An Wang - The Man Who Might Have Invented The Personal Computer
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An Wang - The Man Who Might Have Invented The Personal Computer
Calculators And Computers

The process of change and revolution in computing is signposted by the move from the mainframe to the mini and then to the micro.

This is such a neat and pleasing trend that we tend to forget that there were developments and companies that fit into the gaps left out in this scheme.

Some readers may remember the name of Wang Laboratories as one of the leading producers of computer equipment but a surprising number will never have heard of this giant of the computer age.

Some might even say that Dr An Wang, who founded the company, was unfortunate in not quite managing to invent the personal computer simply because of a lack of vision - but the real story is so much more interesting.



An Wang (1920-1990)


An Wang was born in Shanghai in 1920, the son of a teacher and practitioner of traditional medicine. Due to the simple fact that his local school didn't have room, for the first two years he went straight into the third class and so spent the rest of his school career competing against pupils two years older than himself!

His early years were dominated by the clash between the Nationalists and the Communists. The Nationalist propaganda was enough to put Wang off politics for the rest of his life. At the early age of 16 he entered Chiao Tung University in Shanghai - a highly respected establishment.

During most of Wang's time in China there was civil unrest. Japan had seized Manchuria in 1931 and bombed Shanghai. In 1937 they seized Peking and began to march south - the second world war had begun for China. Shanghai was a strange place at the time being divided into a Chinese area and the "Concessions". The Concessions were managed by the UK, USA and French - and were treated as foreign territory.

In 1937 the university was moved into the French concession and Wang made it back from the summer vacation just in time. The Japanese left the Concessions alone for three years and while there was war all around Wang studied inside the nine square mile zone. The news that reached him of the atrocities committed by the Japanese made him fear for the safety of the rest of his family but there was nothing he could do.

After graduating in 1940 he worked as a teaching assistant in electrical engineering. In 1941 the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour and there were no safe havens any more. Wang and a number of his friends took a boat to Hong Kong and then to the mainland through the Japanese lines.

He built radios for the Chinese army and saw for the first time the terrible conditions inflicted on the peasants. This was possibly the first time that Wang had felt that China was not the best place to be.

To the US and Harvard

In 1945 the American forces landed in Okinawa and it was clear that Japan would be beaten. Wang took an opportunity to go to the United States for training. The idea was that Chinese technicians would learn how to bring China into the 20th century when the war was finally over.

When he arrived in the States he watched his companions taking jobs with big engineering companies. He came up with the radical idea of going to Harvard University. In 1945, with the war against Japan not yet over, he went to Harvard as a graduate student of physics.

At the end of 1946, as the Nationalist government turned its attention to beating the Communists lead by Mao Tse-tung, his money ran out. Wang took a clerical job with the Chinese government in Ottawa - but he regretted it as soon as he started because it was boring and repetitive.

He then came up with the idea of doing a PhD at Harvard. In 1947 he was accepted and awarded a $1000 per year teaching fellowship. To get his PhD completed in the shortest time he chose a subject he wasn't greatly interested in but knew he could do. He got the degree after only one year.

Dynamic memory

He next found himself working at the Harvard Computational Laboratory with Howard Aiken. It wasn't a burning desire to be involved in computing or digital electronics that drove him to the lab - it was close and was easier than getting a position in industry which would have involved obtaining security clearance.

Even so he must have impressed Aiken, who was not the easiest of task masters, because within a week or so of starting he was given a central problem to solve - how to store data magnetically and at speed.

He struggled with the question for about three weeks.

He considered using rings made out of a special magnetic material that had a strong residual flux - put simply if you placed it in a magnetic field and then switched the field off it remained magnetised. It was obvious how to read the core but the act of reading destroyed the stored data. It was while walking across the Harvard courtyard that the solution hit him - it simply didn't matter. If you could read the data you could rewrite it back to the core. Wang had invented dynamic memory.



A Magnetic Core Delay Line or Shift Register Memory


Soon afterwards he found the right material and, being familiar with the design of mercury delay lines, used the cores to build magnetic delay lines - similar to magnetic shift registers. He considered the idea worth patenting, which was another radical idea. Aiken believed that all ideas relating to computing should be placed in the public domain and Wang was frightened that he would incur Aiken's legendary wrath. Encouraged by his fiancee, and future wife, Lorraine Chiu, Wang proceeded and was granted a broad patent on the use of magnetic cores as memories.

Soon afterwards Jay Forrester devised a way of building a random access memory based on a grid of cores. This was judged by Wang as a brilliant idea and he felt strongly that he could have got there as well if only he had continued to pursue the original idea. Forrester's device and patents were however controlled by Wang's broader patents. 

Forming a business

Harvard decided to down play computer research and Wang thought hard about his future. It seemed reasonable to try to start a company. He had so little to lose. He had some savings, enough to last a year, and if the company failed he could get a job.

With only $600, no orders, no contracts and no office furniture he formed a sole proprietorship. The company was called Wang Laboratories and it specialised in magnetic memories. He used his contacts to sell magnetic cores which he built and sold for $4 each. Later in the year Harvard refunded $1000 from his pension plan which provided additional security. The business grew but modestly. At the end of the first year he had enough to continue and so he did.

Then IBM entered the picture.

Duped by IBM

IBM wanted Wang's core memory patents and started negotiations to buy them. However, IBM was not an easy company to deal with. In 1955 they refused various licensing deals and then eventually settled on a sum of $500,000 but with strings attached. The money would be paid in stages and the last $100,000 was conditional on the patent not being challenged. At the last minute the patent was challenged by Fredrick Viehe, a complete surprise to Wang. It later turned out his patent had been bought by another company and Viehe had been sworn to secrecy not to reveal who. Wang guessed that the buyer was in fact IBM who had used each patent to drive down the price of the other.

Wang was learning how business was done in the US!

Slowly but surely Wang's company changed from being a consulting and research company into a manufacturer. Their first product was a set of "Logiblocs" - electronic modules that implemented basic logic functions for use by control engineers. Later they built a phototypesetting machine called Linasec with Compugraphic. The machine was very successful but just as Wang Laboratories was turning into a large company the rug was pulled out from under it when Compugraphic decided to make the machines itself - leaving Wang with nothing. Wang was still learning about US business practice and took each incident as a lesson not to be repeated.




Last Updated ( Friday, 03 March 2023 )