Eight Decades of Revolutions Research


Research At Georgia Tech is a Century-Old Tradition


By Gary Goettling

Research I magine a computer so powerful that power-distribution calculations requiring months of work on a slide rule could be completed on the device in a matter of days. That was the reverent assessment by the Georgia Tech Alumnus in heralding the dedication of an AC Network Calculator on campus on Nov. 22, 1947.

The "electro-mechanical brain," which occupied its own building at Tech, was one of the "most intricate pieces of electrical machinery which engineers and scientists have devised," the magazine noted in its January-February 1948 issue.

While today more computing power can fit on a tiny chip, in its time the $300,000 calculator was indeed a marvel. It was used to model power-station distribution systems with unprecedented accuracy, enabling engineers to design such systems with money-saving efficiency.

More importantly, the acquisition of the calculator represented a stunning advance in research and technology at Tech, and a harbinger of things to come.

Research - finding or improving solutions to problems - fuels the "tech" in Georgia Tech.

In 1998, the Institute's standing among the top research institutions in the country is the deliberate offspring of that ancient calculator.

But a tradition of research at Tech reaches even further back, along a sometimes muddled path that began in a time when electric power itself was a grand innovation.

The first stirring of research at Georgia Tech was felt during the administration of Dr. Kenneth G. Matheson. President from 1906 until 1922, Matheson believed the mission of a modern college should embrace "teaching first, then research, and finally, extension work among the people of the state."

In 1912, he began lobbying at the state Capitol for a new power plant on campus. Rebuffed by the Legislature, Matheson initiated Tech's first organized fund-raising campaign on behalf of the facility. His chief targets were area businessmen and Northern industrialists, who not only gave money, but encouraged Matheson to establish a facility at Tech that could help industry develop technology to solve its problems.

When the power plant was built in 1914, its purpose had expanded. In addition to providing the campus with its growing steam and electrical power needs, the plant would also provide "power laboratory experience and research facilities for faculty and students." After World War I, industrial research was gathering support in the Legislature - at least as a concept. In 1919, the General Assembly authorized establishment of an Engineering Experiment Station (EES) at Tech, but provided no funding.

Despite the efforts of Matheson and a handful of faculty, a significant industrial-research component remained on Tech's wish list. The Engineering Experiment Station, as a practical matter, was still intention rather than fact.

Not until 1933 would research at Tech strike interest among state legislators. S.V. Sanford, president of the University of Georgia, floated an idea that technical research activity should be established at Tech with financial support from the University System. Dr. Marion L. Brittain, who had succeeded Matheson as Tech's president 11 years earlier, was interested. He dusted off a report written in 1929 by members of a faculty Research Club that outlined how research could be conducted at Tech. With his political connections and support from the UGA president, Brittain secured modest start-up funds, and the Engineering Experiment Station finally came to life in 1934.

Staffed by faculty members working part time, the EES was headquartered in the basement of the Shop Building. Special instruments, tools and equipment, usually donated by industry, were scattered around campus. A laboratory-scale viscose rayon plant used for some of the station's first work - developing ways to produce rayon from Georgia pine pulp - was located in the chemical engineering department. An X-ray unit in the Physics Building was used by EES researchers to devise a radiation beam capable of determining crystal structure.

Other areas of research dealt with isolating the factors contributing to tensile strength and uniformity in spun-cotton yarns, finding ways to utilize acetate rayon waste, and preparation of an economic survey of Georgia.

Research Academic departments were also establishing footholds in research. The Aeronautical Engineering school secured the largest wind tunnel in the South and began performing design tests for the leading aircraft manufacturers. The school also established a center for rotary-wing aircraft, which would provide some of Tech's most important military research during the second World War.

Through the end of the war, most of the research at Tech was conducted under the auspices of the EES, primarily at the behest of Georgia industry.

Writing in the November-December 1946 issue of the Alumnus, Blake Van Leer, who two years earlier had succeeded Brittain as Tech's president, explained that research at Georgia Tech "has an objective of determining what industries to promote in the state."

Areas of particular interest from an economic and research point of view, he continued, include "all kinds of apparel, including boots and shoes; food processing; electrical machinery and foundry products; household furnishings; pulp, paper and paper products; textile machinery; vegetable-oil refining; ceramic products; paints; hundreds of different kinds of wood products; many and varied products made from steel, aluminum and plastics; and all types of products used in the building trades."

But even as Van Leer penned those words, fundamental changes in the structure of research at Tech were beginning to unfold.

The Board of Regents decreed that revenue could not be carried from one year to the next, which would have undermined Tech's ability to execute long-term contracts. To mitigate the effects of the ruling, the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) was formed in 1946 to serve as a contracting agency for the EES.

Research Changes in research focus were surfacing as well. The onset of the Cold War prompted a tremendous influx of federal research dollars to universities across the country. Tech's share included Department of Defense projects - many of them classified - related to electronics, particularly radar and communications.

In 1949, research spending at Tech topped the $1 million mark for the first time. Significant areas of study included microwave optics, missile tracking frequency control, antenna design and underwater acoustics.

As electronics research gained in importance at Tech, so did the emerging new science of computing, represented by the acquisition of the AC Network Calculator. The long-term significance of computing was underlined by the construction of the Rich Computing Building in 1955. Computer technology would become an important field in its own right, as well as in its application to the diverse industrial and military research activities at Tech.

In 1956, echoing President Matheson's vision articulated more than 40 years previously, Van Leer noted that Georgia Tech "now engages in all of the activities of a great technological university, and that is shown in its three major activities: 1) instruction, 2) research, and 3) extension services."

Research growth continued on both the acadernic and EES fronts during the 1957-1969 period of Edwin Harrison's presidency, with research spending at Tech doubling every five years.

By 1970, research at Tech totaled 1,200 contracts. In addition, 29 companies with sales over $25 million, including Scientific Atlanta, could be considered spinoffs of Tech research.

Despite impressive long-term growth in research, the shorter term tends to be cyclical, with research dollars fluctuating in response to changes in federal and state budgets, general economic conditions and special circumstances such as the energy crisis of the 1970s, which boosted solar-power programs.

Though Tech had come a long way, it still lacked the research muscle to break into the top 10 among research universities. That ambition was one of the factors behind the selection of Joseph M. Pettit, Stanford University's dean of engineering, as president of Tech in 1972. With a strong background and national reputation in engineering research, Pettit's presence alone elevated Tech's profile. He emphasized research interest and accomplishment in the selection and promotion of faculty, and strengthened its importance institutionally by establishing the position of vice president for research.

In 1984, the EES took the name of the Georgia Tech Research Institute, while the latter's oversight function was assumed by a new entity, the Georgia Tech Research Corp.

One measure of Pettit's success is the dollar volume of contract research at Tech, which stood at approximately $7 million when he assumed his position. By 1985, the year Tech celebrated its centennial, the number had topped $85 million.

Perhaps a better measure - and a legacy of Pettit's leadership - was attained in 1986, the year he died, when the National Science Foundation named Tech No. 1 in the United States in engineering research and development.

That sharp upward curve continued during the administration of John P. Crecine (1987-1994), who helped stimulate research activities on the academic side, particularly in computing and microelectronics. Also during the Crecine years, research spending at Tech reached a record $120 million. Wayne Clough, CE 64, MS CE 65, who was named president in 1994, has maintained and strengthened the research tradition at Georgia Tech. While keeping close ties to its long-standing government and defense work, GTRI works to further diversify its clientele. Tech's reputation in communications technology, aerospace, radar and materials sciences has been augmented with additional expertise in such areas as learning technology, electro-optics, environmental science and technology, modeling and simulation, and the ever-evolving and changing fields associated with microelectronics. GTRI facilities alone include laboratories in electronics, computer science and technology, the physical sciences, and most branches of engineering. A 52-acre field test site is available for research in electromagnetics, radio-direction finding and propagation studies.

The spectacular, ongoing growth of research fulfills a hope expressed more than a half century ago by Frank H. Neeley, then president of the Georgia Tech Alumni Foundation. Speaking at the dedication of the AC Network Calculator, Neeley said, "The dedication of this laboratory brings into strong relief the type of progress being made by this institution and the type of effort which we trust will continue at an ever-increasing rate."

Gary Goettling is a freelance business, history and technology writer in Tucker, Ga.

EES Progress

U pon the occasion of the Engineering Experiment Station's 25th year of operation, the October 1959 Georgia Tech Alumnus offered a snapshot of the Institute's high state of research.

A new Radioisotopes and Bioengineering Laboratory was "the most outstanding research development of 1959." New computers were added and older ones upgraded.

A $750,000 National Science Foundation grant - largest in Tech history - had come for construction of a nuclear research reactor.

The 342 research projects under way included inquiry into upper-atmosphere physics; study into industrial applications for radioisotopes; and a hydraulic model study of spillways for a proposed Dez River Dam in Iran.




Technical Solutions For Human Problems

P roblem-solving to benefit society was the theme of "The Broader View" (March-April 1971). "Research at Tech is an ever-changing flow of meaningful projects" began the article's summary of ongoing activities ranging from cancer-drug synthesis to study of how the human mind stores information.

Areas identified ranged as well from noise- and air-pollution abatement to flood control.

Bioengineering was mentioned, too.

The fields of microelectronics and bioengineering, both together and separately, would grow to become major components of Tech's present-day research programs.