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Four decades ago, a Pitt doctoral student was writing innovative computer code, trying to build a better rocket engine at his Westinghouse job. Ultimately, John A. Swanson created a new way to engineer all kinds of products. His latest deed amounts to a historic milestone for Pitt.

The Swanson Code


Ervin Dyer

John A. Swanson, flanked by the Swanson School’s Christy Hydrean, a graduate student; Nick Andes, an undergraduate; and Ben Gordon (ENGR ’07), a recent alumnus. (CIDDE photo)

In the hours before twilight, the night sky still hugs the green acres of Mount Upton, a pin dot of a place on the map of upstate New York. It is cold and dark and blustery, and even the old roosters are not ready for their morning arias. But a boy of 14 is out of bed, slipping on his dungarees and boots. Long before the sun breaks the horizon, the teenager crosses the road to Twitchell’s dairy farm where, along with his two brothers, he’ll shovel manure, milk cows, bale hay, and harvest crops.

All of what the 14-year-old will one day become has roots in the fresh fields and working-class values of Mount Upton, a community that got its start as a fur-trading crossroads in the early 1800s. In these parts, the land is tough, but the people are tougher.

When the boy was 4 years old, his father, Henry, a jack-of-all-trades, died in a car accident. His mother, Dorothy, a fifth-grade teacher, was left to raise her three sons alone. Now, the brothers work at the neighbor’s farm to help with household expenses.

But rural life is not all hardship; there are joys, too. The teenager loves to drive tractors and operate the tool-toys of farm life. These simple pleasures sweeten the tasks of labor—plowing fields, mowing hay, harvesting oats.

In time, the experiences of John A. Swanson’s youth will lead him out of the pastures of upstate New York to a place of distinction among the nation’s top inventor-icons—people like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. But first he has to make his way.

At Mount Upton Central High School, Swanson ranked at the top of his class of 12. He aced science and math and showed even more initiative as the only student in his class to venture into trigonometry, where he was largely self-taught. At school, a favorite teacher noticed the student’s analytical skills and, with that teacher’s help and a National Merit Scholarship, Swanson entered new green space—the Ivy League. He graduated from high school and traveled 75 miles over the region’s hills to attend Cornell University. There, he put his knack for both math and science to work: He chose to study engineering.

Roughly five years later, with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering in hand, he left Cornell to join the Astronuclear Division of Westinghouse Electric, headquartered near Pittsburgh, Pa. In the 1960s, life was bustling at Westinghouse. The powerhouse electric company—founded in the late 1800s, when Pittsburgh was a hotbed of industry and commerce—was stepping up its nuclear plant development. Swanson arrived at the firm during a new era of U.S. space exploration that included putting men on the moon and harnessing the power of the atom.

Swanson’s job was to help design and test the NERVA (Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application) rockets, which involved the development of nuclear thermal engines. With his sleeves rolled up, he sometimes worked seven days a week, grinding out space-age calculations for engines that might one day power the nation’s rocket-boosted forays beyond Earth.

During this era, Westinghouse was a magnet for those who liked to figure out how to make things work—even seemingly impossible things. The company had more patents for its technologies than most other companies. Its employees were introduced to emerging technologies, like computer programming and digital processing. Swanson took classes to acquire skills that would advance his understanding of these new-age tools. He also was working on developing a computer code that could run his complicated rocket-science calculations much faster.

Swanson had been at Westinghouse for only three months when a supervisor encouraged him to pursue doctoral studies in applied mechanics at the University of Pittsburgh. Soon, he was attending classes at night, taking three courses each term, three semesters a year. “I knew all the routes like the back of my hand,” he says about driving back and forth from the Oakland campus to his home in Elizabeth Township, Pa.

He earned his Pitt doctoral degree in 1966. Four years later, he founded Swanson Analysis Systems, Inc., which became ANSYS, Inc., a company that blossomed from the seeds of the computer technology he learned during his years at Westinghouse and Pitt. In the 1970s, software was key to a booming new computer era that was changing fundamental business practices in many places around the world—in fact, it was changing the way the world worked.

Before Swanson and ANSYS, it was standard for companies to design their products, manufacture them, then work out the kinks postproduction. This, of course, took time and cost money, lots of both. Swanson developed a way to enable the design and testing of products virtually—on a computer—before manufacture. He created computer-coded software that simulates the effects of varying physical forces on products like rockets, automobile parts, building materials, medical pumps and valves, refinery equipment, and more. ANSYS specializes in the design and development of this engineering-simulation software, which helps companies worldwide evaluate whether their product designs will actually work in real-world settings and under what conditions. It’s software that can be customized and adapted to many situations and products. Sectors currently using ANSYS software include aerospace, automotive, industrial, semiconductor, chemical processing, civil engineering, consumer products, electronics, government, medical and biomedical, telecommunications, and many more. One doesn’t have to look far to understand how much of the world Swanson has touched. His software has advanced the design and function of soda bottles, jet engines, railroad locomotives, artificial hearts, and on and on.

The values that were forged on an upstate dairy farm were evident at ANSYS, where Swanson managed the company from an office filled with family photos and stacks of computer cards bundled by rubber bands and stored in cardboard boxes. Swanson obliged his employees to work hard, be respectful, and treat customers especially well. One early ANSYS hire says he marveled at Swanson’s business acumen and his depth of skill in building computer code. Swanson expected his employees to stay ahead of the curve and, when time permitted, he “held school,” standing in front of a chalkboard giving lessons in technology and operating systems. He preached efficiency and performance.

Twenty years ago, one University of Pittsburgh student was able to observe Swanson up close. Michael Lovell, a Pitt engineering major, took an internship at ANSYS. He first met the boss at a company luncheon where the engineering student sat next to Swanson. The intern said “Hello,” and Swanson did the rest, recalls Lovell. He spent the entire luncheon sharing stories with the young man about life and business philosophy. He was easy to talk with and sincere, recalls Lovell. “It really impressed me.”

On another occasion, the intern walked into Swanson’s office with some work-related questions. The CEO answered each question patiently yet never looked up from the computer. “He sat there and solved my problems as he continued to develop code,” says Lovell. Colleagues say Swanson could, in one weekend, solve complex engineering riddles. He thoroughly knew all of the software code that he developed at ANSYS, even though it consisted of thousands and thousands of lines of code and some of it was 20 years old. “He knew every routine,” says Lovell. “It would take him two clicks to find something.” Then, he adds: “He was awe-inspiring.”

Today, the one-time ANSYS intern still agrees with that statement. As associate dean for research and professor of industrial and mechanical engineering in Pitt’s School of Engineering, Lovell has seen firsthand the benefits of Swanson’s vision, ingenuity, and generosity. Over the years, Swanson has bountifully supported the University, the school, and the future of engineering. Those contributions have launched, among other ventures, the John A. Swanson Institute for Technical Excellence, the John A. Swanson Center for Product Innovation, the Radio Frequency Identification Center for Excellence, and the John A. Swanson Embedded Computing Laboratory in Computer Engineering. All of these centers are advancing faculty research, enriching educational opportunities, and helping students to explore the field of engineering and to apply their creativity in developing new technology-based solutions to the world’s problems.

Last year, Swanson made another extraordinary commitment of support to the school. In December, he was honored for the greatest generosity by an individual donor in Pitt’s entire history—$41.3 million to the University’s engineering school as part of Pitt’s $2 billion capital campaign.

To commemorate and celebrate Swanson’s abundant and longstanding support, the school has been renamed the John A. Swanson School of Engineering. Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg says Swanson’s “remarkable generosity will add immeasurably to the long and distinguished record of engineering excellence at Pitt.”

That excellence is reflected, in part, by Swanson’s own record of achievement. Four years ago, he was awarded the prestigious John Fritz Medal, which has been described as the highest honor in the engineering profession. Since 1902, the medal, which honors outstanding achievement in science or industry, has been given annually by the American Association of Engineering Societies. Among those who have received the award in the past are famed innovators Orville Wright, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, and George Westinghouse (the same man who founded the electric company where Swanson once worked). At the University of Pittsburgh, Swanson is a trustee, a Distinguished Alumnus of the engineering school, and a member of the exclusive Cathedral of Learning Society.

In addition, ANSYS—founded upon Swanson’s pioneering simulation software—continues to thrive. In the company’s 38 years, ANSYS has increased revenues every year and has never had an unprofitable year. The firm expects $360 million in revenue this year, employs 1,400 people, and distributes products from more than 40 offices across the globe.

“I just set out to develop quality software and to advance engineering technology, not to make money or create a large company,” says Swanson. None of the acclaim and multimillion-dollar success was by grand design. He was simply doing what he loved, he says, and adhering to a business philosophy derived from a play on the words of Ghandi: “There go my customers, and I must follow, because they think I am their leader.” Don’t be fooled, say friends and associates of Swanson’s: His humble veneer masks true genius.

He is semiretired now, living in Florida, where he occasionally writes software and keeps his hand in ANSYS technology as a consultant. He is still engaged in the work of problem-solving, but much of his satisfaction these days comes from the “joy of giving.”

Swanson wants to finance dreams. “He who dies rich, dies disgraced,” he says, quoting 19th-century industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who created the Carnegie public library system. Swanson’s $41.3 million gift to the University of Pittsburgh is being used, in part, to fund undergraduate scholarships, graduate fellowships, and capital improvements at the engineering school, all of which will further support education and research.

Much like Bill Gates or Oprah, giving back is a mission that Swanson embraces. “I didn’t get where I am without the generosity of others,” he says matter-of-factly.

It is a cold and snowy day in December but mild compared to the winter days in Mount Upton when a teenage boy left his home before sunrise to work at a neighbor’s farm. An unassuming man in blue pants and a blue Pitt jacket takes his place at the bottom of the stairs outside Benedum Hall. The man is John Swanson, and he’s smiling warmly. He is surrounded by about 70 students, many wearing blue T-shirts emblazoned with the school’s new name—John A. Swanson School of Engineering. Blue towels wave in the air celebrating the announcement of Swanson’s unprecedented contributions to the school’s ongoing advances. It’s an extraordinary morning, not just for the students and their school, but also for a one-time farm boy who is still fascinated by making things work.

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