04 Oct 2012

Baker Library’s Historical Collections Receive Papers of Computer Pioneer and Philanthropist An Wang

Collection includes professional and personal papers of founding father of Wang Laboratories

BOSTON—In the 1970s, in the early days of computers, before there were microchips, the principal technology at the heart of a computer's memory was "magnetic core memory," whose main component was the "pulse transfer controlling device." That essential component was the invention of a China-born computer whiz living in Cambridge named An Wang , who had founded Wang Laboratories, Inc., in 1951 to develop specialty electronic devices. An acclaimed pioneer in the field of computer technology who held more than 35 patents, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1988.

Photo: Baker Library Historical Collections

Thanks to the generosity of Dr. Wang's wife, Mrs. Lorraine C. Wang, and the Wang Foundation, as well as the support of his son Frederic, an important collection of the records of Dr. Wang and the Wang Laboratories dating from 1948 to 1992 has recently become part of the Baker Library Historical Collections at Harvard Business School. They include Dr. Wang's business papers as founder and CEO of the firm as well as personal documents.

"New England has a long tradition as the center of many important innovations, from whale oil to textiles, financial services to biotechnology," said Dean Nitin Nohria. "Dr. Wang's seminal role in the computer revolution is an important part of this illustrious history. We are happy and honored to add this important and wide-ranging set of materials to our Historical Collections and to make them available to present and future generations of students and scholars."

The business records in the collection focus on Wang Laboratories' research and development initiatives, marketing and sales materials, manufacturing methods, investments and joint ventures, and financial and budget information. There are also internal memoranda and reports documenting various stages of the company's development and growth, beginning in the early 1950s, and its eventual decline in the late 1980s. In addition, the collection includes advertising and promotional materials, product manuals and training information, and publicity videos.

The collection of Dr. Wang's personal papers documents his philanthropic work in higher education and the arts. For example, in the late 1980s Boston's Metropolitan movie house (later called the Music Hall), which opened in 1925, underwent a major renovation that restored the building to its original elegance, thanks to an initial gift from Dr. Wang and his wife, Lorraine, in 1983. Renamed the Wang Center for the Performing Arts (and now called the Wang Theatre), it became a center of Boston's cultural scene, hosting world-class theatrical, musical, and dance performances.

Also in the collection are records of the Wang Institute of Graduate Studies. Operated by Dr. Wang from 1979 to 1988, the Institute offered a master's degree in software engineering and also ran a fellowship program in East Asian studies for visiting scholars. Born in Shanghai in 1920, Dr. Wang began showing an exceptional talent for science and mathematics when he was still in elementary school. He went on to study engineering at Chiao-Tung University in China and spent World War II designing radio receivers and transmitters. After the war, he entered Harvard University to earn a master's degree in applied physics, then worked for a short time in the private sector and in a Canadian office of the Chinese government before returning to Harvard to study for a Ph.D. in engineering and applied physics, which he received in 1948.

Wang then joined the Harvard Computation Laboratory, where he worked on a project that led to his developing a way to use magnetic devices to store and retrieve data in a computer. In 1951, he left Harvard and founded Wang Laboratories in Boston.

During the 1960s, the company developed a series of successful desktop calculators; in the 1970s and 1980s, it was best known for its popular microcomputers and word processing systems. At its peak in the 1980s, Wang Laboratories had 23,000 employees and annual revenues of $2 billion.

In the early 1990s, however, the company fell on hard times in the face of competition from companies that made and sold personal computers. Dr. Wang died in 1990 at the age of 70, and two years later, the company he founded filed for bankruptcy. It reemerged as a smaller firm in 1994 and was acquired by another company in 1999.

Widely recognized and acclaimed for his talents as an engineer and entrepreneur, Wang was a Fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.

His life and achievements are the subject of several books, including Memories That Shaped an Industry (1984); Lessons: An Autobiography (1986); Riding the Runaway Horse: The Rise and Decline of Wang Laboratories (1992); and Dr. An Wang, Computer Pioneer (1993).


Jim Aisner

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