The Gerber behind the Gerber file format
As a 13-year-old boy in Austria in 1938, H. Joseph Gerber was forced to use his skills in innovation and invention to survive Nazi Germany. He created a hand warmer from a kerosene stove, built an arc lamp from cores of carbon-based batteries, and even figured out how to disengage a latching mechanism on a traincar that allowed him and his father to escape a train headed for the Dachau concentration camp. After living under Nazi rule for two years, Gerber was able to escape for America in 1940.
“He arrived a penniless, fatherless boy, and ultimately received the National Medal of Technology for pioneering automation systems in a whole host of industries,” said David Gerber.
David Gerber told his father's story at ESC Boston.
Gerber knew from the start that he wanted to become an engineer, so while working multiple jobs to support himself and his mother, he also enrolled in high school in his new hometown of Hartford, CT. Despite being out of school for four years, he finished school in two years and received a scholarship to attend Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
While studying aeronautical engineering there, Gerber’s talent for invention helped him meet an impossible deadline and launch a career. For an aircraft design project he had to do tedious computations with measuring, calculating, and replotting and that, plus a pair of pajamas, sparked the idea for the variable scale.
“All of a sudden it occurred to him if he only had a ruler that was expandable he could skip all of these steps and easily do it in one fell swoop,” said Gerber. “The one thing that he had from Europe that his father had given him was a pair of pajamas and in the European style you could detach the waistband. So he did that and he marked out a scale on the elastic waistband of his pajamas and with this little instrument that he created, he finished his homework in time.”
Gerber’s professors encouraged him to patent his idea, and after graduating in just two years, he started developing and building the devices and incorporated the Gerber Scientific Instrument Company to sell them. He traveled the country selling the instrument to military and industrial customers and learning how engineers used the product and what problems they experienced on the job.
“He learned a great deal about what different kinds of problems the engineers had and he oftentimes would come up with solutions right on the spot,” said Gerber. “Other times he would think about it and come up with a solution and come back the next year with a product. And he did this to such an extent that people would sometimes have lists of problems waiting for him when he came back the next year.”
Through his interactions with engineers, Gerber became interested in plotting. The analog plotters at the time were not accurate enough, so he developed the first truly digital plotter that worked with logic.
“That got the company into the whole field of automated drafting, which they led in really for 20-30 years until the raster inkjet started coming out,” said Gerber.
Another trip took Gerber to RCA in New Jersey, which got his company involved in another industry. RCA was starting to develop printed circuit boards, designed using oversized drawings to tape down lines and add symbols and shapes, then photo-reduced with a camera to get a precise board design.
“My dad said, ‘We have a plotter that can do plotting with the kind of accuracies you need but I think we can actually do one better here’,” said Gerber. “’We can write with light directly onto film’.”
Gerber’s idea was to modulate the intensity of the light so the plotter could go slower and be less intense while having the same number of lumens on the film to produce a perfect line width throughout. RCA was interested, so Gerber got to work on the first photoplotter.
“My dad gave the imaginary product a product number as though it really existed and said, ‘Just give me a lot of lead time and we’ll deliver it’,” said Gerber.
The team at Gerber Scientific were also important to their success at this time, led by chief engineer Dave Logan and senior engineer Ron Webster. The team began to develop a whole system of making printed circuit boards that included some early CAD functionality, inspection systems, and networking capabilities. The first Gerber format was used to drive the company’s line of vector photoplotters.
“What was emerging was a core technology in motion control and a systems capability that the company had in a whole wide range of different fields from software to hardware to optics and mechanics and structures and so forth,” said Gerber.
One field Gerber set his sights on was the apparel industry. It was resistant to change, but Gerber saw a chance to improve it with a systems approach. He proposed an automated cutter that would improve precision, saving fabric and time when it came to reconciling the pieces for sewing. Soon after introducing the cutter, Gerber produced the first marker plotting system for layout and the first computer-controlled sewing machine to create a system that would revolutionize the industry.
“It’s a very broad manufacturing process and an industry that is really maybe the last industry to be automated,” said Gerber. “And perhaps the last because it arguably was the most difficult.”
Gerber was awarded the National Medal of Technology in 1994 for his “technical leadership in the invention, development and commercialization of manufacturing automation systems for a wide variety of industries.” The Gerber Variable Scale and his original pajama elastic prototype were donated to the Smithsonian. You can learn more about his life and inventions in David Gerber's book, “The Inventor's Dilemma: The Remarkable Life of H. Joseph Gerber.”
H. Joseph Gerber was an engineer from the start, whether it was for survival, making the most of a pair of pajamas, or inventing systems that made life easier and more productive.
“He deeply believed in the rightness of productivity and of machines that would make the world a better place,” said Gerber.