• Scan10006
    “The highest reward for a person's toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.” --John Ruskin

Earl Gray

Earl Gray was born into electronics and technology. His father, Earl Gray Sr., joined the Navy as a young man at the onset of World War II, and immediately set out on a lifelong career in radar and avionics. Earl’s mother Diane meanwhile had just finished medical school, and realizing that she simply didn’t like hospitals, began to explore other interests, despite her father’s desire that she stay in medicine. The war produced an immediate demand for talent in the new field of electronics radar, a demand so great it was gender blind. This was the perfect opportunity for a young bright woman, and Diane jumped at the technology opportunity in the U.S. Navy.  Her position was identical to Earl Sr.’s, and it wasn’t long before their paths crossed and they were married. After the war, they retired from the Navy, and both began working for Boeing, helping to design many guidance and electrical systems including that of the Apollo Lunar Lander.

It seemed like destiny then, with both Nature and Nurture so powerfully aligned, that young Earl Jr.’s curiosity in science and technology would flourish. His childhood playground was his parent’s electronics shop in the basement, and the coffee table upstairs was a fully functional, state of the art IBM System3 minicomputer, a rare item in any American home at the time.  It is at the “coffee table” where Earl first learned to program computers.

Young Earl’s first job was with a company repairing IBM mainframes and peripherals for large corporations and universities.  Soon finding the work unchallenging and mundane, he decided to take a position with the burgeoning video game field, developing and beta testing classic video games such as PacMan, Asteroids, and Pole Position.  Still in his late 20’s, and experiencing some financial success, Earl and a partner purchased several houses in the Seattle area, refurbishing them and reselling them.  One of these houses came with a particular set of problems requiring control of gas valves in the home, which Earl set out to solve through engineering. His innovative solution was approved by the city, so Earl handed the schematics to his plumbers and electricians, who could make no sense of what he wanted. Feeling the pressure of a deadline, Earl decided to fabricate the system himself. The elegance of the design solution impressed the Building Inspector, and also caught the attention of Rick Hermanson, the next-door neighbor.  Rick, a passionate salmon fisherman, had an idea for a high-tech fish smoker, and immediately sought Earl’s help with the design. After the application was explained to him, Earl drew up the system on a napkin, sent the neighbor out for parts, and when he returned, put the system together. 

Impressed and appreciative, Rick Hermanson told Earl he really should be in the “controls” business.  Not knowing what business he was speaking of, Earl was intrigued.  As it turns out, the neighbor happened to be the CEO of a large mechanical contracting company, and Rick was acutely aware of the burgeoning field known as Direct Digital Controls (DDC) where large systems such as HVAC, Lighting, and Security were controlled by computer based devices networked together. As a “Thank You” for the help with the fish smoker, Mr. Hermanson sent Earl to a college class titled “An Introduction to Direct Digital Controls”, taught by the head engineer of Control Contractors Inc. CCI was a young and growing environmental controls system contractor, and Earl was fascinated in the cutting edge field of building kinetic systems from computers. Essentially, as Earl explains it, these are “systems that move stuff”, computer programs that move mechanical devices according to a predetermined set of demands and parameters. Before the course ended, Earl was offered a job with Control Contractors where he quickly gravitated to programming DDC, and became the “go to guy” for complicated systems. 

In 1993 Myer Coval called Control Contractors inquiring about computer controls for his house. The salesman quickly saw that Myer was better informed about DDC than he was, and remembering that Earl also had a great interest in residential controls (Earl was by then controlling all aspects of his own home with computers) he solicited the help of his young new computer “guru”. At the first meeting, Myer and Earl appreciated each other’s capacity for technical detail, and they quickly dove into long discussions about control systems in general, and specifically in “event based” controls. After many hours poring over schematics of existing systems and much discussion regarding how the proposed house would be lived in, Earl accepted the contract and joined the various teams that would eventually build the Coval home. Earl still remembers that day. “We were sitting at his kitchen table, where after a satisfying hand shake, he came in close, and with a piercing stare said: “I want to make sure you do one thing for me”.  Earl replied, “Of course, anything you want.”  “I want you to have fun,” Myer said quietly. Earl soon learned that this was one of the most enduring qualities of the Coval House: if the craftsmen were happy, it would be reflected in the creative collaboration of the team and ultimately in the quality of the home.

Earl worked on the Coval house control system over a five year period, first designing the systems, then implementing them along with an onsite team, then adding to and upgrading them, all the while learning about the psychology of systems from David Eck, to make the graphic interface intuitive and user friendly. Prior to the Coval House, Earl designed the systems for Columbia Center in downtown Seattle, still the tallest building in the Northwest. In some ways, Earl notes, the Coval House has more complex systems than the Columbia Center. For example, in the shower room, Earl produced a program that calculates the dew point on the interior glass, factoring both inside temperature and outside temperature as well as humidity. If moisture is about to form on the windows, hot water heats a stainless steel plate beneath them, producing warm air to dry the windows.

Earl continued to work with CCI, eventually becoming the company’s Chief Technical Officer and a noted industry expert, as well as an innovator in the controls world.  Earl has published over a dozen articles in respected industry technical magazines, has acted as Chairman for industry groups, and speaks regularly to industry associations on technical aspects of computer controls.  Eventually Earl left Control Contractors to start a new company, ARAS Systems, along with the former President of CCI Harold Grover and several other CCI executives.  Together the team built ARAS Systems from an idea to a corporation with $7 million in annual revenues in 2005.  

Earl continued to network with many friends in the controls business, and one evening over dinner an executive with Honeywell Inc., astutely assessing Earls’ talent and experience, offered Earl a hand tailored executive position with Honeywell, the undisputed world control systems leader, with over 110, 000 employees and $36 Billion in annual revenues. Earl sold his shares of ARAS, and set his sights on the new opportunity.  As a Senior Controls Consultant for Honeywell, Earl works under an unusually broad technical umbrella: helping develop new products and helping very large customers such as government agencies, military bases, universities, and large geographically disbursed corporations understand what technology they have, and how it can be integrated together. Systems that can be networked, secured, and improved, directly impact operating costs and produce a durable competitive advantage.

When Earl began on the Coval House, most of the systems there were available only in commercial applications, not residential. Earl credits the creative opportunities at the Coval House as a significant step in his professional development, and feels a personal connection to the systems he designed there, a feeling that most all of the craftsmen who worked on the home share. As testament to Earls‘s work at the Coval House, the refined systems continue to work quietly and flawlessly in the background, opening valves, adjusting temperatures, turning on lights, moving water and air, and providing feedback when something is ready for service. Occasionally, he drops by just to view his work of art, and talk about the unimaginable possibilities on the technology horizon. Although Earl lives and breathes technologies that few people can understand, he does find time for more primitive devices, such as his bike and his electric guitar. No doubt even these will be wired into some elegant computer system someday, if they’re not already.