Published On: Sun, Jul 17th, 2016

The Inventor’s Dilemma: Joseph Gerber, The Jewish ‘Thomas Edison’ of manufacturing

Gerber,   circa 1995. Courtesy,   Gerber Family. Photo by Sonia Gerber.

Joseph Gerber, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Austria, came to America as a penniless youth and eventually became known as “the ‘Thomas Edison’ of manufacturing.” He introduced the first digitally controlled systems to plot graphics, received hundreds of U.S. and foreign patents, and pioneered the computer-automated manufacturing systems for almost every industry you can imagine: from cars to clothes, electronics to printing, eyeglasses to billboards, and more.

Joe Gerber’s son, David Gerber, recently wrote his father’s biography The Inventor’s Dilemma: The Remarkable Life of H. Joseph Gerber (Yale University Press, October 2015). With this book receiving widespread praise from reviewers, we recently had the oppportunity to chat with David about his remarkable father.

Josef Gerber family David Gerber


Q. Your father has been called a 20th century “Thomas Edison” by observers, including a vice chairman of General Electric, a historian at the Smithsonian Institute who studied both men’s work, and journalists across industry. What in your view is the basis of this moniker?

A. Many observers have employed this comparison based on the extensive number and breadth of my dad’s inventions—hundreds of inventions across dozens of fields. In my view, the analogy to Edison runs even deeper. My dad’s “method of invention” was similar to Edison’s. Both men invented new systems, rather than improvements to systems that others had created. Just as the system of electric lighting required Edison not only to discover a filament that glows, but also to invent generators and electrical distribution means, my dad invented systems of manufacture with many component products. For example, my dad’s cloth cutter, although today widely regarded as the textile industry’s most important technological advance of the 20th century, wasn’t economically justified as a standalone product. My dad needed to introduce multiple automated products, from design to sewing, before his cutter—and the other products—were fully justified.

Variable scale pajama waistband - Gerber

Q. With all these achievements, your father also was a refugee from Hitler’s Austria. What shaped him as an innovator and allowed him to succeed?

A. My dad was a born inventor. As a boy in Vienna, he was required to learn to play the violin, but he became bored repeating the songs that he knew how to play, so he automated his violin.

When Nazis came to power in Austria, he turned his ingenuity to solving the problems of saving his family and himself. Once, the Gestapo put him and his father on a train car headed toward Dachau. He figured a way to disengage a door latching mechanism, and they jumped from the train. His father was later sent on a transport to Poland in the bitter cold, so my dad took an old kerosine stove and built a hand warmer for the trip.

His experiences also shaped his technological ideology. As a boy toiling at a Nazi labor camp, he observed that the world was divided between the people who produce for others and the people who enjoy the fruits of that labor. He later would see automation as the means to allow all people to enjoy a high standard of living.

His Holocaust and immigrant expeiences also gave him a different and more entrepreneurial sense of time and risk: Had he not taken calculated risks, he would have died.

Gerber Automatic Point Plotter and Reader,   circa 1960. This was the first truly digital machine to plot graphics. It was used by the military to indicate enemy placements on maps and charts.


Q. Most professional inventors work in industrial laboratories, and this was especially prevalent during the 20th century. How did your father become an inventor-entrepreneur?

A. As an engineering student in college, my dad realized one night that he could solve his time-consuming homework problems if he had an expandable ruler. He removed the elastic from the waistband of his pajamas, marked a scale on it, and finished his homework in record time.

My dad started his company Gerber Scientific with a $3, 000 investment to market this instrument. After graduating college, he built product in his basement, quit his job, and then drove around the country selling to engineering labs and inventing new computing instruments, which are in the Smithsonian today.

Gerber and colleague David Pearl observing the bundle of accurately shaped parts cut from a GERBERcutter automated cloth cutting system,   1972.

Q. So his early products were scientific instruments. How did his technology evolve toward developing automated systems of manufacture?

A. Well, my dad made these long sales trips year after year during the 1950s. When he visited customers, he was curious and interested in what they did. He learned all about their problems, and he often invented solutions on the spot. After a few years, some customers awaited his annual return with lists of problems for him to solve.

On one visit, my dad learned that the Army Map Service required precision graphics, so he proposed a concept for the first digitally controlled plotter, which he developed under contract. Recognizing that this technology will pioneer both digital graphics and engineering design, he then developed automated drafting, digitizing, and related technologies for the engineering of cars, aircraft, and ships. A few years later, he visited RCA, where he saw craftsmen going to great lengths to make printed circuit boards. During this visit, he proposed a system which would draw with light to make circuit board tooling automatically. He gave the idea a product number, and closed the deal to supply this system.

Through this experience, he became one of the first to perceive the potential for digital technology to dramatically increase productivity in skill-intensive industries. My dad and the people he presided over at Gerber Scientific introduced the first automated manufacturing products in more than a dozen industries. Often, they introduced an entire suite of products, which transformed the manufacturing process. For other industries, their role was to start the transformative process of automation; their initial products opened up these antiquated industries developers of competing and complementary technologies.

Gerber Gallery circa 1960. This was the first truly digital machine to plot graphics. It was used by the military to indicate enemy placements on maps and charts.


Q. What were the hallmarks of his inventiveness?

A. My dad was adept at recognizing problems—even problems that manufacturers didn’t know they had. He used to say, “Once customers recognize the problem, it’s too late, because competitors will know about it.”

When solving problems, he considered basic principles, rather than looking at how others solved the same problem. He often employed analogies. For example, he invented his automated cloth cutter by considering shoe brushes, food packaging, and aircraft wings—not what you’d typically consider when developing machinery to cut cloth.

His “systems” focus created the need for more inventions, and allowed him to approach problems from new ways, not having the constraints that limited others. To take on ambitious developments of new systems required courage and scope of vision.


President Bill Clinton and Josef Gerber


Q. How did your father get people to adopt new systems? To change their processes?

A. My dad had to transition from the old system to the new one step by step. This posed a dilemma: Why should manufacturers and other stakeholders take the first steps to purchase components before rest of the system is ready? Manufacturers often had to restructure their entire operations. To overcome this, my dad invented strategically, introducing combinations of products, interfaces, and workarounds that allowed manufacturers to work within the old systems until enough automated components were in place to let the old systems fall away.

He had to convince labor unions that automation technology was in their best interest. For my dad, this concerned his way of inventing: He didn’t just automate; he innovated. He didn’t build a machine to replace a person, but used technology to enable better production processes, generating vast improvements in materials cost, quality, service, and inventory costs for the whole manufacturing organization that exceeded the impact on direct labor cost. As a result, he demonstrated that his technology would save jobs from moving abroad in response to competition from cheap labor markets. In the mid 1990s, the head of the textile industry’s largeset union wrote to thank him for “preserving good and productive jobs.”


The Inventor’s Dilemma Joseph Gerber AUTHOR’S David Gerber  Credit-Photo by Cindy Gerber.

Q. Your father also was involved in Israel’s “start up nation” story. How did this arise?

A. In 1968, my dad decided to start a high-technology business in Israel. He visited the county to interview engineers, and found three Israeli engineers who’d formed a business called BETA Engineering. They were located in Beersheba, across from the camel market. BETA had no product line, but the people at BETA impressed my dad. His discussions with them were not about business assets, but were about personal values—honesty, family, technology, and Israel.

The country’s “science-based” industry, as it was called, was so new that the customs officials didn’t have a category for computer code. The code was contained on punched paper tape, so the customs officials characterized it as a “paper product” and applied an import duty as though it were a napkin! The country’s technological infrastructure was formative and was mostly concentrated in and around Tel Aviv. To build a science-based business in Beersheba was an even greater challenge. But the business grew, if modestly; spun-out technology businesses; and developed products for defense, anti-terrorism, cryogenics, and medical electronics. My dad became very involved in encouraging Israeli ministers to invest in the country’s technology infrastructure, including technology parks, and technologies such as integrated circuits.

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