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Pioneers in Tech

The layperson might not immediately name An Wang as a 20th-century technical giant, but we certainly should. The Chinese American computer engineer invented the magnetic pulse transfer controlling device, which, as you will learn in this edition of Pioneers in Tech, paved the way for magnetic core memory and thus made stored-program computers and ultimately personal computers possible.

Born Feb. 7, 1920, in Shanghai, Wang always had a natural affinity for mathematics, preferring it to subjects that required memorization. After earning a degree in communications engineering at Chiao-Tung University in Shanghai, Wang began designing transmitters and radio receivers for the Chinese military as they fought against the Japanese in World War II.

Revolutionizing computer memory

In 1945, Wang immigrated to the U.S. as part of a Chinese Nationalist program to train engineers. He applied to Harvard and was admitted as a graduate student in applied physics. Within two semesters, he had completed his master’s degree, and in 1948 he was given the problem of recording and reading magnetically stored information. He later recalled that “after struggling with the question for about three weeks, the solution presented itself to me.” Wang’s solution—which enabled the reading of stored information without demagnetizing the core—made it possible to mass-produce computer memory cost-effectively. This was the basis for computer memory until microchips.

The patent for Wang’s innovation ended up in IBM’s hands. Wang went on to found Wang Laboratories. In 1965, he introduced a desktop computer called “LOCI” that could generate logarithms with a single keystroke. By 1984, he had built Wang Laboratories into such a successful enterprise that he was estimated to be the fifth richest American.

Wang passed away in 1990 after a fight with esophageal cancer. He left his mark not only on the computer industry but also on the Boston community through his family’s philanthropy.

Did you enjoy this installation of SmarterMSP’s Pioneers in Tech? Check out others here.

Photo: ShutterStockStudio / Shutterstock

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Kate Johanns

Posted by Kate Johanns

Kate Johanns is a communications professional and freelance writer with more than 13 years of experience in publishing and marketing.

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