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Inside the Engineering Quad

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Huang Engineering Center Innovations Tour

These touchstone artifacts scattered throughout the Huang Engineering Center illustrate the kinds of world-changing innovations that have emerged from the School of Engineering.

Anaerobic Reactors

Location: Terrace Level

model of an “anaerobic filter,” developed with James Young in 1969
Model of an anaerobic filter on display at Stanford.

In anaerobic bioreactors, microbes metabolize organic contaminants in sewage and industrial wastewaters to produce clean water and energy-yielding methane. They can be more economical and efficient than aerobic reactors, which use oxygen and require energy rather than yielding it. The widespread success of this biotechnology traces to the lab of Professor Emeritus Perry McCarty.

This cylinder is a model of an “anaerobic filter,” developed with James Young in 1969. Wastewater flows up through a bed of rocks, where it encounters a symbiotic ecosystem with numerous microbial species occupying the gaps. The effluent is harvestable methane and water freed from organic contaminants.

In the early 1980s, McCarty with Andre Bachmann invented an alternative: the baffled reactor. This box-shaped reactor is the actual model used to test this concept. It forces wastewater over and under the baffles, where contaminants are metabolized. With different mixtures of microbes, these reactors can remove chlorinated solvents and organic wastes. McCarty’s awards for his work include the Tyler Prize and the Stockholm Water Prize.

Durand Books

Location: Second Floor

six volumes on aerodynamic theory in a display case
Six volumes on aerodynamic theory that were conceived, edited and partly written by William Durand on display at Stanford.

These definitive six volumes on aerodynamic theory were conceived, edited and partly written by William F. Durand in the 1930s. In 1939, Durand gave the books to graduate student (now Professor Emeritus) Walter Vincenti. Like many, Vincenti regards Durand as a hero to be emulated. In a 2007 lecture, Vincenti pointed out that Durand’s approach to engineering was even more important than his results. Vincenti quoted a tribute to Durand by the famed engineer Theodore von Karman: “Durand’s major influence was in bringing about in America a transition from purely empirical, practical engineering to a physically understood scientific engineering.”

Durand Propeller

Location: Second Floor

Propeller from William F. Durand's tests.
Prototype propeller by William Durand on display at Stanford.

In 1916, with support from NASA’s precursor, William F. Durand and Everett P. Lesley embarked on tests that would have fundamental application in aeronautics for decades. They built a wind tunnel and measured the performance of scores of different propellers. Their rigorous and comprehensive data enabled airplane designers all over the world to choose the best propellers for their specific airframe designs. The propeller in the display is an unconventional model from Durand’s tests. More conventional models are on display in the Engineering Library.

Google Storage Server

Location: Terrace Level

Original Google Storage Server in Huang building at Stanford
Original Google storage server in the Huang Engineering building at Stanford.

In 1996, PhD students Sergey Brin and Larry Page invented the PageRank algorithm. Their work in this area was supported by Professors Hector Garcia-Molina, Rajeev Motwani, Jeffrey Ullman and Terry Winograd. The algorithm ranks web pages that match search terms by assessing breadth and depth of public interest in that web content. Because much disk space was needed to test PageRank on actual World Wide Web data, Sergey and Larry assembled 10 of the largest drives available (4 gigabytes each) into this low-cost cabinet, whimsically decorated with toy building blocks. Their software could then index 24 million pages a week (at the time, a massive number).

As a result of their initial work at Stanford, the two founded a company called Google in 1998. By 2008, Google reported that its thousands of servers had indexed more than a trillion unique pages.

HP garage and workbench

Location: Terrace Level

Replica HP garage and workbench at Stanford Engineering's Huang building

As electrical engineering undergraduates and graduate students at Stanford in the 1930s, William Hewlett and David Packard encountered three influences that would guide the rest of their lives: the excitement of technology, an entrepreneurial spirit in the emerging field of electronics, and each other’s friendship. With help and inspiration from Professor Fred Terman, Packard and Hewlett co-founded an electronics company in 1939 in a garage on Addison Street in Palo Alto. They didn’t have much — a little more than $500 and a used drill press. A prominent fixture of the garage was a simple, gray workbench, where the pair of engineers toiled to produce whatever “would bring in a nickel.” One of their earlier customers was the Walt Disney Co., which bought oscillators for the classic movie “Fantasia.”

Management Science and Engineering books

Location: First Floor

Management Science and Engineering books in a display case

Many problems of minimizing costs, or developing plans that optimize some other objective, are best modeled by linear programming and solved by the Simplex Method. George Dantzig, inventor of the method, taught at Stanford from 1966 to 1996 and was the first to state the general linear programming problem. He published the seminal text Linear Programming and Extensions in 1963.

In their work Principles of Engineering Economy, Eugene L. Grant and W. Grant Ireson discuss how engineers can make sound and profitable decisions on capital investments rather than succumb to dangerous “hunches.” Grant first published the book in 1930. Ireson joined as an author in later versions, such as this fourth edition published in 1960.

In the early 1960s, as the operations research department germinated at Stanford, inaugural chair Gerald Lieberman and Frederick Hillier published Introduction to Operations Research, a profoundly influential text. Now in its ninth edition, the book’s recognitions include the 2004 Expository Writing Award of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences.


Location: Second Floor

frames from an electron microscope to record real-time video of atomic-scale structural changes occurring in a cadmium telluride crystal

The structure and properties of materials arise from the arrangement of their atoms and molecules. Because structural features can be billionths of a meter -- or “nanometers” -- long, the study of their all-important arrangements is called nanocharacterization. Stanford has been a leading institution in the field for decades.

In 1982, for example, researchers led by Professor Robert Sinclair used an electron microscope to record real-time video of atomic-scale structural changes occurring in a cadmium telluride crystal. These images are frames from one of those movies.

IBM engineer Mary Doerner and Stanford Professor William Nix in 1986 demonstrated how to infer properties of materials using a nanoindenter, which plunges a diamond tip into a material. The behavior during denting and forming tiny pits, such as these stamped in brass, reveal how nanometer-scale processes affect a material’s hardness.

Today hundreds of researchers use shared facilities, such as the Stanford Nanocharacterization Lab, for nanoscience experiments considered fundamental to advances in energy, medicine and information technology.


Location: First Floor

Stanford engineers have been innovators in the field of data networks for decades, making important technical contributions and launching influential enterprises.

In 1974, a team including mathematics alumnus and former Professor Vint Cerf  developed the specification for the Transmission Control Protocol, allowing the ARPANET packet-switched network to become interconnected with other networks, enabling the creation of the Internet. TCP/IP remains a fundamental set of rules for inter-computer communication on the Internet. The Birth of the Internet plaque acknowledges the contributions of many people associated with TCP development at Stanford.

Two of Cerf’s graduate students, Ron Crane and Yogen Dalal, in 1977 joined Stanford Consulting Professor Bob Metcalfe and alumnus David Boggs at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center to commercialize their invention called Ethernet. Today it is the standard for moving data around enterprises and homes and is a key component of the Internet. Metcalfe and Crane went on to start 3Com in 1980, and alumnus Dado Banatao built the first Ethernet chip at seeq in 1982. This gold-plated 3Com Ethernet card is part of a larger gift to this building by many Stanford faculty and alumni instrumental in Ethernet’s success. The first floor lobby in this building is named to honor Ethernet. The larger circuit board shown here is a 3mb Ethernet card built by Stanford computer science staff and students in the mid-1980s (more displays of historic networking equipment are on the first floor of the Gates Building).

In 1981, inspired by Ethernet and the fledgling Internet, alumni Judy Estrin and Eric Benhamou and two other entrepreneurs co-founded Bridge Communications to make servers and routers to move data within and between networks. In 1984, alumnus Leonard Bosack and his, wife Sandy Lerner, left computer operations staff jobs at Stanford to found an Internet router company called Cisco, which has become the dominant company in the industry. They adapted the multi-protocol router software developed some years earlier at Stanford by William Yeager. The large white “box” shown here is a Cisco router that connected Stanford’s Ethernets to the Internet.

The Internet connection for hundreds of millions of people around the world is via DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) technology, which enables high-speed data transmission over standard telephone lines. The technology standard in use today was invented by Professor Emeritus John Cioffi and student Peter Chow in 1992. This circuit board, meant to be installed as the telephone company’s central office connection to a customer, includes original chips based on the work they did at Stanford and commercialized as Amati Communications Corp. (later sold to Texas Instruments).

Stanford innovations have also extended to wireless networking. Atheros Communications, co-founded by Professors Teresa Meng and John Hennessy in 1998, helped pioneer Wi-Fi (wireless Ethernet) systems by developing the first radio chip in CMOS, enabling mainstream consumer adoption of the technology. Professor Emeritus Arogyaswami Paulraj developed a wireless technology called “multiple-input multiple-output” transmission, which is at the core of current Wi-Fi and 4G mobile wireless (WiMax and LTE) systems.

With faculty and students working on problems ranging from individual chip architectures to the performance modeling and future structure of the Internet, Stanford will remain influential in networking for decades to come.

The Art of Computer Programming

Location: First Floor

The Art of Computer Programming book in a display case
Donald Knuth's The Art of Computer Programming on display at the Huang Engineering building at Stanford.

Revered almost universally as the guide to the most efficient algorithms, Don Knuth’s multivolume set of books The Art of Computer Programming was first published in 1968. In 1999, American Scientist magazine deemed it among the 12 most important physical sciences monographs of the 20th century, and it has been translated into languages as diverse as Polish and Korean.

Volumes 1 and 2 here are second editions. This Volume 3 is a first edition. Knuth continues to expand the scope of the series. Volume 4 covers combinatorial algorithms, and preview fascicles of the text are in circulation. Volume 5 will present syntactic algorithms.

In his 1974 lecture as a recipient of computing’s highest honor, the Association for Computing Machinery’s Turing Award, Knuth explained why he called programming an “art” rather than “science,” concluding: “We have seen that computer programming is an art, because it applies accumulated knowledge to the world, because it requires skill and ingenuity, and especially because it produces objects of beauty. Programmers who subconsciously view themselves as artists will enjoy what they do and do it better.”

Yahoo! Servers

Location: First Floor

Akebono motherboard from Yahoo!

The greatness of Yahoo! wasn’t magic. It was the foresight and hard work of electrical engineering graduate students Jerry Yang and David Filo. In 1994, they used these servers, Konishiki and Akebono (motherboard shown below), to find and categorize pages on the nascent World Wide Web. “Thousands of people were producing new websites every day,” Filo told the school in 1996. “We were just trying to take all that stuff and organize it to make it useful.”

Konishiki server, Yahoo's first

The result was a website with categories and subcategories, essentially a directory, of the many sites they found. The company’s name is consequently an acronym for “Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle.” By autumn 1994, the site run by these servers in a campus trailer handled a million hits a day. With venture funding the next year, Yahoo! began its amazing growth into the major Internet media company it is today with hundreds of millions of users.

Stanford microprocessors

Stanford microprocessors in a display case

With a more than 50-year history of world-class research and teaching in subjects ranging from transistor devices to computer architecture, Stanford Engineering is known for attracting many of the world’s best faculty members and students in these areas. One result has been the development of some of the world’s most influential microprocessors by professors and alumni.

Location: First Floor

Geometry Engine

Geometry Engine chip

Rendering three-dimensional computer graphics requires specialized processing of geometric information. The Geometry Engine chip, developed in the early 1980s mainly by former Professor Jim Clark and student Marc Hannah, was the first realization of such a processor with the modern sophistication of “very large scale integration” (a wafer of these chips is pictured below). In 1981, along with Kurt Akeley, Vern Anderson, David Brown, Tom Davis, Mark Grossman, Herb Kuta, Charles “Rocky” Rhodes and Abbey Silverstone, Clark and Hannah founded the company Silicon Graphics Inc., which came to dominate high-end graphics for years.

Intel 4004

Intel 4004, the first microprocessor

In 1969, alumnus Marcian “Ted” Hoff proposed a simple computer architecture as a way to realize calculators for Busicom, a Japanese company. With Intel co-workers Stanley Mazor and Federico Faggin, the design was completed and released in 1971 as the first microprocessor, launching Intel as the world’s leading processor maker.


Full wafer of MIPS

MIPS is a full wafer of the processors that popularized the high-performance Reduced Instruction Set Computer architecture. It was the brainchild of researchers led by Professor John Hennessy in 1981. 

Motorola 68000

Motorola 68000 in a display case

Alumnus Skip Stritter was the chief architect in 1979 of this influential processor, displayed in its original packaging and in the accompanying enlarged photograph. The 68000 enabled several new product areas including workstations (SUN-1, SGI Iris 1000), the Apple Macintosh, printers (Apple LaserWriter and the HP LaserJet) and the first Palm Pilot. It was also the CPU in some Commodore and Atari personal computers.


NVIDIA GeForce 256

In 1999, when Jen-Hsun Huang and NVIDIA introduced the GeForce 256, the world’s first graphics processing unit (GPU), the new ability to render detailed, interactive 3D imagery drew an enthusiastic following among gamers and graphic artists. GPUs have since advanced with exceptional speed. Their parallel structure, which enables many tasks to be processed simultaneously, has expanded their use beyond graphics to data-intensive areas such as financial analysis, medical imaging and scientific research.

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 480

Introduced in 2010, the GeForce GTX 480 has more than 130 times the complexity of the GeForce 256, with 3 billion transistors and 480 processing cores.