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Wang, An

An Wang

Born: February 7, 1920
Shanghai, China
Died: March 24, 1990
Boston, Massachusetts

Chinese-born American inventor, engineer, and business executive

An Wang made important inventions relating to computer memories and to electronic calculators. He was the founder and longtime executive officer of Wang Laboratories Incorporated, a leading American manufacturer of computers and word processing systems.

Childhood and education

An Wang was born the oldest of five children on February 7, 1920, in Shanghai, China, to Yin Lu and Zen Wan Wang. His father taught him English at home and Wang began his formal schooling at age six when he entered the third grade. In elementary school, Wang began to excel in science and mathematics. He became interested in radio as a high school student, built his own radio, and went on to study communications engineering at Chiao-Tung University in his native city. After graduation he stayed on at the university for another year as a teaching assistant. With the outbreak of World War II (1939-45; a war in which France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, the United States, and other European forces fought against those of Germany, Japan, and Italy), Wang moved to inland China, where he spent the war designing radio receivers and transmitters for the Chinese to use in their fight against Japan.

Wang left China in the spring of 1945, receiving a government stipend (financial support) to continue his education at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He completed his master's degree in communications engineering in one year. After graduation, he worked for an American company for some months and then for a Canadian office of the Chinese government. In 1947, he returned to Harvard University and rapidly completed a doctorate degree in engineering and applied physics. Wang married in 1949, and he and his wife had three children. Six years later Wang became an American citizen.

Invention

In the spring of 1948 Howard Aiken (19001973) hired Wang to work at the Harvard Computation Laboratory. This institution had built the ASSC Mark I, one of the world's first digital computers, a few years earlier and was developing more advanced machines under a contract from the U.S. Air Force. Aiken asked Wang to develop a way to store and retrieve data in a computer using magnetic devices. Wang studied the magnetic properties of small doughnut-shaped rings of ferromagnetic material, or materials that can become highly magnetized. Wang soon developed a process where one could read the information stored in a ring by passing a current around it. Researchers at the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and elsewhere were interested in the idea of magnetic core storage of information and greatly developed it for use in various computers. Wang published an account of his results in a 1950 article coauthored by W.D. Woo, another Shanghai native who worked at Harvard. He also patented his invention and, despite a long court fight, earned substantial royalties (money earned from sales) from International Business Machines (IBM) and other computer manufacturers who used magnetic core memories. These cores remained a basic part of computers into the 1970s.

Wang was not happy with having others develop and sell his inventions. In 1951 he left the Computation Laboratory and used his life savings to start his own electronics company. He first sold custom-built magnetic shift registers for storing and combining electronic signals. His company also sold machines for magnetic tape control and numerical control. In the mid-1960s Wang invented a digital logarithmic converter that made it possible to perform routine arithmetic electronically at high speeds and relatively low cost. Wang desktop calculators were soon available commercially, replacing traditional machines with mechanical parts. Several calculators operated on one processing unit. These early electronic calculators sold for over one thousand dollars per keyboard. They were used in schools, scientific laboratories, and engineering firms. By 1969, Wang Laboratories had begun to produce less expensive calculators for wider business use. However, Wang saw that the introduction of other technology would allow competitors to sell electronic handheld calculators at a much lower price than the machines his company offered.

Time to change

Confronted with the need to find new products, Wang directed his firm toward the manufacture of word processors and small business computers. The first Wang word processing systems sold in 1976. They were designed for easy access by those unfamiliar with computers, for broad data base management, and for routine business calculations. In addition to such computer networks, the company developed personal computers for office use.

Wang began his business in a room above an electrical fixtures store in Boston, Massachusetts, with himself as the only employee. By the mid-1980s the company had expanded to over fifteen thousand employees working in several buildings in the old manufacturing town of Lowell, Massachusetts, and in factories and offices throughout the world. To acquire money to finance this expansion and to reward competent employees, Wang Laboratories sold stock and piled up a considerable debt. The Wang family retained control of the firm by limiting administrative power to a special class of shareholders. In the early 1980s when company growth slowed while debt remained large, Wang made some effort to reduce his personal control of the business and follow regular corporate management practices.

While remaining a company officer and leading stockholder, Wang gave increased responsibilities to his son Frederick and to other managers. Wang intended to devote even more time to educational activities. He served as an adviser to several colleges and as a member of the Board of Regents of the University of Massachusetts. Wang also took a particular interest in the Wang Institute of Graduate Studies which he founded in 1979. This school offers advanced degrees in software engineering. Difficult times in the computer industry soon led Wang to turn his concentration from these projects and resume full-time direction of Wang Laboratories.

Later years and slowing business

In the last decades of the twentieth century, Wang's economic structure faltered. In 1982 the organization generated more than a billion dollars a year, and by 1989 sales were $3 billion a year. But Wang Laboratories fell on hard times as well. In the early 1990s the former minicomputer maker fell into Chapter 11 bankruptcy and Wang died of cancer in March of 1990 at the age of seventy.

On January 30, 1997, the Eastman Kodak Company bought the Wang Software business unit for $260 million in cash. The deal put Kodak into the document imaging and workflow business and took Wang out of software. Wang also began a relationship with Microsoft, and Michael Brown, chief financial officer for Microsoft, sat on Wang's board of directors. The reorganization enabled the company to prosper once again.

Wang's engineering insight and business success made him a fellow (member) of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He received an honorary doctoral degree from the Lowell Technological Institute.

For More Information

Hargrove, Jim. Dr. An Wang, Computer Pioneer. Chicago: Children's Press, 1993.

Kenney, Charles. Riding the Runaway Horse: The Rise and Decline of Wang Laboratories. Boston: Little, Brown, 1992.

Pugh, E. W. Memories That Shaped an Industry. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984.

Wang, An, and Eugene Linden. Lessons: An Autobiography. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1986.

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An Wang

An Wang

An Wang (1920-1990) made important inventions relating to computer memories and to electronic calculators. He was the founder and longtime executive officer of Wang Laboratories Incorporated, a leading American manufacturer of computers and word processing systems.

An Wang was born February 7, 1920, in Shanghai, China. He became interested in radio as a high school student, built his own radio, and went on to study communications engineering at Chiao-Tung University in his native city. After graduation he stayed on at the university another year as a teaching assistant. With the outbreak of World War II Wang moved to inland China, where he spent the war designing radio receivers and transmitters for the Chinese to use in their fight against Japan.

Wang left China in the spring of 1945, receiving a government stipend to continue his education at Harvard University in Massachusetts. He completed his master's degree in communications engineering in one year. After graduation, he worked for an American company for some months and then for a Canadian office of the Chinese government. In 1947, he returned to Harvard and rapidly completed a doctorate in engineering and applied physics. Wang married in 1949, and he and his wife had three children. Six years later Wang became an American citizen.

In the spring of 1948 Howard Aiken hired Wang to work at the Harvard Computation Laboratory. This institution had built the ASSC Mark I, one of the world's first digital computers, a few years earlier. It was developing more advanced machines under a contract from the U.S. Air Force. Aiken asked Wang to devise a way to store and retrieve data in a computer using magnetic media. Wang studied the magnetic properties of small doughnut-shaped rings of ferromagnetic material. He suggested that if the residual magnetic flux of the ring was in one direction, the ring might represent the binary digit 1. Flux in the opposite direction could represent 0. One could then read the information stored in a ring by passing a current around it. Researchers at the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology and elsewhere were intrigued by the idea of magnetic core storage of information and greatly refined it for use in various computers. Wang published an account of his results in a 1950 article coauthored by W.D. Woo, another Shanghai native who worked at Harvard. He also patented his invention and, despite a protracted court fight, earned substantial royalties from International Business Machines and other computer manufacturers who used magnetic core memories. These cores were a fundamental part of computers into the 1970s.

Wang was not content to have others develop and sell his inventions. In 1951 he left the Computation Laboratory and used his life savings to start his own electronics company. He first sold custom-built magnetic shift registers for storing and combining electronic signals. His company also sold machines for magnetic tape control and numerical control. In the mid-1960s Wang invented a digital logarithmic converter that made it possible to perform routine arithmetic electronically at high speeds and relatively low cost. Wang desktop calculators were soon available commercially, replacing traditional machines with mechanical parts. Several calculators operated on one processing unit. These early electronic calculators sold for over $1,000 per keyboard. They were used in schools, scientific laboratories, and engineering firms. By 1969, Wang Laboratories had begun to produce less expensive calculators for wider business use. However, Wang saw that the introduction of integrated circuits would allow competitors to sell electronic handheld calculators at a much lower price than the machines his company offered.

Confronted with the need to find a new product, Wang directed his firm toward the manufacture of word processors and small business computers. The first Wang word processing systems sold in 1976. They were designed for easy access by those unfamiliar with computers, for broad data base management, and for routine business calculations. In addition to such computer networks, the company developed personal computers for office use.

Wang began his business in a room above an electrical fixtures store in Boston with himself as the only employee. By the mid-1980s the company had expanded to over 15,000 employees working in several buildings in the old manufacturing town of Lowell, Massachusetts, and in factories and offices throughout the world. To acquire money to finance this expansion and to reward competent employees, Wang Laboratories sold stock and acquired a considerable debt. The Wang family retained control of the firm by limiting administrative power to a special class of shareholders. In the early 1980s when company growth slowed while debt remained large, Wang made some effort to reduce his personal control of the business and follow more conventional corporate management practices. While remaining a company officer and leading stockholder, he gave increased responsibilities to his son Frederick and to other managers. Wang intended to devote even more time to educational activities. He served as an adviser to several colleges and as a member of the Board of Regents of the University of Massachusetts. Wang also took a particular interest in the Wang Institute of Graduate Studies which he founded in 1979. This fully accredited school gives advanced degrees in software engineering. Difficult times in the computer industry soon led Wang to turn his concentration from these projects and resume full-time direction of Wang Laboratories.

In the last decades of the twentieth century, Wang's economic structure teetered. In 1982 the organization generated more than a billion dollars a year, and by 1989 sales were $3 billion a year. But Wang Laboratories fell on hard times as well. In the early 1990s the former minicomputer maker fell into Chapter 11 bankruptcy and Wang died of cancer in March of 1990 at the age of 70.

On Jan. 30, 1997, the Eastman Kodak Company bought the Wang Software business unit for $260 million in cash. The deal put Kodak into the document imaging and workflow business and took Wang out of software. Wang also began an affiliation with Microsoft, and Michael Brown, chief financial officer for Microsoft, sat on Wang's board of directors. The reorganization enabled the company to prosper once again.

Wang's engineering acumen and business success resulted in him being made a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He received an honorary doctoral degree from the Lowell Technological Institute.

Further Reading

Wang, with Eugene Linden, published Lessons: An Autobiography in 1986. For brief accounts of his career see "The Guru of Gizmos," TIME (November 17, 1980) and "Wang Labs' run for a second billion: One-man rule will fade into professional management," Business Week (May 17, 1982). On the history of magnetic core memories see E. W. Pugh, Memories that Shaped an Industry (1984). On electronic calculators see H. Edward Roberts, Electronic Calculators, edited by Forrest M. Mimms III (1974). Wang is also included in Historical Dictionary of Data Processing: Biographies, by James Cortada (1987). The Wall Street Journal covered the fall and resurgence of Wang Laboratories in two articles, Steep Slide: Filing in Chapter 11, Wang Sends Warning to High-Tech Circles (Aug. 1992), and Wang Labs Reorganization is Cleared, Allowing Emergence from Chapter 11 (Sept. 1993). □

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"An Wang." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Wang, An

Wang, An

Chinese-born American Inventor and Entrepreneur
19201990

An Wang is remembered for his contributions to the invention of core memory; the accomplishments of his company, Wang Laboratories; and his many inventions, including the world's first commercially successful logarithmic calculator and word processing system. Wang's invention of the memory core helped fuel the spread of mainframe computers for decades.

An Wang was born in Shanghai, China, on February 7, 1920, the eldest son of a school teacher. His quick intellect became evident at an early age when he finished sixth grade at the age of nine. He studied electrical engineering at Chiao Tung University in Shanghai, an institution comparable to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States. He was ranked first in his class throughout his years at college, graduating as valedictorian in 1940.

In 1944 the Chinese government selected a small group of engineers, including Wang, to travel to the United States at state expense. Their assignment was to learn American technology so they could help rebuild China after the war with Japan, which had begun in 1937 and continued for many years.

Wang enrolled at Harvard University and completed his graduate work with amazing speed. He began his studies in 1946, completing the requirements for a master's degree in applied physics in only two semesters. Thirteen months after starting work on his doctorate, Wang was awarded his Ph.D. in applied physics although graduate students typically study for four or more years before earning similar advanced degrees.

In 1948, with his government funding running out, Wang was reluctant to return to war-torn China and sought employment at Harvard's Computation Laboratory. There Howard Aiken was building the first all-electronic computing machine to be fabricated at Harvard, the Mark IV.

Aiken's first assignment for Wang was for him to find a way to record and read magnetically stored information without any mechanical motion in the machine. Wang worked on the problem for several weeks before discovering the keya tiny donut-shaped magnetic switch that could be turned on and off electrically in a few thousandths of a second. Wang found that by stringing these switches, called cores, in a line, the computer could write zeros and ones to memory and read them back on demand. His invention was stable, fast, and required no mechanical motion. (While Wang invented the fundamental element of core memory, a fellow researcher, Jay W. Forrester at MIT, completed its development by placing the cores in a grid to make memory access faster than ever.) Core memory became a fundamental component of mainframe computers. Wang's patent for the core was the first of forty patents that he would be awarded.

In 1951 Wang took the bold step of quitting Harvard. Using his savings of $600, Wang began his own company, Wang Laboratories, to manufacture and market memory devices and other electronic components. The company grew steadily by manufacturing products for other companies.

In 1964 Wang invented a desktop calculator, called LOCI, his company's first Wang-invented product. For the first time, scientists and engineers could perform mathematical calculations from their desks, without a mainframe computer. When LOCI went to market in 1965, it became a hugely popular tool and company revenues tripled. A series of successful calculators followed, but Wang made a bigger impact with his invention of the commercial word processing machine (1971). The Wang Word Processing System was a revolutionary desktop device with a monitor, computer, and keyboard that was designed to make word processing easy and fast. It was not a microcomputer , but each machine had its own microprocessor, freeing it from minicomputers or mainframes, a radical idea at the time. By incorporating network functionality in his word processors, Wang was among the first to sell a local area network (LAN) that allowed users to share applications, documents, and printers.

When the Wang Word Processing System was introduced in 1976, it catapulted Wang Laboratories to fame, causing company revenues to triple over the next three years. By 1978 the company was the largest supplier of stand-alone word processors in the world; this was several years before IBM entered the market. Other Wang products, including the VS minicomputer and microcomputers, followed.

Wang made several strategic business miscalculations, however. One was not broadening his word processing design to take commercial advantage of a desktop computer until after IBM did so in the 1980s. Later he erred by not making his computers compatible with the newest industry standardthe IBM Personal Computer. In time the huge markets for Wang Laboratories evaporated, and the company tumbled into bankruptcy in 1992.

Wang died of cancer on March 24, 1990, in Boston, Massachusetts. In spite of his humble beginnings in Shanghai, by 1983 he had come to be regarded as the fifth richest man in the world before his company began its slide. A member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, Wang is still remembered for his contributions to computer science and for the millions of dollars he gave to local arts and educational organizations.

see also Word Processors.

Ann McIver McHoes

Bibliography

Kenney, Charles C. Riding the Runaway Horse. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1992.

An Wang. Lessons: An Autobiography. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1986.

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