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About an hour ago
Its mid-afternoon. Youre in your home office when the laptop pings to remind you of the daily meeting starting in five minutes. If its a video call, you make sure your face is presentable. Maybe you slip on a work shirt and smile, knowing theyll never suspect how your bottom half is clothed.
You join the virtual meeting space and suddenly your speakers are alive with the sound of co-workers and bosses.
Its the digital conference call the technology of choice during the coronavirus pandemic, as millions worldwide are working from home.
Would you believe a man from Pittsburghs Point Breeze neighborhood made it all possible?
His name is Giorgio Coraluppi, an 86-year-old Italian immigrant who lives in the same house that he bought in 1976. He came to the U.S. in 1964 with his wife, Luisa, to whom hes been married 57 years. He walks with a walker and talks slowly and deliberately with a deep accent.
Uninterested in retirement, he daily leads his approximately 650 employees of Chorus Call, Compunetix and Compunetics from his Monroeville office with the same voracity of a 40-Under-40 leader. They call him Dr. C.
Coraluppi is an engineer, a mathematician and an inventor who in October will be inducted into the Space Technology Hall of Fame for inventing the set of computer codes powering the technology thats keeping the world connected these days: the digital teleconference call.
The technology an algorithm supported by a computer chip was first designed for NASA. It has spawned a global industry that helps people communicate more effectively.
Behind this half-century of innovation, there is a man who talks of his career thus far in abstract anecdotes that, when seen altogether, illuminate a character unwavered by the risk of failure and buoyed by a seemingly unquenchable drive to solve problems.
Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review
Dr. Giorgio Coraluppi, CEO of Compunetix, stands in his office building in Monroeville. Coraluppis inventiveness will be inducted into the Space Foundation Technology Hall of Fame in October for creating the conference call and other accomplishments.
Dr. Giorgio Coraluppi, CEO of Compunetix, stands for a photo inside the Monroeville building Wednesday, March 18, 2020. Coraluppi will be inducted into the Space Foundation Technology Hall of Fame in April for inventing the conference call and other accomplishments. Photo by Kristina Serafini
Good vs. Bad
On a recent morning in his office, Coraluppi demonstrated his philosophy of entrepreneurial risk-reward. He grabbed a piece of paper and drew a cross.
On one side, he wrote Good, on the other, Bad. Under the Good column, he scribbled a bunch of squiggly lines as he vocalized hypothetical achievements until the column was full of squigglies.
In the Bad column, he drew one squiggly line. He paused for effect, then drew a definitive X through the entire Good column.
One mistake can wipe away all the good your company does, he said.
But making mistakes does not have to mean failure. For this inventor, as long as he comes out with what he calls an enhanced set of professional capabilities, hes satisfied. Those professional capabilities can serve as foundational knowledge for the next project.
The honey woman
One of the earliest risks Coraluppi took was when he was 10 years old. One day in 1944, he was riding a bicycle through his Italian hometown, LAquila, when he came upon a strange alley.
And I wanted to test myself: How long could I drive with closed eyes? So he did. The experiment ended when he ran into a woman carrying a load of honey on her bike. The impact caused her to spill it all, wasting it.
She was furious, Coraluppi remembers. She raised hell with me.
The young, questing boy couldnt fully grasp the depth of the honey womans anger. But it didnt take long to get a clue. Italy was in the middle of war. Food and other goods were scarce.
The honey woman demanded that the reckless boy take her to his parents. They must learn of this grave crime. When she briefed his father, he soothed her by giving her kitchen salt, a valuable commodity at the time.
It was his fathers example of preparedness that helped shape an ethic in Coraluppi which later helped his business thrive.
And the run-in with the honey woman perhaps began a lifetime of innate curiosity.
Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review
Dr. Giorgio Coraluppi, CEO of Compunetix in Monroeville, looks through papers near his desk Wednesday, March 18, 2020. Coraluppis inventiveness will be inducted into the Space Foundation Technology Hall of Fame in October for creating the conference call and other accomplishments.
Dr. Giorgio Coraluppi, CEO of Compunetix in Monroeville, looks through papers near his desk Wednesday, March 18, 2020. Coraluppis inventiveness will be inducted into the Space Foundation Technology Hall of Fame in April for creating the conference call and other accomplishments. Photo by Kristina Serafini
We can do that
Coraluppi married Luisa in 1963, while still living in Italy. By that time, he had graduated from a technical school in Milan with a doctorate in electrical engineering and served a year-and-a-half in the Aeronautica Militare, the Italian Air Force. Service in Italys military at that time was mandatory but it was there that his interest in the technology behind communications sprouted.
About a year into the marriage, the couple packed everything and moved to America, the land of opportunity. They landed in a house in Gibsonia that they rented for about two years.
While here, he worked for the American Optical Company in its endeavors with NASA. His role was to engineer a program that controlled the NASA-Lewis Flight Simulator and other space-related projects.
Three years after immigrating, Coraluppi enrolled at Carnegie Mellon University to freshen up on his education, a sort of intellectual curiosity. He never intended to graduate, but he did, earning a masters degree in electrical engineering after being nudged by a professor to complete the coursework and exams.
The collegiate experience exposed him to the nascent world of computer chips, which were just beginning to take hold of the electronics industry. The microchips had an endless appeal, and a promise to keep bringing new opportunities, both commercially and intellectually.
While a student, he befriended a technician, Michael Gielas, and an engineer, Csaba Besko. The three co-founded Compunetics Inc., in 1968, in a rented space behind an ice cream parlor along Saltsburg Road in Penn Hills. (Gielas and Besko left the company in the late 1970s.)
The idea behind the new business was idealistic and open-ended. In fact, the company didnt even have a five-year plan, said Robert Haley, Compunetixs director of marketing.
It was really to go after complex problems and solve them electronically. It was like (Coraluppi) was saying, I know there are big problems out there I have the wherewithal to solve those. Lets find out what they are and well build solutions for them, Haley said.
So it didnt take long for the three Compunetics founders to sniff out a problem to solve. And they aimed high.
Six months in, Compunetics had its potential first client: The U.S. Navy.
I saw an interesting request for proposal. And I say, We can do that, he said. Coraluppi, desperate for a contract for his young company, bid the project unusually low, only asking enough for the price of materials. Almost in a call-your-bluff sort of way, the Navy sent representatives to visit the companys humble headquarters but not before Coraluppi bought some folding chairs for his guests. He also called upon a lawyer friend whom he said he needed merely as a warm body.
Apparently, the meeting went well.
Compunetics was hired for the project, which was part of the Navys anti-submarine campaign during the Cold War. Compunetics produced equipment for bases in Jacksonville, Fla., Guam and others.
Eventually, the Navy tapped Compunetics again to develop the electronics used to better detect enemy submarines. That program spanned decades.
Giorgio Coraluppi, circa 1970s.
Giorgio Coraluppi, circa 1970s. Courtesy of Compunetix
Competing with Goliath
It was this proven track record of working well with governmental agencies that thrust Coraluppis company into space with NASA. But the space agency didnt just hand them a contract.
Coming out of a dark economic period in the 1970s that nearly swallowed his company, Coraluppi invented an algorithm. This algorithm a complicated set of mathematical rules governed by a computer chip allowed thousands of callers to join in on one telephone call. It was a groundbreaking advancement in digital technology. In 1984, he filed an application for the invention to be patented.
Meanwhile, NASA needed a more efficient way to communicate with the many teams of people involved with shuttle launches in a single conference call at the same time. By the 1980s, the analog NASA Communications (NASCOM) system was around 30 years old. It was time for an upgrade; NASA put out a call for proposals. Coraluppi knew his invention fit the bill. But Compunetics wasnt the only company with an appetite for working with NASA. AT&T held similar ambitions, and soon the two found themselves competing for a multimillion-dollar contract that would supply one of the worlds leading space exploration agencies with its communication systems.
NASA eventually chose Compunetics. It was a modern-day story of David defeating Goliath, said Jerry Pompa, Compunetixs senior vice president.
He summed up his bosss attitude at the time: Sure AT&T is gigantic. Their name alone sets them apart. But one-on-one, theyre no better than us. Were just as good as they are. Why shouldnt we win?
Pompas position at the company is a direct result of the NASA contract. Coraluppi hired him and many others after Compunetics won the bid against AT&T.
Hes not intimidated by competing with Goliath, Pompa said of his boss.
What set Compunetics apart was Coraluppis seminal Compunetics Switching Network invention. It made it possible for literally thousands of people in this case engineers, technicians and astronauts to join in on one call. It was all done digitally and automatically by a computer chip.
Before the invention, getting multiple people on the same NASA call was possible, but cumbersome. It was a manual duty done by up to 50 trained technicians, according to a Technology.org article written about the system.
With the invention, NASA no longer needed to be preoccupied with the mechanics behind communicating with the people dispersed through a network of 18 ground stations and three ships in different oceans. Those engineers, technicians and astronauts could communicate freely about important details germane to a space launch: monitoring a spacecrafts fuel levels, watching the weather at a landing site, updating the astronauts realtime biometric readings.
His invention made it possible for all those people to instantly connect.
In 1987, NASA awarded Compunetics a $4 million contract to install the conferencing technology for the Goddard Space Flight Center. And earlier that same year, the invention became the first of five USPTO patents awarded to Coraluppi and the company.
An Aug. 29, 2000 Tribune-Review article written about Compunetics teleconferencing technology.
An Aug. 29, 2000 Tribune-Review article written about Compunetics teleconferencing technology. Courtesy of Compunetix
By 1992, Compunetics technology had replaced all of NASCOMs technology and it was used for more than two decades. Eventually, the Federal Aviation Administration awarded them a $4.5 million contract to use the technology, which served as the basis for founding Compunetix, a company that today manufactures electronic products.
Coraluppi then earned another USPTO patent to reproduce the technology for commercial purposes, thus making way for his third company, Chorus Call, a conference service provider.
Since then, tech companies around the world have used Coraluppis invention to spawn their versions of it: Zoom, Microsoft Teams, FaceTime, SnapChat, Whats App, etc., etc.
He was the first one to do it, said Monica Coraluppi. The company provided the first digital teleconferencing solution in the world. Monica, 54, is one of Coraluppis daughters. She works at Chorus Call as its director of special projects.
Today, the companys digital teleconference and videoconference technology is highly used and sought after. Some of the companies clients who use the commercial version of the conferencing technology today include Verizon, First Energy, Subway and ESPN. There are also several governmental clients: the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Department of Justice and the Department of State, to name a few.
The headquarters for Compunetics, including its two spin-off companies Compunetix and Chorus Call remains in Monroeville. Compunetix and Chorus Call are in a six-floor office building nestled in some woods just off Mosside Boulevard, down the road from Forbes Hospital. Compunetics is located in a nondescript industrial park building about two miles north on Seco Road.
Compunetics rented out a space next to "A Different Twist," a Penn Hills ice cream parlor in the late 1960s.
Compunetics rented out a space next to A Different Twist, a Penn Hills ice cream parlor in the late 1960s. Courtesy of Compunetix
The photograph and the letter
Giorgio and Luisa Coraluppis time in Pittsburgh was only supposed to last a couple years before moving back to Italy. Fifty-two years later, sitting behind his wooden desk in Monroeville, he chuckled at that wistful goal as he peered through his window at the naked mid-March trees. He took a deep breath. It was almost as if the exhale said, Its been wonderful.
At this point, Coraluppis success as a business owner has earned him regional, state and national recognition. The debts taken on to start Compunetics without a business plan have long ago been paid. (The company as a whole expects around $100 million in 2019 profits.) His name is printed on five U.S. patents. He employs hundreds of people, here and in other parts of the world. Those people have given him a loving nickname.
But then another memory floated up into Dr. Cs mind. It was a memory that led the 86-year-old out of his chair.
He walked, without the help of his walker, to a room across the hall from his office. About a minute later, he came back with a wide smile on his face. In his hands he held a framed, underwhelming picture of a machine in a dark room. This, for me, is more memorable.
In 1988, he got a call from IBM, a company Dr. Cs had worked with before but not like this. Their engineers were encountering an issue while building their RP3X 64-Way Parallel Processor Prototype System. The supercomputer was designed to process a billion instructions every second, but it wasnt working. Would Coraluppi come to help them?
Intrigued by the prospect of helping IBM build a supercomputer, which he called a major, major development in computing technology, he agreed.
He quickly learned, however, management at IBM had run out of patience and money for the project, which had been fruitless for years prior. Dr. C remembered some of projects leads had said this issue they were encountering was going to cost them too much money to fix. One of the managers even became hostile by telling him dont expect too much money on the table for you.
I got upset. I never announced a digit. I didnt talk about money. I said, Lets not talk about money right now forget the money. Im willing to do this for nothing. Lets look at the problem and lets fix the problem, he said.
And so the arrangement meant leaving his company behind while he and two colleagues worked to fix the problem for free.
After two months, Dr. C and his engineers had solved the supercomputers problem.
His success led IBMs then-director of strategic development, Alan E. Baratz, to send a framed photograph of the supercomputer with a personal message typed on the back: Your efforts were critical to the successful completion of the RP3X 64-Way Parallel Processor Prototype System.
Dillon Carr | Tribune-Review
In March 1989, Giorgio Coraluppi received a photograph of an IBM supercomputer he helped fix with a letter attched the back. It was from IBMs then-president, Alan Baratz, who went on to hold executive positions at Symphony, Avaya and Cisco before landing his current job for British Columbia-based D-Wave Systems Inc., a company developing quantum computers.
In March 1989, Giorgio Coraluppi received a photograph of an IBM supercomputer he helped fix with a letter attached to the back. It was from IBMs then-president, Alan Baratz, who went on to hold executive positions at Symphony, Avaya and Cisco before landing his current job for British Columbia-based D-Wave Systems Inc., a company developing quantum computers. Photo by Dillon Carr
That happened 31 years ago.
And I still keep it, Dr. C said about the photograph and the letter. He said only two physical copies of that photo exist. The other is with Baratz.
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This Monroeville businessman created the modern conference call, and he's not done yet - TribLIVE