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An Interview with Watts Humphrey, Part 2: the Navy, College, and Wrestling

In this transcript of an oral history, Grady Booch interviews SEI Fellow Watts Humphrey about his early life and formative experiences. In part 2, Humphrey talks about his stint in the Navy during World War II, the college years, his first job, and wrestling.

This interview was provided courtesy of the Computer History Museum.

See the entire interview.

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The Navy

Humphrey: So I was ready to start Cal Tech, and one day I stopped by a Navy recruiting office and they talked me into enlisting. So I enlisted in the Navy instead of going to Cal Tech. This was in August or September of ’44. I was 17 and they shipped me out to Memphis, where I went through boot camp. I was to be a radio gunner firing one of these little 30-caliber peashooters out the back end of a torpedo bomber, the kind that George Bush, Sr. flew.

Booch: Right, right.

Humphrey: I was supposed to fire this little machine gun. So I got trained as a radio man taking Morse code. I turned out to get the top score in taking Morse code, so I guess dyslexia helped. I found that I could take five letter code groups at over 20 words a minute. And that’s was pretty fast writing. It wasn’t typing. You had to write it out in longhand. I found that I would be three or four code groups behind in my writing and I could still write them all. It wasn’t going through my brain at all. It was, sort of, wired through me and I was, sort of, hearing it and writing it and I had to keep my mind open to let it work. It was just extraordinary to me that your system could do that. So I concluded that the human system is capable of extraordinary stuff. We just don’t know it. And that was amazing to me. I was valedictorian of my radio man class. Then they gave us a test. They wanted pilots. I first went to machine gun school where I was learning to fire a machine gun from a turret. Then I was sent to the Navy V-5 to be a pilot. This started with V-5 training at college.

They sent me to a bunch of different colleges, and then the war ended and I got a choice of signing up for five years and being a pilot or getting out. They offered us the option to enter the standby reserve. They said it was a no risk deal. I said, “I don’t want anything more to do with it. Good bye.” So I got completely out. My older brother also got completely out of the Air Force. We then convinced my youngest brother to join the Army. He was having all kinds of trouble at MIT where he had started at 16. He was way too young, but he completed one year. We convinced him to enlist in the Army of Occupation to go to Japan, which he did. So he was in for only two years and he got the GI Bill. We all missed Korea and Vietnam, which was extraordinary luck.

While I was in the Navy in Memphis learning to be a radio man, the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. I read everything I could in the Navy base library. They didn’t have much but they had some books on astronomy and a few on physics. I read all of them. Then I decided that I really wanted to be a physicist instead of an aeronautical engineer.

College Years

When I got out of the Navy, my dad, who by then was a colonel, was back from England. He was in Washington briefly with his wife and I was sent to Anacostia in Washington to get mustered out of the Navy. He then went to the air war college where he was a teacher. This was in Montgomery, Alabama. He convinced me to go to college at Auburn, Alabama, which I did. I could have gone to MIT but I would have lost three semesters of college credits and I was in a hurry, which was a dumb move. At Auburn I got into wrestling.

Booch: Before we go onto the wrestling bit I want to ask a question about the state of the world back then. I mean, you learned radios, machine gunning. I’m having a really hard time reconciling an image of you behind a machine gun but I’m trying to get it. But what was your exposure to anything in the computing field at that time, because there wasn’t a heck of a lot going on, of course, but had you had any inklings of it? I mean, clearly you had a very fertile, inquisitive mind, but did it ever lead you to the computing side of things? Were you cognizant of it?

Humphrey: This was ’46 and ’47. We didn’t have any computers then. I mean, there’d been early work by then, but there was nothing. So this is really way before computers showed up, and no one was talking about them or hearing about them. At least I didn’t hear anything about them. Nuclear physics was the top technology of interest and that was what I was interested in. I took engineering physics at Auburn, and as part of that course I ended up taking a course in machine shop. I learned to cut metal, make screw threads, do welding, and other stuff. It was both fascinating and fun.

I loved to work with my hands and to build stuff, and I’m not sure why I thought physics would have been great, but I did. I didn’t mention a high school teacher named Johnny Yarnelle. He was a whiz at math and science. He was trained as an English teacher but he ended up teaching more math and science and all sorts of other stuff. He also ran the Glee Club, wrote plays, and ran the school band. He was a fine musician. He was just an extraordinary man. When I graduated from high school, he also left. He was at the Forman School in Litchfield, CT, when I got there in 1935 and stayed until I graduated in ’44. He went to the University of Chicago to take a PhD in math. His undergraduate work had all been in English, but he later told me that he so enjoyed teaching math to me and my brothers that he wanted to become a math PhD and he went to Chicago. He convinced me to go Chicago in physics, and he got me admitted to graduate school in Chicago at the end of my sophomore year at Auburn. Chicago did crazy things like that at the time.

Booch: Isn’t that where one of the first nuclear piles was done under the stadium at Chicago, or am I thinking of a different place here?

Humphrey: That’s the place and Enrico Fermi was one of the professors. As a matter of fact I had Fermi as my professor for nuclear physics.

Booch: Well, you can’t get a better professor than that around that time, wow.

Humphrey: He taught me something, though, that changed my life. He taught me I wasn’t cut out to be a theoretical physicist.

Booch: And how did he teach you that?

Humphrey: Well, I just listened to these lectures. Remember, I just had a sophomore background. All of these other graduate students had all finished college, and so I’d been in a hurry, and unfortunately this time I was in way too big a hurry. I discovered that just plain hard work didn’t do it. And so, after about a year and a half, we had to take qualifying exams to see who could stay and do graduate work for a doctorate. I spent about a month and a half in at my father’s apartment in North Chicago studying. Father had by then moved to Chicago and was running the local CIA office.

Booch: Oh, wow. There’s a story in there but let’s -- wow, I’ll bookmark that one.

Humphrey: So I went and lived with him and studied -- went through all the physics basics in real detail. I’d had a lot of physics courses by then and I really studied it up in preparation for the exam. There must have been about 60 to 70 taking the exam, and I didn’t know it but they had decided that they would only pass 12. I took the exam and actually finished it first. I thought I did pretty well and I must have done so because I came in 13th. While this was a failure, but it was actually pretty damn good. These were all college graduates who had taken four years of physics and I’d only had two, but I still came in thirteenth, but I was in too big a hurry. I didn’t check everything properly. I was just too cocky, I guess.

By that time I was working in the nuclear physics lab running the betatron at night. When I failed the exam, they gave me a bachelor’s degree in March of 1949. It is hard to believe, but that was over sixty years ago now. I then went on and got a master’s in physics at IIT [Illinois Institute of Technology] and discovered that physics wasn’t what I wanted to do. I was still working full time trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and I had some friends who were going to business school. So I decided to try that. It sounded like something I could get through pretty quickly. I got a master’s in business in 12 months while I was working. I was working full time at the same time.

In the spring I wanted to register for five courses. I had taken four courses all along, when three were considered a full load. But I needed five courses to graduate, so I wanted to register for five. They wouldn’t let me without the permission of the dean. So I talked to the dean. I told him I needed to register for five courses so I could get my master’s degree in the spring. And when he looked at me he said, “Aren’t you working?” And I said, “Yeah,” and he said, “How much do you work?” I said, “Full time.” “And you’ve been taking four courses all along?” And I said, “Yeah.” He said, “You’re crazy. Okay.” So he let me take five courses. But fortunately I could do a lot of work while I was running the betatron at night. I got an MBA and, even though the courses were pretty easy after physics, I learned a lot. My major was in manufacturing and the professor Judson Neff said, “The three most important things about manufacturing are planning, planning and planning.” He drove that in. It was only a one semester course, but it taught me a lot. I also took cost accounting which was an amazing revelation. It was fascinating and interesting. By then, I wanted to get back to technical work, so I continued at night school taking courses at IIT in electrical engineering. When I got my MBA, the university asked me to become a director of scientific personnel with a new lab they were starting. So I took that job. It was a very nice job and I enjoyed it. I had a secretary. My first job out of college I had a secretary.

Booch: Wow, nice.

My First Job

Humphrey: This secretary taught me a lot. She was an executive secretary whose husband was at the university to get a PhD. Her name was Gloria Gentilly and she taught me everything about running an office. I was director of scientific personnel and I also worked as an engineer. I also ran the security shop and got everybody cleared. I also had to be cleared for a Q clearance and Top Secret. One day I was sitting in my office and a guy from the FBI wanted to see me. He came in and started to interview me. He said, “I want to ask you a bunch of questions about one of your people we’re getting cleared for Top Secret and Q clearances. As he started down his list of questions and he said, “What do you know about this guy Watts Humphrey?” I said, “I actually know quite a bit.” I gave him my card and he turned pale, but I got the clearance.

I was the director of security so I went downtown and talked to the Air Force colonel about how to handle the most likely security problems. I got to know him pretty well. One day I got a call from the director of the lab, a Dr. Hoagness, and he said “We have got to get Top Secret clearances for…“ and he gave me a list of people, “by tomorrow.” One of them was Enrico Fermi, who had been a member of the fascist party in Italy. This would not please the people who granted clearances. But they all had AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) Q clearances.

So I called my colonel friend and asked him, “How do I do this?” He said, “Well, if you can actually get me proof that they have Q clearances, then I can issue the Top Secret clearances right away.” I said, “Great. How do I do that?” He said, “You have got to get it from the AEC.” So I said, “Okay,” so let me find out. So I called the AEC and everybody kept referring me around. I wouldn’t let go until they gave me somebody else and I finally got to the records clerk down in the basement somewhere with the AEC. He was very nice. I said, “Here’s what I need. You don’t send it to me. I want it sent to this Air Force person.” I gave him the colonel’s address and phone and he got all the records and he wired the information to the Air Force colonel. I had the top secret clearances the next morning. About two months later there was a new AEC regulation about “no one will ever call the records clerk in the basement of the AEC.” I had found the crack in the dyke. That was my greatest achievement as a security officer.

Booch: So a question for you along the way. In your comings and goings in that community did you ever run across Feynman by any chance?

Humphrey: I did not. No, I did not. And I knew Teller, Fermi and Urey. Well, they didn’t know me but I knew who they were and so it was an exciting period. I remember sitting in a meeting where a graduate student was giving a talk on something or other and it was a very pleasant discussion and the door opened and a guy walked in and sat down next to me and everybody just stopped. It was Harold Urey, the Nobel prize winning chemist, and we all knew who he was. Anyway, we all sat there stunned. He said, “Please, go ahead. I’m here to learn, so you just go ahead,” and he asked a few questions. He was just a marvelous gentleman and not particularly self-assuming or anything. So it was very impressive but it was that kind of environment where you could get to know these people. And so I was working at this lab and at the same time I was taking graduate courses in electrical engineering at IIT. That’s when I really got excited about computers. My principal technical work at the lab as engineer was looking into analog computers. And after a couple of years there I realized I wasn’t going anywhere. The lab wasn’t producing anything that was useful, even though it had Fermi, Urey, Teller, and all these people on its staff. I also knew Richard Garwin. I don’t know if you’ve heard who Richard Garwin is.

Booch: I do not know.

Humphrey: You’ve heard the arguments about who invented the hydrogen bomb?

Booch: Right, right.

Humphrey: Well, Teller was working with our lab and, as part of that job he was down in Los Alamos trying to get the scientists to design a hydrogen bomb. They literally couldn’t do it. They knew theoretically what to do but they couldn’t produce a design.

Booch: He had quite a passion for that in reading some the history… that was his obsession if I recall.

Humphrey: He had a vision of how it ought to work. The physics was pretty well known. In the spring -- I’ve forgotten which year -- he got hold of Dick Garwin and said, “I want you to go down to Los Alamos for the summer.” Dick had been a graduate student with me and he’d gotten his PhD about the same time I graduated. And a nice guy, I mean, I knew him quite well and he went down to Los Alamos for the summer, he designed the hydrogen bomb.

Booch: Oh, my. “What I did on my summer vacation?”

Humphrey: Yeah, and then he came back and it worked and he just went on back and was a professor at Chicago and then he later moved and was a researcher at IBM, where I knew him. A few years ago there was this big discussion with Teller in Congress about who invented the hydrogen bomb. All these guys from Los Alamos were saying they did it. The Senators asked Teller who did it and he said it was Dick Garwin who did it. So the press interviewed Dick, who was at IBM at the time, and they asked him, "How come you never said anything about this?" He said, "I decided that you could either make great contributions or try to get credit for them, but you can't do both," I thought was an amazing line and I've tried to remember ever since. He just got satisfaction from doing great work and wasn't particularly interested in getting pats on the back and credits. That was just extraordinary.


Booch: Yes, what a humble guy. Hey, I want to go back to two things, before we get much further in the genealogy and I'll lay them out. Tell me about your wrestling career and passion, because I understand you had a coach that was in some way associated with the Olympics. And you used the phrase that, at night you'd go in and run the betatron I think it was, and I'm really curious, what does that mean? I have a picture of this, you know, old B-type science fiction movie surrounded by dials and flashing lights.

Humphrey: Well, let me start with the coach, before I forget it and then I'll come back to the betatron.

Booch: Sure.

Humphrey: The coach was called "Swede" Umbach. When I got to Auburn, my dad convinced me to try wrestling. I'd never done it, but in the Navy, I wanted to wrestle instead of box. They showed us a little about boxing and wrestling, but I didn't know much about wrestling. I remember that we wrestlers would always take the boxers. I decided to go out for the wrestling team at Auburn. There were two of us trying out for light heavyweight. That was the 175 pound weight and the next was heavyweight, unlimited. People were a lot lighter then.

We were all new. None of us had ever wrestled before. And the coach arrives and he'd been coaching in Oklahoma, and where they had extraordinary wrestling teams. He was about 155 pounds, but he could take any one of us. The first thing we did every day, when he showed up, we'd go out and run the track up to a half mile and he'd be right in front. We'd all do it together, and then we'd come in and wrestle. He'd wrestle us hard, it was really tough practice, and he got us in great shape. He taught us the basic holds very quickly and then we had our first meet. It was out of town, up in Tennessee.

I had made the varsity team, and I wrestled this guy who was my weight. He was exactly the same size but was more experienced. He'd wrestled for two or three years, and he was very good. He couldn't pin me, I couldn't pin him. After the standard three rounds, I was absolutely beat. We were tied and had to go into overtime rounds. We were exactly tied on points and time. That's how they did the points, what moves you got and how long you were able to be on top of the other guy. We were exactly tied after three, three minute rounds, and I was just laying there, flat on my back, seeing black, I couldn't see anything, and the coach was whispering in my ear. He said, "He's more beat than you are." He said, "When you get out there, I would start on the bottom. The minute the ref blows that whistle, you explode, just get out of there, he won't be able to hold you." And so I did and I don't know where I got the energy, but I did. I got the escape, which was worth a point. And then it was my turn to be on top of him and by that time, he was absolutely exhausted and neither of us could do much of anything, but I stayed on top of him and got the point, so I won.

Booch: Marvelous.

Humphrey: Llater, one of our guys who had been on the timer table came to me that evening and privately told me, "I made a mistake and you really didn't have the time I gave you." I said, "So I really lost?" And he said, "Yep."

Booch: Oh, no.

Humphrey: Well, it was too late. I mean it was all over and it was done I don't think he even told the coach or anybody else, but I knew that this guy had been able to beat me. I think I was undefeated for the rest of the season. The heavyweight was also undefeated as were several of the others. We then ended up in a final AAU tournament for the Southeastern U.S.

By the way, on campus, I was called "Slide Rule" because then we didn't have calculators, we had slide rules on our belts. Every other team in the school was failing and we were winning. So for a wrestling meet in the gymnasium, the place was absolutely packed. Wrestling in front of a cheering crowd of fans, with a team that is motivated and working well together, and with a hard-driving and motivating coach, was the greatest experience you could ever imagine. It was just marvelous. The teamwork, the coaching, the enthusiasm of the crowds, and all of that helped to produce an absolutely extraordinary performance. People really put themselves out, under those conditions. You're doing it not just for yourself, but for your team. It was just an amazing feeling. In the finals of the AAU, which is 13 southeastern states, guess who I ran into?

Booch: The same guy you wrestled at the very beginning story.

Humphrey: That's right, same guy and I were in the finals. And so we came out and started off and he was a push over, I couldn't believe it. I had beaten him and I think it made an enormous difference to him. I mean, I knew he'd beaten me and it didn't really affect me, because I'd won everything since and I'd been a winner and he wasn't a winner. And it's amazing how that affected his performance. I was really quite surprised, but a very nice guy. So we had a marvelous team. After that year, I got transferred up to Chicago. I went out for wrestling in Chicago and the coach there was a nothing. He didn't push anybody and nobody worked very hard. I did extremely well and I kept working at it myself. And one day the coach came over and said, "Hey, there's a guy here that's your weight who would like to work out." And I said, "Oh, okay." So he came over and introduced me to him and said, "Okay, can we do it tomorrow?" And I said, "Sure." So the next day, we picked a time, suited up and I came out there and we started working on the mat. And he could do anything with me. I could have been nine years old. I couldn't believe this guy. Here I was winning all these tournaments and I was Southeastern States Light Heavyweight Champion. I'd even wrestled heavyweight once. I had done so well that I just was full of myself. I'd been undefeated and this guy could do anything with me. Pin me, or whatever. It turned out that he was on the U.S. Olympic team. I realized right then that world-class performance is something else altogether. I mean this guy was really extraordinary. So whenever I feel that I am pretty good, I remember this guy. That calms me down real quick.

Running the Betatron

Humphrey: Okay, now let’s go back to the other part of your question about running the betatron.

Booch: Yes, what does that exactly mean?

Humphrey: Well, a betatron is a big nuclear accelerator and the one they had there was 500 MeV, a half billion electron volts of energy. The big cyclotron was next to it. A cyclotron accelerates protons and heavier particles, but the betatron just accelerates electrons. The electrons were in a large vacuum tube doughnut that was about 50 inches across and 6 to 8 inches in diameter. The electrons are accelerated up to very close to the speed of light, and then they hit a target.

The betatron is basically a resonant magnet at 60 cycles. The enormous magnet could resonate with a great big condenser bank that filled a large room – about 20 by 40 feet and about 8 feet high. The thing actually oscillated at 60 cycles (now Hertz) at about 20,000 volts or more. And so our job was to run this thing for the scientists when they were doing experiments. Fermi and a whole bunch of people did experiments there, and they'd leave the experiments and we'd run them at night. And we all had badges -- our physical records were all stamped RA which meant radioactive.

We would periodically tape our badges in the betatron beam, and we never got a report on them. We'd just wear them. Nobody ever looked at them, because we pumped enough radiation through most of our badges to kill an army and no one paid any attention, never heard a peep. So, when you've got a bureaucracy, you ought to check it occasionally. Some of the scientists, when they'd run experiments, they'd come in at night. And there was a lady, Leona Marshall, who would walk around the experiment right by the radiation. We had all these concrete blocks with lead instead of gravel, stacked around to protect us. Someone could go in there, however, and we could watch it. We'd go upstairs to the balcony and you could look down and see Leona as she walked around, ducking when she walked by the beam.

Booch: Oh, my.

Humphrey: I mean, I couldn't believe this lady. But that's what she did. I learned a lot about electronics from that job. We actually blew a power company substation once because we wanted to soup up the power enough for the experiments. One of my side jobs was to build a bunch of spark gaps, or controlled arcs, that would dump the condenser bank in a controlled way.

Booch: Right, right.

Humphrey: To make the spark gaps, I had to machine graphite and lead which was tricky. I was doing all of this at night, while I was taking my business school courses.

Booch: Wow, quite a Renaissance man you were. So, I imagine that the room was filled by the sound of the 60 cycle hum as well, too.

Humphrey: Oh, yeah, lots going on.

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