1. Continental Electronics has been in business for 75 years, which is a remarkable achievement. What led your founder, J.O. Weldon, to start the company?
Those that knew him called him J.O. or Mr. Weldon. Since the 1930s, J.O. had been interested in radio and Western Electric, and he was able to utilize that knowledge during WWII and later in his career. J.O. had the position of Technical Director at the Office of War Information during WWII and from that experience, he knew that information freely distributed to the public would be critical in rebuilding societies devastated by war — so much so that he felt compelled to apply his particular experience in that effort. In 1946, he and some business partners started Continental Electronics (CEC) in Dallas, Texas with the mission to produce high power radio frequency transmitters so anyone in the world could obtain up-to-date news and entertainment.
2. What are some of Continental Electronics’ accomplishments during its long history?
Continental Electronics’ historical accomplishments expand across various areas, including the building of Doherty amplifiers, military support and space exploration. With over 75 years of business, it is difficult to select only a few milestones, but we can speak to some of our greatest overall achievements thus far.
It took some time and required various refocusing efforts in the business in the early years, but, eventually, Continental Electronics Manufacturing Company (CEMC) built numerous Doherty amplifiers using a license obtained from Western Electric for AM radio transmitters at power levels from 250 kW to 2 MW for the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Belgrade (in what is Serbia today), plus many other countries throughout the world. The Doherty design enabled very high operating power with excellent linearity and high efficiency. The design concept has been useful for over 85 years and is still used today in Continental Electronics’ high power UHF solid-state digital television transmitter product line.
In addition to the building of Doherty amplifiers, CEC designed and built amplifiers for several historically significant programs. Among these were the microwave radar transmitters for the Ballistic Missle Early Warning System (BMEWS), Nike Zeus (Army anti-ballistic missile program), Altair VHF radar on Kwajalein Island and numerous other radar systems.
Equally important was the contribution CEC transmitters made to the U.S. Navy submarine service. Continental Electronics designed and built 2 MW very low frequency broadcast transmitters, enabling the U.S. Navy to operate nuclear submarines fully submerged anywhere in the world.
On top of military contributions, Continental Electronics has also expanded space exploration with the design and building of the 1 MW Arecibo inter-planetary radar transmitter. Sadly, this system was destroyed last year when the structural supports failed. That radar provided detailed topographical data about the Moon and several planets, plus many asteroids.
Today, Continental Electronics designs and builds inter-planetary communications transmitters for NASA’s Deep Space Network. These transmitters are able to send messages to any spacecraft in the solar system, as well as Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 — even as they have exited the heliosphere. Today, the only transmitter capable of reaching Voyager 2 was built by Continental Electronics and operates at deep space station DSS43 near Canberra.
3. What can you tell us about the ownership of the company (Lone Star CRA Fund) and your size?
Lone Star CRA is a private equity fund located in Dallas. Their mission is to operate companies in Texas located in or near lower-income neighborhoods, with the goal of enhancing investor value as well as higher paying jobs/benefits in marginalized communities. Continental has one location in Dallas that contains engineering, manufacturing, sales and back office staff. We employ just under 100 people full or part-time.
4. How has the long history and ownership shaped the culture of Continental?
I believe we serve our customers best when challenged to design and manufacture an RF system that achieves state-of-the-art performance in power, efficiency and signal quality. Our employees take great pride in maintaining the legacy of the company’s history in achieving new milestones, such as the longest distance radar at Arecibo or the longest distance communications link with the Voyager I and II spacecraft.
5. Describe your current product portfolio and what markets they serve.
Continental Electronics has always designed and built specialty RF amplifiers along with specialized components (e.g., high voltage capacitors) that are not readily available from electronic component suppliers. Our products are used for extremely long-distance communications (i.e., across the solar system and deep underwater), long-range radar, particle physics, fusion power research and innovative energy production methods. The applications we offer are vast and span across numerous industries.
We hold records for the highest power radio transmitters in the world in both vacuum tube and solid-state. We produce solid-state systems with the capability to produce over 2 MW of real power and over 300 MVA of reactive power due to the high VSWR of the antenna.
We also produce military systems for worldwide submarine communication and radar. We supply deep space communications for NASA. Our transmitters enable millions of so-called “atomic clocks” around the world to maintain time without use of GPS, via stations such as WWVB, JJY1 and JJY2. This so-called PNT (position, navigation and timing) segment is growing extremely fast.
6. Given the breadth of your markets, what is the underlying capability or “know how” that is a common theme across your products?
Continental Electronics has a history of achieving state-of-the-art performance in terms of efficiency and signal quality, while producing the highest levels of RF power achievable. Our engineering team is able to tackle hard problems in precision mechanical components, fluid dynamics and materials science. Our knowledge of high voltage, high current RF components is another reason customers seek out our products. We can produce RF subsystems that simultaneously handle thousands of amperes of RF current and hundreds of thousands of volts.
7. Across your portfolio, what output power and frequency ranges do they cover?
Our design team are able to create systems that produce a few tens of kW to several MW of power. We build RF systems ranging in frequency from tens of kHz to 10 GHz. We also design specialty antennas in the low and medium frequency range.
8. Since the 1960s, solid-state has been capturing share from tubes for high power applications. What's the blend of solid-state versus tubes in your transmitters? What parameters determine which technology you choose for an application?
Our R&D team began the conversion from vacuum tubes to solid-state in the early 1980s and now over 90 percent of our products are fully solid-state. For applications that require vacuum tubes, such as high power microwave radars in the MW category, we couple them with solid-state power supplies and modulators of our own design.
The decision to use tubes over solid-state is generally based on cost, efficiency and complexity. High power microwave tubes are still preferred at the 100 kW+ range owing to their long life and high reliability. At frequencies below 1GHz, we will generally always recommend solid-state except for a few legacy products such as shortwave broadcasting, where cost and efficiency are a premium.
9. How has digital processing changed the architecture of your products, such as broadcast exciters and transmitters?
DSP has been a part of all our new products since the early 1990s. We first used DSP in FM and TV broadcast exciters. Today, our transmitters are literally DSP from the ground up. In some cases, the entire transmitter is one large DSP where the final power amplifier can be modeled as a high power digital-analog converter. We pioneered that concept for military broadcast in the 1980s and continue today to further merge DSP into the RF amplification chain. We have systems with hundreds of DSP processors and direct conversion DACs that produce fully modulated RF with amplifier linearity correction. This will be even more significant as high power and efficiency become even more important in sectors such as PNT.
10. Looking to the future, what new applications are you focused on, where Continental Electronics can make a contribution?
We are focused on solid-state conversion of our customers’ legacy vacuum tube systems, precision timing systems for navigation and strengthening GPS security. We are creating new long-range radar systems utilizing large distributed DSP processors. We are also looking forward to working on next-generation deep space radars after the unfortunate loss of the Arecibo deep space observatory in 2020.
We can produce high power radio transmitters utilizing either solid-state or vacuum tubes from DC to over 10 GHz and power levels up to 500 MVA.
11. Tell us about your background and what led you to this role?
I was raised on a farm in Missouri and had part-time jobs on local radio stations before obtaining a BSEE degree from what is now the Missouri University of Science and Technology. My parents were farmers and small business owners, and I learned much about people and business from them.
I began my professional career working for what is now L3-Harris developing high power solid-state modulators and transmitters. I moved to Texas in the mid-1980s and held various technical and managerial positions at Continental Electronics. I was always fascinated by radio since childhood when I could listen at night to far away radio stations in Texas, Chicago or Nashville and even foreign stations of the BBC. It has been a privilege to visit many of these stations in my professional capacity.
As a kid growing up on a farm, I never thought I would see so much of the world and make friends in so many countries. Those friendships are what I cherish the most.