Harry Knowles Inventor, entrepreneur, and philanthropist C. Harry Knowles (1928-2020) held more than 400 U.S. patents relating to transistors, lasers, and bar code scanning technology, making him one of the more prolific inventors (compared with all-time leader Thomas Edison, who earned more than 1,000 patents) in the United States. A 1951 graduate of Auburn University with a major in physics, Knowles spent the better part of 40 years as head of Metrologic Instruments, Inc., a global barcode scanner company that he founded in New Jersey in 1968. His greatest legacy, however, is the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation, which he founded and headed and which supports excellence in high school math and science teaching.
Carl Harry Knowles was born on August 15, 1928, in Birmingham, Jefferson County, to Harry Holmes and Ruby Smith Penn Knowles. His father worked as an engineer on electrical substations and held at least six patents for electrical equipment, such as circuits and switches, and was a scientific and inventive inspiration to his son. C. Harry also was inspired by half-brother (from his father’s first marriage) Hugh S. Knowles, who invented early transistor-based hearing aids, served as the 1944 president of the Acoustical Society of America, and founded global Illinois-based acoustical company Knowles Electronics.
Harry’s parents divorced when he was young; his mother would remarry two more times, lastly to Birmingham engineer Harry Carson. (Two education buildings at Jefferson State Community College bear the Carson name in honor of their gift of 75 acres to the school.) Knowles lived with his mother in Texas from 1938 to 1942 and then returned to Birmingham, where he enjoyed more stability with his father and (following his father’s remarriage) stepmother, the former Thelma Villines Ramsey, along with his stepbrother, Jim Ramsey, a future anesthesiologist.
Harry Knowles, 1945 From an early age, Knowles had a keen interest in science and photography, eventually working as his high school’s photographer and part time at Lollar’s, a large regional film-processing firm located two floors above Birmingham’s Lyric Theatre. Knowles graduated in 1945 from Birmingham’s Ensley High School, where he won two Alabama Junior Academy of Science awards, one for building a working tabletop sulphuric acid plant and the other for a paper on photographic emulsion. After graduation, Knowles followed half-brother William Penn, a Birmingham native and World War II Army Air Corps bomber pilot, to Alabama Polytechnic Institute (API, now Auburn University) in 1945, competing on API’s first wrestling team. But Knowles interrupted his education after one year to join the Marine Corps. After training at Parris Island, South Carolina, Knowles was assigned to Henderson Hall on the edge of Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, serving as a guard before special assignment to the recreational facilities. He left the Marines in mid-1948 and returned that fall term to API, where he rose to leadership positions in several student organizations. He joined Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity; organized API’s chapter of the national physics honor society, Sigma Pi Sigma, and served as its first president; became editor of the 1951 Glomerata (the student yearbook); and was recognized as one of the top campus leaders when he became a member of the Spades organization. (Many of Knowles’s photos from his college days—including rare aerial photographs of Auburn University—are housed in the collections of the Auburn University Digital Library.)
TV3 Vanguard Satellite Knowles credited his choice of physics as a major to physics professor Howard Carr (1915-2003), an API alumnus who later became head of its physics department. Carr became Knowles’s mentor and a lifelong measure of the fundamentals of good science and good teaching. Knowles graduated in August 1951 with a bachelor’s degree in physics. He then entered Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, receiving a master’s degree in physics in 1953. After graduation, Knowles began working for Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, where he joined the explosion of technological developments enabled by the invention of the transistor. His work on germanium transistors contributed greatly to Project Vanguard, the nation’s first satellite, and the Nike Zeus anti-aircraft missile system. His germanium transistor provided the higher frequency needed for Project Vanguard’s satellite transmitter and subsequently filled the speed requirements of Nike Zeus. His germanium mesa transistor designs were the key components of most of the large computers of the late 1950s and 1960s and were a major product line, along with silicon transistors, at Motorola, where Knowles moved in 1958 as mesa transistor product manager before being promoted in 1961 to assistant general manager for research and development. While there, he invented the “star transistor,” which became the universally recognized standard, the 2N2222 transistor, a medium-high-speed switch used in billions of devices and still a popular component today. In 1954, Knowles married New Jersey native Phoebe Barrett, with whom he had three children; the couple divorced in 1967.
Harry Knowles at Westinghouse Knowles left Motorola in 1962 and joined Westinghouse as the general manager of the molecular electronics division. The field of molecular electronics used matter itself as the basic building blocks of the circuitry to build smaller and smaller electronic components, such as transistors. During his tenure at Westinghouse, Knowles developed the basic concepts of and precursor to the renowned Moore’s Law forecasting model for the semiconductor industry, presenting his observations and predictions at the 1964 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Conference in New York City. Named after Gordon Moore, who was one of the founders of Intel Corporation, Moore’s Law states that the complexity of circuits (measured by the number of transistors) doubles approximately every two years and became a driving force in the creation of increasingly smaller and faster integrated circuits produced at decreasing cost. In 1967-1968, Knowles married and divorced his second wife, Ursula Fuss of Germany. (He would marry two more times, to the former Janet Kurtas Starzynski in 1972 and to noted Philadelphia pediatric neuropathologist Lucy B. Rorke-Adams in 2013.)
Metrologic Instruments Headquarters, 1984 In 1968, Knowles established Metrologic Instruments, Inc., which progressed from producing lasers for educational kits to creating a plethora of barcode scanning products sold in more than 100 countries worldwide. Headquartered in Blackwood, New Jersey, Metrologic, at its height, employed more than 1,500 people. During the nearly 40 years Knowles led Metrologic (before his final retirement in 2007), the United States saw the integration of lasers into countless technologies and the birth of the Universal Product Code, better known as the barcode, which changed the grocery, retail, and mailing industries and enhanced patient safety. Knowles’s and Metrologic’s inventions were integral to ushering handheld laser scanners as well as triggerless, omnidirectional, and mini-slot scanners, into the retail market. Within his scanners, Knowles used an array of technologies from lasers to holography to camera-based systems to radio-frequency identification. In 2008, Honeywell International bought Metrologic Instruments; in 2009 Metrologic became part of a new division, Honeywell Scanning & Mobility.
Harry Knowles at Auburn University Inspired by his experience with his Auburn mentor and teacher, Howard Carr, in 1999 Knowles established the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation (KSTF), which provides support, including research, mentoring, and funding, to increase the number of high-quality high school math and science teachers across the country. Each year, KSTF awards highly competitive five-year fellowships to exceptional early-career teachers. These fellowships improve teacher retention, with 90 percent of the KSTF fellows remaining in the classroom after five years, compared with a national retention average that hovers under 55 percent after five years. To date, about 250 KSTF teaching and senior fellows teach in 42 states; since the program’s inception, KSTF fellows have taught more than 150,000 students nationwide.
Knowles was the recipient of many honors, including induction into the New Jersey Business Hall of Fame and two presidential “E” and “E Star” awards for export success. He was honored by Auburn University in 2006 as a College of Sciences and Mathematics Distinguished Alumnus; in 2007, with a Lifetime Achievement Award; and, in 2008, with the university’s highest recognition—an honorary doctorate. Knowles died in Medford, New Jersey, on January 8, 2020.
C. Harry Knowles Collection (papers). Auburn University Department of Special Collections and Archives, Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama.
Hendrix, Mary Ellen. Genius in America: The Story of C. Harry Knowles, Inventor. Montgomery, Ala.: The Donnell Group, 2014.