Success is more a function of consistent common sense than it is of genius.
Wang Laboratories was a computer company founded (with $15000) in June 1951 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, by Dr. An Wang (1920-1990). An Wang emigrated from China in 1945 (he became a US citizen in 1954) and had gotten Master’s and Ph.D. degrees in applied physics from 1945 to 1948 at Harvard. Wang later made some key inventions in the development of core memory technology (the predominant form of random-access computer memory between about 1955 and 1975) and pulse transfer controlling devices (implemented in the Whirlwind computer) and floppy disk drives. At its peak in the 1980s, Wang Labs had annual revenues of $3 billion and employed over 33000 people.
By the mid-1960s, Wang Labs had already made a name for itself in building a series of increasingly sophisticated electronic calculators, such as LOCI, the Wang 300 and 700 families, and many derivative products. Seeing that calculators were getting cheaper and developments in LSI technology would soon make them a commodity item, An Wang decided to develop a general-purpose computer. After several failures, finally he found success with the Wang 2200 computer. Within three years, Wang had sold more than 10000 of the machines (some 65000 systems were shipped in its lifetime), a remarkable success.
The first Wang 2200 (see Wang 2200 A/B Reference Manual) was shipped in May 1973. Over time, various kinds of peripherals were developed, and enhancements were made to Wang BASIC with new microcode.
Build before the era of the widespread use of microprocessors, the Wang 2200 processor consists of a couple of hundred TTL chips spread over half a dozen boards and housed in a heavy steel box. It had a capable BASIC interpreter (written in microcode, there was no machine code that a user could access, unlike microcomputers that would come years later), meaning it could be turned on and used within seconds.
The 64×16 cathode ray tube (CRT) display made editing and running programs interactive and immediate, in comparison with the then-standard method of studying printouts on green bar paper. The 2200 was also expandable; eventually, nearly 100 different peripherals were developed for the system.
Over the years, the 2200 evolved to a desktop computer with an ever-more powerful BASIC dialect, to accommodate multiple users simultaneously, to support up to 16 workstations, and utilized commercial disk technologies that appeared in the late 1970s and early 1980s. New models were produced for nearly 20 years before Wang ended the development.
Biography of An Wang
An Wang was born on 7 February 1920, in Kunshan, Shanghai, China, as the eldest of five children. His mother, Zen Wan (Chien) Wang was a homemaker, his father studied at Shanghai Jiao-Tong University (formerly Nanyang Public School) and his family had been practicing Chinese medicine for generations. An lived in Shanghai with his mother’s family when he was a child, while his father taught English at a private primary school in Kunshan. At the age of six, An moved back to Kunshan to go to school. Because there was no first or second grade in that primary school, he began to study in the third grade. As extracurriculars, his father taught him English, and his grandmother taught him Chinese literature and history. An entered junior high school as the top student in the whole Kunshan district and came to the famous Shanghai high school at the age of 13. In 1936, at the age of 16, he was admitted to Jiao-Tong university to study electrical engineering, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1940, then taught there for a year, then worked as an engineer at the Chinese National Government Central Radio Station.
After the war and devastation in China and the loss of half his family, Wang moved to the United States in June 1945 as part of a Chinese government program, to attend Harvard University for graduate school, earning a Ph.D. in applied physics in 1948. After graduation, he worked at Harvard as a research fellow in its Computation Laboratory with Howard Aiken on the design of the Mark IV, Aiken’s first fully electronic computer. At the end of the 1940s, Wang co-invented the pulse transfer controlling device with Way-Dong Woo, a schoolmate from China. The new device implemented write-after-read which made magnetic core memory possible. Wang’s patent (US pat. Nr. 2708722) was one of the most important for core memory and IBM paid him $500,000 in 1955 for rights to it.
Harvard reduced its commitment to computer research in 1951, prompting Wang to start his own engineering business, thus he founded Wang Laboratories in June 1951 as a sole proprietorship. The company became one of the world’s most successful computer companies and by 1984, Wang and his family owned about 55 percent of the company stock, and Forbes magazine, estimating his worth at $1.6 billion, ranked him as the fifth richest American. When Wang looked to retire from actively running his company in 1981, earnings at Wang Labs fell from $210 million in 1984 to $15.5 million in 1985. In July 1985, Wang resumed the presidency and saw profits increase to $50.9 million in 1986. In 1986 he retired again, insisting upon handing over the corporate reins to his elder son Fred (An’s younger son Courtney was a vice president). Hard times ensued for the company and An Wang was eventually forced to remove Fred in 1989. By then the company’s fortunes were already sinking, and Wang filed for bankruptcy in 1992.
Wang is one of the most prolific American inventors (he held 40 patents and 23 honorary degrees) and also was given the Presidential Medal of Liberty by President Reagan. He is considered the creator of word processing as well as a pioneer of the electronic calculator.
In July 1949 An Wang married (second time) Lorraine (Chur) Wang (1920-2016), who was also from Shanghai and immigrated to America in the mid-1940s to do post-graduate work in English Literature at Wellesley College. The family lived in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and had three children: Frederick (born in 1951), Courtney (born in 1956), and Juliette (born in 1964).
In his 1986 autobiography, “Lessons,” Wang attributed his success to typical American business daring, his Confucian values and beliefs, and his skill in being able to “go for a long time without shooting oneself in the foot.”
An Wang, one of America’s wealthiest men, who had given away tens of millions of dollars to charities, died of esophageal cancer on 24 March 1990, in Boston, Massachusetts.