The Mercury News has an interesting piece today on a new book by Don Nielson detailing the important history of SRI (formerly Stanford Research Insitute). The institute, founded in 1946 at Stanford University, has played a role in an number of significant innovations in IT including serving as one of the first four nodes on the ARPAnet, the invention of the mouse, packet-switched radio, and wireless communications. Neilson’s history apparently focuses on about 50 of the projects the institute was responsible for, though he had nearly 50,000 projects over the institute’s 59 years to choose from.
One quote in the article struck me and I thought I’d note it here. It’s a perspective that’s very useful to remember in these times of uncertain funding for research that’s increasingly short-term.
Paul Saffo, director of the Institute of the Future in Menlo Park, believes that SRI’s most important legacy is the swath of engineers, scientists and other researchers who have passed through it.
“You can focus on the inventions, but the inventions are literally an artifact of the most important thing that SRI did. It trained a whole generation of engineers,” Saffo said. “That kind of long-term look was damn scarce back then and today it’s scarcer than ever. Today, it’s swimming against a stream at a time when the whole country is obsessively focused on the short term and a federal government that has crippled DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).”
Researchers and engineers have founded a host of companies upon leaving SRI, a list that Nielson includes at the back of his book. He noted the list is by no means comprehensive, as SRI does not really keep track of how many of its former employees start companies. The list of companies ranges from early valley pioneers such as Granger Associates and Raychem to software developers Symantec and ANSA Software, online trading system developer E-Trade Financial, market researcher Dataquest (now owned by Gartner Group) and the Institute of the Future.
Saffo, who was not part of the Institute of the Future’s founding team from SRI, also noted that swarms of former SRI engineers who worked at companies ranging from Apple Computer to Cisco Systems have led revolutions of their own.
Anyway, the book looks very interesting. Maybe I’ll take it up after I finish my current “metro reading” book: What the Dormouse Said: How the ’60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer by John Markoff. Jim Horning, who “was there” during the relevant period, has a good review of the Markoff book….