Sigurd and Russell Varian were born in Ireland near the turn of the century, and grew up in Northern California. Their father was a poet and a masseur, who lectured in a theosophist community and encouraged his boys’ creativity. Both boys were interested in electricity and its properties. Russell attended Stanford but struggled to find work after graduation. Sigurd briefly attended Cal Poly but dropped out to become a pilot and aviator. While Russell kept notebooks of theoretical problems and their solutions, Sigurd understood materials and built Russell’s inventions. They made a good team, but struggled to find financing. In 1937 they contracted with Stanford for $100 to work with the Physics Department and Dr. Bill Hansen to develop a microwave-based tube which might be useful for blind landing of planes and early radar detection. Their contract called for a sharing of the patent and proceeds of any design that was successful.
This partnership resulted in the klystron tube. Russell’s breakthrough insight was the idea that electrons might be modulated and “bunched” while traveling in the same direction. This technology led to early radar in WW2 and was said to have been instrumental in winning the Battle of Britain for the Allies.
In 1948 Varian Associates was founded in San Carlos, California for commercial applications of the klystron tube. The company did not accept outside financing and offered its employees ownership through stock purchase plans.
Later the company developed devices for radiation therapy, nuclear magnetic resonance (including MRI), spectrometers, and electromagnets. In 1952 Varian Associates became the first tenant in the newly available Stanford Industrial Park in Palo Alto.
The Klystron Tube became the first of other variations leading to Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC), a 2-mile long linear accelerator built on Stanford property in 1962.
Today you can see a model of the original Klystron Tube in Stanford’s Nanotechnology Building in the Science and Engineering Quad. Varian Medical (one of the descendants of the original Varian Associates) is still located in the Stanford Industrial Park.