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An Interview with Watts Humphrey, Part 35: The National Medal of Technology

In this transcript of an oral history, Grady Booch interviews SEI Fellow Watts Humphrey. In Part 35, Humphrey recounts his experience of receiving the National Medal of Technology.

This interview was provided courtesy of the Computer History Museum.

See the entire interview.

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The National Medal of Technology

Booch: Let me turn now to the story of you receiving the Medal of Technology. I think you had the ceremony in 2003, although you were given the award earlier than that. Can you tell me the story around that, your meeting at the White House and all that? You're only the second Medal of Technology technologist I've run across, and I'm always fascinated by those stories of how it came to be. What an honor to receive that.

Humphrey: Well, it certainly was. The award was actually the 2003 award, which I was given in March of 2005. It was delayed because the President had a whole lot going on at the time.

Booch: For the people who are listening to this, you might want to expand upon it, because you and I know what we're talking about, but there may be generations after us who may not necessarily know that context.

Humphrey: Right. Well, it came to me as a real surprise-- and let me back up a little bit. The National Medal of Technology--and this is true of all of these medals, by the way--they don't just appear. Somebody has to nominate you, and that's an enormous job. And Bill Peterson at the SEI, who's director of the process program, took it on himself to submit the nomination. And he actually went through the whole cycle twice. The first time, apparently, it didn't fly, and he went back and did it again. This time it did. The first time I heard about it, I don't remember who I got a call from. I can look back in my notebooks, but I got a call from an assistant secretary of commerce.

He called me up and told me that I wasn't able to tell anybody yet, but I was going to receive the National Medal of Technology and he wanted to make sure that my calendar would be clear and it would be in the White House and that sort of thing. Basically, I was absolutely staggered. The National Medal of Technology is managed out of the Department of Commerce and they sort of see it as the U.S. top technological award. There's also a National Medal of Science, so they basically go together and they have the awards together.

They view it as sort of the U.S. equivalent of the Nobel Prize. As I say, when I heard that, wow. I couldn't believe that they wanted me in that league, to have me up there. But in any event, so they put the whole thing together, and then a lot of people started to contact me with this thing, because they had to put together the program. And part of the program was a video--there'd be a two to three minute video on each of the winners.

The first ceremony, I think was in the White House. We met at one of the hotels in downtown Washington. We arrived there and they had a dinner the night before. And so we all met and that sort of thing. It was a small thing. There weren't a whole lot of other people there. But they told me I could have three guests. I said, “Well, I've got seven kids. How do I do that?”

Booch: Who do you love the most?

Humphrey: Yeah. So they said, “Well, let us check with the White House.” So they came back and said, “You can bring them all.”

Booch: Oh, sweet.

Humphrey: This is marvelous. So they all came. Actually, one, unfortunately, was in Australia and couldn't be there. So Barbara came with six of the seven kids, and Barbara and myself. We went to the dinner at the Ritz. The small dinner, it was very pleasant. Then we all went back and we had to appear the next morning, of course, all properly suited up in business attire and that sort of thing.

Booch: Watts, tell me the date for this again.

Humphrey: It was in March in 2005. So we arrived back at the Ritz hotel the next morning, the morning of the award, to get bussed to the White House. And the awardees all had to be there early, because we were going to get bussed separately, and then the family was going to get bussed in on their own a little bit later.

So we got bussed over to the White House about 7:30, 8 o’clock in the morning, fairly early. And as we were riding over, the gentleman sitting next to me, I started chatting with him, and it turned out he was in, I believe, biology. I’m not sure if it was biology or something of that sort. And he was talking about what he had done and it turned out he had also won the Nobel Prize.

Booch: Oh my.

Humphrey: And so there were a number of people like that. And I thought wow, I’m in rather exalted company.

Booch: My recollection is that the other award winners of your time were Jan Achenbach, Bob Metcalfe who did a little thing with the Internet as I recall, was he there with you? At least according to the list he was a 2003 recipient.

Humphrey: Yes, well, I’m sure he was. I really don’t remember the names of everybody who was there. But there were a few medal of technology winners, I think only about four. I remember we talked about it, what they did. The people who I think had come up with the catalytic converter, and several others. But I don’t remember them. I didn’t really have a whole lot of discussion with them, but there was quite a crowd.  Most of them were Medal of Science winners and those were the Nobel Prize winners that I had run into.

Booch: Got it.

Humphrey: It turns out Fred Brooks and Bob Evans also won the National Medal of Technology for the 360 system, which I learned later. So anyway we arrived over in the White House…

Booch: And by the way, I have that story of Fred at the White House. Steve Jobs was there at the same time. So we have a background on that too, which is why I’m fascinated with your story. So you arrived at the White House.

Humphrey: So we arrived and they bussed us into the West Wing through sort of a special entrance there, and then they walked us all in and we went into a special room in the West Wing on the first floor, and we were to stand there and then in came the president. And he walked around and greeted each of us and chatted with us and then he left. This is ahead of the ceremony. And then we waited there and basically all of the guests and visitors and stuff went into, I think it was the East Room in the White House which is the East Wing, not the West Wing. And it was the wing closest to the Treasury. Remember, I talked about visiting my uncle in the Treasury? It was right there. So yes, we waited there and then finally when they had the whole thing all set up and the room, they came and called us and we went in order and a marine band was playing and everybody stood and applauded. I mean it was hard to keep your cool.

Booch: And your children were in the audience then, too.

Humphrey: They were all there. My wife was there. And it was emotional. I mean it was really a very powerful period. So we all filed in and sat in the front two rows, and then everybody sat down and waited for a few minutes, and I think there were some comments made by the Secretary of Commerce, I believe, to greet us and that sort of thing. And then “Hail to the Chief” and we all stood up. So the president came in and went up on to the platform and he had, I think, it was a Marine officer who was handing him the stuff. And so our name would be called. Somebody would read the award and we would come up and stand beside the president and there would be a bunch of pictures. And the he’d turn to this Marine officer who would give him the medal with the ribbon and everything, and he put the ribbon over my neck and then he handed me the plaque. And we stood and got a picture with the president and then we shook hands and I went back and sat down.

So we went through the whole thing. Each of us got a brief discussion. The president, I didn’t say this, the president started with a brief talk about the national medal and what it was and how important it was to the nation and that sort of thing, and he gave a very nice talk. It was very brief. But we went through the whole ceremony, he gave an award to each of us, and we all got our medals and went and sat down and then the president left. And then we all filed out, again, to music. There was a reception and then everybody else came out and we all got together and there was a luncheon. It was really a gorgeous luncheon. And it turns out my congresswoman from Sarasota, Florida showed up as did a bunch of other people. Some senators were there. It was quite a crowd and a very impressive group. And lots of pictures and that sort of thing. Of course, we got pictures of me with the family and with the kids and all milling around there.

And then after some time we left. We had basically the afternoon and we didn’t have much to do, but that night there was a formal dinner and reception. And we had to be all in tux and evening dress and that sort of thing and all of our kids did too, so we men had rented tuxes for the occasion. I don't own one anymore, not used that often. So we all got dressed up and went to this reception. It was really a fabulous event. And it was chaired by the Secretary of Commerce who opened. And before the dinner, again, we waited outside and when the thing was all ready and everybody was seated, the Marine Band played and we filed in and stood in front of the dais by the Secretary of Commerce. And I think he made some comments to each of us when we walked up. We walked up and shook his hand anyway, but I don’t remember exactly what else happened.

But he had a discussion with each of us and then we sat down and then, after we had eaten, they went to a video where they played about a three minute video of each of our careers. And at this point let me break and describe how they put that together. I couldn’t believe it. They had a group that they had hired who did this. And they called me because what they wanted to do was to interview me on the phone but they wanted a high quality recording. They also wanted a whole bunch of pictures and they had some questions. And it turned out at the time they wanted to interview me I was out at Microsoft. And I told them that so they got hold of a Microsoft VP who’s apparently on their industrial award committee and he arranged for the--Microsoft has a research with the sound lab out there--so he arranged for me to go sit in the Microsoft sound lab with all of the microphones and stuff.  So it’s a very high quality recording they set up, and these people called me on the phone and they asked me a whole bunch of questions.

And so I just answered them, and it was just a very kind of a casual conversation for about 30 to 40 minutes. I had sent them a bunch of pictures that I’d found of albums and stuff when I was kid or in college and family stuff, work stuff and stuff at SEI. And it turned out that SEI had sent them some videotape and some pictures and stuff. IBM had also pulled out stuff out of their archives. So these people did an extraordinary job, and they had about two weeks to put this together. And they put together this absolutely beautifully polished two to three minute video on me. What’s amazing is they did it on everybody. I don't know how they did it but it was an extraordinary piece of work at really high speed. I mean they did it just very quickly because the whole, as I say, the whole thing this ceremony had been put off, put off, and put off and then finally the president had a window in his calendar and they said, “Okay, we can do it in like two-and-a-half weeks.” So they only had a couple of weeks to put this whole thing together. They hadn’t even told us about it. And so as I say these people did an amazing job and it was really quite a video. I’ve got a CD of it and my plan is to send it with my stuff to the museum.

Booch: That would be grand.

Humphrey: And I think I’ll even send them my medal and the plaque if they want it. I guess that they might.

Booch: I think there are very few people at the museum in their archives that have such a medal.

Humphrey: As I say, I must admit I’m thoroughly blessed. And while my kids would love to, they’ve all seen it, but I think it would be much better to have it in a museum than have it in somebody’s home.

Booch: Sure. Well, thank you. That’s a wonderful story. Do you have some follow up on that?

Humphrey: I’m not quite done. So then they had the dinner, and the next day there was a session over with the Secretary of Commerce where we each gave about a 10-minute talk on what we were doing and that sort of thing. And again, they presented us with a big sort of a placard board that described the medal and described our work. And then that was the end of it. But it was just a marvelous event. And I was so delighted. I could bring all of our kids and Barbara. I was sorry to miss one of them but we had a great time. But it really was a marvelous experience personally.


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