A childhood fascination with a shortwave radio triggered an irrepressible mission in professor and patent-holder Allen Katz that’s persisted a half-century: to turn budding engineers into crack problem-solvers.
In 1971, Allen Katz was tapped to help launch an ambitious new engineering program at Trenton State College that merged hands-on learning with rigorous technical training. There was just one hitch: The program’s budget didn’t quite match its big dreams.
But the young electrical engineering professor — a self-taught amateur radio enthusiast who’d been building his own transmitters since he was 13 years old — was undeterred. The lack of funding was less a problem than a puzzle to be solved.
Over the next few years, Katz sent out stacks of grant applications and collaborated with colleagues to rewrite the curriculum to fit a new vision. He arranged for students to use the machine labs at Mercer County Community College, sometimes driving them over himself. And he dreamt up inspired hacks to conduct high-level classes, once instructing students to solder together empty tin cans collected from the dining hall for a lesson about radio waves. “Engineering is making things work and solving problems and figuring out how to put the pieces together,” Katz says. “It’s exciting if I can take something that is already there and turn it into something that is more valuable.”
More than 50 years later, TCNJ’s School of Engineering is defined by the innovative thinking that Katz modeled for his earliest students. With six majors and an immersive capstone project, the school educates roughly 700 students a year and propels graduates toward careers in academia and elite destinations such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and NASA.
Katz, who is now TCNJ’s longest serving faculty member, resists any credit for the program’s success, deflecting praise instead toward cherished colleagues across every decade. “We have some really special faculty here,” he says. “All along the way, they’ve been important contributors. The school wouldn’t be where it is if it wasn’t for them. One person doesn’t make it.”
But Katz’s impact on TCNJ is undeniable. Since arriving on campus, his efforts to support student success have extended well beyond the walls of his classroom. In 1976, he cofounded what would become the world’s first and longest running computer festival to help raise money for TCNJ’s burgeoning engineering program. The Trenton Computer Festival, which remains a source of scholarship funds, drew 13,000 visitors to campus at its peak and once featured Bill Gates as keynote speaker.
In 1991, Katz invited a handful of students to help him produce electronic components that would allow data to more efficiently reach space satellites. They built early models in the basement workshop of his West Windsor, New Jersey, home and later launched Linearizer Technology, Inc. The company — recently sold for $49 million to Macom, a Massachusetts-based supplier of semiconductor products — has been a vital internship and employment pipeline for TCNJ students and alumni, and has donated more than $285,000 to the School of Engineering.
“He’s incredibly devoted to TCNJ,” says Andrea Welker, dean of the School of Engineering. “He was there from the beginning and helped build the department from nothing. To me, that’s his legacy. He took that risk and that opportunity to build something that was long lasting. He stuck with it and here it is.”
On campus, Katz is an iconic figure, easy to spot in the signature black beret embroidered with his ham radio call sign (K2UYH) that he wears for every occasion. Over the years, he has taught roughly 2,000 students, not only leading them through his notoriously difficult circuits lab, but also hosting ham radio lessons at the 28-foot dish in his backyard and helping map career paths.
For Macom engineer Christopher Tenev ’19, Katz did all three. “He was my professor at TCNJ, my boss at Linearizer, and he has also been an amateur radio mentor,” says Tenev. “We’ve spent many nights in his basement listening to Morse code bounce off the moon.”
Katz’s zest for life, whether challenging his students to think through thorny problems or attaching an antenna to his car roof for ham radio expeditions on the road, has served as a guide for Tenev. “Something that he teaches and embodies is curiosity, which, in my mind, is probably the most important aspect of engineering,” Tenev says. “Einstein said, ‘I have no special talent, I’m only passionately curious.’ More than anyone I know, Al is willing to think about things in new ways.”
Katz’s lifelong fascination with all things electronic was sparked when he was 7 years old and saw a ham radio hobbyist interviewed on television. “We didn’t have cell phones, of course, so to hear a signal from a place that was on the other side of the earth — to be able to communicate — that was really interesting,” he says. Intrigued, Katz found an old radio in his father’s workshop that received shortwave signals and he began to tinker. After the family moved from Montclair to Verona, New Jersey, when he was 10, Katz rode his bicycle up and down each block, hunting for houses with big antennas in the yard. He knocked on their doors and peppered the strangers with questions about where to find local clubs and how to get started.
By high school, Katz had his amateur radio license and pushed his equipment to reach higher, more challenging radio frequencies by bouncing signals off the moon. ” I wanted to extend the frontier of communications,” he says.
The hobby became central to his identity, inspiring him to study electrical engineering at New Jersey Institute of Technology. Katz believed he was aiming for a career centered on research and development until a stint as a graduate teaching assistant made him realize he wanted to work with students too. “A lot of the time in engineering, you’re working on projects that take years to be fulfilled,” he says. “But the nice thing about teaching is that every time you have a good class, there’s this positive feeling.”
Chris Brinton ’11 first encountered Katz during orientation his freshman year at TCNJ. “He was clearly very passionate about what he did,” says Brinton. “I immediately felt like he was the main professor that was going to help me get where I wanted to go.” Throughout his time at the college, Brinton took five of Katz’s courses, and he worked with the professor on an independent study and his senior project, too. Katz’s teaching style thrilled him: Rather than lecturing, Katz assigned problems for students to solve and present in class, less interested in a recitation of facts than in a real-time demonstration of understanding. “He was teaching us how to be engineers,” Brinton says.
Katz didn’t simply challenge students and then walk away, Brinton says; he invested in their success, leaving his office door open, letting them use Linearizer offices to pursue their own eureka moments, and fielding phone calls late into the night. “You could literally call his cell phone anytime you had a question — and he would answer,” says Brinton, now assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue University. “I do the same thing with my students now. That’s something I learned from him.”
Katz’s achievements are recognized far beyond TCNJ’s community. In 1976, he became the first amateur radio operator to make contact with all seven continents at a radio frequency (432 MHz) that requires bouncing a signal from the Earth to the moon and back again. He is an expert in microwave engineering, an inventor who holds 17 patents, and a recipient of the American Astronautical Society’s prestigious William Randolph Lovelace II Award for outstanding contributions to space science and technology.
“He’s incredibly well known worldwide,” says Roger Dorval ’91, now a vice president and general manager at Macom. Dorval joined Linearizer Technology as part-owner and vice president of engineering in 1993. It was soon after, on a trip with Katz to the 1994 International Microwave Symposium in San Diego, that he realized the extent of his former professor’s reputation throughout the industry. “As Al and I were walking into the convention center, it was ‘Hi Al. Hi Al. Hi Dr. Katz,’” Dorval says. “It was really eye-opening for me. I’m in awe of this big conference that we were going to with thousands of attendees — and everybody knows Dr. Katz.”
What distinguishes Katz, then and now, Dorval says, is his generosity. He sends hard-to-find electronic equipment to friends and strangers around the world. He hosts a weekly lunch meetup at Pizzeria Uno for people interested in technology. And, for five decades, he has written a free newsletter about high-frequency ham radio for readers as far away as Indonesia. “Throughout my career, I’ve met a couple of people that are really just icons and libraries of information — so intelligent, so smart, and so willing to share their knowledge with anybody,” say Dorval. “And Al is one of them.”
Katz, who celebrated his 80th birthday last year, remains as engaged at TCNJ and in the wider world as ever. Lately, he is working with faculty members to create a new certificate in chip engineering that he hopes will build upon the school’s strengths and provide students with a critical edge in the field. And, as always, he is back in the classroom, continuing his quest to foster student success. “I always say that there’s a lot of luck in life,” he says. “I was lucky to come to The College of New Jersey and to get involved in engineering the way I did. And I feel lucky that I’m able to continue now, for as long as I can, trying to solve problems.”
Pictures Bill Cardoni
Posted on October 12, 2023