By Mike Brewster It's well known that many European scientists, displaced from a war-ravaged continent, helped build post-World War II U.S. through their discoveries and inventions. But it was a Chinese immigrant escaping the war's devastation in Shanghai who achieved a breakthrough in computing and built a company that became entrenched in the American workplace.
An Wang invented the computer memory core, founded Wang Laboratories, and became known as one of Boston's greatest philanthropists. In the early 1980s, more than 80% of the 2,000 largest U.S. companies used Wang office equipment, and in 1984 Wang Laboratories' profits reached $210 million on sales of $2.2 billion.
Wang was born in Shanghai on Feb. 7, 1920. He and his four siblings enjoyed the luxury of learning English from their father, who taught the language at a local private elementary school. But languages weren't what the young Wang truly excelled at as much as math and science.
PURSUING PULSES. At age 16 he was admitted to the "MIT" of China, Shanghai's Chiao Tung University, to study electrical engineering. Just one year later, however, Japan invaded China. Wang lost both parents and a sister in the fighting as the Japanese firebombed Shanghai day after day. Almost completely leveled, the city fell in November, 1937.
While many of his fellow students and colleagues fled for Hong Kong (later to become the driving force behind the emergence of that city's economic vitality), Wang pursued his studies in an occupied Shanghai. When the war ended, he left China to pursue a PhD in applied physics from Harvard.
At Harvard, free to fully concentrate, Wang not only earned his doctorate in three years but started experimenting with different ways to regulate magnetic pulses, which the scientific community suspected was the key to building machines that could "remember" data from one millisecond to the next.
CONFUCIAN VALUES. In 1948, Wang announced the invention of the memory core, and he invited the university to further sponsor his work by joining him in the patent application. As was its policy at the time, Harvard declined to participate, so in 1954 Wang received the patent solely in his name. In the meantime, he had started his one-man company in a rented room above a garage in Boston's South End. Wang Laboratories earned $15,000 that first year, and it grew an average of 40% a year for the next 33 years.
As the company expanded, Wang scoffed at commonly held stereotypes of Chinese in business, once saying he was so driven because he wanted to prove that "Chinese could succeed at more than operating laundries." Yet, in his 1986 autobiography Lessons, he tells how he achieved success partly by relying on the Confucian values of balance, moderation, and simplicity.
Wang also approached ownership of the company in a decidedly traditionally Chinese fashion, ensuring that his family held more than 75% of the stock through the 1980s.
MISSED THE PC BOAT. In 1964, Wang Laboratories introduced a desktop calculator and began developing word-processing systems for business. By the mid-1970s, it seemed that every office used the ubiquitous Wang word processor.
Toward the end of that decade, however, Wang made two decisions that would later prove to be the company's undoing: He decided to concentrate on hardware, not software. And the pieces of hardware he chose to concentrate on were word processors and minicomputers (these not-so-aptly named machines were designed to link computers networks), not personal computers.
When the PC revolution hit, Wang Laboratories' profits tumbled. Then in late 1986, as Wang readied for partial retirement, Wang Laboratories' board announced that Wang's 36-year-old son, Frederick, would become company president. That turned out to be another big mistake.
GENEROUS TO THE END. Wang Laboratories lost millions of dollars over the next two years as it was slow to introduce new products, went into default on several loans, and -- when it finally introduced a desktop computer -- failed to make it compatible with the IBM PC. The Wang desktop flopped, and An Wang made the difficult decision of forcing his son out.
Despite the company's declining fortunes and the onset of the esophagus cancer that would eventually lead to his death on Mar. 24, 1990, An Wang continued to give back to the university and city that he felt he owed so much, donating millions of dollars to Harvard and various Boston civic and cultural organizations.
While Wang Laboratories struggled for years before reemerging in the early 1990s as a software consultancy, An Wang's legacy remains secure. Like so many other immigrants, he escaped the horrors of war and used his gifts to help build a better America. As part of its 75th anniversary celebration, BusinessWeek is presenting a series of weekly profiles for the greatest innovators of the past 75 years, from science to government. BusinessWeek Online is joining in by adding more online-only profiles of The Great Innovators. In late September, 2004, BusinessWeek will publish a special commemorative issue on Innovation
Mike Brewster is New York-based writer