SRI International

Early computer mouse

Since the organization’s founding in 1946, SRI International has been at the forefront of Silicon Valley innovation. The independent, nonprofit research institute, begun by Stanford University and a group of business executives, was created to stimulate West Coast economic development after World War II.

In 1970, SRI gained its independence from Stanford University, and in 1977, changed its name to SRI International. The Menlo Park-based firm’s founding mission holds true today: SRI is committed to discovery and to the application of science and technology for knowledge, commerce, prosperity, and peace.

Known originally as Stanford Research Institute, SRI has focused its extensive R&D capabilities on nearly every area of industry, medicine, education, and government, including wide-ranging areas such as banking, robotics, entertainment, special education, atmospheric research, national defense, homeland security, and much more. Along the way, SRI’s innovations have created new industries, billions of dollars in market value, and lasting benefits to people around the globe. SRI built and operates this 150-foot radio reflector antenna located in the hills above Stanford University. Known locally as “The Dish”, the antenna is used for satellite calibrations and spacecraft communications.

SRI’s first researchers hit the ground running. In 1949 the institute held the nation’s first symposium on air pollution. In the early 1950s, SRI recommended that Walt Disney select Anaheim, California, for his first theme park, Disneyland.

But that was only the beginning. By the mid-1950s, SRI was providing economic research and consulting services on an international level. For example, in 1955 it conceived of the National Council for Applied Economic Research for India and in 1957 cosponsored the International Industrial Conference, a summit that brought together hundreds of world leaders and CEOs from 50 countries— an important event SRI cosponsored for 40 years.

In addition to expanding its reach during the 1950s, SRI developed several breakthrough products. The Electronic Recording Machine, Accounting (ERMA) and magnetic ink character recognition (MICR) together revolutionized banking by enabling automatic check processing to replace laborious manual recordkeeping, inaugurating business process automation. Another breakthrough product, the Technicolor® electronic printing timer, reduced the time and expense of producing movie prints, allowing the film industry to bring color movies to audiences much faster.

Breakthroughs in the 1960s in computing, robotics, and communications cemented SRI’s position as a worldwide innovation leader. The organization supported the growing interest in the upper atmosphere and outer space—the start of the decade saw the first man in space and the end of the decade saw another man walking on the moon—by building and operating for the U.S. government a 150-foot radio reflector antenna located in the hills above Stanford University. Known locally as “The Dish,” the antenna is used today for satellite calibrations and spacecraft communications.

In the 1960s, the organization also laid the foundation for the personal computer revolution. SRI invented the computer mouse in 1964 and, in 1968, first publicly demonstrated the concept of “windows,” hypertext, and videoconferencing, all of which have advanced how people work, learn, and communicate. The new science of robotics was also greatly infl uenced by SRI expertise— in the institute’s renowned Artificial Intelligence Center, researchers developed Shakey, the first mobile robot with the ability to reason about its surroundings. The institute was also instrumental in another fi rst: In 1969, SRI was one of the first four computer nodes on the ARPANET, the small government network that preceded the Internet. Seven years later, SRI established the first connection among dissimilar networks—the wired ARPANET, SRI’s wireless mobile packet radio network, and the Atlantic packet satellite network—which has been described as first true inter-networked computer connection.

Since the 1960s, drug discovery and healthcare have also benefited from SRI innovations.

In the 1970s, SRI discovered Halofantrine, a malaria treatment that has saved countless lives.

In the 1980s, SRI made pioneering developments in ultrasound that made it practical for clinical use. Today, SRI has several new drugs in development. Connecting people and places has also continued to be a key focus.

Until 1992, the institute served as the Network Information Center (NIC), the clearinghouse and support center for all computer hosts connecting to ARPANET and the Internet. SRI also developed a nationally used telecommunication system, called Deafnet, for the hearing impaired. And SRI’s “signature pen” allowed computers to recognize handwritt en words and symbols, including non-Roman alphabets such as Chinese.

In 1987, SRI acquired the David Sarnoff Research Center (now called Sarnoff Corporation) from General Electric. Sarnoff developed high definition television, among many other commercial contributions. SRI’s breakthrough marketing tool, the Values and Lifestyles™ program, or VALS™, was an important innovation of the 1980s, helping advertisers and others determine why consumers make the purchasing decisions they do.
The 1990s saw innovations in education, as well as continuing work in many other areas.

Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, SRI developed the TAPPED IN® learning environment, a virtual meeting place for K-12 educators that has allowed more than 16,000 users to take online courses as well as collaborate and participate in events. DynaSpeak® and EduSpeak®, SRI speech recognition engines, aid language translation and education in military, civilian, and business applications.  And developments such as electroactive polymer “artifi cial muscle” for energy generation put SRI at the leading edge of tremendous advances in science and technology.

Since the turn of the new millennium, SRI has continued in its role as a premier research and development organization. Speech technology created by the institute enables U.S. soldiers overseas to communicate in real time with local citizens. The Centibots, descendants of Shakey, are an SRI-designed team of autonomous mobile robots that can explore, map, and survey unknown environments. SRI is helping the National Guard prepare soldiers for combat through a novel integration of live–virtual–constructive training systems. And ground- and foliage-penetrating radar that can find unexploded ordnance put SRI at the leading edge of tremendous advances in science.

SRI and Sarnoff also bring new technologies and products to market through technology licenses and spin-off ventures. Together, the organizations have created more than two dozen spin-offs, including three publicly traded companies. One of these is Intuitive Surgical, which commercialized SRI’s novel, minimally invasive surgical robotics technology. Surgeons throughout the U.S., Europe, and Asia use Intuitive’s da Vinci® Surgical System to help patients recover faster, with less pain and fewer complications.

For 60 years and counting, government agencies, commercial businesses, and private foundations have turned to SRI for solutions to their most important problems. SRI applies a disciplined approach to innovation to succeed on every project it undertakes. SRI continues its role as a premier research and development organization. SRI International has worked toward—and will continue to work toward—improving quality of life around the world.

This history was written in 2008 by the Silicon Valley Historical Association.

SRI website