Photo of Rudolf Kompfner

Rudolf Kompfner

  • National Medal of Science
  • Engineering

For his invention of the traveling-wave tube and for major contributions to communication satellites and to optical communications.

Before he dabbled in science, Rudolf Kompfner was an Austrian and an architect – two lone traits he shared with the former Nazi dictator. It’s a morbid comparison once dredged up during his civil service exam: “Tell me which is the better architect,” he was asked, “you or Hitler?”

“What I built still stands,” Kompfner replied.

The same long-lasting sentiment describes his most famous invention, the traveling-wave tube (TWT), a communications device used in satellites to amplify radio frequencies.

While practicing architecture, Kompfner nurtured his love of physics at night by reading journals and books at a nearby patent office.

Kompfner was briefly interned during World War II, where he met – and learned from – famous detained physicists.

Upon release, he joined the British Admiralty’s secret tube research center, where he created the TWT in 1943. His later work at Bell Laboratories, including contributions to the Echo and Telstar satellites, led to more than 55 patents.