Process Automation Hall of Fame: Cast a Giant Shadow

Three Men Whose Careers Changed the Automation Industry and the World

By Walt Boyes

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He Changed the World: Tom Phinney

"My father was a manufacturer's representative for Interdata (one of the first manufacturers of computers used for process control –ed.) in the mid 1960s. I went to inspect their plant, I believe, while I was in graduate school, and then returned and started programming a simple (by today's standards) process monitoring and data analysis application," says Tom Phinney, who retired from Honeywell Process Solutions, but not from the automation profession, a few years ago.

He goes on, "In 1971 the Advanced Computer Development Group of GE in Phoenix, for which I was working, was transferred to Billerica, Mass., as part of the sale of GE Information Systems to Honeywell Information Systems. I then was recruited to GE Process Computer, to which I transferred as a systems architect, because I wanted to remain in Phoenix.

"At GE Process, I continued to work on new computer architectures, but also designed early route-optimizing software for oil movements and participated in various special projects. Later, after Honeywell bought the GE process operation, I had occasional special projects where I was the automation system architect and software implementer."

About himself, Phinney says, "I'm a mathematician by training, with a lifelong love of music (primarily J.S. Bach and other baroque music). As an adult I took up martial arts, mostly aikido, and then ballet. This resulted in me performing in minor roles on all the major stages in Phoenix of that time.

"I was married when I was in graduate school, and soon had a son. Like many, I ended up with a divorce rather than a PhD. More recently, I have been with the same woman for over 35 years, and I have been head of the board of trustees for a church, secretary of a number of Phoenix-area non-profits, and a significant supporter of early music programs and education at Arizona State University, for which I have commissioned and contributed two clavichords to early music pedagogy and performance."

Phinney continues, "We spend our summers on the central Oregon coast where I have a house (courtesy of the sale in 1989 of Concord Data Systems, which I founded), and we attend every performance of the 18-day Oregon Bach Festival (OBF) in Eugene each summer. We are substantial contributors to OBF, including endowing the OBF keyboard chair. My own musical interest is in early keyboards, primarily clavichords, and I own two of them.

"I have a son, a daughter-in-law from Canada, and two young granddaughters who live in Portland, Ore. My granddaughters and I all study Chinese—they in immersion programs in school. Even though we are all Caucasians, this is to better equip us for careers in the 21st century.

"I got co-opted," Phinney says of his later career, "into the IEEE 802 LAN standards process because I volunteered to produce a draft specification for a peer variant of HTLC, which went on to become IEEE 802.2 (This was at the very beginnings of Ethernet –ed.). This led me to be a co-founder of Concord Data Systems and Concord Communications, which was basing part of its business model on LAN products for industrial communications networks. I was involved in IEEE 802.4, for which I was co-editor. And, in turn, work in the 802.4 committee on industrial wireless led to the formation of IEEE 802.11 WiFi, for which I co-wrote the project authorization, and was inadvertently the final editor of the first version of that standard. There was other work in IEEE 802 on CATV-based and security aspects of LANs.

"After we closed the Phoenix Concord office, my old manager at Honeywell approached me about short-term consulting, which then led to an offer of reemployment with an immediate transfer to the Brussels office of Honeywell-Europe. I took the offer since my family needs were to live in or near western Germany at that time. While in Europe, I worked primarily with Shell International at den Haag [The Hague], and participated in the European MAP [Manufacturing Automation Protocol] Users Group.

"When that European assignment ended, I returned to Honeywell's Phoenix offices where I started work on ISA's SP50 fieldbus standards committee. That, in turn, led to the Ronan/Honeywell/Emerson FieldChipS project and then to my role as U.S. Technical Advisor to ANSI [American National Standards Institute] for IEC SC65C and as convenor of the IEC 61158 set of fieldbus standards.

"In 2001, I was recruited to work for Honeywell's central research labs in Minneapolis, although I continued to live and work in Phoenix. That transfer occurred on April Fool's Day 2001, and almost immediately I began work on projects related to U.S. security issues, much of which were federally funded. That accelerated after 9/11, and I continued with that work until I retired at the end of July in 2007.

"My work on fieldbus design standards segued naturally to work on Honeywell's industrial wireless product design, which later extended to ISA100.11a wireless and to WirelesssHART. My long background in writing standards and my security and crypto background—remember, I was initially a mathematician, and many of my classmates ended up at NSA [U.S. National Security Administration] during the 1960s—led naturally to my focus on the cybersecurity issues of wireless automation networks."

Phinney believes that one of his most important contributions was the formation of IEEE 802.11, and the related work in IEEE 802.4, which led to the genesis of WiFi. "Nothing else has had such an extensive influence on modern life as non-proprietary, spread- spectrum wireless LANs, whether 802.11 or the more recent 802.15 and 802.16 variants."

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