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March 2006

The Stealth Profession: How Do Engineers and R&D Benefit the Nation?

by George McClure

A disconnect seems to exists between the arcane and esoteric realm of basic research conducted in secretive labs by cloistered engineers and scientists and the familiar and ubiquitous technologies we take for granted today. But the fact is that many of the technologies that we utilize daily were born in those very same labs, funded by government programs and private corporations. For example, it's widely known that the forerunner to the Internet the ARPANET was started by graduate students responding to an RFP from ARPA (later DARPA) for a packet-switching network. The benefits of their advances are obvious and relatively celebrated, but countless others are less heralded.

I was recently asked to help compile a list of examples of how research and development (R&D) specifically basic R&D benefits the United States. That list will be used by IEEE-USA's volunteers and government relations staff to educate members of Congress and colleagues about the vital role R&D plays in the economy, national security and social and economic prosperity. A tangentially related conversation with a reporter about what engineers could do to draw more attention to their accomplishments prompted me to record the following list of some of the significant R&D efforts that have filtered into our daily lives. Of course, it's just the tip of the iceberg...

  • William S. Boyle and George E. Smith, the inventors of charge-coupled
    devices (CCDs), shared the $500,000 Charles Stark Draper Prize, presented by the National Academy of Engineering at a black-tie gala on 21 Feb. CCDs are imaging sensors that convert light into electrical impulses, scanned to send digital data. They are used in telescopes and imaging satellites, as well as in such consumer products as digital cameras. Boyle and Smith invented CCDs in 1969 at Bell Labs. Usable across the spectrum, CCDs can image optical, X-ray, ultraviolet and infrared emissions.
  • Research into CCDs led to the technology that produced CCD sensors used in digital cameras. Today, consumers can can buy "single-use" digital cameras at prices that are almost disposable except that the stores actually keep them when you get your film developed.
  • The TV remote control began as the brainchild of two inventors, both at
    Zenith Electronics Corp. in Chicago. Eugene Polley devised the Flashmatic, a flashlight-like device that shined light on a matrix of sensors on the front of the set to change channels or turn the set and sound on and off. Thirty-thousand units were sold. Sunlight proved to be a problem with this approach. Robert Adler invented the ultrasonic Space Command remote, with some 9 million sold between 1956 and 1982, when the infrared remote was introduced. Today, about 500 million infrared remotes are in use.
  • A classic example from the early days of the space program is Pyroceram the material developed to make missile nose cones that would withstand extreme heat. It became a commercial success as Corningware.

  • High-density electronic packaging was developed first for military and space applications, but its use filtered down into the PCs, Palm Pilots and Blackberries of today. Multilayer printed circuit boards with plated-through holes for interconnections are now widely used. Flexible printed wiring is used for irregularly shaped spaces, for interconnections to other ("mother") circuit boards, and is even found in the instrument panels of automobiles.

  • Jack Kilby, who pioneered the integrated circuit at Texas Instruments (TI), was honored for his achievement by receiving the IEEE Medal of Honor and the Nobel Prize in Physics. In the early days, the ICs were installed in sockets on circuit boards, but later proved so reliable that they are now often soldered directly to the circuit boards. TI brought out the early electronic calculator in both scientific (along with HP) and consumer models. The full-featured ones initially cost $495.

  • The late Robert H. Tanner, IEEE president in 1972, often remarked that if people counted the number of electric motors in their homes they would realize how much engineering contributed to their creature comfort. At the time, most clocks contained a timing motor, but today many of the timing functions are digital.

  • Tanner lamented that TV did not feature Marcus Welby, P.E., a show that would have focused the public's attention on engineers. Of course, TV itself was a product of basic research, and later product development, funded by Sarnoff, Dumont, Farnsworth and others. The IEEE History Center is a good resource for further details.

  • The MASER led to the LASER which eventually resulted in the laser diode, used in today's laser pointers. Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) were first used in small numerical displays, but today are used everywhere in automobile taillights, flashlights, even night lights. Infrared diodes made the TV remote control units possible.

  • The digital computer grew from the need for ballistic tables on trajectories for shells fired by naval guns and army artillery. The University of Pennsylvania developed the vacuum tube ENIAC computer in 1946. Grace Hopper, later a Navy admiral (and the "mother" of COBOL), was initially a computer programmer. In the very early days, the machines used mechanical relays to perform computations. Insects between the relay contacts could cause problems, leading to the need to "debug" the machine a term that persists today in software.

  • The desktop PC today has computing power that exceeds the early mainframes and indeed that in the Apollo modules, leading NASA to recommend new electronics with basically the same propulsion system for the next Moon mission.

  • Retired Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan has attributed our increased productivity, and the related rise of the information technology profession, largely to the computer. Without communications satellites and fiber optic transmission cables, globalization of commerce (including services) would be impossible. The IEEE History Center provides a 20-page history of the computer.

  • The microwave oven is a good example of commercial application of basic research, including a klystron or other microwave generator, a touchpad, liquid crystal display, digital timer and power level controller, and an electric motor to rotate the turntable all for less than $100 retail.

  • Computers abound in today's automobiles controlling the engine, the transmission, emission control system, passenger entertainment system, security system, and even the timing for door locks and interior lighting.

IEEE-USA needs your help compiling a list of R&D projects that yielded consumer products intentionally or otherwise. Please send your suggestions to todaysengineer@ieee.org.


George McClure is chair IEEE-USA's Communications Committee, a member of the IEEE-USA Career & Workforce Policy Committee, and technology policy editor for IEEE-USA Todays Engineer. Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.

Copyright 2007 IEEE