Wang, computer firm founder, dies at 70

By JERRY BERGER  |  March 24, 1990
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BOSTON -- An Wang, a Chinese immigrant who parlayed a $600 investment into an invention that revolutionized the computer industry, died of esophageal cancer Saturday. He was 70.

Wang, chairman and chief executive officer of Wang Laboratories, Inc., the company he founded in 1951, died at 5:31 a.m., said Massachusetts General Hospital spokesman Martin Bander. He was readmitted March 6 for follow-up treatment on a malignant tumor removed July 14.

Symptoms of the tumor first appeared in March 1989 when Wang experienced trouble swallowing. Surgery was performed by Dr. Hermes Grillo, a world expert on surgery of the esophagus.

'That is a particularly difficult form of cancer,' said Bander.

Born in Shanghai, China, Wang came to the United States in 1945 and earned a doctorate in physics at Harvard University. In 1955, he patented the magnetic pulse transfer controller, the principle upon which magnetic core memory is based.

The device was the first inexpensive and reliable method of computer memory storage before the microchip and paved the way for the rapid expansion of the high technology industry.

In 1988, the invention earned his induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, joining 68 other inventors, including Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Louis Pasteur, Alexander Graham Bell and the Wright Brothers.

'It's very satisfying to be listed right up there with the historical figures that were named in my textbooks in grammar school,' Wang said.

Wang, who had more than 40 patents, warned America was losing its historical lead in inventiveness.

'American companies worry too much about the next quarterly dividend instead of thinking in a long-term strategic way. The Japanese and West Germans are starting to win more patents than this country, and that's a disturbing trend.'

Staring with $600 in working capital and a loft in Boston's South End, Wang built a company that pioneered desktop electronic desk calculators, word processing, mini-computers and image processing.

'Dr. Wang was a great man and obviously made signifcant contributions both as a scientist, an entrepreneur and a philanthropist,' said company executive Paul Guzzi.

Among his legacies is the Wang Center for Performing Arts, a key component of efforts to revitalize Boston's theater district. He also endowed the Wang Center of Graduate Studies for software engineers.

'An Wang was the personification of the American dream. His genius and his generosity made it possible for others to reach their dreams,' said Gov. Michael Dukakis. ''The Doctor' will be missed across the country and around the world, but most of all here in Massachusetts where he gave so much of himself to others.'

His decision to relocate in Lowell, Mass., was credited with playing a major role in the rebirth of the city, which was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution but had fallen on hard times as the textile mills that fueled its growth moved out of Massachusetts.

But a sharp downturn in the Massachusetts computer industry hit Wang particularly hard, causing a series of management shakeups that included the resignation last August of Wang's son and successor, Frederick A. Wang.

At the end of 1989, despite the elimination of 8,000 jobs worldwide, the firm posted a six-month loss of $72 million.

'One of the pioneering giants of the computer industry has left us,' said company president Richard Miller, who assumed the reins from Frederick Wang in November. 'Dr. Wang's legacy is a life distinguished both as inventor and entrepreneur and as a good and decent man.'

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