Chances are, you haven’t heard of H Joseph ‘Joe’ Gerber (1924-1996), despite the fact he’s widely considered within industry as one of the greatest inventors and businessmen of the 20th century. Even in the USA, where he pioneered techniques that revolutionised manufacturing, he remains virtually unknown to the general public.
As a thirteen-year-old Jewish boy living in Nazi-occupied Austria in 1938, Berger used his creativity and ingenuity to help his family survive. After several failed escape attempts, he and his mother were granted visas to migrate to the United States, where they landed in 1940, completely penniless.
Berger completed a high school curriculum in two years while working a full-time job and learning English, and entered Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Even before graduating with a degree in aeronautical engineering he had patented his first engineering device. The Gerber Variable Scale resembles a slide rule, but uses a triangular calibrated spring as a computing element that eliminates scaling and conversions between numerics and graphics to speed up engineering computations.
Starting with Gerber Scientific in 1946, Gerber created a series of businesses with one underlying principle: to increase human potential by eliminating tedious, time-consuming manual tasks through automation. Alongside the Variable Scale, his inventions included the first digitally controlled plotter to draw graphics, the first automated drafting machines - the Gerber Photoplotter - which began to automate production of electronic circuit boards, the first computer-automated machine for cutting cloth in production, the first digital billboard printer and sign making systems, the first computer-automated systems for printing-prepress, and computer-assisted equipment to help opticians produce spectacles.
Joe Gerber’s son, David J Gerber, is an attorney and a fellow at the Yale School of Management who has handled a range of legal, technical, and business responsibilities for Gerber Scientific. Now he’s turned his hand to remedying the lack of public awareness of his father’s achievements with what he believes is a definitive biography – ‘The Inventor’s Dilemma: The Remarkable Life of H Joseph Gerber’ (Yale University Press, £30, ISBN 978-0300123500). The book is based on extensive interviews with former colleagues, journalists and industry leaders along with unique access to previously unpublished sources. E&T talked to him about his father’s legacy.
E&T: What is ‘the inventor’s dilemma?’
David J Gerber: My father spent his life devising ways to automate factories in numerous different industries. His story demonstrates how invention can help preserve American industry. But his ability to recognise inventive opportunities relied on his proximity to manufacturers. Visiting a factory, for example, he might notice scraps on a workroom floor, which he would see as wasted resources, and as a result he would work out a better approach. Sometimes, a manager needing an invention would call him. If America’s industrial base goes abroad for low-cost labour, this interaction would vanish and invention would become more difficult. This is a dilemma for inventors as well as for manufacturers in America.
‘The inventor’s dilemma’ also has a broader meaning in the book. My father often approached problems that seemed to lack a viable answer—a dilemma, where all alternative approaches were unacceptable. Indeed, he seemed to relish such challenges. He invariably went ‘back to fundamentals’ to look at the problem anew, without the same constraints. For instance, he once wondered why tyres were made out of rubber and roads from hard material, not vice versa. This sort of thinking often led him to answers.
E&T: In your opinion, why has your father remained virtually unknown to the general public until now?
DJG: A columnist once referred to my father and his companies as “high-tech and low-key.” My father’s approach to business was old-fashioned—financially conservative, not hyped, and focused on developing products that industries needed. In many industries, he was known as the ‘engineer’s answer man’ or the ‘father of automation’. Fortune began an article about him with the question, “How does one man revolutionize an industry?” Late in his life, institutions such as the Smithsonian, the National Academy of Engineering and the National Medals Committee recognised his vast life’s work and his influence on the modern history of manufacturing. But the accolades and academic research didn’t bring this story to the general public. My father called his companies a “well-kept secret.” I’d have to say that this was a history waiting to be discovered.
E&T: Joe Gerber has been written about quite a bit over the years in business and industry publications – what made you decide to write his official biography? And why now?
DJG: Many articles focused on my father’s contributions to particular industries. Combine these, and you begin to see invention and industrial transformation across the landscape of American manufacturing. Add my father’s personal story—his escape from a Dachau-bound train to come to America and become an inventor and business leader at a young age—and you see that this was also a story about a young survivor who not only transformed industries, but also transformed himself. I came to understand that these two stories were one and the same. I also had unique access to wonderful unpublished documents and interviews, and I travelled with my father to his birthplace, Vienna, where we had intimate conversations about his past and his thinking.
E&T: Your father holds over 677 US and foreign patents in his name. Which do you think is the most important invention or innovation?
DJG: The automated cloth cutter. Inventors had sought to automate production cloth cutting for almost a century, without success. My father’s seminal inventions for this product did not rely on high technology; they were just very clever. For example, the most vexing problem was how to hold the material in place during the cutting operation. Other inventors had tried various ideas from rollers to clamps. My dad put a vacuum beneath the cutting surface, and a sacrificial plastic overlay on top of the stack, so the cloth became fixed in place. In fact, this made different types of cloth behave similar, so automation was much easier. Even until today, this remains the only viable way for automatically cutting cloth for the production of most apparel. This machine was the key to transforming the entire system of manufacture—in what was the last great labour-intensive industry to be computer-automated.
E&T: Why was he so intent on changing entire systems rather than individual parts?
DJG: What motivated my dad? One factor was the workings of his mind. His mind allowed him to see these relationships. He could visit an apparel factory, and recognise that limitations in the layout and sewing rooms could be overcome in the cutting room. Another reason was that he loved to invent. It was what he called “the game in my mind.” If he observed an antiquated manufacturing process, he would begin to think of multiple products, the technical challenges, and how he could overcome these challenges. Before you knew it, he would be sketching ideas. Sometimes, he might start with only one product idea. Take the cloth cutter, for example. He’d be so excited about the possibilities that he wouldn’t let the idea go, even if he realised that it would not have a market unless it had parts data. So he would begin to develop the machine that could provide the data. At first this was a digitiser, which could create data from a manually laid-out marker. Soon, my father was intent on providing a system to automatically plot the parts layout data. Because his cutter enabled more-precisely-cut parts, he could automate certain sewing operations, and he developed the world’s first computerised sewing machine.
E&T: Your father strongly believed in automation as a key to productivity. What do you think he would make of all the recent talk about robots?
DJG: My father’s computer-controlled machines were robots. As early as the 1960s, he said that the emerging industrial revolution from computer-based technologies “should free man and banish hunger.” His drafting machines represented the first use of computer control for professional work. My father separated drawing into the underlying creativity and the act of drawing, concluding that automation enhanced creativity by allowing designers to engage with computers interactively in the design process. Creativity was his great love. Repetitive skills were his bane. When he was a boy, his parents required him to learn the violin. Instead, he made his violin play by itself, kind of like a player piano but with electromagnets.
But my father was also sensitive to the dangers that industrial revolution posed. He traced the brutality that he and his family and others faced under Nazi rule in Austria to the economic dislocations and political turmoil that followed the first industrial revolution. He recognised that, after the first industrial revolution, society had to adopt new codes and people had to learn to live together in urban factory areas. So, as computing power is now becoming exponentially more powerful, I expect that my father would have seen inventions, products, and economic growth, and the desirability of this progress, but also human cost and a political challenge in managing the rapid change.
E&T: What’s one thing you hope readers take away from this book?
DJG: A sense of relationship between imagination and hope. Addressing his employees once, my father said “the company is a home for the dreamer, for the man and woman who can because they think they can and who are not put off by the reasons of others as to why it can’t be done.” I think most of us want to find that home.