Memoir of an ubergeek: How we invented the PLC during a hangover, and other stories
September 22, 2005 by Dick Morley
I am sitting on the porch in late summer as I type this. In my imagination, you, noble reader, are drinking a Bud, and I–a Diet Coke. You ask, “How did you get into engineering?” My early memories are flawed, and I suspect my mother, if she were still alive, would ruthlessly correct this “nanobiography,” but let me begin by saying that I tell you that engineering chose me.
My childhood readings included Popular Science, Astounding Science Fiction and Superman comic books. The earliest book I remember with fondness is One, Two, Three…Infinity: Facts and Speculations of Science by George Gamow. I still have a complete collection of the Tom Swift series. For me, the classics were boring. My heroes were Steinmetz, Einstein, Michelson and the Wright brothers.
I’ve lived on a farm since I was six years old. I helped out the family mostly by driving a tractor. While in third grade, we moved to New York City where my Dad was a machinist at the local cannon factory. From there, we moved to New Jersey to escape the bad influence of teenage gangs. I started high school in New Jersey and drifted along with the flow of life, until my high-school chemistry and English teachers decided my future for me. It would be the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
I applied for early admittance and was accepted. My family–having had no money–went into debt to send me to college. My brothers and I worked as machinists and union members to help pay for our education. Although I loved physics, I was not good enough to make it a profession, according to my professors. This opinion saved my behind! By accepting my lack of interest and marginal scholastic achievement in math and physics, the road to my future firmed up and my direction began to form.
After four years of physics (I graduated with the Class of 1954) and some additional math courses, a wife and some children appeared. The cold war had reached its peak and technology reigned. My first real job was for LFE in Boston, an electronics research company. I worked on projects for space, computer memories, single horn navigation systems and spook stuff. It was an engineer’s heaven. I spoke of earning a degree from MIT, but the well-known optics professor; Arthur C. Hardy suggested I keep having fun.
From 1954 to 1964 I was a cubical guy and an ubergeek. Several of my comrades suggested I look outside of computers and science–particularly into skiing. I loved skiing, as it was my first physical fun. I noticed the weekends attracted the most crowds on the slopes, so I asked my bosses at LFE to let me work weekends and ski during the week. They thought about it for a long while (six months), but I quit my job before they made a decision. A week later, LFE hired me back to work three days a week at my five-day-a-week salary. It proved a big economics lesson for me…
I met my long-term best friend, George Schwenk, around this time. George and I started a consulting and engineering firm called Bedford Associates. The company started in my basement, before moving to a garage and slowly growing into a 10-man shop. During that period, we worked on developing ABS brakes for Ford, disk memories, personal transit systems, CNC and industrial control systems.
That’s enough historical perspective. Now is the fun part: My innovation–the programmable logic controller (PLC) germinated on New Years’ Day during a hangover–really! Our consulting company had been designing machine control systems using DEC mini-computers. Just like the philosophy of problem solving with shrink-wrap technology, our PLC was “one size fits all” and built like a brick greenhouse. There was no on/off switch, no fans and an object type of program that simulated relay logic. We didn’t know about the General Motors effort or the Digital Equipment Company (DEC) effort. Like my Rottweilers, stupidity wins. We staggered into the marketplace with a clean sheet of paper and made a couple of bucks. Our initial seed money came from one of the founders of DEC.
Analysts suggest that inventors “find” innovation that’s about to blossom. “It’s better to be lucky than smart,” some say. But no planning occurred at any time in my story. My machinist and physics background allowed me to view the backside of issues with a twisted mirror. Since humans have had hands, technology has prospered with discovery–not analysis. We always seem to push the next frontier, whether we need it or not. As children, we take everything apart and sometimes even put things back together.
I once conducted my own experiment to find out when humans morph into engineers. I took a sample of preschool children and placed a shoebox in front of them containing a large toy plastic nut and bolt. I then handed the box to children without saying a word. The children that were around three years old opened the box, unscrewed the nut and put it back together. Humans seem to be wired for technology. As we get older, we enter the cider press of society and lose the innate ability to harvest technology. When asked what I do for a living, my son once said, “He gets paid for thinking.” True engineers cannot separate work from play. For them, work and play occupy the same arena. What turns engineers on? Understanding how things work.
A philosophy that sustains me is the brick concept: My job is to place a brick on the building of society; the culture may fail, but it won’t be because of my brick. The brick of my life will be well placed.
Dick Morley is the inventor of the PLC, an author, speaker, automation industry maverick and a self-proclaimed ubergeek. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.