Sidney Topol Papers
A pioneer in satellite technologies and entrepreneurial leader of Scientific-Atlanta, Sidney Topol's career spanned the nuclear age and space age and helped spur the globalization of telecommunication. His work on microwave systems with Raytheon in the 1950s and with satellite in the 1960s and 1970s helped lay the foundation for overseas broadcasting and made the cable television industry into a practical reality.
Born on Dec. 28, 1924, the son of Polish immigrants, Topol was a first generation American raised in a hard-working family in Dorchester. After an exceptional education at the Boston Latin School, and not yet 17 years old, Topol enrolled at Massachusetts State College in 1941 with the intention of studying chemistry, although Pearl Harbor changed that before his first semester had ended. Shortly after turning 18, he enlisted for service in the Army Air Corps and won admittance into a highly selective program to train meteorologists at the University of Michigan. When that program became over-enrolled just four months later, he chose to become a communications officer and was asked to join an elite group accepted into the radar school at Harvard and MIT, where he learned the details of every airborne radar known at the time. His stint in the Air Corps included nearly a year as a telephone officer in Tokyo and Nagoya, Japan, where he was introduced to point to point microwave, and established a solid foundation for his future career.
With the credits he had earned in the service, Topol completed his BS in physics at the University of Massachusetts after only one more semester, and he was immediately hired by the Naval Research Laboratory as a Physicist. Assigned to a pioneering project on helical antennas working out of the radiation lab, Topol thrived at work, but after only two years in Washington, he decided to pursue a graduate degree under Samuel Silver, formerly of MIT but now at the University of California Berkeley. He realized quickly, however, that he enjoyed work more than study, and in 1949, he accepted an offer with Raytheon in Newton, Mass., to work on antenna design, making use of both the radar and antenna training he had received in the military.
Raytheon was an industry leader in communications technology, and Topol soon was author of several patents in antennas, including one that became the standard transportable radar used by NATO. He switched to point to point microwave design in about 1950, having gotten bored with antennas, and became a project engineer for a portable television relay link for electronic news gathering (ENG), and his work had strong implications for transmission in color and for the beginnings of standardization in the industry. The portable link was introduced at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in 1953.
Topol rose quickly at Raytheon, become Engineering Manager and then Director of Marketing for Raytheon-Europe, where he helped form Selenia Telecommunications, a highly-profitable joint venture in microwave technologies with Fin Mecannica, winning an early contract to build a microwave radar network to tie together the radars in Sweden. After several years working as General Manager for Selenia in Rome, he returned to the United States in 1965 to become General Manager of the Communications Division in Norwood, Mass.
Raytheon had begun work on satellite communications in the aftermath of Sputnik, and although he had begun thinking about satellites while in Europe, the technologies were still evolving. At Norwood, Topol helped oversee construction of the first global-scale "earth station" satellite dishes for the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (INTELSAT), which bounced voice and television transmissions off of stationary orbiting satellites as a means of distributing the signal around the world. The earth stations allowed, for the first time, the transmission of transoceanic television broadcasts without the need for relay links, much less wire connections.
In 1971, Topol was lured away from Raytheon to join a small, twenty-year old telecommunications manufacturing firm in Georgia, Scientific-Atlanta. Given "free rein and the ability to make decisions" autonomously, Topol was able to focus his attention on communications technology, rather than the military applications that were core activities at Raytheon. Drawing on his expertise in satellite systems, Topol recognized an opportunity in the cable television industry, allowing cable companies to use satellite links to deliver content ranging from uncut films to sports broadcasts, but also an opportunity to develop television receiving equipment. By stepping up production of earth stations, he helped make satellite communication cost effective for cable companies, using "forward pricing" -- selling dishes for what they would cost when the economy of scale kicked in rather than the actual cost of production -- he helped spur investment in his approach. During his 19 years with Scientific-Atlanta, Topol oversaw the expansion of the firm from $16 million in sales to over $600 million, due in large part to his success in strategically positioning the company to become a global force in the satellite and cable television industries. As President (1971-1983), CEO (1975-1987), Chairman of the Board (1978-1990), and Director (1971-1997), Topol was instrumental in the merger of cable and satellite, which along with programming developed by HBO and the development of transportable earth stations developed by TelePrompTer an manufactured by Scientific-Atlanta, helped establish satellite-delivered television for the cable industry.
Deeply involved with professional and community organizations, Topol was a key figure involved in the jockeying over the introduction of High Definition Television (HDTV) and was Chair of the Electronic Industries Association Advanced Television Committee (ATV) during the late 1980s and early 1990s. He was asked to serve as co-Chair with Ann McLaughlin (former Secretary of Labor) and Jimmy Carter for the Conference on Competitiveness at the Carter Center in Atlanta (1988), and he was Chair of the Massachusetts Telecommunications Council (1993-1995). He slowly retired from Scientific-Atlanta in the 1980s and early 1990s, but was lured into becoming Director and Vice Chairman of Monitor Television Inc. (1991) before settling into a firmer retirement. Even then, he founded the Topol Group LLC, a consulting and investment firm, and expanding his charitable giving, supporting education and peace initiatives in the Middle East, among many other causes.
During his long career, Topol received many awards for his work as an innovator and entrepreneur in the satellite and cable industries, as well as for his philanthropic work. He has been awarded the Corporate Leadership Award by MIT (1980), the Vanguard Award by the National Cable Television Association (1980), the Polly Dunn Award of the Southern Cable Television Association (1991); he was an honoree of the Walter Kaitz Foundation of New York (1991) and of Women in Cable (1990); and he was awarded the Medal of Honor of the Electronic Industries Association (1989), the Association's highest award. Named Man of the Year by Boston Latin School (1982), he was also cited as Executive of Year by the College of Business Administration at the University of Georgia (1989), and is a member of the Satellite Hall of Fame (1991). His alma mater has recognized him with its Alumni Award from the School of Management (1990) and with an honorary doctorate (1985).