Grass Valley; How a small town changed television

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Grass Valley

From Mining camp to high tech center

This is a David and Goliath story about an iconic company in the television broadcast industry, with a twist. Over the course of the story David and Goliath morphed into the other.

Exhibit A: There's a small town in northern California, and if you work in the technical or production areas of the television industry anywhere in the world, you know the name of the town. You probably wouldn't know it as a place, but as a vendor of high end television production equipment. The name of that town is Grass Valley.

Exhibit B: There's a company headquartered in Montreal Canada that has over 20,000 employees, with facilities around the globe, that took the name of a small town in northern California. The name of that company is Grass Valley.

The book explains why both those statements are true.

It took gold, not because electronics uses the material, but because the owner of a local mine laid the seed for all that followed. The area is littered with these mines, from extremely large, to holes in the ground.

The second thread to the story starts down in the bay area. What became a very large defense contractor, and an early founding entity in what became Silicon Valley, was founded by a Stanford alumni, who decided to escape the area. He decamped and took a small sapling from this company and planted it in Grass Valley. Why there? Because of what the mine owner had begun.

That entrepreneur enticed another Stanford alumni of the same cloth, to join him up in the Sierra foothills. This second Stanford alumni formed a company that allowed a mini "Fairchild effect," like the one that happened in Silicon Valley, to be replicated in Grass Valley. This eventually led to the town being known as video valley. A high tech eco-system sprung up in the area. One result was the first gaming cartridge console from Atari. The R&D was done in Grass Valley.

The original company that "started it all" in the area, to quote a Fairchild Semiconductor boast from the 70s regarding Silicon Valley, was bought and sold six times. The Grass Valley Company gathered corporate DNA from over 30 companies, some from household recognizable names. But through it all the company's name survived. But its center of gravity did not.

This is a story of how Grass Valley became a mini high tech center, and its chances of holding on to that distinction.

The story covers the gold and high tech connection. How a town 30 miles from the nearest interstate took on the television industries heavy weights. How the namesake company ended up in Montreal, and whether the remaining high tech enclave in the area can survive.

Gold Mining

How this particular mine lead to the Grass Valley Group (MacBoyle's Gold)

Today it is still geographically connected to the Company. Although that is about to change!

This book will explain how and why that is so and the impact it had not only on two small towns, Grass Valley and Nevada City, and the surrounding area, but also on the entire television industry. At one time it was claimed that more people per capita worked in the television industry in this area than anywhere on the planet, including places like New York, Los Angeles, or London. The book is going to resolve if that per capita claim is, or was ever true, and will never-the-less demonstrate how being an important part of the industry has affected the area. Most people who live in the local area do not know these facts. Yet television production movers and shakers regularly pilgrimage to the area to hobnob with the technical wizards that help make their visions a reality.

The Grass Valley Company which started the phenomenon in the area, originally grew out of the D.G.C. Hare Company, founded in 1949 in Connecticut by Dr. D.G.C Hare. The company mainly produced audio and data recorders along with other special projects for the Navy, MIT, and a few others. The company was a hand to mouth operation financially and in 1955 Hare sold his company to Sangamo Electric Company. In 1958, at the urging of fellow Stanford alumnus Charles Litton Sr, Dr. Hare moved the company, with the blessing of Sangamo Electric, to the small town of Grass Valley, Ca.

Charles Litton Sr. 


Taking the area from one economic level to another

Litton and Hare had gone to Stanford together and Litton had a company, Litton Industries, in the 'Silicon Valley' area long before it was known by that moniker. Litton produced high power vacuum tubes, known as magnetrons, which were used for radar and microwave applications. Litton sold most of the company and moved the companies glass working lathes business out of the bay area in 1953 and up into the Sierra foothills after he fell in love with the area. Up until that time the town of Grass Valley and the adjoining town of Nevada City survived off the lumber industry and rapidly diminishing gold, and other related mining. While Litton and Hare's group were allies at first, that relationship did not last. The Group moved out soon and Litton Sr vowed not to rent space out again.

But the sons and daughters or Litton, Sr. tried the incubator experiment later on with much better success. A number of companies besides the Grass Valley Group hatched from there. A large part of the engineering effort to launch the first Atari cartridge console happened there. The building also saw a number of advances in telecommunications technology.

The building is still very much in use today.
Here is a very creative video that was produced in the building a few years ago.

Early Grass Valley Group (GVG) logo 

The Group

Day to Day Survival

When Hare's company found themselves independent again, the group of people left literally became the
'group' in Hare's new company - The Grass Valley Group, formed in 1959. The Group brought several
creative and key engineers together to find a way forward with his new endeavor.

The new company under Hare's direction continued to live a few payroll cycles away from oblivion. New products from the company came and went. They created a device for the state department that let diplomats know if their phones were bugged, and if so, the device would generate noise to mask any conversation in the room. They built an early fax machine geared for railroads that would scan waybills at high speed during the day and transmit them at lower speed at night when phone charges were lower. They produced and sold sound equipment that was installed into movie theaters. Partially from that, they produced a line of audio amps that were mainly sold to radio broadcasters.

Predominantly on the map

Their first big benifactor

In the first half of the 60s an ally with San Francisco station KGO, an ABC-owned television station, suggested that if they made some refinements to a video distribution amp, ubiquitous in television stations, that they might be able to compete against the likes of the then giants RCA, and GE among others. Some thought that idea preposterous, but in short order they produced their first model. From then on when opportunity sprang up, the group was able to respond quickly to each new avenue presented to them. Responding to an emergency that ABC had leading into the 1964 Republican Convention gave the Group their big break with that network. ABC asked if the Group could produce a "Proc Amp". Dr. Hare's first response was "What the hell is a proc amp?" Within 10 days they had a working prototype that was even in a case. That was the Group's way early on. Respond quickly to opportunity. As the story will show, years on the company did not always keep that in sight.

From the products that were rudimentary processing equipment used by television broadcasters, the group produced more exotic and complex systems that moved the company up the professional television broadcaster food chain. They pushed product lines that had been pioneered and developed for twenty years by the industry leaders of the day and soon had the entrenched players following Grass Valley's lead in innovation.

The Group became the dominant player in video production switchers. These are devices that allow all the layers of graphics, effects, and a myriad of sources to be integrated into a complex mosaic of video. Oh yeah, this is all done in real time while the newscast, sporting event, or entertainment show is happening.

By the mid 1970's the group had enough of the high-end video market that one of the props used to destroy Princess Leia's home planet of "Alderaan" in the first Star Wars film, was a video 'fader bar' on a Grass Valley 1600 video production switcher. This was the second generation of video switcher production equipment developed by The Group.

If They Knew Better

"If RCA doesn't make it, we don't need it!"

A common line uttered through the 60s as RCA sold the entire length of the television equipment food chain. But the behemoth was GM, to GVG's Tesla. Also many wanted options other than RCA. The camera on the right sold briskly when it was introduced in the 1960's because it did not have RCA's logo on the side of it. CBS hated RCA so much (as they owned their largest rival - NBC), that they would pry RCA logos off the RCA equipment they were forced to buy. CBS originally fought the implementation of all electronic color television, being proposed by RCA no less, so as not to have to buy more equipment from them. CBS even developed a color TV system than used spinning disks to try and thwart RCA. They pulled that off for a while, until their bluff was called.

The book will also examine some of Hare's early research interests that parallelled what eventually became video tape recording, and how one of the largest selling musical artists of all time invested in it so he could have more time for his golf game. The company he invested in was Ampex. If Hare had continued along his parallel interest in recording, the Group might be known for audio and video recording instead of high end video production equipment. Turns out that Ampex alumni were involved with the Atari efforts in the Litton building. Plus one of the many VPs of Grass Valley was also an Ampex alumni. One of many examples that as Grass Valley affected the outside world, it reciprocated.

The camera seen here is part of the GV story also as the great grandkids of this camera now have GV logos on them. Why might that be? Read on.

In and Out of Bondage

Rulers came and went

The company was sold six times. Tektronix was the first buyer. While it held on to the Group for over 25 years, other big companies followed suit and through the tumultuous hand offs from one entity to another the Grass Valley Company has corporate DNA in it from almost 30 companies that stretch back to the 1880s. Some quite large and household names. Yet, the GV brand and name survived! Along the line the "Group" was dropped and the GV logo went from green to purple.

BTW: It used to be mantra that GVG would never make anything with a lens on the front of it. That's what serial owners can do to a company.

Last Grass Valley Co outpost in the area

Full Circle

At one time the Group employed over 1200 in the area and it was the largest employer in Nevada County. Now its presence in the area is a shadow of itself. Less than 100 still work in the area for the Grass Valley Company itself, and that number is dropping quickly. The center of gravity for the company is now in Montreal.

There is an unassuming one story building that sits a top a hill in an industrial park at the edge of town. It is now up for sale. Originally it was a Blue Cross call center. Later it was incorporated into the video industry by a company named NVISION. Today it represents the last bastion of the Grass Valley Company in the area, and soon to be relinquished. While the site had nothing to do with the first 50 years of the namesake company, it marks the location where the dawn of events which eventually lead to the companies existance.

"Video Valley" lives on!

The "Fairchild Effect"

But the story of the towns of Grass Valley and Nevada City involves much more ingenuity and engineering swagger affecting the television industry than just the namesake company. We will look at how a mini Fairchild-effect occurred in the area. Like Fairchild Semiconductor, which started in San Jose a couple of years before the group, "E Unum pluribus occurred" – from one, many. A few of the companies that arose from Fairchild, many second, third, 10th generations out, include Intel, AMD, Altera, LSI Logic, and National Semiconductor. Some have come and gone like NeXT Computer, and Amdahl. These early companies produced a 'food chain' that became 'Silicon Valley.'

A similar thing on a smaller scale happened with the Grass Valley and Nevada City area and the Group. Well over a dozen companies spun out of the Group, and one was actually funded by it. The area attracted other high-tech companies to the area. Some to support the "video" companies, some just to tap into the talent pool that had assembled in the area. As mentioned earlier, the original Atari gaming console was developed in Grass Valley. The seeds for DirecTV also germinated in the area. It's a diverse group of enterprises. One high tech company in the area actually only has a one day sales backlog at any time, and is doing quite well, as it has taken "just in time" to a new level. The producer of the video linked to above in the section about Litton is also working on a series of videos that chronicle the growth of high tech that grew up araound the Grass Valley Group.

A Legacy and the Future

A course that avoids most of the rocks

What today should be a couple adjacent sleepy small towns that came to be because of gold and logging were deflected into a new trajectory by a mine owner in the 30s and 40s who wanted to help the towns through the depression. Part of his legacy allowed an electronics pioneer to settle in Grass Valley in a never completed hospital. He then enticed his friend and colleague into what was probably the first startup incubator in the world, as other startups followed in that building. The story covers what followed.

The final question the book will address is while the area probable won't continue in its previous role as the premiere video high-tech center of the world, will its high-tech institutions continue to impact technology in other areas while still being a force in video industry.

In addition the area itself faces fundamental community issues. The cost and availability of local housing is an issue. As the tech sector has cooled down, the tourist trade has stepped up. Today Airbnb controls a percentage of available rental space as weekend, and holiday accommodations, and not for rental by local inhabitants. Add to the fact that Nevada County has some of the toughest building codes and other developmental obstacles in the country. To go along with that the area has no four year university to produce locally minted engineers and researchers. The closest are about 100 miles in opposite directions, Reno and Chico.

But the 800 pound gorilla is fire! 40-50 miles north of the area, in 2018 almost an entire town was wiped out, by the "Camp Fire." The town of Paradise was nearly completely destroyed, losing 95% of its buildings. It killed 85 and destroyed 18,000 structures in the area. In a state that sees many large wildfires, this one was the largest to date. Wildfires are such a problem that many homes in open areas are now hard to insure. A quarter of the over $16 billion in damage was not covered by insurance.

Just last year a fire started by lightning lapping at the Nevada City limits, while it burned about 800 acres it destroyed 21 structures and took 14,000 firefighters to put out. There is one area much closer to the center of the two towns that pose a high fire risk.

Update What was known as the Caldor fire, just recently extinguished, burned 222,000 acres, and came a few miles from Lake Tahoe. It destroyed over 1000 buildings. It started about 50 miles southeast of Grass Valley. But another much more massive fire, the Dixie, this one 50 miles north of Grass Valley, burned 963,000 acres, and took out 1,300 buildings. It burned well into Lassen National Park. As of October 16th it had burned for 95 days and still wasn't totally out.

The Group had an 80 acre campus about five miles northwest of town that was threatened a couple of times with fire. To the right is a shot from 1988 when a fire destroyed a couple out buildings at the site. One of the reasons for abandoning the site was the danger of a fire literally wiping the company out.

The area is at a crossroads. While high tech employment in the area is about a quarter of what it was at its height, many companies that still represent the area in video and other related high-tech endeavors are at the forefront of their chosen pursuits.

The Grass Valley Company had a small museum that showcased their accomplishments over the years. It was recently moved about a block away to the Nevada County Media Facility. NCM is dedicated to helping to keeping alive the love, and heritage of advancing video production. As many companies in the area have produced the tools for high end video production, NCM is dedicated to teaching the use of that equipment, and to help support the developers of new high tech gear.

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