From The Very Beginning, Portland Has Been A City of Makers

by | Oct 12, 2012

Design is so much more than the look of things. Design is also the way things work, or conversely, don’t work. Portland, Oregon prides itself on being a place that does work, and the city has design and designers of every sort, throughout its history, to thank for that.

Last night, as part of Design Week Portland, we heard six Portland writers address significant designs born in Portland, and how the inventions, systems and objects created here helped to make the city the special place it is today.

Matthew Stadler opened the affair with a brief discussion regarding the formation of The Oregonian in 1850, largely as a civic action to boost Portland’s chances at becoming a viable city, in the face of competition from Milwaukie, Oregon City and Vancouver. Karla Starr presented a wealth of information about Vanport City, a massive and hastily constructed federal housing project near PDX, that was built to house shipyard workers during WWII. Starr noted it was the one time in Portland’s history when there were more jobs here than people.

I particularly appreciated the third presentation of the evening from Ziba writer and editor, Carl Alviani. His talk focused on “The Triggered Oscilloscope,” made by Tektronix in 1946. Alviani explained that this was the first time in our history that we could see and measure the electron world.

The invention of the Tektronix 511 led to myriad new inventions and helped Tektronix transform into a powerful company with 25,000 employees in the 1960s. But it wasn’t just Tektronik’s products or its impact on the local economy that made it such an important design development. The company set out to accomplish amazing things in a narrow field, and this helped it attract people who like to make discoveries, versus people who prefer to grow and manage a giant company like HP, Alviani noted.

Alviani said Tek sowed the seeds of today’s so-called “Creative Economy” and was “a social movement,” as well as a company. For instance, decades before it became routine, the company offered its workers profit sharing, free coffee, open offices and a relaxed atmosphere where individualism was honored. Alviani said, “the hippie engineer” found a home at Tek in the 1960s, and many local companies were born of Tek’s rib, Mentor Graphics being one of the more notable spinoffs to carry forward this special brand of Portland tech culture.

Portland Monthly editor-in-chief, Randy Gragg, shared some great material about Portland’s move to open space, and how San Francisco’s Larry Halprin, an influential American landscape architect and his wife Anna Halprin, a famous dancer, played a large role in “making the city safe for play.” Interestingly, the Halprins co-created the “RSVP Cycles”, a creative methodology that can be applied broadly across all disciplines.

The evening’s event, which was put together by Alviani, also featured two topics I was more familiar with. Chris Higgins shared the story of how the world’s first wiki was invented by Ward Cunningham, a former employee at Tektronix. Finally, my friend Rick Turoczy of Silicon Florist and Portland Incubator Experiment wrapped the session up with a look at beer’s role in shaping the city, from Henry Weinhard to the McMenamin and Widmer brothers.

Turoczy said that when people from other places visit the tech community here, they almost always make note of how every tech startup has a kegerator, sometimes several. Which is fitting. Portland’s makers want to celebrate their best work and the work of their friends, and the hand-crafted, heavily-hopped-but-still-working-class-brew is perfect beverage for that.

Illustration made by Jason Gurley