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National Instruments is a company with a very unlikely history. Founded by three young college students in the 1970s who were studying together at the University of Texas – Austin campus, NI is today a worldwide leader in several fields, including data acquisition and management, instrumentation control, and more.
The actual founding of the company which would go on to be such a world-leader in technology is quite charming; the founders, James Truchard, Jeff Kodosky, and Bill Nowlin, all were working together on a school project that was conducting research for the United States Navy. They found the data collection methods and tools they had to be woefully unsuited to the task, and created a device that would simplify things significantly for them.
A year later, they took the small loan they were able to secure, and bought a micro-computer. They then made a cold call to the Kelly Air Force base, which is located in San Antonio, not too far from their campus. Approximately a decade later in 1981, National Instruments passed one million dollars in annual sales.
From here, the company has moved forward, being one of the first to directly develop technology that let their interface and control products interact directly with PC technology, as soon as 1983. Always keeping abreast of technological developments, a few years later when the Macintosh computer was introduced, they saw a huge opportunity to take advantage of new user interface technology.
This line of study ultimately led to the development of their flagship product, the LabVIEW graphical development platform. This product enabled collaboration between programmers in ways never before thought possible, due to improvements in user interface and experience.
For example, the basic functioning is such that users are able to effectively program code in uniform ways by using pictorial representations and then stringing them together, rather than typing in actual, often cumbersome programming code.
Reducing such a nomenclatural nightmare to a series of easily interpretable and translatable icons in a graphical development area was truly a revelation. The development of products and services along this track took up most of the 1980s.
The 1990s saw National Instruments move towards virtual instrumentation and focusing on machines, and computer control of them. They developed technologies which allowed cameras to act as sensors, motion control circuitry and more. They also focused on providing standardized measurement and tracking of all of their results, particularly in high volume environments.
In the 2000s, NI continued to innovate and branch out into the international community. They now have clients in over 91 separate countries and revenue that is rapidly approaching $1b annually which is an amazing achievement considering such humbling beginnings.