Juxtaposing the ancient Chinese ideographs with a discussion of the
immense impact An Wang's life had on modern technology seems fitting. Although
involved with what was the cutting-edge technology of the day, and certainly one
most readily applied technologies, Wang led a life steeped in Confucian
sensibility. The values of balance, moderation and simplicity — particularly
simplicity — seem out-of-context when discussing a man who enjoyed such success
in the academic and business fields. However, that was the key to his success.
In addition, the somewhat naive* belief that ethical standards are as important
as commercial success earned him great respect among his myriad co-workers,
employees, and the public at large.
From another perspective, simplicity indeed applies to the ostensible
workings of Wang's greatest accomplishment. While working with Dr. Howard Aiken
at Harvard University in the late 1940s, he and Way-Dong Woo invented the
pulse transfer controlling device which made an
electronic "memory," each part of which could "remember" a digital one or a
zero, possible. The high-speed magnetic core memory opened up whole new vistas
of application in computers, calculating machines, and other devices designed to
simplify the drudgery of human interaction in the processing of mathematical
computations as well as later, words as well.
*Naive with regard to the fierce competitive and often unethical practices which go hand-in-hand with Capitalism and, sadly, the less-than-ethical individuals who often are titans within the Capitalist system.
Enduring Incredible Tragedy
An Wang was born in Shanghai on February 7, 1920. As a child, Wang excelled
in the study of mathematics and science. His father, a teacher of English at a
private elementary school, taught An and his four siblings the language. By age
16, he was admitted to China's Chiao Tung University in Shanghai, pursuing
studies in electrical engineering. Chiao Tung University, at that time, was
considered China's version of MIT.
Japan invaded China in 1936, and Shanghai fell by November of 1937. The
fierce fighting and firebombing cost Wang both his parents and a sister. Many of
Wang's fellow students fled to Hong Kong but Wang continued his education in
occupied Shanghai. When the war ended, Wang left his homeland to pursue a Ph.D.
in applied physics from Harvard University.
Life in America
Wang's brilliance enabled him to achieve his Ph.D. from Harvard in a mere
three years. He spent time working with Dr. Howard Aiken on a post-doctorate
level. Aiken was working on a completely electronic successor to the
electromechanical Mark I computer; the Mark IV. Sadly, by 1951,
Harvard had nearly dropped its support of computer development altogether.
Wang married his wife, Lorraine, in 1949. The couple were to have three children, two sons and a daughter.
In 1954, Wang set up shop in a Boston warehouse and began Wang Laboratories.
In its first year, earnings of the company were $15,000 (remember this is 1950s
dollars; that was enough to buy a pretty comfortable home at the time). The
company's earnings grew a whopping 40 per cent per year, on average, for the
next 33 years. Wang sold his patent for the magnetic core memory after arduous negotiation with IBM
Corporation for half a million 1950s dollars. Wang and IBM enjoyed a symbiosis,
however, for years up until IBM's introduction of the IBM PC "personal
computer," directly in competition with Wang.
Always working hard, Wang was outspoken regarding the stereotypes of Chinese
businessmen in America at the time. "Chinese can succeed at more than operating
laundries," he is quoted as saying, the rationale for his hard work not being
the commonly-held notion that hard work equals success, he was so driven because
he wanted to disprove the stereotypes. Paradoxically, Wang, in his
autobiography, tells the story of achieving success by relying on the Confucian
values of balance, moderation and simplicity. Suffice it to say that in the
early days of Wang Laboratories his life was neither balanced nor did he work in
By 1964, Wang Labs had developed a desktop scientific calculator. In the
mid-1970s sales of Wang's dedicated "word processor" with large eight-inch
floppy disks upon which to record the operator's work, were booming. The joke at
the time among IT professionals and office-equipment buyers was that "every
office should have a Wang." The superb reliability of the product was nonetheless the target of off-color jokes. Of course, the eight-inch size of the disks was
added fodder for the "wang" jokes, but meanwhile An Wang and his family were
laughing all the way to the bank.
There was a lot of work going on in the 1960s to try to achieve
all-electronic calculating, without the need for electromechanical nor purely mechanical parts. This was a time of innovation, an exciting time in which there was healthy competition, but respect among competitors. They were entering a brave new world where electronics would revolutionize anything that the imagination could conjure up.
the Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation introduced the first
commercially-available Integrated Circuits in 1961, this
amazing new technology was just what Wang and others were seeking. In 1963, a
company called Sumlock Comptometer in England produced ANITA (A New Inspiration
To Arithmetic), the first all-electronic calculator. Friden came out with a
rather unwieldy all-electronic offering in '63 as well. Wang followed suit in
1964 with the LOCI, (Logarithmic Calculating Instrument), the first scientific
electronic calculator, distinguished by its ability to perform a logarithmic
computation in one keystroke. Just months after Wang introduced his LOCI,
Japan's Sharp Corporation produced the first transistorized calculator, the
CS-10A, weighing in at 55 pounds and costing $2,500 1960s dollars (as much as a moderately-equipped Buick automobile).
In 1965, Wang beat Sharp on price; their first electronic calculator for the
mass market, the Wang 300, cost only $1,700. Wang continued to introduce new
models nearly semi-annually until the machine that started as the LOCI became
the first commercially-available calculators which could generate logarithms and
exponentials. The Wang 380 cost $3,800 and was introduced in early 1967.
Shortly after Wang's introduction of the 380, Hewlett-Packard introduced the
HP-9100, direct competition for the Wang 300 series, priced at $4,900. Despite
the difference in cost, the HP machine's ability to follow sequential
instructions (near-programmability) and robust set of trigonometric features
lured away many Wang customers. Wang fought back in August, 1969 by introducing
its Wang 700 series.
1971 saw the introduction of small, near-pocket-sized calculators from a
number of manufacturers, the smallest and arguably first "pocket" calculator
being the Bowmar 901B, nicknamed the "Bowmar Brain." It was available for $240.
By late '71, An Wang decided to move his company in a new direction, focusing
less on calculating instruments and more on word processors and computers.
Wang Laboratories - A Snapshot
A fine photograph of one of Wang's early calculators, complete with orange
nixie tube display, is available at:
http://www.oldcalculatormuseum.com/d-wangcustom.html. Now, one must
understand that until Wang's electronic calculator, a number of companies were
manufacturing completely mechanical calculators for doing multiplication and
division. These monstrosities, the most popular being manufactured by the Friden
corporation, had a carriage which actually moved back and forth and a dizzying
number of buttons on the outside, and gears and sprockets on the inside. The
Wang, on the other hand, was a model of simplicity, with the ten-digit numerical
pad and accompanying function keys we know today.
A newcomer to the industry, Digital Equipment Corporation ("DEC"),
announced its PDP-8 "Mini Computer." The machine didn't need special air
conditioning, fit on a tabletop and afforded smaller entities desirous of
instruction-based calculations (programming) an alternative to working with
calculators. The PDP-8 essentially did away with one of Wang's more interesting
innovations, a scientific calculator with a centralized processing unit (the
most costly part of the equipment) which was shared by keyboard/display
terminals distributed on a counter around the "guts" of the machine.
Perhaps the PDP-8, and similar offerings from Hewlett-Packard and IBM, drove
Dr. Wang to the decision to turn to computers and office equipment as a new
profit center. And a profit center it was. Wang's 2315, a simple device which
could be customized and follow up to 160 instructions, became very popular in
such fields as manufacturing, where the gathering of data and control of
machinery had been formerly done by hand. The 2315 was cheaper than the
minicomputers of the day, and well worth the investment due to the machine's
ability to continue working without a break, and digital accuracy, thereby
ridding the manufacturing process of the fallibility of human intervention. NASA
was a lucrative, prestigious customer acquired by Wang, who provided it with
automated equipment tolerance testing systems, among other machines.
The Wang 4000 computer system was touted to Dr. Wang by Corporate Vice
President, Systems Mr. Frank Trantanella. Trantanella was astounded at Wang's
lukewarm response to the idea. PDP-8s were selling briskly, and Trantanella
envisioned the superb speed and simplicity of Wang's offering to be able to
overtake not only DEC, but put a dent in IBM's computing market, particularly
its systems controls and data acquisition products markets.
By early 1970, however, Wang had developed a time-shared minicomputer with
real multi-user capability, the popular BASIC programming language, and an array
of input/output devices, including modems for remote terminal connection
via plain twisted pair telephone lines. The product sold well, but not as well
as expected. It turned out that schools and other educational facilities were
the number one customers for the product. DEC was giving Wang fierce
Finally, by 1973, the Wang 2200 beat HP at their own game. Whereas HP's
product was enormous, and only utilized a single line of alphanumeric nixie
tubes to display one's program, the 2200 had an actual CRT monitor which
displayed many lines of instructions at once. The BASIC language was embedded in ROM, meaning no long
"boot" time nor software storage concerns. Data was stored on digital magnetic
By 1980, even though DEC dominated the minicomputer market and IBM was
totally unconcerned with Wang as competition, Wang prospered and relied on its
reputation for quality and variety of applications. Wang enjoyed a customer base
ranging from the scientific community, to education, to insurance, to finance,
and even industry.
Meanwhile, the ubiquitous Wang word processor dominated the document
redacting market. IBM's offering was either a very large dedicated machine which
did nothing else, or the electromechanical magnetic-card (MAG CARD) Selectric
typewriters. DEC was not a player. An Exxon Corporation division, Vydec, came up
with a machine very similar to Wang's, but not as reliable. The Vydec was
slightly cheaper, but what the customer saved in investment the end-user lost in
By 1989 Wang Labs employed over 30,000 individuals and boasted sales in the neighborhood of $3 billion. An Wang was seeking to
retire as early as 1986, but his son, Fred Wang, groomed to control the company,
didn't do a very good job so An returned in 1989 after a few years of
significant losses for the company.
An Wang was a great philanthropist, endowing the Wang Institute of Graduate
Studies in Massachusetts. After ten years of sluggish enrollment, Dr. Wang
donated the school to Boston University, campus and all. He gave millions to
Harvard, of which he often spoke very gratefully. The An Wang Professiorship of
Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at Harvard was so named because of
his humble generosity. There's even a middle school in Lowell, Massachusetts
which bears his name.
Dr. Wang, also a patron of the arts, funded a good portion of the renovation
of Boston's Metropolitan Theatre. It was re-named the Wang Theatre in 1983, and
the Metropolitan Center re-named the Wang Center for the Performing Arts.
Sadly, Dr. Wang lived to see IBM's Personal Computer, or PC, destroy sales of Wang Corporation's far more expensive "personal" computer. A computer on
every desk with myriad software options and widely varied input/output devices
decimated both Wang's computer and office equipment businesses. Products such as
the brilliant and cheaply-priced "PC Junior," as well as products by such
manufacturers as Commodore, eluded Wang at a time when the writing was on the
wall; other small computer manufacturers and manufacturers of computerized
control equipment were falling by the wayside. The company
struggled and emerged as a much smaller software consultancy.
An Wang succumbed to cancer of the esophagus in 1990; two years before Wang
Laboratories, Inc. filed for bankruptcy. Gentronics, Inc.; a conglomerate, acquired the
company at fire-sale prices. Their website offers little in the way of
acknowledgement to the Wang legacy.
By the time of his passing, Wang had filed and registered 44 high-tech patents. In 1986, he was awarded a National Medal of Recognition (for superior accomplishments by immigrants). Dr. Wang will always be a model for immigrants who escaped the horrors of
their own country to become part of America's melting pot. Wang (who earned his
citizenship in 1954) is arguably one of the leaders on the list of
immigrants to contribute to
"An Wang" (writer uncredited) The History of Computing Project
http://www.thocp.net/biographies/wang_an.html (Accessed March 2, 2008)
"An Wang, Principles of Magnetic Core Memory" (writer uncredited) Inventor
of the Week Archive, Lemelson-MIT Program
http://web.mit.edu/invent/iow/wang.html (Accessed March 2, 2008)
"An Wang: The Core of the Computer Era" by Mike Brewster, Business Week,
July 14, 2004
(Accessed March 2, 2008)
"Wang Laboratories: From Custom Systems to Computers" by Rick Bensene,
October, 2001 (Updated June, 2002) Old Calculator Museum
http://www.oldcalculatormuseum.com/d-wangcustom.html (Accessed March 2,
"History of Calculators - Timeline"
http://www.xnumber.com/xnumber/frame_timeline.htm (Accessed March 2, 2008)
Computer History Museum Online - various pages, including "Selling the
Computer Revolution" (Wang Laboratories, Inc.)
(Accessed March 2, 2008)
Website of Getronics Corp. (purchased Wang Laboratories, Inc.)
http://www.getronics.com/global/en-gb/home.asp (Accessed March 2, 2008)
Wang, An, Lessons (an autobiography) New York: 1986 Addison Wesley
Publishing Co. ISBN: 0201094002