David Shepard

I would rather have questions, that can’t be answered, than answers that can’t be questioned.
Richard Feynman

David Hammond Shepard (1923–2007)
David H. Shepard (1923–2007)

At the beginning of 1951, the American inventor David Hammond Shepard (1923–2007) constructed the first workable optical character recognition device. On 1 March 1951, he applied for a patent, which was granted on 22 Dec 1954 (see US patent Nr. 2663758 for apparatus for reading). Strangely, in his patent, Shepard didn’t mention the pioneering work of Gustav Tauschek from the 1920s and his US patent (Patent Nr. 2026329), although he mentioned the later patent of Paul Handel (US patent Nr. 1915993).

David Shepard was a very good US engineer, known not only for his early optical character recognition device, but first also for his voice recognition system, Farrington B numeric font used on credit cards, and high altitude wind power devices.

It was in late 1950, when Shepard, a cryptanalyst at the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA), the forerunner of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), started building “Gismo” in his spare time, in the attic of his home in Arlington, Virginia, with the help of a mechanically inclined colleague, Harvey Cook Jr. They needed almost a year (and some $4000) to build the prototype, and meanwhile, Shepard applied for a patent.  The patent was granted to him, but it was assigned to the newly formed Intelligent Machines Research Corporation (IMR) (founded in 1952 by Shepard and his colleague from NSA William Lawless, Jr.), which delivered the world’s first dozen commercial Optical Character Recognition systems, to big companies such as AT&T, First National City Bank, Reader’s Digest, and several other major oil companies and banks.

IBM obtained a license on IMR’s patents in 1953 and in 1955 contracted with IMR (and hired Shepard for a couple of years) to build a developmental system that was able to read constrained hand-printed numeric characters if reasonably well formed. However, IBM did not market this system. In 1959 IBM did market a system of its own, classifying it as an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) system, and the term OCR from then on has been standard in the industry for this technology.

IMR went on to deliver the world’s first several commercially used systems, including one used by Readers Digest in its book subscription department. Readers Digest donated this system many years later to the Smithsonian, where it was once put on display. The second system was sold to the Standard Oil Company of California, as arranged by the Farrington Manufacturing Company, a leading company in the credit card business at that time, with many systems to read oil company credit cards to follow, one of which was also on display at the Smithsonian later on.

In 1959 Farrington acquired IMR, and the numeric font designed by Shepard, called Farrington 7B (recognition was more reliable on a simple and open font, so Shepard decided to create one, only for digits), has been standard for most of the well-known credit cards since that time. Shepard later left Farrington and founded Cognitronics Corporation in 1962.

“Gismo” of Shepard was a machine to convert printed messages into machine language for processing by computer. It worked by scanning letters with a photoelectric eye and then recording what it had read on a mechanical card-punching machine. It scanned each letter and matched its impression with its built-in memory. Let’s see how the inventor described the device in his patent:

US patent Nr. 2663758 for apparatus for reading
US patent Nr. 2663758 for apparatus for reading

This invention relates to methods and apparatus for interpreting information and the like.
Briefly, the invention relates to the so-called reading apparatus arranged to sense printed characters, punched openings, and the like and to recognize the identity of particular characters or other items passing before the sensing means so that these items may be reproduced in various for is of coding. For example, the invention may be embodied in a machine that will scan a printed page such as a typewritten page, and produce signals which will serve to interpret each character into any desired coding and medium for use at local or remote stations.
While many arrangements are presently known for reading characters, none of the known arrangements serve adequately to read many varieties of printed characters, nor do known arrangements make adequate provision for the misalignment of characters or disfiguration of characters.
The invention provides apparatus which is capable of reading any sort of information that may be sensed such as printing or the like, and to do so even though the characters representing the information may be disfigured and/or incorrectly aligned. With this invention, it is also possible to distinguish among many more characters of an alphabet than is possible with known reading devices.
Accordingly, an object of the invention is to provide improved methods and apparatus for reading and interpreting printed or other information into various media.
A further object of the invention is to provide improved reading apparatus which is capable of distinguishing among a much larger number of characters than is possible with presently known equipment.
A further object of the invention, when photoelectric scanning may be employed, is to provide an electric circuit arrangement to compensate for changes in the output of a photoelectric or another light-sensitive device.
A further object of the invention is to provide methods and apparatus for reading wherein the matter to be read is continuously and rapidly scanned to accommodate a large number of indications which are then combined and analyzed to provide recognition…

Biography of David Shepard

Laurens Hammond (1895–1973)
Laurens Hammond (1895–1973)

David Hammond Shepard was born on 30 September 1923 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. He was the second son of Leonard Griffin Shepard II (1881-1937), and Elizabeth Strong  Hammond Shepard (1891-1935), who married in 1919. His father was the son of Leonard G. Shepard I (1846-1895), a captain in the United States Revenue Cutter Service, who is recognized today as the first Commandant of the Coast Guard. David Shepard had an elder brother, Leonard Griffin Shepard III (1921-1944), who was killed as a Lieutenant in U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II.

After the early death of his parents (Leonard died on 4 May 1927, and Elizabeth died on 26 June 1935) David was raised by his uncle, the brother of his mother—Laurens Hammond (1895–1973), who was appointed as his guardian. Laurens Hammond was a very interesting figure himself. Born in Evanston, Illinois, on 11 January 1895 to William Andrew and Idea Louise Strong Hammond, Laurens showed his great technical prowess from an early age. His father, William, took his own life in January 1897, ostensibly due to the failure of the First National Bank of Illinois, which he had founded. Upon her husband’s death, Idea, who was an artist, relocated to France with the children (besides Laurens, she had 3 daughters: Eunice, Louise, and Elizabeth) to further her studies, and the family spent the next eleven years in France and Germany. When they returned to Evanston in 1909, Laurens, then 14, was fluent in French and German, and while in Europe, he had already designed a system for automatic transmission for automobiles. His first patent, in 1912, was for a barometer. Hammond studied mechanical engineering at Cornell University, where he graduated with honors in 1916. After taking part in WWI, he became chief engineer for a manufacturer of marine engines in Detroit. In 1919, he invented a silent spring-driven clock. This invention brought him enough money to rent his own space in New York, where he continued his remarkable carrier as an inventor.

In 1922, Hammond invented the Teleview system of shutter glasses in association with 3-D films. In 1928 his work on the synchronous motor led him to set up the Hammond Clock Company, in Chicago. Demand was high and the business soon grew into a large factory. He was responsible for a number of other inventions, such as an electric bridge table. In 1933, Hammond bought a used piano and discarded everything apart from the keyboard action. Using the keyboard as a controller, he experimented with different sound-generating methods, finally settling on one, the tonewheel generator. Thanks to his prior manufacturing and engineering experience, the tonewheel generator was extremely well-engineered by the time the “Hammond Organ” finally went into production in 1935. Tonewheel organs are still in regular use in the 21st century, which is a testament to the quality of the design and execution of the product. Hammond was awarded the Franklin Institute’s John Price Wetherill Medal in 1940 for the invention of the Hammond electric organ.

David Hammond Shepard (1923–2007) in 1990s
David Hammond Shepard (1923–2007) in the 1990s

David Shepard followed the steps of his uncle and studied for two years (1941-1943) electrical engineering at Cornell University, but was called to the US Army. He majored in 1945 as a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics at the University of Michigan and then earned a Master’s Degree in Mathematics at Michigan in 1947. While serving in the Army during World War II (1943-1946) he worked for the Armed Forces Security Agency on cryptanalysis, breaking Japanese codes. After the war, he worked on other codes for the Agency until 1952, when he founded a company to manufacture his patented OCR device—Intelligent Machines Research Corporation (IMR).

Farmington Manufacturing Company bought IMR in 1959, and Shepard was Vice president of Research and Development for two years. He started a new company in 1961, named Cognitronics Corporation, where he developed the conversation machine which became the first commercial device to give telephone callers access to computer data by means of their own voices, using speech recognition. The first words recognized were “yes” and “no”. This later developed into a more accurate method of optical character recognition, OCR, using lasers. David made an appearance on a 1959 episode of the TV game show, “I’ve Got A Secret”, in New York City, to demonstrate his OCR invention that could read and write (the video is available on YouTube).

Starting in 1980, convinced that the world needed a new energy source and that high-altitude wind energy had the potential of being that source, Shepard began researching potential methods of capturing this energy as well as conducting wind tunnel and open-air tests on various approaches, including a test of a rising and descending kite in a Nevada desert location. Later he founded Sky WindPower Corporation with Australian Bryan William Roberts of the University of Sydney.

Shepard was a Charter Member of the TAWPI Hall of Fame, a Life Senior Member of the IEEE, an ACM member present at its founding at Aberdeen in 1947, and a member of the AIAA and AGU. He was a holder of 28 US patents.

David Shepard was married twice. From his first marriage (on 13 June 1947) with Elaine Raiss Shepard (1925-1973), his fellow student at Michigan University, he had a daughter, Paula, and a son, Leonard Griffin Shepard IV. After the death of Elaine in 1973 he married Marilyn Joyce Ralph Shepard (1923–2014).

David Hammond Shepard died at 84, on 24 November 2007, in San Diego, of bronchiectasis.