Inventor's Dilemma: Remarkable Life of Joseph Gerber
Book by David J Gerber; review by Ralph Grabowski
The title seems odd, given that for most of Joseph Gerber's life he didn't have to choose between difficult choices. It's the other meaning of the word that David Gerber means, in that Joseph Gerber challenged himself to solve difficult engineering problems.
As a child he created all kinds of inventions inside his Vienna home, using motors, chemicals, and contacts to create impractical and sometimes dangerous inventions. The teen years became difficult, however, living as a Jew in Nazi-run Austria. There was the failed attempt to escape into Switzerland, the bureaucracies of Vienna and Washington inadvertently working together to make legal emigration difficult, the increasing restrictions.. Eventually he and his mother were allowed to leave with a suitcase and no more than 10 marks ($2 or so) via train to Italy. He never saw his father again.
Arriving in New York to family, he used his bluster and his ingenuity to get ahead. That, plus working multiple jobs. His story of hard work in the United States reminds me of my dad's, who emigrated from post-war Germany to work hard in Canada.
Joseph Gerber's breakthrough came with the elastic band of his pajama pants. He was trying to figure out an easier way to determine the area under a curve, some method that would be faster than the laborious rote of dividing irregular areas into rectangular strips and then manually calculating the area of each one. (Heh, still today FEA uses the same method: divide the solid model into tiny squares, calculate the strain felt by each one, and then add them all up.) He marked up the elastic band with ink, and eventually went on road trips to sell his steel variable scale that stretched and contracted to create sub-curves. (See figure 1.)
Figure 1 Gerber's Variable Scale at work
Even though I am old enough to have been taught the slide-rule in Grade 12, I never encountered the variable scale in my years in university or as a professional engineer -- which all were pre-personal computing years. Reading about the variable scale was the first time, and so interesting to me.
I was disappointed that CAD software makes only brief mention, even though the Gerber format is the standard in PCB (printed circuit board) design. Gerber invented the plotter, driven by the then-brand-new servo motors -- small motors that give feedback and so can be controlled precisely. The first plotter was a massive wall-sized one purchased in 1979 by Boeing for $600,000; a second model of that size was never made. The company today continues to sell plotters, but pens were never as important to Gerber sales as knife plotters for signage and apparel.
Perhaps most difficult of all was the mechanization of apparel design, which until the 1960s saw the nearly-200-year-old sewing machine as its only automation. The problem of creating a whole new system of automated manufacturing, which David Gerber takes several chapters to describe, boiled down to how to cut a hundred layers of cloth without it bunching in front of the knife, or with the bottom layers cut to a size slightly offset from the topmost layers. Lasers were not effective as cutters, it turned out.
It took years of experimenting, during which some of the few very apparel manufacturers who bravely invested in Gerber's early cutting beds became quickly disillusioned and, like in the early days of CAD, walled the unused cutter behind glass to impress plant visitors.
Gerber finally figured out the last piece of the dilemma: it wasn't so much the design of the knife or how it cut, but how it plunged past the bottom layer of cloth. It needed to plunge into something that would give way, yet would unwaveringly support the fabric. He tried dozens and dozens of solutions, at one point even trying several gallons of Silly Putty. In the end he developed his own steel molds to make monolithic pieces of comb-like plastic; with this, Gerber cutting beds finally worked as promised.
Now the apparel worker unions were dead set against mechanization of operations, but the alternative was a complete collapse of the industry in the West as owners moved operations to dirt-cheap labor countries. Similarly, automotive unions were against mechanization by Gerber of their massive design rooms, but car manufacturers saw CAD, plotters, and related technology as a way to reduce the power of those unions, as well as blunt the intrusion of low-cost vehicles now arriving from Japan.
During this time, Gerber supported the early tech industry in Israel, a country that now provides a lot of technology used by the rest of the world. Intel's first notebook CPU was developed there (Banius aka Pentium M), as was the forerunner to Autodesk's AutoCAD 360.
Being Joe's son, David Gerber the author had unusual access to family and company archives, making this biography especially intimate. "The Inventor's Dilemma" straddles Joe Gerber's private and public lives as a driven inventor.
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