Two momentous events in the history of electrical engineering were acknowledged in separate IEEE Milestone dedications in October and November. The first, the establishment of Thomas A. Edison’s most comprehensive laboratory and factory complex, was celebrated on 18 October in West Orange, N.J. The second, commemorated on 4 November in Japan, was the unveiling of the first practical Japanese word processor.
The IEEE Milestones in Electrical Engineering and Computing program honors significant achievements in electrical, electronic, and computer engineering: products, services, papers, or patents that demonstrate technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity.
PRODUCT FOCUS Edison may not have known the words “time to market,” but he certainly appreciated what they meant. Early in his career, at his laboratories in Newark and Menlo Park, both in New Jersey, he pioneered the concept of the “invention factory” which he improved upon when in 1887, in West Orange, he set up his last and most comprehensive laboratory and factory complex. The complex had everything he needed to perfect technological innovations, turn them into commercially viable products, and put them into mass production—and to do so quickly and cheaply.
Lest there be any doubt, Edison clearly understood the product-development significance of his laboratory, as revealed in a draft of a letter he wrote in August 1887 to James Hood Wright, a potential financial backer. In part, it reads: “I will have the best equipped & largest Laboratory extant, and the facilities incomparably superior to any other for rapid & cheap development of an invention, & working it up into commercial shape with models, patterns, and special machinery. In fact there is no similar institution in existence.”
With the West Orange facilities and a carefully chosen staff, he was able to design and commercialize new products on a scale and at a speed previously unknown. It is no exaggeration to say that although 1093 patents were issued to Edison during his career, his greatest invention was one that couldn’t be patented: the modern industrial research and development laboratory.
Among the things invented or developed at the West Orange complex were motion picture cameras, viewers, and projectors; the phonograph; a fluoroscope; and the nickel-iron battery. More valuable than the battery itself, it turns out, was the wealth of empirical data that has informed the work of generations of battery researchers.
Originally, the Edison Milestone plaque was to be installed at the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange. But the National Park Service does not allow such memorials at such sites. Instead, it was installed on the grounds of the West Orange municipal building on a granite base donated by the IEEE North Jersey Section. It reads:
Thomas A. Edison West Orange Laboratories and Factories, 1887
Thomas Alva Edison, a West Orange resident from 1886 until his death in 1931, established his final and most comprehensive laboratory and factory complex about one-half mile (0.8 km) north of here in 1887. Edison's visionary combination in one organization of basic and applied research, development, and manufacturing became the prototype for industrial enterprises worldwide. Work here resulted in more than half of Edison's 1,093 patents.
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CONQUERING KANJI The Japanese language is written using a combination of Chinese ideograms (Kanji) and Japanese syllables (Kana). Since there are about 6000 Kanji ideograms, with some 2000 in daily use, Japanese keyboards of the precomputer era were intimidating devices with large numbers of keys and shift keys. Typing on the keyboard required a great deal of training and by Western standards was slow and error-prone. Developing a Japanese word processor was therefore daunting.
Since the 48 Kana syllables can represent all the sounds of the language, it might seem to be a simple matter to enter Kanji characters by means of a Kana-to-Kanji conversion function. But because Japanese Kanji has a great number of homonyms—characters that sound alike but look different and mean different things—the only way to choose the correct Kanji words was to display all the possible candidate ideograms and have users choose the one they wanted, an unacceptably slow and frustrating business.
Automating the process took seven years. Starting in 1971, a team of researchers at Toshiba Corp., in Kawasaki, under the direction of Ken-ichi Mori began implementing two concepts and was ultimately successful. One idea was to make the Japanese grammar more precise—for example, to refine the classification of nouns—so that many candidate ideograms could be eliminated for grammatical reasons. The second was to allow the machine to automatically accumulate data on the frequency of usage of homonyms by different users and in different documents. The team had the further idea of improving the processing of homonyms by creating a dictionary of co-occurrence relations between words, but this could not be implemented at the time because of the very limited memory capacity of the first Japanese word processor.
That processor, the model JW-10, was publicly unveiled on 3 October 1978. It weighed 220 kg and carried a price tag of ¥6 300 000 (US $620 000). Since then, the growing popularity of personal computers and word-processing software that include automatic kana-to-kanji conversion has made stand-alone word processors obsolete. In fact, kana-to-kanji conversion is today considered a basic function of personal computers and cellphones.
The development of the JW-10 was honored with the unveiling of two plaques: one at the entrance of the Toshiba Corporate Research & Development Center in Kawasaki, where the R&D work was done, and the other at the entrance of the Ome Works in Ome, Tokyo, the company responsible for engineering and manufacturing the machine and its successors. The plaques state:
The First Word Processor for the Japanese Language, 1971–1978
At this site, between 1971 and 1978, the first Japanese-language word processor was developed. Researchers headed by Ken-ichi Mori created a wholly new concept of Japanese word processing. Their first practical system, JW-10, was publicly unveiled on 3 October 1978. The JW-10, and improved versions, played a major role in advancing the Information Age in Japan, and provided the basis for Japanese-language word-processing software in personal computers.
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The Milestone program is administered by the IEEE History Center for the IEEE History Committee. It was established in 1983 and has since honored more than 75 people and achievements around the world. You can check out a list of other milestones.