James Von Ehr

Born: June 2, 1950 | Grand Rapids, MI, US

James R. Von Ehr became interested in electronics when he was given vacuum tubes, a homemade Heathkit ham radio, and electronics magazines as a child. While studying computer science at Michigan State University, he helped hack into MSU's computer system with a group that named themselves the alternative systems programming group.  Von Ehr was caught, but memorialized the experience in the name of his first company, Altsys Corporation. After college, he first worked for Texas Instruments, then started his own company, and developed games, utilities, fonts, and other programs for Macintosh. Later in his career, he became fascinated by nanotechnology, eventually founding the Texas Nanotechnology Initiative. Von Ehr meditates on the interface between computers and nano, the inevitability of progress, and the value of competition. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0685
No. of pages: 157
Minutes: 342

Interview Sessions

David C. Brock
24 January 2011
Zyvex Labs, Inc., Richardson, Texas

Abstract of Interview

James R. Von Ehr, II, grew up in Grand Rapids and New Buffalo, Michigan, one of three children. His parents did not attend college but emphasized that education was important. Von Ehr's interest in electronics was fostered by the gift of some vacuum tubes, a homemade Heathkit ham radio, and electronics magazines. He was a page in the Michigan legislature when he was fourteen, and he finished high school as one of the first two National Merit Scholars from New Buffalo. This achievement won him a scholarship to Michigan State University, where he began a physics major but switched to computer science. He and some others, wanting to see how the operating system worked, hacked into MSU's computer system; this breach was traced to him, and he was forced to desist, but the group thought of themselves as the "alternative systems programming group," a name Von Ehr memorialized in the name of his first company, "Altsys Corporation." Von Ehr's first job was developing CAD tools for integrated circuit layout for Texas Instruments (TI). On his first day there he met his future wife, Gayla, who was also an engineer. While at TI he obtained a master's degree at the University of Texas at Dallas. Disagreement with the goals of management caused Von Ehr to leave TI and, with Kevin Crowder, to start his first company, Altsys Corporation. They began with a plan to develop games, running the entire operation from Von Ehr's house. Eventually they decided on utilities for Macintosh computers, which he says, wistfully, had beautiful architecture. Settling on font editing, they developed FONTastic, helping create desktop publishing. Next was FONTographer for Apple's LaserWriter, used to develop typefaces for most of the world's languages. Business was so good they expanded out of the house into a real office. Next Von Ehr developed FreeHand, which he licensed to Aldus Corporation. Eventually he got FreeHand back and sold Altsys to Macromedia, where he continued working for two years. He hired the team that wrote Dreamweaver; eventually Adobe took over the business and killed FreeHand. Von Ehr had been selling his stock gradually, and at that point he started a new company, Zyvex Corporation. Von Ehr had become fascinated by nanotechnology as a result of hearing Eric Drexler speak and of reading his books. He has funded Zyvex's foray into nano with a great deal of his own money because he believes in nano. Von Ehr had expected rapid development along the lines of computer technology, but he says that the United States is behind China and Japan in commercialization. Zyvex received grants from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Early on they partnered with Honeywell for a grant from the Advanced Technology Program (ATP), one of the few government programs Von Ehr considers worthwhile. When ATP was shut down Von Ehr fired his President/COO and assumed management himself. The company was split into three companies, one of which was sold. Von Ehr sees nano becoming increasingly important in medicine—Zyvex is involved in a joint venture—Nano-Retina—with an Israeli company to develop a vision system for the blind—and in military applications, as well as in quantum computing. He and Steven Jurvetsen attended the signing of the 21st Century Nanotech Research and Development Act, sponsored by Senator George Allen, where he felt impressed by the White House and exhilarated by standing next to President Bush. With E. Glenn Gaustad Von Ehr formed the Texas Nanotechnology Initiative. He has also endowed scholarships at Michigan State University; he describes the process of application for one of the scholarships, saying he thinks he could never have won one. He continues to work at Zyvex Labs and his Singapore company, Zycraft. He is fascinated by energy, especially energy storage, and would like to establish an energy storage company; but he says that the government regulations and mandates make a new company prohibitively expensive and even threaten personal freedom. He says he would establish a public company only outside the United States. Von Ehr meditates on the interface between computers and nano; the inevitability of progress; the value of competition. He thinks the government's role should be to encourage invention by purchasing new technology, such as LED lighting, when it is at its most expensive; let entrepreneurs, not research at universities, develop new products. We should use the example of the semiconductor revolution: let private enterprise invent and develop by incremental goals. He wishes the NNI would focus on energy and energy storage; as an example of poor planning he points to the windmills in Texas, which are underutilized because there is no way to store their energy, nor to transport it to market. He believes nature makes the best catalysts; we should learn from the ways biological mechanisms work and emulate nature's atomic precision. In addition to his work, Von Ehr finds enjoyment in reading science fiction, in his art collection (he loves Escher's unique way of looking at things), music, and promoting his libertarian ideals, including through the Cato Institute, Reason Foundation, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, where he is now on the Board of Directors. He explains that he discontinued his subscription to Scientific American because it became a forum for personal attacks on scientists who did not toe George Soros's left-liberal party line. He talks a little about transhumanism and artificial intelligence and the ability of humans to adapt He continues to believe in nano and is convinced that history will vindicate him.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1972 Michigan State University BS Computer Science
1982 University of Texas at Austin MS Mathematical Sciences (Computer Science)

Professional Experience

Texas Instruments

1973 to 1984
Section Manager, Senior Member of Technical Staff

Altsys Corporation

1984 to 1995
Founder, President & CEO

Zyvex Group

1995
Founder and CEO

Table of Contents

Early Years and College
1

Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Family background. Moving to Kalamazoo,back to Grand Rapids, and then to New Buffalo. Ham radio, vacuum tubes,electronics magazines. Page in Michigan legislature. National Merit Scholar. Enters Michigan State University with physics major, but switches to computer science. College job programming for hospital automation. Loved computers. Wanted to see how operating system worked; with friends hacked into MSU computer. Thought of selves at "alternative systems programming group;" hence name for later company, "Altsys".

First Job
17

Finished school with no job offer. Saw that Texas Instruments (TI) was hiring; drove camper to Texas, had girlfriend cut hair, applied for job, hired on the spot. Systems programmer developing CAD tools for design of design integrated circuits. Met future wife, also an engineer, his first day on job. Worked on operating system, lots of architecture. Apollo workstation. Wife's programming work. Became section manager. Obtained master's degree at University of Texas at Dallas. Problems with management. Wrote two computer games, but TI dropped home computer, so Von Ehr left to form own company.

Altsys Corporation
29

Kevin Crowder, cofounder. Used Apple computer and synthesizer with his own music. Games until market crashed in December of 1983. Then used Compaq computers to write text editor for IBM pc's. Windows came out, so he switched to utilities for Macintosh, which had beautiful architecture. Font editor, typeface design. Had to learn C programming language, typefaces, Mac computers. Helped create desktop publishing. Developed FONTastic. Typefaces for Apple's LaserWriter. Developed FreeHand, licensed to Aldus Corporation. Got back FreeHand, sold company to Macromedia. Aldus bought by Adobe. Forbes Magazine. Libertarianism. Helped Macromedia with transition for two years. Wrote Dreamweaver. Macromedia invented Flash; company bought by Adobe Systems, Inc.

Zyvex Corporation
52

Talk and books by Eric Drexler introduced him to nanotechnology (nano). Foresight Institute. Lack of vision for nano, so started own company, Zyvex. Objections to nanotechnology; conflict led to National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). George Soros and John Rennie against opportunity, technology, and profit; character assassination of their opponents, Bjørn Lomborg and Drexler, caused Von Ehr to cancel his subscription to Scientific American. Ralph Merkle. Expected faster development because of speed of computer technologydevelopment. Wilson Ho's experiment, using scanning tunneling microscope(STM). Setting up company. First COO did much harm and good. Depassivation. Ultra high vacuum (UHV). Nanotubes and buckyballs. Rodney Ruoff used first nanomanipulator inside electron microscope. Intel, persuaded by chief scientist, Richard Stallcup, first customer. Wanted to commercialize, but customers initially only wanted to rent. Sold nanomanipulator company to DCG Systems, Inc.

Middle Years at Zyvex
80

Applicability of models. Robert Freitas, Nanomedicine; Ralph Merkle onmetabolism. Grants for probe system from National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Partnered with Honeywell International for large five-year grant from NIST's Advanced Technology Program (ATP). Silicon micromachines. Engineer Rahul Saini. Developing Nano-Retina with Rainbow Medical. Shutdown of ATP. John Randall. Thomas Kenny. Fired COO, took over himself. STARTech board. Restructured company into three companies: tools, materials, and labs; sold the tools company. Materials company based in Columbus, Ohio. Jian Chen, first nanotube chemist. Functionalized tubes, patent near-miss. Investors include Lockheed, Arkema. Boat prototype made of prepreg. Robotic control for military applications. Some sporting goods. Quantum computing. Michelle Simmons's lab in Australia. Joseph Lyding and epitaxy. UHV feasible, but cryogenic temperatures not. Steven Jurvetsen and signing 21st Century Nanotech Research and Development Act, sponsored by Senator George Allen. Visit to White House, standing next to President Bush.

Thoughts and Pleasures
110

NNI should focus on energy, especially energy storage. Thinks entrepreneursshould work on nano; government should lead way by consuming early, costlyproducts. Competition is good. We should learn from ways biologicalmechanisms work. We should emulate nature's atomically precise size. Feelshe has enough money to do what he wants. History will validate his ideas. Sarbanes-Oxley imposes prohibitive costs on going public; he would never risk his own net worth and freedom. Might establish public company outside United States. Cato Institute. Michael Crichton's Prey and other science fiction. His art collection; especially likes M. C. Escher. Likes music. Interest in energy conversion. Thinks nature is best catalyst. No grid storage for windmills so much of Texas's wind power turned off. Fascinated by VRB Power in Canada, bought by Chinese; wishes he'd bought.

Current and Future State of Nano
120

Universities good only for producing graduates, many foreign; United Statesposes visa problems. We should use example of semiconductor revolution:look to industry and have incremental goals. Japan's investment in glasscompanies and tires. Toxicity tests on nanotubes show no inhalation; goodsubstitute for carbon black. Barriers to entry by EPA, OSHA, other agencies. China and Japan ready to market. China working on anti-counterfeit printing that uses no ink; research facility in Beijing now closed to tourists, so probably making progress. View of EPA: "facts don't necessarily lead to regulation. " Tubes embargoed going to China; products designed and sold here but made there. Growth of technology. Ray Kurzweil. Transhumanism, artificial intelligence. Ability of humans to adapt. Mihail Roco and NNI. Senatorial Trust; attending President Bush's second inauguration. Von Ehr's libertarian ideals. Against price supports but thought ATP a good program. With E. Glenn Gaustad formed Texas Nanotechnology Initiative. Endowed scholarships at Michigan State University. Future of molecular nanotechnology. Python, C++. Computer hackery, not computer science. Lego Mindstorms. Interface between computers and nanotechnology. Power of assembly. Continuing invention. Medicine. Inevitability of progress.

Index
153

About the Interviewer

David C. Brock

David C. Brock is a senior research fellow with the Center for Contemporary History and Policy at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. As a historian of science and technology, he specializes in the history of semiconductor science, technology, and industry; the history of instrumentation; and oral history. Brock has studied the philosophy, sociology, and history of science at Brown University, the University of Edinburgh, and Princeton University.

In the policy arena Brock recently published Patterning the World: The Rise of Chemically Amplified Photoresists, a white-paper case study for the Center’s Studies in Materials Innovation. With Hyungsub Choi he is preparing an analysis of semiconductor technology roadmapping, having presented preliminary results at the 2009 meeting of the Industry Studies Association.