The Inventive Engineer
For Bernard Gordon, invention is a necessity
By Laura Ferguson
Bernard Gordon has been called a "modern-day
inventor in the tradition of Thomas Edison and Benjamin Franklin."
Fifty years ago he was a member of the team that developed the world's
first commercially available digital computer. He is most widely
known as a father of high-speed analog-to-digital conversion; he
led teams that went on to design and create breakthrough devices
such as the fetal monitor, a mobile CT scanner, and an advanced
security imaging system to help detect explosives and other contraband.
As one of the founders of the digital information and entertainment
age, Gordon has had a huge impact on the world stage, inventing
important devices that save lives and enhance the way we live and
work. His core technology of high-speed analog-to-digital conversion
is now found in everything from computers, compact discs and televisions
to EKG machines, digital thermometers, atomic clocks and imaging
Yet when asked about the accomplishments that have given rise to
so many of this century's innovations, he speaks simply and with
characteristic economy. "I enjoy what I do," he says,
sitting in his memento-filled office at Analogic, the high-tech
company of which he is founder, CEO and chairman, in Peabody, Massachusetts.
"To be honest, I was born to be an engineer. I have always
liked to put things together and to be useful."
Indeed, although his professional accomplishments might be the
dream of many an engineer in the making, they are far less about
himself, he says, than about helping society move forward.
"My primary motivation, even from the beginning, was never
self-serving," comments Gordon, 72. "I derive satisfaction
from doing something that is useful for other people. I was brought
up that way, and I was trained that way."
Honest and direct, Gordon inspires a credibility that has had a
profound influence on his profession of engineering. As his achievements
unequivocally demonstrate, he has lived up to his own standards:
not a one-shot wonder, but a man consistently committed to finding
"Bernie is a true visionary, someone who can see a problem
in technology and in society and use his technical skills to make
life better," says Roy Forsberg, vice president and publisher
of Test and Measurement magazine. "His example can serve as
a guiding light for the industry, and it's why engineering is so
important. He reminds us that engineers are curious and intrigued
by how things work."
Tufts Senior Vice President Thomas W. Murnane, who has known Gordon
almost two decades, agrees. "Bernie is the kind of person you
meet only once in your lifetime. His record of accomplishment speaks
for itself; he represents engineering professionalism at its finest.
And, as his generous gift to this university attests, he is a role
model for what it means to give back to society. We are extremely
fortunate he has chosen to invest in Tufts, that he sees this university
as a forerunner for developing leadership in engineering."
Trained to Be Useful
Gordon grew up during the Depression era in western Massachusetts.
A quiet, studious boy, he liked to fix radios and transmitters early
on, and would seize a challenge when he saw one: he earned his first
dollar at 13, building and selling improved outhouses featuring
a cord that, when pulled, released lime and helped leach waste into
the ground. Being Jewish in western Massachusetts, however, also
required other kinds of expertise. One day, when he came home crying
after the other boys had once again beaten him up, his uncle, an
army physical education instructor, handed him a pair of boxing
gloves. "He taught me to defend myself," says Gordon.
Another indelible influence was his father, who was considered
an "ethical sage" who gave sermons in churches, schools,
synagogues. "My father used to say, 'A-minus is not good enough,'
"says Gordon. " 'Virtue triumphs, but not always.'"
During his years at Springfield Technical High School, those values
proved instrumental. He won science prizes, but Gordon recalls that
he studied English literature and French as well as calculus, physics
and electronics. He also competed on the track and wrestling teams,
and was class co-president with Paul Robeson's son.
"It was not a classical high school, it was a technical high
school attended by kids who might want to be carpenters or plumbers,"
he recalls. "Yet I would make this comment: I was better educated
in high school in1943 than most college graduates are today. I could
read and write and quote Shakespeare, I had classes in philosophy,
logic and psychology, and I was taking apart airplanes and automobiles.
This education was a very important influence on how I think about
the teaching of engineering."
At age 16, Gordon applied to MIT, only to be surprised by the response.
"The professor who interviewed me asked what I did after school,"
says Gordon. "I told him I made outhouses and fixed radios.
He actually told me: 'I don't think you're the type we want at MIT.'
So Gordon turned his attention toward another option: the Navy's
officer training program. The Navy first sent him to MIT, but Tufts
was also one of the schools selected to support the V-12 program,
and during 1944, Gordon found himself housed on the Tufts campus
in West Hall, taking a variety of college-level classes. He would
spend six to eight months studying engineering and psychology along
with naval navigation and strategy. He was only 17 and one of several
hundred naval officer candidates on campus, a young man with prospects,
eager to be on his way.
Tufts might have been a place he simply passed through had it not
been for one brief encounter. One day, as he walked across campus
in his uniform, a tall gentleman, who turned out to be President
Leonard Carmichael, was approaching near the site of the old Barnum
Museum. Carmichael greeted him: "And how are you, Bernard?"
"I didn't know him, and to this day I wonder how he knew me!"
says Gordon. "But it seemed to me that Tufts was a small and
friendly place with a personal atmosphere, and I was fortunate to
have had my first taste of college learning there."
Today, some 50 years after that chance encounter with Carmichael,
Gordon's positive impression remains, and his Tufts involvement
has grown. He is a trustee and a member of the Board of Overseers
for Engineering. His philanthropy, a remarkable gift for Tufts -$20
million for engineering-now brings new and exciting promise to the
university's diverse programs. "It's a pleasure to be associated
with Tufts," says Gordon, who now also has a grandson attending
the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. "It's grown tremendously,
but it still has that friendly atmosphere that I remember so well,
and I believe it encourages students to think creatively and positively."
President John DiBiaggio says Gordon's ongoing support of Tufts
and his deep involvement over the years, are gifts received with
great gratitude. "We are very fortunate to have been the beneficiaries
of Bernie's remarkable belief in Tufts and its future. Tufts will
continue to thrive thanks to his faith in our accomplishments and
Contributing to Society
As a Naval officer, Gordon was assigned to destroyer escorts. Remaining
a Ready Reserve officer, he returned to MIT on the G.I. Bill, graduating
with a bachelor's (1948) and a master's in electrical engineering
Gordon began his own professional career working at the Eckert-Mauchly
Computer Company. There, he was fortunate to be involved in a historic
technological breakthrough, the development of UNIVAC, the world's
first commercial digital computer. Gordon joined the Laboratory
for Electronics as a project engineer, developing navigation radar
and air traffic control systems, and in 1953, he co-founded and
set the technical direction for EPSCO, Inc. In 1964, he founded
Gordon Engineering, an organization recognized as inventing the
first solid-state X-ray generator and many other pioneering products.
He then founded Analogic Corporation, which augmented Gordon Engineering's
design and development strengths with manufacturing capabilities
in the fields of medical and industrial imaging and measurement
systems and subsystems.
At EPSCO, in the early 1950s, Gordon saw a tremendous potential
in the technology of analog-to-digital conversion. Analog-to-digitial
converters take signals from the real, or analog, world, and convert
them into very precise digital signals for processing by a computer.
During the 1950s and 1960s, he was involved in the development of
such innovations as the dot matrix display (with An Wang), the fetal
monitor, CT scanners, digital Doppler radar, navigation and traffic
control systems, and checkout systems. At Analogic, he established
a worldwide leader in areas such as ultrasonography and digital
imaging, supplying the digital electronic processing subsystems
for the leading laser imagers in the industry-the equipment that
prints the modern version of black-and-white X-ray films. Inventing
instant imaging computed tomography (CT) scanning in 1975, Analogic
has also made a name in the area of innovative medical imaging subsystems
and patient and fetal monitors, and developed the world's first
lightweight, mobile CT scanner. Gordon is quick to credit the resourcefulness
of the Analogic's engineering team of more than 450 engineers and
scientists who innovatively apply advanced and proven technology
to solve customer problems. Yet for his leadership, Gordon has been
acknowledged for his far-reaching contributions to society.
In 1971 he received the Outstanding Living Engineer Award from
the Engineering Societies of New England. He was elected an Institute
of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Fellow in 1972 and later
received that organization's Engineering Leadership Recognition
Award. In 1986, he was honored with the second National Medal of
Technology from President Ronald Reagan; in 1992, he received the
Benjamin Franklin Award for Innovation in Engineering and Technology
from the Franklin Institute. Elected a member of the National Academy
of Engineering in 1991, he has also been awarded several honorary
degrees, including one from Tufts in 1992.
Last November, one week after being awarded a Tufts Presidential
Medal, he received a Distinguished Community Leadership award from
the American Jewish Congress for his exceptional contributions toward
improving health care via medical imaging, for his work on advanced
security systems to deter terrorism and for improving engineering
A Matter of Loyalty
These achievements, Gordon says, reflect, on one level, a personal
fear of failing. "Most unsuccessful people are afraid of failing,
so they don't attempt to succeed," he says. "For me, and
I think for highly successful people in general, there is no alternative
but to succeed. Failure is not an option."
John Libertino, vice chair of the board for the Lahey Clinic, says
that Gordon's adherence to such high expectations defines him not
simply as a successful man, but also as a man of principle who is
willing to put himself on the line for what he believes.
"I've known him a long time, and have firsthand knowledge
of his effectiveness and integrity," says Libertino. "He's
incredibly intellectually driven, he's always desirous of being
on the cutting edge, and he's not daunted by prospects of success
or failure. He's energetic and enthusiastic and always sees a project
right through to completion."
When asked about his success in business, Gordon responds with
a philosophy that has stood him in good stead as an engineer and
as an entrepreneur. He cites a small, worn book, tucked neatly under
a Chelsea ship's clock on his office shelf called Naval Leadership
with Some Hints to Junior Officers. From this treasured "bible,"
Gordon quotes a line that evokes the Golden Rule: "Loyalty
downward begets loyalty upward."
All his diverse contributions, he says, are connected by "the
development of ethical relationships with the people we are serving.
Technology is changing all the time; you have to be ready to change
with it, and we do. But we have one constant, a basic approach that's
very simple. If we do a proper job and give our customers a superior
product that enables them to do their jobs, then we succeed. Our
loyalty to them begets their loyalty to us."
As such, he defines success by measures other than wealth. "It's
measured by people who accomplish something for the good of others."
For instance, he says, an estimated 1 million people a day are scanned
and diagnosed on CT scanners (first known as CAT scanners). To make
this valuable technology available to many more people, Analogic
conceived and developed a lightweight mobile CT scanner, which can
be operated by one person, easily moved among hospital rooms, and
plugged into a standard electrical outlet. These design innovations
in size, weight and power also save precious time, money and lives.
This kind of practical problem solving of such enormous scale and
potential, says Gordon, is deeply satisfying, as is the case with
the fetal monitor, developed in the 1950s.
"Our team designed and built the first fetal monitor after
Dr. Hahn at Yale emphasized how important it was to monitor the
fetus in the womb to help ensure a safe delivery for mother and
child. A few months later we delivered the world's first fetal monitor."
If technology does not stand still, neither, insists Gordon, should
the education of engineers. A longtime critic of engineering preparation,
he has taken a tough stance on the curriculum for some 20 years,
writing and speaking out on the pressing need for engineers who
can relate to society and take leadership roles.
Gordon's investment in education reform goes deeper than rhetoric.
In 1984, he created the Gordon Institute, a graduate-level program
for career engineers. The Institute provides engineers and technical
professionals with the option to pursue either a one- or two-year
program that features classroom study and an intensive, real-world
project, or a master's degree in engineering management. To date,
this program has strengthened the managerial and communication skills
of more than 120 "enterprise leaders" from corporations
that include GE, Data General, Bose, Compaq, Toshiba and Hitachi.
Through the efforts of the late Tufts President Jean Mayer, the
institute, first based in Wakefield, Massachusetts, was allied with
Tufts in 1992, and relocated to Tufts' Medford/Somerville campus
Gordon remains focused on "re-engineering" education;
much, he says, is at stake. American competitiveness is not what
it used to be, in large part because engineers have become too specialized.
Today, they are too removed from the big picture to think creatively
about a complex problem. "Committees," he says, "don't
Instead, Gordon says engineers need better communication and interpersonal
skills, a sense of economic discipline and an "interdisciplinary"
approach that will enable them to conceptualize solutions and follow
those solutions through the manufacturing process. Gordon emphasized
the immediacy of the engineering problem in a keynote address, "What
Is an Engineer?" presented to the European Society for Engineering
Education Annual Conference in 1984, and now in its fourth printing.
Here he proposes that the future depends in large measure on educating
"real" engineers. A "real" engineer, according
to Gordon, is not the "geek" or "nerd" who has
sacrificed intellectual breadth and social ease for narrow expertise
and introversion. Rather, it is a person who, because of his or
her broad education and habit of thought, "can conceive and
invent, who does not wait to be told to initiate, but imagines,
conceives, proposes, propagandizes, pleads and debates for a cause
and an impossible dream. The real engineer is willing to take a
risk . . . because it may lead to new products beneficial to society."
His $20 million investment in Tufts seeks to expand opportunities
for leadership training, particularly through project experiences.
It also gives weight to the role of academia in building good character
and attitude by reinforcing the virtues of responsibility and perseverance.
"Engineering schools have concentrated on knowledge and skills
but have not traditionally stressed attitudes and leadership,"
says Gordon. "Yet I believe that the greater the breadth of
knowledge, the more varied the skills, and the more dedicated the
attitude, the more significant will be the accomplishments."
Ultimately, the "high priests" of engineering, says Gordon,
will be those people who are as at ease in the specialized and generalized
disciplines of advanced mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology
as they are in social ethics, psychology, history, economics and
sociology. "They will have to be practical engineers,"
he says, "who can create real machines that work."
A tall order, perhaps, but Gordon is used to demanding a lot, of
himself and of others. He still comes to work each day and keeps
fit through a time-honored Navy discipline-100 push-ups a day.
Looking ahead, he is optimistic that Analogic will continue to
excel. One of the most recent products, for instance, is an advanced
generation explosive detection system to examine checked luggage
at airports. Incorporating Analogic's advanced scanning technology,
it is the first explosive detection system able to provide complete
images of the entire contents of a bag in one pass, gathering and
analyzing about 10 times more data per bag than the previous generation
of machines. The product, says Gordon, offers "the equivalent
of finding not a needle, but a toothpick in a haystack."
As for himself, Gordon points to a pair of boxing gloves that hang
in his office. They were given to him by his friend Libertino, after
Gordon helped the Lahey Clinic through a difficult situation. "I
think," says Gordon, "I can still box a few rounds."