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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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Here’s a great clip from a January, 1994 episode of the Today Show, where co-hosts Bryant Gumbel, Katie Couric and Elizabeth Vargas appear completely flummoxed about just what the Internet is. Shows you just how far and how quickly we’ve come. Hey, maybe they should have asked High Tech History – after all, we did an entire post on the history of the “@” symbol!

Bryant Gumbel: "I wasn't prepared to translate that. You know ... that little mark with the 'a' and the little ring around it? ... Katie said she thought it was 'about.'"

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Tim Wu's "The Master Switch." Courtesy, Knopf.

After reading Columbia University professor Tim Wu’s groundbreaking book, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, and after hearing him speak this Jan. 11 of the motivations of technology entrepreneurs, one word best applies: perfection. The drive of inventors and innovators to design the perfect system – one that would satisfy the needs of consumers most perfectly while at the same time eradicating competition – has historical precedent. Wu is a confident and engaging speaker, and he held the packed lecture hall at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society in rapt attention throughout his address.

The Master Switch is an intriguing study of  both historical and contemporary examples of monopolistic tendencies in media and information companies. The title derives from a quote by the longtime CBS News producer Fred Friendly, who said that what is at stake is not the First Amendment or freedom of speech, but control of the “master switch;” that is, the predominant means of creating and delivering media content.

Wu looks at examples of early media empires such as AT&T, NBC and Hollywood movie studios, and concludes with more contemporary companies such as Apple Inc., Microsoft and Google. In the case of the latter, he poses questions about the future of the Internet – particularly with regard to “Net Neutrality,” or the availability of Internet content in the face of media conglomerates and access providers.

AT&T President Theodore Vail (with telephone) joined the opening ceremony for the first transcontinental telephone line from his home in Jekyll Island, Ga. With Vail (L to R): Architects Welles Bosworth and Samuel Trowbridge, banker J. P. Morgan Jr., and businessman William Rockefeller. Courtesy, AT&T.

Wu commences with a biography of Theodore Vail, the longtime president of AT&T, which was the single most important provider of telegraphy in America, which eventually became the Bell telephone system. Vail was imperious, but also imbued with a civic sense that saw his corporation, intertwined with the daily lives of American citizens, as having both a “responsibility” and “acccountability” to the public. But AT&T’s monopolistic destiny was sealed in 1907 with the arrival of John Pierpont Morgan, Jr., the primary investor of AT&T. Morgan and his fellow board members installed Vail as president, and as Morgan was arguably the single most important capital source in America, this thwarted any serious challengers to AT&T, basically ensuring its predominance.

Wu considers entities like AT&T, traditional movie studios and Radio and TV broadcasters “closed” monopolies; that is, they might originally have been open sources of entrepreneurial innovation and cross-polenation with competitors; but later, once established, close their systems to outside competitors. In a more contemporary sense, Wu sees Apple Inc.’s Steve Jobs as having the closest resemblance to the traditional media mogul. Everything about the modern Apple devices, though beautifully designed and as close to “perfection” for what they do as anything currently produced, are completely closed; that is, one cannot obtain software or peripherals without dealing with Apple directly. Jobs is contrasted with Steve Wozniak, Apple’s co-founder, who as a member of the Homebrew Computer Club, out of which Apple originated, favored devices such as the Apple II, that was open to outside software and peripherals designers and which he hoped would serve as a tool for the betterment of mankind and  “social justice.” Today’s Apple, as Wu wryly notes, “… guards technical and managerial information the way Willy Wonka guarded candy recipes.”

Joseph Alois Schumpeter

Wu, in the course of his arguments, returns repeatedly to the economic theories of  Joseph Alois Schumpeter (1883 – 1950), An Austrian-American economist and political scientist. Schumpeter was particularly focused on the symbiotic relationship between capitalism and innovation. Where companies often feared innovation under the belief that it would destroy their existing core business, Schumpeter felt that innovation was the key to survival. Companies needed to grow or die. AT&T’s acquisition of telephone technology (thereby guaranteeing the marginalizing of its telegraph system), was the fulfillment of Schumpeter’s theory.

Schumpeter’s theories can be closely applied to today’s evolving computer and Internet industries and their entrepreneurs. Google, Wu asserts, is a “switch of choice”, as opposed to AT&T’s “switch of necessity.” The capitalistic forces of nnovation and risk taking are often the keys to success. For example, sometime in 1996, Google, in seeking to prepare a search index, photographed the entire World Wide Web. No one at the time knew whether or not it was legal, which caused Wu to wonder if Balzac’s oft-quoted criticism, “Behind every great fortune is a great crime” was being borne out; but there were no legal challenges – then, or now. But Wu has other, quite positive things to say about Google in that its Android phone, together with its open source application platform, allows software entrepreneurs an open field for their innovations. Wu believes that Google’s open standards are the antidote to monopolistic abuse, and that the Android system is emblematic of those standards.

However, as a rule, Wu believes that the open system, if it produces superior products or services or fulfills some other need better that its competitors, will ultimately become monopolistic. Regarding the Internet, Wu isn’t really convinced if this model applies, but at his talk posed several reasons for and against this theory:

Against:

1. The core technologies of the Internet are so innovative that they cannot be controlled by one entity. Innovation is constant.

2. We’ve opened markets to the point where monopolies are obsolete, and so government is less committed to anti-trust and monopoly because there’s widespread feeling that any monopoly will ultimately crumble – as in the case of Microsoft.

3. Our capital markets are much more diverse than they once were. Numerous venture capital firms are always looking for the next “Google” or “Apple” and are constantly funding new ventures. In the days of AT&T, J.P. Morgan (as previously discussed) controlled the funding of companies, and so capital was centrallized and discouraged competition.

4. Sheer size of a company is not revered or trusted as in the past. Frederick Winslow Taylor, a foremost scholar of “scientific management” took issue with “economies of scale”; that is, the cost advantages that a business obtains due to expansion. In other words, we prefer the “upstart startup”, to coin a phrase.

For:

1. Neither human nature nor economics have changed. Those who control the infrastructure control the process and the profits. Power still lies in the local loop, or access to the telephone exchange infrastructure, which requires huge capital investments and discourages competitors.

2. Monopolistic tendencies haven’t gone anywhere. Companies like Google or Facebook are as influential as they are because everyone uses them. They have all the classic qualities of what makes something a monopoly – great production values, reasonable price, convenient and easy to use. As Wu says, “Americans want Hollywood content – not ‘Amateur Hour'”.

Tim Wu. Photo courtesy Knopf

When considering the “For” arguments, Wu, as the man who coined the phrase “Net Neutrality,” is encouraged by the recent FCC ruling to establish guidelines about which and how content is made available to end users on the Internet. Because one company controls the infrastructure for delivering content doesn’t mean that it should favor (or speed up) certain content providers over others. Abuse is the natural by-product of influential companies who feel they can restrict access to the system. This is the inherent danger that Wu expertly exposes in The Master Switch. It is a powerful document showing us how history can potentially repeat itself – even with information entities that are constantly evolving and innovating.

Tim Wu recently appeared on the Charlie Rose program to discuss The Master Switch and “Net Neutrality.” You can see that segment here.

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