Terman, Frederick Emmons, 1900-1982

Alternative names
Birth 1900-06-07
Death 1982-11-19

Biographical notes:

Engineer and educator. Frederick Emmons Terman began his teaching career at Stanford in 1925 and became a full professor in 1937. In 1937, he also became head of the Electrical Engineering Department. As dean of the School of Engineering (1945-1960) and as Provost (1955-1965) and Vice-President (1959-1965) of the University, Terman played a key role in developing University faculty, research facilities and funding. He interrupted his Stanford career during World War II to direct the Harvard Radio Research Laboratory (1942-1946). Born in English, Indiana on June 7, 1900, Terman came to Stanford, California when his father, Lewis Madison Terman became professor of psychology and education at Stanford University in 1910. He graduated from Stanford University in 1920 with a degree in chemistry and obtained an additional degree in electrical engineering at Stanford before attending M.I.T. for graduate study. Terman completed his doctorate in electrical engineering at M.I.T. in 1924.

From the description of Frederick Emmons Terman papers, 1920-1978. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 462019678

Biographical Chronology

  • 1900: Born in English, Indiana on June 7, son of Lewis Madison and Anna Belle Minton Terman.
  • 1905: Moves with family from Indiana to California.
  • 1910: Settles permanently at Stanford when Lewis Terman joins Stanford Education Department faculty.
  • 1914: Begins experimenting with radio as a "ham" operator.
  • 1920: A.B. in Chemistry from Stanford University.
  • 1922: Engineer's Degree in Electrical Engineering from Stanford.
  • 1924: Sc.D. degree in Electrical Engineering from M.I.T. Offered teaching position at M.I.T., but because of first onset of tuberculosis, declines appointment.
  • 1925: Begins half-time teaching in Stanford E. E. Department.
  • 1926: Begins full-time teaching at Stanford.
  • 1927: Appointed Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering. Co-authors Transmission Line Theory with W. S. Franklin.
  • 1928: Marries Sibyl Walcutt, graduate student in psychology, on March 22.
  • 1929: Birth of Frederick Walcutt Terman, March 10.
  • 1930: Appointed Associate Progessor of Electrical Engineering.
  • 1931: Birth of Terrence Christopher Terman, September 3.
  • 1932: Publishes book, Radio Engineering.
  • 1935: Publishes Measurement in Radio Engineering.
  • 1935: Birth of Lewis Madison Terman, August 26.
  • 1937: Becomes full professor and Executive Head of Electrical Engineering Department.
  • 1938: Publishes-Fundamentals of Radio.
  • 1940: Publishes Radio and Vacuum Tube Theory.
  • 1941: Elected President of the Institute of Radio Engineers.
  • 1942 - 45 : Director of the Harvard Radio Research Laboratory, engaged in military research on radar countermeasures.
  • 1943: Publishes Radio Engineers's Handbook.
  • 1944: Appointed Dean of Stanford's School of Engineering, succeeding Samuel B. Morris.
  • 1945: Awarded honorary Sc-D. from Harvard University.
  • 1946: Decorated by the British government for wartime research. Elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
  • 1948: Receives Presidential Medal of Merit.
  • 1950: Awarded Medal of Honor by the Institute of Radio Engineers.
  • 1952: Co-authors Electronic Measurements with Joseph M. Pettit.
  • 1953: Elected chairman of the Engineering Section of the National Academy of Sciences.
  • 1955 - 65 : Provost of Stanford University.
  • 1959 - 65 : Vice-President of Stanford.
  • 1964: Acting President of Stanford University, February to August.
  • 1965: Becomes Emeritus, August 31.
  • 1965: Engineering Building 500 named the Frederick Emmons Terman Laboratory.
  • 1965: Receives "Distinguished Citizen's Award" from the city of Palo Alto.
  • 1965: Tours U.S.S.R. as a member of three-man delegation sponsored by U.S. Office of Education to study scientific and engineering education in Russia.
  • 1970: Receives Stanford Alumni Association's Herbert Hoover Medal for Distinguished Service.
  • 1973: Elected President of the Society of the Sigma Xi.
  • 1975: Death of Sibyl Terman on July 23. 1975 Awarded Korea's Order of Civil Merit Medal by President Chung-hee Park.
  • 1976: Receives National Medal of Science from President Gerald Ford.
  • 1977: Donates his campus home to the University to establish educational research fund in honor of his late wife, Sibyl Walcutt Terman.
  • 1977: Frederick Emmons Terman Engineering Center dedicated October 6.
  • 1978: Receives Stanford Associates Uncommon Man Award.
  • 1982: Died at his home on the Stanford Campus, December 19, 1982.

Professional and Fraternal Affiliations

FREDERICK E. TERMAN PROFESSIONAL AND FRATERNAL AFFILIATIONS American Association for the Advancement of Science. American Institute of Electrical Engineering (now IEEE). Fellow. American Philosophical Society. American Society for Engineering Education. Vice-President and Chairman of Administrative Council, 1949-51. Lamme Medal, 1964. Honorary Member, 1966. "Hall of Fame," 1968. Ampex Corporation. Board of Directors, 1953-64. Army Advisory Committee on Contractual and Administrative Procedures for Research and Development, 1948. Army Electronics Proving Ground. Advisory Council, 1954-57. Audio Engineering Society. Honorary member, 1955. California Academy of Sciences. Fellow. California Co-ordinating Council for Higher Education. Consultant, 1967-68. Colorado Commission on Higher Education. Consultant, 1966-67; 1970. Committee on Higher Education in the State of New York. Consultant, 1960. Defense Science Board, 1957-58. Department of Commerce Industrial Research and Development Division. Consultant, 1946-47. Patent Panel, 1963. Department of Defense. Special Technical Advisory Group, 1950-53. T.A.P.E.C. Committee, 1953-56. Dreyfus Foundation. Chairman, Special Advisory Committee to Trustees, 1969- Eta Kappa Nu. Granger Associates. Board of Directors, 1963- Harvard University. Visiting Committee, 1970- Harvard Radio Research Laboratory. Director, 1942-45. Hewlett-Packard Company. Board of Directors, 1957-73. Director Emeritus, 1973- Industry Committee for a Graduate Center for Science and Technology in New Jersey. Consultant, 1955-66 Institute for Defense Analysis. Trustee, 1965-73. Institute for Science and Technology (New Jersey). Executive Committee, 1966-68. Institute of Radio Engineers (now IEEE) Director, 1940-43. Vice-President, 1940. President, 1941. Medal of Honor, 1950. Founder's Award, 1962. Korean Institute for Advanced Science. Trustee, 1973. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Visiting Committee, 1970- National Academy of Engineering. Founding member. National Academy of Sciences. Ad Hoc Committee on Tests of Battery Additives, 1953-54. Chairman, Engineering Section, 1953-56. Council, 1956-59. National Bureau of Standards. Visiting Committee, 1970- National Defense Research Committee Divisions 14 and 15, member, 1942-45. Vacuum Tube Development Committee, 1943-45. National Research Council. Engineering Division, 1943-46. National Science Foundation. Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences Member, 1955-59. Chairman, 1958-59. Naval Research Advisory Committee. Member, 1956-64. Chairman, 1957-58 New York State Education Department. Consultant, 1968-69. Phi Beta Kappa. Phi Lambda Upsilon. President's Science Advisory Committee. Consultant, 1959-63; 1970-73. RCA Fellowship Board. Chairman, 1947-50. Sigma Tau. Sigma Xi Education Board, 1956-58; 1967-70. President, 1975. Signal Corps Research and Development Advisory Committee, 1954-62. Sloan Foundation Science Book Program. Southern Methodist University Foundation for Science and Engineering. President and Trustee, 1965-74. Trutsee, 1974- Stanford Bank. Board of Directors, 1964-71. Stanford Research Institute. Board of Directors, 1955-65. State Department. Board of Foreign Scholarships, 1960-65. State University of Florida. Consultant, 1970-71. Tau Beta Pi. Texas Christian University Research Foundation. Advisory Committee, 1972- Theta Xi. US/AID Team to Korea. Party Leader, 1970. U.S. Office of Education. Mission to U.S.S.R., 1965. Utah System of Higher Education. Consultant, 1972-73. Varian Associates. Board of Directors, 1948-53. Watkins-Johnson Company. Board of Directors, 1957-


Frederick Emmons Terman, the first child of Lewis Madison and Anna Terman, was born in English, Indiana on June 7, 1900. Due to Lewis Terman's chronic tuberculosis, the family sought a more salubrious climate, moving to the Los Angeles area in 1905. With the elder Terman's appointment to the Stanford University Education Department in 1910, the family settled permanently in the Stanford area.

Lewis Terman, an eminent psychologist and educator, is perhaps best known for his development of the Stanford-Binet intelligence tests. His work on IQ testing was however, only one aspect of a life-long professional interest in individual giftedness and leadership. Frederick was undoubtedly influenced by some of his father's concepts, and later integrated them into his own system of identifying faculty and students of unusual promise, and encouraging the fullest realization of their potentials. Growing up in an academic environment also instilled an early and thorough understanding of university operation, later to serve well in Dr. Terman's administrative career.

Childhood at Stanford University had its less serious aspects as well. Dr. Terman recalls hiking in the Stanford foothills, fishing in Felt Lake, and swimming in Lake Lagunita. At the age of fourteen, Frederick and his neighbor, Herbert Hoover, Jr., began experimenting with "ham" radio, resulting in Dr. Terman's life-long involvement with radio.

Nine years old before he began primary school, Dr. Terman progressed rapidly and graduated from Stanford University in 1920 with a degree in Chemistry. After obtaining an additional degree in Electrical Engineering at Stanford under Professor Harris J. Ryan, Terman went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for graduate study under Professor Vannevar Bush. Bush emphasized the practical, industrial applications of engineering in addition to theoretical research.

Upon the completion of his doctorate in electrical engineering in 1924, Dr. Terman accepted a teaching appointment at M.I.T. Health was to play a decisive role in Frederick Terman's career as it had for his father. While visiting his family at Stanford in the summer of 1924, he had a serious attack of tuberculosis, keeping him bed-ridden for a year.

For his recovery, the California climate was preferable to Massachusetts, and the following year Dr. Terman accepted a part-time instructorship in electrical engineering at Stanford University. He continued his convalescence throughout the academic year of 1925-26, getting up only a few hours each day to teach. Despite serious illness, these years were very productive. With the intense concentration characterizing all his endeavors, Terman used the time to read extensively the existing radio engineering literature and to begin drafting his own first book.

In the academic year 1926-27, Terman began full-time teaching at Stanford, specializing in electronics. Although the electronics laboratory suffered from a severe shortage of funds, in the years between 1926 and 1941, Dr. Terman was able to build up a program distinctive in its output of ideas, people and publications.

Meanwhile, Dr. Terman's own career was flourishing. In 1937, he became a full professor and executive head of the Department of Electrical Engineering. Five of his seven books were published and were well received. More than 600,000 copies would be published in nine languages. According to Dr. Terman, his books "reflect his interest in the systematic organization of knowledge, and his desire to find simple quantitative ways to treat each topic."

He was also active in numerous professional societies, particularly the Institute of Radio Engineers. In 1941 he was elected President of the I.R.E., a notable honor signifying the growing national visibility of Dr. Terman and the Stanford electronics program.

Pre-WW II years were significant in his personal life as well. In 1928, he married Sibyl Walcutt, a graduate student in psychology. Their three sons, Frederick, Terrence and Lewis, were born between 1929 and 1935.

The outbreak of World War II was a turning point for Dr. Terman. He was appointed to organize and direct the Harvard Radio Research Laboratory, which was responsible for developing countermeasures against enemy radar. This research project eventually had more than 850 employees. It devised electronic radar jammers; designed tunable receivers for locating and analyzing radar signals; and manufactured billions of aluminum strips (called "chaff") which confused enemy radar reception when dropped from airplanes. The Radio Research Laboratory (operating over Europe) was credited with saving many of the allied bombers, and Dr. Terman was decorated by both the American and British governments for his wartime efforts.

At the same time that he was directing the Harvard Laboratory, Dr. Terman was educating himself in the strategies of successful university administration. He benefited by living near the treasurer of Harvard University, from whom he learned how Harvard's administrative structure and policies contributed to its pre-eminence among universities. Other issues discussed were the future of government support for university research after the war, and how such funding could best be utilized. Terman felt World War II had clearly demonstrated the importance of technological superiority in military success, and as a result, the federal government would place a new priority upon sponsoring advanced engineering research.

Terman returned to Stanford in 1946 as Dean of Engineering. In his new position of responsibility, he was able to carry out the concepts he had developed for strengthening the engineering program at Stanford. There were three basic components in his plan: the use of government research contracts; enhancement of the symbiotic relationship between local industry and the university; and distribution of funds for maximum academic benefit.

The contacts Dr. Terman had made as director of the Harvard Radio Research Laboratory were useful in obtaining the federal government contracts for Stanford. The newly established Office of Naval Research sought Dr. Terman's assistance, and with the approval of Stanford president, Donald B. Tresidder, research projects were initiated in chemistry, physics, and electronics in 1945 and 1947. Terman developed administrative guidelines to assure that sponsored research would benefit, rather than compete with, the educational mission of the University. Among the important aspects of these guidelines were that all research projects should be built around the specific interests of individual faculty members, rather than being obtained by administrators and assigned to the faculty, and that research should actually be carried out by students and faculty as an integral part of their academic programs rather than being undertaken by professional research staff as an adjunct to educational goals. The conditions established with these original sponsored projects have continued as the basis for the successful applied research programs at Stanford.

Dr. Terman had long been opposed to the "ivory tower" image of universities. He recognized the practical and mutual benefits that could accrue from interaction between industry and academia, and encouraged a closer relationship between them.

Palo Alto is often called the "birthplace of electronics" in honor of Lee DeForest's pioneering research with the audion tube in 1912, but when Dr. Terman began his teaching career in the 1920's, there were very few innovative engineering companies in the Bay Area. Terman was disturbed to find most of his best students moving to the east coast to find jobs. In the 1930's Professor Terman attempted to ameliorate the situation by helping talented students establish their own small companies. His greatest success was the Hewlett-Packard company; Terman arranged for a 8500 research assistantship to bring his former student, David Packard, back from a job at General Electric in New York to collaborate with William Hewlett, another of his inventive students. Terman was the "godfather" of this and several other student-initiated ventures that formed the nucleus of the San Francisco Bay Area's industrial development, today's "Silicon Valley."

As Dean of Engineering, Dr. Terman could effectively foster cooperation between Stanford's engineering program and local research-oriented companies. He encouraged faculty consulting, developed industrial affiliates programs through which companies could keep informed of the latest scientific developments in their fields, and initiated the Honors Cooperative Program, allowing employees of local firms to study part-time toward advanced degrees at Stanford. These arrangements proved to be mutually beneficial. Innovative industries benefited from the intellectual stimulus of a strong university, whose graduates also provided an exceptionally qualified work force. Programs like the Honors Cooperative became added recruitment incentives. In return, the Stanford Engineering School received financial support through the affiliates and cooperative programs. Potential students were attracted by the favorable employment environment as well as academic excellence. The opening of the Stanford Industrial Park in the 1950's strengthened the university-industry liaison, and the Stanford pattern has since been emulated throughout the United States.

More important to the Engineering School's development than sponsored research or industrial cooperation was Dr. Terman's program for obtaining maximum benefit from available resources. As Dean, Terman directed the fiscal policies of the School. He was firmly committed to the concept of investing in faculty, not in buildings. As an expression of this, he felt money should be directed towards hiring the finest research-oriented engineers possible. He considered it wasteful to construct new buildings, filled with expensive equipment, without top-quality scientists to use them. He also felt it was better economy to pay the high salaries necessary to attract a few leading engineers, than to use the same amount of money to hire a greater number of mediocre professors at lower salaries. He has compared his strategy to a track team, saying, "It's better to have one seven-foot jumper on your team than any number of six-foot jumpers.

He called this principle the "steeples of excellence." These steeples consist of very small groups of experts in significant fields, who by leadership in their professions, can attract grant money, as well as the finest students and junior faculty members. Terman's formula for the judicious combining of federal money with industrial support propelled the Stanford Engineering School from a merely regional institution into national prominence.

With his appointment as Provost of Stanford University in 1955, Dr. Terman assumed broader administrative responsibilities. Although President J. E. Wallace Sterling, historian, and Frederick Terman, engineer, had different academic backgrounds, they shared similar administrative and educational philosophies. Like Terman, Sterling believed institutional superiority was based upon the outstanding achievement of individual faculty members. Highest priority was placed upon hiring and retaining the finest scholar-teachers, and faculty search, selection, and tenure polices were made more rigorous and competitive at all levels. As can be seen in Series III of this collection, Dr. Terman and his Provost's Office staff kept meticulously detailed data on the operations of every department throughout the University, including average class sizes, number of student contacts for each faculty member, Ph.D. output per professor, faculty salaries and anticipated retirement dates. Dr. Terman often had a fuller knowledge of the workings of a department than did its chairman. These statistics were invaluable for strengthening and streamlining the academic programs in all areas of Stanford. During the Sterling-Terman administration, the University experienced unprecedented growth in national academic prominence and prestige.

Although Dr. Terman retired as Provost in 1965, he has continued to serve as a part-time consultant to the President, and has designed and carried out several studies on school and department budgets, faculty planning, benefits and retirement. Dr. Terman has continued to be active in many professional societies, holding elective offices or committee appointments in the Institute of Radio Engineers, the American Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the National Academy of Engineering, and Sigma Xi.

In keeping with his belief that the United States must maintain technological superiority in a highly competitive world, he has served as a consultant or advisor for the Institute of Defense Analysis, the Defense Science Board, the President's Scientific Advisory Committee, and the Navy, Air Force, and Signal Corps.

Since his retirement in 1965, he has devoted particular attention to the development of higher education in science and engineering, both in the United States and abroad. Among these project have been the Southern Methodist Foundation for Science and Engineering, the Korean Institute for Advanced Science, and a U.S. Office of Education mission to the U.S.S.R.

Dr. Terman once said, "I most enjoy helping to build something up, taking an unformulated enterprise and making it into what it could become." Today Stanford University, and the surrounding communities of technical scholars, bear witness to the continuing influence of that idea.

From the guide to the Frederick Emmons Terman papers, 1920-1978, (Department of Special Collections and University Archives)


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  • Microelectronics industry--History
  • Engineering--Study and teaching
  • Science--History
  • Microelectronics industries
  • Engineering--History
  • Engineering--Societies, etc
  • Electronics


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  • California--Santa Clara County (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)