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An Interview with Watts Humphrey, Part 3: Sylvania and Northeastern University

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In this transcript of an oral history, Grady Booch interviews SEI Fellow Watts Humphrey about his early life and formative experiences. In part 3, Humphrey discusses his work at Sylvania and teaching computer programming at Northeastern University -- in 1954.

This interview was provided courtesy of the Computer History Museum.

See the entire interview.

From the author of Sylvania


Booch: You were starting to see computers around you. You had, you know, been involved in some of the analog computing, saw that kind of dissipating. What was the first computer that you had your hands on?

Humphrey: Well, let me move back to the story a little bit, how I got there, if you don't mind.

Booch: Sure.

Humphrey: I decided to leave Chicago and get a real job in industry. I'd been taking graduate courses at IIT and was debating getting a PhD. The professor gave me a really nutty thesis topic, which was way beyond me. He wanted me to come up with a theoretical analysis of plasma oscillations. That was not something I was interested in doing. I took a shot at it but got nowhere. So, I decided to look for a job in industry and sent inquiries to RCA and IBM. My younger brother was then working with Sylvania up in Boston, so I decided to talk to them, too. I had a car at this point and drove back for interviews at RCA, IBM, and a couple of other places, as well as at Sylvania. Sylvania gave me a marvelous offer, so I decided to go there. My younger brother and I shared an apartment, which was great.

Shortly after I got to Sylvania, they sent me to a summer course on computers. This was my first year there in 1953. The two week course was on the Whirlwind computer. It was taught by a couple of guys from Cambridge, England. Oh, Lord, I can't remember their names. One of them just won the IEEE award. He and Parnas tied for it.

Mrs. Humphrey: Maurice? First name is Maurice.

Humphrey: Maurice -- is it Wilkes?

Booch: Oh, Maurice Wilkes.

Humphrey: Yeah, Maurice Wilkes. He was one of the professors teaching the course. So I walked into the course and there registering everybody was this pretty young lady, and so I spent my two weeks trying to figure out how I was going to meet this lady. Well, I did chat with her that day, during a break, and it turned out she was from Chicago and so we had mutual friends. I took her to lunch and my major for the course was Barbara. We've now been married for 55 years, with 7 children and 11 grandchildren, so I think it'll last.

Booch: I think it will stick. And was that her voice I heard in the background a moment ago?

Humphrey: What?

Booch: Was that her voice I heard in the background a moment ago?

Humphrey: That's right, telling me Wilkes.

Booch: Well, congratulations. Wow, like 55 years you say, that's remarkable. Congratulations.

Humphrey: Yeah, I learned an awful lot in that course. I wrote a program for the Whirlwind and I got totally committed to computers and to Barbara. She had been a math minor and English major, and they wanted somebody who could help with writing and presentations. The scientists were close to illiterate, but not quite. She was helping them. But she got me a copy of -- was it Herman Goldstein and John von Neumann, if you've ever heard of it. Anyway, it was a book that they wrote on planning and programming computers.

When I started at Sylvania, I'd had all these theoretical courses on electronics, electrical engineering, and physics. Since I had this tremendous background, they gave me a job as a manager. So, starting with my first job out of college, I was a manager. I never did work as a worker. They put me in charge of the circuit design group for this big cryptographic computing system. It wasn't a computer, but it had lots of computer logic. It was a digital crypto system with 5,000 subminiature vacuum tubes; it was an enormous system. Building a highly reliable system with 5,000 vacuum tubes was a challenge. This had to be reliable under military field conditions. So it had to be in ruggedized racks, work under extreme humidity and temperature conditions, withstand shock and vibration, and handle wide power fluctuations. Designing it was an enormous challenge. The problem for me, of course, was I knew nothing about designing circuits and I had this group of circuit designers working for me.

I decided, instead of trying to tell these guys what to do—since I didn't know what they should do-- I spent my time asking questions. I was quite frank with everyone. If I didn't know something, I'd say, "Okay, why does that work that way?" And so I treated my job as a learning experience. What surprised me was how much the engineers loved it. They loved to talk about their work, they loved to explain what they were doing, and they didn't look down on me for a minute, even when they knew something I didn't. It didn't bother them, they were perfectly happy. They were proud that they could explain something to me. I learned more in that brief period than I ever did in college. And the team was just extraordinary. We got patents on some circuits and produced some great products. I learned a lot real quickly and was soon able to start helping the engineers when they had design problems.

I have followed this same management style ever since. It turns out that, when you manage thousands of people, you're going to have lots of people that know more than you do. With this style, you can work with people who know more than you do. If you can't do that, your future's terribly limited. I was enormously fortunate to learn that on my first real job in industry.

We had a great team. A few months after I got to Sylvania, my boss, the program manager, got promoted up to another job in the laboratory. It was actually to work on the countermeasures system for the Hustler B-1 bomber. So they made me the program manager for the crypto system. I had the electrical engineers and mechanical engineers working for me. The minute I got promoted, the mechanical engineers came to me. They'd been asking for a couple of months about the power requirements.

So when I became program manager, they came back to me and said, "We've got to get the power requirements." I said, "We haven't designed the circuits yet. How can we give you the power requirements?" They said, "Well, if we're going to meet the schedule, we've got to get all the structural frames ordered and, to do that, we've got to order the transformers." So I said, "Okay, well, how long does that take?" Well, it turns out that if we didn't get the transformer order in next week, we couldn't make schedule. The transformer was a long-lead item. I said, "Oops." So we made a power estimate right then. We were very cautious and put a fair amount of fudge on it. We actually had enough, which was fortunate. At the same time, I said "Let's make a detailed schedule for the whole program."

We got with the manufacturing guys and laid out the plans and put the whole schedule together. We found that we barely had time to get the job done. Later, in the middle of testing the hardware, the circuits were working and everything was great. We were preparing for the final testing and for the Signal Corps to come up and review the system in the next week or so. I was home one weekend and I got a call from the guards; there was a hurricane coming. In those days we didn't have hurricane warnings, and we were in a basement lab in downtown Boston. The guards called me and said, "Hey, there's water coming up through the floor." We had all this equipment on live test. It was all sitting on the floor. So I raced into the lab real quick, and I was amazed to see the entire team show up, without my even calling them. They all came in, we killed the power, and we got it all jacked up and off the floor. I mean, the team was -- it was just astounding. So they showed up without even being called and they saved the day for us.

Booch: Wow, that's remarkable.

Humphrey: Isn't it? Amazing.

Northeastern University

Booch: So you were doing cryptanalysis work around then. I'm curious if you had any connections with Turing or had heard of the Colossus around that time? Was that on your radar?

Humphrey: No, that wasn't, but when I got to Sylvania and I started working on this machine, I got very interested in computers. So I went over to Northeastern University. It was right there because our lab was on the campus. I asked if they had any night school courses on computers that I could take. And they said they didn’t but they wanted to know my background. When I told them, they talked me into teaching a course on computers.

Booch: Okay.

Humphrey: I was quite used to teaching because the professor I had at IIT, George Cohen, was wonderful. I took every course he taught in electrical engineering. On occasion, he would call me up and say, "Hey, look, I can't be there tonight, will you give the next lecture?" And so I generally arrived at class prepared to teach. I was working at the Chicago Midway lab in the day and taking these courses at night. I was used to teaching, even stuff that I didn't know. Since I had been able to do that, I decided that I could probably teach a course on computers.

I went over to the MIT library and the Harvard library. I had previously talked to Howard Aiken about taking a PhD at Harvard but he wanted me to take a lot of formal math that wasn’t the least bit interesting. So in preparing to teach this course at Northeastern on computer design, I read the von Neumann book, and I went to the libraries of Harvard and MIT and read everything written on computers. And there wasn't a whole lot. It is amazing that I managed to fall into the computer field at a time when you could read all the literature on a subject. Can you imagine doing that today?

Booch: It'd be tough.

Humphrey: Yeah. So I read everything about it, everything they had. I got the Kiester, Ritchie and Washburn book by the Bell Labs folks, which was about switching design. It was a very good book, but it wasn't about computers. It was designing, essentially, telephone switching exchanges. It had a lot of useful stuff in it. I put this two-semester course together, and the first class started on the 13th of September, in 1954. I had 13 students, and that day we moved into a house in Cochicuate, MA at Number 13 Bald Rock Road. So a lot of 13s all hit on that one day.

Booch: Marvelous. Those 13 students, have you had any further contact with them? Do you know where they've ended up?

Humphrey: I have not. Most of them worked for Honeywell and they were all designing the Datamatic computer. They probably knew more about computers than I did. But I followed the same kind of teaching strategy that I had used in management. I would have them explain stuff to me. They knew a lot that I didn't, and so we had a marvelous class. I learned a lot from that course. I then went through my notes and I put them together into a framework of the course the next year.

I had very detailed lecture notes and, at the end of the year, I decided to see if I could turn it into a book. So I contacted McGraw-Hill to see if they'd be interested, and they were. So I wrote my first book. The second year I taught the course, it wasn't as much fun because I knew so much more at this point than I had the year before, and the students treated me more like a professor than a colleague. I had notes for my manuscript, which I was teaching from now, and the third year I taught, I had the published textbook. I taught that for four years.

Booch: What was the title of that book, do you recall?

Humphrey: Switching Circuits with Computer Applications.

Booch: So mostly what you taught -- I would imagine that's out of print these days, I don't know.

Humphrey: It's out of print, but it was used as the text at MIT and Purdue and some places in South America. It sold about 20,000 or 30,000 copies.

Booch: In fact, thanks to the power of Google, I see that one can still buy some copies, so it's available.

Humphrey: Wow, it's still available.

Booch: So most of your course was certainly not programming it sounds like, but more on the machine side, the architecture of the computer. Would that be a fair characterization?

Humphrey: I had not done any programming, except what I'd done at that MIT course.

Booch: Got it.

Humphrey: And so I wasn't really a programmer at that point.

Booch: In your comings and goings, did you run across von Neumann or Eckert and Mauchly as well, too? Where were they in the midst of this?

Humphrey: I didn't run into any of them. In fact, the people that I ran into at the Barta Building, a lot of very bright people, they all disappeared from the scene, never heard from them again, except for Wilkes of course and those guys. I ran into Wilkes, by the way, later. He and I both were giving keynote speeches at a conference up in Canada, so I got to chat with him there again. He didn't remember me, but I certainly did him. But yeah, so I learned a lot. The lab moved at this point out to [Route] 128, to a new location, and I remember we moved our big 5,000 tube bunch of stuff, great big relay racks, and we had another system that was there. It was a 48 channel PCM communication system with 48-channel voice -- it was a bit stream that they had actually multiplexed 48 channels. And so we got this analog stream that was converted to digital, and it was a 1.17 megacycles, I believe, now Megahertz, and that's what we had to encrypt. And so we got the system all set up. Now remember we're in a new lab, we got this whole bay of stuff all set up and they told me to power it up.

So I started to power it up. I didn't get very many of the units up before it blew a fuse, and so all their guys came over to see what was going on, and the building maintenance guy who was running all of that stuff said, "Well, we'll put in a little bit bigger fuse." And so they put in a little bit bigger fuse, and I went a little bit farther this time and blew that out. And the electrical engineers who were putting this stuff in, they came in and they kind of laughed and they said, "He said to put in a bigger fuse so we did." And I said, "Oops." And he said, "Okay fire it up." So I fired it up, and I got most of it up, not all of it, but most of it up, and it sounded like a bolt of lightning. I mean, when it blew that fuse, it really -- it blew the fuse box. The electrical guys came over and said, "Come over and see this, you've got to see this." So I went over with them. The whole wall was black. It had taken out the whole fuse box. I mean, this was a lot of power that I was drawing with this thing. So in any event, they got it all fixed ultimately, it took them a little while. And so we got it all back up, and I had been trying to figure out how we were going to test all this. This had been somewhat earlier. We were due to get a demo for the Signal Corps and for some other gentlemen, who arrived from an unnamed agency. And the question is, when you've got this random digital data stream, how do you determine that it's working. I mean, the circuits were working, but do you know if the logic works?

So I worked through the logic of this and figured out how I could get it by connecting the input to the output of the crypt box, how I could get it actually to fall into a pattern and so I did. I was able to work out a bunch of digital standing-wave patterns, and we used them for testing the system. When the Navy Signal Corps came to get a demo, I probably described this system for getting this to fall into these synchronized patterns, to self-synch, and demonstrated it. The Signal Corps guys were all excited. And these three men, in black suits, didn't say a word. And I realized later I had killed the system right then. I mean the crypto guys weren't the least bit interested in a system you could get to synchronize like that. It would have been tough to test if I hadn't. But in any event, the first system, we actually built it, shipped it off, and it was installed, apparently, in the Pentagon, linked to some unnamed location. I learned later than it ran for 5,000 hours unattended without an error.

Booch: Wow.

Humphrey: For 5,000 tubes, that's pretty good.

Booch: That's pretty amazing.

Humphrey: Yeah. So those circuit design kids -- they were all young, they did an extraordinary job. We had it derated so you could bring the power down 50 percent, and you could do all kinds of stuff with it. It would run from minus 30F to plus 130F in high humidity. It was an amazing system and it just worked forever. So it was a tragedy it didn't continue to get built. And at that time, I was running this group now, I had several projects at the Waltham Lab at Sylvania, but we were running out of work. And they had work for the B-1 bomber, and they also got a contract for the BMEWS project -- you know, the radars across the northern tier, so it was another group that was doing this. The guy who'd been my previous boss and been promoted, he was up in that group.


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