Robert B. Fenwick

For his visionary contributions as an inventor and entrepreneur in electronic communications, the Schools of Engineering are proud to present the Distinguished Engineering Alumnus Award to Robert B. Fenwick.

Chairman Emeritus
On Command Video Corporation
BSEE '58


On Purdue and educational influences

My father was a Purdue EE, and I'd been heavily involved in amateur radio, so it seemed logical for me to study electrical engineering at Purdue. My brothers and I ended up at Purdue after a man from the university alumni association came to Phoenix and spoke at an alumni group, which included our father. [Dr. Fenwick is one of a set of identical triplets.]

My mother always thought you were subhuman if you got anything but A's, so my brothers and I got almost all A's throughout our schooling. We had to work fairly hard to do that. Two of us were in electrical engineering; one was in industrial psychology. We were also in the Purdue Glee Club, and we did quite a bit of traveling around the Midwest.

One person at Purdue who influenced me greatly was Paul Chenea, a professor of electrical engineering who taught electromagnetic theory. He really opened my eyes to what a truly brilliant man looked like. He was certainly the smartest man I'd ever come across.

Another important influence was Professor O. G. Villard Jr., the thesis adviser for my Ph.D. at Stanford. He took a lot of interest in me: he went to the government and got literally millions of dollars to support my research, and he took me to government meetings and introduced me to important people who eventually became my customers.

On entrepreneurship, his career, and the future

My brothers and I had an entrepreneurial bent as children. We earned money by putting out our own newspaper-we had a hundred subscribers. We also had two newspaper routes. I remember selling vegetables door to door, too, to provide money for the family. I've always been a day-at-a-time person. As a student, it never even crossed my mind what my career would look like.

I've had two major inventions-things that change the way a given field does something forever. As a graduate student at Stanford, I invented a system for synthesizing linear frequency sweeps. That system has become the worldwide standard for oblique ionospheric sounding.

The other invention was the development of an on-demand video system. I got the idea one evening at home while I was watching 60 Minutes. I wondered why it was that I had to watch that on Sunday. Why not another day? At any time? And why couldn't I call up any issue of the program whenever I wanted? Developing that system turned out to be a lot more complicated than I thought-I knew nothing about television. But On Command Video has become the largest supplier of on-demand video in the world. We'll soon be in half a million hotel rooms worldwide.

In the years ahead, On Command Video will have to convert totally to digital technology. That's going to take a lot of work. As chairman emeritus, I'll be working my way out of the current company affiliation over the next three years and waiting for more ideas to come to me from out of the blue. I'm standing by, waiting to have another one of these strokes of intuition.

On civic and professional activities

I'm currently a board member of the Electronic Association of California and of Scholar Opera; I'm on the advisory board of the Community School of Music and Art in Mt. View, California; and I'm a member of the Peninsula Conservation Center Trust Fund's board of directors. I've also hosted special events for many organizations at my home.

I have memberships in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the International Scientific Radio Union.


1996:
Chairman Emeritus, On Command Video.
1986-95:
Chairman and CEO, On Command Video. Led the company to its position as the world's largest supplier of on-demand video entertainment and information systems.
1986:
Founded On Command Video, which provides instant access to pay-per-view movies and information videos at the viewer's convenience.
1985-88:
Chairman, BR Communications.
1974-85:
Chairman and President, BR Communications.
1966-74:
Vice President, Barry Research. Headed special development projects and invented the time-diversity modem for HF radio teleprinter use.
1966:
Co-founder, Barry Research. BR makes unique FM/CW ionosphere sounding equipment and modems for the military and diplomatic communications markets.
1963-67:
Research Associate, Stanford. Invented the Chirpsounder HF sounding t echnique.

BSEE '58, Purdue; MSEE '59, PhD '63, Stanford. Four patents. Outstanding Elect rical Engineer '93.