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BROOMFIELD, Colo.—While not a household name to the general public, H. Joseph Gerber—or “Joe,” as he preferred to be called—was one of the most prolific inventors of the 20th century. His work helped transform entire industries, including the apparel and sign and digital graphics industries. That the Austrian-born Gerber is a Holocaust survivor just makes his story that much more compelling.
More than two decades after first envisioning writing a book about his father, Joe’s son David Gerber has produced “The Inventor’s Dilemma: The Remarkable Life of H. Joseph Gerber,” just released by Yale University Press.
David Gerber, 54, whose background is in business and law, says while growing up he didn’t realize the impact his father’s work had on the world of manufacturing, but his appreciation grew over time and now, he says, he is excited to tell the world about his father’s accomplishments. He also believes that his father’s story can serve as a wake-up call to a country that has traditionally been a world leader in innovation but has seen its manufacturing base shrink.
The senior Gerber was the founder of Gerber Scientific Instrument Company and the recipient of hundreds of U.S. and foreign patents. From aerospace to consumer electronics, sign making to the clothing industry, Gerber’s work isn’t as well known as that of, say, Thomas Edison, but many of his contributions are arguably just as important.
Curiosity and the ability to spot problems and opportunities where others could not were two of his father’s most prominent traits, D.Gerber says, adding what often evolved into revolutionary developments sometimes started with a simple question or request.
“In the apparel industry it was a call from a product manager at IBM who was looking for a partner to develop a system for grading apparel patterns,” says David Gerber, speaking by telephone from his home in West Hartford, Connecticut, not far from where his father had started his factory. “In the billboard, or outdoor advertising industry, John Kluge, the billionaire mogul who owned Metromedia, called the company and asked them if they could develop a computerized billboard printer.”
As David Gerber writes in the book, his father’s talent wasn’t merely in inventing products. He invented entirely new systems for producing those products.
“This is something that the historian Thomas Hughes observed in Thomas Edison, that this was his approach,” David Gerber says. “If you just come up with a filament that glows, you don’t have a product. You need generators, you need systems for transmitting the electricity. You need a number of different elements or none of them is valuable.”
Joe Gerber, born as Heinz Gerber in Austria in 1924, left a monumental mark on American business. But that wasn’t until after he had escaped Nazi Germany.
Light, then darkness, then light again
Like his father, D.Gerber attended New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. After working at a Manhattan law firm the son took a job at his father’s company, Gerber Scientific, in 1989. But before reporting for his new job the pair took a trip to Austria so Joe could show his son some of the places from his childhood. It wasn’t the father’s first trip back to his native land—from which he and his mother had barely escaped with their lives—but it was the first visit for the son, who to that point knew only fragments of his father’s harrowing story.
“In part because it was simply on the way from the airport, our first stop was the cemetery where his grandfather and other members of his family of origin were buried,” the younger Gerber says of the trip. “Actually, his grandfather wasn’t buried there—his grandfather had (only) a tombstone. His grandfather was killed in Theresienstadt (a concentration camp). But his grandfather was very important to him. That’s something I became more keenly aware of in the course of figuring out what the story of the book would be. So that was our first stop; his grandfather’s gravestone.
“From there we went to our hotel in Vienna, which was the Imperial Hotel, and that was the hotel where Hitler had stood on the balustrade and addressed the Viennese people when he first entered Austria after the Anschluss (the forced annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany).”
Heinz Gerber was 14 when the Nazis invaded. The book recounts the evening that young Heinz and his family are gathered around a radio, listening to a broadcast by the Austrian chancellor. The leader of the country signs off his remarks with, “God protect Austria,” only to be immediately followed by a very different voice that came on, saying ominously, “Fellow Germans … “
As D. Gerber recounts in the book, Heinz had never understood why being Jewish had made him a target. But the new reality didn’t allow time for self-reflection. Self-preservation quickly became the order of the day.
“Not even in Berlin did the force of anti-Semitism strike with such ferocity” as it did in Vienna, he writes.
“When my sister and I were growing up, my dad didn’t discuss any details from that period,” he says. “But it was during this trip when my dad recounted a lot of the details about that period. I think it was in part because I had expressed an interest, and in part because I think he was ready at that time in his life. He was no longer concerned that he would give my sister and me nightmares like when we were growing up. And I think he was starting to become more reflective.”
Along with trips to the Vienna Opera and restaurants serving wienerschnitzel and goulash, the father took the son to the spot where he, nearly a half-century earlier, had been picked up by Nazis and taken off to a work camp. The pair also visited the infamous Dauchau Concentration Camp, where tens of thousands of lives were brutally snuffed out.
“At night, we would turn out the lights and my dad would be on his bed on one side of the room and I would be in the other, and we would talk in the dark,” David Gerber recalls. “And a lot of the things that I heard then were the same things – with more detail – but the same basic ideas that he would convey to my sister and me when we were little kids. And it was the basics of his thinking – about the world, about history, about philosophy.
“The details made it more clear, more meaningful to me. And then he would go to sleep and I would walk into the bathroom and sit down in the bathtub and scribble page after page of notes of what went on during the day and also what we talked about. I got to know him in a way I never had .”
The book also details what life was like growing up for young Heinz Gerber before the invasion of the Third Reich. Even at a very young age the boy had a knack for inventing things.
Family history plays an important role in the book. David Gerber describes the relationship Heinz had with his father—David’s grandfather—who was born in a small Jewish village in Eastern Europe and grew up to become a very successful businessman. Heinz’s grandfather was a successful physician who ended up a huge influence on the boy, having taken Heinz in after his father had become ill.
“When I was writing the book, I originally assumed that my dad’s personality must have been shaped primarily by his Holocaust experience. Not for any specific reason, except a sense of, ‘How couldn’t it have been? How could such a profoundly difficult experience not have shaped him?’ And part of my dad’s personality was drive and competition, and that’s what was required to survive that experience.
“But as I got into the book, into the researching and thinking about the story, I came to a different conclusion. I came to believe that most important were the formative experiences of his childhood at his grandfather’s knee. His grandfather was a man of science.”
David Gerber says that for generations, most of Austria “was, as my dad called it, anti-innovative.
“That pervaded the culture, and so my dad grew up in this bubble of his grandfather’s world, where creativity and science were celebrated. But outside that bubble, where the world turned out to be much harsher, there was a very different view, a reactionary view, where creativity and invention and entrepreneurialism was a bad thing.
“Where the Nazis abused technology is such horrible ways—train systems and gassing systems—why would a little boy grow up to have a love of technology? And what I concluded was that even though the Nazis killed my dad’s grandfather, this view of these two sides to his world reinforced his grandfather’s enlightened thinking. That science and imagination have the potential above all to do good things, and the reactionary, anti-innovative influences are associated more with the bad things.”
Coming to America
Finally, after many close calls, Heinz and his mother, Bertha, managed to secure passage out of Nazi-occupied Austria and journey to America. They arrived penniless, and Joe— his middle name was Josef and he took his new name not long after his arrival on these shores—began to plan his future. He and Bertha moved to Connecticut so Joe could earn money working in the tobacco fields. After a year, the boy talked a local high school principal into letting him start school as a junior if he would take freshman and sophomore courses on his own time. The principal agreed, provided the boy did not fail any classes.
Joe graduated high school in two years, all the while working at a bakery and taking any other part-time jobs he could get. One such job was at the Koppleman Newspaper Distributorship, where the managing director, Abraham Koppleman, took a shine to the boy after he learned how he was working to support his mother and going to school at the same time. It turned out to be a fateful friendship, and D. Gerber titled one of the chapters in his book “Honest Abe.”
After graduating high school Joe enrolled at Rensselaer Polytechnic in Troy, New York, with plans to be an engineer. One night in his second year there, Joe was struggling with a homework assignment; one involving complicated mathematical equations. In “The Inventor’s Dilemma,” D. Gerber describes the complex problem and the solution that Joe devised that, quite literally, changed his life:
“At intervals along the horizontal axis, he had to measure heights of the original curve, numerically divide each measurement into portions, and plot each result. The Aero Project entailed hundreds of such curves. For hours, he reached for his ruler and slide rule, measuring, computing, and plotting, until his eyes began to glaze over. Then, all at once, he realized that he could create a new kind of ruler—a flexible ruler, a ruler whose divisions would spread apart as the ruler expanded, with the desired number of markings evenly fitting the curve’s height. Such a ruler could graphically divide the height exactly into the desired number of segments. It would provide the answer without any calculations or measurements; he would only have to read the markings.
"The problem was how to create such a ruler, and sitting at his desk, he glanced down at the elastic waistband of his pajamas. The pajamas, which he had brought to America from Vienna six years earlier, were of the European style, with a detachable elastic band. He removed the elastic from the garment and ticked off marks at eighth-inch intervals along the edge. As he stretched the elastic, the marks grew apart equally. Using the marked-up waistband elastic, he completed his aircraft design in a few hours that same night.”
That device was later called the Gerber Variable Scale Elastic Ruler. His professor was stunned, as Gerber’s invention was a breakthrough that had eluded generations of mathematicians before him.
Back home during a break in school, Gerber went to visit his old friend Koppleman and told him about his invention. Koppleman told him to get a patent for it but Joe responded that he didn’t have any money for a patent, and he didn’t want to accept any money from Koppleman because of all that the older man had already done for him.
So the two men reached an agreement: Koppleman would give Gerber $3,000 and become a partner in business with him. Still in college, Gerber founded the Gerber Scientific Instrument Co.
“His first product, the pajama waistband variable scale, was in a way a simple, if elegant, handheld device,” David Gerber says. “From there he started developing other computing devices for graphical numerical computation that had multiple, inter-related parts, multiple functions. From there he started developing products for what was known as data reduction for reading data, computing data and outputting the information that worked together as a system with some of the products he has developed and also some of the products that others developed.
“Then he developed the first automated drafting machine, and that brought him into a more complex workflow in the aerospace, automotive, and shipbuilding industries. That’s where his vision began to form in terms of the strategic importance of automating the drafting function, because it was a nexus between the design function and the manufacturing, or tool making, function. And so he was sometimes making tooling and he was sometimes making designs with those machines.”
What today is known as CAD—computer-aided design—was originally known as computer-aided drafting, D. Gerber notes, and Gerber Scientific was there at its earliest beginnings.
“My dad started developing the very early design functionality that went along with his drafting machine and, over time, what emerged was that Gerber became one of the early companies to come out with true CAD systems—robust-functionality CAD systems for mechanical design,” David Gerber says.
While his inventions rippled across many industries, David Gerber uses a quote from Forbes magazine in the introduction to his book: “How does one man revolutionize an industry?”
As Gerber writes: “The industry in which the application of his method was most significant was apparel manufacture, which in 1969 was the largest non-automated industry in the world.”
In 1969, Joe Gerber created on of his most significant inventions: an automated cloth-cutting machine. He had gone to Gerber Scientific’s board of directors to ask for its blessing to build the machines, but the board was skeptical. It commissioned some outside consultants to study the issue and they concluded there was no market for the machines. Essentially, D. Gerber says, the consultants said the industry saw no need to change the industry standard of cutting by hand.
Gerber acknowledged that no company was going to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in a machine just to replace a few cutters making $3.50 an hour. But he was pitching more than just a machine. He was pitching a systemic change in the way garments were being manufactured.
“First, there’s a major problem with material usage, and that is the province of pre-production, where the pieces are laid out in the most efficient nest so as to maximize material utilization,” David Gerber says. “Material was the most significant cost of a garment, and my dad’s concept for his cutter allowed for significant savings in material. Number two: There’s a problem in the sewing rooms. Sewing itself didn’t require a lot of time because it wasn’t stitched by hand, it was stitched by a sewing machine, but 90 percent of the time devoted to sewing was in the area of reconciling the different cut pieces so that you could sew them together so that they would fit. His cutter, by cutting more accurately, was going to significantly improve that process.
“Then thirdly, he talked about how you could begin to automate some of these other functions as well. By that time, he had already come out with a machine that did automatic production of graded apparel templates and patterns. So he was starting to envision a digital workflow, where the pattern design, pattern grading, pattern layout and cutting would all be under the control of the computer. And where the accurately cut parts would also enable downstream automation with sewing, among other areas.”
Asked about the “dilemma” referred to in the title of his book, D. Gerber says that he thinks the word applies on multiple levels. First, in his father’s case, there was the personal dilemma that he faced as a boy when his world was suddenly turned upside down by forces beyond his control.
Then there is the dilemma that the country as a whole faces, with more and more of its manufacturing moving overseas. D. Gerber says that’s a big problem because “proximity is the grist of innovation.”
“I think it starts with how the company began,” he says. “Where my dad filled the trunk of his car with samples of the variable scale and product literature and drove across the country each year. He would do something in addition to selling: he would be learning about manufacturing processes and problems. He would observe in the facilities that he visited what their manufacturing process looks like and limitations that the customers may not even have noticed themselves and thinking of solutions of how he could improve those processes, and he did this year after year.
“Over time, some of these customers would greet him with a list of their problems for him to solve with new products next year. And when he would get back to the little factory in South Windsor, Connecticut, and assemble his team of engineers, he would tell them something like, ‘I’ve sold this and we’ve got to do it.’
“And these weren’t orders for existing products, these were problems they had to solve by inventing solutions and producing new products.”
Which leads to the dilemma faced by all inventors.
“As an inventor, my dad had to figure out a strategy of how to get to the new system,” says David Gerber. “It’s one thing to conceive it; it’s another thing to figure out how you can meet the customer’s needs in such a way that you can get there from here. … Figuring out how to do that is a very complex problem.”