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Wang, An - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: An Wang

word memory laboratories million

Wang Laboratories, Inc.


An Wang was a technological visionary whose computer-related inventions formed the basis for his company, Wang Laboratories, and made him a billionaire by the mid-1980s. His inventions included the magnetic memory core for computers (an industry standard for two decades before being replaced by the microchip during the 1970s), the desktop calculator, and the first word processor.

Personal Life

An Wang was born February 7, 1920, in Shanghai, China. His father, Yin Lu Wang, taught English at an elementary school outside Shanghai, while his mother Zen Wan (Chien) Wang was a homemaker. The second of five children in a middle-class family, he grew up at a time when China was experiencing profound social upheaval as well as serious problems with Japan.

Wang was a very bright child who entered school in the third grade when he was only six years old. (He attended the same institution where his father was a teacher.) He immediately displayed a particular aptitude for mathematics and began studying the English language a year later. Yet he lacked confidence in his abilities until he scored the highest of all the other students in his class on the competitive exam to enter junior high. He entered Shanghai Provincial High School, one of the best in China, when he was 13.

After completing high school, Wang attended Chiao Tung University in Shanghai, where he majored in electrical engineering with a specialty in communications.   Upon his graduation in 1940, he spent a year as a teaching assistant before volunteering to help design and build radio transmitters for the Chinese government, which was then at war with Japan. (In December 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and prompted the United States to enter World War II, China and the United States became allies.) After World War II ended in 1945, Wang accepted a chance to go to the United States for a two-year advanced engineering apprenticeship program.

When the apprenticeship fell through, however, Wang enrolled at Harvard University and earned his master’s degree in physics in one year. He continued his studies there and in 1948 received a Ph.D. in nonlinear mechanics. He married Lorraine Chiu the following year, and together they had three children, a son and two daughters.

Career Details

After earning his Ph.D., Wang worked as a research assistant at the Harvard Computational Laboratory under the direction of Dr. Howard Aiken, whose team of scientists had created one of the first computers. Known as the Mark I, it was so huge that it filled an entire room. Wang was asked to find a new way to record and read magnetically stored information without mechanical motion. While this problem had puzzled Aiken’s scientists for years, Wang quickly came up with a solution. His invention, the magnetic memory core, was used for storing data for the next 20 years.

During the early 1950s, Harvard began cutting back on computer research. Wang therefore decided to patent his memory core invention. With just $600 in savings, he founded Wang Laboratories in June 1951. At first, he was the company’s only employee. He sold memory cores, designed commercial applications for them, and worked on special projects with other companies. In 1956, however, Wang sold his memory core patent to International Business Machines (IBM) for $400,000. The money then allowed him to expand his business.

The next challenge Wang set for himself was to improve the productivity of office workers through the use of electronic equipment. His first breakthrough came in 1965 with the invention of a desktop calculator. At the time, scientists and engineers either used slide rules or large mainframe computers for their mathematical calculations. Wang’s desktop calculator, however, was faster and more advanced than anything else on the market. And at a price of only $6,500, it was much cheaper than a mainframe computer. Its uniqueness garnered Wang another patent and attracted many eager buyers. By 1967 Wang Laboratories was posting sales of more than $1 million and employed about 400 people.

In 1971 Wang introduced the first word processor, a typewriter with an electronic memory. It made typing jobs much easier by allowing the typist to proofread and correct a document before printing a final copy. These early word processors allowed users to review only a few lines of text at a time, but they still greatly improved office productivity.

During the 1970s, as calculators became smaller and cheaper to produce, Wang began shifting his emphasis to word processors and other office automation equipment. In 1976, he introduced an improved word processing system, the WPS. It displayed the entire text of a document on a large screen and provided users with a series of menus to edit and correct the document. The WPS was well received and helped complete the transformation of Wang Laboratories from a calculator company into a word processor company.

Wang was able to compete successfully against much larger companies until the end of the 1970s. But during the 1980s, Wang Laboratories entered a period of decline. While it continued to offer new office automation products that linked word and data processing, by 1987 it was no longer profitable. Wang himself died of cancer in 1990. Two years later, Wang Laboratories filed for bankruptcy, and in 1997 it was acquired by Eastman Kodak.

Social and Economic Impact

An Wang was a technological visionary whose inventions greatly improved the productivity of a wide range of workers, from scientists and engineers to typists and secretaries. His desktop calculator and word processor forever changed the way people performed basic office functions. For a while, it seemed that Wang was able to anticipate exactly what was needed in the marketplace and come up with just the right product to serve that need.

Wang’s inventions and 40 patents also figured prominently in the evolution of computer science. His first patent for the magnetic memory core was a crucial step in the development of the modern computer.

Chronology: An Wang

1920: Born.

1945: Moved to the United States.

1948: Earned Ph.D. from Harvard University.

1951: Invented and patented magnetic memory core.

1951: Established Wang Laboratories.

1955: Became naturalized U.S. citizen.

1956: Sold magnetic memory core patent to IBM for $400,000.

1965: Invented the LOCI (logarithmic calculating instrument), a desktop calculator.

1971: Invented first word processor.

1976: Introduced the WPS, an improved word processing system.

1987: Wang Laboratories posted a $71 million loss.

1990: Died.

Wang built his company into the largest minorityowned business in the United States. By the mid-1980s his estimated personal worth stood at $1.6 billion. A firm believer in giving back to the community, Wang was well known for his charitable contributions in the Boston area. At a cost of $15 million, for example, he constructed a factory in the city’s Chinatown district that provided about 300 jobs. His donations also included $4 million to restore Boston’s performing arts theater, which was renamed the Wang Center for the Performing Arts. In addition, he gave $6 million to create the Wang Institute of Graduate Studies for software engineers and China scholars. Wang earmarked another $4 million for Harvard University and $1 million for Wellesley College. In 1986, he received the Congressional Medal of Freedom for his many accomplishments.

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