academic entrepreneurship then and now

Again, I know there is no need to rehash what is covered in the news, but some stories cry out for more discussion than newspaper editors will ever allocate enough column inches for. The PG’s analysis on Sunday of the conflict between academic research and business interests is focused on the brief life and death of a particular funding proposal in Harrisburg. But the topic of how business and academia interact is a topic worthy of many dissertations.

Lest anyone think this conflict started here. Maybe it’s safest to point out a few non-burgh examples to keep some perspective. For those who know the history of computing, the interaction of the University of Pennsylvania in early years of the digital age is a classic story. To oversimplify an important and complex history, but for a time, Philly was the center of the digital revolution. The ENIAC computer was developed at the Univ. of Pennsylvania by John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert. Most histories blame a disadvantageous patent policy implemented at the University, and related conflict with school administration, for pushing the two out of the university in 1946. Others think they were just plain fired because they felt there were commercial prospects for their work. Thus the two would form their own company, the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, which would soon face financial problems and be bought out by Remmington Rand. That is not meant to be an example of poor judgment on the part of the university at the time, but it does highlight just how far the paradigm on how academic and commercial interests interact has shifted in the intervening decades. Or has it? The interesting counterfactual is what if Route 1 between Philly and Princeton became what Silicon Valley is today. Trenton as San Jose? Almost too hard to imagine.

Just a fun Pittsburgh factoid that relates to Eckert and Mauchly. Many know the history that their first commercial computer, was the UNIVAC. If you exclude the government agencies, which were a large part of their early clients… of the first 10 UNIVACS installed for commercial clients, 2 were in Pittsburgh. Only New York City had more. Ever think why the Pittsburgh Supercomputer Center is in town?

Comments

1 Response to "academic entrepreneurship then and now"

Anonymous said... 7/11/2006 2:24 PM

The problem is not academia vs tech industry in Pennsylvania, it is a lack of focus on the modern economy. We need both to be strong.

We don't put substantial resources to support either. The state is focused on buildings, subsidizing developers and gaming.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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