by Carsten Thomsen
If you’re familiar with Austin, I assume you know where the following sign comes from: (Put your guess in the comments).
I ate there for the first time in 1983 when National Instruments hosted an IEEE P981 meeting. As far as I recall this committee had a goal to standardize the Test Equipment Description Language, in what later became TEDL which appeared to fade out. However, the historical references to this are hard to find and my Swiss Cheese mind does not remember the details. If you have any recollection of this, please note in the comments. This was my first exposure to the generous portions of Texas barbecue, and later turned out to be one of my favorite restaurants.
In the evening, Ron Wolfe and Dr. T hosted the IEEE meeting participants at the National Instruments Technology Blvd. office. I was impressed by how messy it was, but also the spirit and drive of the company. A company with confidence in the future. I will never forget Dr. T proclaiming in his charming Texas drawl, “We’re going to take over the world of instrumentation”. What a “humble”, crazy guy I thought.
Two years later in 1985, staffing was ramping up on the Brüel & Kjær team working on a new, ambitious virtual instrument system that I was spearheading. It was called SPS, as an abbreviation for Signal Processing System. Two colleagues and I were on a USA trip to evaluate which embedded processor to choose for our platform. The Motorola 68020, the Intel 386 or the National Semiconductor 32030. The first stop of the trip was at Motorola in Austin in the middle of the hot summer. It was a lonely, flat building in Southwest Austin in the middle of a dusty parking lot, with gun-toting guards at the front door. It was over 100 F degrees outside and we drove back to the airport without seeing anything in Austin that had any form of charm. In the car, I flippantly told my colleagues, “If I ever got fired and had to find a new job, if there is any place in the world I wouldn’t want to work, it’s Austin……”.
Well, 8 years later, on November 1, 1993, I had to eat crow, not only getting fired from Brüel & Kjær but also starting as Director of Engineering at National Instruments.
In subsequent articles, I will trace the common threads in thinking about virtual instruments at Brüel & Kjær and National Instruments, and the radically different approaches to implementing them in practice. I will also describe why it was fairly obvious (in the rear view mirror) that they both had their roots in acoustics.
P.S. If you are wondering which processor we chose, here was our thinking: The National Semiconductor processor had the cleanest, most compact instruction set, and the most unwelcoming hosts. At Intel a non-technical marcom person gave an extremely short introduction with all slides market CONFIDENTIAL. All technical questions were answered by “that is a very good question” and then noted on a big yellow legal pad. At Motorola, when we had a question about the cache memory on the processor, the engineers working on it were called into the conference room, and they forthrightly answered any questions. We chose Motorola.