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Romancing The Electron Thrill Of Achievement Drives Packet Engines Chief Bernard Daines

When Bernard Daines found out the truth about Benjamin Franklin, he cried.

He doesn’t say what he did about Santa Claus.

Even as a small child, though, Daines was undoubtedly, in his heart and soul, a creature of the scientific method, and it’s hard to imagine that Santa could have stood up long to his inquisitive scrutiny.

Benjamin Franklin, on the other had, was an undisputable flesh and blood hero.

“I don’t know, I was probably about 12 or so,” Daines recalled recently, “when my father told me that Benjamin Franklin was wrong, and electricity actually went backwards. And I cried.”

In case you’re not up on either Franklin history or electrical flow charts, here’s the story: When Franklin was doing his first experiments with electricity, he knew about electrons and deduced that they flowed something like water. So in postulating which direction electricity went, he had a 50-50 chance to get it right. But he guessed wrong.

And that mattered a lot to young Bernard Daines.

Unlike most children his age, baseball players or movie stars didn’t perch on Daines’ pedestals. He reserved his passions for those electrons.

“Anything electrical,” Daines says, “was what I cared about.”

His science fair projects at Central Valley High School were grandiose, befitting his passion. And for 40 years, the passion has continued to rewarded him.

At each crucial juncture of his life, Daines has found himself a step ahead of most of the rest of the world when it comes to the application of electricity to advance mankind’s scientific endeavors.

When applying electricity to day-to-day life mostly meant putting wires in houses or factories, his interests went to the more advanced concept of electronics.

When electrical engineering programs still taught students about motors and transformers and transmission lines, Daines wanted to know about computers.

And when computers began to exchange information back and forth, he wanted to find out how to do it faster, and then faster still.

Which brings him back to Spokane and his latest science project: a company called Packet Engines Inc.

Packet Engines, headquartered in the Spokane Valley, is at the forefront of creating a whole new technological standard - called gigabit ethernet - that will be capable of keeping up with the increasingly complex tasks computers will be able to perform in the 21st century. Packet Engines is in a race with some of the biggest companies in the world, and success will be measured in hundreds of millions of dollars.

Daines, 52, has a far bigger stage now than he did at Central Valley in the early 1960s. But the process, he says, is still basically the same.

“You think about it. You design it in your head. Then you put it on paper, and then you put it on fiberglass or silicon, or metal, you get the programming done, and then you turn the power on, and it does what it’s supposed to do.

“That’s where the enjoyment comes.”

A familiar name in Silicon Valley

While you might not have heard of Bernard Daines, his is a familiar name among people who create and finance the high-technology companies that populate the Silicon Valley near San Francisco.

For more than 20 years, he operated a small consulting firm that applied itself to developing leadingedge technology of the day in the world of microchips and computers. His company was always busy.

The few square miles that comprise the Silicon Valley probably hold the world’s highest per capita concentrations of genius, and Daines fit right in.

Dr. Robert M. Metcalfe - who conceived the ‘ethernet’ technology that has become the standard tool for linking computer networks, and who founded some of the Silicon Valley’s most successful companies - responded to inquiries about Packet Engines by saying he knows little about the company, “but I do know that Bernard Daines cannot be beat, engineeringwise …”

Earlier this year, Newsweek Magazine included Daines in its “Century Club,” a list of “100 people to watch as America prepares to pass through the gate to the next millennium.” Daines’ companions on the list included Tom Cruise, Tiger Woods, Warren Buffett, Michael Eisner, Steven Spielberg and Bill Gates.

And in its December issue, Electronic Engineering Times - a top industry trade publication - focused a lengthy article on the unusual phenomenon of locating an exotic high-tech start-up in an outpost like Spokane. The article praised Daines’ ability to assemble “some of the best and brightest engineers” from some of the biggest name companies in the industry.

Many of those employees, as well as the Silicon Valley venture capitalists who have put millions into Packet Engines, joined up largely on the strength of Daines’ formidable reputation.

Early on in his career, Daines did critical work related to Metcalfe’s efforts to win the battle over computer networking technology. Metcalfe founded 3Com Corp. to develop what he called “ethernet” products. Ethernet technology eventually became the standard platform for linking personal computers together into networks that could exchange information at the rate of 10 megabits per second.

In 1992, Metcalfe and Daines teamed again as co-founders of a company called Grand Junction. They wanted to use the ethernet platform and speed the information exchange rates of computer networks to 100 megabits per second. “Fast ethernet” found a vast market. And Grand Junction, which was capitalized for $4 million in 1992, was sold in 1995 for $350 million. At that time, it represented the biggest venture capital return in the history of the Silicon Valley.

With Packet Engines, Daines’ goal is to take the ethernet technology 10 times faster. Packet Engines products will enable networks to exchange information at 1,000 megabits - or one gigabit - per second.

Daines pioneered the concept, but other companies quickly jumped into the market. Today they all are racing to put out the first and best products for the emerging gigabit ethernet market. The value of that market has been estimated in the billions of dollars by the year 2000.

Bay area traffic prompted move

Packet Engines is a company any economic developer would covet.

The highest of high-tech computer technology is applied by 150 experts in their fields. They make a whole lot of money, buy expensive houses, and hold stock options that, if the company is ultimately successful, will give them the resources to spin off their own companies that could multiply Packet Engines’ local economic effects exponentially.

It would be nice to say that Spokane won this economic jewel because of Daines’ longing for the city where he spent an idyllic youth.

The truth is, “I think it was less my childhood experience here than that I was tired of the traffic,” Daines admits.

Twenty-five years of battling San Francisco rush hours were too much for him. Spokane was a familiar place. And Southwest Airlines started offering cheap flights between here and Oakland. So he decided to build his company here.

But, he adds, he did have a nice childhood here.

Daines is the oldest of eight children born to a Mormon family in southern Alberta. His father, an electrical contractor who dabbled in other things as well, moved the family to Moses Lake in 1955, and to Spokane a few years later.

“I was 13 when we moved here,” Daines recalled, “and the seventh grade had already started.”

He sold milk at lunch in Greenacres junior high in order to earn his own free lunch every day.

A bookish, unathletic boy with a professed passion for electricity and a job in the lunch room moving to a new town at one of life’s most awkward ages? Sounds like a perfect formula for disaster, the stuff those Hollywood “revenge-of-the-nerd” scripts grow out of.

But that’s not how Daines remembers it at all.

“It was all a very good experience for me,” he says.

He supposes his father’s work as an electrician initiated his curiosity. “But the kinds of things I was interested in quickly surpassed house wiring,” he says. “It was in the library at Greenacres High School that I found a book one day describing binary numbers, and boy, it all opened up from there.”

People still walk up to him on the street and tell him they remember his elaborate science fair projects.

“I never won,” he recalls, “because I never did the posters on the methods and studies. I wasn’t in it for the competition. I only wanted to build something.”

A Spokesman-Review article in 1961 focused on Daines’ high school science fair project during his junior year. He was building, out of old telephone company switching equipment, an electronic device he hoped would translate Spanish to English. He called it a Digital Electronic Language Translator.

The machine was a rudimentary computer.

“It was all quite outrageous, what I said I was doing,” Daines recalls. “You know, a typical high school kid who thought he could do anything with electronics.”

The article also noted that Daines’ school days seldom ended with the final bell.

“Daines is enrolled in the Math club, which is tackling new concepts in mathematics under direction of instructor Delbert F. Muse,” the article says. “Under Miss Mary Carrabba, chemistry teacher at CV, Daines is taking extra laboratory work …”

He was in the drama club, where he handled lighting and sound until his senior year, when the drama teacher cajoled him into reading for a part and he won the lead in “Our Town.” He was editor and chief photographer of the school paper his senior year.

Daines remembers Central Valley High School as a place where the teachers and administrators were willing to put in extra time to encourage students who expressed an interest in pursuing an education beyond the limits of the school day.

“Central Valley,” he says, “gave me a good jump into the future.”

Starting out with $100

His immediate future was Brigham Young University.

Daines left home with $100 and a half scholarship, and went off to become an electrical engineer. But that was a five-year program in which “they didn’t even let you into the engineering building for the first two years. I quickly got bored with that, and gravitated over to the computer center.”

And when he finally did get into the electrical engineering building, “They’d never heard of the things I was interested in,” Daines says.

But then he got a summer job with IBM. The jobs were supposed to go to incoming seniors who would then be recruited to IBM when they graduated, but Daines convinced them to hire him much earlier.

He liked the work so much that he quit school and took his knowledge of computers to Hewlett-Packard in the emerging Silicon Valley.

“I got hired by the head of the data processing center,” Daines says, “and he took me out to a big area where there was a huge open space (full of engineering cubicles) and said, ‘See all those engineers? They don’t know how to use computers. Go help them.”’

Daines’ job - in an era before slide rules had been placed by pocket calculators - was to find engineers who had problems to which computers could be applied. H-P didn’t even own a computer. It rented time on a machine at Stanford. So Daines would familiarize himself with the engineers’ projects, write programs and run them through the computer.

“You couldn’t ask for a more interesting or challenging job,” he says.

In 1967, though, the Spokane draft board put a stop to all that. When the board discovered that Daines had an occupational deferment without benefit of degree, the deferment was canceled, and Daines returned to Spokane for his pre-induction physical. A severe case of childhood asthma forestalled his military career, though, and Daines returned to BYU to finish his degree, where he helped organize the computer science department and earned BYU’s first computer science degree.

The joy of putting it all together

In his consulting work, Daines’ job was to accomplish technological feats for other companies. He notes that he didn’t share in the huge profits if the market loved what he did. But neither did he suffer financially if the product wasn’t a big seller. He just performed the assigned tasks, collected his fee, and moved on.

While Packet Engines represents some of the most challenging technology Daines has ever practiced, the company really represents his leap beyond technology.

Packet Engines has recently completed the construction of a working prototype of a giant switch that will serve as the backbone of gigabit ethernet computer networks. At about $100,000 apiece, the switches will be Packet Engines’ core product.

But Daines is now in a realm where such a complex undertaking would be beyond his skills alone.

“You can do relatively small oneman things that way,” Daines says, “but if you are going to do things that are bigger and more significant, you have to figure out how you can work through the creativity of other people.”

So while Daines started the architecture of the big switch, “my original contribution is probably almost totally smothered by the contribution of others. So it really is the accomplishment of the team.

“And that’s where my enjoyment comes. Putting it all together.”

Four of Daines’ six children work at Packet Engines. More than 100 other employes have bet their immediate futures on Daines’ ability not only to engineer a project, but to get people to buy it, as well.

Marketing, manufacturing and fund raising are a new set of challenges he must confront.

“I’m not worried about me,” Daines says. “I can go out and build something else at any time. But I’m not interested in walking away from this until it reaches the point where the success of all these other people is assured.”

With a confidence born of a lifetime of accomplishing difficult technological tasks, Daines doesn’t doubt his ability to get there.

Nor does he fear his personal future will ever lack for even broader challenges.

“I’ve done a lot of things,” he reflects. “I’ve been at the right place at the right time. People have trusted me and given me opportunities. And I believe that for anyone who wants to dig in hard and work and take a little risk, there’s always an opportunity.

“You remember the story about that guy so many years ago who wanted to close the patent office?

“Well, it’s not time to close the patent office yet.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 color)