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February 08, 2006

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Publication Date: Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Author Don Nielson chronicles SRI research achievements Author Don Nielson chronicles SRI research achievements (February 08, 2006)

By Marion Softky

Almanac Staff Writer

It's hard to imagine Menlo Park, indeed Silicon Valley, without SRI International, its contributions, and the thousands of people who have worked there.

Since SRI was founded in 1946 to serve industry in the western United States, research done there has affected people's lives in a multitude of ways. From the Menlo Park-based institute came the computer mouse and the Internet, electronic check processing, robots, remote surgery and anti-malaria drugs. It even was involved in planning Disneyland.

Now, 40-year SRI veteran Donald Nielson has condensed SRI's first half century of research into a single book. "A Heritage of Innovation" weighs in at 4 pounds and covers a dizzying range of subjects.

In its first 50 years, SRI carried out some 50,000 projects, Mr. Nielson told an enthusiastic audience at Kepler's bookstore January 17.

All those projects -- sometimes 2,000 in a single year -- were done under contract to somebody -- to a company, business group, or often a government agency.

"Imagine 2,000 principal investigators finding their own work, and going out and doing it," Mr. Nielson said. "Projects ranged from colored hair rinse, to Oreo cookies, to Lear jets, to whatever."

For its first 15 years, Stanford Research Institute was affiliated with Stanford University; in 1970, during the unrest resulting from the Vietnam War, it separated and became today's SRI International.

"By and large it was a happy divorce, except for the alimony, which SRI has to pay in perpetuity." Mr. Nielson said.

SRI pays Stanford from 0.5 percent to 1 percent of its gross revenue, he says in the book. By 1989, SRI had given more than $25 million to the university, according to the book.
Of mice and ... other innovations

It was Doug Engelbart of Atherton, SRI's computer visionary, who gave new meaning to the humble mouse. When someone refers to a mouse now, "we don't think of the rodent," Mr. Nielson said.

In the 1960s, Mr. Engelbart didn't just invent the ubiquitous computer mouse. He performed fundamental research that led to personal computers, the manipulations found in modern Windows systems, and the basis for the Internet.

SRI was a node for the first message sent on the ARPANET, predecessor of the Internet, in 1969, Mr. Nielson said. And the first-ever Internet message was sent from Rossotti's (the Alpine Inn) in Portola Valley on August 27, 1976.

Mr. Nielson reviewed other groundbreaking innovations developed at SRI.

Starting in 1950, an SRI project dubbed ERMA helped Bank of America, then the largest bank in the world, process checks electronically. By 1955 banks no longer had to close by 2 p.m. so that workers "with armbands, green eyeshades and stubby pencils" could clear checks by hand, Mr. Neilson said; an embryonic computer with 8,000 vacuum tubes could read and sort the checks automatically.

SRI also developed the system of magnetic numbering on checks that has become the world standard, he said. And "SRI encouraged the Bank of America to start (issuing) credit cards."

Reflecting on his 40 years at SRI, Mr. Nielson said, "It was an exhilarating place to be."
60th anniversary

Sixty years later, SRI still seems to be going strong. In the audience, SRI's current president, Curt Carlson of Portola Valley, was upbeat. "SRI is doing great," he said.

SRI is up to about 2,100 employees, Mr. Carlson said. It is responding to a world of ever-faster change by building teams and developing a process for innovation involving the multiple disciplines of biotechnology, information technology and nanotechnology.

"We have to innovate a lot faster," Mr. Carlson said. "The sweet spot for us is when we can combine pieces of technology. That's hard for universities or companies to do."

Mr. Nielson concluded, "Keep doing things for the first time, and good things will happen."

Copies of "A Heritage of Innovation: SRI's First Half Century" are available at Kepler's for $40.


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