"When Innovation Was Rampant"


“Two Win Prestigious Engineering Award”

SO SAID THE headline in The New York Times, Jan. 4, 2006. The story in the Times went on to describe how two now-retired researchers from Bell Laboratories, formerly a division of the American Telephone and Telegraph Corp. (AT&T), have just been named winners of the 2006 Charles Stark Draper Prize. The award is, according to the Manhattan newspaper, “the engineering equivalent of a Nobel Prize.” In addition to the honor, the Draper Prize comes with a cash award of $500,000.

The prestigious Draper Prize is administered by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), a nonprofit society whose mission is to promote the technological welfare of the United States by marshaling the knowledge and insights of eminent members of the engineering profession.


Charles Draper: Charles Draper

By way of background, Charles Stark Draper (1901-1987), after whom the prize is named, was a physicist and member of the faculty at MIT and head of that school’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. During the course of his long and distinguished career, Draper developed an extensive program of instruction and research in the fields of instrumentation and control.

Draper is known as the “father of inertial navigation,” a process that allows vehicles to sense changes in direction by linking gyroscopes and accelerometers along three axes. Draper performed pioneering work in the underlying theory of inertial navigation, and along the way invented and developed much of the technology that brought it to operational use in aircraft, space vehicles, and submarines.

A highly accomplished aircraft engineer, Draper performed monumental efforts on the Apollo program that culminated in the United States landing men on the moon, and the even more difficult task of returning the men safely to Earth. Related to Draper’s efforts in space exploration, his work on missile guidance system led directly to U.S. technological supremacy in that strategic military arena. In the context of his time, Draper directly contributed to keeping the Cold War cold.

Draper’s work is the main reason why modern aircraft can travel intercontinental routes, flying from airport to airport with pinpoint accuracy, based upon self-contained inertial guidance systems that are derived from his original inventions. Submarines navigate under the polar ice packs using inertial navigation systems that trace their origins to Draper. And much offshore oil exploration and development, to include essentially all of what goes in and comes out of deep water oil fields, would be impossible without Draper’s work in the area of inertial navigation.

Previous Draper Prizes have been awarded to individuals whose work was instrumental in the development of such revolutionary technologies as the axial turbojet engine, the monolithic integrated circuit, high-level computer language, communication satellite technology, global positioning technology, fiber optics, and the Internet (no, the prize was not awarded to Al Gore). In other words, you have to do something that is pretty special to receive the award.

Charles Draper: King Meets Draper

If I may digress…On a personal note, I met Dr. Draper on one occasion, back in the mid-1970s. He came down the street from MIT to give a talk at the Harvard Geology Department. At that time, Draper was working, among many other things, on a project to incorporate devices called “ring laser gyroscopes” (RLGs) into seismographs, in order to measure seismic movements. He had developed some prototype earth-measurement equipment, using first-generation RLGs, which he incorporated into a seismograph.

After Draper provided a technical presentation on the subject in one of the classrooms, we all went outside. Draper and some graduate students had set up an array of seismic sensors around the grounds of Harvard’s Museum of Natural History. Draper’s RLG-based equipment was so sensitive that we could record the seismic energy of people jogging past the building, cars driving down nearby streets, and even the movement of trains on the Boston Red Line Subway, quite a bit distant on the other side of Harvard Yard.

My impression of Dr. Draper that day was that he was a brilliant man who possessed the heart and soul of a teacher. He talked to us, explained how his equipment worked, and then asked for questions. When there were no more questions from the Harvard students, the MIT professor asked his own questions in order to stimulate discussion. He went out of his way to make sure that everyone had a chance to tinker with his equipment.

I recall that, at one point during our session with the RLG seismograph, Draper said something along the lines of “There is nothing like putting your hands on a machine to improve your understanding.” I think about Draper’s comment whenever I hear someone say that it does not matter that the United States is losing its manufacturing base to foreign nations. That is not what Draper, of MIT, was teaching to a group of students from Harvard back in the 1970s. But then what do people from Harvard and MIT really know?

Charles Draper: Imaging Microchips and Charge-Coupled Devices

The two winners of the 2006 Draper Prize, Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith invented the imaging microchip, the charge-coupled device (CCD), in 1969. In the past 37 years, their invention has become the building block for multibillion-dollar global industries making everything from digital cameras to the world’s most powerful telescopes.

This 2006 prize-winning technology, the CCD microchip, converts light particles, or photons, into packets of electrical charges. A CCD holds an array of semiconductor capacitors that detect the incoming photons. Each capacitor holds an electrical charge that is proportional to the number of photons that strike it, or put another way, it measures the intensity of the light. These capacitor charges are then shifted, nearly instantaneously (at the speed of electricity across a medium), in rows to the edge of the chip, where they are then scanned. The electronic readout of a CCD scan can be readily digitized. Once scanned and digitized, the signal can then be collected and recorded, or transmitted to a receiver. Whatever is recorded can later be played back, or the receiver can reverse the scanning process. In either case, the process allows for the display of an image, and permits rapid analysis of the signal by a digital computer.

The CCD device that Messrs. Boyle and Smith developed was novel because it could detect and hold a discrete, isolated charge, and then move that charge without circuitry interconnections to a single output detector. This characteristic makes a CCD device very sensitive — in fact, much more sensitive than photographic film.

CCDs have evolved to be small, accurate, and reliable signal detectors. CCDs have found many applications as imaging devices, and have become a ubiquitous component of commonplace electronic equipment, such as digital cameras, video cameras, and scanners. CCDs are essential to many medical imaging devices, such as the tiny cameras that permit internal diagnostic procedures and smaller surgical incisions.

CCDs are used in space telescopes and remote sensing cameras. The Hubble Space Telescope, the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, and the many surveillance satellites circling Earth all incorporate the rugged and energy-efficient device and are thus able to transmit spectacular images. For example, if you have ever marveled at close-up pictures of distant planets and moons, or other celestial bodies such as the sun or the rings of Saturn, you are looking at an image that was captured by a CCD device on an exploration satellite and transmitted back to Earth.

According to William A. Wulf, president of the NAE, “People don’t know the nuances of CCDs, but they know they have a camcorder and satellite images of the weather.”

According to a press release by the NAE, Mr. Smith and his colleague Mr. Boyle came up with the basic structure of the CCD chip during a brainstorming session that lasted less than an hour. Mr. Smith said that Mr. Boyle, his boss, had called him into his office to ponder how they could meet a request from AT&T for new memory chip concepts. AT&T was researching ways for semiconductors to store data, the better to compete with new magnetic bubble memory technologies. “We were always coming up with new ideas, but most of them didn’t work,” Mr. Boyle is quoted as saying. One day, however, Messrs. Boyle and Smith sketched out the design of the CCD.

The Bell Labs community was stunned at the novelty of the concept. The two men had developed a design that could indeed store data. But it soon became apparent that the greatest advantage of the new microchip lay in image sensing.

Charles Draper: “Innovation was Rampant”

“It was a time when innovation was rampant,” Mr. Boyle told The New York Times in 1969 of his days at Bell Labs. “We had a good understanding of fundamental physics at Bell Labs, so we could play with a lot of ideas.”

AT&T initially attempted to use CCD chips to develop a “picture phone” for sale into business and consumer telephone markets. It was a case of corporate product development imitating Dick Tracy, if not Buck Rogers. However neither the technology, nor the telephone market, was ready to accept such a device. After an initial setback, AT&T’s work on the CCD chip tapered off. Aside from a few U.S. companies that adopted CCD technology for specialty, high-end niche applications such as in military surveillance and space imaging, U.S. industry all but abandoned the field to other companies.

These other companies however, particularly the Japanese giant Sony, promoted research and application of the new CCD technology. Within a few years, Sony introduced CCD chips in the first commercially available digital camera. Other Japanese firms followed Sony’s lead, in particular Panasonic and its related conglomerate Matsushita Electrical Industrial, as well as the Toshiba Group of companies. These firms thus became the technology leaders in manufacturing CCD chips, and in turn became market leaders in incorporating CCD chips into consumer applications during the 1970s and 1980s. Today, these firms remain world-class technology leaders in the manufacture of CCD chips, and their products are dominant in world markets.

With this in mind, the award of the Draper Prize to Messrs. Boyle and Smith is a bittersweet reminder of the decline of Bell Labs as a research powerhouse. AT&T, the owner of Bell Labs when Messrs. Boyle and Smith designed the CCD chip in 1969, was broken up in 1984, pursuant to an antitrust lawsuit settlement. Lucent Technologies, the AT&T spinoff that inherited most of Bell Labs, has been forced by financial constraints to restrict the research that it supports at Bell Labs. Innovation is no longer, as the saying goes, “rampant.”

Charles Draper: The Moral of the Story

Congratulations to Messrs. Boyle and Smith. They remind us all that basic research is a very good thing, and that one never knows what will come from the interaction of many bright minds all locked up on the same research campus.

Beyond this paean to basic research, however, we are reminded that application and development of new ideas is also important. This requires a supportive intellectual and business culture, and, within that culture, a cadre of people who are dedicated to expanding a particular field of endeavor. You need people who are smart enough to, as one of the awardees of the Draper Prize said, “play with a lot of ideas.”

Producing and manufacturing any manner of goods takes hard work and capital and intelligence and patience. As to the latter, AT&T gave up on CCD chips after a single abortive foray into video telephones. Sony, Panasonic, Matsushita, and others dealt with identical design, manufacturing, production, and sales issues involving CCDs, but evidently, these firms had different corporate goals and motivations.

For decades, Sony et al. have demonstrated how a focus on practical application, and the related manufacture of goods, provides a large source of proprietary knowledge, which translates into a firm becoming a world-class producer and exporter. A commitment to technological innovation and application, certainly within the context of excellence in manufacturing, both improves productivity and serves as a barrier to entry for others.

What AT&T neglected after developing the CCD, and what other U.S. firms shunned in the 1970s and 1980s, became the foundation upon which foreign competitors created entire industries. These industries built for themselves a large base of sales, profits, and high-paying jobs and accompanied it all with a respectable return for investors. In the process, these companies and their export earnings kept the Japanese yen among the world’s highest-quality currencies.

Many of these foreign firms are today “global” companies, in that they own research centers and factories outside of their homelands. But the fact of their strong penetration into the U.S. and other economies as nominal “employers” brings them additional political influence. Certainly within U.S. borders, this state of affairs is the better to suppress any budding domestic competition. In its own way, the globalization phenomenon has the potential to be an economic Trojan horse.

Related to this, it is clear that the so-called “high wage” nations such as Japan can still compete effectively with “low wage” nations in manufacturing. But successful competition requires a business culture, and associated monetary, fiscal, and tax climate, that favors capital investment, education, and worker training over immediate consumption and gratification. This is hardly the description of the modern American economy or political culture.

Distilled to its essence, this story highlights a point that we continually emphasize in Whiskey & Gunpowder, and in many related Agora publications. That is, in a world where things tend to revert to the mean, you have to deserve your success.

Charles Draper: How Does Society Win the Draper Prize? 

Clearly, the United States needs to save more as a society, invest more in basic capital development, and spend less at every governmental level to subsidize what is known as “final consumption.” (Another way of saying this is that “Government spending is where dollars go to die.”) The U.S. education system needs to produce more engineers and technically oriented graduates. And the U.S. financial culture needs, if not deserves, to feel the sting of hard money, which has not been the case since Paul Volcker left his former office at the Federal Reserve. Wall Street needs to respect the need for businesses to take a long-term view, so as not to sell American companies down the river in the pursuit of short-term gain.


“Yeah, right,” you say. Will it happen? Can it happen? Do you even care? If you don’t care, my next question for you is whether or not you have some skill set that the world of the future will value? (“Oh you majored in ‘Women’s Studies’ with a minor in ‘Marxist Theory and Critical Analysis’? Hmmm…How interesting.”)

Also, here is a free hint. As our friend the Mogambo Guru might ask, “Do you own gold or oil property?” As Agora’s Bill Bonner might ask, “Do you own real estate in some remote locale, the equivalent of a ‘gated community’ within the community of nations?” As my colleague Jim Amrhein might ask, “If all else fails, do you own a gun or two, and do you know how to fire for effect?” (“You don’t? Hmmm…How interesting.”)

The story of the 2006 Draper Prize, awarded for an invention made in 1969, both tells a tale and shines a spotlight on the pathology of the declining manufacturing economy in the United States, as well as the country’s inflating monetary culture. The problem is manifest. Over the past 37 years, the decline in manufacturing has gone hand in hand with the decline in the value of the dollar, the dumbing down of education and cultural standards, and perhaps to the root of all evil: the idiocy of what passes for the nation’s vaunted “two-party” political system.

In the best of circumstances, the United States will probably require several generations to correct its problems. In the alternative, the United States and its dollar can fall from grace in the world, and under the best of circumstances, the nation will become another Argentina.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King

January 10, 2006


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