Wednesday, 16 May 2012

BLAME CITY HALL: How Vancouver lost Texas Instruments

In the beginning before Apple and Microsoft there was Texas Instruments. T.I. remains one of the World’s pre-eminent high tech companies. It was founded by Cecil Green. Born in 1900, Green grew up in Vancouver. He graduated from King Edward High School in 1918.

Cecil Green went to UBC and then traveled to Boston where he got his degree in engineering from MIT.   A businessman of the same rank as Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, he was also a great philanthropist. He gave hundreds of millions of dollars to educational institutions in Texas and all over the world. He said that intelligent giving required a great deal of effort. He and his wife Ida were a team and carefully monitored their gifts.

He wanted to have all the fun of giving away everything. “When I die, all I want left is a nickel.”

Cecil Green loved British Columbia. He had a childhood summer home on the water near Gibsons and loved salmon fishing as a kid.  He used to fish at Salmon Rock.

 He had made sizable gift of 6 million dollars that was matched by the BC Government to UBC to set up Green College, a multi discipline graduate school.  His gifts however to each of Oxford, MIT and a myriad of institutions in Texas were far, far greater.

I had the good fortune to be invited to a dinner held in his honor in 1986 by his friend in Vancouver, Haig Farris. Someone asked Green how it happened that Texas Instruments was established in Texas. Why was it not “British Columbia Instruments?”  Why did he leave B.C? 

“Well,” he explained, “After I graduated from MIT   I planned to come home. I wanted to live and work in Vancouver. Ida and I packed up the Model A Ford and returned.  I had the idea  to set up what in the early 20's seemed like a promising  high tech business: - Neon  lights. A business license was required from City Hall. It was the 'City Electrician' who had to approve the license so I went to see him.”

The Electrician listened politely while the earnest Mr. Green explained his business plan.

When he was finished, the City Electrician said, “Tell me this Mr. Green: What in your opinion is the purpose of an electric sign.”

Green replied, “To get the attention of potential customers.”

“Exactly,” said the City Electrician.  “Now tell me this.” he asked. “Why should anyone 'use Neon instead of incandescent bulbs.”

Green explained how neon lights drew less electricity and could be bent into any shape and colour.

“But,” asked the electrician, “which gives off more light – incandescent bulbs or neon?”

“Incandescent bulbs of course,” Green replied.

The Socratic exchanged ended with the Electrician saying, “Mr. Green I will give you a permit for your neon light business but on one condition. You must have the signs surrounded by a border of incandescent light bulbs.”

Cecil knew that BC Electric (Hydro’s predecessor) was reluctant to allow neon lights since they used less electricity and the electric company was in the business of selling – not conserving it. He suspected that the City Official was in cahoots with BCE.

Green thanked him for his time and sage advice.  He and his wife, Ida, packed up their Model A Ford and headed for the United States. There he received his permit and ultimately set up what could have been B.C. Instruments but is instead Texas Instruments.

Green passed away in 2003 at the age of 102.  He held thirteen honorary doctorate degrees from around the world. His gifts included 50 academic, medical and civic buildings; 20 instructional and research facilities, 28 endowed chairs in 15 institutions; countless endowed awards to students, numerous huge Science Centers in Texas, England, MIT and California. The list of his gifts to Texas alone was staggering.

Vancouver's Mayor, Gregor Robertson, has been invited to speak to a convention in Paris. I gather from the reports he will explain Vancouver's commitment to encouraging high tech development. He will explain all of the things that we are doing to ensure that we have a lower carbon footprint, how we are imposing the LEEDS standards on building. His Council will assist in part by buying or otherwise encouraging the right products and discouraging the wrong ones.  They will move us out of the age of oil to the next age whether it may be fusion, solar, wind or politically generated methane.

While one must not draw too much from an experience, Green did not choose Texas over Vancouver because of that states technological superiority, or its grant system, or its taxes or higher salary or a policy of inducing any particular kind of enterprise.  He went to Texas because a bureaucrat in Vancouver, his home town, had an idea about how Cecil Green, then in his early twenties should run his business. Vancouver gave him advice.  The state of Texas gave him a permit.

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