A History of Tech Innovation — Were You There?

My story


Wayne Caswell with his mom, Mildred Murray Caswell (4/19/1921 — 9/13/2002)

As a retired 30-year IBMer, I dedicate this article to IBM’s 100th anniversary with a video posted at the end as a way to reflect on past innovations and envision and hopefully inspire new innovations in important areas such as health care. Here’s my story, which has influenced my perspective and interest in finding healthcare solutions. Please share your own story as an email or a comment at the end.

My path into Technology

  • As an avid Boy Scout, I planned to become a forester or geologist, but then I took a high school course in Data Processing using punched card machines.
  • I studied data processing in a junior college and then transferred to Florida Institute of Technology (FIT) when it was one of just three universities with a Computer Science program, including MIT & CIT.
  • It was expensive, and tuition increased beyond what mom & dad could pay, so after two years I was forced to come back to Virginia and my old community college where I worked full time to pay my own way while also carrying a full course load.
  • I started working for IBM in Washington, D.C. in 1969 as a punch card operator and then as a computer operator on an IBM 360/30 while also taking courses and planning to return to FIT and pay my way there too.
  • But I lost my student deferment and was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War. By then the Army was desperate and also drafted young married men with kids.
  • I didn’t have to fight in Vietnam and was stationed at Ft. Hood, TX, thanks mostly to my IBM experience. The company also supplemented my Army pay and sent me my hometown paper and care packages during my service. And they guaranteed me a job when I returned.
  • I was a computer operator in the Army, then a programmer, and finally computer operations supervisor. Ft. Hood hosts an armored division (tanks), and the soldiers were always going on maneuvers in the hot and dusty climate with just a few hours notice, but I worked in air conditioned vans that housed the different computer components.
  • I advanced to Specialist 5 in just a year, which was unheard of for someone without combat experience, and I got out early when the war ended and the Army had too many people.
  • I returned to IBM as a computer operator on a System 370/158 and returned to my old junior college, where I pulled together the right courses to earn three Associates degrees in just one semester.
  • When I started at American University, I was forced to take all graduate courses to earn a Bachelor’s degree. I had way more college credits than a Bachelor’s degree required, but the school wanted the revenue.
  • I took a full-time graduate course load while working at IBM and advancing to programmer and then systems programmer. Then I got an opportunity to become an IBM Systems Engineer (SE). I considered location options and accepted a job in San Antonio, where I met and married Yvonne.

Health & Consumer Interests

  • My wife, Yvonne, is a registered nurse, first in pediatrics and now in travel consulting. She was my first exposure to healthcare.
  • As an IBM SE, I first supported banking and retail accounts and then large hospital accounts. I installed some of the first grocery store scanners and automated teller machines, and I installed a major medical records system for my hospital.
  • By the time the IBM Personal Computer was introduced in 1981, I had become an Information Center specialist and was helping large companies deploy mainframe software that workers could use on their own without relying on programmers. The PC was a natural fit for me, and my interests shifted from enterprise to personal solutions while my skills shifted from engineering to marketing and strategy.
  • My interest in people with disabilities started at a big PC show that IBM put on each year at Los Alamos National Labs. That’s where atomic research takes place. The lab director had an intense interest in re-purposing old computer products to serve special needs. He redesigned IBM printers to print Braille and even worked with an orthodontist to design a special mouthpiece for a quadriplegic artist. She could put her tongue over one air hole or another to open, close or rotate a bit that could hold her paintbrush.

Influence & Advocacy

  • I was always drawn to new challenges and big issues and became interested in home automation as an application of IBM’s OS/2 operating system. I introduced the company to the emerging Digital Home market, convened a multi-divisional team to set strategy, and influenced the design of products like IBM Home Director and residential gateways.
  • I represented IBM on different home networking standards bodies and held leadership roles. I then became a Market Segment manager defining digital home strategy for IBM Microelectronics.
  • As Marketing Chairman of a wireless standards group, I attended conferences on Technologies for Disabilities and promoted Universal Design concepts. I’d also attend regular meetings of TechLunch, an Austin group sponsored by the Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities.
  • While looking for innovative young companies, I discovered several with promise and worked toward forming strategic relationships. One was Intellon, which had developed home networking technology to communicate at Ethernet speeds over the 110v A/C power lines, using the same outlets that we plug lamps and toasters into. Another was Proxim, which developed wireless technology that was way ahead of Wi-Fi.

My Biggest Disappointment

  • My biggest disappointment was with Merasoft, a start-up in Utah that approached the Smart Home idea with real smarts – i.e. neural networks, artificial intelligence, and learning agents. To complete their vision, they had to invent things that were outside of their core competency, which is one reason why I represented IBM on their advisory board, along with Bell Canada and Southern Company.
  • I took a diverse IBM team to see the Merasoft demo, which included CMOS image sensors that could do facial recognition, notice that you’d often come home from work and sit at the same place on the sofa and then turn the TV onto the News. The system could converse in natural language and a human (not robot) sounding voice and ask if you’d like this (or that) to occur automatically in the future. They invented a microphone array and digital signal processing software to eliminate noise, echo and reverb and thus improve speech recognition, and they also modified IBM’s ViaVoice software to make it multiuser. The idea was that one person may want to speak to the home from the bedroom while another did the same from the kitchen, even during a party with other voices. Their vision in 1997 was decades ahead of anyone else, and the demo worked fine. As a marketing strategist, I even loved their go-to-market plan. I’ll save the rest of the story for another post, including why their product never made it to market.

After IBM

  • I retired from IBM after 30 years as the company began pulling away from consumer markets. By then my heart was with home use of technologies, so I founded CAZITech, a Digital Home consulting firm.
  • My consumer interests led to political lobbying and caused me to co-found a nonprofit consumer advocacy group to protect people from abuse in the home building industry. We had great success against the state’s 2nd most powerful lobbying block, even though we had no funding of our own. Not only did we get new consumer protection laws passed, but we also got an abusive state agency abolished outright. In the process I learned a lot about the value of strategy, messaging, and the use of websites and social media to direct a community of home owners.
  • I founded Modern Health Talk after reading John Vanston’s book, MiniTrends, and position it at the intersection of trends that include using the web and social media to find solutions for safe and independent living at home.

Trends Overlap

  • Research shows that boomer demographics exacerbate rising healthcare costs, especially institutional care, driving the critical need for healthcare reform. Our extended recession places great political pressure on the ability to save $1 trillion per year by replacing the need for long term institutional care with home healthcare for half of the patients. This can be done with home modifications for aging in place, combined with Wireless Broadband and cloud computing, mobile apps, telepresence, telemedicine, Digital sensors that monitor biomarkers and the environment, and other related technologies.

Mom & Dad

  • Building a community is key since each individual’s medical needs are different, and each living environment is different, a lesson I learned from my own experience with mom and dad.
  • I worried about dad’s will-to-live after his first heart attack. All bedrooms were upstairs and he was sequestered there like a prisoner. I knew it would take a toll, because he was an avid golfer and worked with his hands as an accomplished cabinet maker. I returned to San Antonio after visiting him in McLean and purchased the best whittling knife money could buy. My plan was to reintroduce him to wood carving since he taught me how to whittle neckerchief slides as a boy scout. But before I could give him the knife, he had a second heart attack and died.
  • Mom’s story was better. She and dad were both chain smokers, and mom eventually developed emphysema and was forced to quit. But as scary as the disease was (she always had an oxygen tank nearby), her living arrangements were much better. After dad died, mom sold the big home in McLean and bought a nice little condo in Fairfax, even replacing furniture to better fit the smaller space. That worked fine for a few years, but as the disease progressed and she lost her ability to drive, she became lonely and needed more care.
  • One of the best things mom did was to sell the condo and use the money to build an apartment attached to my brother’s home. He had enough space to do that, and it gave mom autonomy and a sense of security with family so close by. She was a happy there, as happy as she could be given her health problems, until she too finally passed away. Neither of them spent time in a nursing home or an assisted living facility. To them, an occasional stay at a hospital was bad enough.

Finding PURPOSE in your life

PURPOSE was the topic of a talk I gave last month (10/16/2015) at the LaunchPad job club. It’s one of the largest job clubs in the nation, and they posted this video. The first 15 minutes discussed my journey seeking purpose after IBM and leading to Modern Health Talk. The next 15 minutes was spent on my interest in sleep wellness, and that generated 21 minutes of Q&A afterwards.

IBM 100th Anniversary Video

In this video (also on YouTube) 100 people present IBM achievements recorded in the year they were born. The chronology flows from the oldest person to the youngest, giving you a whirlwind history of IBM tech evolution and insight into the future.

Were you there? I’d like to hear your story. And more importantly, I’d like to see your vision of how new technologies will enable independent living at home.