The Research Laboratory of Electronics, which developed the first practical atomic clock, introduced the LISP programming language, did research on electronic noise that has made communication between modems possible and launched the study of modern communication and control, is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a symposium on November 1-2.
The anniversary celebration begins with a poster session, open house and tours of the RLE labs from 1-5pm. From 5:30-8pm, there will be an opening reception for the Compton Gallery exhibit on RLE's history and current research.
Many of today's modern tools grew out of work at the RLE. Basic research paved the way for products such as high-definition television (HDTV); work in atomic physics led to precision timing, navigation and manufacturing; and the foundation for today's computing and optical networking would not have been possible without work initiated at RLE.
The lab's work on digital signal processing led to a variety of applications including the development of the crystal-clear sound of digital audio. The Global Positioning System (GPS), which uses satellites to provide positioning and navigational information, also has some of its technological roots at RLE. Indeed, without RLE's basic research and the technology developed from it, the world would not have cellular phones, machines that convert text to speech for visually impaired individuals, compact disc players, cochlear implants, the integrated circuits that are the brain behind our computers, or fiber optic communication.
"RLE has provided the basis for human communications with machines," said Jonathan Allen, professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of RLE. "We have essentially given birth to a whole new industry, which is now growing rapidly, as human-computer interaction becomes central to modern interactive systems."
RLE, which was MIT's first interdisciplinary lab and one of the first in the country, grew out of the Radiation Laboratory (Rad Lab), which developed almost half the radar systems the United States used in World War II. Its work-which initially expanded into microwave electronics and physics, microwave communications, electronic aids to computation and applied physics and engineering research-has spawned many fields of research at MIT, and its students and researchers have formed a number of companies contributing to the United States economy and commercializing the more basic research done at RLE.
"The lab's work is like the biological process of mitosis, where new nuclei develop and split off," said Professor Allen.
Other MIT research areas stemmed from RLE's core interests. Work between RLE and the MIT Computation Lab in the early 1960s spun off Project MAC, the predecessor of MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science. The linguistics department grew out of the lab's research in human communication in 1961. In 1976, the Plasma Fusion Center was formed to expand on RLE's experimental efforts in plasmas. In the 1950s, the lab played a part in the formation of Lincoln Laboratory. More than 75 companies such as Bose, EG&G, Lotus, International Data Group, PictureTel, ThermoElectron, Qualcomm, Damon and Intel were formed by students and researchers affiliated with the lab.
The fastest-growing area in the lab is virtual environments, where goggles and other equipment are used to simulate certain perceptual experiences, Professor Allen said. Research is being done on training environments (one which helps naval officers learn how to dock a submarine in a narrow river channel, for example) and training for laparoscopic surgery which is done through a small incision.
The lab also conducts research involving weather, sensory communication, prosthetics for hearing, computer-aided design, noninvasive medical imaging techniques and a wide variety of other research.
The following technical talks will be given on Saturday, November 2 after an 8am reunion breakfast:
10-10:30am-Dennis M. Freeman, "Watching Hearing: Measuring Nanometer Motions of the Inner Ear with a Light Microscope."
10:30-11:00am-James G. Fuji-moto, "Biomedical Imaging and Diagnostics Using Optical Coherence Tomography."
11-11:30am-John D. Joann-opoulos, "Predicting the Behavior of Materials."
11:45am-12:15pm-Marc A. Kastner, "The Single-Electron Transistor and Other Devices of the Future."
12:15-12:45pm-Wolfgang Ketterle, "Bose-Einstein Condensates: A New Form of Quantum Matter."
12:45-1:15pm-Gregory W. Wor-nell, "Signal Processing for Next-Generation Wireless Communications."
The plenary talks will begin at 2:30pm with President Charles M. Vest speaking on science policy and RLE's role in solving societal needs. James Burke, host of the television series Connections and The Day the Universe Changed and author of The Axemaker's Gift and The Pinball Effect, will speak at 4pm on the history of communication. The two-day event will wrap up with a dinner celebration at 6:30pm.
MIT faculty and staff registration for the anniversary symposium is $35; student registration is $20. The Friday events and the Saturday technical talks are free and open to the public on a space-available basis. To register, contact RLE at x3-4653 or send e-mail to
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 9, 1996.