.

ZIERLER: It must have given you great pleasure to go back to Caltech and recruit for yourself.

TRIMBLE: It did. Actually, I knew I was getting older when I found myself starting to give fatherly advice. [laughs] This was happening before I'm 30, so—

ZIERLER: [laughs] Had you kept in touch with Carver during these years?

TRIMBLE: Absolutely! Every time I went down, I saw him, and we talked. No, we were great friends. The fellow that ended up being the brilliant software engineer that actually made the GPS receiver possible, or certainly our embodiment of the GPS receiver possible, a fellow by the name of Tom Coates, he didn't show up for the interview, and I tracked him down. I knew I wanted to talk to him. He was one of three people that I knew I had to talk to when I was down there. He had forgotten.

ZIERLER: To go back to an earlier comment, now that you were in a more relatively senior position, did you have a different perspective on the culture of excellence at Caltech? In other words, to go back to your earliest motivations for wanting to go to Caltech yourself, now at a different stage in life where there was a responsibility in your part to bring the best to HP, was your initial inclination even from high school only strengthened from this vantage point?

TRIMBLE: No question in the world. What was really clear—there weren't very many Caltech students that were applicable—or graduating BS students—that were applicable to the HP environment. As a matter of fact, it was pretty obvious there were maybe 20 in any given year that were applicable to the world that HP played in. I knew perfectly well that the underlying strength of a Caltech education was the ability to solve really hard problems, so I was hiring for that capability.

I basically had to warp the interview system inside of HP so that it recognized this. You warp it by making sure that the people that are on the committee or the group that is going to be interviewing the prospective student are people that have the ability to solve hard problems. You don't actually have to come from Caltech to be able to solve hard problems, but I would say that if I leave MIT aside, there is virtually no other place that generates the consistency that Caltech generates.

ZIERLER: Were you recruiting specifically out of EE or more broadly at Caltech?

TRIMBLE: Well, no. Certainly HP wanted to hire electrical engineers. They hired their mechanical engineers from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. These people built nice-looking instrument boxes, largely. There were times when you hired specialty people for an IC facility or a semiconductor facility. But what HP really wanted was EEs. Basically I had to say that at the time, options that are computer science, applied physics, materials science, and EE are all in the same rubric. Indeed, Caltech EE faculty play an incredibly important role in all of those options. As a matter of fact, Carver is the one who's responsible for setting up the damn options! Because he wanted the students that were in, for example, applied physics, not to have to take all of the EE courses that had nothing to do with semiconductor physics. So that was in part what created many of the options.

ZIERLER: A very different question, more on the sociological side—I'm curious, being in Northern California in the late 1960s, with all of the antiwar sentiment and things like that, superimposed upon David Packard's decision to become a high-ranking member of the Nixon Administration in the Department of Defense, what, if anything, was the political culture at HP like during these years?

TRIMBLE: HP was apolitical. Totally. Or at least I got no sense—as a matter of fact, Packard going to the Defense Department certainly was seen at HP more as Packard being willing to try to help the country make better decisions for the Defense Department than it was support for Richard Nixon. I'm sure the archives will have plenty of information to see where David Packard was politically. I assume he was Republican, but other than that, I have no knowledge.

Now, the antiwar movement, what was going on at Berkeley and what was going on at Stanford, I was intimately aware of, because I was taking courses at Stanford. I would have lunch at times in the cafeteria, and at the table next to me, there would be students that were talking about trying to arouse crowd participation. They would talk about, "Well, let's try this, and if that doesn't work, let's try this." I am very aware of when the chain link fence was put up around the HP facility on the Hill [top of Page Mill Road Hill]. The story there, that it was an HP board member that told the board that in ten days, there was going to be a march on HP. It turns out his son was one of the ringleaders. He didn't agree with his son, but he listened to him.

Yeah, they were going after the atomic clocks, not having the foggiest notion that all that meant was the use of the relaxation of the caesium atom to form a very, very precise frequency standard. And yes, we were in the latter stages of the Vietnam War. The whole draft thing was getting big. There clearly was a great deal of agitation.

ZIERLER: What about you, Charlie? Were you apolitical yourself? Were you politically engaged at all?

TRIMBLE: I really didn't have time to be political. I was 100% focused. I am fiscally conservative by nature, but I'm not politically active.

ZIERLER: Charlie, what were some of the first or at least initial ideas that you had about entrepreneurship? In other words, you're at Caltech, then you're at HP; what were some of the very early ideas that you might have what it takes to go branch out on your own?

TRIMBLE: In the timeframe that I joined HP, HP was running employment ads that said, "Want to start your own company? Come work for us for a couple of years, and learn how to do it." It took me four years, but I absolutely completed the computer of average transience. Sales met expectations. That was fine. I was given the complete freedom to figure out the next big thing that the Division was going to do.

I actually made use of the HP field organization to get in and talk to—I had decided that IC testers, dynamic IC testers, were the next big thing that HP ought to get into, or the Division had to get into. It used the strength of the IC facility that we had. It used our knowledge of dealing with microwave signals. It used our knowledge of timing and logic and all of that. I spent time basically interviewing people in the IC industry in terms of where things were going. I wasn't asking them what they wanted, because I knew it was going to take me three years to be able to deliver whatever was going to be delivered.

ZIERLER: You were trying to forecast trends?

TRIMBLE: Yes. I wanted to understand their world enough that I could make a reasonable guess as to what they would want three years from now. And I did this. I then generated a 60-page proposal with all sorts of references, and also a list of potential customers. The buy-in for that required more than Al Bagley, and I got it. I then had the ability to build a team of 20 people. I actually picked up three Techers. Actually, I got three in one year. I hit the jackpot. One of whom – the only reason he ended up graduating from Caltech was he took one of Carver's classes and he actually was able to do something.

All three of these guys were really excited about the whole IC industry and IC testing. As a matter of fact, after the project was cancelled, those three Caltech students split off and formed their own company to produce IC testers. Steve Bisset actually dropped off, oh, five years or so after that. He went off to do other things. But the other two continued, and I guess a couple years ago, they sold the company to Teradyne for a goodly amount of money.

I was totally involved in putting this together and building it up. In some ways, that was why it truly was devastating when the project was cancelled. What I did was I placed all of my people—I kept four, two project leaders and two other people—and I placed all of my other people. I got every one of them at least two offers, and I did the interim projects before I became manager of the IC facility.

ZIERLER: Can you talk a little bit more about the circumstances of the cancellation? What happened?

TRIMBLE: Oh. John Young had no discretionary money to put into something that wasn't vitally important to the company. It was a tough economic decision.

ZIERLER: But the decision to categorize it as not vitally important to the company, did you take issue with that? Did you think that it was?

TRIMBLE: I thought it had great promise, but it did not have an existing market. And would our sales force be fully capable of selling $200,000 systems? These were expensive systems. The sales force could do a good job of two to $20,000 boxes that they largely sold to the government, or they sold to government contractors. Or leasing outfits that leased government contractors. So there were indeed marketing questions. It fell into the same category as when John Young cancelled the GPS project.

ZIERLER: What I'm hearing is that you really learned to be an entrepreneur internally at HP.

TRIMBLE: Absolutely. I made my mistakes on their dollar. I made many of my mistakes. [laughs] I've made a lot of other mistakes, too. In fact, my advice to anybody that wants to be an entrepreneur is they go and work for a technology-driven company for a few years, and learn what it takes to monetize ideas.

ZIERLER: On that note, what do you see as one of your biggest mistakes at HP?

TRIMBLE: That's an interesting question. The reason why I'm thinking is the question you asked is a question I would ask of anybody that I wanted to hire—"Give me a mistake." All right, I do have a really good one. In many ways, it's because I hadn't yet learned how hard I could push myself. We're back in the days of the signal averager, and Bagley has allocated six feet of IEEE booth space to demonstrating this thing. I am supposed to be taking three units back to New York to demonstrate the thing. I'm in the process of building four final prototypes. These are 12-inch, 19-inch racks. There's an incredible amount of electronics in each one of these boxes. The deadline is Monday morning at 9:00, the equipment has to be picked up to go on the trucks to go back to New York.

On Friday, I had a unit that worked. By Saturday night at about 11:00, I had another that was showable but with problems, a third one which was coming on stream, and the fourth one that I hadn't started. By 6:00 Sunday afternoon, I had destroyed the one that was working, and I was flogging around on the other two. By 4:00 in the morning, I said, "I'm not making it. It's not there. I have failed." I went home, came in, told Bagley. He said, "All right, you can take them as carry-on luggage when you fly back to New York. You have two weeks." That was a resounding failure.

ZIERLER: What dimensions, in terms of strategy, in terms of the science, in terms of the business? How do you define failure in this regard?

TRIMBLE: I had not realized when you become overly tired, you actually can make the situation much worse than I actually is, so I actually entered a destructive process. I had destroyed progress in that weekend. It tells you that there is really a limit to what you can force yourself to do, or your ability to command yourself to do. Actually, that was an incredibly important lesson, and I'm glad I did it on their dime, not mine, because it would have destroyed a company. But we all have to know what our capabilities are and what our limits are. Clearly I was not operating at my highest level of capability. Ordinary engineers would have had a lot easier time making the damn products work. In part, I solved the problem by not trying to—I didn't have a choice then, but after that, I did indeed have the choice of letting people who can do things better than I can do them.

ZIERLER: Culturally at HP, with failure at this level, I don't want to say was it encouraged—obviously it wasn't encouraged—but was it recognized that there was always a greater good at play? That there was productivity in failure?

TRIMBLE: You were never creamed for making the first mistake. I'm not sure that the tolerance would be there if the mistakes were repeatedly made. But no, people were protected. And it wasn't universal, but I know that I was protected, and not chastised for having made a mistake, or having failed. It is really obvious to me that if you want creativity and invention at a high level, you have to protect people from being hurt by making mistakes. It is absolutely essential. Throughout my entire career, I have worked really hard to set that up in place, because I really want people to reach, and it's only by reaching that you can do something that is really significant.

ZIERLER: I'll flip the question on its head. It will be interesting to see if this is easier or harder to answer. What was your greatest success at HP?

TRIMBLE: There were two. The project I talked about where we made the four-bit quantizer for Hughes was a huge success. Not only did we nail all the technical problems; it was highly profitable to HP. I wasn't totally responsible. I certainly had a lot of responsibility for the technical success. I certainly had help with regards to the contract that called for them to pay us nine times factory cost to make these chips. There's a little bit of serendipity there. In the early days, when we had an IC facility, when things were working, they worked very, very well. When things were not working, it was awful. Today, you expect really high yields out of your IC processes especially in production. We could make a lifetime supply of something in a month when things were working well. And when things weren't working well, we couldn't make anything. So nine times factory cost, the way that the accounting was being done, it averaged in all of the bad runs with the runs that made the total lifetime supply for an instrumentation division work. So when the accounting and compliance people from Hughes came in to look at the books, because they were worried about the price of the chips, and they saw the data, they said, "Well, who in the world at Hughes would ever have signed such a contract?"

ZIERLER: [laughs]

TRIMBLE: The other one—after the IC tester project was cancelled, I decided that my career at HP really—I needed something a bit safer.

ZIERLER: You mean for your own sanity, or for your own job security?

TRIMBLE: For my own career path at HP. No, my sanity was fine. It was a loss, but—it was a loss.

ZIERLER: It wasn't a problem.

TRIMBLE: No, it wasn't a problem with sanity. I had this idea of how to generate an instrument that would measure a one-nanosecond time interval in a digital form. I set a very brilliant person that later went on to—that I later sponsored to get a PhD at Stanford—obviously I'm using Stanford because they're next door, not for any other reason—to do that. The other one was I decided that we were coming into a digital age where instruments were being controlled by programmable calculators and computers, and that what HP needed was an interface standard that would connect computers and programmable calculators to instruments. For that to happen, I had to get both the people in the computer division and the people in the calculator division to agree on an interface. I had to get project managers in several of the operating divisions to agree to put this standard into their product. Because you need both sides.

I had a project leader that I had had on the IC tester project that was really good at this standards sort of activity. We basically got a team that involved Dave Rickey, the fellow from Loveland—not Loveland, but Fort Collins, where they were making calculators, and somebody from the computer division, together to come up with a standard that seemed to make sense. Then my job was to figure out how to get project leaders to incorporate the standard into their product.

To make things even better, I generated a set of glue boxes that did things—provided switches and other things that might be useful, and came up with the cables that would do it. Well, this turned out to be successful. I only had to roll over a couple of project leaders. And project leaders are basically the king on their own project, but they can be subject to some external pressure. I only had to use real external pressure on a couple of the cases, not just in the Division, not just in Frequency and Time, but elsewhere in the company.

Anyway, this led to the HP IEEE-488 standard, which is freely given out, and HP provided cables. These are the cables that have those 50-pin ribbon connectors, two of them, one on each side, so you can stack them, and that require the 50-pin connector on the instrument. It turned out that that really was extremely important for HP. We didn't make a lot of money on my new boxes, which allowed you to have various external switches and stuff. But we did make an awful lot of money out of the cables. The cables were sold at $50 apiece, and they cost about $3.50 to be made externally. So my greatest success monetarily at HP may very well have been the IEEE-488 standard cable.

ZIERLER: In the long range of history, what do you see as the impact of this development?

TRIMBLE: Everything is now programmable, and it turns out that now we talk about things that connect to the internet. You've got to realize that in those days, the connection to the phone system was highly regulated. But it's the interconnectivity of things, the IoT. Now, it's a long ways—this is truly Wright Brothers flying, to today's IoT, but it certainly is part of the trend.

ZIERLER: What were some of the most important things you learned as head of development for LSI?

TRIMBLE: One was when it came to producing integrated circuits, the question was more maintaining and improving on what you have than trying to start from scratch, because starting from scratch would be nearly impossible. Certainly computer simulations—in those days—I think the last thing I did at HP before I left to start Trimble was I headed up an IEEE-LSI symposium at Stanford. We were asking the question then of how much smaller could the feature size be, because we were running out—we were having to start to rely on x-ray lithography which clearly wasn't a good way forward. Now, it turns out that that actually wasn't necessary, and some really, really, really clever applied physics got involved and solved that problem.

ZIERLER: What was important to you at LSI in terms of maximizing the productivity of your staff?

TRIMBLE: Well, no. My job at HP was to run engineering for the IC facility. Before I took the job, my predecessor had been going around to people. In fact, he gave me his little tin cup that he had used, figuratively, to go around to people to beg for small amounts of money in return for specific tasks in the year. Well, I decided that if I was going to do it, I was going to do something useful with it. I was willing to cut the cost of operation of the facility in trade for a defined budget, so I took as my task figuring out what the instrument designers were going to need two years, three years from now, not what they needed now. That's how I ran it. Now, that's basically useful and dangerous to health in any organization that is becoming more bureaucratic. This is the whole ying and yang of control orientation versus achievement orientation. If you want to create things that don't exist before, you clearly have to be in the achievement orientation. If you want to stay in power, you clearly want to be in the control-oriented.

So I was having a lot of trouble with your question—what was my greatest mistake at HP—because I would never have made it to the executive suite at HP. I could say it's because what I was doing was a mistake, and if my goal had been to get to the executive suite at HP, it would have been a mistake. But it's actually contrary to basically everything I believe in.

ZIERLER: There was a box at HP, and you never perfectly fit in.

TRIMBLE: No, there is no question. As a matter of fact, not everybody loved the fact that I did what I wanted to do, and that at times I skirted the rules.

ZIERLER: This harkens back to your very first interactions with Al Bagley and what he tested you with.


ZIERLER: After LSI, did you realize at some fundamental level that HP was really a different company, maybe even a bit unrecognizable from when you started?

TRIMBLE: Well, certainly at the time I left. There's no question that it was becoming a different company at the time that the LSI project was cancelled. Certainly by the time I left, it was very, very clear to me that HP had gone from technology-driven to marketing-driven to resource allocation driven. I assumed at the time that that was probably good for the monetization of the company, but it certainly wasn't where I wanted to be. I felt pretty comfortable that I had learned everything I needed to learn to try my hand at it. Now, I happened to choose something that was probably in about the worst market that I could possibly have chosen, the marine electronics market. But one step at a time. Well, it's two steps forward, one step back.

ZIERLER: As you explain how HP had changed, I wonder how we might understand the birth of Apple Computer and the way that Steve Wozniak did not develop his vision within HP.

TRIMBLE: It's really interesting, because that was occurring on the same floor of the building that I was working. HP Labs, run by Barney Oliver, a Caltech grad, brilliant, seldom wrong, and intolerant of dissent. It's something that comes along with being brilliant and seldom wrong.

ZIERLER: [laughs]

TRIMBLE: But at the time that the Apple thing was being played with at HP, they had come up with something called the CORDIC algorithm, which was a way of getting mathematical functions that could be basically programmed onto fundamentally a PC board. I'm losing some of the details. But this was the basis of the computing calculators that were done—it was in Fort Collins—that HP was selling $3,000 to $5,000 computing calculators. Not the little handheld stuff; they were big and they were programmable, and they could certainly do all of the scientific notation, and all of that sort of stuff. So that was what HP was doing.

Then when Packard went to the Pentagon, the joke around HP was that Packard went to the Pentagon to test Hewlett by putting all government contracting on hold, which affected the—which several tiers down, got to HP in the same type of instrumentation. But Hewlett's thing was a handheld scientific calculator. That actually ended up coming out at Corvallis, the model 35, $350 for the original unit.

Following that, the absolutely brilliant project leader that had led that went to Apple. He was in charge of the Lisa project, at Apple. It was my knowing this person and the failure of the Lisa project at Apple that caused me to realize that Apple or Steve Jobs' genius was with marketing, not technology, and that he won by painting computers pink. The iMacs that came out, you could choose your color. So it became very clear to me that Apple truly was a marketing cool product company, not basically a technology company. Now, they've clearly used technology, and they have some brilliant technologies.

ZIERLER: But that's not the secret sauce, you're saying. It's marketing.

TRIMBLE: It's not the secret sauce. And you see it now. The whole ecosystem. The selling of ads, the selling of apps, the way that Apple can charge three times as much for their smartphones as other people, because of the apps.

ZIERLER: Last question for today, which obviously will be prelude to our next discussion—when did you become first aware that HP was interested in developing navigation equipment, and what opportunity did you see at that point?

TRIMBLE: This was another Al Bagley thing. Al Bagley was a sailor. Well, so was I, at the time. There were four of us in the lab that had bought this CAL 24 together, and we went out and we raced it Saturdays in San Francisco Bay. But no, the project was Al's. When the IC tester project was cancelled, I could have had the project. I chose not to take it, because I needed something that I was—I needed a win. But I followed it. I also was super aware when Ralph Eschenbach basically had done an under-the-table project at HP Labs and was listening to the first GPS satellite when it was transmitting. I was very aware that that was going on.

ZIERLER: And that was the moment of opportunity for you?

TRIMBLE: Well, no, the moment of opportunity was that Al Bagley was kicked upstairs, and he was replaced by a marketing manager as division manager. This marketing manager was deathly afraid that technology was going to—how should I put it?—pollute his product strategy. He refused to set out a game plan with a horizon of greater than two years. Well, at that point, I knew that there was nothing I could do with an IC facility, because it was going to take me something between one year and two years to produce an IC, and then it was going to take between two years and three years to produce an instrument. I had nowhere to go, and that was when I picked up the cancelled Loran-C project.

ZIERLER: That's a great place to pick it up for next time.

[End of recording]

ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is Friday, September 10th, 2021. Once again, I'm so happy to be back with Charlie Trimble. Charlie, great to be with you.

TRIMBLE: Great to be with you, David.

ZIERLER: Today I'd like to start by asking when you initially had the idea to go off on your own from HP. How did you set about that? What were the decisions? And what did you need from HP in order to make that viable?

TRIMBLE: At the end of our last conversation, I think I talked a little bit about the changing environment at HP, and the fact that the Frequency and Time Division was being run by a marketing manager who was afraid that technology would warp marketing strategy. This had reduced the timeline on activities to two years, which destroyed my ability to do anything truly meaningful as engineering manager of an integrated circuit facility.

At that point, I was looking around, and with the same reorganization, a Loran-C navigation project that Al Bagley had started, had been cancelled. They were at final prototype approval. HP, traditionally, when they cancel a project, they simply shelve it. I viewed that as an opportunity to start a business and to go off on my own. The fellow who actually was one step up, he was a group vice president, a fellow by the name of John Blocker, had in his past an entrepreneurial streak. I proposed to him that I would buy the Loran-C project from HP for $50,000.

ZIERLER: Charlie, at that point, how financially risky was this for you? Did you have a nest egg? Did you have the ability to say, "I can accept failure to a certain degree"? What did that look like, from a personal finance perspective, for you?

TRIMBLE: I had a nice home that I had just finished building in Los Altos Hills. What you have to realize in terms of values, I was making approximately $40,000 a year, which was a good salary. The home that I had completed in Los Altos Hills, I broke the bank at $145,000.

ZIERLER: [laughs]

TRIMBLE: It was on two and three quarters acres, and it had a view of the Bay, so it was really very nice. But this sets in perspective the value of money at the time. I probably was worth half a million dollars in total. I had just bought another lot in Los Altos Hills for $100,000 that I had bought for cash, that I knew I was going to have to sell. But I certainly was going to be okay for the near term. I wasn't really worried about being able to find another job. I looked at it as being the time to pursue an opportunity.

In fact, I can remember when I was thinking about this—I don't know whether it was at this point or during the negotiation with HP—I had lunch with one of the Caltech students that I had hired for the IC tester project, who was president of the IC tester company, and they were doing quite well, a company by the name of Metatest, and it was Steve Bisset. I had lunch with him, and I made a comment about risk. He looked at me and he said, "Charlie, be real. You may have more or less monopoly money, but you're never going to be in a position where you have to worry about a roof over your head or food to eat. There really isn't any risk to doing this sort of thing." So in terms of advice I guess from someone who was junior, it was well received.

ZIERLER: Who did you take with you from HP in launching this endeavor?

TRIMBLE: I took three people. I took the key software engineer who I had also hired into HP, and he was the brilliant software engineer that was actually responsible for the magic in the GPS world. A very bright analog design engineer. And I took my secretary. Now, I have to explain this a bit, because when I got the job of engineering manager at the IC facility, one of the things that came along with it was a secretary. Well, I couldn't really see how I was going to use full-time clerical help, but I knew that if I found somebody for the job that was really bright, they could do something that I needed done, and that was to create an engineering manual on the five gigahertz FT IC process that was the hallmark of the group. I figured that any bright individual could interview engineers and pull together a manual. So that is what she had done. So she came along to do all of the things that we didn't want to do, although she made it very clear that she didn't do windows or floors. So she ended up being the person that dealt with things like purchasing and inventories and that sort of stuff.

Anyway, I took three people from HP. A friend of the family was a mechanical engineer, and he joined the company. I asked my father if he wanted to come in a couple of days a week and keep the books, because one of his jobs as being manager of the water company in Fallbrook was he had to keep the books, and I needed someone to do that. That is basically how we started out. My father also—the workbenches we used at HP were ideally designed for basically electrical engineers, and they cost about $1,200 apiece. I figured out how to design the same functionality for a material cost of about $30 to $50, and my father built them. That's basically how we started. We rented 1,000 square feet in a renovated theatre building in downtown Los Altos. The space was originally designed for insurance offices, because the thousand square feet had five doors onto the hallway. That was our physical location, and that was the initial set of people that set out.

ZIERLER: From a funding perspective, did you have any silent partners? Were there loans? Were there banks? How did you get the funds to launch the business beyond your own means?

TRIMBLE: I didn't. Well, all right, let's put it this way—I refinanced my position in an apartment—I was in an apartment house—this is absolutely fortuitous, but during this period of time—1976, 1977, 1978—you could buy apartment houses, with 20% or 25% down, and borrow money at a rate which was equal to or less than the inflation rate. This was manna from heaven. I pulled $100,000 out of an apartment house, which was the principal capital, and I bought stock with that. Most of the rest of the people put in $10,000 each, and that was their original stock position, so on something less than $200,000 we headed off into the wild blue yonder.

ZIERLER: Was the entire mission of the business from the inception Loran-C, or were there other interests and objectives at hand?

TRIMBLE: We had the good fortune—we ended up being able to buy four final prototypes, a rack full of test equipment, and innumerable boxes of reading material and other stuff, for $50,000. They finally came down to the counter of $80,000, but I refused to budge. John Young wanted $200,000 for it, which from his point of view was perfectly reasonable, but I stayed at 50. It became very clear that they gave it to me for 50 because they wanted me to come back if I failed. So that's how it started.

Actually, the little company that I had was used for parlor bets among executives at HP. I found a lawyer that knew how to put together R&D limited partnerships. R&D limited partnerships in those days were things where investors could take company losses up to 90% of their investment, against taxes. So when I started raising money, which I did basically on an annual basis, I raised a quarter to a third of a million dollars a year. That was what we were burning. We were starving. Yeah, we all took—I was making $4,000 a month. I took two and then the engineers were all paid two. And Kit, I think, started at one, but we rapidly moved her to the same salary. This is a long time ago. It certainly wouldn't have been considered today. In any event, we had a very controlled burn rate, and our whole purpose was to finish this, sell it as a product, and then come up with another product. This was the vision. We were going to build something one product at a time.

ZIERLER: What were the greatest technological challenges as you launched off on your own business?

TRIMBLE: There really weren't any technical challenges. Figuring out how to sell things was a huge challenge. You can see how far we had to come. We came up with this wonderful product. It was obviously better than anything on the market. We were going to have to sell through marine electronic dealers. We had the idea that we would premiumly price the product—HP always premiumly priced their products—and we would sell COD. Now, this is truly an oxymoron when it comes to trying to sell things through a small retail distribution market where the companies involved, the marine electronics stores, usually were not big enough to have a good salesman and a good technician. They had one or the other. So the whole idea of being able to sell products COD was certainly not going to work, but we didn't know that at the time. So, there was learning that. Putting in place how we got everything manufactured, how we assembled a bunch of stuff—those were the sorts of problems.

Now yes, the technical problem with regards to—the HP innovation with regards to Loran-C was it was something that read out in terms of latitude and longitude. When the Coast Guard designed the system originally, what the Coast Guard had done was upgraded from the design of a Loran-A which was used to guide the fighter planes across the North Atlantic during the Second World War. They put in an upgraded system really to take care of the coastal confluence zone of the United States. Then it got expanded further around the world. But the original concept of that was you had to receive signals from three different transmitters, so you got a pair of time differences, i.e. the difference time of arrival of the signals from two transmitters, and this gave you a time difference line.

The Coast Guard had these wonderful charts that were overprinted with time difference lines, so that by having one of these Loran-C boxes, you read out two time difference numbers, and that gave you a position on a chart, a nautical chart. Well, HP knew, and it was really very obvious to other people, too, that the time difference lines were off—well, they certainly were off in Los Angeles, and they were off by even more—they were off by about 1.3 miles in L.A. and two miles in San Diego. So this is truly noticeable.

Well, the technical reason for this is that the speed of radio signals is not fixed at the speed of light. It depends on the conductivity of the material that the signal is going over. So if you're going over dry land, you get one speed, and if you're going over highly conductive or irrigated land, you get another. The anomaly in Los Angeles and San Diego came from the fact that one of the signals that you received down there came down the Central Valley, which was highly irrigated, and the other came down the eastern side of the Sierras, which was basically desert. This led to the anomaly. The technical problem we had was to go to places around the world and find the correction that was necessary to apply to the time difference line, so that when we converted from a time difference to a latitude/longitude, we would come up with a good latitude/longitude. Technically we did spend time taking—in fact, we had to take every new receiver, because it dealt with second-order effects, to places around the world with known problems. This was a technical problem.

It turns out that Tom Coates—he's the Caltech graduate who was doing the software—he had been in charge of the software for the Loran-C project as it was developed at HP. By the way, HP had put $1.3 million into this development at the time it was cancelled, so most of the technical problems, with the exception of collecting the error data, which would go into a table, had been solved at HP. We just had to implement. HP was going to do castings, but the die for the castings hadn't been purchased. We didn't have the money to spend to do that, so we had to modify stuff and use sand castings. We basically produced the product. The product looked an awful lot like the product that HP had generated. Our goal was to have the thing on the market and making money within a year. We were selling within the year, but we weren't making money yet.

ZIERLER: Who were the clients? Who was most excited about these products?

TRIMBLE: The channel is the marine electronic dealers, but it turns out that because we could read out latitude and longitude, this allowed the sailors who were racing sailboats, ocean racing sailboats, the ability to find the buoys that they were supposed to round in the race without having to go to the buoy and pick up the precise time difference numbers that would allow them to know where the buoy was. We found a marine electronic technician that worked the docks for some of the major ocean-racing series. The people that really got excited about this were those people.

ZIERLER: Maybe it's an obvious question, but what could this do that wasn't possible before?

TRIMBLE: You put in the latitude and longitude of the buoy that you got out of the Light List, which was what is published, and you would get a course and distance to destination which was that buoy. You would get a true north heading and a distance, so that it was much, much easier to navigate the boat so that you didn't waste any time. You didn't clear the buoy by more than you needed to. Once you get within, oh, 150 feet, 50 yards of something and you see it, your perception is it's right there. So all we had to do was to get answers that were good to the 50, 100-meter region, and people thought that we were spot-on.

Then we started selling these to the commercial fisherman. Especially there's a wonderful story—it turns out to try to protect the local fishermen for salmon fishing north of the Bering Straits, I think it was the state of Alaska put down a ruling that licenses for fishing here could only go to boats that were 26 feet or less in length. They also had very precise lines of where you could fish and where you couldn't fish. It turns out that these Loran-C units would allow you to not get afoul of the inspectors, and there were lots of 26-foot boats that were barged up north of the Bering Sea to be run by college students. There would be three. They basically fished 24 hours a day. The fish were picked up in their nets by helicopter, delivered to the beach, where they were flown off the beach in DC-3s. This was a huge operation. Oh, and by the way, fresh salmon means that it is never frozen, but it can very well be two years old. It just has to be stored on ice.

ZIERLER: That's very valuable.

TRIMBLE: Anyway, these were the types of niche markets we went after. TI was selling a Loran-C unit for $1,000. We were selling ours for $3,500.

ZIERLER: [laughs] Where is the U.S. Global Positioning System in all of this? How vital is this, having recently launched, for what you were trying to accomplish?

TRIMBLE: First of all, the first GPS satellite didn't go up until—what was it?—no, it was 1976. The first satellite had gone up, so I knew that there was a GPS program going on at HP Labs. It was perfectly obvious that GPS was the right global solution for navigation. But the design of GPS receivers was grinding through the military procurement process. At the time I was doing this, there may have been, oh, half a dozen GPS receivers in the world. As a matter of fact, when I bought the project in 1982, the breadboard that I got from HP, I doubt that there were two dozen receivers in any form that could have worked.

ZIERLER: To clarify, in the 1970s, GPS was restricted for military use? It was not available to civilians. Is that right?

TRIMBLE: That isn't true. It turns out there was nobody building any civilian sets, but the GAO forced the [armed] services to agree on a single satellite system. The Navy had their system—Transit. It uses a single satellite that was running around the world, and you got two lines of positions by getting the satellite crossing you an hour and a half later than it did the first time. The Air Force wanted to do something along the lines of GPS, and the Navy had Transit. The GAO demanded two things. They demanded that the Services agree on one, and that there be a civilian channel for it. The way the system was designed was, all right, since we're required by government to have a civilian channel, we will have a guide channel for the military system that will have limited utility but will have utility. So the C/A code became the guide channel. There was a C/A code and a P code. The P code was the military system, and the C/A code was the open channel.

The reason that HP had something is the Joint Program office who was running the project published everything about the signals. This was in free market domain, so no, there were no civilian receivers. The only receivers were the ones that were being built by the aerospace companies that were being competed against each other to build military receivers. There was one class of receiver to be built for aircraft, one class for ships, and one class for soldiers. The soldier one was, I believe, a 40-pound backpack. I have to look at that number, but it was a heavy backpack. That was one channel. The Navy was going to get two-channel receivers for their ships, and the Air Force was going to get four-channel receivers for their aircraft and their bombers.

ZIERLER: What opportunity did this present to you?

TRIMBLE: I had in the back of my mind that it's always possible that HP will decide at some point not to continue the GPS, and that this conceivably could become available. But I'm one of these people that I'm willing to deal with 25% chances and put energy into it; I'm not willing to deal with stuff that has less than a 5% chance of happening. So I put the GPS availability at this point in time into the less than 5% category. That was my feeling when we were proceeding with navigation product.

We introduced the first product, we generated a second-generation product, and we realized that—at HP, the time cycle to do a product is three years. The total length of time to start from scratch and to get a good working product out really took three years. First of all, three years, I would never be able to survive in a commercial market. I really needed to do an annual cycle, but I wasn't going to be able to start from scratch and do an annual cycle.

What we basically did was the hardware cycle was on a two-year cycle, and on a one-year cycle we made software improvements, which increased the functionality driven by customer demand. Early in 1982, we were looking at other navigation products. Magnavox was the only company that was producing a commercial transit system, and they were basically an aerospace company. I looked at aerospace companies as wonderful places to compete with. We found a small company that had a good prototype transit receiver, and we started negotiating to buy the company to get this product and to get something launched in this area.

Fortunately, before we signed anything, I got a visit from an old friend at HP, Zvonko Fazarinc. He was the section manager in charge of the section where the GPS receiver was being built at HP Labs. He came down and said, "Charlie, I know I advised you not to leave with the Loran project, because I thought you were going to fail at it. But you haven't. And as you know, John Young has cancelled the GPS project, and he has given me the right to sell it. I want you to buy it, you will do something with it"

ZIERLER: Why did John Young cancel it? What was his thinking?

TRIMBLE: I asked Zvonko that, and Zvonko said, "Well, it's really very frustrating, because I made a very strong case that this was a billion-dollar market, and John Young smiled at me and said, ‘You know, we have 50% of a $4 billion market right now, in instrumentation. And we have a 5% position of a $400 million dollar computer market. I don't need another one-billion-dollar market that will need another distribution channel.'" Now, that was the answer that was given to Zvonko and that's the answer that he gave to me. The fact of the matter is, we were in the waning days of the Carter administration, and there were severe budgetary constraints. To save GPS, GPS was downsized from a 24-satellite system to an 18-satellite system. They didn't have the satellites up anyway, but they reconfigured things.

ZIERLER: Because of the belt-tightening of the Carter administration? That's why it was reduced?

TRIMBLE: Yes. So there really was a question about whether GPS would ever be completed. I believe that had as much influence on John Young as the stated reason that it was another marketing channel. But he didn't want to get into that discussion or argument.

ZIERLER: What was your response to this?

TRIMBLE: My response was to go to Al Bagley and ask Al, did he think that this system was going to be completed. He said, "I don't know, but I can give you two names that you ought to talk to." One was a fellow by the name of Winkler at the Naval Observatory, who basically was in charge of timekeeping for the United States. The other was Brad Parkinson an Air Force colonel that was leading the joint program office in L.A. I've forgotten the name of the base that it was being operated out of, but anyway, it's the JPO. So these were the two people that Al gave me contact information on. I talked to both of them. While there was no assurance or no guarantee and certainly no CFO who would have bought it, they both fervently believed that this was something that the nation truly needed.

ZIERLER: Which was what, Charlie? What did the nation need?

TRIMBLE: They needed this worldwide all-weather navigation and timing system. Actually, when we said U.S., we're not talking about the civilian population now. Because clearly, this is being funded through the Air Force, and the total cost of putting up the initial system, doing the initial system, was $10 billion. The equities that had to be preserved were the U.S. military equities.

ZIERLER: When Ronald Reagan came into office, what did that mean for your business, both in terms of the regulations, in terms of the budget, even the national security aspects?

TRIMBLE: Well, it turns out—the easy answer is nothing, directly. We did not show up anywhere. Certainly the Reagan pronouncement with the downing of the Korean airliner, which was claimed to be a navigational error, which guaranteed the availability of civilian GPS to everybody in the world, turned out to be an incredibly important pronouncement and was of great use later. But at this point in time, or when things were starting, there weren't receivers. It was one thing to build the Loran-C receiver, which was at a final prototype stage. But what I got as a breadboard from HP was an existence proof for the use of a civilian receiver. It took up the space of a large kitchen table or a small dining room table. In any event, it could be placed on the table in a rented motor home and driven around the freeways of the Bay Area, and put plots once every I believe 30 seconds on a map, and show that they were on the freeway, and furthermore show that the maps had an error at one point, because the GPS points did not line up with the map.

It was then that we realized, or I realized, that the way that Rand McNally and other people that spent oodles of money in producing their maps, the way they could sue people for copying was to find the purposeful errors that they had put in their maps on the competition's map. HP had proven that the civilian signal was sufficient to be useful and was an awful lot better than the military thought it was going to be. When HP decided they weren't going to pursue this, they published their findings and they published their demonstration. Fortunately, there was no commercial market for this, or somebody else might have tried to bid on this thing against me.

ZIERLER: Why was there no commercial market?

TRIMBLE: It was going to be years before there was going to be a full system in place, before people could truly use it.

ZIERLER: The term breadboard, what does that mean?

TRIMBLE: It's a term of art used by electrical engineers to indicate the concatenation of a series of components that produce the function that is necessary to prove out a concept. In addition to—there was an awful lot of analog circuitry, microwave circuitry, coax cables going from one place to another, wave guide, circuits. As a matter of fact, it had to be run from a computing calculator. It didn't have its own computer. But it did receive signals and it was able to compute a position once every 30 seconds. Now, clearly one wants instantaneous update, but in those days, 30 seconds was nirvana.

ZIERLER: During this time, what were the sales figures for Loran-C looking like, in the early 1980s? Did you see long-term that this would remain central to your business?

TRIMBLE: I knew perfectly well that it was good as a few-million-dollar-a-year product line, but it certainly wasn't going to build a major company.

ZIERLER: Why? Because sales would be flat?

TRIMBLE: No, but it's going to be small. It's going to probably be capped at $10 or $15 million total.

ZIERLER: Simply because it's a niche product, you're saying?

TRIMBLE: Yeah. And in 1982, we were close to break-even. That's why we could entertain buying something else, although we were making enough money that we didn't have to raise more than a quarter of a million dollars a year, is what break-even means. We were at about $2 million a year.

ZIERLER: When did you commit to drafting the GPS block diagram? When chronologically does that begin?

TRIMBLE: There was basically a six-month negotiation. It could have been four; it could have been eight. But anyway, it was somewhat protracted. John Young again wanted $200,000. This time, HP Labs had only spent a million dollars. I would get a breadboard and 14 feet of reading material. This is what I was buying. I offered 50, and finally to close the deal, I settled at $80,000. Oh, and to make life slightly more difficult, Zvonko had said, "One of the conditions of you buying this is you can't hire any of my engineers."

ZIERLER: What was your response?

TRIMBLE: Well, I agreed, because how else was I going to buy it? But I said, "How about consulting?" And he said, "I don't have a problem with consulting." The design that they had was conventional in the sense of satellite radio receivers, a five-stage down-converted signal with a 14-bit A-to-D converter. It really was a quite conventional receiver design. I knew that I had to come up with an approach that would get me to being able to sell GPS functionality for $100, or the Japanese would teach me how to do it. This goes back to your question, was I aware of the Japanese. I knew that the receiver had to be digital, and we had to generate a block diagram approach that we could iterate on an 18-month schedule which matched the Moore's law schedule for integrated circuits.

ZIERLER: And even though it's famous, can you describe what that schedule was? What Moore's law schedule was?

TRIMBLE: Yeah, basically a doubling in speed and complexity every 18 months.

ZIERLER: And you saw this as an imperative?

TRIMBLE: Absolutely. No question. We spent a year to get there. We have no money. We're on the edge of continuing to survive. And yet until we have an approach, we can't afford to start. Actually it was the gosh-awfulest project leadership position I had ever had. We had Wednesday night consulting meetings. The consultants were paid in stock and pizza.

ZIERLER: [laughs]

TRIMBLE: There were a core group from the group that designed the receiver at HP. Everybody bought in to going digital. Don't ask me now—well, I'd have to work pretty hard at them now, but we identified that there were seven different breakthroughs that we had to have to be able to accomplish this. I was aware that consultants are most useful for solving really tough problems. They're not all that useful for implementing stuff. Because you get far more than you have to pay for with intriguing problems, because you get commute time and you get shower time. So if you can find a consultant in an area that you need and you can intrigue them with a problem that isn't obvious how to solve in their area, you get amazing things out of this.

Anyway, we went through and we kept going through consultants until we got our breakthroughs. We didn't usually get the breakthrough we were really looking for, and so we had to shift the pieces around a bit, but we ended up getting them. Now, I had the start, because of my experience with the signal average and understanding how to pull signals out of the noise, and understanding that you can turn Shannon around—Shannon tells you how much information you can pass through a channel with a given signal-to-noise ratio. I wanted to know what signal-to-noise ratio the channel had to be at so that I had less than one bit per sample, so that I could get away with a hard limiter instead of an A-to-D converter, and I could deal then with one-bit math. That was mine. But clearly, that would not have been enough to have accomplished things. Truly out of this group of 20 consultants, we ended up with a block diagram in a year. Then it took us close to a year to build the first three or four receivers.

ZIERLER: Take me through the visuals. What does the block diagram look like physically?

TRIMBLE: Actually my seminal patent in the GPS arena has a little block diagram that could be put on a three-by-five card with a dozen blocks.

ZIERLER: Why then a year? All of these consultants. Why all of the man-hours necessary for producing this?

TRIMBLE: Because it's easy to do something complex. It is really, really tough to do something simple.

ZIERLER: Ah, that's great. And why is simplicity prized in this application?

TRIMBLE: I had to get to being able to sell the thing and make a profit at $100 before the Japanese did.

ZIERLER: So it's a race.

TRIMBLE: Yeah, it's a race.

ZIERLER: Is it a race from an intellectual property perspective, or from a securing clients perspective, or both?

TRIMBLE: Well, both, but also from a marketplace standpoint. The HP vision for this product was car navigation. That was the billion-dollar market that Zvonko saw. We knew the pricing, because—I can't remember what year, but it was at some world's fair, Chrysler had proposed a car navigation system. It was the talk of the fair. As a matter of fact, car navigation showed up in a 007 movie with a BMW, I believe, before they ever existed. We knew that to get real traction in the automotive industry, It had to be an option, not an add-on. At the time, the most expensive option was an air conditioner—$750. That says that if the GPS could be an option at $750, whatever was sold to the car company—car companies will not deal without marking up factory cost by a factor of three. So that says that the maximum amount that a car company is willing to pay is going to be $250. Well, given the display and the other stuff outside of GPS, the GPS component could not be more than $100. So that fixed the $100 price.

ZIERLER: What year is this, Charlie? Orient me in the chronology. When is the block diagram completed, and when do you know that it's viable?

TRIMBLE: Block diagram is completed in 1983. I have working receivers in 1984. I sell my first receiver in September or October of 1984 for $100,000.

ZIERLER: Where, if anywhere, are the subcontractors in your business? Are you farming anything out? Or is your vision that this is a vertically integrated operation?

TRIMBLE: On the first product, I don't have the time to do integrated circuits, so I have to build the stuff out of available integrated circuit chips. By this time, there are microprocessors, and I'm using 6809's, the Motorola processors which were used as controllers in the automotive industry. They're frankly better than the original 8080 that went into the early PCs. That was the microprocessor, and I had logic. And I had memory. My circuit boards had to be fabricated, obviously. We bought some expensive components, and I guess you could say those were subcontracted, but they were really at the component level.

Oh, and the original receivers, because I knew I had to sell these things—they had very high prices—I had to make them look expensive. While I knew that the GPS—the satellite signals itself could provide the precision timing, I bought the most expensive crystal oscillator as a standard for the product, and it was an HP crystal oscillator, which at the time was selling for $1,300. The total factory cost of the receiver that I had was $3,000, so this one component was nearly half of it, but it actually served two purposes. It served the purpose of lending the aura of value, and also providing a standard which actually was useful in the timing market. The timing market was actually my first volume deal.

ZIERLER: What does that mean, volume deal?

TRIMBLE: For $20,000 apiece, I sold 20 timing receivers, with a late delivery penalty which was absolutely severe. As a matter of fact, the only reason I got the order was the customer, who was absolutely convinced that I wouldn't be able to produce the 20 on the schedule that was promised.

ZIERLER: This was a challenge to you?

TRIMBLE: Well, hey, in the early days, you end up betting your company more than once a year. I was truly happy when I got to the point that I didn't have to bet it more than once a year.

ZIERLER: For that bet, being able to meet that goal, what were the key challenges? Was it manpower? Was it money? What was it?

TRIMBLE: First of all, I'm sure if I had had a lot more money, life would have been a lot simpler. But my entire career had been growing up with very little. That was true at HP, and it was true here. So all corners that could be shaved were shaved, in such a way that it didn't affect the outcome. But no, it's just the logistics. Large number of components. You can't order a long ways ahead because you don't have the money to order a long ways ahead. There are 100 things that can go wrong on any given day, and some of them do. This is the part of the business that I firmly believe that people who can be Caltech professors could not stand to drive through.

ZIERLER: What were some of the unforeseen challenges, even ones that could existentially threaten the business? I'm thinking, of course, about the Challenger disaster. Before that happened, did you have any inkling that such a disaster might really threaten the whole basis of your operation?

TRIMBLE: It turns out there are a thousand reasons that something will fail. Actually, for those things that you have zero control over, it makes zero sense to think about. Yes, I will tell you about the Challenger disaster and what we had to do. But figuring out that we were going to protect ourselves against the Challenger disaster, given what we knew we had to do—basically, before the Challenger disaster, there were only a few satellites in the sky. It started out with five, and it had gotten up to seven by the time of the Challenger disaster. We were having to figure out how to produce product that made money for our customers—because we weren't selling to the government—made money for our customers, with the availability that existed in the satellites. This is one of the reasons that no one else wanted to play this game, because who in the world wanted to play with the transient behavior of the early buildout of a major system? No, our problem was, we knew we had to be a $50 million a year company by the time the system was completed, or we would be swamped by the capital resources of the people that were thundering after the opportunity.

ZIERLER: Tell me about the Challenger disaster. What was that day like for you?

TRIMBLE: Very chilling. Because to save money for the shuttle program, GPS, it was decided, would be launched into orbit from the shuttle, so you didn't have to pay to get the satellite to near-Earth orbit. The early GPS satellites were launched on refurbished Atlas boosters that were coming out of ICBM silos. I believe with the seventh satellite that went up, they had gone through that inventory. We were looking at an indeterminate length of time for the U.S. to develop a rocket launch capability that could launch a GPS satellite, and we were looking at a constellation of seven satellites, which had been grouped so that testing could be continued at the Yuma, Arizona test facility, i.e. they needed five satellites over there once a day. Aging, and how long would the Air Force be able to baby the satellites that were up there along before they started losing some of them.

ZIERLER: Why did they need to be babied? What does that mean?

TRIMBLE: All satellites that go up have a design life, and most of the design lives of things, at least in those days, were three to five years. They managed to stay in precise orbit because of expendable fuel. They have momentum wheels which can take out certain anomalies, but those start to freeze up. The rubidium and/or caesium standards, which are redundantly set up, start to fail. All of these things happen. The Russians, for example, were able to launch lots and lots of satellites in their GLONASS system, but the reason—I don't know whether they have a full system now or not, but certainly during my tenure worrying about this, they never did, because their satellites had a mean time to failure of six months. In any event, all of the navigation-related markets were on hold.

ZIERLER: Maybe it's an obvious answer, but why exactly did the GPS program go on hold after the Challenger explosion? Was it just a matter of getting up to space, or were there regulatory challenges as well?

TRIMBLE: No regulatory challenges. It was totally figuring out how to get satellites up to space. And they were working that problem really, really hard.

ZIERLER: In retrospect, is it surprising to you that the shuttle was the only game in town?

TRIMBLE: No. The people who make budgetary decisions aren't necessarily the people who worry about worst-case scenarios.

ZIERLER: What did your company do during those three years? How did it pivot? How did it stay afloat?

TRIMBLE: Wonderful story. The near- and intermediate-term thrust of the company, up until the shuttle disaster, had been navigation—car, air, marine. Marine, we were still fine with. You don't need updates very often. Car, we had signed a major license agreement. In fact, we had gotten $5 million from Pioneer from technology for car navigation. They were continuing to want stuff from us. Aviation, we were on the cusp of getting major contracts from two of the major business aviation companies, but they hadn't been signed at the time that the shuttle disaster occurred, and of course they went bye-bye. Now, several months earlier, we had recognized that there was a non-navigation market. We had been selling GPS receivers into the oil survey industry for quite some time. They were first used to recalibrate the radio positioning systems that the companies used, and later they were being used in differential mode to actually establish precise position for their drilling platforms and that sort of stuff. But we knew that there was a very major commercial first-order survey market. First-order survey requires that you maintain an accuracy over of one centimeter per kilometer.

We had come up with the idea of doing differential phase carrier GPS. All the navigation stuff relies on the signals that are added to the carrier frequency, to give the info about what the satellite orbit is, and satellite health info, and a bunch of other things. The 50-bit-per-second data signal. But you can use the physics of the carrier frequency itself in a differential mode to get very, very high accuracy. Your only problem is you need to know on what cycle of the carrier frequency you're on. Because the changes occur at the satellite and then propagate through space, so you need to know the cycle number.

Well, that really is pretty difficult, because light travels [laughs] at a foot per nanosecond, and the wave that you're dealing with probably has a wavelength in the foot, foot-and-a-half—I've forgotten what the number is now, but it's easily derivable. Anyway, it's in the foot area, and so you actually need to measure the difference in phase of signals coming to your receiver at a known location and your receivers at an unknown location. From this information, you can calculate precisely, or roughly precisely, certainly within the accuracy of first-order survey, the location of your unknown point. So we had an engineering effort.

Engineering actually at this point had been split into the stuff going after navigation and this area. All of the high-accuracy stuff, all of the system-level stuff, for when we were using differential techniques to enhance the accuracy, were in one engineering group, and the navigation activity was in another navigation group. We were really close. As a matter of fact, it was promising enough that just before the shuttle disaster, we started trying to market these survey-grade receivers, so when the shuttle disaster blew up, our only fallback really, or our only new market to drive things forward, had to do with survey-grade receivers. As a matter of fact, I think it was in February, we got an order for seven of these systems from Caltrans.

ZIERLER: What is Caltrans, Charlie?

TRIMBLE: It's the California state organization that does all of the survey activities with regards to highways, but they have responsibility for a lot more than just the survey aspect. I think they have a lot of transportation—in fact, they probably are the department of transportation for the state of California. That's a guess. The reason the guess is there is I've heard Caltrans used in a very general sense having to do with a train system. But our whole interface had been in the survey aspects of the department.

But we were having a problem. The baseline that we were repeatedly measuring on this was between Ron Hyatt—Ron Hyatt was leading this whole effort—between his house and our facility. That was 7.9 kilometers difference in distance. But we were getting two answers that differed by 12 centimeters. We got to the point where we figured out which was the right answer, but we clearly had to find what was wrong, find the bug that was involved in the second answer. So the end of March, I said, "We don't ship. We're not going to risk an early market with something being wrong with the equipment."

Now, even with the shuttle disaster, I wasn't overly concerned, because I had had a commitment from our local bank that if I could show them that I had produced 10% after-tax net in 1985, I would have a line of credit for a million dollars. And I did that. As a matter of fact, there was some money in the bank, because I got to the $5 million by getting Pioneer to give me an option on a license. They gave me a million-dollar option on a license which made my $5 million year. It gave me my 10% after-tax net. Our accountant said, "Yeah, but hey, if the deal closes before we finish closing the books, we'll count it. If it doesn't, we won't." And I have a story associated with that one, too.

ZIERLER: Oh, I want to hear. This is great. Tell me.

TRIMBLE: Okay! In early February, I am traveling to Japan for a signing ceremony with Pioneer, for this contract. I get to the airport, I get picked up by Hero the head of our office there who's an agent, and as Hero is driving me out of the airport, he said, "Oh, Pioneer has given me their counterproposal." Now, if I knew then what I know now, I would call their bluff and said, "Hiro, take me back to the airport. I'm flying home." Because I knew they desperately wanted it. They just didn't understand what we were asking for. Because what we wanted was in addition to the money, we would give them a right to put an engineer in our engineering lab, but we had a right to put an engineer in their engineering lab. That we would be able to buy the same manufacturing equipment that they had for production, or they would help us with that. Because the Japanese only usually sell their new production equipment to indigenous suppliers. They sell second-generation stuff around the world. Thirdly, that we have a right to buy through your purchasing components. Now, they were really happy for the money. They were nervous about the engineering. And the other two were really tough for him.

ZIERLER: What was so tough about the other two?

TRIMBLE: Well, as I found out later, they had to work some magic to be able to allow us to buy some of the automated production equipment that we ended up buying later. The Japanese don't buy components the same way we do. They find a supplier that makes a component that works, and they say, "Freeze it. You cannot change any part of your process." They don't buy on the basis of a spec; they buy on the basis of performance. This works because its performance in the particular circuit that they're building that matters. It turns out, as we later found out, this was absolutely key to the way they were getting much lower cost of manufacturing. Anyway, I said, "All right." I figured that I should be able to put what we want through their words in a contract.

We started the following day, negotiating. Now, I'm one of these people who truly needs eight hours of sleep. As a matter of fact, I had moved off campus at Caltech because of sleep deprivation. But the negotiation would start at about 9:30 in the morning. It would quit at about 7:00 in the evening. We would go back to the office, and I had a wonderful associate lawyer with Wilson Sonsini, who was backstopping me on this thing. We would send him the state of the negotiation, where things were, and what we needed with regards to wording, and we would complete that by about, oh, 11:30 at night, and then go out and get a bowl of noodles and flop, resuming at somewhere between 3:00 and 4:00 in the morning to get the lawyers' responses, which were put together and we were ready to go back to the negotiating table at 8:00. We left and spent an hour getting across Tokyo to where we were doing our negotiation, and we were there at 9:30.

This went on for four days. I had two nights of two hours' sleep, and two nights of four hours' sleep. At the end, they took us out to one of these ancient geisha restaurants, where the geisha girls would feed you and dance for you and sing for you. They had, I don't know, 25, 35, two dozen, three dozen, four dozen different tiny tidbits of something, most of which you didn't want to ask what it was.

ZIERLER: [laughs]

TRIMBLE: It was probably three to five thousand dollars a plate. The head patent attorney for Pioneer came over to our manager and said, "This is the first negotiation I've lost." All right. So that secured the deal. That had secured the $5 million for 1985. Now, we're at about the fifth or sixth of April, and our bankers have come over, and I do the same thing. I'm perfectly honest with regards to the good news and the bad news. I said, "Unfortunately, we've got a bug in the software, and so we did not ship these units. Therefore, we're going to show a loss in the first quarter." The banker looked at me and said, "You know, Charlie, banks are not in the habit of giving money to people who are losing money. Why don't you get things straightened out, and when you are back to profitable again, let's talk again. And oh, by the way, the $600,000 that you borrowed from us, to pretty up your balance sheet, we'd like it back." Well actually it was $500,000 that I had borrowed. I had $600,000 in the bank. I negotiated to give him back only half of it.

This all occurred the morning of the annual meeting. Now, most people might not think that this is the right way to approach business problems, but I fundamentally learned a long time ago that it's better to ask for forgiveness than permission, so I certainly did not pose to counsel what I was going to do for the annual meeting. I took the view that the annual meeting was to discuss what went on last year, and that is what I did. Of course, everybody was happy, and as I walked with the board to this little room which didn't have a window but we called the boardroom, the sole venture capitalist on our board—he was a seed venture capitalist—said, "It sounds like this is really becoming a good company." So the door closes, and I say, "Well, you've heard the good news. Here's the bad news." So I tell them about the problem with the bug in the software, and I tell them about the reaction of the banker, and I'm asking for ideas. I need help. Well, they came back with suggestions such as factoring receivables at 30% interest, the sale and leaseback of capital equipment, but nothing else. Then saying, "Well, maybe we ought to have a meeting again in a month." Okay! That was the board meeting.

Went home, didn't sleep well, and I finally came to the conclusion that it was frankly easier to make money than to raise money. The company at this point in time had about 100 people. We were just starting to fill out mid-level positions, so I eliminated the mid-level positions and we all took a Hewlett Packard pay cut. By the time we got to the next meeting, we were—well, not by the time we got to the next meeting, but from May on, we were profitable every month of the year.

Now, back to the bug in the software. The software engineer who was pulling the whole system-level thing together was a brilliant Iranian. I had hired him early on in the building of GPS. At the time, he worked for me at night, he worked for Intel during the day, and Intel got him a green card. Once he got the green card, he left Intel and he joined me forever. Anyway, he was brilliant, but he was paranoid that Ralph Eschenbach, who had been leading the whole effort with regards to the navigation side of the business, and who had come up with the GPS receiver in the first place, he was afraid that Ralph Eschenbach would claim credit for finding his bug.

For several months now, we had been working really hard to get Javad some extra help. The person we had chosen was a fellow by the name of Timo Allison. He had gotten a PhD in GPS, by the way, out of Leeds University in England. He was the first of the English PhDs that we hired. He was brilliant, had no ego, and was the kindest and softest person you could ever imagine. Well, Javad would barely talk to him, so Timo had to infer from the changes in software from day to day where Javad was looking for the problem, as he tried to reconstruct what the entire program was. But he discovered one day that the machine language code had changed, but the object code had not changed, so he wrote an inverse compiler, and he found that Javad had changed something and then gone back and changed the object code.

This was known the following morning, and when I arrived at work at about 8:15, the first person to storm into my office was Tom Coates. He said, "It's either him or me. He should be fired for trying to conceal code." I certainly wasn't going to lose Tom. I was really annoyed at Javad. I thought that, damnit, he didn't have to worry about Ralph Eschenbach. He would get all the praise in the world for finding the bloody thing. So I had to figure out how to handle the situation. I picked the fellow who was a retired lieutenant colonel, and he had been in the joint program office, and he actually was in charge of the military portion of our operation at the time. I said, "I want you to investigate, and tell me what has happened, and recommend to me what should be done." This is a cheap way that you normally use consultants for.

Well, he did, and it turned out Javad did it, so I fired Javad. And of course he sued. I was really livid about this, but the insurance company settled out from underneath me. In any event, Javad then went on to be our major competitor in all of the high-accuracy markets. He ended up forming three different companies which he sold to three different parties. So all this happened, and it happened around the tensions of the shuttle disaster. So when it rains, it pours.

ZIERLER: Was it about this time that you saw the company being viable on a long-term basis?

TRIMBLE: Well, I certainly believed that we had a huge runway in front of us. It wasn't just then, but the penny dropped as to what the real opportunity was, somewhat later. Certainly, in the May timeframe, when we had solved the 12-centimeter problem and we had shipped the units to Caltrans and we started on the road to profitability, no, we were just three months after the shuttle disaster. The whole future was totally clouded. And as a matter of fact, we had one more hail Mary maneuver to go through before we got to the other side.

ZIERLER: How many people were on staff at this point? How many salaries were you responsible for?

TRIMBLE: Roughly 100. Well, wait a minute, it went down. It was 100 before the cuts, so in June it was probably 90, 85.

ZIERLER: What was this hail Mary?

TRIMBLE: We had been selling these GPS receivers into Japan for earthquake monitoring. The USTR—U.S. Trade—had been pushing the Japanese to buy American products, much the same way that during the Trump administration, the Trump administration was pushing China to buy stuff from the United States. They were looking around. Now, this was June of—was it 1987? I think it was 1987. I'd have to go back and look, but it was around June. Our agent from Japan called me and said, "The Japanese are under pressure to buy stuff, and the government would like to buy three dual-frequency receivers."

Well, first of all, there were no dual-frequency survey receivers. Secondly, there is no C/A code to help you figure out which cycle you're on. He said, "They're willing to pay—they're asking for a bid." I don't remember, but we bid a high price. They were happy with that. I said, "We've never seen L2 energy from space, but we certainly—" Oh, the delivery date is the 1st of April, the following year. April 1988. The deal with the Japanese government is if they sign a contract with you and you fail to deliver on the delivery date, by the delivery date, you will be forever barred from doing business with the Japanese government again. So all right, I said yes. We can build three of anything.

Three weeks later, he comes back—"No, they really want ten." I said, "Hiro, we have never seen the energy from space." He kept pleading. I said, "All right. We'll figure out how to do ten. But, this is really tough." Three weeks later, he comes back. Two weeks later. "No, the number is 25." And I said, "Hiro, you know that we haven't seen energy from space. The only thing we have is simulator signal." He said, "Oh, that's going to be fine." All right. Middle of July—well, my three weeks obviously don't add up, because it was about the middle of July—Timo finally becomes free. This is the same guy that found the bug in the other one. We know precisely what the signal is supposed to look like. We know the frequency. We've got an awful lot of information. But Timo starts looking for the signal. He doesn't find it.

The Japanese ask for data. We send the data and say, "Hiro, you know this is simulator data." "Yeah, yeah, that's fine." Three days later, "The Japanese say that it was simulator data." And I say, "Yeah, that's all we have." And he said, "Well, they've given me 48 hours to give them data, or the deal is off." Now, the whole reason I took the 25 knowing that I was risking the company was, you know, if a satellite fails, we're done for. Our current market basically contracts something fierce. And who knows when the GPS satellites, additional GPS—oh, who knows when additional GPS satellites are going to get into space. So it's better to put the risk on what we can control than on what can be controlled by other people. Well anyway, the night before the due date, Timo saw and recorded the first L2 information from space. That was sent. The Japanese were very happy with it. We got the order for 25 units.

ZIERLER: Can you explain, how do you record this information? How does that work technically?

TRIMBLE: You've got a receiver that is tuned to—I'm not positive whether Timo actually—we had the amplifiers that were set up to receive L2 energy on the receiver, and he probably jury-rigged a real receiver to be able to—he may very well have done it in software. It probably meant that he was able to track the carrier as the satellite moved. By tracking the carrier as the satellite moved, then the same set of algorithms that could be used for the L1 signal could be used on the L2 signal. I honestly don't know specifically what computer file he sent them.

ZIERLER: What was so significant about being able to do this at that moment?

TRIMBLE: No one else had ever done it. To have basically tracked L2 energy from space without being able to use the military code that was on the signal, this required several orders of magnitude of pulling signal out of the noise. And the only other person that ever did it, seeing that we had done it, was Javad. Nobody else was ever able to do it.

ZIERLER: What happened next?

TRIMBLE: Next we had to build and ship and deliver the units. I hired an old friend from HP, very bright. He had a brother that was very bright. He was rebelling as a kid, and so instead of going to college, he went into the Army. He made it to sergeant, had to serve in Korea. He decided that the life of a sergeant wasn't the life he wanted, so he went back to the University of Wisconsin and got an engineering degree, and ended up at HP actually within days of when I joined HP. He actually was the person I had gone to and asked what lead of the transistor was the emitter. He also was one of the partners in the sailboat venture. Anyway, very good friend. Hired him to actually make this happen. Because basically most of the people that I had were really good at creating new things, but what I needed now was somebody to finish.

And he did. There were 78 boxes that were air shipped to Japan. They landed one week ahead of the April 1st deadline. We later found out how Sony, who had also received one of these contracts and who never delivered a working system, ended up in the good graces of the Japanese government. They said, "Oh, we've delivered the product. The software will come later." So the first dual frequency survey receivers were purchased by the Japanese government for their earthquake monitoring system.

By the way, I've got another slight diversion back. When we did the deal with Pioneer, I knew that we had to figure out—well, they had the right to have an engineer while they transferred the technology. What I had been advised was the Japanese typically came into a small American company and just sucked all the technology out of the small American company. So what I had done was I had sold them the generation of technology that was in production. I was halfway through, maybe two thirds of the way through getting to the next level, which would give me the cost savings and all the rest of the stuff. Within six weeks, Pioneer had driven the factory cost of our existing product below where our target was for the next generation. This was incredibly chilling. Actually, this is the first time I actually stole, or pilfered, or whatever you want to call it—enticed away an engineer from HP. I knew that I needed somebody inside of the Pioneer engineering lab to understand how they do engineering. I knew that I couldn't send a second generation Japanese back to Japan because they would be under inordinate pressure. I needed to send a very bright Caucasian who I could get across the language barrier, to go back. This fellow had a BS degree from MIT, was finishing his master's degree on the COA program at Stanford, and as a high school student, had spent a summer with a Japanese family that did not speak English.

ZIERLER: This was your man.

TRIMBLE: This was my man. We installed him in the Pioneer Lab, and we found out that the first trick that Pioneer uses is they rank-order the entire material list by cost, and they first attack the most expensive thing. Which makes an awful lot of sense, because that's probably sort of handmade, and it's probably not all that reliable. So what was the most expensive thing? It was the first-level filter coming in. It was the two-megahertz-wide filter that allowed the C/A code signal through. How did they fix the problem? Well, they found a supplier that could produce something that had that filter characteristic cheap, and they sealed the process. Anyway, they went through that sort of thing.

Then we found out that in a lab of 100 engineers, there were really only three that were doing original design. The rest of the people were largely taking out tenth-cent resisters from the circuits that had been designed. Actually, there were only two people. Because Chris [our engineer] was good enough that he became the third person in their lab. Actually that worked out really well, because he became the confidante of the manufacturing manager of the division. I can remember being at a meeting with him when—we were having trouble communicating, so he calls Chris in to be our translator. In any event, we continued to work with Pioneer because we wanted them to be able to beat Sony, and they actually succeeded at that.

That's the story of how we really got what I think was the max—well, we also bought a piece of production equipment later that allowed us to run our prototype stuff on the same equipment that we were going to be using for manufacturing, and that actually cut down the number of errors in moving things from R&D into production, which was incredibly important if you were trying to release products at a pretty fast rate.

Oh, the other thing we learned from the Japanese is it isn't that they are so super-fast at producing new things. They have just programmed out a timeline which is three years long, and all you're doing is seeing what's coming out at the end of the pike. So yeah, I ended up with a very good understanding of what worked and why it worked in terms of Japanese electronics.

ZIERLER: Where did that leave the company for you at that point?

TRIMBLE: We've now succeeded in selling the dual-frequency stuff. The launch of the first Thor-Delta rockets with a GPS satellite started the movement, a really pretty rapid movement, towards filling out the GPS system. We got the production equipment so that we could produce sensors, GPS sensors that we could sell into the car navigation market. We sold to Daimler and BMW as well as having licensed Japan. I used that basically to drive the factory cost down. I got to my $100 number by doing it. Taiwan Semiconductor at this point in time was providing us circuits. We had worked our design so that we required a couple of components on the front end, a specialized chip from Taiwan Semiconductor, a microprocessor and ROM and RAM.

In the intervening time, and this probably really got underway in late 1986, early 1987—I think it was that late; it might have been earlier—Kit, my secretary, had gone from running all of production and inventory to actually having to do with the company image, strategic marketing. I had sales, but I didn't have professional marketing. She understood the value of branding, which I admit I did not. I think she may actually have been the one that came up with the idea of GPS being the next utility, the ninth utility. And that has to predate—that actually I believe does predate the shuttle disaster. The shuttle disaster then therefore would have accelerated this.

But in trying to figure out where markets would be for GPS, we looked at the other eight utilities and actually zeroed in on the telephone. Because the telephone had progressed from a silly analog way of communicating pre 20th century to the ability to use fax machines. There were all sorts of companies that were providing services that worked over voice-grade lines. These were the only things that AT&T had to have a fixed price on. So we had a nice—we could see examples of how the telephone had progressed, and we were using this to try to think through what fundamentally GPS was useful for.

ZIERLER: When you're talking about phones obviously, this is a landline world we're referring to. This is before mobile.

TRIMBLE: Oh, yeah. There's no cell phone. Well, the only mobiles were radio phones that people in the 1930s had. If you were extremely wealthy, you had a two-way radio which looked like a phone. But yeah, there were no cell phones. Anyway, we realized that GPS was being used for two real purposes. One was to time-stamp things, and the other was to geolocate things. Really it was the key to time and positional technology. It was this understanding that truly opened up the floodgates to all the possibilities. Now, we had to work our way through satellites being put back into space and all that sort of stuff. But in terms of the idea flow of what might be possible or where we might be going, it really stemmed from understanding that GPS really was a technology, not a product, and that the future of the company was in terms of monetizing that technology, which would be done largely with software, and not the product, which is the box. The value proposition really was in the software. This allows you to get gross margins that are halfway reasonable.

ZIERLER: Did this change the client base for you, the kinds of people who were interested in this?

TRIMBLE: No, because each step was a very small step. We made the step with advances in the set of technologies that involved differential systems, both ones that use the C/A code and ones that used the phase code measurements, survey grade measurements. I guess it was in the late 1988 time period, one of the little companies that we had been dealing with for data collectors out of New Zealand came to us and said, "We had a deal to sell the company to the Japanese, to Sokkia, who basically buys 80% of what we have. We agreed to a deal in New Zealand. We fly to Japan to ink the deal, and they hand us a deal which cuts the price in half. "Would you be interested in helping us?"

So four or five of us got on a plane and went down to New Zealand, and we really liked it. Now, we thought the price was really pretty high, but they were convinced that they had a big and growing market. We set up a deal where they could get their price if they could produce what they thought they could produce. It turned out it worked out brilliantly for both sides this way. That's how we actually made our first acquisition, which was really pretty interesting, because cost of living, including cost of engineering, is 40% in Christchurch as what it is in Silicon Valley, so I thought that, well, since they were principally in the software business, we could mint money by running things through that division, because software, we were now getting to the point that you could actually do video conferencing and you could send computer data relatively easily around the world. But it never happened.

Interestingly enough, the division was essentially, and from a profitability standpoint, always about as good as any of the rest of the divisions, but not all that much better. However, if we an engineer from New Zealand up to Sunnyvale, paid him Sunnyvale wages, he performed really very, very well. As a matter of fact, we ended up bringing several supervisors up, so New Zealand as a farm club really worked. Now, New Zealand has a problem. They educate far more engineers than they can absorb in their own economy. So it is standard for New Zealand engineers to go somewhere else for a large portion of their career before they go back to New Zealand. Anyway, that all worked out really very, very well.

ZIERLER: What year is that, that you set up operations in Christchurch?

TRIMBLE: Oh, it's probably 1988. Sometime in late 1988. Everything was humming in 1989, and we were so successful at the New Zealand thing, we bought a small system-based consulting company for not very much—I mean, you would buy with stock, and you get really good people, and they have to stay because—well, they stay because they want your stock, and they want to be part of a larger thing. We made really serious efforts to get into the systems business, which I think Trimble maybe 20 years later is partially able to do. But we were not successful at that, and the reason for it being that the aerospace companies, after the GPS satellites started going up, decided that, well, they were good at systems businesses. And if you didn't get a contract, you weren't in business, so you bought contracts. So they truly crummied up the market. So that one didn't work. But that'll get us basically to 1990, where I'm putting about 25% of revenues back into R&D. I'm keeping enough on the bottom line so that it's black, not red. And I'm growing at 40% a year.

ZIERLER: Last question for today, as we transition from the 1980s to the 1990s. In what ways, if at all, did the end of the Cold War affect your overall business, what you were able to do?

TRIMBLE: Interesting question. The effects were second order. Yes, it was because the Cold War ended that I did indeed end up going to Russia. We ended up selling—very interesting story. One of the PhDs that we had hired out of Leeds University—there were three, but one of them had actually decoded the Russian P code for his PhD thesis. It isn't that hard. You get a hold of a two-meter dish that is focused on the frequency, and you've got enough power to have pulled the signal out of the noise. The difficulty is doing it with a simple antenna. In any event, they had asked us—because our timing receivers were lower noise than Javad's, they wanted to buy a couple of our timing receivers to maintain their time standard. So we actually sold them a two-frequency timing receiver, which used their P code. The original purchaser was quite happy to get this, but some of the military people were less happy.

ZIERLER: Why were they less happy?

TRIMBLE: Because the receiver was a GLONASS receiver. This was a receiver that utilized their satellites.

We knew that there was military competition for satellite systems. There were reasons why the U.S. wanted one. There were reasons why—and the U.S. wouldn't sell P code receivers to the French, so the French had to have a European one, so they could have P code receivers and therefore their arms industry could sell them to other people. The Chinese, of course, had to have one, and the Russians had to have one. This all looks to the general public perhaps as competition, but from a civilian standpoint, there's no reason you can't build a receiver that can use signals from any one of these satellites and mix them. As a matter of fact, the good geodetic receivers today—Trimble has a single chip that will be able to look at signals from any one of five different satellite systems. Now, those chips are much larger than the ones that I had when I left. But it's a natural evolution.

ZIERLER: I think that's a great place to cut today. Next time, we'll pick up in the 1990s and beyond.

[End of recording]

ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It is Tuesday, September 14th, 2021. I'm delighted to be back with Charlie Trimble. Charlie, thank you again for joining me today.

TRIMBLE: My pleasure, David.

ZIERLER: Today, before we go into the narrative of the 1990s, I'd like to return to something you said that was really profound, and it begs for some further explication from you. When I asked in an earlier conversation about why it took a year and so many consultants to finalize the GPS block program, you explained that it's easy to create something complex, and it's extraordinarily difficult to create something simple. Which is just such a remarkable thing, and I'd like to delve a little further into it. So both from an aesthetics perspective, an engineering perspective, and also a business perspective, why is simplicity so important?

TRIMBLE: Basically, when you have figured out how to turn something that is apparently complex into something simple, you know that you're dealing with the nub of the problem. I came across this first actually with respect to invention. Invention is principally the process of figuring out a simple solution to a complex problem. We all know it when it comes to writing. There are a lot of literary quotes about the subject that you can write a long article or a long speech rather rapidly, but to write a succinct one is really very difficult.

ZIERLER: So technologically, why is simplicity important for these applications?

TRIMBLE: It was important for this application because basically we had frankly limited resources. We needed a solution that could be iterated in times as Moore's law progressed with regards to integrated circuits. I'm having trouble explaining the obvious, actually. I fully admit that what I suffer from is making things overly complex. But in this particular case, the only way forward was to have frankly the simplest possible approach that could be implemented in digital form.

ZIERLER: I understand. Is there also a beauty in simplicity for you, as something to strive for?

TRIMBLE: Well, it's an aesthetic. It's something that I strive for and rarely achieve. As I said, I have a tendency to make things much more complex than they need to be. But I find myself most successful when I can be focused on something that is simple as opposed to the house of cards that comes with a very complex strategy. There are fewer things that can go wrong if you're dealing with something that's simple.

ZIERLER: And in this world, in the GPS world, what are some of the things that can go wrong, that you were thinking of at the time?

TRIMBLE: While at Caltech, I promised myself that I wanted to deal with the digital domain, not the analog domain, because I didn't have to deal with second-order effects, and I wasn't going to come up against the laws of physics if I could reduce the problem to a digital problem. Certainly in this GPS receiver design, I truly wanted to minimize the number of high-frequency components and high-frequency circuits that often created problems. Certainly in those days, when you were dealing with individual components making up a circuit, un…how do I want to say it? The components we use all have specifications, and we think we employ the component within the range of the specifications that are there. But often times, there are second-order effects that can come into a given component without changing the published specifications. You never really know in a design, at least not without an awful lot of effort, whether the prototype that you have built works because you were just fortunate in the particular components that you were using, or that you indeed have lots of margin for them to vary.

None of this is a problem with regard to digital circuits. Ones are ones, and zeros are zeros. Small percentage changes in the operation of any given circuit has absolutely zero effect on the results of something that is digitally designed. We forget about all this now because basically everything or virtually everything has been reduced to the digital domain, so that integrated circuits can be basically the chips that make things work. But 50 years ago or however long ago it was, the world was primarily an analog world. As a matter of fact, the GPS receivers that were being developed for the government on the military programs were all very, very complex analog receivers.

ZIERLER: You were looking to make this exclusively digital, is what you're saying.

TRIMBLE: Absolutely. Because that's the only way that I could hitch the wagon to Moore's law. Actually, interestingly enough, the first GPS receiver that we sold had a material cost of about $3,000. By the year 2000, you could buy that function in million-a-month quantities in Hong Kong as a chip. So that indeed over that period of time was following Moore's law.

ZIERLER: Charlie, another thing that I wanted to pick back up on is, in your work in Asia, in Japan, what did you learn from a business culture perspective, from the other side of the Pacific? What were some of the things that you learned, not just as a matter of becoming more wise unto the world, but that were really useful for you, for your own business?

TRIMBLE: Clearly the technique for driving down factory costs. [laughs] The whole environment that I had grown up with, each new generation, you came out with a little more clever block diagram approach which pulled complexity out of what you were doing. But the Japanese approach of simply rank-ordering the material cost of each one of the components and then systematically attacking the most expensive one first was clearly something that we continued to use. As a matter of fact, the red flag of having a component that was expensive was truly alive and well on designs going forward. When you think about it, it's really obvious. An expensive component is probably handmade or somehow handmade, and therefore probably less reliable, and you're going to have more troubles with the specifications. So that was one of them.

The other one, which I did use, the Japanese appeared to have figured out how to cut the time it took to develop products, because if you looked at the stream of products that came out of a Japanese company, there were major changes in products on an annual basis. At Hewlett Packard, we never replaced a product in three years. Basically a five-year cycle was as close as they ever came to doing something that was significantly different. But what became perfectly obvious in looking at how they did it was they simply generated a planning pipeline that was several years long, and you stuffed things into one end, at a more or less constant rate, and you got things out the other end at more or less a constant rate, and it just appeared as though they were making incredible progress on very rapid time scales.

ZIERLER: What was it about the Japanese perspective culturally, do you think, that allowed for these time scales?

TRIMBLE: First of all, my experience really was with what was considered a second-tier electronics company that was largely customer-facing. They had really very, very few engineers that had the capability of doing original design. As a matter of fact, the fellow we put into the lab became one of three in a lab of 100 that did original design. Now, the original design that was done was quite good, but all the rest of the energy was applied to optimization. This is clearly not a strategy that we ever used, or frankly would want to use, but it was a strategy that did work for them.

That, combined with the fact that when they needed a component that was new, they had people basically prototype components for them until they got one that worked, and then they could tell them, "Well, freeze that. Never change it. We want to buy lots of them." That was an extremely good strategy of not having to understand all of the second-order effects that were going on with a key component. We really couldn't duplicate that here, because the Japanese manufacturers wouldn't deal with us on that basis, for one, and we could never get it done in the United States. It became a problem we didn't need to solve, as we figured out how to remove layer after layer of analog circuitry from the original GPS receiver.

ZIERLER: To go back to the narrative, in the early 1990s, first as a way of understanding the opportunities presented by the Persian Gulf War, what interaction did you have with the Department of Defense prior to 1991?

TRIMBLE: We developed what became known as the Slugger, which was the handheld device for the Army that was about the same size as a pair of 7x35 binoculars. It weighed I think three pounds and could be powered from six D-cell batteries. That was developed in conjunction with Army Space Command, down to what was on the display. There was either one or two rotary switches and a couple of toggle switches and a four-line display, and that was the unit that the Army had decided it wanted.

I think I told you the story of how we were able to win a contract to supply 1,000 units to them basically a year before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. We had gotten reports of how the testing had gone and how it truly worked. But if the events of the Middle East hadn't transpired, that might very well have been the last order we ever sold to the Defense Department. Once Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, it was almost immediately when I got a phone call from Leroy James, in the Air Force—I think he was a colonel at the time—basically asking if we could make some more of them for the same price we sold the original ones. That started the sequence of things, which in one sense was positive, but overall it frankly cost me much more than we gained because of the fact—the volumes kept going up and the supply chain from Japan became completely broken, because cellular telephones were exploding in Southeast Asia, and we were a second-tier customer, so our stuff got stretched out.

While we did end up shipping a total of probably 10,000 units to the U.S. military, about half of them by the time the major push through western Iraq had started, we had so lost control of inventory. I think as I told you, under the pressure of figuring out how to build things, my VP of manufacturing had actually broken and started triple-ordering everything, something I did not know was going on. There were no computer systems that controlled inventory in those days. It was still manually derived. So I only found out inventory kept piling up as we got into April, May, and June. It was still coming in. The Air Force decided that since this was so successful, they should design a new one, and we never got another order, so it was a major, major problem for us to figure out how to work our way through the inventory.

ZIERLER: So I understand, were there any competitors bidding for this contract, or you were essentially the only game in town?

TRIMBLE: We were the only game in town.

ZIERLER: What does that suggest more broadly?

TRIMBLE: None of the military suppliers could do anything. And what we had was infinitely better than what Magellan had. Since all of our production was going to the DoD, the Magellan receivers were being bought by parents of kids who were being sent to Iraq.

ZIERLER: Why was your product so superior? How do you compare the technology from Trimble to Magellan?

TRIMBLE: First of all, what we had done was to generate something that was incredibly rugged and truly, truly worked. What Magellan had was an early consumer product. I don't know how else you describe it. Environmentally, the Army had wanted the unit that they would buy to be incredibly rugged. You had to be able to run over it with a truck. The cases were made out of special stainless steel infused carbon fiber, as opposed to being plastic. The shock and vibration [mitigation] was there.

The Magellan receiver, I believe, was a one-channel receiver that—basically the decision we had made is if we gave an answer, the answer had to be right. It turns out that this is not the ideal solution to have with a consumer product, because a consumer would rather believe that you were still getting answers, even if you weren't. After the war, there were times when we were getting a lot of complaints that there would be a little light that came on that said "Lost GPS signal." None of our competitors had one of those things. So we finally had to come up with a demonstration that showed that the receivers that didn't show you that they were losing lock or weren't giving you the correct answer weren't working—is you put a beer can over the antenna, and see how long the receiver says that it's working. In general what they had done was they had timed things so that they would appear to be working for somewhere between 30 and 60 seconds before they gave any indication.

I guess the easiest way to say this is we had a solution that really worked, and there really wasn't any competition. The military suppliers had no ability to build any reasonable number of receivers for aircraft or anything else. Certainly what they were trying to do for soldiers would have seemed ridiculous—a 40-pound pack versus a three-pound thing that you can carry in your hand. So no, it was a unique product.

ZIERLER: From that phone call with the Air Force official, what was your sense specifically—what was the military value that this product conferred to the United States in Iraq?

TRIMBLE: Operationally, it was going to make the operation an awful lot simpler. The first step in that conflict was figuring out how to blind Saddam Hussein, the air defense ring around Baghdad. There were I believe six fundamental stations around that perimeter. It might have been eight. But basically you had to take out a pair of them within five seconds to basically open up a corridor through the defense system to get at Baghdad. Our units were used to do exactly that.

ZIERLER: Did that give you special satisfaction that you created a project that was useful to the U.S. military, that would keep soldiers safe, end the war as quickly as possible?

TRIMBLE: Oh, you better believe it. Yes, absolutely.

ZIERLER: When the supply chain started to break down, how much of that was simply because the military was ordering more than you could handle?

TRIMBLE: No, that wasn't the problem at all. The problem was that the parts—we had warped the design of this product to use many of the same components. First of all, GPS was not totally digital at this point in time. So there were a whole series of analog components which were also useful in cellular telephones. So we were buying these parts. We specifically were going after these parts because they were in high volume, they were highly reliable, and frankly, they weren't all that expensive. So our design was based on it. The market for cellular telephones exploded that Fall and Winter of 1990. It was the Japanese suppliers of these parts that ran into the production limits, and since we were a second-tier purchaser, our orders did not get priority.

ZIERLER: So this was really just a matter of unfortunate timing.


ZIERLER: What were the takeaways for you in terms of business continuity, in terms of contingency planning? What did you learn from this problem?

TRIMBLE: It reaffirmed the old adage that more companies fail from success and explosive growth than simply fall apart because things aren't working terribly well. If this had been a commercial thing, we wouldn't have had the problem. But we had committed ourselves to a larger cause, basically, and we tried perhaps harder than we should have to fulfill the set of commitments.

ZIERLER: You're saying that with the right effort, it would have been possible.

TRIMBLE: No, no, it would not have been possible. We should have done what most other businesses do, and not try as hard.

ZIERLER: Overall, what was the financial impact of this entire process?

TRIMBLE: Well, I came very close to losing the company in the Spring of 1991. We did make it through, but certainly the profits that we showed early in the year were really inventory profits, and it was frankly a lead weight. It was a millstone around the neck. So I almost lost it in the Summer of 1991.

ZIERLER: There's a certain irony that the company almost went under because it was too successful. Its products were too good. The military wanted too much.

TRIMBLE: Well, there is an irony, but there are lots of ironies in life.

ZIERLER: How did the company recover? How did you steer it back to success?

TRIMBLE: I believe that again we cut salaries. We focused really hard on the set of things that would produce income. It's just hard work. There's nothing in business, especially for a small company, that is monotonic.

ZIERLER: What do you mean by that?

TRIMBLE: Something is monotonic when the trajectory is always in the same direction. There are ups and downs. Clearly if we weren't pushing as hard to grow something very, very major, if I had been more conservative, things clearly would have been different. But this is where the complexity of basically the business approach comes into play. We were small, and yet in some respects, we had several different product lines going on. Clearly we had to reallocate resources between the product lines. I can remember having offsites where we looked at what was likely to happen and what we wanted to have happen, and then started focusing on how to close the gaps.

This would be viewed as a high business risk approach to growing something, because not very much has to go wrong for the structure to economically collapse. If it works, it's great. And perhaps it's partially my own failing that I didn't figure out how to have a larger ballast of resources to take care of some of the bumps. But in many respects, even though the company was—well, at that point it was north of $60 million in terms of revenue, and it was growing very, very rapidly. But there weren't all the controls in place to—I mean, we still didn't at that point have a computerized inventory control system. We hadn't yet bought the manufacturing line from the supplier of Pioneer that allowed us to run our prototypes on the same line that we ran our production. So you can say that I probably was following a far more risky strategy and a far more risky approach than sheer prudence would have dictated.

ZIERLER: As you were looking to recover the company in the early to mid 1990s, I'm curious the extent to which the previous acquisition of the navigation systems division of TAU and the New Zealand company Datacom Software Research Limited—in what ways was the acquisition of outside companies important to Trimble Inc.'s overall health in the 1990s?

TRIMBLE: We clearly won, although the New Zealand operation was small, and so winning—it probably represented about a ten—it was less than a 10% factor. Even though it was doing well, certainly the software that was coming out was really important for the GIS market, and certainly the farm club aspect of engineers and managers that could move to the United States was quite positive, it was positive, but not in a self—the thing that made the company, and actually what—it's really the high precision, high accuracy survey/construction market situation that drove the profitability of the company.

The TAU thing, the biggest benefit I got out of the TAU acquisition was a gal by the name of Anne Signer who later was to manage the interface with Washington and did a brilliant job of it. But we never really made any money in the systems business. So no, it was a stepwise improvement of being able to rapidly get position to the sub-centimeter level, and then to get it on a moving platform, and then to be able to guide those platforms. If you can provide the controls to a road grader, you certainly can speed the whole process of putting in a new highway. So really the money that was generated or the growth margin that was generated from the business all came from the activities that went back to the original survey, and frankly the use of the GPS system that was not part of the government's design.

ZIERLER: What new markets were you looking to get into, after the Persian Gulf War?

TRIMBLE: Certainly to move from survey to construction. To the GIS markets. Things like how do you provide the displays that allow people that are running these heavy pieces of equipment over landfills to know that they have run over every square inch of the stuff three or four times in a relatively uniform way. Mining. Turns out that basically picking up the data when the explosives are set off, that crush the rock to basically give an indication of, well, you pick it up during the drilling process so that you know at what levels you're going through ore seams and that sort of thing, and then to be able to use that information to generate the strategies for processing the dirt. It turns out that in high-quality gold mining operations, people are dealing with extracting grams of gold per ton of dirt. So it's a major, major process, and if you can make that more efficient, it works better.

During this whole time, this was when we were realizing and we were actively pursuing the fact that GPS was an information utility. It was a utility that provided you with the ability to time-tag events and to geo-tag features. The GPS receiver design, yes, improved on an annual basis—not an annual basis, but once every 18 months or so—with the IC cycle, but really the utility was in the software. The fact that you could receive the GPS signals and process them allowed you to generate the value in terms of the information that was produced. That was the theme. Precision agriculture. Certainly applications like the docking of North Sea ferries. Dredging. Basically all of the large movable platform markets became accessible.

ZIERLER: When did you first think of stepping down from Trimble Navigation? Do you have a specific memory of when perhaps you were satisfied that you had steered the ship and it was stable and it was time for new pursuits?

TRIMBLE: Well, you're not going to get the story that you expected to get out of this, because I didn't make that decision. The board that I had used for advice decided that it was time for me to go. So I was actually jumped, and I was jumped without warning.

ZIERLER: What were the considerations? Why did they feel this way?

TRIMBLE: Well, there was a frustration that I wasn't growing the market fast enough. I had basically used my board as consultants, and so I had not watched their equities changing over time. The primary cause could very well have been one of these class action suits that hit technology companies. I'm not sure whether they still do with the same frequency or not, but it was a very popular way for lawyers to make money, certainly in the 1990s. We had a major contract with COMSAT. That was a communications satellite provider. It was a big contract that had been announced. It was a $10 million contract. At one point, I noticed that the receivables were getting high, so we pushed on them, and the CFO of COMSAT said, "Well, you can if you want, but we're not going to pay you until this financing goes through." Well, here we're caught between a rock and a hard spot. In one sense, with adverse news, you're supposed to make it public, and in another, anything that we did was clearly going to damage COMSAT.

This, and then during this period, one of my direct reports sold some stock. He was aware that this was going on. This was an absolute no-no. It's an insider transaction. I basically fired him for it, and the penalty, the SEC penalty for doing this is you pay back—I don't remember whether it's all your gains or twice your gains. The deal was I cancelled a substantial number of stock options that he had, to make up this penalty. Anyway, this became the basis of a class action suit, and I had taken the HP attitude towards class action lawyers. I mean, class action lawyers had come after HP, and HP had actually gone to court and defeated them. So I took the approach that I was going to do that.

Unfortunately, the law firm that one of my board members was senior partner on ended up looking like the most attractive defender. I had said to them in the beginning, "All right, we're going to go down this route, and we are not going to settle. This is something we have to win." Because if you settle, all you're doing is setting yourself up for another suit. Anyway, this went on, and I think the law firm got paid for doing all the discovery, didn't get it thrown out on summary judgment, and didn't want to lose on trial. And I really believe that this was behind it. But be that as it may, it happened. Basically, in a single board meeting, the first thing that was done was we had already talked about sooner or later I would agree to having an independent chairman of the board. The first thing they asked was for an independent chairman of the board. Then they proceeded to do what was their right, which is to remove me. That's what happened.

ZIERLER: What were some of the emotions that were going through your mind at this time? Did you feel betrayed? Were you angry? Were you resigned? What were you feeling?

TRIMBLE: I felt incredibly betrayed. I had put 20 years of my life into this thing, where basically all of the resources that I could bring to bear—emotionally, physically, intellectually—had been done, and suddenly it wasn't there. I have vowed that if I am on a board with a founder CEO, I will not allow it to happen to them. Anyway, when I finally decided that all right, it was time to move on, that's when I actually went back to Caltech and started looking in the biotech area, and it's how I got involved with this little biotech startup that I've mentored for a long time. But that's how I truly reentered to the Caltech orb.

ZIERLER: Before we get to the biotech work, I'm curious about the timing of your chairmanship of the U.S. GPS Industry Council. Was this something that became available to you after you left the company, or this was something that you were considering before all of this happened?

TRIMBLE: I believe I was chairman before this all happened. Actually, Trimble had put together this industry council as a communication mechanism between the U.S. government and the industry. It was originally set up right after the Gulf War when the Pentagon was about to throw ITAR export license controls on GPS because GPS proved so valuable in the Gulf War. It was something that we had started. I wasn't the initial chairman. We had somebody else as chairman just simply to garner more support, not monetary but more emotional support. But certainly by 1993, I was chairman and Ann Signer was carrying the load of making it work. The industry council and obviously Trimble played a major, major role in a lot of the unfolding that took place in government policy with regards to GPS.

ZIERLER: I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about the origins of the GPS Industry Council. First of all, is it a quasi-government organization? Does it have any policymaking abilities?

TRIMBLE: No. It's really very simple. When we were told that we were going to be faced with export license controls on GPS—and it turns out Trimble was probably getting somewhere between 25% and 30% of its revenue from overseas. They also told us two more things. They told us that they couldn't talk with a single company; they could only talk with an industry council, and the decision (on export license controls) had to be made within three weeks. So Anne put together an industry council of seven CEOs that had something to do with GPS, and we showed up in a conference room in the Pentagon in ten days, and basically convinced the security people first that the cows were out of the barn. Secondly, we could be useful in terms of protecting technology for the U.S. government. And I guess third, that the way for the U.S. military to maintain the maximum advantage that it had for a satellite system was to get the world to adopt the civilian side of the GPS system, which the military had the keys to screw up.

ZIERLER: What did that mean for you?

TRIMBLE: They had selective availability, so they knew how to basically disable civilian GPS. Now, we knew perfectly well that they couldn't do it, because they couldn't afford to let P code receivers go behind enemy lines, because one of those units might be captured and therefore decoded. So they had to send people behind the lines with C/A code receivers, so they couldn't really screw up the signals. This was an argument that satisfied the people that were really worried about the fact that GPS was supposed to be a military system because the military paid for it. It was slightly embarrassing that the civil side had actually bailed the military out —I'm using harsher words than I would have used at the time—but had bailed the military out in the Gulf War. The industry council basically made sure that the military equities were maintained. We didn't see any reason why the military equities couldn't be maintained. We still would be able to abuse the physics of the signal structure coming out of satellites.

ZIERLER: Who were some of the key government partners in this work to ensure that GPS had the best possible policy outcomes?

TRIMBLE: You would have to ask somebody like Ann Signer for that. Twenty years later, or 30 years later now, what I'm left with was it was a constantly changing cast of characters. The highest-level person—there are some people that I think I remember—there was a fellow by the name of I believe Bob Bell during the Clinton administration that we dealt with, having to do with getting the military to give up on selective availability. First to not use it anymore. I mean, Trimble really didn't care, but to keep the alliance together with people that were making commercial GPS receivers not commercial but consumer GPS receivers, it was important that we always maintain a position of what is good for the industry.

Frankly, it was my intent to drive the price of GPS receivers to zero. This was the best way of protecting the military equity, because it's always hard to compete with a utility; it's almost impossible to compete with a free utility. The fact that GPS was given away for free meant that the Europeans or anybody else could actually charge for their signals, so this truly held up their development, which clearly was to the advantage of the U.S. military.

ZIERLER: Maybe it's an obvious question, but why was it so important to preserve the military's equity?

TRIMBLE: Because they actually did have the control. Actually, when I think of it, I ended up having to work with the top-level civilian leaders in the Pentagon. They were at the assistant secretary of defense level, generally. I also had contact with the secretary of defense. Of course, these people changed over time, but they were the ones that could actually set the policy. There was a group at the colonel level inside the Pentagon that really wanted to offload all civilian usage of GPS to the Europeans. We were constantly fighting them. Anne was a good enough chess player that we actually prevailed.

The other thing we had to go through was again, it was a control issue, the whole idea of user fees. Since there's so many people getting so much benefit out of GPS, shouldn't we be able to set user fees? I had to sell the argument twice and maybe three times that the income tax system that we had in place was probably the most efficient way of collecting money from the productivity increase to society in general. You couldn't actually count the beans but any system that was put together to try to tax individual receivers first of all would benefit foreign manufacturers because they wouldn't have to do it, and Ronald Reagan had already promised the world the civilian signal for free, and so virtually all the money that would be collected on a per-user basis would be absorbed by the bureaucracy to collect it. I did sell that to the GAO twice.

ZIERLER: If you could explain, you've been lauded for your work protecting the GPS spectrum. I wonder on a technical level if you could explain what the GPS spectrum is, and what it means to protect it?

TRIMBLE: The GPS spectrum—the C/A code signal, for example, transmitted as part of the L1 signal, is centered at 1575 MHz. lt is a megahertz wide, and you need more than that. The military signal is 10 megahertz wide, and you need to safety band that. There are two sources of potential interference—adjacent signals and the noise floor itself. So by international agreement a band of frequency (1559 – 1610MHz) had been exclusively allocated by the World Radio Conference to the various national satellite systems (GNSS). The World Radio Conference (WRC) is held by the International Telecommunications Union—a subsidiary of the UN that meets to allocates frequencies on a global basis. Before the early 1990s, it was really a pretty gentlemanly club that debated stuff and allocated things out. It became political when Bill Gates hired two past presidents to go around the world and to offer member country payment of their dues, which allowed them to vote, in trade for a positive vote on a large worldwide satellite system. Of course, this predates all of the stuff that we have with Elon and others like OneWeb in terms of large number low orbit satellite networks. They had locked up a majority of the votes before the start of the WRC. The Brits and the French took this as a complete affront against Inmarsat. But they lost. Retribution was that they were going to take—I think it was 10 megahertz —of the GPS spectrum at the lower end of the GNSS band and give it to Inmarsat. They had already taken stuff out of the high end of the GNSS spectrum for satellite navigation systems, which had pretty much hurt the Russians.

But in any event, so this is what they were going to do. They went around the world, and when we got word that—Ann got word—that disaster was on its way, because they had lined up 47 of the 92 countries that had paid their dues so could vote. We came into this battle with our good allies, Russia, Syria, Tonga, and two others I've forgotten. And so we started the WRC with the vote 47-6. We had to get the issue remanded to study so that we would be able to go back and reset the whole voting thing later. Unfortunately, of course not only England was opposed to us, but Israel, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Japan, all of our traditional allies, the telecommunications departments who had no understanding at all what GPS was or did, had agreed to this thing. In the end we got the issue remanded to study—but not before we got Leslie Clark, the NATO Supreme Allied Commander to place a call to 10 Downing Street with the message: "We are carrying your water in Kosovo, stop screwing with our GPS."

The first part of protecting the spectrum was to keep sections of the spectrum allocated for GNSS from being taken away. The second part had to do with the noise floor. The GPS signals are really very, very faint, and the receivers have been designed frankly to pull signals out of the noise. If you increase the noise floor, you just make the signal-to-noise ratio worse, and you make life much more difficult for your GPS receivers. We went through a series of battles with regards to people that wanted to just use up the noise floor.

Time Domain was the name of a small company—I think they were a front organi…I think they were being supported by some other people, but let's not presume that we can tell that. In 1996, the Telecommunications Act had completely stripped the technical capability out of the Federal Communications Commission, FCC. It was said that you basically ought to be using the technical people in the competing companies that want the telecommunications services. So they had convinced the remaining people at the FCC that—the FCC has been allocating frequency spectrum on the basis of frequency, but there is a whole different thing; there is time domain. And if you go to time domain, you suddenly have more spectrum. Of course, failing to comprehend the fact that there was a French mathematician that had mathematically tied the time and frequency domains together, called Fourier, this was the freebie. So yes, we put a lot of effort into this, certainly in the latter 1990s.

ZIERLER: Switching gears a little bit, I'd like to ask about some of your advisory work during this time. First, you were a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Tell me a little bit about how that came about, and what you did in that role.

TRIMBLE: That was a group that actually was formed at the end of the First World War, lawyers and doctors in New York that were going to try to provide advice to Woodrow Wilson with regards to foreign policy. It has been a member-selected organization ever since then, in much the same way that the National Academies are member-selected. Actually, you have to be nominated. Ann Signer managed this one, and actually it was Bill Buckley who nominated me.

ZIERLER: How did you know Bill Buckley?

TRIMBLE: He found us when we were a small—we were operating out of three basically garages. Now, we had maybe a couple thousand square feet, but there were roll-up doors on each of the three buildings that we were in, in Mountain View. He had found us and he wrote an article about us having to do with Loran-C. That's when he found us originally. Later, I had loaned him one of the very early GPS units for his sail across the Pacific, and for that, I got to receive all of his novels, which actually he's an awfully good writer.

ZIERLER: [laughs] Did this viewpoint on international affairs influence your thinking of the utility of GPS at a global level?

TRIMBLE: No, it worked exactly the opposite. Actually, when we were about a $5 million-a-year company, I hired a vice president of sales who got me into the global arena, and the overseas market was really important to us. No, we had major offices in England and Japan. We were selling $3 million worth of stuff into China for oil exploration. So no, from 1986 on, we clearly were a global company.

ZIERLER: The other advisory work I wanted to ask you about, Charlie, was that for NASA, on the NASA Advisory Council. How did that opportunity come available, and what was some of your work for NASA in that role?

TRIMBLE: I've really got to go back. Because the first time we started getting involved with the U.S. government was when we received word that there was a rider that had been attached to an Armed Forces appropriations bill that called for the U.S. government to limit the accuracy of differential GPS in the Gulf of Mexico to five meters. And that actually is what started our involvement and Ann's involvement with Washington, which went on from then on. It actually was Scot Pace. Scott at the time was assistant secretary of commerce. We were seeing him because of US Trade Representative (USTR) issues and selling into Japan. Then he was very much involved in the major WRC battle and the subsequent rollout where we basically had unanimous approval for maintaining GPS at the following WRC. We ended up basically going around the world getting that. We had saved NASA's bacon, because NASA wanted to use GPS for the shuttle and the space station, but there was no protection for space-based use of GPS. We took care of that problem at WARC for NASA. Anyway, it actually came because of the coup where I was relieved of my duties as president and chairman of Trimble. I was kicked upstairs to vice chairman for a while. But anyway, at that point in time, I am sure it was Scott who got me on the NAC. And actually that was the first time that I had been really involved in that, although I was already a member of the National Academies, and I had been on a couple of different studies, one having to do with government policy towards R&D that Gordon Moore, I believe, was chairing, and another one that had to do with the issue of the space-based employment infrastructure. So I had been involved in those sorts of things.

I'm sure it was Scott who got me nominated onto the NAC. I knew the former NASA Administrator, Dan Goldin, because I had gone to him earlier asking him for advice on politically handling the issue with regards to limiting GPS accuracy in the Gulf. When I described who it was that was behind this, he said, "Well, you have a very difficult problem, because you've stepped into a political minefield." Though this observation wasn't particularly helpful, I did know him, and he knew me, and that probably helped as well.

ZIERLER: What was some of your policy work for NASA? What were some of the things you were involved in?

TRIMBLE: I can't say that I really had any lasting effect. I tried hard to get NASA to publicly acknowledge that space exploration was dangerous. It was rather interesting. At the time NASA was reeling from the PR disaster problem of blowing up a schoolteacher, sending somebody up through the shuttle. That isn't the one, but there was another one that Feynman got involved in. Anyway, there were three of us, an ethicist from the University of California that has to be on the extreme left of the spectrum; a Catholic priest who was a physicist that ran Notre Dame; and myself, that were trying to convince the NASA administration that they should stop maintaining the fiction that space was safe. It should be viewed as very unsafe, as all seminal explorations had been. But there was no way that that was going to percolate through.

The other one, I was hopeful that the number of NASA centers could be shrunk so that it would be possible for more of the budget to go into the programs and less into the administration. But I clearly was unsuccessful on that one as well. So I guess I have to say that my level of success parallels the level of success of people, for example, that ran the FAA and had as their minimal objective completing a freeway from Washington D.C. to Dulles, which one FAA administrator after another failed to be able to accomplish.

ZIERLER: Charlie, if you'll permit me, you have been recognized and celebrated so widely even during this period of time we're talking about. Just to list some of them—you were named Entrepreneur of the Year by Inc. Magazine in 1991, CEO of the year from Financial World magazine, 1996. The IEEE gave you the Kershner Award. You got the Piper General Aviation Award from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. You've been elected to the National Academy of Science and Engineering. The American Electronic Association's Medal of Achievement. The NASA Technology Medal. Even the Golden Gizmo Award from the San Jose Tech Museum. That's a cute one. Of all of the ways that you have been celebrated for your achievements, what stands out in your mind as being both personally meaningful and also technologically and scientifically meaningful? Because so many of these awards are given by your peers in the field.

TRIMBLE: The Man of the Year Award was probably the most prestigious of the awards that I've received. That puts me in the category with Hewlett and Packard and Moore and the luminaries of the Valley. Actually the most recent one, from Caltech, the von Kármán Award—

ZIERLER: That's more recent. I was more in the 1990s and early 2000s mode, but yes.

TRIMBLE: Yeah, I know. That one is most recent, but it also probably is the one that's most important to me.

ZIERLER: Tell me why.

TRIMBLE: Caltech gave it to me.

ZIERLER: [laughs] That's wonderful.

TRIMBLE: By the way, I do have a Distinguished Alumni Award that I got a long time ago, from Caltech.

ZIERLER: And for the same reason, that must also be very special to you.


ZIERLER: Charlie, in our next discussion, we'll pick up in 2002, when you're named a trustee to Caltech. But my last question for today—at the turn of the century, in what ways was the internet and personal computing revolution of the past decade—in what way did that change GPS, from your vantage point?

TRIMBLE: It allowed us to basically combine GPS with communications, the internet but also the cell phone, because those two have become inexorably linked. It was the standardization of communication that when added to the sensor capability of GPS, allowed just a host of new things to be done. We fought for years and years and years with providing relatively simple radio communication tools so that we could use the differential approaches. But now, you not only can have the info flowing one way; you can have it flowing two ways. So the device that the operator is using can couple info that can be collected from GPS with data that is relevant to the job. So those were confluences that were on the horizon, but had finally gotten to the point that they truly could be exploited.

ZIERLER: Charlie, that's a great place to pick up for next time.

[End of recording]

ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Tuesday, September 21st, 2021. Once again, it's my great privilege and honor to be with Charlie Trimble. Charlie, it's great to see you again.

TRIMBLE: It's great to see you, David.

ZIERLER: Charlie, we left last time in the transition period from the late 1990s to the early 2000s. I'd like to ask, as a sort of background to when you are named a trustee of Caltech in 2002, the ways in which you might have increased your interface with Caltech, your opportunities to work with Caltech. How did those things play out as a prelude to you being named a trustee?

TRIMBLE: I had been elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering, and I had received a letter from David Baltimore congratulating me on that. I think it was in 1998, we did a secondary offering. At the time of the secondary offering, I gave Caltech 200,000 shares of Trimble stock. Aside from that, I had supported the GPS division with a factory-cost sale of survey-grade—well, they were better than survey-grade—GPS receivers for monitoring tectonic movements. Those actually had been my involvements with Caltech. I take it back; I had been invited to go to two or three different discovery weekends at Caltech where we were fed a wonderful set of science talks on a variety of subjects. But that actually in the late 1990s preceded the process which ended up with me on the board. Actually, take it back; knowing what I know now, none of that mattered, or very little of it mattered. I'm pretty sure that it was Bill Davidow that brought my name up to the nominating committee. It's the nominating committee that puts names forward for the board to agree to and starts the process of basically approving a new trustee.

ZIERLER: I wonder if you can talk about this opportunity as a two-way street, in the sense that on the one hand of course, it's an enormous honor to be named a trustee. But it is also an opportunity to do something that has been so important to you throughout your professional life and that is, give back to Caltech. I wonder if you can reflect on the two-way nature of this relationship between you and Caltech as a trustee.

TRIMBLE: I believe that I get every bit as much advantage from the relationship as Caltech does. For me personally, getting up close and personal with cutting-edge science is intellectually stimulating. I truly enjoy it. The process of giving back to Caltech in a monetary sense, I had already started doing that, and actually I had been doing it in what was probably a strange fashion, because instead of defining how I wanted my gift to go to Caltech, I truly was looking at it as a standpoint of how do I maximize the tax benefit of giving to Caltech so that Caltech could get the maximum amount that I was going to be able to give. My giving decisions certainly during the 1990s were all directed by the tax issue. Now clearly I wanted to give the money to Caltech, or I wouldn't be trying to save taxes to giving money to Caltech, but I thought it was a really good deal that I was able to give some of the money that I would otherwise have given the government, by giving it to Caltech.

ZIERLER: If you can explain a little further though, once you've decided to give the money to Caltech, why would there be tax implications in terms of specifying how you want it to be used?

TRIMBLE: The only way you can be assured that your money is used the way that you intend for it to be used is to have basically a signed agreement with Caltech in terms of how the money is to be used. My gifts had none of that. It really wasn't until much later that Ed Stolper came across the fact that I had some money that I had given to Caltech for which no use had been specified. Now at that point in time, there was no way that I could from a tax code standpoint—I had no right to unilaterally specify how the money was to be used, so it truly represented an agreement between Caltech and myself of what was going to happen. I perfectly well understood Caltech's equities involved in this sort of thing, and Ed clearly understood my equities involved in wanting the money to go to basically pre-peer-reviewable research, in other words the stuff that professors have a very difficult time getting a grant to start, largely because it is deemed too risky. That's how the relationship really got started.

ZIERLER: There's a big difference, of course, between not specifying how you want the funds to be used, and being disinterested altogether. I'm sure you were following these developments. In the 1990s, as you were starting to give in a significant way, what was some of the research that you made possible at Caltech?

TRIMBLE: Actually, none, because the money was put in a holding account.

ZIERLER: All of it was?

TRIMBLE: Yeah! And it grew. I was a trustee by the time Ed came across this. The amount of money had doubled in the holding account during that period of time.

ZIERLER: Is the holding account tied to the stock market? Is that why it saw such dramatic gains?

TRIMBLE: It was considered quasi-endowment, so it was invested along with the endowment. During those years, the endowment increased by that amount.

ZIERLER: I wonder if you were equal parts frustrated that the money had not been put to immediate use, but at the same time delighted to see it grow by a factor of two?

TRIMBLE: No. I presumed that if somebody had come to me with an absolutely pressing need for some of the money, I'm sure I would have agreed to spend it that way. But that simply never happened. But it was fortunate.

ZIERLER: When Ed Stolper found this out, was it simply a matter of accounting? How did he come across these funds?

TRIMBLE: He certainly was provost at the time, and we're going to have to go back and look at the date, because it's also possible that he was acting president at the time, so he was looking underneath absolutely every rock during that period of time, to make things work at Caltech. So I don't actually know, but—oh, I bet I know what triggered it. In 2003 or 2004 when Cahill finally became a home for the astronomers, that freed up Robinson. [The] Robinson [building] had been promised to a cadre of young professors who had entered and were basically working on global environmental science. Robinson was a real problem, and it was a real problem because it was going to have to go through a complete rehab. Basically, development was saying it's awfully hard to raise money for rehabs. For some reason—yeah, Ed was still provost at the time. I realized that if something couldn't be done to rehab Robinson for the professors that were aimed towards global environmental science, Caltech would have a really tough time keeping those professors, because they were coming up on tenure. The time that professors typically leave Caltech, if they're going to try something else, is right after they get tenure, because once they have tenure at Caltech, they will have tenure anywhere they go.

I think I asked Ed the question, "How do you get the ball rolling with regards to this rehab?" Because the rehab was going to be $25 or $30 million, and there was no way that I could write a check for anything close to that. So Ed gave me a story from Bob Sharp. Ed is always great at stories. He said, well, Bob had told him at one point that if you want to start something, you have to get early money, because early money forces development to add to it, because you can't do anything with the money if you don't do it for that purpose. There was a startup company that was in the process of being sold, and I expected to get a third of a million dollars from the sale of this. But to get things going, I committed the stock to Caltech, and said, "I anticipate about a third of a million dollars from the stock, and if the sale doesn't go through, I'll commit $250,000 of the money that I've already put into Caltech for the rehab of a laboratory for Jess Atkins." Jess Atkins was one of that cadre of professors. I knew perfectly well that they couldn't use the money to rehab a lab for Jess Atkins without rehabbing the entire Robinson. I am sure that this ended up flagging Ed that there was money sitting in a pot.

ZIERLER: Why Atkins of all of the people? What was the connection there?

TRIMBLE: My objective was to trigger the rehab of Robinson and thus protect the emerging Global Environmental Sciences effort. Jess was one of the cadre of young faculty who I had first met when Ed set me up with conversations with about half of the GPS faculty. I knew him, and he's—I could have done it for Tapio, but Tapio was a theorist, not an experimentalist. Jess really is an experimentalist. I got an awful lot of my understanding about the whole global warming issue from Jess. Jess is clearly into that. Now, he's totally on to figuring out how to generate a catalyst to use calcium carbonate rock to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. He's totally absorbed in that as a problem right now. The problem he has is one of scale-up, because the catalysts work at the bench level, but don't appear to scale.

Calcium carbonate is basically naturally what pulls CO2 out of the atmosphere, but it takes thousands of years to do so. What Jess wants to do is to figure out how to catalyze the reaction so that you can speed that process up by five or six orders of magnitude. But Jess wasn't working on that at the time that I offered that. I actually forget what he was working on. This actually was unusual for me because I typically don't use money for facilities. I use money to basically pay for cutting-edge research.

ZIERLER: What's the distinction in your mind between facilities and cutting-edge research? In other words, don't cutting-edge researchers need facilities to do their research?

TRIMBLE: Absolutely. But there are a lot of other buckets of money that can be found for hard assets. Soft assets, which represent people, is really a different story. After going through the first visiting committee, I realized that professors always say that the thing that they need are graduate fellowships. But when money comes into a division, it wasn't being spent on graduate fellowships. It was being spent on things that the division felt really should be pursued but the principal investigator was having a great amount of trouble getting any grant money for. So the common currency from professors was always the graduate fellowships, but I saw the divisions using the money for cutting-edge research. That's what has caused me to focus my attention on cutting-edge research. Now, I agree completely with Tom's strategy of making graduate fellowships a priority of this last campaign.

ZIERLER: You're talking about President Tom Rosenbaum, of course?

TRIMBLE: Yes. It makes all sorts of sense. From a long-term perspective, this is a wonderful way of increasing the endowment. It provides named gifts. The name stays around for a while, and so most development activities center around gifts that can have the donor's name attached to it. The naming right has a great deal of value, in terms of the raising of philanthropic money. In my case, I could care less about that.

ZIERLER: What was Stolper's response or plan after your focus on Jess Atkins?

TRIMBLE: Ed clearly understood my motivations and was "a partner in crime" so to speak. He greatly appreciated that the objective was to leverage something important to the GPS division and Caltech. In the same timeframe I also sought to use money from the fund to help him hold Dianne Newman at the time that Dianne and Jonas were being poached by MIT. They did come back, but at the time, as a last-ditch effort, I offered Dianne a named professorship, which would have taken a major bite out of the fund that I had. Fortunately—well, it wasn't fortunate that she turned me down; it was fortunate that she came back and I didn't have to give it. She has her own named professorship now and is doing quite well.

ZIERLER: What is your connection to Dianne Newman, and what was so compelling about her research?

TRIMBLE: I became familiar with her work first when Ed introduced me to the GPS faculty and was very aware of the success she was having in creating a new field of Geobiology. creating the area of geobiology (for which she and Victoria Orpahn subsequently received a MacArthur award). The whole idea that biomineralization, which is stored in the rock record, actually is a lot of what we have to go on as we go back in early time beyond being able to find bones or seashells. Actually addressing the question of how did life begin and how did it evolve has always been one of the top questions I'm interested in.

ZIERLER: Let's go back to being named trustee. You mentioned David Baltimore. What was your sense more broadly of the decision-making that went into this invitation for you?

TRIMBLE: I had no idea. The face that I saw on the invitation was an invitation from David Baltimore. I now know because I've been on the board what the process is of trustees being added to the board, and there is a committee of the board that filters through lots and lots of names. They submit to the full board names that they are recommending. Assuming the full board agrees, and this is a meeting at which obviously the president is present at, the president makes the invitation. Clearly, it's an honor.

ZIERLER: What did it feel like when you received that invitation?

TRIMBLE: Oh, I felt on top of the world. I didn't know that the latter phases of my life were going to be as affected as they have been, or I still hope they will be, but certainly I viewed it as a great honor to be asked to come back.

ZIERLER: Is there a ceremony, or what is the onboarding process like for a new trustee?

TRIMBLE: It's a lot more formal now than it used to be. It used to be that you showed up at the board meeting. They used to, at least once a year, just before the annual retreat, hold a session the day before for onboarding new trustees. So it's really much more formal now.

ZIERLER: What do you learn in these sessions, in terms of responsibilities, in terms of time commitments, in terms of expectations?

TRIMBLE: First of all, there's nothing that is truly static about the set of expectations, and they do migrate with time, and I have seen some migration. You're fully expected to show up at board meetings and to participate in a couple of different committees and show up at committee meetings. It's now expected that you make an annual contribution to the president's fund. The amount is not specified, but the average contribution is published, and it runs about $25,000 a year, average, for annual giving. You are expected to either provide money during campaigns, either personally or through contacts.

Board members are chosen for a whole bunch of different reasons. Sometimes they're chosen actually with a strong component of the giving aspect in mind. Sometimes they're chosen because they involve diverse opinions or they have specialized knowledge that will contribute to the board. In my case, the fact that I was an undergraduate and an entrepreneur were two of the big non-financial reasons that I was chosen. By the way, I had already made a significant gift to Caltech, so my interest was there. Before becoming a board member, I had gotten the Distinguished Alumni Award, so I had had a bunch of involvement. Board selection is far from being simply focused on financial ability.

ZIERLER: It's such a great opportunity to ask because you were so closely involved in Caltech before you were named a trustee, what details or appreciation did you come to learn about Caltech that never would have been possible if you were not a trustee? What did you see from the inside?

TRIMBLE: I was an undergraduate, and I understood the graduate program in engineering and applied science. But I truly didn't understand how the magic was perpetuated through the faculty, and how the various divisions actually solved the problem in different ways. I've truly come to understand certainly the equities of the faculty, why they come to Caltech in the first place, why they stay at Caltech, and what facilitates really major breakthroughs, and what the difference is between being a faculty member here and being a faculty member at Stanford or Harvard, for example, or MIT.

I never would have understood that, but that wasn't so much because I became a trustee, because I don't think many of the trustees have this level of understanding. This understanding actually came because Ed drew me in as an advisor to GPS, a personal advisor to him as chair of the division. He had me talk with something like half of his faculty. He set up the appointments, and I came down. That's when I first got to know Dianne and Tapio and Jared Leadbetter and Jess Atkins and Alex Sessions, the people that later became important. But understanding that and then being involved with the division during the time of—in the latter years of David Baltimore's tenure, there were people on the board that were unhappy that Caltech really didn't have a balanced budget. They had a bunch of unfunded liabilities that were taken care of on an annual basis by one-time good deals. So there was a great deal of pressure to realign the spending model for Caltech.

I watched at this time the effect that it was having on the faculty. Actually Ken Farley had just become division chair of GPS. I continued to interface with him, because that was the interface that I had had with Ed. I was seeing him pretty regularly as I came on campus. Just listening to him made me realize that he represented a weathervane for how the faculty was feeling. This was the period of time actually when Dianne and Jonas actually left and went to MIT. There was a real question among the faculty, was Caltech too small to have a viable business model?

From my perspective, the small size was an advantage. We could take care of problems with the small size that you couldn't possibly take care of if you were dealing with a University of California or some really large institution. I knew that there wasn't a fundamental problem. Certainly part of my role, and actually I was used in this role by faculty, in terms of, "We're undergoing some change, but this is not a terminal problem." Fortunately, when Jean-Lou [Chameau] came in, he actually understood the economics of higher education. I think I told you once before that to my knowledge, Caltech has a unique process of choosing presidents. The faculty come up with a short list of names, and then a subcommittee of the board negotiates for the president. I think I said before the board I do not believe could have chosen Jean-Lou without the faculty providing that name.

ZIERLER: Meaning that he was just not on the board's radar?

TRIMBLE: No, it isn't so much that, because the board—David was a Nobel Prize winner. Many of the presidents that preceded David were absolutely outstanding scientists. Jean-Lou was an outstanding higher education administrator. He did have a PhD, and he was a professor, but it was civil engineering, and he would not have been rated at the top as a leader for Caltech. But given the faculty chose him as a leader, obviously the board could give a sigh of relief and go for it.

ZIERLER: What was the message from the faculty in terms of Jean-Lou's skill set? What was the faculty looking for, for which Jean-Lou was a top candidate?

TRIMBLE: First of all, I can't tell you, because I don't know. The process of going after a president requires a nationwide search. You amass a list of 100 names, the 100 top people on your wish list. They are all gainfully employed. They are all happy doing what they are doing, so the people on this list are protected from anything that would make their life more difficult where they were. If you want to understand the decision-making behind that, you're going to have to talk to Professor [Dave] Stevenson. He was on the search committee. I'm not privileged to actually—who the people were on the short list, or if Jean-Lou was the top person. But my guess is he was on the list. It's hard for me to understand how he would not—well, before Tom Rosenbaum, and Tom was far too young at that point in time to have been at the top of the list. Tom was a real surprise, because most of us did not believe that we could replace Jean-Lou with somebody that was as effective but really had very, very reasonable scientific credentials.

ZIERLER: What were the main challenges that Jean-Lou inherited?

TRIMBLE: This whole problem of working through the structural deficit that Caltech was facing or was involved in.

ZIERLER: Where was the Moore Foundation's $600 million matching gift? Where did that factor into all of these considerations?

TRIMBLE: The $600 million Moore gift came in obviously during David's tenure, and it wasn't strictly a matching gift. There were many matching aspects to it, but Moore funds did a lot of things including providing tenure funding for the whole geophysical earthquake monitoring thing, tenure funding for information science technology which took place in EAS. Gordon Moore's gift clearly was really, really, really important. It clearly made the capital campaign that David Baltimore was in charge of. If you look at history, Beckman gave a substantial amount of money. Gordon Moore gave a massive gift. Certainly the gift in this last campaign for sustainability, the Resnick gift, was massive.

Usually in campaigns, and you've got to talk to other people because they understand—Bill Davidow understands an awful lot more about campaigns than I do, or the raising of money than I do. What you're looking for in a $2 billion campaign is several $100 million gifts. You're not looking for 500 to a million-dollar gifts. Those are truly rare. And yes, they do make a huge difference. They're not given in the same way that I gave my 200,000 shares of Trimble stock, but they are used very, very well.

ZIERLER: Why do you say it's different?

TRIMBLE: Oh, they have a deal. They have a set of deals. There are really pretty complex contracts.

ZIERLER: Whereas with yours, you're saying no strings attached.

TRIMBLE: Well, it turns out there were no legal strings attached. If there are strings it only stems from the fact that Caltech wants to make a donor happy while maximizing value for Caltech. They will work very, very hard to work with a donor to fashion the gift so that the doner get a great deal of enjoyment out of it, and Caltech gets a great deal of value out of it. I think the best example of this that I know of has to do with the Robotics Center (CAST) and especially the activity around autonomous drones. Roger Stanbach (the GPS Chair Council member who gave $5 million to make the Robinson rehab platinum [Leed certified] instead of gold) really wanted to give a major gift to Caltech so that the Institute could get value from the technology it was developing. Mory Gharib, a very innovative aeronautics faculty member worked with Roger to define a center for research and teaching that highlighted a drone atrium. This facility attracted students and faculty from across campus. It is now a major strength for Caltech and has spawned multiple start-ups.

Certainly while I know my value with regards to the board comes both from my understanding of the equities of students and professors, and increasingly those of postdocs as well—undergraduates, graduates, postdocs, and professors—there are others that understand a lot more about managing the endowment and the raising of money on capital campaigns. Those are certainly not areas that I offer any guidance on. There are people that are really good at that. Certainly in the last ten years, there have been a substantial number of extremely strong women that have been added to the board. They're important not only from the diversity issue but they bring skill sets that many of us don't have.

ZIERLER: A broad question about campaigns and their goals—not so much a nuts and bolts question, because I know that's not your area of expertise. But in terms of the motivations, as these things are being set out, what aspects of capital campaigns are simply about keeping the lights on, and what aspects of the campaigns are about growth and moving into new areas of research?

TRIMBLE: It's virtually all the latter. As a board, we recognize that to be in a secure space from an ongoing standpoint, we need an endowment which is five, six billion dollars. We're sitting at roughly three and a half. During the bottom of the current campaign, we were at 1.7. So yes, there is an aspect of the campaign that seeks to add money to the endowment to increase that, because Caltech from a business model standpoint is actually vulnerable to federal R&D spending. A larger proportion of the research budget at Caltech comes from the federal government than it does at our peer institutions. In general, they have stronger endowments. So yes, there is some of it for what we're doing, but generally speaking, as the campus coalesces on a set of campaign objectives, it is a campus wide activity, and the priorities are placed on things that are considered most important.

For example, in the last campaign, I think the highest priority item was the neuro center, the Chen neuro center. But most of the divisions had something near the top of the set of priorities. Certainly Tom's priority of—I think it was 400 graduate fellowships—was certainly a big part. The $100 million that the Moore Foundation gave without strings was applied to a matching program for graduate fellowships. Now, not all divisions—sometimes buildings are important, and certainly the neuro center was there. But this campaign, the priority was much more heavily on increasing the endowment. Frankly, it's harder to raise money for endowment than it is for buildings.

ZIERLER: Buildings, you get to put your name on it, is the idea.


ZIERLER: Jean-Lou Chameau was recognized during his tenure for increasing Caltech's involvement in quote-unquote "real world problems" like sustainability and medicine and things like that. Does that accord with your broader appreciation? In other words, was Caltech really not as involved in these areas prior to his tenure?

TRIMBLE: There was definitely a shift towards the solution of real-world problems, but that in part was driven by the fact that it's easier to raise money for real-world problems than it is to raise money for basic research. And yes, that trend has continued. I find myself tipping towards supporting basic research more than I'm supporting the solution of real-world problems for which there are customers. There are real-world problems for which there are not customers. This climate modeling thing was a good example.

ZIERLER: In a sense, we're all customers for that.

TRIMBLE: Yeah, I know, but by customer—or should I say customers with money.

ZIERLER: [laughs]

TRIMBLE: Certainly that trend has continued. If you look at all of our peer institutions, Caltech's bias towards the natural sciences is definitely the greatest. Our nearest model, MIT, engineering is in the front of the bus, and science is in the back of the bus. At Caltech, science still is in the front of the bus.

ZIERLER: What's the takeaway there? What do you derive from that?

TRIMBLE: Going forward, Caltech needs to exercise care in continuing to support basic science for which there is no immediate application. Because it's the basic science that turns into applied science that turns into solutions. In many ways, science and technology are done differently in each one of the scientific divisions. I'm separating out the humanities division as not being in the same group. Now, if we're talking about basic versus applied, some of what's being done in applied math right now has to be viewed as basic, because as opposed to figuring out how to use the physics of the real world, it is figuring out how to optimize computation in the solution of problems. The math that was associated in working with the closed form equations that were developed over the last three centuries is actually very different from the mathematics that you need to optimize computational resources. Obviously the computational resources themselves are an issue which are subject to evolution and change. So you can say that the applied physics that is associated with some of that stuff is also basic from an EAS standpoint. On the other hand, you can say that climate science and climate modeling is really the closest thing that the GPS division has to engineering.

ZIERLER: I wonder if you can explain the flow of decision-making, where these very broad-scale strategic questions about the direction of the Institute and the resources that should be put into basic science versus applied research—how, organizationally and even administratively, does the board discuss these things, and then how do they filter down to the day-to-day operations of Caltech, of the work that the professors are doing in terms of hiring? How does this flow of information work?

TRIMBLE: First of all, the board is not involved in that discussion. That is clearly the purview of the provost, division chairs, and faculty. To some extent, the drivers have a lot to do with division chairs. They have to do with division chairs because basically the administration is going to support anything that a significant segment of faculty are really interested in doing. Admittedly, what the faculty does is in part dependent on where they can find money, and this has to do with the grant proposal system, and it has to do with internal funds that allow things to start. But basically any time you can get ten or more professors interested in the same thing, the provost and the president are happy to throw support that way.

The faculty chooses its own. There is veto power both at the division level and at the provost level, but it is rarely used. The provost is the one that actually controls the allocation of new spots or offers, so the system can be a bit warped by what the provost is willing to do if you find a once-in-a-generation level young faculty member, or a faculty prospect, that you want to hire. I'm not saying that every faculty hire is a once-in-generation, but a surprising number of them are right now, because the number of tenured professors is arguably above the long-term cap, and yet hiring does continue.

ZIERLER: What determines that cap?

TRIMBLE: The provost. Well, I'm not sure. It's a historical number. It could be a board decision. During my tenure on the board, which is 20 years, it has never been discussed, other than the fact that it is there. Tom Rosenbaum basically laid out the goal, and the goal is for Caltech to be the destination of choice for the most promising students and the brightest faculty.

ZIERLER: This requires money in two regards—one to make applying blind towards need, so that nobody will be rejected because they can't pay.

TRIMBLE: No one will be rejected because they cannot be supported. You're hitting on one of my hot buttons. The definition of need-blind is not uniform among our peers. Caltech is slightly but not overly less generous than all of our peers. It turns out this one is a very hard problem, because tuition is something that is paid for by grant proposals, and so lowering tuition—and tuition has to be uniform—lowering tuition cuts down on the size of the grant. It's clearly a difficult issue. But yes, no one should be unable to attend Caltech because of money. You might choose to go to MIT or Princeton or Stanford because you got a little better offer. But certainly the selection process is not done with any visibility towards the ability of the prospective student to pay.

ZIERLER: That's the student side of things. But in fulfilling Tom's mandate on the professor side—

TRIMBLE: No, that's a different—on the professor side, Caltech actually has a hiring process, which gives it an advantage in hiring. It does have some disadvantages that I'll discuss, but Caltech is looking for young researchers for professorships. When Caltech makes an offer to someone, Caltech presumes that they will be able to achieve tenure. Tenure is not used in the process of selecting professors, so roughly 80% of the young assistant professors who join Caltech make tenure. That's much higher than any of our peer institutions. Furthermore, Caltech will outfit them with any lab that they think they need to do their best work. That means they will invest between two and sometimes more than $10 million to set up the facilities for the incoming professor.

ZIERLER: What you're saying is that Caltech grooms its assistant professors to succeed? It's built for success.

TRIMBLE: Absolutely. Caltech is an incredibly attractive place for young professors to come. Now, the disadvantage has to do with the two-body problem. Caltech is often not able to offer the spouse a good enough situation, either inside of Caltech or with some of the institutions in the L.A. area that we have relationships with.

ZIERLER: This is just a function of Caltech being small and there are only so many opportunities.


ZIERLER: In a way that a Harvard or a Stanford has many more connections in that regard.

TRIMBLE: Yeah. Boston is a lot closer together and there's an awful lot more academia around Boston than there is around Pasadena or even Los Angeles.

ZIERLER: To get back to the original question about overall strategy, are these issues that the board is engaged in, in terms of making Caltech as attractive a place as possible, for the best researchers?

TRIMBLE: The board takes seriously its governance roles with respect to DEI, student experience, fiscal management and alumni relations. Clearly what the board and board members' function is to help sell the ideas, because clearly these are things that cost money. You basically have to raise money to accomplish these things. I can't believe that any trustee would ever think that it was in their toolset to suggest research or a research direction.

ZIERLER: It's beyond their purview is what you're saying.

TRIMBLE: Yeah, it's beyond their purview. However, we will work very hard to help them sell what they firmly believe.

ZIERLER: Tell me about the annual retreats. Does this tradition go back before your tenure?

TRIMBLE: Oh, a long time before my tenure. It used to be something that was I almost want to say a bit folksy and campy. They used to be held at Smoke Tree Ranch, which is in California, not all that far from Palm Springs. It's in the desert. The rooms were basically wooden bungalows in a very rural desert environment. It wasn't dirty, but it wasn't posh.

Now, what has happened is the retreats that aren't held on campus, and usually they'll hold one on campus at the beginning of a campaign. But if they're not held on campus, which they don't like to do, they're held in places—for example, this year it's at the Ritz Carlton in Orange County on the coast. It could be at the Biltmore Hotel in Santa Barbara. Basically truly very, very nice. I guess what you would say—many of the trustees could care less. The only benefit actually is for Caltech faculty and staff that probably wouldn't ever live this way. That's not saying that many of us would choose to spend our money this way, but you see what I mean.

The annual retreat, there are three classes of trustee. There are the official trustees under the charter of the State of California, and there are 45 of those. There are senior trustees. Now, these are trustees who are 72 years of age and older, but other than the age, and so that younger trustees can be added to the official set—you can still be committee chairman. We don't really vote. There have only been a couple of issues; in fact there has only been one—they've all had to do with the same thing, but there has only been one real issue where there was a vote. Generally speaking, if a trustee questions something—it usually isn't on the forefront, but something that the administration has decided to do, and brings it up at a board meeting, there is a discussion, and it's generally resolved. It's virtually always resolved. It's fundamentally a consensus.

There is a third class of trustee which is life trustees. Oh, and the senior trustees are expected to do all the things that regular trustees are doing—the giving, the committees, attending all the meetings. The life members are offered attendance at the annual retreat.

ZIERLER: What has been the value of it to you, over the years?

TRIMBLE: My excuse for being on campus, and therefore my excuse for setting up appointments with professors to find out what they're doing, and to uncover things that I find really exciting in terms of high-risk research.

ZIERLER: So it's a great opportunity for you to be even more connected?

TRIMBLE: You better believe it!

ZIERLER: Charlie, to bring our conversation right up to the present, a question we're all dealing with and still dealing with—in your estimation, how has Caltech dealt with the pandemic overall? In what areas has it proved to be nimble? In what areas was it caught flat-footed? In what areas does it provide an opportunity, in a strategic sense, looking to the future?

TRIMBLE: Caltech was not caught flat-footed. The constraints that Caltech were under were largely constraints that were driven from L.A. County Health, and to a secondary extent, Pasadena Health [Pasadena Department of Public Health]. Caltech was in my opinion overly constrained by political forces that wanted to protect people against institutions that weren't going to be as careful and thoughtful of how to maintain a safe community. Given these constraints, I would say that they actually did very, very well.

There's a cohort of students who in my mind were denied some experiences that were rightfully theirs, but I don't lay that at the feet of Caltech for it happening. From the very beginning, Caltech put very substantial effort into looking for long-term solutions for the class of coronavirus problems. I'll know a lot more after my visit next month how far that has gotten, but I know in the very beginning, Steve Mayo started collaborating with Barbara Bjorkman. Steve, before he was division chair, was one of the preeminent people in molecular biology. I imagine that there are insights there that certainly aren't newsworthy yet but have the potential of being important.

ZIERLER: You've had the good fortune of being on the Board of Trustees during a time when many faculty members and alumni were awarded the Nobel Prize. From your vantage point as a trustee, what does that mean for Caltech?

TRIMBLE: Well, the Nobel Prize count is truly significant for Caltech. Bill Davidow at one point said, "If you look at the number of Nobel prizes that Caltech has received, if you endow a named professorship, you have roughly a 20% chance of ending up with somebody who will win a Nobel Prize. Now, I think that's a pretty significant sales pitch to the right sort of people.

ZIERLER: [laughs]

TRIMBLE: It's something to that effect.

ZIERLER: In recent years, like when Kip Thorne and Barry Barish won in 2017, or Frances Arnold in 2018, what is the atmosphere like? What does the board do in recognition of these tremendous honors?

TRIMBLE: The recognition issue that is truly important to the faculty and the school comes from the school response. Clearly the board members with their presence at the celebrations underscore how important we think all of this activity is. But it is truly a joyous event on campus when this sort of thing comes about. The Nobel Prize gets an awful lot of press, but there are many other prizes that Caltech faculty win that are highly prestigious and may very well come with more research money.

ZIERLER: That's right. Like the Breakthrough Prize, the cash value is remarkable.

TRIMBLE: What's the one—I want to say Fairchild, but I don't think that's quite right. It turns out Dianne Newman and Victoria Orphan got it one year. Sarkis has gotten it. These are pretty significant. And the prizes for mathematics are there. There is no Nobel Prize in Earth science, but John Grotzinger is pretty highly honored, as he should be. Caltech is a campus where division chairs are generally speaking truly top-notch scientists. They're willing to do the job for ten years and then they go back to research, and they're perfectly happy to do that. That also is usually what happens with provosts. In most other institutions, the provost is a steppingstone to becoming a president somewhere else.

ZIERLER: But not here. That's generally not the pattern here?

TRIMBLE: No, it isn't the pattern. There clearly are exceptions, but it isn't the pattern.

ZIERLER: Any idea why? What explains that?

TRIMBLE: My guess is that part of the magic of Caltech is that the faculty that has been assembled is innately curious and interested in uncovering knowledge, and that those things are more important than economic status. Basically, as a full professor, you're clearly upper middle class, but you're not rich. Even if your spouse is also a professor, you might qualify for the top 1% but you're not really rich. You're certainly comfortable. But things, physical things, aren't what's really important to these people.

ZIERLER: You've got into the wrong business if that's what's important to you.

TRIMBLE: Yeah, it really is.

ZIERLER: Just to bring our conversation right up to the present, for you, what are the issues of greatest import at Caltech right now, across the board? In terms of the science, in terms of the administration, in terms of Caltech's larger role in society, what's most important to you?

TRIMBLE: I'm not sure that I can give you a sound bite that's going to satisfy you on that question. I can tell you what I am just starting to do. I have a list of 18 faculty names, and I have one-hour time slots from noon Wednesday through 4:00 Friday that I am intending to fit those names into. My attempt that week, the second week of October, is to get a feel for where Caltech and the research patterns and problems are, so that I can start the process of thinking how to allocate funds for high-risk research.

ZIERLER: Do you consider this above and beyond the call of duty in terms of expectations for board members? Is this an extracurricular activity that's unique to you?

TRIMBLE: Oh, it's clearly an extracurricular activity. If you look at the last campaign, board members supplied, what, half the total amount of money that came in from the campaign? I didn't give money in a single block. Aside from the allocation of the fund that I work with, with the provost, I have very substantial annual giving, so I certainly am a member of the million-plus club for giving during the last campaign. But my money is given on an annual basis. With the exception of a couple of other board members that were also students at Caltech, no board member has the range of contacts that I have with faculty. And that clearly is extracurricular.

ZIERLER: It's also, if I might just editorialize, it's probably a way for you to go in a time machine and be an undergraduate all over again and soak up all of the brilliance on campus, just like you did many years ago.

TRIMBLE: Yeah, except it's more like being getting an accelerated view of what grad students see as they work towards a PhD, the difference being that I can follow several dozen threads simultaneously.

ZIERLER: [laughs] Charlie, now that we've worked up to the present, it's with a touch of sadness I think that I can say we're moving toward the conclusion of all of these wonderful interview sessions. For the conclusion to these discussions, I'd like to ask some very broad retrospective questions about your career, about your dedication to Caltech, and then we'll end up with some questions looking to the future. First, one that will tie your current interest in supporting high-risk research really to the origin story of your own education at Caltech, and that is, where do you see your odyssey in engineering, in navigation, in the building of the company—where do you see your own place in this concept of Caltech is the premier institution to serve as an incubator for high-risk ideas that will ultimately yield applied research and then finally solutions for the real world? How do you connect all of those things?

TRIMBLE: Clearly what Caltech gave me was a fundamental foundation in science, and the approach to solving impossibly difficult problems. That's actually what set me off, and certainly the path that I took was not the path that I had programmed. The question that you're always asked is, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" My answer has always been, "I don't know. But what I want to do is prepare myself so that at any point in time, I can take a path that is different than the one that I'm on."

ZIERLER: Caltech has given you both the tools and the opportunities to do just that.

TRIMBLE: Yeah, it really did. Part of it goes back to the boot camp aspect of the first two years and basically understanding yourself and understanding what you have to work with. Because we're never faced with a blank slate. We have the illusion of a blank slate, but we're programmed, and we don't actually know what the program is.

ZIERLER: Exactly on that point, if you reflect on your career and the idea that paths are never perfectly planned, what did you learn and how did you come out stronger as a result of leaving Trimble Navigation not on your terms?

TRIMBLE: Actually I got to do a lot of things that are a heck of a lot more fun.

ZIERLER: [laughs] So it's a blessing, actually, in the end.

TRIMBLE: Yeah, there's no question that it's a blessing. There's no question. If I were still there—first of all, I wouldn't still be there, because I'm too old to still be there. But given that I had continued for another 15, 20 years, materially I might have been—well in all probability—come on, I would have been richer, But richer in material things and the assets which can be turned into material things. But I would be an awful lot poorer with regards to ideas and understanding, and I would have had an awful lot less fun.

ZIERLER: Did it take you some time to come to that realization, or the day after you left the company, this was already apparent to you?

TRIMBLE: You don't go through that class of shock with seeing that you have truly moved from hell to heaven. No, that comes over time. But it also comes about from the fact that the issue isn't so much the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. It's really you are where you are, and what are you going to do about it now, and how are you going to move forward, and what do you want to do. Today is the first day of the rest of your life. What do you want to do for the rest of your life? And this is an awareness that I think is pretty fundamental. It doesn't do any good to ruminate about what might have been. Certainly I know a lot of what-might-have-beens, but that doesn't change the current situation, and it certainly doesn't help in terms of finding what is the most meaningful activities that you can get yourself involved in.

ZIERLER: Of all of the levels of satisfaction that you can derive in creating Trimble Navigation, from the reward coming from a major risk, to the way that you produced products that have real-world impacts, what sticks out in your memory? What's most important to you as you review your legacy?

TRIMBLE: There are two things. One was really engineering. Basically, inventing the approach for a digital-based GPS receiver that could be iterated n times. That, from a technology standpoint, was a true high. That was an invention. The other was the emerging awareness that what we were dealing with, with GPS, was an information utility, not a radio receiver, and that it was the utility that had value, and the receiver was an enabler that let you get at the information, which then had to be used by people. So I actually got two. No, I had a third one—Desert Storm. I'm really proud of what we did for Desert Storm.

ZIERLER: And that's as a patriot, as a citizen?


ZIERLER: At the most elemental level, how do you understand Trimble Navigation as a Caltech story?

TRIMBLE: It's a Caltech story because one of the fundamental things that we learned is you don't have to understand how to solve a problem to attack it. That clearly was what I did with regards to getting involved in GPS. I not only succeeded in pulling together a working receiver; I succeeded in pulling together an approach which drove the cost of the GPS receiver to zero. That was fundamental in terms of getting it established as a standard. So there was no way when I took on the challenge that I had any clear vision as to what was going to come out. I knew several attributes that had to be there, but how to get there was not something that—and that's Caltech. It's the fearlessness to attack really very fundamental problems, with the belief that you may actually be able to solve some of them.

ZIERLER: In light of the ubiquitousness of GPS, the way that it is woven into the daily fabric of our lives, inevitably that means that we really take it for granted. That it's mistakenly regarded as something that has always been there or is somehow a utility that appears by magic. You're a humble person, and I know your motivations are not for attaching your own name to these advances. But what would you want people to appreciate more than anything else about the existence of GPS, about how it came about?

TRIMBLE: In some respects, my role in GPS had a lot to do with timing, and when I got involved, because the fundamental design of the satellite system was generated by the government. Brad Parkinson who led the Joint Program Office had an awful lot to do with how the system was designed. At the time, the constraints on the system were the beliefs in terms of what was reasonably possible. For example, the frequency of the L1 signal is the—the GPS signal has to be coming down at a water hole, i.e. a hole in the spectrum where water does not absorb the energy. This particular band was the highest frequency that they thought could be used because of the availability of the technology.

I just happened to come up with a digital—I didn't just happen; I came up with—a digital approach which solved the problem, but if I hadn't done it, ten years, 15 years later, it would have been an awful lot easier. Many of the things that we had to do, like having five game computers run a receiver, you wouldn't need, because the microprocessors would be powerful enough, and the integrated circuits would be much more not only available, but the access to them would have been an awful lot easier.

It turns out that invention in things involving electrical engineering are usually superseded by newer technology later. In biology, you may have found the one way to accomplish something, and so your patent has extreme time value. But patents in the electrical engineering domain, unless you're talking about something really, really fundamental, generally don't maintain value for 20 years, because technology has moved to the point where you can solve the problem an easier way. So I was lucky. I feel very satisfied with the course that my life has taken. But I'm not in the class of da Vinci, or I can name lots and lots of people who have truly affected the world. I think of a line from Shakespeare—"Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more."

ZIERLER: [laughs] As a way to tie it all together, of your experiences with Caltech, to the extent that you appreciate the undergraduate experience today circa 2021, for that freshman entering the Institute for the first time, and to harken all the way back to when you did that, what is the same, and what is different?

TRIMBLE: The tools are clearly different. I went through Caltech with a ten-inch slide rule. Absolutely no access to computers. I can't imagine an entering freshman that doesn't know Python. So the tools are different, and the centroid of knowledge which is going to be useful has shifted somewhat. Basically the physical world was all tied up with physics, and theoretical mathematics was absolutely key for the development of the next step in physics. Engineering as a discipline was just evolving at Caltech. There is no way that I could have, in the modern parlance, considered myself an engineer when I graduated with a master's degree. But in many other senses, it is the same, because it's the breadth of approaches to problem-solving, and the technique of problem-solving itself, that is more important, I want to say, than the content of the courses. The content basically provides you with the real-world problems in which to hone your skill at problem solving, as opposed to fundamental knowledge that is going to be key to you later on. Certainly I would recommend to any entering student that they should take an easy minor in computer science, because that's a nice label to attach to your degree, but they should get their degree in some specific option other than computer science.

ZIERLER: Why is that so important?

TRIMBLE: They will end up with an awful lot of computer science as they go through that is relevant to problem-solving, but it turns out that it's a real disadvantage certainly as an undergraduate to end up with exclusive training in sets that are all—do I want to say theory software. Basically find something that you're interested in, and make that a subject that is different from computer science, and yet definitely have all the basics of computer science.

ZIERLER: Which is really fundamentally not all that different than the advice you received when you were an undergraduate.

TRIMBLE: Yeah, it was applied math. And the applied math of course isn't all that applicable to the current world. It is very applicable to my understanding of why computational resource is one of the limiting factors that people are going to be facing going forward.

ZIERLER: Charlie, last question looking to the future. In light of the fact that, as you say, today is the first day of the rest of your life, and that the question about what you want to do when you grow up is applicable is 20, 40, 60, 80 and beyond, for you, what's left to accomplish? What's most important to you as you look to the future?

TRIMBLE: The most important thing is to continue on the quest for fundamental knowledge. Thinking of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, I'm clearly in the self-actualization stage right now, and I don't need to worry about anything else.

ZIERLER: [laughs] Well put, Charlie. Well, I want to thank you so deeply for spending all of this time with me, for so generously providing a wealth of perspective and insight over the course of your career, and really demonstrating at a deeply personal and fundamental level just what a special place Caltech is. If you'll let me editorialize, chapter headings in all of these discussions, if you will, have been about the individuals at Caltech that opened up all of these opportunities. And while I won't name names, I know for a fact that just as you have those people in your life, there are people who look at you in the same way. That's a testament to your dedication, it's a testament to your generosity, and it's a testament to the idea of the importance of what Caltech has done for you, your recognition of that, and how you've given back accordingly. So with that, I'd like to thank you so much for this, Charlie.

TRIMBLE: David, thank you very much.