Archive for the ‘MIT’ Category

Relations with Industrial Firms

In the next several years after their move to Cambridge, MIT had established itself as a premier research institution. And with President Richard C. Mclaurin’s advocacy of the so-called Technology or “Tech” Plan (1919), the Institute pursued an ever-increasing number of collaborations with industrial corporations. Beginning at the turn of the 20th century and following the departure of MIT President Henry Pritchett, Acting President Arthur Noyes (1907-1909) pursued closer ties with industry to enhance the Institute’s reputation for superior science-based research.

The Research Laboratory of Physical Sciences, which Noyes, a chemist, established in 1903, was the hub of this “reformist” movement. Competing with Noyes was a group headed by chemist William Walker, who wanted even more extensive contacts with scientific corporations. Still another faction headed by the chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering, Dugald Jackson, founded the Research Laboratory of Applied Chemistry (RLAC) to even more directly involve industrial patrons. Ultimately this laboratory failed in its mission.

Enter President Mclaurin, who was able to bring in patronage from such corporations as Dupont, Eastman Kodak and General Electric, to name a few. Walker and Jackson supplemented this effort by creating the School of Chemical Engineering Practice. Here, MIT professors would instruct students in areas of study of particular interest to corporations. Controversially, however, the corporations claimed the results of the research. Professors could not publish results of their research, which was needed for the advancement of both their careers and their field. To administer relations between the Institute and Industry, walker set up the Division of Industrial Cooperation and Research (DICR). Noyes voiced opposition this plan and left MIT in 1919.

Vannevar Bush, who served as MIT Vice President and Dean of Engineering from 1932-1938

There was a prevailing feeling at this time that the Institute was moving from a research center to a technical school. Two reformists, Gerard Swope, president of General Electric and Frank Jewett, head of Bell Telephone Labs (both officers and advisers of MIT), brought in a new president, Karl Taylor Compton, who like them, believed in a strong science curriculum to prepare engineers to enter the world of industry. Compton and his vice president, computer engineer Vannevar Bush, ala Noyes’ position, supported close ties with industry, but they were determined to strike a balance between the needs of industry and the needs of academic research. By the 1930s, MIT had gone from a technical institute that trained scientists to a full-fledged research institution. It not only prepared scientists to enter scientific fields, but was increasingly involved in industrial research.

MIT at War

In September of 1940, Karl Compton and a number of American and British colleagues from the scientific community attended a “party” – in actuality a clandestine meeting where British officials unveiled a device called a ten-centimeter cavity magnetron. This instrument, which the British were willing to “give” the Americans – in exchange for developing the technology which the British government was not in a position to do at the time – was to be critical in the development of Radar technology. It was widely considered to have been of crucial importance in the British victory at the Battle of Britain earlier that year, and out of this meeting, the MIT Radiation Laboratory or “Rad Lab” was born. Coincidentally, there had already been a committee formed by the U.S. government, the National Defense Research Committee, or NDRC, which included Compton, who headed its “Division D” dealing with microwave technology; Wall Street financier and lifetime MIT Corporation member Alfred Loomis, Vannevar Bush (who had since become head of the Carnegie Institution and chair of the NDRC), and Ernest O. Lawrence of the University of California. Lawrence was asked if he might head the new radiation lab at MIT, but declined to continue to work on his own continuing projects at California. He did, however, become an instrumental adviser in the lab’s creation. The job instead went to Lee DuBridge, head of the University of Rochester’s Department of Physics.

The Birth of the Military – Industrial – University Complex

Charles Stark Draper, aeronautical engineer who headed MIT's Instrumentation Laboratory and later the lab that bore his own name

Charles Stark “Doc” Draper was an aeronautics expert who, at the MIT Confidential Instruments Development Lab (Building 33), presided over a group of scientists who contemplated how to control the firing of ammunition. With a partnership he entered into with Sperry Gyroscope, they were able to develop a revolutionary new gun sight that helped the war effort. This was an oft-copied template at MIT going forward: labs blended instruction with real-world problem solving.

Feedback control pioneer Prof. Gordon Brown, who started the MIT Servomechanism Laboratory, was the “glue” in the June, 1940 partnership of Sperry and Draper. And after he arrived at MIT, Brown’s student (and magnetic core memory designer) Jay Forrester proved so invaluable that he

Jay W. Forrester, pioneering engineer/manager of MIT's "Project Whirlwind"

was made assistant director of the “Servo” lab – where he would develop a new type of flight simulator that became “Project Whirlwind,” which in turn laid the groundwork for Forrester’s development of the first real-time digital computer. The war effort had shown that MIT could work with the military to create products that were invaluable for the comfort and wellbeing (not to mention efficiency) of our soldiers: gas masks, flamethrowers, freeze-dried foods, and aerial nighttime photography, to name just a few. MIT had become a true innovator in military technology.

War at MIT

By the arrival of the 1960s, MIT had numerous “special labs” (such as Lincoln Lab, the Instrumentation Lab, and MIT Research, or “MITRE”) which were devoted largely to national defense research efforts. And the war

Howard W. Johnson, MIT president from 1966 to 1971 during its volatile Vietnam War period. Courtesy, MIT Museum

in Vietnam brought the whole issue of how the military and science co-existed to a boiling point. Previously, the military had helped win World War II; but now, in the wake of the “Cold War” and political concerns over the rise of communism in Southeast Asia, MIT and other technical schools were being forced to face some hard political realities of their role in the military. Professors such as linguist Noam Chomsky and “Cybernetics” expert Norbert Wiener registered strong opinions about what MIT was doing for the military and in the case of the former, advised MIT faculty and administration that they had a moral and social as much as a patriotic obligation in all their research. The so-called “special” laboratories that carried out much of that research were particular targets of the dissenters’ ire.

MIT Linguistics Professor Noam Chomsky (ca.1970), who led MIT faculty in questioning MIT's military research efforts during the Vietnam War

On November 5, 1969, protesters’ verbal protests became more animated. On that day, some 350 student protesters (some waving Viet Cong flags) approached Draper’s Instrumentation lab. Draper pre-empted their demonstration somewhat by inviting them into the lab, and though there was some shouting, Draper’s actions calmed things down to where the protesters eventually left. The eventual decision to close the Instrumentation Lab and along with Draper’s departure for Cambridge’s Technology Square – where he opened his own lab – struck many as appeasement to the protesters, who were largely seeking MIT’s divestment from military research activities. Several of these special labs sought to wean themselves from federal defense projects with limited success. More recently, debates have centered such controversial projects as the “Strategic Defense Initiative” (SDI), an anti-missile shield project advocated by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, and presently with the “War on Terror.” But the protests that were held during the 1960s – resulting in, among other developments, the formation of the Union of Concerned Scientists – began a cultural sea change in how institutions like MIT balanced the need to perform national defense research with larger political and societal questions.

In the fourth and final installment of Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision, an examination of gender issues regarding MIT faculty and a summary.


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William Barton Rogers (1804-1882), the son of a College of William and Mary professor who himself later matriculated (and taught) there, concentrated in the study of geology. Later, as a geologist at the University of Virginia, Rogers was engaged to prepare a geologic survey of the commonwealth, but after an unpleasant experience where competing political interests attempted to taint his study, he moved to Boston in 1853. However, this was not the only reason for his leaving. He had already met and fell in love with a Boston woman, Emma Savage, and his brother Henry had moved there in 1844.

William and Henry had corresponded about the idea of creating a “Polytechnic School of the Useful Arts,” and William further discussed the matter with a confidante, John Amory Lowell, son of the famous textile manufacturer. In 1859, Rogers joined a group interested in petitioning the state legislature for land for an institute of technology in Boston’s Back Bay. Due to Rogers’ tireless lobbying, the proposal passed the legislature and was signed by Gov. John A. Andrew on April 10, 1861.

William Barton Rogers (1804-1882), founder of MIT

Two days later, Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter, so the timing was both ominous and propitious.

Though MIT was founded as and remains a private institution, state support was critical to its early development. The Civil War was going poorly in its early years, so raising private capital was extraordinarily difficult. A lifeline came when President Lincoln signed the “Morrill Land Grant Act” in July of 1862. 30,000 acres of land for each congressman in a state was permitted to be sold – conditional on either a mechanical or agricultural college being created. In lobbying Gov. Andrew, Rogers was able to secure 1/3 of the land grant income for MIT – making them one of the first “land grant” colleges in the nation. This netted them approximately $200,000 between 1865 and 1900.

Francis H. Storer established the first laboratory at the Institute in 1867, concentrating in chemistry. In 1869, Assistant Professor Edward C. Pickering established the first physics lab, which proved an outstanding success. And under the supervision of Boston architect William R. Ware, a Department of Architecture was soon created.

Although “plagued by chronic financial problems,” the Institute grew from fifteen students in 1865 to three hundred by 1881. The three presidents who had steered MIT during this critical period: Rogers, John D. Runkle and Francis Amasa Walker, each possessed critical skills for cultivating both public and private support.

Harvard and questions of both cooperation and independence

MIT professor Bruce Sinclair writes in Becoming MIT that MIT and Harvard had histories that were “tangled in strange and interesting ways.” In fact, during 1914 and 1917, they graduated engineering students with joint degrees. Charles W. Eliot, Harvard’s president from 1869-1909, proposed merging the two institutions no fewer than three times. Eliot himself had taught chemistry at MIT. Looking at technical schools such as the Sheffield Scientific School allied with Yale, or Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School, it was evident that even association of a technical school with an established universities was not in itself the answer to a “well-rounded” education. However, Eliot believed that MIT provided the ideal form of technical education. His “fusion schemes” always seem to have the latent idea that engineering might become a professional course of study – like law or medicine.

If Eliot were a champion of merging, then the Lawrence School’s dean, Nathaniel Southgate Shaler was anything but. In an August, 1893 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, he employed age-old prejudices about “trade” schools, invoked “academic culture” and asserted that in its ability to incorporate applied science training and a liberal arts education under one roof, Harvard had shown the way to eliminate “prejudices of caste.” Though MIT was not mentioned by name in the article, it was clear that they were the target of Shaler’s attack.

In reply, MIT’s president Walker was emphatic in his assertion that if technical schools under the umbrella of universities were so superior, how was it that the Lawrence School had such an unfortunate history? Walker then went on to contrast the aimlessness and frivolity of the college lifestyle with the industry of technical students. Walker’s systematic dismantling of Shaler’s shallow argument did much to hearten the faithful at MIT; but still there was to be no partnership with Harvard. Shaler, it was widely believed, had written his Atlantic article to persuade a large donor, Gordon McKay – himself a self-made inventor and manufacturer – to add financial ballast to Harvard’s technical program, and thereby discourage Eliot’s efforts to partner with MIT.

In 1905, Henry Pritchett, MIT’s fifth president, made yet another overture. It seems to have been fueled by McKay’s gift to Harvard. Pritchett was concerned about having a serious challenge to their Institute springing up practically next door – better financed, better housed, better equipped, better staffed, and therefore able to draw the best technical students away from MIT. Not only that, there were technical schools springing up in the American Midwest and West that could also draw on MIT’s talent pool.

The 1905 merger proposal was accelerated by financial realities. As of 1903, MIT’s balance sheet showed a deficit of $34,000, and their Back Bay property was appreciating in value. John Ripley Freeman, an 1876 graduate of MIT and self-made hydraulic engineer who was working toward a union of the schools, spearheaded the damming of the Charles, which was hoped would lend the bucolic appearance of Oxford and Cambridge. Though there was a very vocal minority who opposed the union, Presidents Eliot and Pritchett aggressively pursued a complex negotiation for their partnership. However, in the end, it was a legal roadblock that scuttled this. A donor to MIT had given Back Bay property for MIT’s facility; but this was a restricted gift, which could not be sold. This resulted in MIT’s Pritchard resigning and taking a position with the Carnegie Foundation.

George Eastman (1854-1932)

Enter President Robert C. Mclaurin, a New Zealander and Columbia-trained physicist who, in addition to his superior fundraising skills was artful in diplomacy, forged a new alliance with Harvard’s Eliot and also secured funding in the tens of millions of dollars from, among others, George Eastman, which facilitated MIT’s moving from Boston to Cambridge in 1916. Mclaurin, in discussing MIT’s collaborations with Harvard, emphasized the Institute’s desire to be a great national school based on natural science. Mclaurin was so successful in his aims, in fact, that when courts ruled in 1917 that yet another attempt to bring Harvard and MIT together would violate the terms of McKay’s will, it barely caused a stir. Future collaborations between the schools would be of the organic kind Eliot and Rogers had imagined: cooperation arising out of circumstances that would reinforce the basic character of each institution.

The seal of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with their motto, "Mens et Manus" (Mind and Hand)

(Next in Part 3: MIT goes to war, “war” on the MIT campus, MIT and the military-industrial complex, gender issues, and the making of a great knowledge center.)

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This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. From its founding by William Barton Rogers in 1861, MIT’s prominence as an institution for educating the world’s foremost scientists, engineers, economists and entrepreneurs is unquestioned; though along the way it has experienced numerous challenges – commencing with its founding, its mission and at more than one juncture, its very independence.  But throughout its existence, faithfulness to its motto, “Mens et Manus” (Mind and Hand) has embodied its core philosophy.

In the late 1960s, the War in Vietnam presented a serious dilemma for the Institute, whose “Special Laboratories” (those entities that were engaged in military research and development) provided the flashpoint for vigorous student protests – both peaceful and violent. These entities, such as Lincoln Laboratory and the Instrumentation Laboratory, brought in significant amounts of public and private investment for the Institute, but were pilloried by many for their contribution to the war effort. The administration’s handling of this contentious period would alter the direction of the Institute to this day.

The musical group The Grateful Dead performing at MIT in 1970, at the height of anti-Vietnam War protests on the campus. Courtesy, MIT Museum

Editor David Kaiser, in his Introduction to Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision, notes that among its distinguished alumni are fifty Nobel laureates, thirty-three MacArthur “genius award” fellows, and four Pulitzer Prize-winners. But arguably just as provocative has been MIT’s approach to broader trends within education and how it’s studied its own history in order to determine how the Institute will tackle future challenges and opportunities. The history of MIT is in so many ways intertwined with the history of high tech that it deserves the kind of lucid and authoritative narrative Kaiser and his fellow technology historians such as Merritt Roe Smith, Christophe Lécuyer and Deborah Douglas provide. Though each has had a relationship of varying extent with MIT, the book is very even-handed in its analysis and for that its editor deserves high praise. The book is a centerpiece of the Institute’s sesquicentennial celebrations, which are presently being held on its campus throughout 2011.

Alexander Graham Bell used MIT’s physics laboratory in the 1870s, and during the decades of the mid 20th century was a pioneer in diverse fields such as information theory, cybernetics and artificial intelligence. They were innovators in the development of silicon chips, digital computation and time-shared computing. And the Internet, along with many of its important components, including encryption technology, has strong ties to MIT.

In aeronautics, MIT students’ experiments with wind tunnels predated those of the Wright brothers, and Charles Stark Draper (the namesake of Cambridge’s Draper Laboratories) and his crew later designed the guidance and navigation systems for both ballistic missiles and the Apollo moon landing crafts. Additionally, several of MIT’s alumni have served in top positions at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

During the 1970s, MIT’s efforts in the “war on cancer” paved the way for the now extensive biotechnology industry, and more recently, MIT scientists headed the “Human Genome Project.” Such advances have been followed by significant private investment and financing, which in turn has resulted in numerous industry-leading facilities on the MIT campus – including the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.

Karl Taylor Compton, MIT president (1930-1948). Courtesy, MIT.

MIT has been at the forefront of such disciplines as economics, human cognition and behavior, media studies. And likewise, it has been a leader in formulating and implementing science policy. Several of MIT’s presidents, such as Karl Compton in the 1940s and more recently, President Emeritus Charles M. Vest, have served in advisory capacities with federal agencies and for U.S. presidents. In this and many other ways, the vision of the Institute’s founder, William Barton Rogers, has been fulfilled. The establishment of a laboratory-based system of instruction that employed training in the natural sciences paired with practical application has made it a model for science teaching throughout the world.

More complex – and at times, troubling – has been MIT’s historic partnerships with private industry. From the turn of the 19th/20th century and the Institute’s collaboration with defense firms, MIT has secured defense contracts which dwarfed its academic rivals; but this has also resulted in internal and external criticism. The latter was more than evident during Vietnam; but the former originated with its own faculty, who while appreciating the facilities and security private investment could provide, were similarly appreciative of how industry constricted academic freedom to both publish findings and collaborate with other colleagues.

Richard Cockburn Maclaurin, MIT president (1909-1920). Courtesy, MIT.

President Richard C. Maclaurin (1909-1920) in initiating his so-called “Tech Plan”, was well-intentioned, but was also a prime originator of this tension. His successor, Karl Compton, who ironically served as a board member at American Research and Development Corporation (the first public venture capital company), worked hard to mediate this antagonism – attempting to maintain autonomy for the Institute while still cultivating patronage from private industry.

(Next in Part 2: The founding of MIT, and Harvard as rival, doppelgänger, and for a brief moment, degree-conferring partner).

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55 years ago today, Jay Forrester of MIT was awarded a patent for his magnetic core memory. It became the standard for computer memory until it was supplanted by solid state RAM in the mid-seventies. (It has continued to be used, however, in special environments, e.g., on the space shuttle, because its content was not lost when the power was shut off). Forrester’s was not the only patent granted to magnetic core memory inventions and the patent dispute continued until February 1964 when IBM (which has acquired the patent rights from other inventors, including An Wang) agreed to pay MIT $13 million—$4 more than had ever been paid to secure a patent—of which Forrester received $1.5 million. Forrester succinctly described the experience many years afterwards: “It took about seven years to convince people in the industry that magnetic core memory would work. And it took the next seven years to convince them that they had not all thought of it first.” [quoted in Memory and Storage, Time-Life Books, 1990]

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The always mesmerizing Lady Gaga, in Boston for a couple of concerts on her “Monster Ball” tour, stopped by the M.I.T. Museum on Wednesday, June 30 to visit the Polaroid camera archive the museum recently received. In January, Lady Gaga became the re-made company’s Creative Director. At Wednesday’s event, Polaroid’s President, Scott Hardy, said “The products developed with Lady Gaga are very much focused on instant imaging and video technology … they’re going to remain very true to the heritage of Polaroid, but with a digital twist.” A new line of Polaroid and “Gaga co-branded” products will be introduced in stores in November.

Lady Gaga, who did not speak with reporters, posed for her own Polaroid photo, which will become part of the 73-year old archive, comprising over 10,000 items and containing such noteworthy rarities as Polarized glasses from the 1939 World’s Fair, original newsprint sketches by Polaroid founder Edwin H. Land, an historic bellows camera the size of a filing cabinet, as well as examples of Land-designed camera prototypes. It is scheduled to go on exhibition in 2013.

As Yahoo Finance noted in a June 30 story, “Lady Gaga’s recent appointment as Polaroid’s Creative Director is the first of many corporate objectives toward developing new and exciting products – introducing Polaroid to a new generation. Earlier today, Lady Gaga presided over a product design and development session for future Polaroid products. Today’s session is a milestone in the road to developing Lady Gaga’s co-branded Polaroid products that blend fashion, technology and photography.”

The defunct company was acquired by Minnetonka, Minnesota based PLR IP Holdings following Polaroid’s bankruptcy in 2001 –  and joins a long line of  brands that have made Phoenix-like revivals on the wings of “retro-chic.”

With all the force of a public relations tsunami, Lady Gaga’s own iconic brand will likely bring in a more youthful and style-conscious following for Polaroid’s return. And it is not inconceivable that November’s Polaroid products rollout could rival the hysteria of recent Apple product launches. I think even the late Edwin Land himself might have managed a smile had he been at this event.

-Chris Hartman

Lady Gaga and Polaroid at M.I.T. - courtesy, Polaroid

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In his book “The Tyranny of E-Mail,” author, John Freeman, has researched how 4,000 years of communication and technological breakthroughs have lead us to e-mail, a form of electronic communication that we can’t get away from.  Once broadband communication arrived, e-mail became the world’s most convenient communication tool.

Here are some facts about e-mail from Freeman’s book:

* The first e-mail was sent less than 40 years ago
* In 2007, 35 trillion messages were shot back and forth through 1 billion PCs
*  By 2011, there will be 3.2 billion e-mail users
* The average corporate worker receives > 200 e-mails per day and spends 40% of his/her time on e-mail each day
* Information overload is a $650 billion drag on the U.S. economy every year
* The tone of an e-mail is misunderstood 50% of the time

The History of E-Mail

Freeman quotes J.C.R. Licklider, an engineering professor at MIT and first director of the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency from a paper entitled “Man-Computer Symbiosis” where he wrote ” The hope is that in not too many years, human brians and computing machines will be coupled…tightly, and that the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought and process data in a way not approached by the information-handling machines we know today.”  Fifty years later, Freeman concludes that the day has arrived because to read an e-mail you have to be joined to a machine.

When Samuel Morse sent the first telegram in May 1844, the message was “What hath God  wrought.”  When the first e-mail was sent out by Ray Tomlinson using the @ symbol, it contained a random series of letters and numbers.  Or as Freeman writes: “In other words:  gibberish.  He just wanted to see if it would arrive and didn’t bother to type anything providential.”

The Affect on E-Mail on Us

Freeman proves in his book that we have “started reverse engineering our brains for speed, as opposed to mindfullness.”  He goes on to write that “Empirical evidence is flooding in regarding the ways that screen-based reading, which has grown from e-mail, is changing the way we read generally.  Eye-tracking studies have shown that people increasingly tend to leapfrog over long blocks of text.”

With handheld devices that give us 24/7 access to e-mail, there is pretty much no where that people do not pause to check it.  There is no downtime any more.  In fact, the word “crackberry” was Webster’s New World College Dictionary’s 2006 word of the year.  Freeman writes that we work in a climate of constant interruption.  Multi-tasking is a way of life that probably isn’t going to change back to the way things used to be when messages were sent by carrier pigeon.  In his last chapter “Don’t Send” Freeman offers some tips on how you can take back control of your in-box and your life.


This book was written to make you pause and think about what has happened to your life since you became continously available to others via e-mail.  It’s worth a read.  Especially the last chapter.  Think about this quote that begins the “Don’t Send” chapter.

“I’ve been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an e-mail address.  I’d used e-mail since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of e-mail is plenty for one lifetime.”  — Don Knuth, Stanford University

About This Book

Published by Scribner in October 2009.  It’s hardcover – 256 pages.  Cost is $25.00 (U.S.)

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The New York Times reported yesterday (Dec. 7th) that there was a reunion last month of colleagues who pioneered the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. They met over two days at the William Gates Computer Center on the Stanford campus.

According to the article’s author, John Markoff, there were other pioneering labs at Stanford, but the A.I. lab received less recognition than its peers:

“One laboratory, Douglas Engelbart’s Augmentation Research Center, became known for the mouse; a second, Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, developed the Alto, the first modern personal computer. But the third, the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, or SAIL, run by the computer scientist John McCarthy, gained less recognition.”

SAIL was begun by Dr. John McCarthy (who coined the term “artificial intelligence”) in 1963. Les Earnest was its deputy director. During that time, McCarthy’s initial proposal, to the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Pentagon, envisioned that building a thinking machine would take about a decade. In 1966, the laboratory took up residence in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains behind Stanford in an unfinished corporate research facility that had been intended for a telecommunications firm.

Markoff continues, “SAIL researchers embarked on an extraordinarily rich set of technical and scientific challenges that are still on the frontiers of computer science, including machine vision and robotic manipulation, as well as language and navigation.”

This group of alumni distinguished themselves in other innovative and distinctive ways – with artificial intelligence at the heart of their experimentation. As Markoff notes, “… Raj Reddy and Hans Moravec  went on to pioneer speech recognition and robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. Alan Kay brought his Dynabook portable computer concept first to Xerox PARC and later to Apple. Larry Tesler  developed the philosophy of simplicity in computer interfaces that would come to define the look and functioning of the screens of modern Apple computers — what is called the graphical user interface, or G.U.I.”

John Chowning, a musicologist, referred to SAIL as a ‘Socratean abode.’ He was invited to use the mainframe computer at the laboratory late at night when the demand was light, and his group went on to pioneer FM synthesis, a technique for creating sounds that transforms the quality, or timbre, of a simple waveform into a more complex sound. (The technique was discovered by Dr. Chowning at Stanford in 1973 and later licensed to Yamaha.)”

As has been noted previously in “High Tech History,” Spacewar was, in essence the first video game which was programmed with a Digital Equipment Corp. PDP-1 computer. At Stanford, Joel Pitts, a protege of SAIL’s Don Knuth (who wrote definitive texts on computer programming),  “… took a version of the Spacewar computer game and turned it into the first coin-operated video game — which was installed in the university’s student coffee house — months before Nolan Bushnell did the same with Atari.”

In 1980, the lab merged with Stanford’s computer science department, reopened in 2004, and is now enjoying something of a rebirth. Markoff concludes,

“The reunion also gave a hint of what is to come. During an afternoon symposium at the reunion, several of the current SAIL researchers showed a startling video called “Chaos” taken from the Stanford Autonomous Helicopter project. An exercise in machine learning, the video shows a model helicopter making a remarkable series of maneuvers that would not be possible by a human pilot. The demonstration is particular striking because the pilot system first learned from a human pilot and then was able to extend those skills.

But an artificial intelligence? It is still an open question. In 1978, Dr. McCarthy wrote, “human-level A.I. might require 1.7 Einsteins, 2 Maxwells, 5 Faradays and .3 Manhattan Projects.”

Reunion of the S.A.I.L. Laboratory at Stanford University last month

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