An electrical engineer, Morley was the co-founder of Bedford Associates, an engineering consulting firm, and woke up on January 1, 1968, with a hangover from the New Year’s Eve festivities the night before, and a problem: he had several proposals due at work, and got a reprieve because January 1 was a Monday; he had to have his proposals written up for his partners Tuesday. “In my frustration working on all of these proposals, I noticed distinct similarities,” Morley said later. “It was then that a light bulb went off and I knew there had to be a better way to control similar types of machines. That revelation led to the concept of the PLC.” The what? The Programmable Logic Controller, an industrial computer adapted for the control of manufacturing processes such as assembly lines, robotic devices, or any activity that requires high reliability control, ease of programming, and fault diagnostics. One of Bedford’s clients, General Motors, had requested the proposal: it wanted a better way to control the manufacture of the GM Hydra-Matic transmission. That day, Morley wrote up the proposal: just 12 pages that would change manufacturing forever. Then came the next hurdle: “We had some real problems in the early days of convincing people that a box of software … could do the same thing as 50 feet of cabinets, associated relays and wiring.” But he did, and he’s now considered the “father” of the PLC.
What’s the PLC good for? In automobile manufacturing in the 1960s, the control of factory assembly lines came from cabinets filled with relays, cam timers, drum sequencers, and dedicated closed-loop controllers. Hundreds or thousands of them, which is fine except for one thing: cars changed every year, and the process for updating the mechanical controllers was not only time consuming, but hideously expensive: electricians needed to individually rewire the relays to change their operational characteristics, and then bring in everyone to train them on how the latest changes all worked. There were no microcomputers in 1968, so Morley’s idea of computerizing the whole thing was radical. The computers that were available tended to need air-conditioned cleanrooms, constantly fine-tuned by white-coated technicians. Put that into a dirty, noisy, car factory?! Insane. Except it wasn’t: Morley figured out how to do it. “The hardware had to look good to manufacturing, be power- and voltage-insensitive, rugged and high priced,” Morley wrote in 2008. Yes, high priced: “We believed our user would want total value, not entry costs. If the programmable controller saved one month of factory up-time, it was worth a million dollars.” The result, “Modicon” — the MOdular DIgital CONtroller — was so reliable, GM used the first models for nearly 20 years. Naturally, other mechanical processes adopted the PLC too, and Morley was inducted into the Manufacturing Hall of Fame. In his off hours, Morley and his wife Shirley, who had two children, raised 40 foster children, but only on one condition: they refused to accept any money for doing it. The Morleys wanted to be sure the kids never thought they had any sort of profit motive. Richard E. “Dick” Morley retired in 1995, but continued to work, write, and help found or fund high tech startups — more than 100 of them. He died October 17, at 84.