In 1934, the State Engineering Experiment Station (EES) at Georgia Tech started life with a budget of $5,000, 13 part-time faculty researchers and a few graduate assistants.
In fiscal year 2009, the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) – the modern name for the EES – listed research awards of more than $200 million, nearly 1,500 full-time employees including about 700 research faculty, and 350 co-op student researchers.
The progress of the Georgia Tech Research Institute over the past 75 years didn’t happen in a vacuum, said GTRI Director Stephen E. Cross.
“Our history is tied to major changes in how government and industry regard university-based research and development,” he said. “It also reflects steadfast support from Georgia government and industry – and the hard work of a lot of smart people.”
GTRI, the applied research arm of Georgia Tech, might be celebrating its 90th anniversary if things had gone a bit differently. When W. Harry Vaughan, a Georgia Tech associate professor of ceramics, was preparing a plan in 1929 for the development of an engineering experiment station, he discovered that the General Assembly had authorized – but not funded – just such an organization in 1919.
By 1934, however, funding priorities had changed. With the Great Depression wilting the state’s economy, the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents appropriated $5,000 to establish a State Engineering Experiment Station. Georgia Tech was to furnish personnel and other support to the new unit, which was envisioned as an industry-oriented version of the federally funded agricultural experiment stations that were already operating in many states.
What soon became known as simply “the research station” opened for business on July 1, 1934, with Vaughan as its first director. The state even came up with an additional budget allocation, with the understanding that it would be augmented by sponsored research funds – actual contracts – as new projects came on board.
Legislation authorized the new Engineering Experiment Station to conduct specific research in areas that included “transportation, road building, drainage, irrigation, flood protection, aeronautics, aerodynamics, fuels, power, lighting, heating, refrigeration, ventilation, sanitation and architecture.”
The research organization went on to do just about all of that – and a great deal more.
The first years at EES were modest. The research effort was housed in the basement of Georgia Tech’s Old Shop Building, with much of its equipment rented from the School of Mechanical Engineering. Much of its first work focused on textiles and ceramics – including a facility where researchers developed the first rayon made from Georgia pine pulp.
EES contracts in the 1930s included work on the autogyro, a short-winged aircraft that foreshadowed the helicopter. It’s not known what contributions the EES may actually have made to the true helicopter, which emerged by 1940.
Value of the EES research-project portfolio in 1940: $260,000.
EES’s workload jumped sharply just before and during World War II, thanks to new funding from the federal government. The research station’s sponsored work expanded to include wind-tunnel testing of airfoil designs and additional helicopter research. The EES also focused on sensitive communications research including a high-selectivity, high-gain audio amplifier; a rugged portable “mini-band” amplifier; and lock-in amplifier circuits used to separate pulse signals from thermal noise.
Perhaps most important – for the organization’s future – was an EES study of electromagnetic-wave propagation. That work was followed by a large Navy contract for radar research and development, which set the stage for Georgia Tech’s longtime status as a leading U.S. innovator in radar and defense electronics.
Gerald Rosselot, a Georgia Tech physics professor, took over as EES director in 1941. He’s often credited with facilitating the research station’s entry into electronics during and after the war.
One wartime EES story indicates just how comfortable researchers were becoming with electromagnetic-wave technology. Several sources agree that one electrical-engineering professor had discovered that certain radio frequencies, transmitted inside a box, would heat food.
“The only things the EES would give him to cook were sweet potatoes and peanuts,” said George M. Jeffares, who worked at the station part-time as a Georgia Tech senior. Jeffares was recruited along with other EES personnel to periodically “taste the sweet potatoes to see if they were done.”
Wartime research priorities scotched further investigation of the phenomenon. Possible EES claims to discovery of the microwave oven became the stuff of Georgia Tech lore.
By the 1943-44 fiscal year, more than 30 projects were under way at EES, which now employed 17 full-time and nearly 100 part-time researchers. Just over half of the operating budget came from government and industry contracts, as opposed to state support. By the last year of the war, the government-industry figure had climbed to 61 percent.
Cold War Tensions
World War II’s intensity gave way to Cold War tensions, and it soon became clear that federal government support for university-based research would continue. Georgia Tech President Blake Van Leer and Dean of Engineering Cherry Emerson spearheaded a 1946 move to create an independent, nonprofit corporation to handle contract and patent issues for EES.
The name for the new entity was the Georgia Tech Research Institute. Nearly four decades later, the EES would take that name for itself, and the contracting unit would become the Georgia Tech Research Corporation.
Under the new structure, growth continued nicely. By 1947, 56 full-time and 95 part-time EES researchers were performing work worth $441,000 – 87 percent from outside contracts.
On the home front, EES was collaborating with the University of Georgia’s College of Agriculture to make Georgia peanut farming more profitable, including production of better harvesting and processing machinery. Experiments with an electric eye, to aid peanut-picking machinery, were a precursor to sophisticated machine-vision work for the poultry industry decades later.
In 1948, the Research Building, built in 1939 as EES’s home base, was enlarged and named after a major contributor, Atlanta dentist Thomas Hinman. Soon after, EES’s annual research income passed the $1 million mark.
The Korean conflict (1950-53) increased the flow of federal research dollars to universities across the country. EES’s share included many sensitive projects in the areas of radar, microwave propagation, communications, missile-tracking frequency control, antenna design, underwater acoustics and microwave optics.
The research station’s role in national security research had become permanent.
Millimeter Wave Pioneers
EES’s wartime work had brought Georgia Tech growing recognition as a top player in radar research and development. Research-station investigators were soon delving into millimeter waves, an area of the electromagnetic spectrum that seemed to offer great opportunities. Millimeter waves – the band between 30 and 300 gigahertz – can provide effective image identification even through fog, rain and smoke.
Researchers were soon determining which millimeter-wave frequencies worked best for a given task – and in doing so they pioneered the basic science of the millimeter-wave environment. The research that began at EES has continued at today’s GTRI, bringing with it international recognition for millimeter-wave expertise.
EES engineers also developed broad expertise in the hardware – antennas, receivers and transmitters – needed for millimeter-wave applications.
Today, millimeter-wave technology is used for everything from identifying tanks and warplanes to tracking raindrops and wind patterns as part of severe-weather research and climate modeling.
Georgia Tech’s important role in helping to create new Georgia companies began during this period as well. It was an auspicious start.
In 1952, several EES personnel – including Director Rosselot, Associate Director James E. Boyd and former EES researcher Glen P. Robinson, Jr. – formed Scientific Atlanta. The venture’s basic business model was to commercialize some of the technology developed at Georgia Tech, especially for antennas.
Scientific Atlanta eventually became a large company, renowned for developing satellite Earth stations and cable television equipment. In 2006, it was acquired by Cisco Systems Inc., a major network-technology corporation.
Dawn of the Computer Age
In 1947, EES installed an “electro-mechanical brain” – an analog computer – the first in the Southeast. It was so large that the Research Building needed an annex to house it.
Then, in 1955, Georgia Tech opened the Rich Electronic Computer Center, with a mission of “education, service to industry and research.” The Rich Center, too, was the first facility of its kind in the Southeast. Its first resident was a UNIVAC 1101, built by Remington Rand, an analog computer that measured 38 feet by 20 feet and featured rotating-drum memory equal to 48 kilobytes.
“We had to program it by counting drum revolutions and putting ones and zeros on it,” recalls Fred Dyer, who joined EES as a Georgia Tech student in 1957 (and stayed on some 40 years). “There wasn’t even a compiler. I said that computers would never be practical.”
Yet the computer center had opened at a critical time. Analog-computer experience during the 1950s prepared Tech’s engineers and scientists for the revolutionary transition from analog to digital computing that took place in the 1960s.
In and out of the computer center, the research station’s work during this period was nearly as diverse as GTRI’s work is today. In addition to the core defense work, EES engineers of the 1960s tackled an electro-mechanical system for organizing and aligning plastic bottles, spectrographic analysis of diesel truck components, a study of butane lighters, improvements to peanut-brittle manufacturing – even a project involving bra design for the Loveable Brassiere Co.
During the 1960s, Georgia Tech became well-known for its innovative experimental systems in atomic collisions, initiated by Earl W. McDaniel of EES. Among notable EES projects in atomic collisions was development of the first drift-tube mass spectrometer to study certain low-energy chemical reactions. Another highlight was the first experiments in the U.S. to study collisions between beams of electrons and ions.
The station kept up its Georgia connections as well. During the five-year period from 1966 to 1970, EES’s industrial extension division performed 16 major feasibility studies of manufacturing opportunities in Georgia, 24 studies of industrial sites and 14 special reports on manufacturing, plant financing and other issues.
And thanks to an EES study begun in 1969 on how to shield heart-regulating pacemakers from microwave interference, the once-familiar “WARNING: Microwave Oven in Use” sign is rarely seen today. Analogous safety work continues today at GTRI’s Medical Device Test Center.
Energy – Nuclear and Otherwise
After several relatively short-term directors – including Paul Calaway, James E. Boyd, Robert Stiemke and Wyatt E. Whitley – EES veteran radar researcher Maurice Long became EES director in 1968. He was one of the first directors chosen from within the EES ranks.
By fiscal year 1970-1971, new contracts and grants at EES totaled a record $5.2 million.
Scientific interest in nuclear technology was peaking in the 1960s. At the EES, a Radioisotopes and Bioengineering Laboratory had opened in 1959; it was utilized for both academic and research activities. Elsewhere on campus, a low-power nuclear reactor was also built. (It has since been dismantled.)
The oil embargo of 1973 made energy a national priority. EES started work on an array of alternative fuel technologies, particularly solar – an important research focus to this day. EES staff conducted a detailed proof-of-concept study of a large solar-energy power-generation plant, while a 325 kilowatt, 500-mirror Solar Thermal Test Facility – second largest of its type in the U.S. – was constructed on campus in 1977 where the Manufacturing Research Center now stands.
One National Science Foundation project examined power-system options for the Southeast. It identified potential opportunities for increasing efficiency and lowering the cost of electrical power and transmission. And EES staff created energy monitoring and conversion proposals for such energy-intensive industries as petroleum refining, meat packing, steel production, papermaking and others.
EES defense activity remained strong during the 1960s. The compact range was invented by Richard C. Johnson in 1966 to measure antenna performance. Today, building-size compact ranges are used to simulate radiation patterns of antennas as they would occur naturally over much longer distances in real-world applications.
In 1970, researchers discovered that by manipulating the temperature and the rate and duration of heating, they could strengthen certain ceramics via a phenomenon called sintering. These improved ceramics were used to produce radomes – structures that shield a missile’s sensors – for such missile systems as the Patriot.
Among his accomplishments, Director Long successfully resisted an attempt by the university’s administration to drastically change EES’s status by absorbing it into Georgia Tech’s academic programs. Long believed that Georgia Tech needed a separate applied research arm; his viewpoint prevailed when Georgia Tech President Arthur G. Hansen resigned in 1971 and was replaced by Joseph M. Pettit, dean of engineering at Stanford and a strong advocate of applied research.
The Grace Years
Director Long stepped down in 1976, and the choice of his replacement came straight from the top. President Pettit had worked at Stanford with a man named Donald J. Grace, whose positions there had included director of the Systems Techniques Laboratory and associate dean of engineering.
Grace’s arrival at Georgia Tech was greeted with much anticipation, according to Hugh Denny, a retired principal research engineer and former director of the Electromagnetic and Environmental Division.
“There was a feeling that we were out in the woodpile someplace and nobody paid much attention to us,” Denny recalled. “Because he had worked with Joe Pettit earlier out at Stanford, the sense we had with Don was that now we had somebody who at least had the ear of the president.”
Under Grace, EES acquired the Cobb County research complex in 1978, and much of its most sensitive research is still done there. The Cobb facility was expanded in the 1980s with a multi million-dollar electromagnetic radiation measurement range.
Another early Grace-era accomplishment was establishment of the Huntsville Research Laboratory. The idea for a permanent Georgia Tech presence in Huntsville was first proposed by William McCorkle, executive director of the U.S. Army’s Missile Research, Development, and Engineering Center. McCorkle and his staff worked with EES’s Electro-Magnetics Laboratory to make the proposal a reality, and by early 1979, six Georgia Tech research faculty and co-op students had settled into government offices at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala.
The move “gave Tech instant accessibility to the government sponsors who were in need of expertise,” said Richard Stanley, who began a 14-year career as Huntsville’s director in 1984.
Inquiring minds at the EES were always delving into the latest technology. Fred Dyer recently recalled reading about something called Ethernet in 1974 and then teaming with other research-station personnel to run test cable between buildings – long before most people had even heard of the technology. By 1976, serious networking had begun at Georgia Tech on a building-by-building basis, he said, although it wasn’t until the 1980s that the campus became fully networked.
New Name, New Home
In October 1984, on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, the Engineering Experiment Station officially became the Georgia Tech Research Institute.
“I had nothing against engineering experiment stations – they’re all over the country – but that wasn’t what we were,” Grace said.
From the GTRI perspective, the 1980s were especially productive. Its core competencies fit in well with the dramatic upswing in military spending under the Reagan administration. The Strategic Defense Initiative missile-defense system, known as “Star Wars,” brought Georgia Tech its largest research contract to date – $21.3 million divided between the School of Electrical Engineering and GTRI.
GTRI landed a 1986 solo contract – its largest ever at the time – with a $14.7 million job to design and build technology that would simulate a Soviet surface-to-air missile system. The huge simulator was housed in a 40-foot trailer and three 20-foot transportable shelters.
The same year, coinciding with Georgia Tech’s 100th birthday, GTRI’s new home, the Centennial Research Building, was dedicated at 10th and Dalney streets. The $12.5 million, six-story structure provided desperately needed lab and office space for GTRI’s growing research activities.
National Recognition, Active Growth
Between 1980 and 1985, electronics – including defense electronics, electronic systems, electronic techniques and components, antennas, electromagnetics and optics – comprised two-thirds of the organization’s research volume. Energy accounted for 15 percent; domestic and international economic development projects 9 percent; computer technology 7 percent, and the balance involved the physical, chemical and material sciences.
Research accomplishments at Georgia Tech and GTRI were becoming noticed at a national level. The volume of Georgia Tech’s engineering research placed it third among all U.S. universities, and GTRI contributed substantially to that success.
Growth was extensive throughout GTRI. The Research Institute expanded its defense work, developing new expertise in such areas as computer software technology, electronic warfare technology, multispectral sensors, electro-optic materials and applications, space power and strategic materials.
It also expanded into newer areas, including autonomous aerial vehicles, artificial intelligence and robotics, and lead paint and asbestos abatement, among many others. Sponsored programs ranged from basic neutrino experiments to the development of economically viable solar-heated chicken houses.
“What I remember most is how much it grew and how fast it grew,” recalled Janice Rogers, a GTRI veteran who retired in 2006 after a 30-year career that included assisting four directors and rising to senior management. “When I worked for the Systems Engineering Lab, it was not unusual for us to hire two or three researchers a week. I think we probably doubled in size during the 10 or so years I worked in that lab.”
GTRI became involved in antenna-design work for the International Space Station. GTRI also tackled other projects for the space station, such as design of an Earth-controllable robot to perform experiments onboard the station.
In 1987, GTRI unveiled its first LIght Detection And Ranging (LIDAR) system – a technology that is similar to radar but uses light waves instead of radio waves. To encourage more women to consider a science career, GTRI established a LIDAR observatory at private Agnes Scott College in Atlanta.
Also in the 1980s, GTRI and Georgia Tech founded the Materials Handling Research Center for improving the movement of products through factories and distribution systems. It quickly became a successful National Science Foundation Industry/University Cooperative Research Center, with more than 20 major companies and federal agencies supporting its research.
By the late 1980s, GTRI was becoming noted for its expertise in a highly important area: retrofitting existing military aircraft with new technology. The work, which continues today, keeps existing systems operating and saves the cost of building new ones. Among GTRI’s successful early projects was an upgrade of the Air Force’s H-53 helicopter.
During the same period, researcher Nile Hartman developed an integrated optic interferometric sensor that would quickly detect even small amounts of contaminants in air, soil, groundwater and food.
GTRI was also becoming involved in electronic warfare (EW) research and development, which protects U.S. aircraft from enemy radar and missile systems. EW continues to be a major area of expertise for the Research Institute.
Integrated Defensive Avionics Software (IDAS) is a component of GTRI-developed EW technology that rapidly displays and responds to threats and gives accurate, useful information to the aircrew. IDAS incorporates the Virtual Electronic Combat Training System function, which allows aircrews to train in-flight using simulated threats.
Fusion Failure, Olympic Victory
One of GTRI’s most embarrassing moments was, arguably, also one of its finest.
In the spring of 1989, a University of Utah research team announced that it had achieved cold fusion in the laboratory. A GTRI team led by James Mahaffey sought to confirm the astonishing report.
Mahaffey and team soon believed they had succeeded. Reporters flocked to hear the news, and the name of Georgia Tech echoed round the world.
It turned out that the original Utah experiment was fatally skewed due to unsuspected instrumentation errors. The Georgia Tech team, following the Utah team’s flawed procedure to try to duplicate the results, had arrived at the same flawed positive conclusion.
“It turned out that what we had was a problem with the neutron detectors,” which had not been designed to count very low numbers of neutrons accurately, Mahaffey recalled recently. “And I said, well, we made a big splash with a press conference to announce it, so we’ve got to de-announce it. At Georgia Tech, data integrity and the integrity of research were so ground into us – if we were wrong, we were going to say that we were wrong and why we were wrong.”
A few days after the first announcement, GTRI called the press back in. Standing side by side with Don Grace in front of dozens of cameras, Mahaffey reported the error.
“It was the right thing to do,” Grace later recalled.
Any lingering Georgia Tech chagrin gave away to euphoria when, in September 1990, the International Olympic Committee announced that Atlanta would be the site of the 1996 Summer Olympics.
That win was the work of thousands of people. Yet it was widely acknowledged that a computer-generated virtual tour – developed by a GTRI-led team – of Atlanta’s proposed Olympic venues was a key to Georgia’s underdog win.
Swords and Plowshares
After a record 16 years as director of GTRI, Grace retired in late 1992 and was replaced by Richard H. Truly, a former NASA administrator, retired vice admiral, space-shuttle astronaut and Georgia Tech alumnus. Truly took over at a sensitive time.
“When I arrived in 1992, the Soviet Union had recently collapsed,” Truly recalled. “And frankly, there was fear on the campus that GTRI would become a lot smaller because there would be much less defense work.”
Changes were soon made. Truly helped GTRI put together a new plan – “a very simple strategic plan,” he calls it. Management also adjusted the makeup of the GTRI national advisory committee, a move that Truly remembers as being very helpful.
Among other things, the new plan stressed becoming involved in a number of non-defense areas, as well as a growing emphasis on industry customers in general. It also sought to sharpen the focus of GTRI’s defense-related research.
Janice Rogers, assistant to the director at the time, recalled some of the non-defense transitions. These included, for example, utilizing GTRI’s extensive radar expertise to improve breast-cancer imaging and other medical applications, and the use of imaging and geographical information systems for such applications as weather mapping, cloud mapping and predictability analysis.
Truly’s shakeup included a transition for Rogers. He asked her to fill a new position: director of administration.
“I got to branch out, which I really enjoyed,” Rogers remembered recently. “One of the first things I had to do was revamp the GTRI policies and procedures manual. Up until then everything was kind of unspoken – this person does this and that person does that. But under Richard Truly we codified a lot.”
It was an important move for an organization dependent on contract research, she added.
Growth wasn’t meteoric during the early to mid-1990s, Truly recalled, but the feared contraction never took place. “GTRI did grow, and we got into some new areas. But I think fundamentally it was pretty much the same core organization when I left as when I got there.”
Connecting with Industry
GTRI’s efforts to decrease reliance on military contracts and diversify its customers began to show results quickly. By 1994, while defense support remained the heart of the budget, it decreased from about 76 percent to just over 70 percent. Other categories increased – industry to 16.6 percent; state and local to 1.5 percent, and federal non-defense, 9.6 percent.
Management renewed emphasis on industry partnerships, including a project between GTRI and Shaw Industries to reduce carpet waste. Additional research initiatives were successfully begun in transportation, education and medical technology, as well as modeling, simulation and testing.
As costs and community opposition shut down urban-road expansion across the country during the ’90s, a number of GTRI transportation projects addressed ways to manage traffic flow. Meanwhile, Foundations for the Future, funded by a major AT&T grant, utilized GTRI expertise to integrate technology into Georgia’s K-12 classrooms. The University of Georgia and Morris Brown Research Institute also participated in that program.
In 1997, Edward K. Reedy, a Georgia Tech research engineer since 1970, took over as director when Truly resigned to head the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo. Though Reedy came from the research side, he was no stranger to leadership – he had been director of a large GTRI lab for 10 years.
“I felt we had to get back into a stronger growth mode,” Reedy said recently. “It was obvious our DoD funding profile was not going to increase significantly at that time. So, without de-emphasizing our defense-related work, we re-emphasized working for the state of Georgia, as well as with industry.”
GTRI re-emphasized a number of state initiatives, including research conducted for Georgia’s large and economically important poultry industry.
“I think probably the thing I was most pleased about during my directorship was construction of the Food Processing Technology Building, which gave GTRI’s poultry-related research effort a permanent home,” Reedy said.
He added that he’s also proud of helping create the Glen P. Robinson Jr. endowed research chair in electro-optics at GTRI – the Research Institute’s first such research chair. Robinson also endowed a chair in non-linear science at Georgia Tech’s School of Physics.
In April 1997, GTRI began a $17 million contract with mPhase Technologies Inc. to develop a system that incorporated Digital Subscriber Line communications with digital signal processing and filtering. The research focused on Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) precursor technologies that enabled telephone companies to deliver TV to subscribers over existing copper lines.
The GTRI of the 1990s continued to be active and creative in its core areas of expertise. One particular success was FalconView™, a software package that lets military planners use laptops to analyze and display geographical data crucial to planning aircraft missions. Developed through GTRI’s Air National Guard Electronic Warfare Program, FalconView has been improved many times and now has more than 45,000 users.
In recent years, GTRI and Georgia Tech’s Aerospace Systems Design Laboratory produced an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) powered by fuel cells running on compressed hydrogen. Fuel cells don’t presently produce enough power to propel passenger aircraft, but they can power smaller vehicles such as UAVs.
GTRI researchers also provided engineering and technical guidance for the Global Justice XML Data Model initiative, which is used by the AMBER Alert system. This voluntary partnership among law enforcement agencies and the news media quickly provides information to the public when a child is declared missing or abducted.
And, as baby boomers reach retirement age, GTRI has been following the marketplace potential for a range of medical and health-related technologies, including assistive technologies.
“GTRI has always been an organization that’s flexible and quick on its feet and able to adapt to a changing market,” Reedy said. “We took advantage of that to get GTRI back in a strong growth direction.”
It worked, assisted by growth in GTRI’s core areas as well. Research awards in the millennial year of 2000 topped $100 million.
Today’s Explosive Growth
When Stephen E. Cross took over as GTRI director in September 2003, he was also was named a professor in the School of Industrial and Systems Engineering. He soon set a course that emphasized growth in both traditional and new areas, as well as a closer relationship with Georgia Tech’s academic side.
The results of that decision were soon obvious – GTRI’s research awards for fiscal 2009 topped $200 million, up 63 percent over a three-year period. GTRI now has nearly 1,500 employees, including some 700 research faculty. It has added 120 research faculty members over the past year, and expects to add at least 100 more in the near term.
Just as important, both GTRI and Georgia Tech management are on the same page about the role of the Research Institute within the university. GTRI is the applied research arm of Georgia Tech. It works closely and collaboratively with the academic colleges, but it is a business embedded in a university.
“I believe new ideas occur at the boundaries of technical and scientific fields,” Cross said. “That is one reason why the university’s interdisciplinary focus is so right for our future.”
GTRI’s future promises to be as accomplished as its past. Few at Georgia Tech doubt that GTRI scientists and engineers will be enjoying the opportunity, as well as the challenge, of solving real-world problems for a long time to come.
“I can’t imagine having a more ideal place to work,” said Fred Dyer, the 40-year GTRI veteran. “I could recommend it to anybody, because of the great people and the great opportunity to do a variety of things that serve a very useful purpose.”
(Atlanta writer Gary Goettling also contributed to this article.)