Victor Wouk Papers
Scope and Content
The papers of Victor Wouk represent the remarkable diversity of Wouk's life, but much of the material within the collection relates to his work on electric and hybrid vehicles, and, in particular, the day-to-day operations of two of his companies, Victor Wouk Associates and Petro-Electric Vehicles. The collection is divided into six sections to reflect different facets of Wouk's career and many interests. However, many of these concerns and interests cut across the different sections and similar items are located in different places within the papers. For instance, researchers should note that photographs can be found in every section of the collection. The collection is organized into the following series:
- Research and Consulting
- Professional ions and SymposiaOrganizat
- Biographical Material and Memorabilia
- Creation: 1934-2004
- Wouk, Victor (Electrical engineer) (Person)
Language of Materials
English, French, & Hebrew
The collection is open for research. Researchers must apply in writing for access.
Copyright may not have been assigned to the California Institute of Technology Archives. All requests for permission to publish or quote from manuscripts must be submitted in writing to the Caltech Archivist. Permission for publication is given on behalf of the California Institute of Technology Archives as the owner of the physical items and, unless explicitly stated otherwise, is not intended to include or imply permission of the copyright holder, which must also be obtained by the reader.
Victor Wouk was born in the South Bronx, in New York City, in 1919. After completing elementary school, he entered Townsend Harris High School—described by Wouk as "unequivocally elitist"—from which he gained a strong interest in science and mathematics. This interest continued upon entering Columbia University in 1935, though in his junior year, after becoming fascinated by the new medium of television, he decided to specialize in electrical engineering. Receiving his bachelor's degree from Columbia (1939), Wouk then traveled to the West Coast, and specifically the California Institute of Technology for his master's (1940) and doctoral degrees (1942). There, with its new state-of-the-art high voltage laboratory, Wouk's interest in and skill at electrical engineering blossomed.
After completing his PhD Wouk went to work at the Westingthouse Research Laboratories, where, because of his expertise in high voltage and power, he was put to work on the ionic centrifuge in order to separate Uranium 235 for the Manhattan District Project. Following the war he returned to his "first love," television, working with North American Philips in New York to develop a 25,000 volt power supply for operating their projection tube. Seeing an opportunity in the industry, Wouk then formed his own company, Beta Electric, in the early 1950s that was soon doing $1 million in sales producing high powered test equipment. Bought out by Sorenson and Company in 1956, Wouk then became Sorenson's chief engineer of their power supply section and worked on such projects as high power semiconductors. Eager to develop even more sophisticated equipment, Wouk formed the Electronic Energy Conversion Corporation in 1959. With their light weight, low volume and high intensity, his power conditioning units became sought after in the computer industry and in military aviation.
Such was Wouk's reputation in electricity that Russell Feldman, a founder of Motorola, approached Wouk with a query concerning the feasibility of building a viable electronic vehicle for the commercial market. Wouk was able to improve the performance of the prototype, but—after consulting with Linus Pauling and others at Caltech—determined that without a radically better battery the best way forward would be to develop a hybrid electric vehicle. The timing of these events was coincident with new studies about the detrimental effects of smog and, in 1968, new emissions legislation. With the Federal Clean Car Incentive Program in the early 1970s the government sponsored Wouk's attempt—under the corporate name of Petro-Electric Motors—to develop a hybrid vehicle. Choosing to use a modified Buick Skylark, he and Charles Rosen constructed a parallel-type electric motor that ran in concert with a Mazda RX2 rotary engine.
Although Petro-Electric Motors managed to fabricate a low polluting vehicle with twice the fuel economy, various bureaucratic and technical issues, as well as political pressures, stymied their project. Not until the advent of the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight did the hybrid vehicle become a marketable commodity. (Nevertheless, Wouk satisfyingly proclaimed, "On the electric vehicle thing I'm very proud that I made a pain in the ass of myself for the last twenty years now about the hybrid."). For this reason Wouk returned to consulting in 1976, working on electric and hybrid vehicles for the Department of Energy, Tennessee Valley Authority, Booz-Allen, and NASA-Lewis amongst others. He also designed the electric bus system was the representative of the United to the International Electrotechnical Commission committee on electric and hybrid vehicles (IEC TC 69).
Other interests—businesses and otherwise— consumed Victor's time. One such is "Wouka Industries," a seafood import business created by his father and for which Victor became president. As well as managing the daily affairs of the company, Wouk worked out a number of ingenious methods to streamline the various processes. He also applied for and received many patents, including a chopper-dropper-booster circuit and an incandescent lamp life extender. His extensive correspondence with his famous brother Herman reveals a host of other concerns, ranging from literature and philately, to space travel and the state of Jewish intellectual life.
During his career Wouk was an inexhaustible communicator. He published over one hundred articles and has given nearly 150 talks to expert and lay audiences. His correspondence is vast and his "letters to the editor" innumerable. The latter also evince the diversity of interests. Despite the gargantuan amount of energy that Wouk put into the development of electric and hybrid vehicles, the range of his activities in both professional and "private" life has remained extraordinarily large. Much of this diversity has been by way of the societies to which Wouk has belonged: among the organizations in which Wouk has actively participated is the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Institute for the Advancement of Science, the Society of Automotive Engineers and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). As an alumnus and Associate, he remains energetically involved in all sorts of issues relating to the California Institute of Technology.
Except for his years at Caltech, Victor spent most of his life in New York's environs, residing with his wife, Joy, in an apartment on Park Avenue in Manhattan. He died at the age of 86 on May 19, 2005.
35 linear feet (70 boxes)
Papers of Victor Wouk (1919-2005). Electrical engineer. After graduating from Caltech (PhD 1942), Wouk devoted himself largely to the development of hybrid and electric motor vehicles. The range of his activities is wide, and he has consulted for several institutions and the government on a variety of issues. His papers consist of 70 boxes and include correspondence, publications (print and manuscript versions), lectures and seminars, and expert witness testimonies.
The correspondence of Wouk comprises at least one-third of his papers and provides a good window on the life of a research scientist, engineer and entrepreneur, as well as his extraordinarily diverse activities and passions. Although the bulk of these letters, faxes, telegrams and emails is housed in the first section, much correspondence is scattered throughout the entire collection and researchers should peruse the entire finding aid in order to locate all relevant items. The first sub-section of
Series I:Correspondence,contains only outgoing letters from 1971 to 1989, but since they are arranged chronologically they reveal salient slices of Wouk's life, and particularly the extent to which his daily activities—even during the years in which he was consumed by Petro-Electric Motors—ranged. Most of the mail is directed to engineering firms, automotive manufacturers, electronics companies, government bodies and business associates; but many letters involve Wouk's interests in general science and culture. If researchers find noteworthy letters in the first subsection, then they might wish to consult the second sub-section of the first series which is arranged alphabetically. Here they will find both incoming and outgoing correspondence bundled together with other documents such as photos, memos to file and transcriptions of telephone conversations. Represented within this sub-section is a host of electronics and electric vehicle companies, and numerous corporate bodies such as Israel's Scientific Research Foundation. In addition, extensive correspondence with individuals—Isaac Asimoz and Jim Lehrer, for instance—is also incorporated in this section.
Series 2: Research and Consulting, documents Wouk's research, entrepreneurship and business ventures. The most prominent part of the section involves Petro-Electric Vehicles, which, with Charles Rosen, was Victor Wouk's bold attempt to engineer and construct a functional and economically viable passenger vehicle. This subsection details the enormity and difficulty of the task given the pre-existing technological resources in the 1970s. As such, it documents initial proposals, EPA contracts, R&D, reports, evaluations and testimonies.
The following sub-series of Series 2 contains documents concerning Wouk's consulting company, Victor Wouk Associates. As a consultant, Wouk has worked with a number of electronics and motor vehicle companies as well as other august bodies, including Curtis instruments, Unique Mobility, Jet Industries and NASA. His work for these companies—usually in the form of substantial reports—comprises over a linear foot of material. Wouk also acted as an expert witness, usually in cases involving litigation in the automobile industry, and his correspondence with lawyers and his court testimonies are included in the section. The final sub-series of the section involves Wouk's quests for numerous patents. Among other things, Wouk sought patents for a hybrid power train, an overvoltage reducer circuit, a device for prolonging the use of incandescent lamps, a chopper-dropper-booster circuit and a sequential firing thyristor. The two boxes of documents include disclosures, examiner's reports, correspondence and assignments.
Series 3: Writings, Wouk, prolific writer and a substantial portion of the collection includes his publications, lectures, talks, seminars and innumerable "letters to the editor." The topics of these writings are extremely diverse, but the majority involve his research in automotive engineering. However, Wouk published material from an early stage in his electronics career, and the numerous papers and talks from the 1940s, '50s and '60s tend to revolve around his knowledge of high voltage circuits. Other material in the section remains unpublished. Of particular note is Wheels without Gas: this book-length manuscript provides readers with Wouk's unique slant on the history of electric vehicles and the ensuing triumphs and stumbling blocks in their development. Other material about which he talked and wrote is extremely diverse—Lyme disease, Sputnik, nuclear power and superconductors, for instance. His letters to the editor concern anything and everything.
Series 4: Professional organizations and symposia, contains material from the countless professional meetings, symposia, organizations and conferences that Wouk attended. Of the four subseries within the series, the first details Wouk's involvement in the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), and, in particular, his affairs with the Technical Committee for Electric Road Vehicles (TC/69). The documents include correspondence, pamphlets and reports, as well as ephemera from the EVS (Electric Vehicle Society) conventions. The second sub-section records many of his activities with the Society of Engineers, while the third sub-section details his involvement with the New York Academy of Sciences where, among other positions, he was vice-president of the engineering sciences and a member of the Board of Governors. The final subseries contains material from conferences from around the world.
Series 5: Biographical Material and Memorabilia, contains biographical material, memorabilia and correspondence with his family, including a plethora of letters between he and Herman that span seven decades. Researchers who are interested in the literary world of Herman Wouk will find these documents particularly illuminating. Other material in the section is diverse: there are resumes, photographs, newspaper articles, pilots' logs, autobiographical fragments and ephemera. Each help reveal the multifaceted character of Wouk.
Victor Wouk began donating papers and materials to the Caltech Archives in 2002 and continued to send documents and artifacts through most of 2004. From time to time since his death in 2005, small amounts of material are sent to the Archives by his two sons.
- Finding Aid for the Victor Wouk Papers, 1934-2004
- Processed by Kevin C. Knox.
- Description rules
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
- Language of description
- Script of description