It's not too much to say that H. Joseph Gerber played an essential role in transforming American industry and boosting the nation's economy.
When you are as interested in electronics and computing as yours truly, there are some names and concepts with which you cannot help but be acquainted -- like George Boole and his amazing algebra, Augustus De Morgan and his tricky transformations, Maurice Karnaugh and his Machiavellian maps, and Frank Gray and his capriciously cunning codes.
Actually, I like to think of myself as being reasonably "well read" with regard to science, technology, and engineering, so it came as something of a surprise to discover a humongous hole in my education.
Anyone who has had anything to do with creating printed circuit boards (PCBs) will have heard the term "Gerber format." This is an open ASCII vector format for 2D binary images, and it's the de facto standard used by PCB software to describe the printed circuit board images (copper layers, solder mask, legends, etc.). The point is that, in the 35+ years I've been in the industry, I never thought to question the origin and namesake of this format.
Happily, my eyes have been opened because I recently read The Inventor's Dilemma: The Remarkable Life of H. Joseph Gerber. Written by H. Joseph Gerber's son, David Gerber, this biography is one that leaves a lasting impression on the reader.
We start with the fact that Heinz Joseph Gerber was born in Vienna in 1924. The warmth of David's description of Heinz walking with his grandfather around downtown Vienna in the early 1930s gave me flashbacks to my walking hand-in-hand with my own grandfather through the streets of Sheffield when I was about six years old.
By all accounts Heinz had a happy childhood. Even in the aftermath of World War 1, Austria boasted tolerance and democratic ideals, and was home to numerous luminaries in the sciences and the arts. However, things began to go downhill in the 1930s, cumulating with the "Anschluss" -- the invasion and incorporation of Austria into Nazi Germany in March 1938.
At the tender age of 13, Heinz was forced into a work camp where the prisoners were woken at 4 a.m., fed a piece of dry bread, and then spent the day crushing stones with hammers while being beaten and abused by the guards. It was only after several months, with the help of forged documents, that Heinz's family managed to secure his release.
It wasn't until 1940 that Heinz and his mother managed to emigrate to America (he never saw his father or other family members again). So, at the age of 16, with very little English, Heinz started to attend high school in America. The principle had wanted Heinz -- who now preferred to be called Joe -- to start as a freshman, but that would have meant he'd have graduated two years after his peers, so Heinz persuaded the principle to let him join as a junior, provided that he completed the work associated with the freshman and sophomore years at the weekends. As David says:
For most of the day, Joe attended classes, struggling to understand the lectures and discussions. In the afternoon, when his classmates headed to the playing fields or library, Joe took two busses to his 4:00 to midnight shift at the bakery. He brought his homework with him, and studied after his shift ended until 1:30 a.m. He then studied while riding on the delivery truck that passed within a mile of his home, and when he arrived home, he returned to his homework, working until almost sunrise. On Saturdays, he washed windows, fixed radios, and did other odd jobs. On Sundays he studied his freshman and sophomore subjects.
You think this is bad? It gets worse! I tell you, reading this book has seriously made me reevaluate my own life. Looking back, it makes me really appreciate just how lucky I've been. But, having said all this, this biography isn’t primarily about hardship -- we're still only at the beginning of the tale.
I don’t want to give too much away here. Suffice it to say that, due to Joe's taking on yet another job starting at midnight (just after his shift at the bakery ended), things took a turn for the better, ending with him getting a place at university. While studying for his bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering, which he completed in only two and half years, Joe invented a variable scale mechanism that proved to be incredibly effective for a wide range of scientific and engineering tasks -- so much so, in fact, that it led to the formation of the Gerber Scientific Instrument Company.
In many ways, this is where the story really starts. Throughout the remainder of the book, we discover how Joe became one of America's greatest inventors. On the way, he revolutionized antiquated industries and created new ones. The photo below shows Joe working with a technician to build one of his early computing devices circa 1950 (this image, which has never before been published, came from David Gerber's private collection).
H. Joseph Gerber working with a technician to build one of his early computing devices circa 1950 (Source: The family of H. J. Gerber, Gerber Scientific, Inc., and Ucamco N.V.; Reproduced with permission)
Early plotters were controlled using analog techniques, whose accuracy fluctuated and drifted as their components responded to changes in the surrounding environment, such as variations in temperature and humidity. In order to address these problems, Joe and his colleagues created the first in a series of digital plotters. In turn, this paved the way to him revolutionizing the way in which printed circuit boards are made.
One point David emphasizes in his narrative is that there was little in the way of "infrastructure" at that time. Thus, it was not sufficient to simply create a key component of a system -- instead, it was necessary to create the system as a whole. Hence that fact that, in the case of printed circuit boards, Joe didn’t just create the physical photo-plotter, but instead he had to produce the entire system, including, for example, the Gerber format used to store the PCB files.
And Joe didn’t stop there -- he went on to revolutionize all sorts of things, including the garment industry. Can you imagine the problems involved in building a machine capable of using a reciprocating blade to cut patterns out of cloth, remembering that cloth stretches? Now multiply these problems by requiring the machine to cut through multiple layers of material simultaneously. All I can say is that the ways in which Joe solved these problems -- tricks and techniques that are beautifully described in the book -- left me gasping in admiration.
There are so many things I have taken away from this book, not the least that this is a classic immigrant "rags-to-riches" story involving a Holocaust survivor who ended up pioneering important developments in engineering, electronics, printing, apparel, aerospace, and numerous other areas. It's not too much to say that H. Joseph Gerber played an essential role in transforming American industry and boosting the nation's economy.
In conclusion, this is a story worthy of being made into a film. It's also a story that should make us more aware of the horrendous refugee problems surrounding us in the world today. Instead of seeing refugees and immigrants as a problem, we would be better served in thinking of them as an opportunity -- in helping others we may well end up helping ourselves (soapbox mode "Off").
— Max Maxfield, Editor of All Things Fun & Interesting