• photo of Peter O. Clark
    Peter O. Clark

Member Spotlight: Peter Clark

Name: Peter O. Clark
Member Since: 2002
Membership Level: President's Circle
Chapter: Northern California
Job Title: Retired

Tell me how you first got involved with the Caltech Associates and why supporting Caltech is important to you?

I was recruited into the Associates by Milton Chang. Milton and I had been graduate students together in the Electrical Engineering department at Caltech with the same advisor. I graduated a few years before him, and we lost touch. We ran into each other at a Northern California Alumni event in 2000. At that time Milton was running his own venture capital firm, and I was the CEO of Hitachi Semiconductor America. Milton persuaded me to jump ship from the corporate world and take over one of his startups. As he put it, you can't have worked in [Silcon] Valley and not run a startup. Soon after, he introduced me to the Associates, and I joined.

I have been fortunate to have had a very personally satisfying career. During this time I tackled a broad range of opportunities, both in terms of technology and organizations. I view my success as in large part due to what I learned at Caltech—not just the technology, but how to look at a new problem and/or opportunity with fresh eyes. So for me supporting Caltech is my way to pay back and help provide the same learning experiences to others.

What do you wish other people knew about the Caltech Associates?

It is more than an organization that raises money for Caltech. It is a group of people, both alumni and non-alumni, the majority of whom have the same interest—to ensure that Caltech continues as the preeminent institution of its kind in the United States and the world. Speaking as a unified group we can provide input to the administration that one could not as an individual.

What do you enjoy most about being a Caltech Associate?

I enjoy meeting and interacting with Associates with whom, at the beginning, I may have only two things in common—we are Associates and, at least in Northern California, we are most probably Caltech graduates. Then the real enjoyment begins, comparing our days at Caltech, learning about each other's professional journeys, what outside activities we may enjoy in common, et certera.

Outside of your involvement as a Caltech Associates board member and serving on the Northern California Committeee, what do you do?

I volunteer in the San Francisco area. I am a docent at the California Academy of Sciences and the San Francisco Zoo. I spend as much time as is possible with my grandsons, which is a challenge since our family is spread around the world. I like to travel to interesting places and try to take one or two trips each year. I like living in San Francisco, it is a city with a constantly changing menu of things to do and places to investigate.

What might we be surprised to know about you?

During the summer as a high school student in Canada I raced outboard hydroplanes on a circuit which extended through Quebec and Ontario and northern New York State.

Do you have a favorite Caltech story or moment?

When I arrived at Caltech in 1960, I was recruited by Professor Nicholas George to be one of his first students to do research in the new field of lasers. Having no idea what a laser was, I agreed. Fast forward to June 1962: I was working alone at night in my lab in Spalding and succeeded in achieving our first demonstration of a HeNe laser. Until then the only other success in the country had been a few months earlier at Bell Labs on the East Coast. So I call Nick, he calls his sponsor, Dr. George Smith, Associate Director of the Hughes Research Labs, who drives to Pasadena from his home in Westchester with two bottles of champagne, a small crowd gathers, and we have a celebration. The Caltech PR machine springs to action, and a full-page spread about lasers comes out in the July 8 edition of the Los Angeles Timesfeaturing a picture of yours truly in the lab leaning over the laser, and would you believe wearing a white shirt and tie! Little did I know at the time, that was the start of a career in lasers, and I eventually went to DARPA in the mid-1970s to run the Department of Defense's high energy laser program. It was there that I and two DARPA colleagues, Ed Gerry and Gene Kopf, initiated the technology efforts in space-based lasers and large optics, which laid the groundwork for President Reagan's "Star Wars" initiative.