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  • Writer's pictureellie weigand

Paul Grant

Almaden Valley is well known for its role in the technological revolution and the birth of modern computers through IBM. Aside from the farms and orchards, the IBM factories and the people who were employed with IBM have been very important to the Almaden Valley we know today. One resident of the valley by the name of Paul Michael Patrick Grant is very proud to have been a member of the IBM team here and was lucky enough to be around for some very big discoveries that have shaped the world of computers that we know today.

Living in the Valley since 1965 Paul remembers the orchards well, but also his first job setting the bowling pins in the IBM club bowling alley back in Poughkeepsie, New York, while still in high school. Once he was out of high school they moved him up a level to the position of the mail boy and the 123th employee, still in Poughkeepsie, in a lab that designed the North American Air Defense System (NORAD). “When I was 21 my manager decided I was worth educating, and IBM had a special program and you had to go to college in New York and study what IBM wanted you to study so I went to Clarkson University and graduated at the top of my class. After graduating from Clarkson with a BSEE degree, IBM funded me as an employee to go as a graduate student and get my Ph.D in physics at Harvard.” On completing Harvard, IBM posted him in the Fall of 1965 to a brand new small research lab on Cottle Road.

Almaden Valley’s residents all have different little things that they consider their favorite spots of places to go. For Paul, he always liked going to work. In 1983 he was on the Cottle Road lab director’s staff, when the Almaden Research Lab was being designed and built. He liked the lake and the road that went up from there into the mountains. Before the lab was built, the business began as just one little building that was on Cottle Road where now there stands a big housing development. Then as the business grew they built the bigger building before the final move to the land up on the top of the mountain that became the Almaden Research Lab. The Cottle Road plant was where IBM manufactured hard drives, which were designed in the research lab.

Speaking of hard drives, Paul enthusiastically recalls how a high school teacher back in the Midwest had invented a way of scoring tests called the mark sensing system. “It was multiple choice and there was a machine that could read the answers and registered the pencil marks on the page. It was a mechanical way of scoring responses. This teacher brought his idea to Thomas J Watson, the founder of IBM and Watson saw it could be a good business and wanted to hire him. So, this teacher, Rey Johnson, who is very important in the history of Almaden Valley, came out here to Almaden Valley and that was the start of IBM getting into the mark sensing system. Johnson was a clever man, and he got interested in the computer memory system in the late 40’s and early 50’s, when there wasn’t much in terms of computer storage technology at the time to store the ones and zeroes coming from calculations. Rey got the idea of making a disk and putting iron oxide on the disc and using magnetism to to store and read binary information. That today is what makes up a hard drive, and it’s the basis of the cloud and massive storage today.” He said that what IBM folks would say about Almaden Valley at the time was that “We weren’t Silicon Valley, we were Rust Valley.” This is because iron oxide is basically just rust and rust was what first made Silicon Valley rich before silicon technology.

The research division in San Jose is part of IBM’s corporate headquarters and not part of any other IBM technical or manufacturing division. In the early 80’s IBM bought 360 acres of land from three dentists who had land up on the hill where the Almaden Research Lab now sits. IBM wanted to have it annexed to the city of San Jose so that they could have utilities like water and power so in order to do this, they cut a deal with the city that they would incorporate 30 acres for the lab as long as IBM allowed the creation of some green spaces as well. And so, today’s equestrian park came into existence.

“We didn’t need that much land, so it came as a bargain.” Paul said, “I remember when we were coming up with the name for the lab. The official name of the lab was the San Jose Research Lab but we wanted it to be a “Center” because that’s what the research lab at the Hudson Valley IBM site was called. I was on the director’s staff and we came up with the “Almaden Research Center” but corporate headquarters wasn’t impressed with the name, they thought it sounded like a cheap California wine and they didn’t want to associate with that. They didn’t know the history of Almaden Valley, though, so we educated them.”

When they were designing the Almaden Research Lab, at the time there were a lot of demonstrations and protests in the United States about the segregation policies of South African corporations. A number of IBM sales organizations were located in South Africa, so IBM was considered associated with segregation, and there were a number of demonstrations and blockades at the entrance of the Cottle Road manufacturing site. The facts were that IBM South Africa was one of the few companies that did not discriminate, but such was not well known in the US. However, IBM US Corporate management was worried about security and in building the new Almaden facility they had done things to protect the staff and the building itself against terrorist attacks. Paul said “The lobby is protected by several types of barriers, both personal and in the actual building. Behind the receptionist there is a blind door with no seams that the receptionist could jump through if someone invaded the building.”

After a 40 year career with IBM, Paul retired and found himself being offered three positions as a physics professor, which according to him, was a common retirement position offered to IBM retirees, but he chose instead to join the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto. Paul says, “I retired from EPRI in 2005 and now am simply a beneficiary of the IBM life pension plan, so I can basically persue whatever I want, which now consists of a lot of writing for various news publications and media outlets.”

Paul loves Almaden Valley’s environment. He says “It’s hard to find a more nature-friendly environment here in northern California, the fact that we’re not on the coast but we still have a marine environment is about as good as it can get. In my life and career, I have travelled all over the world but I can’t think of one location that is as life and environment friendly as the Almaden Valley.” However, when it comes to what has changed the most in the Valley since when he first came to live here, he said what most people who have been here for a long time said. “The real estate economy, all of it. It’s huge, it’s hard to explain what it was like when I moved out here. It was all farms, apricots, plums, grapes, prunes.” Though things have changed, his best memories have been centered around his career and his family.

“Career wise, the work I did at IBM was part of the discovery period of the high tech revolution. One discovery was made in 1986 in our Zurich lab at IBM. The three research labs were rivals, San Jose, Hudson Valley and Zurich, we always competed, because our budgets came from one source back in New York, so we were always very careful that if we did something important that we would keep it quiet. High temperature super conductivity was a big deal and it was discovered by Alex Muller in the Zurich Lab and improved by our group at the Almaden Lab. We were co-inventors on the international patent of high temperature superconductivity. It was a tremendous discovery and one of the most singular memories of my career that I can remember. The discovery won Muller and his colleague George Bednorz at IBM Zurich the 1987 Nobel Prize in Physics, the quickest the prize was ever awarded in its history. The hype of it was incredible, it was covered by TIME magazine, the New York Times, the San Jose Mercury News, and much of the press worldwide I gave all sorts of interviews, and got to travel and discuss this discovery worldwise. When my daughter Heidi was in 8th grade at Dartmouth, she replicated the superconductor discovery and demonstrated it as her science project. Our IBM Almaden team were featured on NOVA and 60 minutes and Horizon and it was incredible.”

A man like Paul who has lived and seen so much in terms of monumental things that have shaped Almaden Valley and the world also had some very good advice to give to teenagers growing up now. “Well I would say, throughout my whole life I’ve been curious about everything, that’s the way it’s been and is going to continue to be. When I was really young my father would point at a fire hydrant and say “What’s that for?” I would guess, then he would say “Why is it painted red?” and this was where I learned to love asking questions. How does that work? My favorite example of this would be when I had a Leland kid ask me “Dr. Grant why is there gravity?” I said, “You know I have no idea, why don’t you go and ask your priest or minister or Rabbi.” I mean, I could explain the physics of it, but not why it exists. Anyway, asking questions are a more direct path to figuring all things out. So, throughout your life, be curious.”

His father was a major person of influence in his life, along with another man who happens to be very well known in the IBM and tech world by the name of Chauncey Starr. Paul calls Starr the “Grandfather I never had.” This was the man who built the Hiroshima warhead at Oakridge. He is recognized as the father of the nuclear power industry, so after the war he was made dean of engineering at UCLA but he was noted for his knowledge of the electric power industry as well. In the 1960’s there was a major power outage and the government was going to establish a new national lab for electric power, of course the public utilities didn’t like this, so they founded a new company, EPRI, and they hired Chauncey to be the first director. “When I was hired at EPRI in 1993, he had already retired but still remained onsite, but I found out later that they put my office next to his, so I could gain his knowledge. He lived to be 96 and he was my late career mentor. I called him the grandfather I never had. I wrote his obituary in a number of newspapers and scientific publications, such as Nature.”

These days Paul is very interested in his family’s genealogy and is trying to find out more information about his grandfather, Abraham Lincoln Grant, who ran away from home up in Concord, and was adopted by a San Jose family, later becoming a mechanic in the Almaden cinnabar mines. Paul is using various ancestry sites such as “23andme” to see if he has any more distant relatives in the area. Paul is a very inspiring person with a lot of interesting stories to tell, more of which anyone can find on his website: .

Paul and his superconductor discovery

Paul and part of his family

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