Bernard (Barney) Oliver

Barney Oliver

Barney Oliver had an early interest in astronomy but opted to study electrical engineering, a decision based on his expectation that there would be few jobs in astronomy during the Depression. A personal acquaintance of Bill Hewlett and David Packard, Oliver eventually joined their fledgling company as the first Director of what became Hewlett-Packard Labs. More than anyone else, he was responsible for the development of the pocket calculator.

In 1961, intrigued by the pioneer SETI observations of Frank Drake, Oliver flew to Green Bank, West Virginia to take part in the first conference devoted to the search for intelligence in the universe. A decade later, Oliver, together with NASA’s John Billingham, directed a summer study at the Ames Research Center on how to use radio telescopes to find extraterrestrial societies. The resulting “Cyclops Report” became the basis for many modern SETI efforts.

The development of a NASA SETI project (eventually named the High-Resolution Microwave Survey) led to the creation of the SETI Institute. Oliver had funded Tom Pierson from San Francisco State University to study several alternative business plans in order to make more efficient use of the available NASA funds. The best model was a non-profit institute that would become the employer of all the local soft-money faculty with whom the NASA team was contracting (at indirect cost rates of 100 percent.) An institute could then set an IDC rate that reflected the true price of doing business, closer to 20 percent. Oliver eventually served as senior manager of the NASA SETI program.

In 1993, when Congressional action ended NASA’s involvement in SETI, Oliver was the motive power behind the effort to find philanthropic funding to continue the search.

Oliver’s legacy is manifest in the enormous body of ideas and insights he left behind, as well as in the support that has allowed the SETI Institute to continue blazing the trail he opened. An endowed chair with his name is now the locus of SETI research at the Institute.

With his stentorian voice and incandescent intelligence, Oliver was a central figure in the blossoming of both the Silicon Valley and modern SETI.