Heinz Joseph “Joe” Gerber (April 17, 1924 – August 8, 1996) was an American inventor and businessman. Described as the "Thomas Edison of manufacturing," Gerber pioneered the marriage between computation and manufacturing. He was one of the first to recognize the potential for productivity through automation in skill-intensive industrial sectors—and he possessed the technological vision and creative genius to make it happen.
Gerber was awarded America's National Medal of Technology, the country's highest recognition in technology and innovation, in 1994, for his "technical leadership in the invention, development, and commercialization of manufacturing automation systems for a wide variety of industries." These industries ranged from automotive, aerospace, shipbuilding, clothing, and consumer electronics, to printing, sign making, cobbling, cartography, and lens crafting, among others. According to the National Academy of Sciences, Gerber “made exceptional technological contributions that rank among the milestones in the history of the textile industry” alone.
Joe Gerber’s personal story of finding the American Dream was as remarkable as his professional accomplishments. Gerber was born into a Jewish family in Vienna, Austria, and showed an early fascination with technology. Following Austria’s 1938 Anschluss (annexation) into Nazi Germany on March 12, 1938, he was imprisoned in a Nazi labor camp and was eventually released.
In 1940, he fled with his mother, immigrating to New York City and later to Hartford, Connecticut. In Hartford, Gerber completed four years of high school in just two years while learning English and holding down full-time and part-time jobs. He entered Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), Troy, NY on scholarship, and graduated two and one-half years later with a Bachelor of Science degree in aeronautical engineering. In his junior year, he invented the Gerber Variable Scale, a graphical-numerical computing device that he conceived from the elastic waistband of his pajamas that he brought from Austria.
His work in the field of automated manufacturing systems grew from his early developments of graphical-numerical computing devices, data-reduction tools, and plotters that began with this device.
Receiving a $3,000 investment, Gerber patented his Variable Scale and founded the Gerber Scientific Instrument Company in Hartford to produce and market his device. Before the widespread use of digital computers, performing computations based on graphically recorded data and curves was extremely time-consuming and complex. The Gerber Variable Scale—which used a triangular calibrated spring as a computing element to eliminate all scaling and conversions between numerics and graphics—provided a means for quick, efficient calculations, and became known as the greatest engineering tool since the slide rule.
Gerber’s early life and accomplishments in America were the subjects of the 1950 Broadway play at New York City’s Belasco Theater Young Man in a Hurry, written by Morton Wishengrad and played by the actor Cornel Wilde. In the play, Joe in character was quoted: “We came to America in a time of our need. We sought the American Dream. And like so many others … we found it.”
In 1953, J. Robert Oppenheimer and other judges selected Gerber as one of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's "Ten Most Outstanding Young Men in America," Reflecting on his immigrant experience as he accepted this award, Gerber observed that he “learned that in the USA it was true you could accomplish things if you were willing to work because then people, recognizing not only your abilities but your earnestness, will give you of themselves beyond belief to help you.”
Automated drafting, digitizing, design, electronics, and graphics
In the 1950s, Gerber introduced a line of data reduction products for scanning and digitizing, including the Gerber Analogue Data Reduction System and the Gerber Digital Data Reduction System to read x,y coordinate positions and convert the information into a machine-readable punched tape. Gerber also introduced the first digital plotter, initially used for precisely plotting enemy battleship positions on maps. It was the world’s first digital motion-controlled machine to create graphics.
In the early 1960s, Gerber introduced the first automated machines for drafting. By allowing engineers and designers to interact with the design process graphically, automated drafting represented a seminal application of computers to enhance creativity. Gerber's automated drafting technologies enabled the design of complex design products, such as the first "jumbo" military and commercial aircraft, the U.S. Air Force C-5 Transport by Lockheed Martin, and the Boeing 747. NASA's Johnson Space Center later relied on Gerber's systems for communications analysis and graphical data display for the first lunar landing, in 1969.
Leveraging his high precision motion control technology, Gerber invented a machine to print with light, thereby beginning the process of automating circuit board manufacture. His team also developed early computer-aided design software, automated digitizers, and networking capabilities to offer integrated systems for design and tooling manufacture in the automotive, aerospace, and electronics industries. In electronics tooling fabrication, the industry standard remains “Gerber language.” Personally and through his company, he would extend these basic technologies into numerous systems for the production of graphics, including the production of signage, billboards, and printing plates and silkscreens, as well as computer graphics, often together with a suite of products from design through production.
Apparel, footwear, and textile manufacturing
In the 1960s, IBM (International Business Machines Corporation) decided to enter apparel design automation and asked Gerber to collaborate on developing a system that would enable apparel manufacturers to produce paperboard stencils of the graded family of apparel patterns automatically.
Although IBM later abandoned its apparel project in the face of the industry’s obstinate refusal to automate, Gerber persisted and profoundly broadened his foray into automating apparel manufacture by developing a system that could be programmed to cut fabric in production volumes to a desired pattern automatically. In developing and perfecting this new product, the S-70, later dubbed the “GERBERcutter”, Gerber moved forward with yet another application of his designs-to-digits technology.
The introduction of the sewing machine having commenced a revolution in the manufacture of garments, it seemed as if only one other invention was necessary to complete the revolution—the invention of a cutting machine, by which the cloth might be cut with the rapidity corresponding to that with which they were sewn. Scientific American, 1854. (The Inventor’s Dilemma, p. 198)
At the time, American apparel manufacturing was labor-intensive, completely without automation, and rapidly leaving the country for cheap foreign labor. Gerber’s GERBERcutter cut large quantities of tall stacks of cloth accurately and fast—3,500 pieces for 50 men's suits in less than three minutes. The GERBERcutter itself, the first model of which Gerber introduced in 1970, has been widely cited as the industry’s most important technological advance of the century, because it offered apparel factories significant savings in wasted cloth, which was the greatest cost factor in producing a garment, and because it enabled a computer-automated manufacturing system. Total sales of machines by Gerber’s companies and its competitors for cutting cloth based on Gerber's patented inventions are in the tens of billions of dollars.
Ultimately, his company would develop computer-controlled systems for designing, digitizing, grading, and prototyping apparel patterns, all integrated within a broad system that included fabric spreaders, parts-moving systems, concept design, and product data management, as well as the first automated sewing machine. As this system slowed the departure of the U.S. apparel manufacturing industry by more than a generation, leaders in the industry from manufacturing, labor, and other quarters hailed Gerber as its "father of apparel automation" and "the savior of the American apparel industry." The leader of the apparel industry’s largest labor union would recognize Gerber’s technology for “preserving good and productive jobs” in America.
Gerber's automated cutting, layout, and sewing technologies were used as well in shoemaking to cut and embroider material for shoes. Gerber's impact included the development of the first 3D computer-aided design workstations for making shoes. The Gerber ShoeMaker, introduced in 1989, reduced the time from twenty-eight days to two days to make shoes.