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'The Bill Gates of his time' dies at 89.

Not even clever revisionist history can guess what direction New Hampshire's economy would have taken without Royden C. Sanders Jr.

In 1952, Sanders and 10 other former Raytheon engineers moved their fledgling defense contracting firm into the top two floors of an abandoned textile mill in Nashua.

The high-tech business replaced looms with circuit boards and effectively ended the industrial revolution in New Hampshire. The pioneering Sanders Associates ushered in the still-thriving information age, providing thousands of jobs and countless military advances.

"He saw into the future. He was the Bill Gates of his time," said Jack Higgins, who administered contracts for the original company and its successors before retiring in 1990.

Sanders died Feb. 5 at the age of 89 after a long illness. Even though the business changed ownership, and names, several times after he left in 1975, many locals will long know the company as "Sanders."

"He created a life for us," said Andy Cloutier, who, before retiring in 1990, maintained equipment that Sanders Associates, now known as BAE Systems, sold to other companies. "He came to Nashua and created a company that was the biggest in New Hampshire. We went for a ride you can't believe. We rode that train all the way to the end."

With the serious-minded Sanders at the helm, the company blossomed into the state's largest employer. Sanders Associates eventually bought the mill building on Canal Street for $100,000, and later spread to an annex on Spit Brook Road.

The company attracted top engineering talent and carved a global reputation for its innovative computer technology. With other high-tech firms later following the same path--including offshoot firms of former Sanders employees--Nashua became a gateway to that golden information age. But while Sanders helped reshape business in the state, he devoted just as much time to his family, his wife, Janice Sanders, said.

"It's hard to encapsulate 30 years" of marriage, she said. "He was kind of down to earth ... it's hard to believe somebody could be that smart. He loved his family, but he loved his work just as much."

Royden Sanders "was the kind of guy who would work with the troops," said Ralph Baer, who worked as an engineer for Sanders Associates, and while there, designed what many consider the fast home video game.

"He always had special programs going on. He was an engineer. He always had things cooking and coming up with something special"

'Two generations ahead'

Sanders' inventiveness took root at a young age. He quit college in his junior year because his professors told him his thesis was complicated, said Morton Goulder, one of the "Raytheon Eleven" who founded Sanders Associates. So Sanders instead went to work for the military, devising a radio altimeter in his basement.

"He was a genius, creative as blazes," Goulder said.

From the get-go, Sanders Associates followed its young leader in making a mark in technological research.

When the new company first made its home in Waltham, Mass., in 1951, it designed a subminiature rate gyroscope that Timex eventually made and marketed.

Also that year, Sanders Associates joined Kaiser Manufacturing on the "Tinkertoy Project" for the U.S. Navy. The project had Sanders helping create electronic devices that used interchangeable modules so the mechanism could be made quickly and consistently.

Sanders Associates moved to Nashua in 1952. It renovated the top two floors of the old Textron mill, where blankets were woven, and kicked up a storm of dirt, as Royden Sanders recalled in a 1999 interview.

Once the dust cleared, Sanders immediately saw the value of hiring local workers.

"One of the things that really impressed us was the fact that the people we hired really gave you a day's work for a day's pay," he said in the interview.

Sanders Associates went on to create the first electronic countermeasures system that allowed the U.S. military to replace the noise jamming of enemy equipment.

"The whole concept of countermeasures, which was his idea, saved thousands of lives," Higgins said.

That creativity expanded to radar and underwater technology. But Royden Sanders left the company in 1975, believing its size--peaking at 8,000 workers in the 1980s--had created a thick layer of bureaucracy.

"He was an engineer running an electronic company," Baer said. "Today, they are run by bookkeepers. There's no loyalty to the troops anymore."

Starting with the 1986 sale to Lockheed, the company changed ownership several times, but for several years left "Sanders" in the corporate name in some form or another.

Now BAE Systems, the company continues the vision Sanders had in the 1950s: creating cutting-edge defense technology.

Sanders started several other companies after leaving his namesake firm. Almost until the end of his life, he refused to settle in the past.

He instead talked about the inventions of his last company, Sanders Design International in Wilton. One such creation was a machine that allows companies to quickly produce prototypes.

"He had a very fertile mind," Higgins said. "He was absolutely two generations ahead of himself in technology. Nobody was going to upstage him, from a technology standpoint"

Last month, Sanders was the guest of honor at an informal gathering of Sanders retirees, who meet occasionally at Bickford's restaurant in Nashua.

He told a reporter who attended the function: "We were all inventors back then ... in the early days, we invented a lot of very important things. It really was fun, and a very challenging, life."


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Title Annotation:Royden C. Sanders Jr passes away
Author:McKeon, Albert
Publication:New Hampshire Business Review
Article Type:Obituary
Date:Feb 16, 2007
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