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In Process: The Eric A. Weiss Papers

bIn August 2016 the Charles Babbage Institute (CBI) received the papers of Eric A. Weiss. Through a generous donation from the Weiss family, I have been given the opportunity to process the collection. Previous to my time with CBI, I volunteered in the Archives & Special Collections department at the University of Minnesota with the Upper Midwest Jewish Archives for two years. I graduated from St. Catherine University this past December with a Master of Library and Information Science. There I took a course, Internet Fundamentals, which sparked my interest in the history of computing and the internet.

If you have read IEEE’s Spectrum, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, or ACM’s Computing Reviews, chances are you have seen an article written or edited by Eric Weiss.  He was a towering figure in the history of computing, a prolific author and editor, and a staunch supporter of historical research in the field and CBI.

Weiss graduated from Lehigh University in 1939 with a BS degree and received an MS in electrical engineering in 1940. During World War II, Weiss first worked at the Radio Corporation of America and later, as a civilian, at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Washington D.C. and Pearl Harbor. At the Naval Ordnance Laboratory, he worked as a physicist performing laboratory work to develop and install instruments for the measurement of small magnetic fields.

Following his work for the US Government, Weiss joined Sun Oil Company (later Sunoco) in 1945 as a research engineer where he would go on to be their principal computer advisor for 20 years. During this time he introduced the first stored program computers, managed the first experiments with computer control of refinery process, and chaired the company-wide computer committee that coordinated all computer use. From 1976 until his retirement in 1982, Weiss made a career change and became the public issues consultant for Sunoco where he assessed potential future social and political conditions and issues of importance.  After working for Sunoco, Weiss returned to Hawaii where he lived nearly 35 years into his retirement.

Weiss had always intended his papers come to the Charles Babbage Institute. He held CBI in great regard. In a letter to Evan Linick dated November 12, 1996, Weiss replied, “the only reliable repository for the documents of computing history is at the Charles Babbage Center.” Weiss then forwarded Linick’s letter to Kevin D. Corbitt, then assistant archivist, presumably asking where to send IV League proceedings.

It is evident from the correspondence that Weiss had with CBI that this resource was invaluable to him and his research. As Weiss wrote biographies for IEEE Annals, he would often send a letter to the archivist asking what information they had on someone, frequently inquiring about any oral histories. As much as Weiss corresponded with CBI, the archivists got to know him and his preferences. In a letter dated 6 March 1996, responding to Weiss’s request for transcripts Corbitt states, “Although I know you despise electronic publications, you might refer readers to CBI’s website and MNCAT entries for current information.”

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Eric Weiss at Sun Oil Company

Additional materials in the Eric A. Weiss papers include photographs of Weiss at Sun Oil Company, Sun Oil Company records and correspondence, journals, newspaper clippings, patents, manuscripts, publication articles, his personal directory and business cards, personal items, Lehigh University materials, and most notably, numerous boxes of correspondence and subject files. The bulk of the material is correspondence Weiss had in regard to his work after retirement. What makes this most valuable is that he kept a copy of almost every letter he sent out and not just those he received. This provides a level of context and continuity that is often absent in correspondence collections, which are typically one-sided and only include letters received by the donor. The correspondence has been especially fun to read through because I feel like I am getting to know Weiss without ever having met him. Additionally, many times the correspondence goes from exchanging faxes and letters with a person to then reaching out to others for information about that person, as Weiss often compiled posthumous biographies. One correspondence of note is that with the computer scientist, Herb Grosch. There are at least a half dozen folders of letters which speak to the professional and personal relationship they shared.

Altogether, Weiss’s papers fill 25 boxes and range in date from 1939 to2007. As of today, I have completed an initial survey of the material and am finishing up basic preservation work on the paper records. Publication of the searchable finding aid will be made online by early autumn—hopefully in time for the next issue of the CBI Newsletter.

Ashley Skwiera
Processing Archivist, Eric Weiss Papers


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