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High Technology Enterprises

This is a very brief account of the origin of high-technology enterprises in the Atlanta metro area in the years immediately following WWII.

After the war, reserve officers returning from active duty were assigned to reserve units. Many preferred to retire or resign but some decided to stay in a reserve unit if they could find one that appealed to them.

Such was the environment when a small naval research reserve unit was formed at Georgia Tech. About a dozen reserve officers, all with different types of wartime scientific experience, joined the group. The leader was Lt. James Boyd, a physics professor at Tech. Unit membership included Glenn Robinson, Clyde Orr, McKinley Conway and others.

For several years the unit met and attended to perfunctory naval duties. To remain in good standing, members periodically went on active duty for two weeks at some naval research facility. However, history now proves that the most significant activity was the informal discussions between unit members before, during, and after drills.

Most of the unit members were trying to find jobs fitting their interests, but there simply were not any in the area. Thus, they discussed the possibilities for starting their own high-technology ventures -- without money, reputation, or market demand. Several members took the plunge.

Glenn Robinson started Scientific Atlanta; Clyde Orr launched Micromeritics; and McKinley Conway founded what is now Conway Data. None of thees ventures achieved instant success, but after years of struggle they gained a foothold. Meanwhile, Jim Boyd took over management of the Georgia Tech research program and focussed on supporting local ventures. (He later became President of West Georgia College).

Meanwhile, Conway, whose wartime experience included several years at the NACA/NASA Ames lab in what is now called Silicon Valley had become interested in the launching of Stanford Rsearch Institute and the Stanford Research Park at Palo Alto. When he was selected to head the new Southern Association of Science anmd Industry (SASI) during the 1950s he preached the need for research institutes and research parks in the South.

Early in the 1960s Conway was elected to the Georgia Senate. Reportedly, he was the first person with scientific laboratory background to be elected to a major legislative body. In any event he used the new position to promote establishment of a Georgia Science and Technology Commission -- first such body in the nation. (This strategy was subsequently followed by most of the states).

The GSTC conducted studies to identify opportunities for Georgia and recommended that the state invest whatever resources it had in exploring the interfaces between disciplines. For example, biotechnology was cited as a promising area where the engineering resources of Georgia Tech and the medical resources of Emory Univeristy could be combined. This study was pursued, leading to the development of what is now called "The Clifton Corridor" -- including the heaquarters of the CDC, the American Heart Association, and other key elements.

Another field considered to be promising was oceanography. Conway introduced a bill in the Senate to create a new research center on Skidaway Island. This triggered a major gift of land and facilities from the Roebling steel family; Chatham County built an access causeway; a paper compny donated more land, and the board of regents established a new study unit. The result today is a multi-million dollar center which is beginning to attract high-technology ventures from around the world.

The GSTC also urged the establishment of a research park in the Atlanta area. This challenge was met by Paul Duke and a group of Georgia Tech alumni. They acquired a site in Gwinnett County and began development of Technology Park/Atlanta. Like other such pioneering ventures, success did not come overnight or without struggle. However, the idea was sound and support grew. Charles Brown came as development manager and brought many blue-chip firms into the park.

Today Scientific Atlanta and Conway Data are just two of many firms in the park. Gwinnett County, where cotton-growing was the principal economic activity at the end of WWII, today is home to more than a hundred important high-tech firms. It all happened because a handful of people had vision and determination.

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