Solomon Rios: A heartfelt dive into Grass Valley’s past of techie pioneers |

Solomon Rios: A heartfelt dive into Grass Valley’s past of techie pioneers

Solomon Rios
Special to The Union

Grass Valley has always been on the map. As residents, we think little of that fact.

No more than a healthy tourist attraction and a small amount of bragging rights to go around for this bustling used-to-be mining town. A hub of new ideas, talented artists and pioneers, and a surprising amount of technical innovation.

Maybe a little more innovation than you might think. Maybe a lot more.

Director Jason Howard and Nevada County Media have teamed up to tell an in-depth story about the world-changing history that went on right here in our little town in the upcoming documentary film series “Technically Improbable.” Exploring revolutionaries and world firsts that transpired in the area from the 1940s to the present day, the three-part experience promises to tell you a thing or two you definitely didn’t know about the town’s elaborate technological history.


Each film will be full length, at approximately 90 minutes. Each of the three segments will cover a different aspect of the tech boom that happened in the area, spanning multiple eras, individuals, and innovations. The entire series is being shot, produced, and orchestrated from a grassroots effort.

The film has had a multitude of helping hands, both local and not, but the core team reigns as Jason Howard at the helm of director, Nevada County Media’s Andrew Rolland as director of photography, and Sandy King serving as production assistant.

Jason Howard conceived the project — after moving to the area for video production — when he began looking into Grass Valley’s extensive past concerning a scene near and dear to his own heart: tech. A self-proclaimed nerd, video and computer enthusiast, and fervently-fascinated researcher of Grass Valley’s tech history, Howard set out to make, in his words, “… a documentary that’d I’d like to watch,” and that he hopes others will greatly enjoy as well. The series aims to be factually accurate, not afraid to delve into the science of the tech, and a soulful look at what actually happened here during those crazy influential decades where rockstars of tech made their breakthroughs.

Of course, the true heart of “Technically Improbable” lies with the individuals it seeks to document as well as the tech they engineered. Many of the creative minds from the tech and video game boom are featured in the film series, a good portion of whom still live in the area. Episode two, which goes almost 80 years into the town’s past, will predominantly document the lives and careers of two very extraordinary innovators, Charles Litton, a brilliant inventor behind such household tools as vacuum tubes and who earlier helped create microwave tubes during the second World War, and Dr. Donald Hare who founded the Grass Valley Group and was a brilliant collaborator and innovator in his own right.

“I suppose I’m really drawn to the stories of perseverance in the face of almost certain failure,” said Howard. “There are stories all over the world like this. Simply amazing stuff. But these stories happened right here, by people just like us.” And, as improbable as this history seems, Howard and Nevada County Media are working to craft a sweeping tale of as much of it as can be uncovered. Perhaps, if the response is positive and the material continues to come forth, beyond the initial three-part goal.

You can help support the films and attain more information at the website and the Facebook page

Episode One

The first episode spans from the 1970s to today and takes a close look at Cyan Engineering (a company bought by Atari who played a crucial role in the development of their games and arcade systems) and Applied Design Labs. Both were Grass Valley-based companies that were born here and flourished for many years working closely with behemoths of the tech industry in the video game and toy development.

The episode features exclusive interviews with Al Alcorn (creator of Pong and a founder of Atari), Steve Mayer (co-founder of Cyan Engineering), Ron Milner (engineer for Cyan who eventually founded Applied Design Labs), and Chuck Meyer (engineer for Cyan and VP of Grass Valley). Just a number of the many talented people that made history in our little town that the series as a whole will explore.

Episode one is set to premiere in Fall of 2019 in Grass Valley and will be available to watch through Nevada County Media. There is also the potential for it to stream through Amazon.


On Saturday, July 20, join us at Nevada County Media for a special evening of celebration, fundraising, and anticipation for our upcoming docu-series “Technically Improbable.” In the spirit of the films, there will be a showcase of local antique tech during the fundraiser for a one-night-only museum of cool gadgetry conceived right here in our town.

Drinks, food, and a raffle await, as well as an exclusive trailer for the film and a Q&A with some of the filmmakers. Help support this local film and be part of this unique experience.

General admission tickets to the event are $25, children 18 and younger are admitted free. Visit for ticket details and more event information.

If you have an interesting antique or techy piece of Grass Valley history, consider donating it for the evening to add to the growing museum, please contact me or film director Jason Howward at

Solomon Rios is an intern with Nevada County Media & The Nevada County Digital Media Center. Visit for information on Nevada County Media.

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