The WPI International Corporate Leaders Roundtable: The Impact of Evolving Technologies on the Future of Business

Notable Achievements of Alumni of Worcester Polytechnic Institute

WPI was founded in 1865 on the revolutionary concept of blending classroom learning and practical application. This approach to education has prepared generations of problem solvers-individuals whose new ideas and inventions have literally changed the world. Working alone or leading teams, in basement workshops or industrial research laboratories, they have added innumerable chapters to the annals of progress, have won patents too numerous to count, and have been responsible for advances that continue to shape our world today.

First Liquid-Fueled Rocket
Robert H. Goddard '08 built and launched the world's first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926. It rose only 41 feet, but his later inventions and breakthroughs become standard features on future generations of rockets. After his death, Congress ordered a special gold medal struck in honor, and the American Rocket Society and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics created Goddard awards. WPI also has a Goddard Award (for professional achievement by alumni), as well as Goddard Hall (home of the Chemistry and Biochemistry and Chemical Engineering departments), a Goddard graduate fellowship, and the Goddard GigaPoP (WPI's portal to Internet2). NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., where WPI students now travel to complete projects, is perhaps the greatest tribute to the Father of the Space Age.

Negative Feedback Theory
Harold Black '21 invented the negative-feedback amplifier while a young engineer at Bell Laboratories. The discovery that played a vital role in 20th-century electronics. It eliminated distortion from telephone calls, was used in gun-control systems during the Second World War, and was key to a range of postwar electronics--from computers to pacemakers to high-fidelity recordings. It is still widely used in control and communications systems today. In 1957, Mervin Kelly, then president of Bell Labs, called the achievement one of two inventions that had the broadest impact on electronics and communications during the previous half century.

First Practical Airbag Safety System
Carl Clark '45 developed the first practical airbag safety systems for aircraft, spacecraft and automobiles in the 1960s. His Airstop Restraint System for cars was the first true automotive airbag safety system. His promotion of the benefits of airbags at conferences and before Congress is credited with helping convince automakers to begin seriously investigating the practicality of adding airbag systems to cars. Based on his own research, he has also advocated for the use of laminated safety glass (combined with a T-shaped restraining strip he invented) in the side windows of cars, which could prevent laceration injuries and ejections during accidents. He has also developed an airbag bumper that would project several feet in front of the car just prior to a crash, triggered by the same kind of radar detection system he originally proposed using with driver and passenger airbags.

Area Rule, Supercritical Wing and Winglets
Richard T. Whitcomb '43 is credited with several pioneering developments in aviation design and engineering. In 1951, while working for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the forerunner of NASA), he formulated of the Area Rule, which says that drag at high speeds is a function of an airplane's total cross-sectional area (essentially, the thickness of the fuselage). The rule is now a fundamental principal in the design of high-speed aircraft. He also developed the supercritical wing. By delaying the onset of shock waves that appear on the upper portions of wings at high speeds, the design enables military aircraft and commercial jetliners to fly faster and more efficiently. Winglets, another Whitcomb invention, are airfoils that extend at an angle from the ends of wings. By reducing wingtip vortices that can cause drag and decrease lift, they produce greater fuel efficiency. These and other accomplishments have earned Whitcomb numerous honors, including the Collier Trophy, aviation's highest award.

Real-Time Cryptography
Gilbert S. Vernam '14 launched the era of modern cryptography 90 years ago with a much-celebrated brainstorm. While working for AT&T, he figured out how to guarantee the security of private messages transmitted over telegraph wires. Even when multiple messages were speeding through a wire in both directions, someone with an oscilloscope could monitor the frequency changes and transcribe the messages. Vernam suggested using two paper tapes in a printing telegraph machines, one with the message and a second containing random pulses--a private key, in cryptographic terms--that could be added to the pulses of the text to create an encrypted message. An identical tape at the other end enabled the added pulses to be subtracted to reveal the message. This was the first automatic, real-time method for coding and decoding messages, and it made cryptography, once a labor-intensive process that had to be done off-line, something that could be easily added to any communications system, from telephone calls, to radio transmissions, to e-mail messages flashed over the Internet. Vernam's invention also led to another seminal achievement in cryptography-the one-time pad, known as the only unbreakable cryptosystem.

Catalytic Converter
Robert C. Stempel '57, as special assistant to GM's president, Stempel was asked in 1973 to develop a technology that would enable GM cars to meet strict new air pollution regulations. His solution was the catalytic converter, a device that filters exhaust gases through a dense honeycomb coated with such precious metals as platinum, palladium and rhodium. In a complex chemical process, the metals act as catalysts that convert nitrous oxides, carbon monoxide and unburned hydrocarbons into carbon dioxide and water. The technology, considered the most significant development in automotive emissions control, is included in virtually every car sold in the United States. Stempel also participated in the development of the positive crankcase valve (PCV), which reduces unburned hydrocarbons in exhaust by 30 percent. Stempel went on to become General Motor's youngest president, in 1987, and was named chairman three years later. In that capacity he oversaw the development of GM's first solar-powered car and its first electric vehicle. Today he is chairman of Energy Conversion Devices in Troy, Mich., which, among other products, makes advanced nickel-metal hydride batteries for electric vehicles.

Parallel-Wire Strand System of Bridge Design
Jackson L. Durkee '43, as a structural engineer in the Fabricated Steel Construction Division of Bethlehem Steel Corp., and later the company's chief bridge engineer, developed a host of innovations that changed the way long-span bridges are built. His best-known innovation is the parallel-wire strand system for constructing suspension bridge cables. He found that by making the strands in bridge cables parallel, instead of twisting them into a helical configuration, the cables could support considerably more weight with less mass. The revolutionary technique also eliminated the need for the "aerial spinning" method of cable construction that had been invented 125 years earlier by John Roebling, designer of the Brooklyn Bridge. The parallel-strand wire technique was used for the first time during the construction of the Newport (R.I.) Bridge in the late 1960s and has since been employed on bridges all around the world. For his accomplishments in bridge design and structural engineering, Durkee has won the Ernest E. Howard Award (known as the structural engineering gold medal) from the American Society for Civil Engineers, which has also elected him a fellow and an honorary member. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1995.

Stainless Steel
Elwood Haynes, Class of 1881, is celebrated for his achievements in two major fields of technology: metallurgy and automotive engineering. His innovations in metallurgy began when he was still a student at WPI. Having become discouraged when a steel razor blade he made rusted, he set out to develop a steel alloy that would resist corrosion. In 1911, he discovered a type of stainless steel and patented it in 1919. Various claims have been made over the years about who can claim the title of inventor of stainless steel, but Haynes' patent and his writings about his years of experimental work make a strong case for awarding the title to him. Haynes also invented a number of other important alloys, including tungsten chrome steel, a chromium and nickel alloy, and a chromium and cobalt alloy. Stellite, a cobalt-chromium-tungsten alloy, is much harder than many steels and has proved an ideal material for cutting tools. It became the best-known product of the Haynes Stellite Co., through which he commercialized many of his metallurgical discoveries. Haynes is also credited with the development one of the first gasoline-powered cars in America. The car, now in the Smithsonian Institution, is the oldest American-made vehicle in existence.

First Commercial Radio Station
Henry P. Davis, Class of 1880, was vice president for engineering and manufacturing for Westinghouse when he became impressed with the growing interest in the entertainment value of radio broadcasting. In particular, he noted the popularity of an amateur radio station manned by Frank Conrad, assistant chief engineer at Westinghouse. Seeing the commercial potential of this new medium, Davis authorized Westinghouse to set up radio station KDKA. On Nov. 2, 1920, it became the world's first commercial radio station. Davis, himself, stood before the microphone on that historic day to read the results of the presidential elections. A visionary and a skilled inventor (he earned more than 80 patents), Davis continued his interest in broadcasting throughout the remainder of his career and today is widely considered to be the father of commercial broadcasting. When the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) was founded in 1926, he became its first chairman, a post he held until his death in 1931.

First Portable Drug Infusion Pump
Dean Kamen '73, president and owner of DEKA Research & Development Corp. in Manchester, N.H., is an inventor, an entrepreneur, and an advocate for science and technology. He invented the first wearable infusion pump while he was a physics major at WPI in the early 1970s. The device found immediate applications in chemotherapy, neonatology and endocrinology, and led to the development of the first insulin pump for diabetics. His pumps give diabetics and other patients whose lives depend on frequent doses of medication a greater degree of freedom. They also enable terminally ill patients to receive pain-killing medication in their homes. He has also designed a host of other medical technology, including the HomeChoice dialysis machine (named Medical Product of the Year by Design News in 1993) and the IBOT Transporter, a revolutionary stair-climbing wheelchair developed for Johnson & Johnson. Kamen has received the Engineer of the Year Award from Design News magazine, the Hoover Medal (presented by five major engineering societies), and the Heinz Award in Technology. He is a fellow of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering. Most recently, he received the National Medal of Technology, the nation's highest award for technological achievement. He is also the founder of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a nonprofit organization dedicated to changing the way young people view science and technology.

Internal Grinding Machine for Engine Manufacture
James N. Heald, Class of 1884, was the third generation to run his family's the blacksmith shop, foundry and machine shop in Heald Village, Mass. In 1903, he moved the renamed Heald Machine Co. to Worcester. By that time, he had already developed a lathe attachment for both internal and external grinding and a successful drill-point grinder. In 1905, he invented a rotary grinder for machining the sides of piston rings. Through this work, he learned about the challenges manufacturers faced in producing cylinders for internal combustion engines. At that time, the cylinders were machined by boring, reaming or lapping. Attempts to grind out the cylinders had proven unsuccessful, since the thin walls of the cylinders would spring away from the grinding tool, producing an uneven surface. Heald took on the challenge and invented a new type of internal grinding machine with a planetary action, which eliminated the problems previous grinding machines had exhibited. His device was so well designed that today's internal grinders differ little from his early production models. The breakthrough quickly became the standard method for manufacturing engines for automobiles and airplanes, and almost single-handedly paved the way for the mass production of internal combustion engines. Heald refined his initial design with the introduction of automatic size control, a hydraulic table feed, and centerless internal grinders. His accomplishments earned him a place in the Machine Tool Hall of Fame.

Traffic Engineering
Burton Marsh '20 was the first full-time traffic engineer in the United States. After receiving his degree in civil engineering from WPI, he worked for a time as a city planner. His achievements in that field attracted the interest of the mayor of Pittsburgh, who appointed him head of the city's new Bureau of Traffic Relief in 1924. He was so successful, Philadelphia lured him away to tackle its traffic mess in 1930. Three years later, Marsh became director of traffic engineering and safety for the American Automobile Association, where he pioneered an emphasis on pedestrian safety that contributed to a major reduction in pedestrian fatalities between 1937 and 1957--despite a significant jump in the number of cars on the road. He also helped establish the AAA's school safety patrol and assisted in setting up driver education programs in the nation's elementary and secondary schools. From 1967 to 1970, he was executive director of the Institute of Transportation Engineers, an organization he helped found. In 1970, the ITE created the Burton W. Marsh Distinguished Service Award, its highest honor.

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Last modified: Apr 16, 2001, 13:50 EDT