Scott Ball / Rivard Report
We looked at our host with curiosity as he told us that we were standing in front of one of first global positioning systems (GPS) ever made. The device – which would have a hard time fitting into a living room, much less your pocket – is just one piece of David Monroe’s technological artifact collection, the basis for what could become San Antonio’s newest museum.
During a recent tour through a small, temporary exhibit of a portion of his collection at the headquarters of his company e-Watch, Monroe explained the mechanisms wherever his guests stopped to look. As an electrical engineer, his exposition on each piece was efficient and specific.
“San Antonio has played a huge role in global technology development, but no one tells the important stories,” he said, adding a “Yet.”
Monroe is leading an effort to establish San Antonio’s first technology museum, with his and other collections, to tell those stories. The plan is still in its infancy, but he has already started to vie for City, County, and private sector support.
Most people would strain to imagine what a technology museum – especially one focusing on San Antonio’s history – would be filled with. But Monroe is a piece of this history himself and has no problem with envisioning such a place.
Monroe has more than 50 patents and four companies to his name. He won the first Lifetime Achievement Award at the InnoTech San Antonio conference earlier this year, has thrived amidst the beginnings of the computer age, and has collected quite a few artifacts along the way.
Monroe dropped out of college at the University of Kansas to work at Datapoint in San Antonio, where he worked for Chief Technical Officer (CTO) Victor Poor, the head of a team credited with inventing the first microprocessor chip that made personal computers possible. He moved up in Datapoint during its heyday as a Fortune 500 company, leading development on numerous products.
Datapoint was an early San Antonio technology success story, creating some of the world’s first computer terminals, which replaced teletype machines.
But that microprocessor is still a sore subject for many in San Antonio. It was sold to Intel for a mere $40,000, and Intel later used the design in mass production to rake in millions. Monroe watched San Antonio fall out of the lead in computing technology, even as he succeeded independently in video technology.
Monroe is also credited with creating some of the initial teleconferencing devices, which later spun off into a separate company called Image Data Corporation in the ’80s that built the Photophone. The Photophone transmitted photographs over telephone lines – an early version of the camera phone Monroe would invent at another company, PhotoTelesis, in the ’90s.
Monroe’s “camera phone,” the first in the world, would be an especially interesting exhibition piece among some of the 4,000 other antique telephones in his collection. Collectively, they have been appraised at $2.7 million and are recognized as one of the largest collections in the country, he said.
San Antonio built some of the most foundational computing components, only to be forgotten in the face of Silicon Valley. He and others continued to invent cutting edge technology with little or no credit. Much of his imaging and video technologies were built for military applications, and so a huge portion of his work is either classified or uncredited, Monroe explained.
“There’s no doubt that San Antonio gets forgotten,” he said. “Few know about the connection between the city and microprocessors, mechanical hearts, or wireless networking. It’s important for San Antonio to take credit for what’s happened here, and it helps to show people what the foundation for a lot of technology actually is.”
So he’s scouting locations for a “proof of concept” museum exhibition that would require 25,000 sq. ft. There are several locations that fit the bill, including some downtown, but nothing is definitive yet. If a space is found soon, the prototype museum could open early next year, he said.
The big push for public and private funds for a larger, permanent museum will come after interest is sparked through the exhibit, he said. Ultimately, he sees a 200,000 sq. ft. science museum that explores the past, present, and ever-evolving future of technology in San Antonio.
“We want to create momentum,” he said. “If we can get a space, put a collection in, and get some programs going for children, that’s the first step. After that, we can plan a larger, world-class space for San Antonio.”
From Monroe’s collection alone, the prospective museum has the potential to thoroughly explore the history of telephony, computing, surveillance, and cybersecurity.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff has a similar focus on technology and legacy. BiblioTech, rideshare, the San Pedro Creek redevelopment, the Mission Reach, and the recent World Heritage designation are all initiatives he has led or supported and a technology museum falls in line with his vision of the city.
“We have to get kids more involved in science and technology, and everyone knows it,” Wolff said. “I think this museum would do a lot to get kids interested, and it would help keep San Antonio competitive with other cities seeking the same thing. We can’t allow ourselves to fall behind like we did after Datapoint slowed down. We’re smarter now.”
A technology museum has the opportunity to do more than convey knowledge about the specifics of its devices. What makes its potential unique is the capability to combine that applied information to the historical context of technology development.
It’s difficult not to give extra thought to the electricity pulsing through your home after hearing a description of the legendary fight between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla about the merits of direct current and alternating current. The story of the “War of the Currents” means even more when the earliest versions of both wiring types are sitting next to each other for any visitors to see. They look primitive. Thicker than churros and in blocky asymmetrical copper, the early wires bring a humanity to electricity.
Humanizing technology and devices by showing evidence of their invention could inspire young museum goers in different ways than interactive exhibits – which are also planned for the space – could. After walking through Monroe’s collection, it’s difficult to look at any existing technology with any notion of finality.
“We want to connect youth to science and to the companies that are implementing research and technology,” Monroe said of the main goal of the museum.
Visitors would pass generations of memory in just a few feet. Vacuum tubes were the first versions of computer memory and are made out of glass, and right next to them sit some of the first RAM configurations, and then the first solid state memory. After seeing the transitions side-by-side, rumors of developments like quantum computing seem more realistic. Seeing technology’s past will force viewers to consider its future.
Shaun Williams, CTO for Y&L Consulting, co-chaired the recent InnoTech conference and launched San Antonio Tecosystem in April. He’s also been helping rally support of the museum in the public and private sectors.
“STEM jobs are still one of the most effective pathways to achieve the american dream,” Williams said after the tour. “That’s the fastest path to a job that provides significant income, mobile opportunities, and flexibility people need to raise a family. The number of American families involved in STEM is reduced each year. We have to reinvigorate that type of motivation.”
*Featured/top image: Some of David Monroe’s private collection of technological artifacts. Photo by Scott Ball.