Marlan Bourns, founder of Bourns, Inc. and inventor of the Trimpot® trimming potentiometer, died on March 18, 2014. His family was with him at Kindred Hospital in Santa Ana, California at the time of his passing. Marlan was 93 years old and was battling several age-related illnesses.
Marlan and his wife, Rosemary, founded Bourns, Inc., initially known as Bourns Laboratories, in the single car garage behind their home in Altadena, California. Marlan invented and patented the Trimpot® trimming potentiometer in 1952. Today, 62 years later, the Trimpot® trimming potentiometer is still Bourns’ best-known product line. Marlan held over 100 patents and frequently encouraged the company’s engineers to seek innovative ways to meet its customers’ needs.
Marlan is the son of Frank and Bernice Bourns and was born on May 28, 1920 in Brighton township, Michigan. Marlan earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Physics from the University of Michigan, becoming a lifetime member of the Phi Beta Kappa academic honor society. He earned a reputation for excellence in translating complex concepts into hardware in the University’s machine shop. This practical knowledge led to his being selected during World War II for a top secret US Navy program at the California Institute of Technology that was a key part of the Manhattan Project, although he was not told about the purpose of the program until after the end of the Project.
Marlan and Rosemary were married on July 7, 1947, a few days after her graduation from the University of Michigan, and they spent their honeymoon driving across the country to California. Although Marlan was highly regarded for his work at Cal Tech, he and Rosemary wanted to pursue their dream of starting their own business, Bourns Laboratories. Marlan designed and built aerospace transducer products while Rosemary handled a number of administrative and sales facets of the business. Marlan and a handful of engineers and machinists worked in the garage making products and testing them in Rosemary’s kitchen using her oven and freezer for hot and cold environmental testing. These efforts ultimately led to Consolidated Vultee in San Diego placing a large $17,000 order for every product Bourns Laboratories could make, including linear motion potentiometers, vane transducers, accelerometers and bourdon tube pressure transducers. These products were critical to the monitoring of flight surfaces, acceleration, hydraulic pressure and altitude in aircraft and guided missiles. Bourns Laboratories became Bourns, Inc., and grew into a worldwide company. Bourns products played a key role in the success of the Apollo missions to the moon, including the sensor in the joystick control that the pilot used to set the Lunar Landing Module gently down on the surface of the moon and the pressure transducers in the astronauts’ backpacks that regulated their oxygen as they walked on the moon. Bourns components have also been used on the Mars Rovers and other interplanetary probes.
Under Marlan’s leadership Bourns, Inc. set a number of precedents in the electronic components industry. Bourns, Inc. was one of the first companies to provide profit sharing for its employees. Bourns de Mexico is now the oldest Maquiladora in Tijuana, and one of the oldest in Mexico. Bourns was one of the first electronics companies to build plants in San Jose, Costa Rica and Xiamen, China, where today there are hundreds of high-tech companies. In addition to these plants and its worldwide headquarters in Riverside, California, the company has manufacturing plants or design centers in Auburn Hills, Michigan; Santa Clara, California; Logan, Utah; Chihuahua, Mexico; Bedford, UK; Ajka, Hungary; Sauerlach, Germany; Cork, Ireland; Linkou and Taipei, Taiwan; and Shanghai, China. The company manufactures and sells a diverse array of products for a variety of uses. Bourns® potentiometers control the positioning of patients for MRI and CAT scans as well as the tone and volume of electric guitars. Bourns® sensors control the acceleration and breaking of automobiles as well as the steering and stability systems to significantly improve passenger safety. Trimpot® trimming potentiometers regulate the power for cell phone towers, Bourns® surge arrestors protect our homes and offices against power surges caused by lightning and Bourns® self-resettable fuses help keep batteries from overheating. Today, the company employs approximately 4,500 people.
Over his career Marlan received numerous recognitions for his many accomplishments. More recently, Marlan was honored with the awarding of the Fellow of the UC Riverside, Bourns College of Engineering during the College’s June 18, 2012 Commencement Ceremony. Dean Abbaschian thanked the Bourns family and the Bourns Foundation for their $6 million endowment, which has grown to $10 million, and the support it has provided to the Marlan and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering during its 21 year history. Dean Abbaschian noted that the College of Engineering has grown to 2,300 undergraduate students and 600 post-graduate students. In 2010 Cal State University, San Bernardino honored the Bourns family with the Spirit of the Entrepreneur, Lifetime Achievement Award. Marlan and Rosemary Bourns were also honored as recipients of Sensors Magazine’s 1996 Lifetime Achievement Award. Marlan was very active with the Boy Scouts of America and received the organization’s highest recognition, the Silver Beaver Award in 1956. Marlan and Rosemary were very active in the Young Presidents Organization and co-founded the affiliated World Business Council.
Marlan’s wife of 65 years, Rosemary, died in 2012. They are survived by their four children, Gordon, Linda (Hill), Anita (Macbeth) and Denise (Moyles), their children’s four spouses, fourteen grandchildren with eight spouses and six great grandchildren. His family fondly recalls Marlan’s sense of humor, his love of playing games and his compassion for people. Marlan will be greatly missed and will be remembered as a generous and brilliant man who lived his life with purpose and respect for other people.
In lieu of flowers, the Bourns family suggests that donations be made in Marlan’s honor to the University of California, Riverside, Marlan and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering or the California Baptist University School of Engineering’s Bourns Laboratories.