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Edward Keonjian: The High-IQ, Armenian-American Forrest Gump of Microelectronics, Part 1

The 1986 novel Forrest Gump and the 1994 movie based on the novel depicted a man who was present at many significant events in the 20th century. In that same way, Edward Keonjian managed to be closely associated with many developments in electronics, especially microelectronics. The fictitious character Forrest Gump supposedly had a low IQ, but he loved meeting people. The very real Edward Keonjian also loved meeting people, and he clearly had very high intelligence.

I’d never heard of Keonjian, but my friend Jack Rubin mentioned his name to me. Jack is a student of electronics history and spends his days resurrecting old HP computers, and because I helped to design some of those old computers, we became friends. I started to research Keonjian. A name like that makes him easy to research. In the end, I purchased three of his out-of-print books. This article series is based on Keonjian’s autobiography, Survived to Tell, and two additional books that Keonjian co-authored: Principles of Transistor Circuits and Microelectronics: Design, Theory, and Fabrication.

Edward Keonjian was born to Armenian parents in the city of Tiflis, now called Tbilisi, which is now the capital city of the country of Georgia. Keonjian’s father and grandfather fled from the Turks in 1905 and settled in Tiflis, where Keonjian was born in 1909. That was before the Russian Revolution in 1917, so Keonjian grew up under Russian Tsarist rule until the revolution. After the revolution, Georgia declared its independence, which lasted until 1921 when the Red Army established the new ruler of Georgia, the Soviet Union (USSR). Keonjian then lived under Soviet rule during the 1920s and 1930s, and his autobiography does a wonderful job of describing life in the Soviet Union back then.

When he was 14 years old, around 1923, Keonjian discovered the relatively new field of radio. That’s when Tiflis got its first radio transmitter. Keonjian built a crystal radio receiver, strung 600 feet of wire across the neighbors’ rooftops, and started listening to radio stations from near and far. That’s when his love of electronics began. When he was 17, Keonjian’s parents separated, and his mother cut him off financially when Keonjian refused to follow in her footsteps and become a physician. He decided to go to Leningrad to study electronics at the Leningrad Electrotechnical Institute (LETI), where he earned a master’s degree and a “kandidat nauk,” the equivalent of a PhD, in electrical (radio) communications.

After graduating from LETI, Keonjian was obliged to give the Soviet government three years of service in return for his education. The government sent Keonjian to the Ural Mountains northwest of Siberia and put him in charge of radio wave propagation experiments. During this expedition, Keonjian had his first brush with Soviet doctrine and the Soviet secret police, the NKVD. He narrowly avoided arrest for trying to finish the assigned experiments by crossing the border into Finland. A former professor, now an admiral, shielded him and he avoided getting deported, sent to Siberia, imprisoned, or killed.

Keonjian was still living in Leningrad and teaching at LETI when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. He was there when the Siege of Leningrad started a few months later. Keonjian’s autobiography devotes many pages to this period and describes in excruciating detail the deprivations, the starvation, the disease, the freezing, and the deaths during this siege. At one point, an emaciated Keonjian falls ill, is declared dead, and is eventually tossed into a mass grave. Hence the name of his autobiography, Survived to Tell. Miraculously, a friend searching for Keonjian spots a slightly moving hand poking out of the snow atop the bodies. It’s Keonjian’s hand. The friend rescues him and nurses him back to health. Estimates put the number of dead Soviet soldiers and civilians during the Siege of Leningrad at 1.5 million people. Another 1.4 million people were evacuated, and many of those people died from starvation, disease, and cold in the process.

The autobiography describes Keonjian’s evacuation and miraculous escape from Leningrad. He escaped to Mineral’nyye Vody, a town in the northern Caucasus Mountains, where he was reunited with his wife Virginia and son who’d left Leningrad for a vacation before the start of the siege. Although it appeared that his luck had turned, the German army took control of Mineral’nyye Vody in January 1943 and shipped many civilians including Keonjian and his family to a Nazi slave labor work camp in Goblenz, Czechoslovakia. Prisoners in this camp stripped downed enemy aircraft for parts and reassembled the components into war material for the German war effort.

At one point, when the Red Army started to draw nearer and nearer, and with Soviet artillery sounding in the distance, the camp’s Nazi commandant came to Keonjian, told him that he knew of Keonjian’s degrees in electronics, and promised he’d kill Keonjian and his family before letting the Soviets have him back. That same night, Keonjian’s family fled from the camp. In fluent German, Keonjian’s wife browbeat the nearby German stationmaster into letting her family onto a train without proper papers, and the Keonjians rode multiple trains to Rottweil, a town in southwest Germany where Armenian displaced people (DPs) were gathering.

After Germany’s surrender to the Allies, the Keonjian family faced the unpleasant prospect of being returned to the Soviet Union as part of a United Nations agreement. Instead, Keonjian opted to flee over the border to the American occupation zone in west Germany. Over the next several weeks, he recrossed the border and brought his son and then his wife back with him. Reunited, the family made it to Stuttgart, where a camp had been set up for displaced Armenians by UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency.

After many struggles with bureaucrats, the family managed to arrange visas and sailed to the United States aboard the USS Ernie Pyle, which they boarded in Bremerhaven, Germany. The Keonjians arrived in New York City on February 14, 1947, after eleven days at sea. They were malnourished, penniless, and war weary. None of them spoke English.

Edward Keonjian had avoided death from starvation, disease, and several more times at the hands of the German army, the Gestapo, a zealous Nazi labor camp commandant, and Moroccan mercenaries. Although that’s enough adventure to fill an entire war movie, Keonjian’s adventures had just begun, now that he’d arrived in New York. In December 1947, exactly ten months after Keonjian and his family disembarked from the USS Ernie Pyle, John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley successfully developed the first working transistor at Bell Labs. Keonjian was finally in the right place at the right time. He was now positioned to resume his decades-long love of electronics, and he’d arrived in the US just in time for the solid-state revolution.

Reference

Edward Keonjian, Survived to Tell, Sunstone Press, 1997

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