Richard Morley was born on a farm in Clinton, Massachusetts in 1932. While he was reportedly not very motivated in high school, he amazed everyone with his acceptance to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of technology. His boredom with academic life continued and, by his own admission, he was more interested in pulling pranks, running a bootleg AM radio station, and in his part-time job as a machinist. Despite some formal education at MIT as a mechanical engineer, he left school without a degree.
By all accounts, regular corporate employment didn’t suit him. Uninterested in meetings and office politics, he preferred going skiing during the week because the lift lines were shorter. He found the life of a consultant more suitable than that of a 9 to 5’er, so he started his own company, Bedford Associates.
Neither his lack of degree nor distaste for corporate life proved to be much of a handicap. Over the next ten years, Morley was involved in the creation of the floppy disk, as well as a dazzling array of projects including radar, atomic bombs, and packet radio.
But what earns Morley the most fame in the electronics industry is his largest contribution: the programmable logic controller or PLC.
The Time Before Programmable Logic Controllers
Although it’s hard to imagine it today, factories weren’t always controlled by computers. Machines still needed to be turned on and off in the proper sequence and the same machines had to respond to other events, such as overheating tanks and excess pressure in valves. In those benighted times, banks of relays and other electromechanical controllers were employed to do the job.
1960s-era manual relay panels. Image used courtesy of Lunds Universitet.
These old-time controllers were troublesome, requiring constant maintenance, and they consumed lots of power. And, perhaps worst of all, any changes in the manufacturing process, let alone the need to produce a different product, required the time and effort of skilled electricians to go in and rewire, by hand, each electrical connection between the relays, sequencers, and timers.
The Gauntlet Is Thrown: The Need for a "Standard Machine Controller"
In 1968, an engineer from GM Hydramatic named Bill Stone presented a paper at a Westinghouse conference laying out the challenges that he came across at his plant. He described a need in the industry from actual experience and submitted that a modular, rugged system was necessary for reducing downtime.
Several companies answered the call—including Allen-Bradley, Digital Equipment Corporation, and Century Detroit—putting forth early iterations of PLCs.
What Stone could not have known was that Morley and his company had already been designing such a device.
Dick Morley was already on the case. In January of 1968, Morley sketched out the parameters of the first PLC: a rugged, usable controller that could utilize direct mapping into memory and didn't require interrupts for processing. His initial design predated ladder logic by several months, though he apparently had already anticipated the need for that kind of language. Morley and his compatriots at Bedford Associates—Mike Green, Tom Boissevain, George Schwenk, and Jonas Landau—developed the idea of a Modular Digital Controller, which quickly got shortened to MODICON.
The idea soon grabbed a lot of attention—so much so that Bedford Associates renamed itself Modicon in October of 1968.
The concept was initially rechristened the PC or programmable controller (as the "logic" portion would come with the advent of ladder logic). The first such device produced, the Modicon, was the Modicon 084.
The Modicon 084. Image used courtesy of Lunds Universitet.
The PLC was a big change for the factory floor, both technologically and culturally. It took the better part of a decade to gain widespread acceptance.
A self-described “lousy manager”, Morley wasn’t interested in running companies. He preferred to find people with interesting ideas and simply fund them and as such considered himself an “angel investor”. And, to hear him describe it, it seemed like he was always more interested in having techy fun than in actually making money.
In his later years, Morley moved to New Hampshire and ran another consulting company out of a facility he called “The Barn”. He’d been married to his wife, Shirley, for half a century and they raised three of their own children and fostered over twenty.
Richard Morley passed in 2017 at the age of 84. His legacy can be seen in industrial control around the world.
Were you one of the engineers whose life was changed when the PLC was introduced? Please share your recollections of that time period in the comments below.
- "History of Control: History of PLC and DCS" and "A Short History About PLC and DCS" by Vanessa Romero Segovia and Alfred Theorin
- "An Abbreviated History of Automation & Industrial Controls Systems and Cybersecurity" by Ernie Hayden (GICSP, CISSP, CEH), Michael Assante, and Tim Conway
- "The History of PLCs" by The Automation Engineer
- "The father of invention: Dick Morley looks back on the 40th anniversary of the PLC" by Alison Dunn