Sam Pitroda (Pic: Mayank Chhaya)
Revising my 21-year old biography of Sam Pitroda holds both rewards and reprimands; of course, more of the former than the latter. One major part of this exercise is to distil Pitroda’s technological/engineering accomplishments over the decades down to a few truly consequential ones.
At a time when he is inaccurately viewed as someone who merely frequently switches between techno-socio-developmental-political realms, it is interesting to revisit the more defined periods of his life. One such period was 1974 when he founded a company called Wescom Switching, Inc. Its mandate was to produce an electronic digital switch.
Those were the days of four different kinds of switching systems—the manual switch board system, the step-by-step switching system, the panel system and the crossbar system. A switch is at the heart of telecommunications handling phone calls. All these switches were known as blocking systems which could not handle a large volume of calls. They were all electromechanical systems which required vertical and often rotational motions which made them less flexible.
While Pitroda was immersed in looking for ways to overcome these inherent inflexibilities, he had made a serious mental note of the invention of microprocessors by Intel engineers Federico Faggin, Tedd Hoff and Stanley Mazor in 1971. As I said in the biography, “Sam had noted the development of microprocessors with a feeling that was somewhere between comprehension and confusion. He realized it had the potential to radically alter telecommunications.”
The switch that Sam and his team were working on at Wescom was called 580 DSS (Digital Switching System) because it had five new distinct features that would represent the the technology of the 1980s. The 580 DSS turned out to be Pitroda’s signature contribution to the world of telecom. His vision to use microprocessors in a digital switch turned out to be an extraordinary one. It was an ingenious move to use microprocessors in computer networks to control the switch.
What began in 1974 as a leap of faith in Sam’s mind had by 1978 become a pioneering non-blocking switch called the 580 DSS. Before this switch came the switching systems could use only 30 to 40 percent of the telephone lines. The use of microprocessors ensured that that inefficiency improved dramatically. The switch’s architecture was described as “very elegant and exquisite and unlike the analog switch, which had a continuously varying signal and hence bad phone connections and voice quality, this one was a string of 1’s and 0’s—now there is a signal, now there is not sort of thing which gave it great clarity.
While the engineering inventiveness of the 580 DSS was unquestionable and its quality remarkable, for Pitroda the eventual objective was not just improving voice and speed. His closest associate on the project in those days was a fellow Gujarati engineer called Madhu Mehta, whose contribution often goes unheralded. He said Sam was driven by the wish “to generate tremendous value through technology.” “As far as he was concerned the switch was a means. The end was much larger than just efficient telephone connections,” he said. The end, Pitroda, said, was to use efficient telecommunications to “transform societies because the phone was not just an instrument but a source of generational social change.” It was this philosophy that eventually brought him back to India in the early 1980s.
It is interesting that just about the time he was doing such pioneering work in digital switching, he was also doing some remarkable work in hand-held computing. On October 10, 1975 Pitroda filed a patent with the United States Patent Office called “Electronic Diary.” “An electronic diary having combined clock-calendar means and diary storage means is provided wherein a random access memory is employed in a diary mode of operation for the storage and readout of preselected daily schedules and message events keyed for visual display in response to equal time comparisons with real time of day (TOD) as generated by clock calendar means,” the extract accompanying the patent said. In simpler everyday terms, it was a system that would alert you to your appointments through audible alarms. This was the beginning of calendar alerts. The patent was granted on December 16, 1976.
Some years later Toshiba began marketing a similar electronic diary prompting Sam to claim patent violation. Toshiba settled for 80,000 dollars. He still has a copy of the check.
These two diverse accomplishments in engineering sum up Pitroda’s pioneering role in digital switching and hand-held computing, both of which have been widely acknowledged in the U.S. I mention these two because they give a specific context to the man who in the perceptions of many Indians is just an ambiguously techno-socio-developmental-political figure whose most identifiable contribution is the now outdated STD-PCOs. That was just a miniscule part of his many endeavors.The revised biography seeks to address those if only to create a more accurate profile of someone who presides over seminal national projects in India worth several billion dollars, each one of them with the potential to unleash generational transformation.