The romanticized start-up story goes something like this: A couple of whiz kids toil away on some revolutionary electronic gizmo in the back of a dusty old garage. Following the eureka moment, a patent is secured and, wham, the next Apple is born.
The genesis of the university's Applied Physics Laboratory shares a lot in common with this story: It, too, had the whiz kids, the electronic gizmos and the eureka moment. It just stayed in the garage for 12 years.
The Lab this month marks a milestone birthday, celebrating with the slogan "60 Years of Service to the Nation." What began as a temporary wartime facility--housed in a renovated used-car garage in Silver Spring, Md.--has become one of the most prominent research and development institutions in the world. While it has remained committed to its core purpose of enhancing the security of the nation through the application of science and technology, the Lab today is also renowned for its work in space science and technology.
Richard Roca, director of APL since January 2000, says you can throw a rock in any direction at the Lab and it will land on a significant technological breakthrough.
The story of Hopkins' only nonacademic division begins during World War II, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The surprise attack by the Japanese, in addition to inflicting heavily casualities on the U.S. Navy, had brought to the forefront an intrinsic weakness in the nation's air defense. Anti-aircraft fire at the time was a hit-and-mostly-miss venture, as hundreds of rounds were needed to shoot down a single plane. What the military felt was needed was a shell with a variable-time fuse that could sense the presence of its target, thus triggering it to detonate itself.
Leading the development of this proximity fuze, as it was later called, was Merle A. Tuve, who had gone to work at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C., after receiving his doctorate from Hopkins. Backed by money and the go-ahead from the the Office of Research and Development led by Vannevar Bush, Tuve put together a team of physicists and electronic experts and formed the Carnegie Institution's Section T, which was dedicated to proximity fuze research. Section T (which had been named for Tuve) quickly outgrew the Carnegie Institution, however, and a new sponsor was needed. Tuve recommended to ORSD officials that his alma mater be considered for this critical defense project.
In response, President Franklin D. Roose-velt sent an informal request to JHU President Isaiah Bowman that Hopkins take over the Section T fuze program. Bowman and the board of trustees agreed, and on March 10, 1942, the Applied Physics Laboratory was officially established, with Tuve as director. Two months later, APL opened its first headquarters, located at the former Wolfe Motor Co. building at 8621 Georgia Ave. in Silver Spring. Reflecting the top-secret nature of APL's work in those days, the building's signage, which prominently advertised used cars, remained.
The signage couldn't disguise, however, the men in suits who filed in and out of the building all day. Some area residents theorized the garage had become a house of ill-repute; others believed the men, some of whom carried mysterious boxes, were conducting questionable medical experiments within its confines.
Little did they know.
From March 1942 to the war's end, APL designed, built and successfully tested a proximity fuze, later judged to be one of the three most valuable technology developments of the war, joining the atomic bomb and radar. It was produced by the millions by a group of leading U.S. electronics companies under APL leadership.
During the fuze's transition to production and operational use, sponsorship of the Lab and the fuze program was taken over from OSRD by the Navy.
The Lab entered an uncertain period following the war as there were no plans to make it a permanent facility. However, the Secretary of the Navy appealed to the university to continue to operate APL, which by that time had shifted its main effort to develop guided missiles that could hunt down Kamikazes and their lethal loads. Johns Hopkins agreed, but still on a temporary basis.
Alexander Kossiakoff, who would serve as the Lab's director from 1969 to 1980, began his long association with the Lab during this period. Kossiakoff describes the institution circa 1946 as an exciting environment for a young scientist.
"The Lab still had the same spirit of urgency in its work that had been developed during war time," said Kossiakoff, who joined APL to help in rocket development. "Guided missiles were in their infancy in those days. It was all very complicated work, both the engineering and testing of them."
Kossiakoff says that at the time he joined APL, many such university-based research facilities begun during the war were closing their doors.
"Hopkins was one of the few that remained at that time," says Kossiakoff, who is currently the Lab's chief scientist. "There was no real decision made as to where the Lab was going when I arrived, but I had only come on a temporary basis myself, so I didn't worry too much about it. None of us back then had any idea how long we would work here."
APL's temporary tag was removed on April 1, 1948, at which time it became a permanent division of the university. Six years later, the Lab, which had long since outgrown its garage days, moved to its current location in Laurel, Md., a 365-acre parcel that was then cornfields.
Throughout its first six decades, APL has churned out a slew of technological achievements, both in the military and civilian sector.
As part of APL's continued partnership with the U.S Navy, its research has played major roles in the Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam and Desert Storm. In the 1950s the Lab developed Terrier, Tartar and Talos, the precursors of the 'Standard" missiles in use today for air defense of Navy surface ships. In fact, Lab researchers have played a significant role in either the development, testing or improvement of most of the Navy's missiles, from Polaris to Trident to Tomahawk.
Equally impressive is the Lab's lists of inventions and firsts, including Transit, the first satellite navigation system; the first photo of Earth from space; the ingestible temperate "pill"; and the rechargeable cardiac pacemaker.
Since 1959, APL engineers and scientists have designed, built and launched 60 spacecraft and 136 instruments. Recent interplanetary missions, conducted for NASA, include the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR), Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE), the Comet Nucleus TOUR (ConTOUR) and the MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER).
Stamatios "Tom" Krimigis, head of the Space Department, says the Lab has been a participant in most major planetary missions, including Galileo to Jupiter, Cassini on its way to Saturn and the Ulysses spacecraft in a polar orbit around the sun.
Where to next? "I believe that the country will continue to be challenged by ambitious space exploration, whether it's life on Mars or exploration of the outermost planet, Pluto. And we will continue to innovate and push the frontier."
Roughly 25 percent of the Lab's current work is focused on the civilian sector, primarily in civilian space, and also includes programs in biomedicine, transportation and law enforcement.
Since 1965, its staff has collaborated with investigators from the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions on more than 100 specialized medical devices and computer designs, including a programmable, implantable, insulin-dispensing system; cardiac defibrillator; ingestible telemetry system; and ophthalmological instruments for studying and treating the retina.
David Kalbaugh, assistant director of programs, says APL prides itself on being able to find solutions to a vast array of challenging problems.
"That is what we all have in common here. We are problem solvers," says Kalbaugh, who joined APL in 1969. "And our expertise is broad; when a question arises in your mind, you can ask around and be assured the answer is somewhere in the building, and I mean that literally."
Roca says APL's key to success and longevity is that it's "always been acutely aware of the key problems of its military sponsors and how technology can solve them. On the NASA side," he says, "it's ensuring that APL can couple leading-edge science with very cost-effective spacecraft development."
Today, APL has a staff of 3,200 who work in more than 130 specialized research and test facilities, all dedicated to the Lab's goal of making critical contributions to critical challenges.
Roca says that while he expects the "general thrust" of APL to remain the same in the foreseeable future, there are new areas to be explored. Specifically, he says that in the wake of Sept. 11, the Lab will play a vital role in the fight against terrorism.
"What we are recognizing is that the nature of our nation's defense is changing," Roca says. "I'm referring to the threat of biological and chemical attacks, and other weapons of mass destruction. We have to concentrate on them that much more. That is our next critical challenge."
Reflecting on his tenure, Kossiakoff says APL is an even more vital and exciting place today, and one that he hopes continues well beyond his days.
"I would wish for the next 60 years for APL to continue to make major contributions to the welfare of the nation, just as it has been in the past 60 years, more so if possible," he says.
The next generation of whiz kids, take note.