A Wild Ride with George Gerpheide
When creativity and epochal intellect intersect
Kalamazoo Central High School (KCHS) graduated two people of whom you may have heard: Derek Jeter, star shortstop for the New York Yankees, and James McDivitt, Gemini/Apollo astronaut. However, the KHCS alumnus who has had the greatest impact on the planet is George Gerpheide. You probably don’t know him now, but you will after reading this mesmerizing profile of a man with a scorching intellect and the perseverance to follow a dream through in the face of long and ugly odds.
George and I were acquainted at KHCS when we took the first-ever computer programming class offered at the school in 1971. He was a senior, and I a junior. From
day one, the carnage was frequent and heavy in the class, because the programming language was Autocoder, a macroassembler for the IBM 1401. George and I seemed to be the only students who weren’t lost, so we started hanging out. We’d load our programs by hammering out punch cards, and hop in my VW to go to the Kalamazoo Public Schools admin building to compile and run them.
What I didn’t know was, even as a senior in high school, George could easily have taught the programming class, but he preferred to stay under the radar. In retrospect, George must have contained his considerable gifts with some sort of intellectual corset, because, other than continuing to string together As in his classes, George made no point of burning his classmates to a crisp like some Jeopardy Tournament of Champions geek.
We hung out that summer primarily to listen to the Doors, Cream, The Who and Jimi Hendrix. George was dabbling in candle making, and we both shared a common love for all things violently explosive. The fact that we have all our eyes and fingers is a towering monument to rigid quality control standards. We made a few tennis ball cannons, and George and his brother manufactured some righteous explosive shells. The summer was devoid of any discussion of computers, or anything academic at all. Until That Day in George’s basement when I spotted a huge cabinet.
“What’s that?” I asked. George popped open the cabinet and explained it was a computer he was making with his brother.
George had hand-drawn the hardware logic for the computer on his mom’s kitchen shelf paper, a sprawling design stretching 20 feet. With money harvested from his paper route with his younger brother, John, they purchased an array of parts from a Boston electronics firm. They bought hand-wired core memory consisting of 16,384 small ferrite donuts lashed together with hair-thin gold wire (hence, 16K of memory). The I/O device was an antique teletype in a wood case, using 5-bit Baudot code (before the time of ASCII).
He and John, (coincidentally, a classmate of mine), had been building their own printed circuit boards. Lashing black tape on sheets of mylar plastic for the PCB copper trace patterns, they photo reduced them to half the size to get the negatives. They hand-coated the raw copper-clad circuit boards with photo-resist and transferred the patterns to the circuit board with a vacuum contact printing frame they built using their mother’s vacuum cleaner and a wooden crate of fluorescent light bulbs. They etched the boards themselves in a stainless steel tub their father had procured. So, while I thought George’s primary interest that summer was candle making, he was busy proving to himself that he could take a complex theoretical idea from seed to harvest; a skill that would serve him well in the coming years.
Looking for a school to challenge him and provide a highly technical computer science education, George’s acceptance to MIT was greased by his stratospheric grades and even higher test scores.
The MIT campus is teaming with bright people, and the MIT Hack is a code name for pranks perpetrated by the intellectually gifted. One such legendary hack involved the appearance of what seemed to be a full-sized campus police car atop of the famous gold dome of MIT, complete with a dummy cop and a box of donuts. Another of my favorites was the story of one poor sap who had left his
MIT dorm for a long weekend. While he was gone, some engineering students removed his dorm room door, dry-walled the entrance, re-painted, and the student returned to find his room had vanished. One unverified hack involved an MIT student who dressed in black and white stripes and, each day of summer, went to the Harvard football stadium with pockets filled with birdseed. As the legend goes, he’d blow a whistle, and spread birdseed for hundreds of pigeons. Pavlovian conditioning complete, when the referee for Harvard’s season-opening football game came out and blew a whistle, the field was swarmed with hungry pigeons.
Most freshmen come in as not only the best students from their high schools, but also with perfect grades. All of that changes for most students as the toughest kids on the block suddenly meet one or more outsized academic bullies, and some buckle psychologically when they are crushed under the collective brainpower of a bottomless supply of overachievers. Suicides were not uncommon for freshmen, and the dark humor of some MIT students caused them to paint bull’s-eyes on the sidewalks beneath prime jumping points. So, the university went to a pass/fail system for freshmen to help sooth the savage geniuses, but test scores were still a reality, and even freshmen could gauge their relative success by comparing scores.
George was sitting in his frat house after taking the final exam in his 400-person physics class when the teaching assistant called. “George, do you know what you did on the test today?”
George was terrified that he’d forgotten to turn in a page. “What?”
The T.A. responded, “You got the only perfect grade on the test.”
George blew this off later, “…probably, I was a natural student and test taker. I worked hard, but played harder.”
George’s brisk march through MIT continued. He had stacked his semesters with classes and, by his junior year, he noticed he was on course to graduate a semester early. Always a good skier, George was invited by ski bum friends, who had migrated to Utah, to come join them. Seeing this “free” semester, he jumped all over it, driving 36 hours straight to Utah, arriving in a driving blizzard to share a house with a dozen crazed skiers and three dogs.
George became a danger-loving double-diamond, cliff-jumping skier by day, washed dishes by night, and fell in love with Utah and the slopes that lay only 20 minutes from downtown Salt Lake. One priceless story involves the deep, dry powder of Snowbird, a no-frills ski area favored by hard-core, and very talented, local skiers. The powder was up to 60 inches one day, and George and a friend had the perfect defense to the suffocating cloud of snow that surrounded skier’s heads in the days of fast-sinking, skinny skis. They fastened skin-diving snorkels to their ski goggles, and tied them into place with scarves. Sailing deep into the powder, they developed a technique they called “porpoising” whereby they would dive deep, rise up to the top long enough to make a mental map of oncoming trees, and go deep again.
“My parents were secretly terrified that I’d never return to school and finish my MIT degree, but they never voiced disapproval.”
Return he did, graduating with screamingly good grades, and a long string of perfect test scores by the “natural student and test taker.” With such heavy credentials in hand, the world’s schools were open to him for the Ph.D. he was seeking, but the mountains of Salt Lake City were a heavy draw, so George returned to Utah for a doctorate in computer science, and continued to tune his skiing.
At this point, the confluence of George’s creativity and abilities gave birth to a remarkable string of achievements. To name a few, he:
• helped develop Par-T-Golf, the room-sized golf simulator seen at many golf shops and video arcades
• became an adjunct professor in electrical engineering at Utah and led a team of students who placed a crystal growth experiment on the space shuttle Challenger in 1984
• worked on a battery powered microcomputer-based polarization receiver for geophysical exploration
• consulted on MacCharlie, netware for Macintosh Novell networks, and DaynaTalk, multiprotocol turbocharger for Appletalk
• became a visiting scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory
• developed control algorithms to animate a robotic hand with 16 degrees of freedom
But none of those achievements measured up to his next one… Working with an Apple Macintosh one day, George stared at the mouse. It was okay as an input device, but only okay. Somewhere in his mind, the synapses started shaking hands. Something was coalescing in his imagination.
‘What about a pad?’
George mused that a touchpad could be developed that somehow made use of the effect the human finger would have on the electric field as it brushed over the top of a series of tightly packed circuits. The idea, now fertilized, started to take on a particular
richness and, in parallel, George thought that maybe this could be something of commercial use.
U.S. patent 5,305,017 is a sprawling 24-page document rife with impossibly complex control algorithms, mystifying electrical designs, logic tables, circuit diagrams and an avalanche of arcane electronics-speak. Devices had been around that worked off the pressure of two plates being depressed by a stylus but, of the 100 or so patents on that technology, only one had come to market, and wasn’t designed to respond to the capacitance changes brought on by the touch of a finger.
George had figured out that a device could be made to sense finger position by a capacitive touch pad, whereby scanning signals are applied to the pad and variations in capacitance caused by a finger touching or approaching the pad are detected. By sensing the finger position at successive times, the motion of the finger can be projected. Extrapo-lating the position of that finger as it moves across a pad is where some very sophisticated equations come into play, and then there’s the matter of actually displaying a smooth cursor movement from what is actually a series of minute electrical events.
There were a great many more technical challenges, though, and moving from the conceptual stage through 19 prototypes was a study of perseverance and problem-solving virtuosity. But at the end, PC Magazine named the touchpad as one of the Best Products of 1994 and, soon after, Scientific American asked George to document his discoveries in the July 1998 issue.
In my next column, I go face to face with Dr. Gerpheide in an interview fueled by Dos Equis beer and Mexican food, in an attempt to find the origin of the creative sparks that crackle around George whenever he’s in the room.
Randy Hice is the president of the Laboratory Expertise Center. He may be reached at editor@ScientificComputing.com.