Remembering Walter Zable and Cubic’s Era of Electronics Innovation

6/26/12Follow @bvbigelow

San Diego’s local newspapers served up big stories today about the death of Walter J. Zable, who founded San Diego-based Cubic Corp. (NYSE: CUB) in 1951 and continued to serve as chairman and CEO for the next 61 years.

Today the little electronics business he started in a Point Loma garage is a stalwart defense contractor and electronics supplier, as well as a maker of automated fare payment equipment for public transit systems. The company has more than 7,800 employees and posted revenue of $1.28 billion last year.

Zable, who turned 97 on Father’s Day, was the world’s oldest public company CEO, according to data compiled last year by Governance Metrics International for a column by FT.com blogger Andrew Hill on “The 16 Oldest Chief Executives in the World.” Zable died Saturday; Cubic announced his death yesterday.

Longtime friend and Cubic board member Robert Sullivan, who is dean of UC San Diego’s Rady School of Management, told U-T San Diego that Zable was in great spirits on his birthday. “His mind, as usual, was as sharp as a tack,” Sullivan said.

While Cubic is not widely recognized today as a crucible for technology innovation, the company was a pioneer in postwar electronics development. As U-T reporter Mike Freeman noted:

—Cubic made microwave-based distance measuring devices that revolutionized offshore construction, oil exploration, pipe laying, and surveying. The company later introduced an infrared laser system, which was accurate to a centimeter over distances of nearly 25 miles.

—Cubic developed the first geodetic survey satellite in 1964, as well as sophisticated missile tracking antennas. Its technology was used on Apollo space capsules and the Hubble Space Telescope. GPS technology introduced in the 1980s eventually made Cubic’s technology measuring systems obsolete.

—Cubic developed the first air combat training system for the “Top Gun” flight school at the former Miramar Naval Air Station. The company later developed similar combat training equipment for tracking ground forces during war games.

—The company developed automation technology for elevators that eliminated the need for elevator operators.

—Cubic made the first electronic scoreboard, which was installed in a San Diego stadium in 1966. It also built an electronic voting records system in the 1960s.

Zable was born in Los Angeles, but he came of age during the Great Depression in Boston, where his father was a mill worker. He was enthralled with electronics as a child, and could build electric motors and generators from scratch by the time he started high school at the Boston Trade School, according to a 2001 interview he gave Ozzie Roberts of the San Diego Union-Tribune.

“Electronics and athletics were my life,” Zable told the U-T columnist. After workouts on the field (he excelled in football, track & field, and baseball), Zable said he’d study during the evening at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Wentworth Institute of Technology. He attended the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, VA, on a full athletic and academic scholarship, and graduated with a bachelor of science degree in physics in 1937. He got a master’s in physics and math at the University of Florida, married his college sweetheart, and moved to Southern California in the early years of World War II.

Durng the war, Zable specialized in antenna technology at Convair, the San Diego aircraft manufacturer that built B-24 Liberator heavy bombers and PBY Catalina “flying boats” for Allied forces. He started his own business in 1949 and formed Cubic in 1951 to launch his first product, a device for measuring and testing microwave output. His wife Betty, who was Cubic’s employee No. 2, died in 2007.

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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