Engineering community remembers PLC inventor Dick Morley

Morley, who died in October 2017, was revered as much for his ingenuity as for his modesty and the encouragement and mentorship he provided other engineers.


Dick Morley, who passed away Oct. 17 at 84, was made of engineering legends. He said he created the first programmable logic controller (PLC) because he had a hangover on New Year’s Day and he needed to save time. He dropped out of MIT because he didn’t want to learn German. He also quit an engineering job because they wouldn’t let him ski on weekdays when the lines were short. He rode Harleys, fostered dozens of children, and had a hand in creating the floppy disk, anti-lock brakes, and automated vehicle control. Morley, who helped found Modicon and Andover Controls Corp, which are both now part of Schneider Automation Inc., was also the author of several books and a regular contributor to industry magazines.

Morley was revered as much for his ingenuity as for his modesty and the encouragement and mentorship he provided other engineers.

“Dick Morley wasn’t just the inventor of modern-day automation-he was also a mentor and a friend to many of our members and leaders around the world,” said International Society of Automation President Steve Pflantz in a written statement. “He was a one-of-a-kind person, someone you could never forget. His humor and wit, along with his incredibly creative way of looking at life, made him a force for good in our industry, our society, and the world. He will be missed.”

Morley was an angel investor for many young engineers and held annual "Geek Pride Day" festivals at his barn in New Hampshire, which he had converted to a workshop for engineering innovation. He was never comfortable being called the inventor of the PLC because he said others played a role in its creation.

"When we first met at a trade show many years ago, I praised Dick, the inventor of the PLC, for being the reason any integrators have a job at all. ‘Oh, I didn’t invent it,’ I remember him responding. ‘That was just an idea whose time had come, and I just happened to be the guy working on it,"’ Rick Caldwell, president and founder of SCADAware wrote in an article after Morley’s passing. Caldwell considered Morley a mentor, and said he came up with the name SCADAware.

"He never wanted fame, he only wanted to invent new things," wrote Walt Boyes, editor and publisher of the Industrial Automation and Process Control INSIDER. "You’d think that the man who invented the floppy disk, the handheld terminal, zone building HVAC, was the father of the PLC, and created the people mover for Detroit and Disney World, among the more than 100 patents he held, would be a household name, but Dick was a surprisingly private individual who didn’t really want or enjoy credit for all that, and the limelight. So names like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs became famous, while Dick Morley just went on inventing."

Despite his accomplishments, Morley didn’t die a wealthy man. He spent much of his savings on medical treatments for his son, who died of aplastic anemia at the age of 32, and for his wife of 56 years, who died in 2012. Friends and fellow engineers started a GoFundMe campaign to help him pay his medical bills a few years after his wife died. The campaign was also used to purchase him a modest headstone.

In Morley’s honor, the ISA started the Richard E. "Dick" Morley Innovation Scholarship with a $50,000 endowment. The organization also pledged to match the next $50,000 in donations.

“We know that one of the most important parts of Morley’s life was his work with young people,” Pflantz said in the scholarship announcement. “He was passionate about giving kids a chance to innovate, to redefine their lives, and to make a difference in the world. We intend to make sure that this scholarship fund continues that legacy in some small way.”

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