Living up to tradition
create life-changing technologies
by Sara Peters
With the greatest of ease, most third-graders could tell
you that Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, and then hunt
down something on the Internet like they'd been Web-surfing
On the other hand, few, if any, of those same children would
have the first clue how to work a cotton gin. Nor would they
have an inkling about the names of the inventors of the Internet.
The truth is, that while most people find certain modern
inventions an indispensable part of their everyday lives,
they don't know the modern geniuses whose brain power created
them. In fact many Princetonians don't realize that some of
these brilliant inventors may be found in a lab in the E-Quad,
or marching through campus during the P-rade. Many talented
inventors have graced the Princeton University campus, contributing
to the school's rich and prestigious history.
This article will touch on but a few of the engineers who
have made distinct stamps upon several fields of engineering,
as well as the lives of everyday people.
from the top, clockwise, are former Princeton faculty
members Joseph Henry, Cyrus Fogg Brackett, Richard Herman
Wilhelm, and George Erle Beggs.
courtesy of Princeton University Archives
The School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) was
established in 1921, growing out of the School of Science
that had been established in 1871. Yet even prior to that,
scientists and engineers were hard at work in small laboratories
across the Princeton campus, making discoveries that would
drastically change the shape of their fields for years to
Perhaps one of the brightest minds to light the campus was
changing electrical engineering before electrical engineering
was even a recognized field of study.
Joseph Henry, a Princeton professor from 1832 to 1846,
has been described in The Princeton Companion as "the
leading American scientist after Benjamin Franklin until Willard
Professor Henry's chief contributions were in the field of
electromagnetism. He discovered the phenomenon of self-inductance,
and "the henry," the scientific unit of inductance,
immortalizes his name.
Professor Henry grew up the son of a Scottish day laborer
in Albany, N.Y., but at the age of 35, began teaching at Princeton,
earning a per annum of $1,000, and receiving a house.
The school later established a new chair in physics in honor
of Professor Henry. One man who occupied this position was
another great Princeton engineerinventor: Cyrus Fogg
Professor Brackett, a close associate of both Thomas Alva
Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, came to Princeton in 1873.
He personally designed much of Princeton's electrical system
at the time, and it is rumored that his lecture room was the
first electrically lighted classroom in America. Professor
Brackett went on to found the Department of Electrical Engineering
Another fine Princeton inventor was George Erle Beggs,
a professor of civil engineering from 1914 to 1939. Professor
Beggs was internationally known for his invention of a means
of predetermining the stress resistance of bridges, dams,
and similar structures. He used this method on many of his
own projects, including when he consulted on the construction
of the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. His deformeter gauges
were used by engineers across the globe.
Richard Herman Wilhelm, a professor of chemical engineering
from 1934 to 1968, "was regarded by his colleagues as
one of the leading engineer scientists in Princeton's history."
He discovered and refined the principle of parametric pumping,
a process for separating the components of fluid mixtures.
This process still has implications in water desalination
and cellular biology.
In addition to these fine Princeton faculty, the research
efforts of many alumni have made profound impacts on our daily
lives. We introduce four of them here.
G. David Forney '61
It may be difficult, but try to remember those dark days
when you didn't have a modem at home; when even your office
wasn't online; when the library's computers were so slow that
by the time your page loaded, there was a line of people behind
you waiting; when surfing the net was a whole lot more paddling
and a lot less surfing.
Everyone can agree that today's high-speed modems are a good
thing. And we can thank Dave Forney for that.
As Dr. Forney describes it, the first generation of 9600
bps modems had several flaws and weaknesses: they used both
analog and digital technology, were not very robust, and experienced
an "unacceptably high" error rate because of "phase
jitter" on the telephone lines.
Dr. Forney remodeled the 9600 bps modem in several ways.
The modem was implemented entirely digitally. It was of the
double-sideband type, which made the phase jitter manifest
in a coherent pattern that could be effectively countered.
These changes made the new modem more robust as well.
He went on to design a whole family of high-speed modems,
ever improving on his early designs.
Despite the vast improvements, though, Dr. Forney did not
expect his high-speed modems to become such a standard in
the professional and personal lives of so many people.
"At that time, 'high-speed' modems cost more than $10,000
and were intended for commercial customers using expensive
private lines," Dr. Forney said. "No one foresaw
that individuals would eventually have their own personal
computers and modems."
Dr. Forney values his Princeton education very highly, crediting
a specific thermodynamics course taught by John Wheeler, professor
emeritus of physics, with sparking his interest in information
"At Princeton I received an excellent education in electrical
engineering fundamentals, which was quite good enough for
me to get into MIT and do well there," he said. "I
was also able to take a large variety of other courses, one
of which got me interested in information theory."
Dr. Forney is now retired, but he teaches a graduate data
communications course at MIT and remains active professionally,
serving on several boards. He also enjoys crossword puzzles,
sailing, and spending time with his four grandchildren, whom
he names "Princeton '18, '21, '21, and '21."
Eli Harari *71 *73
Next time you listen to your MP3 player, check your e-mail
from your cellular phone, or take some snapshots with your
digital camera, murmur a "thank-you" to Eli Harari.
His invention, Flash memory cards, made it all possible. Flash
cards store enormous amounts of portable memory.
Dr. Harari's story is different than that of many inventors,
who are often surprised by the applications people find for
their creations. Dr. Harari could think of many ways to use
Flash memory, and had a harder time convincing venture capitalists,
whom he said labeled it "a solution looking for a problem."
In 1975 Dr. Harari developed another portable memory item
named EEPROM. Flash was developed directly from EEPROM, but
with one major difference. EEPROM wrote and erased one byte
at a time. Flash, on the other hand writes byte by byte, but
erases the entire chip at once, "in a flash," and
thereby frees up more space for huge amounts of memory.
The applications of Flash at first were limited, and investor
interest was uninspiring, yet Dr. Harari and his company,
SanDisk, were committed, and worked to increase the capabilities
of Flash memory.
"We realized, before others, that as computer devices
became mobile, small, and battery-powered, existing rotating
disk drives would not work," Dr. Harari said. "So
we set out to develop the first solidstate 'Flashdisk,' which
added an intelligent controller. We then developed the removable
card format, and then created a standardization organization
so that everyone could build compatible products."
When asked if he expected Flash cards to become so common
in modern technologies Dr. Harari said "Yes, I expected
it to happen much quicker than it actually happened. It took
digital cameras six to seven years longer than I expected
to become mainstream."
Dr. Harari is happy to note, however, that the technology
and use are finally catching up to his expectations.
"Cell phones are finally taking on the functionality
of a multimedia platform," he said. "Flash is now
becoming extremely pervasive in all kinds of nice applications
such as for storing road maps on a GPS, multilingual instructions
on defibrillators, and ballot information on voting machines.
I love it!"
Dr. Harari credits "a lot" of his success to Princeton.
He notes that, although he did not know it at the time, he
was incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity at Princeton
to research the physical phenomena that led him to an understanding
of the mechanisms that make Flash work.
"Also, I must say there is no substitute for hard work,
both at Princeton and even more so after leaving," he
said. "I like the saying 'The harder you work, the luckier
Dr. Harari continues to invent, and he enjoys spending time
with his family and jogging on the California beaches.
George Heilmeier *60 *61 *62
It would be impossible to list all the applications of George
Heilmeier's invention, the liquid crystal display (LCD).
We see so many LCDs every day, in so many different ways,
that we hardly notice them anymore. The displays are found
on digital watches, cellular phones, gas pumps, calculators,
and hundreds of other devices.
Although liquid crystals were discovered in the late 19th
century, they were long considered an interesting but useless
anomaly. They are what is referred to as an ordered fluid--existing
in a half-state between liquid and solid. Years later, Dr.
Heilmeier brought liquid crystals back to the forefront.
"I was interested in electro-optic effects, and I was
trying to understand why these effects were manifested more
strongly in some materials than others," he said. "Basically
I was trying to find a way of controlling the internal field
that exists in materials."
Dr. Heilmeier began studying liquid crystals, and he discovered
that they become turbulent when exposed to electrical currents,
causing them to grow temporarily darker for the extent of
the time they're exposed to the current. Dr. Heilmeier and
his team learned to manipulate and control this phenomenon,
and created the flat displays.
"Most of the dreams that we had for LCDs have been fulfilled,"
Dr. Heilmeier said. "But LCDs are still useful today,
because they're low-power, and they now can display color."
Later in his career, Dr. Heilmeier moved past LCDs and was
director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
(DARPA) from 1975 to 1977, and during this time led his proudest
project--the first stealth aircraft.
"On the day that we first flew the stealth prototype,
I went down to the end of the runway," he said. "The
plane started its roll to take off, and I felt that this was
an historic moment, so I leaned down and picked up some of
the red stones as a memento. Later we celebrated in one of
the hangars with a huge bottle of champagne. The designer,
Kelly Johnson, signed the bottle, and I signed the bottle,
and I brought it home and put it on a shelf. Of course, it
was a top-secret project, and I couldn't tell anybody the
significance of that champagne bottle until years later."
Dr. Heilmeier credits much of his professional success to
his Princeton experience; particularly his relationship with
Professor George Warfield, whom he dedicated a classroom to
in the Friend Center for Engineering Education.
"George Warfield has been my friend and my mentor since
the early 60s," Dr. Heilmeier said. "Whenever I
faced major career decisions, I always called George. He influenced
a whole generation of electrical engineers. George treated
us like we were all his colleagues, and his sons. He produced
some of the students that really changed electrical engineering.
He was the kind of adviser who encouraged you. When there
were bad days in the lab, he always had us optimistic about
the next day. He tried to teach us how important it is to
understand first principles in a fundamental way. He always
thought about a problem from first principles, and thus made
complex subjects relatively simple."
Dr. Heilmeier said that his favorite professor appreciated
the simple things in life, as well as in science. Professor
Warfield now lives in New England, and according to Dr. Heilmeier,
he still chops his own firewood and devotes countless hours
to the Meals on Wheels program.
"Being a George Warfield student was a turning point
in my life," he said. "He's one of my heroes."
Robert Kahn *62 *64 *98
If you've got a third-grader at home, have him or her write
down the name of Robert Kahn *64. He developed an architecture
designed to link together packet-switching networks, which
was embodied in the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet
Protocol (TCP/IP) that made the Internet as we know it possible.
Back in the late 60s, Dr. Kahn designed ARPANET, the world's
first packet-switched network. "Packets" are the
pieces of information that travel between a user and a content
provider over the Internet.
In the early 70s, he was working on a packet satellite network
to connect the United States and several European countries,
and also working on a packet radio network, a forerunner of
today's CDMA networks. But the three networks differed in
"The data rates were all different, the interfaces were
different, the packet sizes were different, and the performance
characteristics were different," Dr. Kahn said. "So
we designed the Internet architecture to allow different packet
net works to interconnect via gateways--now called routers--and
to allow computers on those networks to intercommunicate.
The architecture was embodied in the TCP/IP protocol."
Thanks to these efforts, anyone can learn about the research
of faculty at Oxford or Cambridge online, buy an Indian rug
online, or study the records of the German village their grandparents
emigrated from online. Yet Dr. Kahn did not have the first
inkling that his invention would become such a pervasive part
of everyday life.
"Initially, I saw the whole Internet effort as a technical
experiment," he said. "Over time, the larger impact
began to emerge, particularly after the personal computer
was developed. Prior to that, TCP/IPs usefulness was limited
to the research community, certain large businesses, and governments
that could all afford large time-sharing computers."
In addition to being an inventor, Dr. Kahn is also an avid
"While a grad student at Princeton, I took off one summer
and spent four or five months playing--actually walking and
carrying my clubs--four rounds a day, seven days a week on
the Springdale course adjacent to the graduate college."
Dr. Kahn continues to golf, and also enjoys skiing, reading,
traveling, and "planning national research initiatives."
Fifty years from now, which Princetonians' inventions will
be household names? Which ones will be rattled off by third-graders
in social studies class?
Could it be Steve Chou and his nanoimprint lithography?
Could it be Ruby Lee and her new secure computer? Could
it be Ron Weiss and his digitally programmable cells?
Or perhaps it will be Wolé Soboyejo's research
on BioMEMS, which will radically change the face of medicine
in the next 30 to 40 years.
Perhaps it might come from a recent SEAS graduate. Could
it be David McAllister Bradley '03, who won the Calvin
Dodd MacCracken Senior Thesis Prize? Or Elizabeth Jennings
Smythe '03, winner of both the POEM Newport Award and
the Lore von Jaskowski Memorial Prize for her promise as a
researcher? Or perhaps Cynthia Lin '03, winner of the
Henry Richardson Labouisse '26 Prize, that is affording her
the opportunity to study water resources in Chile?
Only time will tell. But one thing is clear. In the tapestry
of history, some of the threads with the most lustrous glimmer
will be spun on the spindle of Princeton University.
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