The father of the PLC lives on in all the lives he touched—and will continue to touch

Dec. 1, 2017
"To me, [Dick Morley's] openness to possibility, characterized by a seemingly endless stream of big ideas, and his personable humility make him stand apart from other innovators across all industries."

I'm always slavishly grateful to people who can explain to me how things really work because I usually can't figure them out on my own. A few years ago, I was trying to research "industrial computers," but it was devilishly difficult because they'd begun to morph and take on almost any form. How could I cover them if I couldn't define them?

Luckily, it was at about the same time that I met briefly with the legendary Dick Morley at one of the many tradeshows we all attend, and I asked, "Isn't the PLC really just a computer, too?"

And, without missing a beat and with no hint of ego or psychological investment—which might easily be expected from someone at the root of that device's invention—he told me, "Well, yes, it is a computer, but we had to put it in an enclosure and make it look industrial so engineers and other people on the plant floor would use it."  

Perfect. For me, this was a rare and completely unselfconscious answer, which led me to focus on where the calculations are actually occurring as my definition of "industrial computer," and not remain tangled up in the increasingly shifting forms they take. As you might guess, this perspective has been helpful in approaching and framing many stories since then, and I've continued to appreciate Dick and the little Ninja star of insight he provided way back when.

As a result, like so many other folks, I was deeply saddened to hear about Dick's death on Oct. 17 at the age of 84 after a long illness. I really only interacted with him for a few minutes, but of course, he profoundly impacted the lives of thousands of family members, friends and associates over his long life and career. Not surprisingly, most have been consoling each other with a deluge of stories since his passing.

Dr. Peter Martin delivered a great tribute, "Loss of a Legend—And a Friend," in one of the blogs on Schneider Electric's website. Likewise, the Go Fund Me site set up in his memory contains many tributes and reminiscences, too.

Even one of his best-known locations on the web, The Barn Website, is still up and running with its usual content. I'm told that "Geek Pride Days," motorcycles, skiing, fostering and adopting children, and apparently chasing interns with remote-controlled backhoes were just a few of Dick's many pastimes, but those are rumors that others will have to confirm.

In fact, it can hard to find someone who doesn't have something kind, funny or interesting to say about him. "Dick’s legacy as a mentor, innovator, and inspiration extends well beyond his many professional accomplishments," says Rick Caldwell, president of system integrator SCADAware. "To me, his openness to possibility—characterized by a seemingly endless stream of “big ideas”—and his personable humility make him stand apart from other innovators across all industries. He was a friend to me for 25 years, and had a profound effect on me, in the way I think and how I look at things. I will miss him greatly."

Sam Hoff, CEO of system integrator Patti Engineering, added, "Dick was an optimist, innovator, and visionary. Every time I met Dick, it was a memorable experience, and he gave me several nuggets to use in business and life. He and his wife, Shirley, were very giving as they took in many foster kids over the years. He is now reunited with the love of his life. In conclusion, the best thing to say about Dick is 'Life Well Lived.'"

More recently, the International Society of Automation announced Nov. 7 that it's created the Richard E. “Dick” Morley Innovation Scholarship to honor him. ISA endowed the fund with an initial $50,000, and has pledged to match the next $50,000 in donations.  

I believe it's good to be reminded of all these close contacts and stories about Dick because they're items his family and friends get to keep with them always. And, if little pieces of us likewise get to stay close to the spirits of the departed, then Dick must have lot of company.  

About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control.