Where is the Next Charles Litton Sr.? (Amended)

For the past year I have been writing for the Nevada County Business News. The current subject is Charles Litton and his influence on the development of an applied technology business cluster in Nevada County. Some of my articles have been published and others are in the process.  The first article in the series can be down loaded HERE:Early Business Incubator

A close friend who was familiar with my articles and the stories of Litton’s success and influence asked an interesting question last Sunday:  “Why is the ERC not seeking out and encouraging more senior executives like Litton to locate in Nevada County?  After selling their business or deciding that corporate life is no longer full filling, these CEOs may aspire to return to those heady days of creating a company again? Nevada County is such a lovely place to do that.” 

An interesting question. Charles Litton loved the Sierra, coming to Nevada County every when he could get away from his high powered tube manufacturing business in San Carlos.  He built a family camp near the English Mountain Mine at Jackson Lake.   When he sold his high power tube manufacturing business to an investor group lead by Tex Thornton, he moving to Nevada County where he set up an engineering lab in the abandoned hospital, on what we now know as Litton Hill. 

Litton was still in good health, comfortably wealthy, and not ready to retire. A successful business man who loved the Sierra and he wanted continue his research on the production technology need to manufacture tubes and build his business of designing and manufacturing those tools. Tools to bond glass and metal that are used in many commercial and military industries.

He also found time to invest in the community, donating land for our hospital, re-building the airport and donating it to the County, and creating a network of helipads for emergency rescues.  More details are in my Nevada County Business News articles.

Litton’s transformation from the Silicon Valley to the Sierra Foothill happened in the 1950s, the question is could his success be recreated again?  Can the ERC locate more entrepreneurial CEOs and corporate mavens like Litton and then convince them that Nevada County is the place they have always been looking for to start a new business, or continue a small part to their old business? 

Who are these potential new business and job creators? They are most likely visitors to Nevada County. I attended a meeting of the Tahoe Silicon Mountain Group in Truckee this last July and met some of the folks who were creating a network of like-minded people that are currently working in Silicon Valley, or have worked in the tech industries, and often come to Lake Tahoe.

The ERC could start a similar group in western Nevada County, and then advertise the existence of this support group through out Silicon Valley. This information can be included in all of Nevada County’s tourist out reach literature, including the GoNevada County website.  This could become part of the current outreach programs sponsored by the ERC Board of Directors. 

I welcome your thoughts in the comments.

Addendum 08-28-14.   A follow up question asked about the economic impact that Litton’s move to Nevada County had on the local economy. As Litton wrote a friend, the local economy was struggling with mining being phased out and the lumber industry was in decline.  He saw the arrival of Litton Labs as a catalyst for suppliers and other business to follow, creating new jobs in Nevada County.

Twenty-nine people followed Litton from San Carlos to work in the new facility in 1953. He hired 9 local people from the 200 applicants, writing that he was impressed with the quality of the applicants who had applied for jobs, “better than most San Carlos applicants.” In a letter to The Union he predicted that by December of 1955 he would have 45 employees working at the Engineering Lab. In August of 1957 Litton Engineering Laboratory had 79 employees.

In 1958 government contracts for radar and jammer tubes began to decline, and Litton had started to trim the staff, he laid off 8 people, and began to look for other opportunities outside government contracts, including work for chip manufacture Fairchild Semiconductor Corp who were having problems sealing integrated circuit chips.

It was perhaps in 1959 that Litton made a decision that had the largest long-term impact on the local economy. He invited his “college buddy” Dr. Hare to move his fledging audio sound business from New Jersey to Nevada County. With the advent of home TVs the theater sound business was in decline, and Hare created his first video amplifier. This eventually let to the growth of Grass Valley Group and the future spin off of multiple video related companies forming the core of Nevada County’s applied technology video cluster.

It was Litton desire that other light industries follow his lead and move to Nevada County. However, it was after his death in 1972 that his facility on Litton Hill became the unintended business incubator of Nevada County, under the guidance of son Charles Jr. and his brother Larry Litton. According to one observer, the development environment was a microcosm of Silicon Valley, bright people living and working in a common community of creativity. A culture originally fostered by Charles Litton Sr.

Some recognized companies that developed products on Litton Hill:

  • Grass Valley Group
  • Eigen Video
  • US Robotics
  • Keller Medical
  • Alpine Engineering
  • AJA Video
  • Atari
  • Sierra Medical Devices
  • Node Computer Systems

And, many lesser-known start-ups.

Information for this article was taken from the Charles Vincent Litton Papers, BANC MSS 75/7c, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley California

About Russ Steele

Freelance writer and climate change blogger. Russ spent twenty years in the Air Force as a navigator specializing in electronics warfare and digital systems. After his service he was employed for sixteen years as concept developer for TRW, an aerospace and automotive company, and then was CEO of a non-profit Internet provider for 18 months. Russ's articles have appeared in Comstock's Business, Capitol Journal, Trailer Life, Monitoring Times, and Idaho Magazine.
This entry was posted in California, Economics, Jobs and Economy, Local, Technology. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Where is the Next Charles Litton Sr.? (Amended)

  1. Stu says:

    Thanks Russ, some interesting history.

    Your tourism group does a far better job – over here on the other end of Hwy 20 our city counsel spent tens of thousands of $’s on a out of area consultant to come up with “Ukiah, Far out, nearby”



  2. jeffpelline says:

    GoNevadaCounty.com is a tourism website, while NCERC.org is the economic development website. Having said that, GNC.com has written about the Litton success on its blog: http://gonevadacounty.com/2012/03/grass-valleys-high-tech-roots/


  3. gjrebane says:

    Totally agree with the initiative of involving successfully retired tech workers and execs in promoting and mentoring local economic development. As one of these fellows, I have been very involved with a local (actually located in Auburn) high tech start-up that is also one of most successful new job creators in the region. For this old entrepreneurial war horse this experience continues to be somewhere between exciting and exhilarating. I believe others could easily replicate it to the benefit of us all. (And let’s not ease off on the efforts to get broadband all across western Nevada County.)


  4. Russ Steele says:

    Another thought. Promote the Litton story of success in Nevada County in all tourism communications and on GoNevadaCounty.com


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