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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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Jonathan Rotenberg

This is a personal account, by Boston native Jonathan Rotenberg, about the day in 1981 he met Steve Jobs, who with Steve Wozniak was in town to attend “Applefest ’81,” a computer show Jonathan organized as a prodigious 18 year old. Rotenberg, who currently resides in Los Angeles, has a long history in computing. When he was only 13, he co-founded Boston’s Computer History Society. He is now President of Centriq Advisors, a management consulting firm for the high tech industry. Below I quote Jonathan’s account in its entirety. It’s remarkable for the humanity and kindness Jobs exhibited that day – particularly to young Jonathan.

Click here to check out Jonathan’s Facebook page and his blogging on life in L.A., a variety of issues relating to technology, spirituality, creativity and business.

“On June 6, 1981, a very kind man named Bob Washburn (Northeast Regional Sales Manager of Apple Computer Inc.) made a dream come true for an 18-year old semi-geek named Jonathan Rotenberg. Bob convinced the cofounders of his company, Steve Jobs & Steve Wozniak, to be keynote speakers at a computer show I organized in Boston called Applefest ’81.

“Applefest was the first Apple-specific computer show ever, and was the platform from which IDG (International Data Group) later launched something called Macworld Expo.

In this photo, taken that steamy Saturday afternoon at Boston’s Park Plaza Castle, the 26-year-old Steve J. is standing next to his just-launched Apple III. Little did Steve realize at this particular moment just how much the pimply 18-year-old Kid actually knew about him. The Kid had researched Steve in meticulous detail.

“Weeks before, the Kid had been in intense conversations with one of Boston’s top chefs, Odette Berry of Another Season restaurant (the location today of Lala Rokh on Beacon Hill). Odette and he (me) planned an exquisitely stylish and innovative seven-course, all-vegetarian dinner for Saturday night. Odette developed each recipe from scratch specially for Steve Jobs. With a warm and gentle British accent, she said: ‘Mind you, now, this won’t be any “hippie vegetarian” dinner. Each course will be extremely elegant and unique.’

Lala Rokh restaurant (previously Another Season), Mt. Vernon Street, Boston's Beacon Hill neighborhood.

“In 1981, a lot of teenagers idolized Blondie or Mick Jagger. That Saturday evening at Another Season, this 18-year-old found himself sitting in the presence of his greatest childhood hero. As the dinner began, the 26-year old may have had a hunch that, in this Kid, he had found someone who could appreciate his extraordinarily high standards. (FYI, six years later–after leaving Apple and founding NeXT and Pixar–Steve would say, in a biting, caustic phone voice: ‘You know, Jonathan, you can be an ANAL RETENTIVE JERK sometimes!’ Part of understanding Steve is knowing that ‘anal retentive jerk’ can be understood as an expression of esteem by one perfectionist to another …)

“The dinner guests seated around the table included the technology editor of the Wall Street Journal, Dick Schaffer; the publisher/founder of Inc. magazine, Bernie Goldhirsh; and the technology reporter of the Boston Globe. Each of the seven courses was crafted from fragrant, brilliantly colorful, just-picked spring vegetables. The guests seemed impressed. But the 18-year-old–so determined to raise himself to the soaring, monumental standards of the master–had something else up his pimply sleeve … He knew a truth about Steve that almost no one knew then. Many people knew that Steve had been a fruitarian for a number of years. But what virtually NO ONE knew was that Steve’s favorite fruit was NOT the apple; it was the strawberry.

“Odette had designed each course of the dinner to include a unique, innovative strawberry element within it. The 18-year old sat across the table, facing the 26-year-old master. A waiter appeared with the first course: a beautifully-designed glass platter made from a highly-polished mirror with gorgeous, ever-so-lightly prepared, gigantic strawberries, arranged like a work-of-art on the mirror. The 18-year old peered across the table and saw a grin appear on the face of the master. ‘We heard that you like strawberries,’ the Kid said. ‘Doesn’t everyone like strawberries?’ he replied, with a happy, boyish laugh. He then slid a large portion of the platter onto his plate …

“After dinner, I invited the guests to my parents’ townhouse on Beacon Hill for liqueurs and biscotti. As we walked up Mt. Vernon Street after dinner, it was close to the summer solstice. The setting Spring sun illuminated the gentle colonial brick townhouses, trees, and gas lamps of Beacon Hill. I had been waiting all day to to find an appropriate time to speak with Steve about the future of Applefest. As we walked together, I shared with him some challenges we had been struggling with in our collaboration with Apple’s marketing department. Steve put his arm around my shoulder and seemed to listen intently. He then reached into his jacket and pulled out a small leather box. ‘Here, Jonathan, I want to give this to you.’ (The box, I later discovered, contained a pure gold pen with the full-color Apple logo on its clip). After some further conversation, he said: ‘Jonathan, Could you call my assistant next week? I’d like to fly you out to California, so that we can sit down and talk about this.’

“There is a saying that ‘when the student is ready, the teacher appears.’ On June 6, 1981, the most important teacher of my lifetime appeared.”

-Chris Hartman

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On October 12, 1988, Steve Jobs unveiled the NeXT Computer at Symphony Hall in San Francisco. A day or two later, I was among a standing-room only crowd at Boston’s Symphony Hall admiring the all-black, beautifully-designed “workstation” with a brand-new optical drive (no hard disk drive in the computer of the future according to Jobs) that played a duet with a human violinist.

That night I sent a gushing memo to my colleagues at DEC, telling them that the future has arrived and that Jobs education-sector-first marketing strategy was brilliant. Indeed, CERN was one of the early adopters and Tim Berners-Lee developed the first WWW browser/editor on the NeXT workstation. But NeXT Computer, Inc. went on to sell only 50,000 beautifully-designed “cubes,” getting out of the hardware business altogether in 1993.

For many years, I have kept in my office the “Computing advances to the NeXT level” poster I got that night as a reminder that forecasting the next big (or small) thing in technology is tough, even impossible. And yet, many people believe that technology marches according to some “laws” or pre-defined trajectory and that all we have to do is decipher the “evolutionary” path technology (or the economy or society) is destined to follow.

Jobs went on to introduce the iPod and  the iPad, industry-changing devices whose invention was made possible, among other things, by a tiny disk drive. The possibility of a significant boost to the simultaneous shrinking (of size) and enlarging (of capacity) of disk drives was known since the discovery of the giant magnetoresistance effect in the very same year the NeXT Computer was introduced, 1988. Still, no one predicted the iPod.  Similarly, in 1990 no one predicted how the Web will change our lives or in 2000, how virtualization will change the lives of IT managers, although both technologies existed at the time.

To quote Ebenezer Scrooge,who had the opportunity to meet his future, “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if preserved in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.” We cannot predict our future. But, like Steve Jobs, we can create it.

–Gil Press

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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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I decided to enter the blogosphere because I wanted to share some of my own experiences as a biographer and chronicler of post-war high tech, together with the associated field of venture capitalism and some of the personalities involved.

In addition to historical discussions – including posting original source material – I will periodically review relevant books. As the author of a biography about a pioneer high tech and venture capital executive, with another nearing completion, I feel I can offer a unique perspective on the subject.

— Christopher Hartman

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