Spring 1998

People of the Century

Dawn of the Information Age

N umerous contributions to the fields of electronics, communications and computer technology, all attributed to alumni of WPI, have helped bring about the Information Age. One of the earliest tendrils of the information technology to enter the workplace was the time clock, which recorded the comings and going of workers with an accuracy not previously possible. Edward G. Watkins, Class of 1886, invented and patented one of the first practical time clocks while he was in charge of the engineering department of Haywood Brothers & Wakefield Co. in Gardner, Mass., a maker of chairs and school furniture. Watkins started a company to make the clocks, which eventually became the Simplex Time Recorder Co.

Few innovations of the last 100 years have changed life more than the telephone, and WPI graduates played important roles in its evolution. For example, John G. Truesdell '08, who spent many years as a supervisor for AT&T Co., demonstrated a possible nationwide telephone network for the Navy in 1917; it included the first teletype service and the first ship-to-shore radio connections. During World War I, he handled long-distance and special telephone service for President Wilson and his cabinet. In 1920, he helped install the first loud speaker system used at both the Democratic and Republican presidential conventions.

Carlton D. Haigis '15 developed the original walkie-talkie units used by the U.S. military. After several years as chief physicist at the Victor Talking Machine Co., he started his own laboratory to study ultra-high-frequency radio, work that led to the development of the military radios. In 1935, he became a radio engineer with the New Jersey State Forest Fire Service, where he established the forest radio service system for the state. A few years later, he became chief of communications for the Control and Communications Branch of the Office of Civil Defense, and in 1943, he was named operations analyst for the Army Air Corps. His career was cut short a year later when an Army plane in which he was riding crashed in North Carolina.

Visitors to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio, will find exhibits about two WPI graduates, Robert H. Goddard and Harold S. Black '21. Black earned 347 patents during his long career at Bell Laboratories. The one that earned him a spot in the hall of fame resulted from a moment of inspiration he had on the ferry as he traveled to work in New York City one morning in 1927. He had been trying to figure out how to eliminate distortion on long-distance telephone calls. His solution was the negative feedback amplifier, which corrected the distortion by feeding part of the signal back to the amplifier and comparing it to the original signal. Black's theory of negative feedback, which has been called one of the greatest engineering achievements of all time, has been applied in fields as diverse as control engineering, digital computers and psychology. His invention won him the John Price Wetherell Award from the Franklin Institute and the Lamme Gold Medal from the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.

The modern floppy disk, familiar to computer users everywhere, owes a bit of its heritage to Harrison W. Fuller '46, a pioneer in applied research in thin-film magnetics. Fuller was director of the Solid-State Electronics Laboratory at the Laboratory for Electronics Inc. in Boston, where he was also chief physicist. At LFE, he conducted some of the early work in thin-film magnetics that helped make possible low-cost storage devices - floppy disks - for early personal computers.

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Last Modified: Thu June 10 11:52:51 EDT 1999