McCormick Magazine

Bridging the educational divide

Bob Taggart shrinks the globe, one dish at a time

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ottino and taggartIn any number of villages throughout the developing world — far from most modern amenities — it is not uncommon to find a humble dwelling adorned with a satellite dish. Consider it the evidence of Bob Taggart's lifetime of work.

As a researcher and an entrepreneur, Taggart (BS mechanical engineering '67, MS biomedical engineering '68) has played an integral part in the development and distribution of low-cost satellite dishes that have helped bring informational and educational television to poor communities around the world.

Now residing in Portola Valley, California, with his wife, Donna, Taggart is founder and chief executive officer of Chaparral Communications, based in nearby San Jose. The company has been at the forefront of providing components for satellite television systems for the past 29 years. Chaparral found its most profitable niche building the low-noise block feed — the device that sits in the center of the dish collecting and amplifying the signal and down-converting the frequency so it can be received on a set-top box.

But it is the social impact of the work that brings the most satisfaction to Taggart, a dedicated alumnus who has served on the McCormick Advisory Council for the past 14 years and the Stanford Mechanical Engineering Advisory Council for the past five. "I believe that education is the best thing you could provide to developing nations to bootstrap the whole economy," he says. "An education helps people separate themselves from the usual plight of people in developing nations, which is not too hopeful."

A chance to shine
Given the hurdles Taggart faced on his own educational journey, it's easy to understand his passion. Taggart credits his experience at McCormick for making his rewarding and fulfilling career possible. And his ensuing success is all the more remarkable considering the tough times he overcame.

After struggling with grades as a freshman at Northwestern, Taggart had to cope with personal tragedy when both his parents fell terminally ill. As a sophomore, lacking money for tuition and with his grades only beginning to improve, he was expecting he'd have to continue his education elsewhere when he met with director of undergraduate admissions and financial aid Bill Ihlanfeldt.

"I was just trying to borrow enough money to get through the quarter so I could go out and find a job," Taggart recalls. "I thought I had screwed up the deal."

Thus it was no small shock a few days later when Ihlanfeldt presented him with a scholarship and loan package that allowed him to continue his studies at Northwestern. Taggart says the unexpected assistance caused him to rededicate himself and approach his academic career with a new vigor.

"I really started to shine at that point," he explains. "I got some great grades in my last two years, and that made the difference in my whole life."

Taggart, who calls himself a born "builder of things," was rewarded for his improved academic standing with a National Institutes of Health Fellowship to pursue his master's degree at McCormick. He went on to flourish as a biomedical engineering graduate student under the tutelage of Professor Lyle Mockros, whom Taggart calls a "great inspiration."

taggartTaggart's turnaround paid dividends one day in 1968 when his phone rang as he sat in his office at Tech staring out at the snow and slush. The call was from Stanford University,
which, in partnership with NASA, was explo-ring the possibility of using high-powered satellites to transmit signals to small, low-cost dishes as a means of disseminating information to the developing world. Previous systems utilized low-powered satellites to transmit signals to massive, expensive dishes.

Even though Taggart had no background in satellite communications, the Stanford team wanted him on board. "They needed someone in six months, so they must have been desperate — the Ts are pretty close to the end of the alphabet," Taggart jokes. "They said if I decided to accept, they'd set up a program and teach me everything I needed to know about communications and antenna design. They said, 'We want you to give it some thought and call us back because we have to move on this.'"

Staring out at the winter gloom, Taggart says he thought about the California weather and could practically hear a Beach Boys tune playing in his head. It took him about 10 seconds to decide. He accepted the offer to move to an area that would soon become famous under a new moniker — Silicon Valley.

A new age
At Stanford, Taggart's pioneering research helped usher in a new age of low-cost satellite television. "I'm not hogging the credit for this, to be sure," he says. "I stepped into the program to really make it practical. That's just one of my niches — I'm good at figuring stuff out and making it simple and low cost."

Taggart next put that talent to work at Hewlett Packard, where he worked closely with the legendary Bill Hewlett and in 1974 was a key player in the development of the HP-65, the world's first card-programmable handheld calculator. He spent eight years at HP before moving on to an upstart called Apple Computer and then going into the satellite television business by founding Chaparral Communications out of his garage in 1980.

"We started the company primarily to provide television to people living in rural areas with these fairly large dishes operating at C band," Taggart explains. "These dishes were 10 feet in diameter, more or less, and that was a very popular service, with about 4 or 5 million of them installed in the United States — primarily on farms and in rural areas. It sort of equalized the availability of information for people who lived in rural areas compared to those who already received cable in suburban and urban areas."

From its humble origins, Chaparral eventually turned Taggart into a world traveler as it expanded from the United States and Europe to the Middle East, Pacific Rim, and North Africa.

Today the bulk of Chaparral's business is in Latin America. It maintains an office in Mexico City and sold 35,000 systems to the government of Mexico for use in primary and secondary schools.

"Most developing countries have very few teachers," Taggart notes. "It's better to develop programming with the best teachers and transmit it to schools so that the teacher's helper can be at the school while the children watch. They get a really good lesson and a good education.

"It seems to me that when we design and develop technologies for the humblest of people — the poorest of people — that certainly benefits all of us."

—Michael Klitzing