This six-part series looks at five decades of the microwave industry recorded in Microwave Journal. In this fourth installment, we focus on the 1980s, a decade marked by such notable events as the birth of MTV, punk rock and “new wave,” the marriage of Prince Charles and Diana, the Cosby Show, the fall of the Berlin Wall and disasters such as the bombing of Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, the Challenger explosion, and industrial accidents at a chemical plant in India and a nuclear facility at Chernobyl in the former USSR.

The decade also saw dramatic social, economic and political change. Economic liberalization among western countries came with the rise of right-wing politics in the US and the “Reagan Revolution” along with other world leaders such as Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, Brian Mulroney and Carlos Salinas. Among eastern countries, hostility toward authoritarianism put pressure on the economies of communist states, bringing about policies such as perestroika and glasnost, while developing countries felt the crushing economic burdens brought on by a debt crises, drought, food shortages and war.

During the Reagan years, the Cold War would heat-up and spawn renewed investment in the US military with a particular focus on R&D. Once again, the microwave industry was a beneficiary of this government spending. The money led to significant advances for microwave components used in EW, ECM, guided tactical weapons, and tactical communications systems for command and control architecture. Commercially, the huge demand for voice and data transmission led to major advances in digital modulation techniques, satellite communication continued to advance, providing links for the distribution of content to local cable TV operators. GaAs and MMIC technology, driven by the needs of the military experienced great technical gains, yet also experienced a disastrous start in the commercial world and test & measurement showed significant advances due to microprocessors while computer aided design moved from the research lab to the microwave designer, aided by the personal computer.

The 1980s

February 1980

While the first issue of the new decade may have included a broader range of application topics (e.g. “Microwave Communications from the Outer Planets: The Voyager Project;” “A Rotating Directional Antenna Feed System for a Microwave Oven”; “Microwave Apparatus for the Treatment of Cancer by Hyperthermia;” and “A Synthesized Approach to Satellite-TV Reception”), February was focused on defense electronics. In a special report, Lynwood Cosby of Naval Research Labs wrote about the microwave challenges for EW applications in the ’80s. His two principle observations were that “A broad technology base must consistently exist to support the wide range of equipment development options.” The author described several past wartime events where a gap in electronic technology between combatants significantly influenced the outcome. He cautioned readers that “We must not fall in the trap of believing that EW is a mature technology.” The author’s other main observation (and by his accord—even greater significance”) was that “it is better to take a high-risk long-shot R&D approach rather than stay with a tried and proven approach.” Again the author used examples from history to lobby for what we frequently refer to now as “disruptive” technology. In presenting his case for taking a high risk approach to component design for EW, the author explicitly mentions solid-state technology. The defense department’s interest in solid-state technology and GaAs devices in particular is evident in numerous articles appearing in this issue and others throughout the ’80s.

Other defense related articles this month included a special report on the 1979 DoD/AOC (Association of Old Crows) EW Symposium, Principles of EW: Radar and EW; and a look at Navy Microwave Component Contracts by Eliot Cohen of NRL. The author looked specifically at contract programs to develop S-band power GaAs FETs, FET amplifiers (including low noise amplifiers), Schottky barrier mixer diodes (for use in 94 GHz systems) and monolithic integrated circuits. Contract winners mentioned by name included Avantek, Hughes Aircraft, Microwave Associates and Texas Instruments.

March 1980

Either by intent or coincidence, the following month was dedicated to the theme of microwave solid-state. In the guest editorial, “The First Thirty Years” by Lawrence Thielen of Avantek, the author congratulated Microwave Journal founder William Bazzy for predicting that “the microwave industry would come of age at the dawning of the ’80s.” The author cited the yearly revenue of the average mid-sized microwave component manufacturer and the value of a typical contract and concluded that the industry was too prosperous for the investment community to ignore. “These investors have come to realize that our once-fledgling cottage industry—largely DoD supported—is today an industry with great depth and breadth, and one with remarkable growth potential and staying power.” Another interesting comment from the author of this article, nearly 30 years old: “Our technology is even helping to reduce the debilitating effects of high-priced petro-energy—inexpensive, effective communications eliminates the need for many auto and airline trips.”

Theme-related articles included a special report from Keith Kennedy of Watkins-Johnson on the then recent technical advances and projections for continued improvements to microwave and millimeter-wave solid- state devices. Seeing solid-state as critical to reducing costs and forcing standardization, the author specifically called attention to advances in Gunn and IMPATT diode technology. Taking more of the spotlight than these two device types was the GaAs MESFET. Fellow W-J engineer, Karl Niclas wrote a technical article on GaAs MESFET feedback amplifiers. Ira Drukier of Microwave Semiconductor Corp. (MSC) discussed the “Design of a 15 GHz High Power GaAs FET.” The performance of this device from the early ’80s showed a peak output power of 30 dBm, 6.7 dB gain at 17.0 percent PAE. Raytheon technical guru and author of microwave device text books, Robert Pucell wrote an article entitled “Performance of GaAs MESFET Power Combiner” in which he described a four FET combiner that delivers over 2 W of output power at 10 GHz. Meanwhile, contributing editor Joseph White wrote a special report entitled “Why Go to MTT?”

May 1980

Microwave Journal dedicated its May issue to the MTT-S Symposium with the magazine cover showing the conference location (Washington, DC). The magazine included a listing of the complete technical guide and exhibitor list, and map of the exhibition floor plan. Editor Joseph White wrote the second of Microwave Journal’s annual “Attending the Conference” article. The format of the “show issue” and our extensive coverage began the year before in April 1979 and will go mostly unchanged right through today. Starting in 1980, however, the show issue is published every May up to the present.

January 1983

The January issue is dedicated to communication systems and featured articles describing an industry grappling with how to improve the capacity and efficiency of voice and data transmission. While cell phone technology is not among the challenges mentioned, the digital modulation techniques that will make cell phones feasible are the focus of several articles. The communication systems written about were concerned with applications such as common-carrier digital point-to-point terrestrial radios for long haul telecommunications, satellite relay links, privately owned digital switches and microwave links for industry and point-to-multipoint inter-city communication networks to mention a few.

By 1983, digital technology was being heavily investigated by the microwave world, made evident in a business/special report by guest editor Harold Sobol of Rockwell International (Collins Transmission Systems Division). In his article, “Progress in Microwave Communication Systems,” Sobol brings the reader up to speed on the state-of-the-art in communications equipment. “Digital radios for PCM voice and data transmission, interconnections of electronic digital switches and wideband encrypted messages have been in service during the last five years,” wrote Sobol. “Earth stations for satellite relay stations are undergoing enormous changes and direct broadcast video systems for residential use are just around the corner.”

Sobol described the primary factors responsible for changing microwave communications equipment to be “the growth of telecommunications in the public, private and government sectors and the demand for new types of service.” The goal then (and now) was to increase channel capacity within FCC allocated channels. Sobol wrote about analog long haul FM radios (6 GHz, 30 MHz BW, 2700 voice circuit capacity per channel) being replaced with SSB radios with 6000 voice circuit capacity (a significant improvement in spectrum utilization), the capacity of high density microwave digital radios (employing 8 PSK, 16 and 64 QAM modulation schemes) and the promise of fiber optics to address the channel capacity challenge. At the time of this editorial, new digital radio technology based on 64 QAM showed an increase in capacity of 50 percent at 6 GHz compared to the 8 PSK radios, which was the modulation technique in the majority of digital radios in use at the time. This put 64 QAM on par with analog FM, but still a far cry from the analog SSB radios.

May 1983

The Boston skyline at dusk graces the cover of the Journal in honor of the location of MTT-S in 1983. That year’s conference was projected to be the largest to date with 250+ exhibitors (an increase of 25 percent over the previous high). Guest Editorial included MTT-S Adcom president Charlie Rucker who wrote about the engineer supply problem. Technical Program Chair Ralph Levy and Consulting Editor Joe White who was also serving as Chair of Special Events wrote pre-show articles. Future Microwave Journal publisher/editor Harlan Howe served as the chairman of that year’s Steering Committee.

It was also a big year for microwave instrumentation equipment to appear on Microwave Journal covers, reflecting the developments occurring in the automation of test & measurement systems. These new capabilities were made possible in part through the recent advances in microprocessors. A fourth generation Hewlett-Packard scalar network analyzer was featured on the cover of March’s “microelectronics” issue, Wiltron’s 5669 ANA with a measurement sweep range up to 40 GHz was featured on the cover of the June “millimeter-wave” issue, a Marconi power meter that “exploits microprocessor capabilities to enhance the speed and accuracy of its average and peak power measurements” appeared on the April “microwave instrumentation” issue, another power meter appears on the November “super-components” issue (this time the “new” 438A dual sensor power meter from HP) and in December, a photo of a Wavetek model 952 1 to 4 GHz microwave source. This focus on instrumentation on the cover spills over into 1984 with the January cover featuring the new vector “real-time” network analyzer also from HP.

January 1988

Digital communication is again the focus of the January issue and in the five years since the editorial by Sobol, Ferdo Ivanek of Communications Research reports that the effort to match and eventually surpass the spectral efficiency of SSB via digital radio is about half the way to its goal with a system using 256 QAM (not yet in commercial operation). However, work is already under way to double the spectral efficiency through frequency re-use with orthogonal polarizations. The gap continued to close between analog and digital radios.

The author mentioned that achieving greater spectral efficiency would come at the cost of system complexity, which in turn would require higher-levels of circuit integration. At the time, high level integration was beyond the state-of-the-art for GaAs MMICs, but was well within the reach of CMOS. An additional challenge for multilevel modulation methods used by these digital radios was the serious performance degradation of nearly saturated solid-state power amplifiers due to nonlinear behavior. The hope of achieving greater capacity through digital modulation would depend on advances in developing RF integrated circuit technology. Of the other papers that month addressing digital microwave communications, three are system related dealing with high capacity transmission using 16 QAM, 64 QAM and 256 QAM, and the other two are on microwave components—power amplifiers and oscillators.

Several times that year, the state of GaAs technology and the GaAs market comes under scrutiny. The first article dealing with this topic is “The Elusive GaAs MMIC Market” by Jeff Montgomery of ElectroniCast Corp. Since Frank Brand wrote in Microwave Journal 10 years earlier that the promise of GaAs could be threatened by a shortage of material suppliers, 30 laboratories worldwide had made major investments in the technology (partially with US government support). Investments of $91 M in 1987 were expected to reach $194 M by 1992 in pursuit of business projected to be within the range of $500 M to over a $1 B by 1991. Nice return. Unfortunately, at the time of this article, the author reported that the enthusiasm of almost every laboratory manager was in decline as they were beginning to conclude that high volume use of GaAs MMIC was much further out than originally projected. Why? The earlier studies were based on the consensus views of the researchers themselves rather than the markets they would be selling into. Because most labs were captive, MMIC researchers and manufacturers could not see past their own needs. The importance of high volume production and low cost was initially off everyone’s radar.

A similar outlook was shared by editor Joe White in his April article “GaAs: The Bumpy Road.” White wrote that the market for GaAs devices could be met by two firms; the remainder represented manufacturing overcapacity. Still, speed performance including that of the relatively new HEMT devices fueled the remaining optimism for the technology. Various individuals provided their predictions as to who would succeed and who would fail. Some would re-coup their investment by offering foundry services offering MMIC circuit realization (three to five wafer execution over six months at a cost between $50,000 and $100,000) while others would succeed by finding the right niche markets best suited for the benefits of GaAs devices and not hampered by any technical or production-related downside. The losers would likely be captive fabs with only a military customer to cover their expenses.

Nineteen eighty-eight saw new activity on the computer simulation front with an ad from Compact Software depicting a new nonlinear simulator for microwave frequencies based on a technique known as harmonic balance. The simulator called Microwave Harmonica is portrayed as a race car, speeding past another race car labeled SPICE. Microwave Harmonica would be the cover story (“New Design Workstation Simplifies the Design Process”) of the July issue that year. EEsof, which introduced the PC platform-based Touchstone circuit design product in 1983, introduced Omnisys. This simulator specifically for microwave system designers made its Journal debut as an insert in the May Show issue and in a technical feature that month. Hewlett Packard (now Agilent) would acquire EEsof to compliment its design software product called Microwave Design System (MDS) and eventually both products would be replaced by the familiar ADS product still in use today.

January 1989

In the first issue closing out the decade, Microwave Journal Staff Editors Martin Stiglitz and Lloyd Resnick provided a report on the government program that, unlike any other, tied together all the advances in solid-state processing and design development, test and measurement techniques and computer-aided design and would propel these technologies to the next level. Their article—”The MIMIC Program: A Technology Impact Report”—gave an excerpt on the MIMIC program, including its goals, structure, program phases, and the targeted military and commercial applications. This program epitomized the convergence of technical advances that took place over this phenomenal decade in microwave technology. MIMIC was a R&D effort sponsored by the DoD and conducted by DARPA and the military services. Together, they would be responsible for developing a family of monolithic analog integrated circuits and modules that could be used in the front-end of military electronic systems operating at microwave or mm-wave frequencies.

The program was modeled after the very high-speed IC (VHSIC) program and would be largely responsible for inter-company cooperation and technical developments that would not likely be pursued by civilian companies because of the limited commercial potential. However, the resulting advances would create new markets and opportunities similar to those created by the development of the Internet (another DARPA project). It is hard to imagine how today’s mobile communication would have been possible without the influence of this program. It may also be equally hard to find a microwave engineer over the age of 40 who was not somehow connected to this program directly.


Driven by social and political activity, which was responsible for increased investment in military R&D, significant advances in solid-state processing and design for RF/microwave devices, modules and integrated circuits took place. Along with high-frequency device technology, advances in digital ICs provided the technology that would forever change the capabilities of test & measurement equipment and the computers that would host the new computer-aided design software that was becoming more abundant for microwave design. The industry would also be focused on developing methods to improve spectral efficiency to address the growing demand for data transmission. All these developments of the 1980s and the ending of the Cold War would provide the perfect alignment of resources, technology and need for new markets that would help our industry take on and achieve commercial success of an unprecedented scale—the wireless revolution of the 1990s.