SRI is known in Silicon Valley mostly as the birthplace of the mouse — as far as it’s known at all.
However, most people don’t know that SRI International also developed the first system to electronically sort checks. It created the first fax machine. And it has been responsible for major innovations in everything from less invasive surgery to robotics.
The history of the venerable Silicon Valley research institute has been captured in a book called “A Heritage of Innovation: SRI’s First Half Century,” just published by SRI. Written by former computer science researcher Don Nielson, the book describes many of the accomplishments — and some of the challenges — of the former Stanford Research Institute, one of the last remaining pure research organizations in the United States.
Nielson spent four years of his supposed retirement trying to cram the vast accomplishments of SRI into a book he calls a labor of love. The book, argues Nielson, is a much-needed history of the 59-year-old Menlo Park research institute that is not very adept at touting its importance to Silicon Valley.
SRI was founded in 1946 in conjunction with Stanford University, but separated from Stanford in 1970. Nielson worked at SRI for almost 40 years, where he built up the computer sciences division. Under Nielson, in 1976, that division sent the first wireless packetized voice message over a packet radio network, a precursor to today’s Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology.
Nielson explained that over the years, the institute has had a “bit of a visibility problem,” in part because it conducts its research on a contract basis for government and corporate clients, many of whom wish to keep an innovation under wraps.
Even when it is free to publish its research, the institute chooses to do so in peer-reviewed, scientific journals, and typically does not seek out further media attention. And, he added, even the 1,400 employees around the world at SRI and the 600 at its Sarnoff subsidiary are probably not aware of the work it has done. Nielson said he could pick only about 50 or so projects to highlight in his book, out of 50,000.
“You’re in the parade, so you don’t watch the parade,” Nielson told a group of SRI employees at a gathering last week where he discussed his book. “You might know the haircut of the trombonist in front of you, but you don’t see the whole parade.”