They started out as sound scientists, stifling echoes in concert halls and ensuring peacemakers could be heard in the soaring meeting rooms of the United Nations headquarters.
But over the next 65 years Raytheon BBN Technologies would go far beyond acoustics: pioneering the Internet, creating e-mail and developing everything from translation software to battlefield sensors. On Friday that legacy won Raytheon BBN the ultimate honor: a National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Barack Obama.
“The incredible contributions that you’ve made have enhanced our lives in immeasurable ways, in ways that are practical but also inspirational," Obama told Raytheon BBN President Ed Campbell and other recipients during a White House ceremony. “Thank you so much for everything that you’ve done."
President Barack Obama presents a National Medal of Technology and Innovation to Raytheon BBN Technologies President Ed Campbell
The White House citation noted the company's "sustained innovation through the engineering of first-of-a-kind, practical systems in acoustics, signal processing, and information technology."
"I am honored to represent the men and women who, over the decades, have given their intellectual energies to solving some of the important technological challenges facing our nation," Campbell said.
BBN has been unique since the beginning. Two Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors, Richard Bolt and Leo Beranek, founded the firm with Robert Newman in 1948. The partnership, known as Bolt, Beranek, and Newman, won the contract to design acoustics for the United Nations headquarters and quickly earned international recognition for its sound design.
Soon the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the forerunner of NASA, called on the firm for help. The noise from a newly deployed jet engine was a major nuisance, and angry neighbors were complaining to police and local government officials.
Seven months later, neighbors could not tell when the engine was running, and Bolt, Beranek and Newman's reputation was soon spreading beyond architectural acoustics.
The Boomerang shooter-detection system detects incoming small-arms fire,indicating the azimuth, range and elevation of the shooter.
In the late 1950s, BBN purchased its first computer and started developing innovations that would help transform information technology.
It developed packet switching, a method for splitting messages into small pieces and reassembling at their destination – a key advance behind ARPANET, the forerunner of the Internet.
|Ray Tomlinson, Raytheon BBN Engineer|
In 1971 BBN engineer Ray Tomlinson sent the first networked e-mail through ARPANET, using the @ symbol to separate the recipient’s name from the destination computer in the address. That addressing system lives on today.
Like other employees, Tomlinson has since worked on a dizzying variety of projects, from wearable computers to training software for Navy sailors.
“Problems change, but the nature of their complexity remains the same,” Tomlinson said.
Waltham, Mass.-based Raytheon acquired BBN in 2009.
In recent years engineers have developed Boomerang, an acoustic sniper location system that has been widely deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Raytheon BBN has also helped to eliminate language barriers by developing a hand-held translation device called TransTalk. Other BBN systems automatically translate foreign TV broadcasts and websites in real time.
Raytheon BBN's TransTalk™ is a portable, two-way translation device that facilitates communication across different languages.
“Our people are some of the brightest individuals in their fields who are not afraid to broaden their interests,” said Rusty Bobrow, the company’s lead scientist. “It’s what allows BBN to encourage creative solutions.”
The company has also produced a steady stream of academic research. Recent journal articles have explored everything from handwriting analysis to military simulations based on video games.
That culture of curiosity is the secret to Raytheon BBN’s inventive streak, said Steve Milligan, chief technical officer.
“It’s the willingness to know what is possible and then taking the risk to do it,” Milligan said.