Archive for the ‘Innovation’ Category

On January 22, 1984, the famous “1984” television commercial introducing the Macintosh personal computer ran during the third quarter of the Super Bowl.  Many people think that this is the only time it ever ran.  But, it was also run by the Chiat/Day, the ad agency that created it, on December 31, 1983 right before the 12:00 midnight sign-off on KMVT in Twin Falls, Idaho, so that it could qualify for the 1983 advertising awards. The ad was so successful, that it never really needed to be run again as the media coverage it got generated a lot of free airtime.  And, people are still talking about it 30 years later.

The ad is based on the book, “1984” by George Orwell which introduced the concept of “Big Brother”.  The ad refers to IBM as “Big Brother” and the Apple Macintosh computer as the individual challenging a society of people who don’t behave as individuals.  Interestingly, the estate of George Orwell and the television rights holder to the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four considered the commercial to be a copyright infringement and sent a cease-and-desist letter to Apple and Chiat/Day after the ad ran which generated even more publicity.



Here’s Director Ridley Scott discussing the making of the famous 1984 Macintosh commercial.  [This is excerpted from an Apple promotional video.]



The “1984” ad was shown at the 20th anniversary celebration of the Macintosh in 2004  There was also an updated version of it created for the iPod launch.  Was it one of the best ads ever?  That’s up for debate.  But, as a marketer, I’d give it an award for one of the top 10 product launches ever.

— Carole Gunst


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NIST-Logo_5The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is one of the nation’s oldest physical science laboratories in existence.  The United States Congress established the agency in 1901 as the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) because, at the time, the U.S. had a second-rate measurement infrastructure that lagged behind the capabilities of other countries.  For some reason, the word “national” was dropped from the name in 1903 and added back in 1934. In 1988, the agency name became the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST.

NIST and High Tech History

According to the NIST website, “Before air conditioning, airplanes, and plastics were invented, and before science was changed forever by Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) began laying the technical foundation for the world’s most prosperous nation.  At that time, the United States had few, if any, authoritative national standards for any quantities or products.  It was difficult for Americans to conduct fair transactions or get parts to fit together properly. Construction materials were of uneven quality, and household products were unreliable. Few Americans worked as scientists, because most scientific work was based overseas.”

NIST Centenial photosWhen World War II began, science and technology rose in importance and so did NIST who was drawn into the new field of electronics.  NIST weapons research led to a contractor’s development of printed circuits, which substituted printed wiring, resistors, and coils for the conventional discrete components in electronic devices. This technology contributed to a new field of electronic miniaturization for which the Institute provided useful engineering data and components.

An automated electronic computing project was established at NIST in 1946, about the time that the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Automatic Computer (ENIAC), the first all-purpose electronic computer, began operating at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1948, the Air Force financed NIST to design and construct the Standards Eastern Automatic Computer (SEAC.)  The computer went into operation in May 1950 using a combination of vacuum tubes and solid-state diode logic.

About the same time, the Standards Western Automatic Computer, was built at the Los Angeles office of NIST and was used for research there.  In 1954, a mobile version, DYSEC,  (it was actually housed in a truck and might just be the first portable computer) went into operation.  NIST staff members also developed a mathematical algorithm, used to solve very large systems of linear equations, that nearly 50 years later would be named one of the top 10 algorithms of the century by a computing trade journal.

NIST Today

Today, NIST is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Its official mission is “to promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life.”

NIST is involved with the following areas of technology:

Interested in learning more?  NIST provides many educational activities and is open for tours if you’re in Gaithersburg, MD or Boulder, CO.

— Carole Gunst

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Pi Day is an annual celebration that takes place on March 14th (3/14) — since 3, 1 and 4 are the three most significant digits of π in the decimal form — around the world.  The first official celebration of Pi Day was organized by physicist, Larry Shaw, in 1988with staff and public marching around one of its circular spaces, then consuming fruit pies. In 2009, the United States House of Representatives supported the designation of Pi Day.

What is Pi?


Pi (Greek letter “π”) is the symbol used in mathematics to represent a constant — the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter — which is approximately 3.14159.  It has been represented by the Greek letter “π” since the mid-18th century, though it is also sometimes written as pi.  The calculation of π was revolutionized by the development of infinite series techniques in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Infinite series allowed mathematicians to compute π with much greater precision than Archimedes and others who used geometrical techniques.   Although infinite series were exploited for π most notably by European mathematicians such as James Gregory and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the approach was first discovered in India sometime between 1400 and 1500 AD.  

How is Pi Day Celebrated?

My office celebrated Pi Day today by holding a pie contest.  Over 25 employees and contractors each brought in a pie and all staff was called down to the cafeteria to have a slice.

  • The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has often mailed its application decision letters to prospective students for delivery on Pi Day.  Starting in 2012, MIT has announced it will post those decisions (privately) online on Pi Day at exactly 6:28 pm, which they have called “Tau Time”, to honor the rival numbers Pi and Tau equally.
  • The town of Princeton, New Jersey (and home to Princeton University,) hosts numerous events in a combined celebration of Pi Day and Albert Einstein’s birthday, which is also March 14.  Einstein lived in Princeton for more than twenty years while working at the Institute for Advanced Study. In addition to pie eating and recitation contests, there is an annual Einstein look-alike contest.
  • Google had it’s own Pi Day doodle posted on the site in 2010.
  • National Public Radio created a Pi Day rap video in 2010.

In case you missed the celebration, mark you calendar now for Pi Approximation Day on July 22 (or 22/7 in day/month date format), since the fraction 227 is a common approximation of π.  Maybe you can share a fraction of a pie with a friend.

— Carole Gunst

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[Note to readers: This is a guest post that originally appeared on the Blogineering blog.  Special thanks to Dorothy Shaw for calling it to our attention.]

Many of the greatest advancements in history have come about as the direct result of those working as engineers. Engineers provide us with practical solutions for a host of problems, as well as advance practical science and technology. They take theories and ideas, and often turn them into working principles and products that better our lives. From the compound pulley system invented by the great Greek engineer Archimedes, to the tall buildings and air conditioned comfort we enjoy today, engineers have been at the forefront of our technological advancement.

While there have been many notable engineers throughout history, there are some whose inventions and insights have been exceptionally useful. From engineering students tinkering to improve old designs, to the engineers who have discovered sweeping laws that affect the way we view the scientific world, here are 20 of the most notable engineers:

  1. Archimedes of Syracuse: No discussion of notable engineers can leave out Archimedes of Syracuse. No matter how you might quarrel with other additions on any list of great engineers, Archimedes must be on the list. He was a keen observer and inventor, developing engineering principles of fluid displacement, as well as inventing the compound pulley — one of the most important inventions in all of history.
  2. Francis Bacon: The scientific method owes its existence to Sir Francis Bacon. A true Renaissance man, Bacon was also a philosopher, statesman and lawyer in addition to being a scientist. He died in the name of science, as he fell victim to pneumonia during one of his experiments as he studied the effects of freezing meat.
  3. Daniel Bernoulli: Perhaps you’ve heard of the Bernoulli Principle? This is the principle of fluid dynamics that is used in the construction of aircraft to determine air speed. It was discovered by Daniel Bernoulli, son of a renowned mathematician. Bernoulli also discovered how to measure blood pressure, and was well known for his work on the Conservation of Energy.
  4. John Logie Baird: The Scottish engineer John Logie Baird invented a mechanical television. While Philo T. Farnsworth would be credited later with developing the dissector tube that made electronic TV possible, Baird is credited with providing the first televised objects in motion, and the first televised human face, as well as demonstrating color television in 1928.
  5. Henry Bessemer: One of the most significant building advancements was the production of inexpensive steel. And the engineer who created the process for mass-producing steel was Henry Bessemer. Bessemer had been working on a process similar to American William Kelly’s process, and he bought the patent from Kelly. Today, steel is still made using process based on Bessemer’s method.
  6. Gustave Eiffel: The Eiffel Tower in Paris, France was named after someone; that someone was Gustave Eiffel. This French civil engineer contributed to structural architecture, and enhanced metal construction of bridges.
  7. John Ambrose FlemingSir John Ambrose Fleming is the inventor of the first vacuum tube. His engineering feat is known as the precursor to electronics — even though the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated his patent.
  8. Edwin Armstrong: The American engineer Edwin Armstrong is know for his innovation of frequency modulation (used in FM radio and for other purposes). He was also known for superheterodyning and regeneration.
  9. Seymour Cray: In today’s computer dominated society, it is important to pay homage to Seymour Cray, the engineer believed to be the founder of supercomputing, and the first to build a device making use of functional parallelism architecture.
  10. Wernher von Braun: One of the most important rocket developers, especially of rockets for the space exploration effort, was Wernher von Braun. Initially working for the Nazis, developing the V-2 ballistic missile, von Braun later surrendered to the Americans — along with 500 rocket scientists — and came to work in the U.S.
  11. Robert Goddard: Even though the New York Times panned Robert Goddard’s theories of travel to the moon by rocket, he had the last laugh. He built the first liquid-fueled rocket, and it has been a source of technological advancement for decades.
  12. Arthur Casagrande: One of the greatest contributors to dam building and other earth construction was engineer Arthur Casagrande, a pioneer in soil mechanics.
  13. Henry Darcy: The modern style Pitot tube was invented by Henry Darcy, an engineer who developed a law describing flow in porous media. Today, Darcy’s achievements can be seen in hydrology and petroleum engineering.
  14. Wendell Bollman: When you see truss bridges spanning great lengths, you can thank Wendell Bollman, a self-taught civil engineer. His designs for ferry bridges and other truss bridges have influenced us for decades, even though there is only one remaining “Bollman truss” bridge still in existence.
  15. Thomas Brassey: This civil engineer is notable for his prolific railroad building. Thomas Brassey was the premier contractor for railroading building throughout Europe, and is also responsible for Canada’s Grand Trunk Railway.
  16. George Stephenson: English civil engineer George Stephenson built the first public railway in the world that made use of steam locomotives. He was also friends with Thomas Brassey, and encouraged him to contract to build railways. The world’s standard railway gauge is the Stephenson gauge, named after the man who developed it.
  17. Willis Carrier: Do you enjoy air conditioning in the summer? If so, you can thank Willis Carrier. Carrier’s first air conditioning success came only a year after he earned his Masters in Engineering from Cornell. And the rest of us have benefitted every since.
  18. Burt Rutan: One of the most influential aerospace engineers is Burt Rutan, whose innovative designs are prominent in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. He is responsible for SpaceShipOne, the first private rocket plane to put a person in space, and for the first airplane to make it around the world without needing to refuel.
  19. Fazlur Khan: Considered to be central to the “Second Chicago School” of architectural design, Fazlur Khan is largely responsible for inspiring some of the most interesting structural engineering  feats of the latter half of the 20th Century, changing skyscraper construction.
  20. Judith Resnik: Focus on the tragic Challenger explosion often centers around teacher Christa McAuliffe. However, Judith Resnik, a NASA engineer, also perished in the flight. She had worked on orbiter projects, and influenced design procedures related to special integrated circuitry.

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Left to right: Dartmouth’s Sydney A. Alonso, Jon Appleton and Cameron Jones listen to Appleton playing a Synclavier I, ca. 1977. Courtesy, Dartmouth Engineer, Thayer School of Engineering, Dartmouth College.

Synclavier I: Invention, and the creation of an industry

The Synclavier, an early digital synthesizer, sampling system and music workstation, was developed by the New England Digital Corporation (NED) of Norwich,Vermont; the prototypical model having been invented at Hanover, New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College in 1975. Dartmouth Professor of Music Jon Appleton, Digital Electronics expert Sydney A. Alonso and Engineering software programmer Cameron Jones collaborated in its invention.

The Synclavier I. Wikipedia.

According to a 2005 story in the Dartmouth Engineer, the prime motivation for the Synclavier’s development was that “The Moog synthesizer, the prime electronic instrument of the 1970s, linked a piano keyboard to an analog computer — but it had no memory. Wanting something better, Dartmouth music professor and composer Jon Appleton turned to [Dartmouth’s] Thayer School [of Engineering].”

The resulting Synclavier was the world’s first digital synthesizer, and pioneered digital sampling, hard-disk recording, and professional sound editing. “It did so many things, and the software was so beautifully integrated,”Appleton later remarked.

Early history

In 1972, Jones and Alonso met at Dartmouth, where they were both working on programming the college’s large, time-sharing computer. Together, they developed software for the computer that allowed it to produce electronic music and, under Appleton’s tutelage, aid with students’ ear training.

Within the next three years, in addition to graduating from Dartmouth, the two men were able to create a 16-bit processor card and then adapted the computer’s compiler for the new processor. This new “miniprocessor” – the ABLE – was the first product for Jones and Alonso’s new company, New England Digital. It was designed to help users avoid having to book time on large, mainframe computers (most academic computer labs in this period operated on a ponderous “time sharing” basis).

Out of the research, the men crafted their new instrument, which they called the Synclavier (pronounced, in three syllables, Sink – la – veer). It was intended as a commercial outgrowth of their “Dartmouth Digital Synthesizer,” which included the ABLE processor. In 1979, they raised some venture capital and brought in another partner to oversee the marketing of their new “Synclavier II.”

Synclavier II

The Synclavier II was revolutionary because it introduced both a terminal display and keyboard and allowed for both software additions and revisions that could even be retrofitted on earlier versions of the device. Encouraged by the success of these developments, in 1982-3, the company added significant “sampled” sound recording and playback capabilities directly from the unit’s hard drive. And with the addition of the graphics terminal, it was possible to analyze and edit sounds in a visual, as well as aural context. This figuratively opened up the flood gates to virtually unlimited possibilities of sound production and “post-production” editing, which made the system very attractive to both the music and film industries.

Dartmouth Professor of Music Jon Appleton demonstrating the Synclavier II (1984)

Decline, fall & resurrection

All of this innovation cost money – a lot of it. Units began at $75,000 and to outfit a proper studio, the price could reach $500,000 or even beyond. One account, from a website called “Yaking Cat Music Studios History,” added a little bit of cheeky perspective on NED’s pricing strategy: “The prices on Synclaviers were based on two primary factors. Those who owned the machine or needed parts generally had money to ‘burn,’ so to speak. NED took advantage of this. Second, there were about 11 guys at the top of the company pulling down six-figure incomes. Sting was paid to perform for the NED employees and their spouses at a big gala at the Roxy in N.Y. There were NED offices across the globe with marble desks. Spend, spend, spend. And make your customers pick up the tab.”

Mike Thorne, producer of such notable bands as Siouxie and the Banshees, Soft Cell and the Bronski Beat, was a pioneer in the use of the Synclavier for so-called "New Wave" music. Courtesy, vblurpage.com

Throughout the 1980s, the Synclavier was the musical device of choice for musicians such as Genesis’ Tony Banks, Sting, Frank Zappa, Stevie Wonder, Stanley Jordan, and numerous others. The machine’s ability to augment musicians’ guitar work though a specially-designed interface was unparalleled; but as that decade passed into the ‘90s, NED, due largely to the price of equipment upgrades, started to lose market share and opted to “repackage” itself in less expensive fashion. They began to move from their original mission of support for musical instruments toward post-production and editing software.

A silver lining to this lateral movement was that there was really no manufacturer who could offer a machine that was so perfectly suited to motion picture and television production. The software upgrades were spell-binding for those who could afford them, and the sound was unparalleled. It is safe to say that this is what rescued the company over its history; but regardless, NED passed into history itself in 1992, only to be resurrected, like the phoenix from the ashes, on several occasions in various permutations. It’s interesting to know that there are still over 100 units of the Synclavier and Synclavier II still in use today in various capacities, and part of the reason for that is their durability.

One example of the Synclavier’s reliable construction involves the B-52 military airplane. NED went out of its way to choose uncompromising materials for the manufacturing process. And one of those choices involved the famous red buttons the B-52 used on its control panels. It’s been suggested that the company’s decision to select superior components was designed to help prop up the instrument’s price tag; but experience has also revealed it was essential to construct units that could hold up to the punishment of musicians – spilled drinks, cigarette ashes and pounding fists included.

-Christopher Hartman


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Bob Metcalfe added today to his many accomplishments the leading of 1100 people in the singing of “Happy Birthday Venture Capital.” What a way to open the VC65 event, a joint venture of Xconomy, the NVCA, and the MIT Museum. Metcalfe argued that reports of the death of innovation have been greatly exaggerated (I’m paraphrasing) and he cited two important developments in January in support of this thesis:  1. President Obama devoted ten minutes of his State of the Union address to “encouraging American innovation.”  2. Bob Metcalfe became Professor of Innovation at the University of Texas in Austin.

Sixty-five years ago, General George Doriot founded (with Ralph Flanders and Karl Compton) American Research and Development Corporation (ARDC), the first publicly owned venture capital firm. ARDC is credited with the first major venture capital success story when its 1957 investment of $70,000 in Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) would be valued at over $355 million after the company’s initial public offering in 1968 (representing a return of over 500 times on its investment and an annualized rate of return of 101%).

Metcalfe published earlier this week an expanded version of his short talk today in which he outlined what he calls the “Doriot Ecology (Ecosystem).” Participants in this innovation model are research professors, graduating students, scaling entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, strategic partners, and early adopters.

The addition of research professors and graduating students to what we usually consider as the key players in the venture capital industry or ecosystem is important in the specific case of “technological, entrepreneurial innovation at scale,” the type of innovation that is of interest to Metcalfe the venture capitalist (and now, the research professor).

Metcalfe: “America has perhaps 100 good research universities, and it is my hypothesis that they are where President Obama should be directing all the research dollars our nation can afford. Do I propose this because research universities are well managed? No. But keeping universities competing with one another for research dollars is the best remedy for that. The real reason for doing our nation’s research at research universities is that they graduate students, who are the best vehicles for carrying new knowledge out into world markets where it can do some good.”

Sixty-six years ago, a similar advice to a sitting President was advanced, probably for the first time, by Vannevar Bush, in his “Science, the Endless Frontier.” Bush wrote that basic research was “the pacemaker of technological progress” and that “New products and new processes do not appear full-grown. They are founded on new principles and new conceptions, which in turn are painstakingly developed by research in the purest realms of science.” He recommended the creation of what would eventually become in 1950 the National Science Foundation (NSF).

So I think that a more apt label to the ecosystem Metcalfe described, an ecosystem generating new knowledge and new ways of using it, would be the “Bush Ecology,” with government funding supporting research universities.

Interestingly, the next speaker at the VC65 event described what I think should indeed be called the “Doriot Ecology,” a different model in which private funding, from venture capitalists, supports basic research, research professors, and their graduating students.

The speaker was Henry McCance, Chairman Emeritus of Greylock Partners. He is the co-founder of the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund, which has provided $13 million to 18 different institutions with the goal of ending Alzheimer’s by 2020. McCance applied the best practices he learned in the venture capital industry – proactively identify visionaries, help build successful management teams, establish the culture, dare to be great – to medical research and recommended applying this model to other social issues. He calls it “venture research.”

Research universities and research professors are no doubt important in solving big problems. The traditional way of funding them has been the Bush model with the federal government providing support and encouragement. But as McCance noted in his talk, grant-making has become risk-averse. The new, risk-taking, “dare to be great” model that McCance described is what should be called the Doriot model.

By Gil Press

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