Electrical Engineer and Inventor Becomes an Extrovert … and a Leader
By Sherry Bithell
You would never know it from listening to him, but Bernard Gordon claims he was introverted as a child. He gladly talks about his numerous inventions and the companies he has started to manufacture them. In looking back, he believes going into the military cured him of his shyness.
But while you could now consider him outgoing and talkative, he maintains the notion that most engineers are introverted by nature, a personality trait he considers not conducive to leadership. This has motivated him to draw on his experience as a successful engineer, inventor, and entrepreneur and the wealth he accrued from it to found a leadership institute for engineers that has spread to several universities in the Boston area.
An expert in signal-processing technology, Gordon has amassed more than 200 patents, developing devices in the fields of industrial instrumentation, medical imaging, computer systems, aerospace telemetry, and communications. Many consider him the father of modern high-speed analog-to-digital conversion.
Having grown up in Springfield, Massachusetts, Gordon relates, “I went to a technical high school where they had courses in electronics. I always wanted to be an electronics engineer since maybe I was 10.” He began his engineering career in the Navy and went on to attain B.S. and M.S. degrees from MIT in electronic engineering.
At the end of college, Gordon became a co-op student at Philco. He was married and had a kid at the age of 20 — “somewhere along the line I became less introverted,” as he tells it. Then he went to work for Eckert & Mauchly, a Philadelphia-based engineering firm, in 1948. “I built the world’s first acoustic memory there, and I designed most of the circuits for the UNIVAC,” the first commercial digital computer in the United States.
After three years, Gordon left Philadelphia to return to Boston and went to work as a project manager for Laboratory for Electronics, a firm started by a bunch of guys from the MIT radiation lab. “There I built the Doppler navigator and what I believe was the first digital air traffic control system,” he recalls.
Networking at Sea
All this time, Gordon remained in the Navy ready reserve as an officer. “One day in a heavy sea I got sea sick, and I was throwing up over the side when an officer on board for training approached me. He had gone to Harvard Business School, but he had a mechanical engineering degree, and we both lived in Concord, Massachusetts,” Gordon says. He talked me into leaving Laboratory for Electronics to start a company, and we swept out his basement, where we built the first analog-to-digital converter. That was a company called EPSCO Engineering, and they built the first electronic digital voltmeters. It built the first pulse code modulation telemetry systems. I can go on and on.”
The analog-to-digital converter has been applied to myriad medical, analytical, computer, and communications products, but it had a humble beginning, according to Gordon. “The idea arose in my head, and there was no market. Arthur D. Little in 1955 did a market survey and advised a company not to buy into it because there was a market for only 10 A-to-D converters in the world. There’s probably ten million a week minimum made today.”
That would lead to a major step in Gordon’s career. “At EPSCO, we built the first fetal monitor in 1957,” he says. “But history repeated itself. It took at least ten years before a market developed, before the medical community decided they needed this thing. We really got into the imaging business, which is the main activity in the medical business. The fetal monitor is probably the most useful thing we ever did.”
After 10 years at EPSCO, Gordon started his own company called Gordon Engineering to develop products for other companies to manufacture. As he recalls, “An X-Ray company asked us to re-engineer an old-style X-Ray system full of mechanical switches and generators. We invented the world’s first solid state X-Ray generator.”
Then two companies called and said they couldn’t move fast enough into production on a product and asked if Gordon Engineering would make a pilot run for them. So they set up another company called Analogic to do that. Then the company said Analogic should keep making the product. Gordon says, “We slowly absorbed the engineers from the engineering company into Analogic; Gordon Engineering became Analogic.” Headquartered in Peabody, MA, Analogic had 2000 employees at it peak.
CAT Scanner a Big Step
The marketing manager for the X-Ray company later became the president of Siemens Medical Division in the United States. One day in the early 1970s, Gordon says, “He called and asked me ‘what do I know about tomagraphy?’ I said, ‘spell it; I’ve never heard of it.’” A man named Houndsfield in England had invented the CAT scanner, and they wanted to build a machine at Siemens in Germany. “The Houndsfield machine took 20 minutes to make a single image that looked lousy. In two weeks, we invented the instant imaging CAT scanner that ended up making images that looked like photographs of the inside of the body. That was our main entry into the medical field.” In 1975, Analogic developed the first instant imaging computed tomography system scanner. In 1998, they developed the world’s first high-power solid-state radio frequency amplifier for MRI. Gordon still serves as chairman emeritus of the board of Analogic.
Applying the same technology and expertise used in medical systems, Analogic then began developing advanced CT-based airport security systems. Gordon recalls, “One day, the executive vice president of Lockheed called and told us the government was looking for a way to determine whether explosives were in checked baggage. We met the Lockheed people about 10 days before the proposal was due, and we invented the multi-slice CAT scanner and dual-energy CAT scanning, and we wrote a proposal that Lockheed submitted, and they got the contract and subcontracted it to us to develop it. Analogic has delivered almost a thousand of those machines, which sell to the end user for about a million bucks apiece. So that turned out to be a big deal.”
As you listen to Gordon tell his story, he may sound a little boastful or egocentric. But then he interjects, “By the way, when I use the word invent, there’s always a group involved. All of this work is group work.” And he adds, “With all these inventions, if we hadn’t invented it, a year or two later, somebody else would have. That’s probably true of almost any invention.”
What motivates Gordon to invent? “I think it eminates from childhood, when over a period of years you get to be reasonably competent at something,” he replies. “It’s hard work. There’s a lot of satisfaction in it.”
“Let me give you a lousy example,” he goes on to say. It seems Gordon is well known for doing a lot of pushups, and people always want to see how many he can do. “At the age of 82, I can still do 100 Bavarian-style pushups. I used to be able to do a lot more. You develop a reputation for something, people expect you to do it. I think it’s as mundane as that. I don’t think inventing is much different than doing pushups.”
Having accomplished so much, and with his childhood traits still in his memory, Gordon started the Gordon Institute in 1984 in Wakefield, MA. He describes it as a “West Point for engineering leaders because most engineers, many of the most creative engineers, are basically introverted and didn’t have the advantage of going into the Army, Navy, or Marines and learning to act otherwise. So particularly in the Boston area, having been an engineer here for many years, I saw a tremendous shortage of people who can lead complex engineering projects.”
A few years later, Jean Mayer, president of Tufts University at the time, convinced Gordon to align the institute with the university. Gordon gave $20 million to the Tufts University College of Engineering to start the foundation. The Tufts Gordon Institute brings together engineers who have graduated and had a few years’ experience to broaden their view technically and motivate them toward leadership. Both graduate and undergraduate programs are taught by faculty who have started and run their own companies. Corporations can partner with Tufts Gordon Institute by sponsoring employees and engaging a team of students to conduct a consulting project for their organization. With the success of the institute, they started a similar foundation at Northeastern University in 2007 and then one at MIT last year.
Along with this phase of Gordon’s life, another one transpired, he says. “I got old. The time came five years ago, I was 77 years old, and the board of directors at Analogic figured we better bring somebody else in. My wife was nagging me to retire. So we brought in a new person to be the CEO.” Not one to sit still, Gordon needed something to do in retirement, so he financed NeuroLogica into business. He serves as chairman of the company, based in Danvers, MA. NeuroLogica doesn’t compete with Analogic, as it has its own sales force and makes different machines than Analogic in the medical imaging field.
“We built a small CT brain scanner. Then we built a highly focused single photon emission machine, which is just going into production now,” Gordon reveals. “We’ve delivered about 200 of those brain scanners, which is not enough to have a good business, but it has still saved a lot of lives with doctors. We figure about 10,000 lives have been saved to date with this machine.”
In his so-called retirement, Gordon typically works at NeuroLogica three days a week. Then he spends a day a week at one of the schools promoting his leadership institutes. Why does he do it? “I guess it boils down to the things you can’t escape from your childhood. Who knows?” With results like this, maybe starting life as an introvert isn’t so bad.
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