High Tech

A new age dawns in the New South.

By Hoyt Coffee
W hen Henry Grady and other architects of "The New South" first proposed a school of technology in Georgia during the 1880s, their aim was-- as Grady said in an Atlanta Constitution editorial-- to produce "great mechanics, great chemists, great scientists and great businessmen who will make Georgia the glorious empire she should be."

They foresaw a South no longer just fields of cotton, but forests of smokestacks as the region abandoned its agrarian roots and joined the already century-old Industrial Revolution. A century later, the South is proving fertile soil for another revolution as an Information Age dawns worldwide. In Georgia technology-based business is becoming an ever-larger segment of the economy, providing hometown opportunities for engineers who in the past had to abandon the region to pursue careers.

"The kinds of jobs that Tech graduates could find in the state of Georgia 25 years ago were going to work for a bank, selling insurance, selling consumer goods," says W. Thomas Smith Jr., IM '70, vice president and general manager of IBM in Atlanta. "The activities available to remain a resident of Georgia were finance or marketing of industrial products. Today, there is an opportunity to actually do technological manufacturing, to find functional jobs in engineering-based companies where an engineering background is good to have-- even to be a finance officer of a large engineering firm."

Since 1971, the number of high-tech manufacturing jobs in Georgia has increased 350 percent and now stands at around 140,000, according to a study by Georgia Tech that was sponsored by the Business and Technology Alliance (B&TA). And the number of companies fitting the 11 high-tech categories noted in the study has reached 1,600, generating between $12 billion and $15 billion a year for the state's economy.

"In just the past three years the number of high-tech companies has grown by more than 60 percent," says Charles Paparelli, president of the software firm BT Group and chairman of this year's Georgia High-Tech Month, an annual October effort to boost technology-based business in the state. "Of the top 50 international electronic companies, 45 have a business presence in Georgia and 15 have manufacturing operations."

Metropolitan Atlanta owns the lion's share of Georgia's high-tech industry, and the city has become widely known as a telecommunications center. Located at the confluence of 29 fiber optics pathways, the metro area is "more of a communications capital than New York City," Paparelli says. That latter fact, it turns out, owes much to geography.

From Terminus to Tech

During the early 19th century, America's railroads sought routes for the nation's westward expansion that were clear of the mountainous obstacles between the Midwest and the Eastern Coast. They found one such site in the lands that had been deeded to Georgia by the Creek Indians in the 1820s. The first link to what came to be known as Terminus was completed in 1837; by the time war broke out between the states, the city was at the heart of so extensive a rail network as to be considered a primary target for Northern generals.

Despite the fact that many of the area's rails ended up as "Sherman's bow ties," torn up and wrapped around trees to make them useless to Confederate troops, Atlanta emerged from Reconstruction as the South's premier transportation hub. In time, the railroad rights-of-way came to serve another function.

"When fiber started getting laid to develop the communications infrastructure in the United States, they followed railroad beds because that was the best way to get right-of-way to crisscross the country and not have to worry about dealing with more than one entity, i.e. the railroad company," says J. Lawrence Bradner, IE '74, president of B&TA. "As a result, our heritage of being a Terminus has carried on into the fiber and the communications world, and it has allowed us to have one of the most significant fiber communications infrastructures of any major city in the country."

Decades before the onset of advanced communications, the railroads were bringing much more to the area: Northern machinery for updating textile, agriculture and other native industries. Southern leaders, painfully aware of the region's economic inadequacies, wanted more than machines, though. They sought the technical knowledge to compete with Northern industry, rather than relying on it. Within this revolutionary environment, Georgia Tech was created and nurtured, made ready to assume a leadership role in the next revolution, the Information Age.

Dawn of a New Era

Through the first half of the 20th century, the South was eagerly industrialized. But it remained to a large extent a source of cheap labor for external interests. A new age began to dawn on the newly christened Sunbelt, though, as technological innovations and the first stirrings of globalization sent the United States toddling toward a new economic order.

"To the extent that it has been driven by electronics, some of that really starts during World War II with electronics research as a derivative of military research at Georgia Tech," says Robert C. McMath Jr., director of the school of History, Technology and Society and co-author of Engineering the New South: Georgia Tech 1885-1985. "It starts there, and then in the '60s, there is the development of what is now the College of Computing.

"In the '50s and '60s, you see the beginnings of that, and it obviously has snowballed since. And then, with a lot of spin-off software activities, particularly by the late '70s and '80s, it took a new turn."

In looking for a particular event that heralded a new era for Georgia and Georgia Tech, most long-term observers point to a group of researchers who were escorted off campus in 1952 and into private life as Scientific Associates, later to be called Scientific-Atlanta.

"It's probably the first significant corporation that grew out of Georgia Tech," McMath says. "We like to claim it as a spin-off, although if you go back and look, we actually kicked the people out of Tech who started that up, made them choose between having a business and being at Tech. However it happened, that's the first example of a large, successful firm that grew out of the Institute's technology environment."

First there was Scientific-Atlanta

Among that group of seven Tech engineers was Glen P. Robinson, Jr., Phys '48, MS Phys '50, who would remain at Scientific-Atlanta as president and chairman for 27 years.

"The idea was to manufacture some of the developments at Georgia Tech that were suitable for the commercial market and not appropriate for a university," Robinson says. "We started developing antennas and antenna-test equipment because of the experience of the group that formed the company and the antenna design. There were seven, but I was the only who took on a full-time job. The others were just part-time, or they all left within a year or two." Scientific-Atlanta established a national and international reputation within three years and became a leader in the field of antennas and antenna-test equipment. Then company engineers discovered that some of Scientific-Atlanta's lower frequency antennas could pick up television signals from hundreds of miles away.

"So we got into the cable business back in the very early days," Robinson says. "As the cable industry grew, we kept adding to our product line, making cable receivers to pick up from a long distance. Then we started making the table-top converters for TV sets that descramble or interface between the cable and the homeowners TV set."

Meanwhile, Scientific-Atlanta was also developing satellite antennas for NASA and military applications, setting the stage for another commercial development. "We were tracking satellites, and we saw that satellites were really going to open the door for television transmission. We started tying that in with cable systems. For example, one of the first satellite systems we sold was to Ted Turner, which allowed him to broadcast Channel 17 around the country to other cable systems. He was a pioneer in using our equipment to broaden his coverage."

By the time Robinson left the company in 1979 to found a new state-of-the-art air conditioning and water-heating firm, Scientific-Atlanta was doing about $200 million in sales and had spun-off a number of other high-tech operations. Robinson's new firm came to be called Crispaire, and he remains chairman and principal stockholder. Meanwhile, he has started yet another company, Lasercraft, and manufactures laser speed-guns for use by police departments and highway patrols.

Bradner, now chief executive officer at Telecorp Systems, a Marietta, Ga., firm that processes one out of every three cable television orders in the United States, worked for Scientific-Atlanta during the late '70s. After leaving Georgia to pursue a technological career in the Northeast, Bradner entered business school at Harvard.

"After I got my MBA, I came back to work at Scientific-Atlanta," Bradner says. "By then, they had really developed their communications business. Subsequently, it has grown into a billion-dollar company. I was with them through about five years ago, and when I left, the communications division was six times as big as the rest of the company."

Bradner compares Scientific-Atlanta's contribution to Georgia's high-tech industry base to that of Fairchild Semiconductor, "the parent company for most all of the technology start-ups in Silicon Valley. To a certain extent, the lineage here goes back to Scientific-Atlanta.

"Electromagnetic Sciences is probably the second largest, or close to it, technology-based company, and it was an outgrowth of Scientific-Atlanta. Then you look around the community and you keep running into Scientific-Atlanta expatriates all around doing things, either start-ups or middle- or senior-level managers who were recruited to come to work for companies and help grow their businesses."

A Place in the Country

Another significant outgrowth of Georgia Tech that contributed to the state's technology base was the product of another group of Institute engineers led by Paul A. Duke, who founded Technology Park along the northern fringe of Atlanta's suburbs in 1968.

"The whole idea of Technology Park was to create high-technology jobs for the alumni and for the state of Georgia," says Duke, ME '45. "The first president we had at Technology Park was the president of the Research Triangle. We stole him. And then we brought in [Charles R.] Charlie Brown later as sales manager, and he's the one who made such a success of it." Brown, BC '62, is now president of Technology Park.

One of the drawbacks to creating a high-tech business park in the area at that time was the rural nature of the local school system. Duke and the other investors set about restructuring the system, and they were so successful that the county is now the largest supplier of students to Georgia Tech and offers Tech credit for classes taken by high-school seniors.

Technology Park set the benchmark for a wave of corporate-campus developments located in upscale suburbs that could support the high quality of life demanded by high-tech entrepreneurs and well-to-do engineers. Within 20 years the area could boast enough technology-oriented space with state-of-the-art amenities to fuel a high-tech boom.

"It has also contributed tremendously to Georgia Tech's foundation funds," Duke says. "There were 17 Georgia Tech alumni who put $1.7 million of their own money into Technology Park exclusively to help create high-technology jobs, so they wouldn't have to leave the state to get a job. All of us pledged to give it to our alma mater if it was successful. Now Tech has a $7 million to $8 million endowment from selling stock."

High-Tech Help: The ATDC

During the 1970s, much of the Atlanta area's traditional economic activity such as real estate faltered amid national recession, inflation and upheavals among foreign resource suppliers. Such pressures generated a new mood in favor of high technology similar to the desire to industrialize at the beginning of the century. To that end, state economic-development advocates like Gov. George Busbee began looking for an insight into the success of such places as Silicon Valley, and they found it in the person of Joseph Mayo Pettit, the former Stanford University dean who had been president of Georgia Tech since 1972.

Under Pettit, Tech expanded its local and regional economic development activities, which had diminished somewhat in previous years.

"Tech scientists and engineers were involved with federal agencies and that sort of thing, and we probably got a little bit away from the regional and local activities," McMath says. "By the '70s and '80s, there was a reawakening of the original mission of looking at state economic development. I think this refocusing on state and regional technology has been building up over the last 20 years or so. You can see a clear influence of Pettit and behind him Fred Terman at Stanford with the Silicon Valley model. Someone like Pettit comes along just at the right time. And his hook clearly would be electronic and information-based activities. That's what he had done at Stanford."

A key to translating Institute research into enterprise is developing partnerships between scientists and businessmen. At the genesis of many such organizations as B&TA in Georgia are the Advanced Technology Development Centers, the high-tech incubators on the Tech campus and in Warner Robins, Ga. In fact, B&TA began as the Advanced Technology Development Institute. Through the efforts of ATDC and its affiliated groups, Georgia's high-tech industry benefited from an infusion of venture capital and old-fashioned business savvy.

"There wasn't much understanding of what high tech was as something you recruited or something you grew back in the '80s," says Wayne Hodges, director of ATDC and the Economic Development Institute. "In fact, the ATDC did several workshops with both economic development groups and others in the community. It was kind of an education process as to what high tech was, how important it was, and what that brought to the community. "When ATDC started, there were not a lot of groups that were providing support to start-up companies. You didn't get the consultants and others who were doing that. Now there's a whole range of consultant activities and support for entrepreneurs." Once the technology seed was planted in the state and local economy, something that Parker H. Petit calls "technology momentum" took over. When companies such as Scientific-Atlanta became successful and support for entrepreneurs was in place, new firms began to spin off as engineers trained in the successful companies left the nest.

"We definitely have a technology momentum going in the city and in the state," says Petit, ME '62, MS EM '64, chairman of Healthdyne. "There's no reason why it shouldn't continue because we've got all the resources here. We've got venture capital nowadays; we've got lots of state focus in this area. The Georgia Research Alliance has been a big help to technology and getting some technology resources, particularly talent, attracted to the state."

The Information Age Arrives

Fortune smiled on state high-tech development in the mid-'80s with the breakup of AT&T. With a healthy software-development community already in place and a wealth of telecommunications infrastructure, the two essential parts were in place for the creation of Information-Age business in the area.

"The information age is a combination of computing power and communications power," Bradner says. "Atlanta had well-developed communications. Then probably every technology community around the country felt a major boom when the price performance of computers changed dramatically, the hardware changed, and the ability to develop applications software on PC platforms began to emerge. You tended to see lots of small companies springing up." Today there are more than 700 companies producing computer hardware or software in Georgia. And while Georgia still takes a back seat to Silicon Valley and Boston's Route 128 in terms of computer systems companies like Sun and Apple, the state's potential for producing high-tech solutions for a broad range of industries seems limitless.

"There has been and will continue to be a great deal of technology in the manufacturing business," IBM's Smith says. "The pervasiveness of technology will show up in every single industry. Technology components companies will find little niches, and these components will show up in virtually every business in such magnitude that they will need functional experts within those firms to help manage technology, whether you're an insurance company, a bank or whatever."

Current developments certainly support that assertion. In the ATDC today there are 25 new companies taking root, many involved in multimedia computing, an industry ideally suited to the computer/telecommunications establishment of metro Atlanta. High-tech start-ups are moving at a brisk pace, especially as firms move to take advantage of both the business and visibility prospects of the 1996 Olympics. Beyond that, Georgia is moving ahead in education with the advent of such things as the lottery-funded Hope Scholarships and computers-for-schools initiative.

At Georgia Tech, research is advancing steadily as scientists seek the edges of technology, and organizations such as the ATDC are set to share that technology with business. The Information Age has dawned and in Georgia and at Georgia Tech it is reaching high noon.