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Historic MIT Lab Celebrates 50th With Symposium

Research provided basis for modern electronics, medical devices and linguistic theory

Cambridge, MA--The lab that 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. From basic research in high resolution television that laid the groundwork for products such as high definition television (HDTV) to basic research in atomic physics which has enabled precision timing, navigation and manufacturing, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE) has been extremely prolific.

The foundation for today's computing and optical networking would not have been possible without the 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, we 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, MIT's first interdisciplinary lab, and one of the first in the country, grew out of MIT's Radiation Laboratory, or Rad Lab, which developed almost half of the radar systems the U.S. 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 Prof. Allen.

RLE has provided a home for new directions that stem from the lab'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. MIT's linguistics department grew out of the lab's research in human communication in 1961. In 1976, MIT's 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.

Over 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.

Throughout its history, RLE has continued to maintain a strong focus on all aspects of electronics. The fastest growing area in the lab is virtual environments, according to Prof. Allen, where goggles and other equipment are used to simulate certain perceptual experiences. Research is being done on training environments where the expense of mistakes is too high to bear--including ways to help Navy officers of the deck learn how to dock a submarine in a narrow river channel 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, non-invasive medical imaging techniques and a wide variety of other research.

The anniversary celebration begins with a poster session, open house and tours of the RLE labs from 1:00 - 5:00 pm. From 5:30-8:00 pm there will be an opening reception for the Compton Gallery exhibit on RLE's history and current research. Saturday, after an 8 am reunion breakfast, the technical talks will begin.

10:00 - 10:30 am: Dennis M. Freeman, "Watching Hearing: Measuring Nanometer Motions of the Inner Ear with a Light Microscope

10:30 - 11:00 am: James G. Fujimoto, "Biomedical Imaging and Diagnostics using Optical Coherence Tomography"

11:00 - 11:30 am: John D. Joannopoulos, "Predicting the Behavior of Materials"

11:45 am - 12:15 pm: Marc A. Kastner, "The Single-Electron Transistor and Other Devices of the Future"

12:15 - 12:45 pm: Wolfgang Ketterle, "Bose-Einstein Condensates: A New Form of Quantum Matter

12:45 - 1:15 pm: Gregory W. Wornell, "Signal Processing for Next-Generation Wireless Communications"

The plenary talks will begin at 2:30 pm 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 diner celebration at 6:30 pm. Registration for the anniversary symposium is $100. 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 617-253-4653 or send e-mail to RLE's 50th anniversary web page, which includes on-line registration, is at

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