|CBI: Glimpses of the Founding, Part 2|
In the Fall 2012 CBI Newsletter, I began an exploration of CBI’s formative years. In that issue I provided some background to CBI’s history, from its founding to the selection of the University of Minnesota as its permanent home in 1980. I supplemented the accounts published in IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, and in oral histories with Erwin Tomash and Arthur Norberg, with an examination of the archival records of the site-selection process. What especially struck me was the careful attention to conducting a nation-wide search for a university home for CBI. There was thoughtful planning that resulted in publicity in the trade journal Computerworld, a draft list of no fewer than 39 universities, and a detailed 25-page invitation for proposals sent out to the likely prospects. A dozen universities submitted full bids, and of the two finalists that received site visits from the high-profile CBI search committee, the upshot was that Minnesota won the competition.
It turned out that Minnesota’s winning bid was only the start. There were months of negotiations to solidify the details of the CBI-Minnesota relationship. One thing is clear: both Minnesota, in the person of historian Roger Stuewer, and CBI, in the persons of Walter Bauer, Paul Armer, and Erwin Tomash, really wanted the relationship to be a successful one and to get the venture off the ground. They did so, quite famously, and a new phase of CBI began with the arrival of Arthur Norberg in the fall of 1981 as the first permanent director of CBI. In this article, I’ll examine this transition period with an eye toward “lessons learned” in setting up a novel history enterprise. Who knows, it’s just possible that, somewhere along the line, the CBI model might serve as a nucleus for another venture?
In 1980 there was a surprising amount of interest in computer history, which you can sample in Paul Armer’s correspondence. He was a former Rand Corporation computer scientist, who had been working with Tomash for two years to launch the venture. He was an ideal clearinghouse. He heard word that Sperry Univac staff had written a 300-page book on their company, which also triggered a missive from none other than John Mauchly, who noted, somewhat telegraphically, “keep me posted on what you and Babbage are doing, please.” Another early letter of support came in from Gwen Bell, director of the Digital Computer Museum in Marlborough, Massachusetts (an early incarnation of today’s Computer History Museum). Frustrated with the existing state of the art, she noted that “the history of computing needs sorting out . . . I really applaud the CBI scholar program to give aid to people who will work in depth.”
CBI itself was significant news in the early summer of 1980. CBI was moving from its location in Palo Alto, California, to the University of Minnesota, where Roger Stuewer would become its acting director. Roger had been the driving force behind Minnesota’s bid, as my fall 2012 newsletter article described in some detail. A splashy press release sent out to the computing and history communities served as an announcement as well as a mission statement: the primary mission of CBI was “to study the history of information processing—its technical and socioeconomic aspects—and to promote increased awareness of the impact of the computing and information revolution on society.” To do so, it would take up the archiving of records, the conducting of oral histories, and the promotion of these materials through wide-ranging research, teaching, and outreach activities.
“History of Computers Is Institute’s Bailiwick,” was the resulting headline for a full-page illustrated article published in the San Francisco Business Journal on June 16th. Paul Armer, the Institute’s voice in California, noted several “very good reasons” to award fellowships to graduate students doing research in computing history, among them, to ensure “there are professors out there who know the field.” At that time CBI was supporting William Aspray and Paul Ceruzzi, who went on to distinguished careers in computer history. And accenting the international dimension, Armer noted that CBI had just completed a six-hour interview with Czech computing pioneer Antonin Svobada. Perhaps the most important resource that Armer noted was the “invisible college” created by the CBI Newsletter circulating to 4,000 people and organizations.
“The Charles Babbage Institute will provide an entirely new interface with business and industry in the state, region, and nation,” stated acting director Stuewer, adding that “the success of its program will depend on the involvement and contribution of many institutions and individuals around the world.” In a bold gesture reported in the Minneapolis Star (14 July 1980) Stuewer suggested that “this will make the University [of Minnesota] the cultural center of the computing industry. We will be carrying out a teaching program, a research program, and visiting scholars will come to the university to conduct research.”
Two thick folders of marked-up drafts detail the line-by-line negotiation that specified the administrative relationships between CBI and the University of Minnesota. Equally revealing is a seven-page vision statement that Roger Stuewer drafted in October 1980. In it, “The Plans and Programs of the Charles Babbage Institute,” he spoke to an “entirely new opportunity” for historians to better understand the “information revolution from a broad technical-socioeconomic perspective.” Roger then reviewed the remarkable history that led Erwin Tomash to found CBI.
Roger noted that among Erwin’s achievements were the assembling of a stellar board of trustees including such luminaries as William Baker of Bell Labs, James Birkenstock of IBM, and William Norris of Control Data. He and Paul Armer worked closely with the American Federation of Information Processing Societies (AFIPS), a consortium of 13 societies with a total membership of around a half million. AFIPS had just created Annals of the History of Computing, with the University of Michigan’s Bernie Galler as its first editor, and AFIPS would handsomely support CBI in its early years, too.
As an aside we should note AFIPS had a very active history of computing committee that aimed to stir the pot; its leading figures were Jean Sammet and Daniel McCracken. CBI, already during its California years, was amassing an annual membership list and the two components—support for CBI and an annual subscription to Annals—were melded together. Contributors to today’s CBI Friends program can easily recognize this formula for success.
Stuewer and Armer spent months hammering out an agreement between CBI and the University of Minnesota. Roger, a historian of physics, struck an apt metaphor. “I felt at times that [Armer] and I were like the two electrons in a hydrogen molecule, oscillating back and forth around the two nuclei, trying, sometimes desperately, to hold them together in a stable configuration. It now appears . . . that the bond is a strong one.” Indeed, beginning in November 1980 Paul Armer, who had been executive secretary of CBI in Palo Alto, relocated to continue this role in Minnesota. Space was being prepared for CBI in the handsomely appointed Walter Library.
Arthur Norberg, selected to be CBI’s first permanent director, took up this position in the fall of 1981. Arthur was well known in the history community, having been at the Bancroft Library at Berkeley doing an oral history and archiving project and, more recently, at the National Science Foundation as a program officer. He was also an officer in the History of Science Society as was Roger Stuewer. Arthur would serve as CBI director during 1981-1993 and again during 1999-2006. His oral history in 2006, with Bill Aspray and Jeffrey Yost, respectively, former associate director of CBI and present associate director of CBI, looks back with insight and discernment. In a future edition, I’ll have a closer look at these next formative years of the Charles Babbage Institute.
Thomas J. Misa
Archival sources for this article come from the Charles Babbage Institute Records (CBI 73), Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.