We call it “IT,” and the reason is because a physicist first realized that information, like any other subatomic phenomenon, was both a particle and a wave. It was a product unto itself, and Dr. Jacob “Jack” Goldman created the environment for the concept to take root.
I know you’re thinking Xerox PARC. Actually, I was thinking the Ford Motor Company.
America used to produce automobiles, and with the surplus generated from the country’s post-war appetite for mobility and horsepower, it produced other things just for the heck of it. In the 1950s, IBM had a research laboratory. Because IBM had one, to stay competitive, GE – Big Blue’s chief competition – established one. Because GE was a consumer products company with a science lab, General Motors established a science lab. It was the in thing to do. And finally, because GM had a science lab, Ford built one.
Since Ford was a defense contractor, and World War II (particularly the way it ended in the Eastern hemisphere) proved the country’s need for scientific prowess, it hired a physics professor straight out of the Army Signal Corps to lead its research and development team. This was Michael Ference, Jr. Tasked by Chairman Henry Ford II with the responsibility of putting Ford in the lead in developing totally electric vehicles, in 1959 Ference hired Jacob E. “Jack” Goldman, chief of the magnetics tech lab at Carnegie Tech University (now Carnegie-Mellon), and two years earlier the author of a breakthrough work in industrial design research entitled The Science of Engineering Materials.
Under Goldman’s leadership, Ford recruited the best and brightest engineers, for what would become one of the greatest braintrusts ever assembled by an American corporation. That this braintrust ended up with little to show for its efforts was not really a problem, as history would go on to reveal.
In a 1996 interview for Caltech University, Terry Cole – a former colleague of Goldman’s and a senior staff member at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory – recounted the unique and perhaps unrepeatable experience of working with that team, at that time:
Essentially, Jack’s approach was, “We want you to come here. We’ll provide you with all the money and all the resources you need. And what we want from you is the best science that you’re capable of. And you choose the topic.” So it was carte blanche. It was an era that probably won’t be duplicated again for a very long time. And for somebody either starting out or early in their career, it was just wonderful, because the U.S. automobile companies then virtually owned a license to make money. There was no Japanese competition in the 1950s. The public was still starved for automobiles, because there was still a lingering shortage from the Second World War. And big cars with lots of chrome and big engines that made big profits for the company, so that there was lots of money. One never had to write a proposal to the government. It was the last thing on their mind, to ever take a dime from the government because, of course, the auto companies suspected the government. We were provided with outstanding equipment, plenty of money, and essentially you just had to tell your supervisor or your department manager a few months ahead of time how many more hundred thousand dollars you needed next year. [Laughter] And at least write it up as an internal proposal for a few pages, and make a list of equipment.”
Goldman’s team developed a prototype sodium sulfide battery, with the intention of using it to power cars. Mr. Ford had intentions of seeing the battery power everyday, freeway-capable Ford vehicles by 1976. But while these batteries were certainly powerful enough, both the sodium and sulfur anodes had to be kept molten – literally at 370 degrees Fahrenheit – in order for the vehicle to stay mobile. And something had to warm up those anodes and keep them warm, even in cold weather, in order for the engine to start – perhaps a gas-powered heater.
It was a dead end, and Goldman knew it. He left Ford in 1968, after projections of a five-digit price tag (in 1968 dollars) for Ford electric vehicles made it seem he had hitched his ride to a lead balloon. He would be hired by a company in Palo Alto that needed an expert in magnetic resonance, who would appear to be continuing the development work of its current chief scientist, whom executives were busy baiting for retirement – Chester Carlson, the creator of the world-changing Xerox 914 copier. But Xerox’ CEO had a secret plan, which Goldman himself may not have known until after he was hired. Within weeks of his relocation, Xerox acquired a computer company called Scientific Data Systems. It was a research firm, and Goldman was to lead it.
“As good as he was at recruiting people to come to Dearborn and Detroit, he could do even better if he had a lab on the West Coast, preferably near Palo Alto or in the Bay Area somewhere,” remarked Cole. “Well, when he went to Xerox, I think that was probably a quid pro quo for him accepting the job, that he got to set up a laboratory on the West Coast.”
The Palo Alto Research Center, as most of us in the industry now know, essentially created the concept of the personal computer as we understand it today. Xerox never completely monetized that concept for itself, except in one critical respect: It advanced the notion of information as a product, specifically in order to establish a kind of platform for connecting computers to digital printers – an idea that not all Xerox executives signed onto. The physical manifestation of that platform was Ethernet, which to this day forms the crux of the fastest interconnection systems produced. And it helped establish Xerox as “The Document Company,” introducing the metaphor of documents as manifestations of information rather than pieces of paper, enabling the desktop metaphor which today is more the center of workers’ lives than their physical desktops.
In 1997, upon accepting a post as a board member for another IT company (one of several he simultaneously held), Goldman said, “The Internet has yet to define the proper milieu for commercialization.” The lesson Goldman learned from Xerox was that information is the product, not the devices that produce it or the wires that carry it. In that sense, he helped create the most defining component of the Internet itself, at the tail end of an unpredictable chain of events that began with the surrender of Japan.