IEEE
You are not logged in, please sign in to edit > Log in / create account  

Oral-History:Virginia Gerdes

From GHN

(Difference between revisions)
Jump to: navigation, search
(One intermediate revision by one user not shown)
Line 21: Line 21:
 
== Interview  ==
 
== Interview  ==
  
Interview: Virginia Gerdes
+
Interview: Virginia Gerdes  
  
Interviewer: William Aspray
+
Interviewer: William Aspray  
  
Date: 14 June 1991
+
Date: 14 June 1991  
  
Location: Boston, Massachusetts
+
Location: Boston, Massachusetts  
  
 
=== Education and Recruitment to Rad Lab  ===
 
=== Education and Recruitment to Rad Lab  ===
Line 138: Line 138:
  
 
'''Aspray:'''  
 
'''Aspray:'''  
 +
 +
<p><flashmp3>103 - gerdes - clip 1.mp3</flashmp3></p>
  
 
Tell me about your duties.  
 
Tell me about your duties.  
Line 287: Line 289:
 
Well, thank you.  
 
Well, thank you.  
  
[[Category:People_and_organizations|Oral-History:Virginia Gerdes]] [[Category:Research_and_development_labs|Oral-History:Virginia Gerdes]] [[Category:Culture_and_society|Oral-History:Virginia Gerdes]] [[Category:Defense_&_security|Category:Defense_&amp;_security]] [[Category:Signals|Oral-History:Virginia Gerdes]] [[Category:Signal_detection|Oral-History:Virginia Gerdes]] [[Category:Radar_detection|Oral-History:Virginia Gerdes]] [[Category:World_War_II|Oral-History:Virginia Gerdes]] [[Category:Environment,_geoscience_&_remote_sensing|Category:Environment,_geoscience_&amp;_remote_sensing]] [[Category:Radar|Oral-History:Virginia Gerdes]] [[Category:Workplace|Oral-History:Virginia Gerdes]] [[Category:Education|Oral-History:Virginia Gerdes]] [[Category:News|Oral-History:Virginia Gerdes]]
+
[[Category:People and organizations|Geddes]] [[Category:Research and development labs|Geddes]] [[Category:Culture and society|Geddes]] [[Category:Defense & security|Geddes]] [[Category:Signals|Geddes]] [[Category:Signal detection|Geddes]] [[Category:Radar detection|Geddes]] [[Category:World War II|Geddes]] [[Category:Environment, geoscience & remote sensing|Geddes]] [[Category:Radar|Geddes]] [[Category:Workplace|Geddes]] [[Category:Education|Geddes]] [[Category:News|Geddes]]

Revision as of 20:08, 30 March 2012

Contents

About Virginia Gerdes

Gerdes graduated from high school in 1943, answered an ad in the paper, and became a technician at the Rad Lab. She was assigned to Group 83; Getting was the division leader and Nichols the group leader. Gerdes worked as a bench technician, transforming schematics into breadboards. Later she did calculations, and ended up working on the Rad Lab books for 3-6 months. She emphasizes how nice it was to work at Rad Lab: informal, familial, polite, collegial, helpful. Technicians had the opportunity to take classes on instrumentation, advanced math, lab measurements, etc., if they wanted. There were also group social outings.

About the Interview

VIRGINIA GERDES: An Interview Conducted by William Aspray, IEEE History Center, 14 June 1991

Interview # 103 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.

Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center.

Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, 39 Union Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901-8538 USA. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

Virginia Gerdes, an oral history conducted in 1991 by William Aspray, IEEE History Center, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.

Interview

Interview: Virginia Gerdes

Interviewer: William Aspray

Date: 14 June 1991

Location: Boston, Massachusetts

Education and Recruitment to Rad Lab

Aspray:

This is an interview on June 14, 1991 in Boston, Massachusetts. The interviewee is Virginia Gerdes; the interviewer is William Aspray. This is part of the MIT Radiation Laboratory Oral History Project. Let's begin by having you tell me about your education and career before you went to the Rad Lab.

Gerdes:

I just graduated from high school and was supposed to go to college. To become a meteorologist — changed my mind.

Aspray:

What year was this?

Gerdes:

This was '43. Actually it was an ad in the newspaper, and I had never worked before, so I had no idea what I was doing. I walked in I had taken math and science in high school and had enjoyed it. A newspaper ad is what sent me to MIT. I knew no one there, had no idea what they were doing, and had not looked into anything else. I just had an ad in my hand and went over and said, "Here I am," and, that was it.

Aspray:

Do you remember your interview for the position at all?

Gerdes:

I had to take an exam. I remember it was a little written exam. Then I talked to three different groups of people. I don't remember their names, but I do remember it was a progression: you spoke with someone, and then they called someone else, and you moved to that office. They ended up asking if I wanted technician's training. I didn't know what I wanted to do so I said that sounded okay to me. Then I think the next week or two I reported. You couldn't see where you were going to work because of security. So you went into an area, and then there was this great awakening as you went into Building 22.

Building 22

Aspray:

What was your first experience? What was 22 like?

Gerdes:

Actually in this day and age, nobody would probably be allowed to be in there. There were small windows up at the top that opened in. Absolutely no air. I can remember the first week I was there doing salvage with carbon tet, and it was August in a wooden building. I don't know why I didn't pick up and run. Actually the people, all the people, were wonderful. I don't know what pulled them together. Maybe the war. Everyone had a purpose, and there was no in-fighting. I never was aware of any in-fighting the whole time I was there. But I had no benchmarks, so I didn't know how great it was. We waited until they collected enough people to do an instruction class. After we had instructions, we were assigned to different groups.

Training

Aspray:

Can you tell me about that training?

Gerdes:

I have scars from the training. They did the radio electronics piece of it as regular book training. We apparently had had a good physics course in our high school, so I was already familiar with much of that.

Aspray:

What did they teach you in that, do you recall?

Gerdes:

They taught you how to read schematics. We learned how to compute substitutes, if you had to change a resistor or something like that. They showed us what things looked like, because in your high school physics lab you didn't necessarily have pots and variable resistors and the big condensers and this type of thing. Then they taught a shop class and we learned how to drill holes, and mount things on chassis, and solder. That piece of it was fine. The classroom part for me was not as interesting. Because I felt like you were sitting through things that you had studied the year before.

Aspray:

Did some people have trouble with the training?

Gerdes:

Well, that was what the problem was, because they were bringing the whole class along, and you had to sit through it because you were part of the class. We probably almost got thrown out because there were a couple of us that were very busy having our own good time during class. It was unique in a lot of ways because of the fact that there just weren't that many girls who were interested in the basic science. Even if they were going on to college, there were very few that had taken the higher math and this type of thing. From there you didn't get a choice, so you didn't get an interview. You were assigned on what their recommendations were. So you had no say.

Aspray:

Did they look at your strengths from the training programs?

Gerdes:

That's right.

Aspray:

They considered their needs and then they just assigned you?

Gerdes:

That's right. They had a threat that they held over everyone's head that if you didn't toe the line, you would end up in the dreaded model shop.

Aspray:

And was the model shop so bad, as far as you could tell?

Gerdes:

Well, the problem with the model shop was the fact that you weren't getting away from these people that you had been involved with because they were running the model shop. So that seemed to be graduating-not.

Group 83

Aspray:

Where were you assigned?

Gerdes:

I was assigned to 83. That was the only place I was. Dr. Getting was the division leader, and Dr. Nichols was the group leader. In many ways I wish I had been older because I think I would have appreciated what was going on more. A lot of things that I now appreciate is because over the years you take business courses and this kind of thing and you look back and say, "Ah hah, that really was unique". Everyone was so kind. I can't ever remember any problems in the group. Everyone was in this huge room. You had people working on benches; you had people trying to conduct idea exchanges on problems they were running into; you had people trying to do math; you had a secretary trying to answer the phone. And you had some cabinets dividing them. It's a wonder that they did anything. There was one gentleman, he probably was a mathematician or he certainly was a theorist. He would walk down the hall and look out one of these windows that you couldn't look out, that was over his head. He could shut himself off this way. If you approached him and spoke to him, he wouldn't hear you. So you had to stand in his vision, which wasn't easy, because he did look up. I'm sure he did some fantastic things. It was his way of creating his space. And there just wasn't any then.

Organizational Structure

Aspray:

Tell me about some of the other characters that made it unique. What about the organizational structure?

Gerdes:

They were very informal. As a matter of fact, when I'm trying to remember names, I remember first names. The majority of the technical people were doctors, but that was the atmosphere. For instance, the division head would come walking through. He bought a different newspaper than I did, and we would swap cartoons. Cigarettes became impossible to get. I became a smoker because everyone else was. There was a gentleman who would roll cigarettes for me and bring them in. People would stop in. You'd walk by from Kendall Square, walking up to 22. You'd walk by the candy factory, and the candy factory sold seconds one day a month, and people would go and bring in these five-pound things of candy and they were just put there. Everybody would share. So in that sense it was a very friendly group. I can't ever remember any problems going on. If they were there, I wasn't aware of it. The only people that left were people that went back to college because you were locked in. Of course if you say that to someone now, they're just sort of shocked. But they rated jobs or places of work, and you had to get permission to leave. So it was nice everybody did not want to leave.

Duties and Work Atmosphere

Aspray:

Tell me about your duties.

Gerdes:

I came in as a bench technician. Actually that meant that sometimes you got just a black-box schematic, and then you had to run around and get an engineer to help you fill it in. Depending on what the person's education was — there weren't too many engineers as I recall. So you had to do a lot of networking, not because anyone would get on your case if you didn't. It was because you felt you wanted to do what they were asking you to do. So that you networked your way around and moved from one person to the other to say, "Do you think this looks okay?" You could do some hand-drilling at a bench, but you couldn't necessarily punch large holes there. Thinking back, I'm sure the noise even from hand drills must have been unbearable for people trying to concentrate. So you started with a basic idea, and then you built in this day what you would consider a breadboard. Sometimes these breadboards would fly. Then you wouldn't get to redo it. Another nice thing was that no one ever spoke down to you. I didn't realize that people did this until later on in my life. But it didn't matter who you were. Dr. Loomis was in charge but he would come in and chat with you as with everyone else. There was never any line between where people went to school or who they were. You never, never, never had any of that. They just didn't have time for that baloney.

Aspray:

How much did you understand about how the breadboards you were preparing were going to be used? How much did you learn about radar technology?

Gerdes:

You had the overall picture eventually. To begin with you just had pieces. There was a marvelous man, an older gentleman, who was a technician, and he saved my life many times. There was one engineer that would often help me. Because if you asked a theoretical person engineering questions, they didn't have it.

Aspray:

They might not know how to implement it.

Gerdes:

That's right. But it was a marvelous experience. It's funny, because now when I look back and think of it, I just think it can never happen again. That's my feeling. I don't ever think you could do that again because the main purpose was the war and everything else was secondary. We worked 48 hours. We worked half a day on Saturday, I remember that. There was an interesting thing. I'm not even sure why I ended up there. To go to work I had to take a bus, a train, subway, and then for a while, when I was on Albany Street, I had to take another streetcar.

Aspray:

That's a long trip to go to work.

Gerdes:

When you think of it now, you say, "why did you ever do that?" From the interview it sounded interesting to me so I bought into it and continued to go.

Aspray:

Do you think that was typical? Were there other people spread all over the metropolitan area that had long travel to get to work?

Gerdes:

I would say there were others, but the majority of them took the travel time into consideration. As I say, I had no experience.

Continuing Education for Technicians

Aspray:

Was there any continuing education for the technicians?

Gerdes:

Yes, there was. They tried to, depending on the work. They'd run classes all the time. It's just a case of whether you felt you had the time. It was an interesting thing, because you could make the choice as to whether you felt you had the time to be away to take the classes.

Aspray:

Can you give me some examples of what they taught?

Gerdes:

They taught instrumentation, advanced math. They taught courses in what they found the people were lacking. They did teach some of the radar principles. They taught lab measurements, testing type of things. I ended up the last part of my time there doing calculations. Then I worked on the books for a while, maybe three to six months. Then I went down the road to CRL. That was a rude awaking because that was a much different atmosphere.

Rad Lab Compared to Cambridge Research Laboratory

Aspray:

That's Cambridge Research Laboratory? Why don't you tell me about the difference between the style at the Cambridge Research Laboratory and at the Radiation Lab.

Gerdes:

When I arrived at CRL, I assumed everyone that was heading a group was going to be the same type of person Dr. Nichols was. Wrong! In their defense, they were just organizing, and it took quite a while to get the people together and get that up and running. Nothing could be more boring than going to work and being a body and going home and not have anything really interesting to do. Especially when you had been very busy and enjoyed what you were doing. It took me a while to realize that I hadn't known enough to look carefully when I made the move. So then I moved to a second group which was actually every bit as interesting as it had been at Rad Lab, but not the caliber of people.

Aspray:

Was that successful?

Gerdes:

There were several that were very different. As time went on, you suddenly noticed the little empire-building and the pecking order, things that just struck me as this shouldn't be. People are here, and even though the war is over, you're still working as a group. As I say, if any of that existed at the other place, I definitely was not aware of it.

Aspray:

Was there more of a hierarchical structure in a military sort of sense at Cambridge Research Laboratory?

Gerdes:

The person in charge was going to be king of the hill. But the second group was similar to what I had experienced before.

Social Life at Rad Lab

Aspray:

Tell me about the social life at Rad Lab?

Gerdes:

The social life really was spur of the moment because you never quite knew who was going to be working through. It was usually something that was thrown out at the end of the day if you suddenly found that everybody was getting through at six o'clock. I don't remember any formal social aspects, but everybody would go over to the Esplanade. There were a lot of groupies. Two or three people would say, "Well, we're going to..." and you could end up with 20 people, or you could end up with three or four. But you didn't make plans too far ahead just because of the fact that your job was your commitment, and if you had to stay and finish something, or if someone had to stay, that was fine. Maybe that was why we did the groupie things. Because that would not leave somebody standing alone. People were delightful to be with. A number of the people were here from other parts of the country that didn't have their families with them. So in that sense it was nice because then you could do things socially and not feel that anyone was committed.

Aspray:

Did most people's social lives, to the extent that they had them, revolve around the personnel of the Laboratory? Or did people make contacts outside the Lab?

Gerdes:

I really don't know. I come from a large extended family, and so on the one day you had off, which was Sunday, we always were into something on our own. So I couldn't honestly say. It was a marvelous experience. As I say, I wish I had been older so I had something to measure it against because I really didn't at the time. But I'm sure it helped me to grow. You were asking about the type of courses and that. Now I can't relate them specifically, but I picked up enough that when I was at Cambridge, I was a physicist for a while, and then I was a mathematician for a while. So they felt I had enough knowledge. I still was doing the European technician type of thing. So in that sense I certainly wasn't ever going to be in charge of anything; I didn't have that much knowledge. But they felt I had enough that this is what they called me.

Postwar Career

Aspray:

Did the Rad Lab help you get your first job after the war?

Gerdes:

I don't know whether they considered working on the books as still being part of Rad Lab or not.

Aspray:

When you went to CRL, was there some help from MIT or from the Rad Lab organization?

Gerdes:

I think it was just a case of people that had gone over there, and they said, "Come on down." You said, "Well, what are you doing?" And they said, "Oh, it's going to be great!" But they did have an office to help people, and there were other jobs around the country, which was nice for people that wanted to move to other areas. I do know they had postings, and they did have an office to help people. Of course a lot of people had come through colleges. It is a different group, a different lifestyle, and most of the people that are in that community, even if they change jobs, change to another similar community.

Aspray:

Did you ever get a chance to go back and get your college degree?

Gerdes:

Actually I had an opportunity to do it, and I didn't do it. When I was at Cambridge, I had the opportunity. I could have gone. They would have given me the time off to go and then I would owe them. By then I was engaged. I knew I was going to get married, and once I got married I was assuming that I was going to be home with children. I had plenty of opportunity if I'd really wanted to. Over the years I've always gone to school. I love school. I take the craziest things. I take things that interest me and that I enjoy. All my boys went to school, so obviously I feel that education is important. My husband, when he got out of the service, went to school. So it is important, but it wasn't important to me at the time to do that. Mostly because I had already planned to be married. In those days when you planned to be married, you planned to stay home.

Relationship between Staff and Technicians

Aspray:

Is there any more that you can tell me about the interaction between the technicians and the technical staff?

Gerdes:

This probably sounds as though I'm fantasizing, but I'm not — a family unit is all I can think of. You got to know different things that were going on in people's private family, and you talked about that. Everyone used the first name. You were physically in the same area. No one ever ordered anybody around. "Do you think you'll have time?" was the going phrase. "Please" and "thank you" were just part of it. This could be the group head speaking to you or another technician.

Aspray:

What about division of labor? How would you differentiate the work that was done by the two groups? Was there a difference in the work that was done by the two groups? Did you have physicists who, when they wanted a breadboard made and the technicians were busy, would get in there and do it themselves? Or was that always set aside and assigned to the technicians?

Gerdes:

Oh, no. They would do it with your help. A lot of them were just doing theory and they were doing black boxes. But they definitely would help. You had to set priorities because you always worked for a number of different people. They didn't question your decision. As I say, for me I'm sure it made a difference as to how things went along in my life, it was a great experience. I do things in little sections. One of my boys when he was in high school was mentioning college and about where he would go, and he said "maybe I'll do MIT and be a physicist". And I said, "Oh, I used to work at MIT." Then suddenly I realized he had never heard that. So obviously I moved along with my life and live where I am. It was a good time in my life. I was just at a different point, and I'm not a yesterday-liver. I try to think of something that would be specific about Rad Lab, but I can't other than the atmosphere, and the pulling together, and the family feeling there was.

Aspray:

Well, thank you.