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Oral-History:William Aspray

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[[Image:William Aspray 2680.jpg|thumb|left]]  
 
[[Image:William Aspray 2680.jpg|thumb|left]]  
  
William Aspray grew up with an interest in mathematics which carried into his studies at Wesleyan University. After graduating with a bachelor’s and master’s in mathematics from Wesleyan, Aspray attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison originally in mathematics, but after a year he switched to the History of Science program, writing his doctoral dissertation on Alan Turing, John von Neumann and the origins of computer science. He taught mathematics at Williams College for two years after receiving his PhD, and later taught history of science for a year at Harvard. Aspray then served as Associate Director at the Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota as an external-facing historian for six years. In 1989, Aspray became Director of the [[IEEE History Center|IEEE History Center]], and during his tenure created a bigger oral history program, started [[IEEE History Center Conferences|Center conferences]], and built an international presence for the History Center. Aspray left the History Center in 1996, becoming Executive Director of Computing Research Association (CRA). After CRA, Aspray returned to academia at Indiana University, where he stayed for six years. Currently, Aspray is Suit Professor in the School of Information at the University of Texas in Austin.  
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William Aspray grew up with an interest in mathematics which carried into his studies at Wesleyan University. After graduating with a bachelor’s and master’s in mathematics from Wesleyan, Aspray attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison originally in mathematics, but after a year he switched to the History of Science program, writing his doctoral dissertation on [[Alan Turing]], [[John von Neumann]] and the origins of computer science. He taught mathematics at Williams College for two years after receiving his PhD, and later taught history of science for a year at Harvard. Aspray then served as Associate Director at the Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota as an external-facing historian for six years. In 1989, Aspray became Director of the [[IEEE History Center|IEEE History Center]], and during his tenure created a bigger oral history program, started [[IEEE History Center Conferences|Center conferences]], and built an international presence for the History Center. Aspray left the History Center in 1996, becoming Executive Director of Computing Research Association (CRA). After CRA, Aspray returned to academia at Indiana University, where he stayed for six years. Currently, Aspray is Suit Professor in the School of Information at the University of Texas in Austin.  
  
In this interview, Aspray talks about his education and career, with particular focus on his years as Director of the History Center. His early interest in mathematics is discussed, as is his decision to switch to History of Science while at Madison. His time at the Babbage is covered, as well as his reasons for going to the IEEE. The issues he faced while Director of the History Center are talked about – such as funding, the Wolff report and finding a new site for the Center, the relationship with Rutgers, publications, and interactions with the [[IEEE History Committee History|History Committee]] – as well as the highlights and accomplishments from his IEEE tenure. He also discusses his decision to leave the IEEE, his later choice to return to academia, and his current interest in information studies. Aspray mentions various colleagues from throughout his years at the IEEE such as Andrew Goldstein, Rik Nebeker, Eric Herz, [[Emerson Pugh|Emerson Pugh]] and Michael Williams.  
+
In this interview, Aspray talks about his education and career, with particular focus on his years as Director of the History Center. His early interest in mathematics is discussed, as is his decision to switch to History of Science while at Madison. His time at the Babbage is covered, as well as his reasons for going to the IEEE. The issues he faced while Director of the History Center are talked about – such as funding, the Wolff report and finding a new site for the Center, the relationship with Rutgers, publications, and interactions with the [[IEEE History Committee History|History Committee]] – as well as the highlights and accomplishments from his IEEE tenure. He also discusses his decision to leave the IEEE, his later choice to return to academia, and his current interest in information studies. Aspray mentions various colleagues from throughout his years at the IEEE such as Andrew Goldstein, Rik Nebeker, [[Eric Herz]], [[Emerson Pugh|Emerson Pugh]] and Michael Williams.  
  
 
== About the Interview  ==
 
== About the Interview  ==
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WILLIAM ASPRAY: An Interview Conducted by Michael Geselowitz, IEEE History Center, 17 January 2011  
 
WILLIAM ASPRAY: An Interview Conducted by Michael Geselowitz, IEEE History Center, 17 January 2011  
  
Interview #563 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. and Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
+
Interview #563 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.
  
 
== Copyright Statement  ==
 
== Copyright Statement  ==
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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.  
 
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, Rutgers - the State University, 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.  
+
Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, IEEE History Center at Stevens Institute of Technology, Castle Point on Hudson, Hoboken, NJ 07030 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:  
 
It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:  
  
William Aspray, an oral history conducted in 2011 by Michael Geselowitz, IEEE History Center, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.  
+
William Aspray, an oral history conducted in 2011 by Michael Geselowitz, IEEE History Center, Hoboken, NJ, USA.  
  
 
== Interview  ==
 
== Interview  ==
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'''Aspray:'''  
 
'''Aspray:'''  
  
All right. From quite early in my life I had thought I was going to be a mathematician. I went to college at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and loved the mathematics I studied. I started taking graduate courses when I was in my second year of college and graduated in three years with both a bachelor's and a master's in Mathematics. I then went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I was originally in mathematics, but one of the things that had happened in my early career was that I moved very rapidly into graduate study and a lot of the material is the same but it is done at a much more abstract level. I could push the symbols around but I didn't know what I was doing exactly and what motivated it, so I started studying history for the purposes of understanding the motivation. Then after a year in graduate school I decided I would change from Mathematics over into History of Science. I had been interested in both mathematics and philosophy, and logic in particular, so I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Alan Turing, John Von Neumann and the origins of computer science out of mathematics, focusing on the notion of constructivity. Through that I became interested in the history of computing. Early on and for a long time I was really a historian of mathematics.  
+
All right. From quite early in my life I had thought I was going to be a mathematician. I went to college at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and loved the mathematics I studied. I started taking graduate courses when I was in my second year of college and graduated in three years with both a bachelor's and a master's in Mathematics. I then went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I was originally in mathematics, but one of the things that had happened in my early career was that I moved very rapidly into graduate study and a lot of the material is the same but it is done at a much more abstract level. I could push the symbols around but I didn't know what I was doing exactly and what motivated it, so I started studying history for the purposes of understanding the motivation. Then after a year in graduate school I decided I would change from Mathematics over into History of Science. I had been interested in both mathematics and philosophy, and logic in particular, so I wrote my doctoral dissertation on [[Alan Turing]], John Von Neumann and the origins of computer science out of mathematics, focusing on the notion of constructivity. Through that I became interested in the history of computing. Early on and for a long time I was really a historian of mathematics.  
  
 
'''Geselowitz:'''  
 
'''Geselowitz:'''  
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'''Aspray:'''  
 
'''Aspray:'''  
  
Right. It was one of the leading history of science programs, and it had several faculty members (Aaron Ide, Terry Reynolds) with strong interests in history of technology. Terry was on my committee but my committee chair was Victor Hilts, who was a great advisor to me.  
+
Right. It was one of the leading history of science programs, and it had several faculty members (Aaron Ihde, Terry Reynolds) with strong interests in history of technology. Terry was on my committee but my committee chair was Victor Hilts, who was a great advisor to me.  
  
 
'''Geselowitz:'''  
 
'''Geselowitz:'''  
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It was natural for the IEEE to come to look at people like me or Jeff [Jeffrey L.] Sturchio at the Center for the History of Chemistry because we were at these disciplinary science and technology centers and knew the kinds of things [that] were done at them. I was a natural fit in that regard. Also, I was a fit in the sense that I did history of computing. But I wasn't nearly as good a fit as any of the other three directors of the Center – yourself and before me [[Oral-History:Robert Friedel|Robert Friedel]] or Ron Kline – because all of you had electrical engineering backgrounds. I had a mathematics background. To the degree that I did history of something that was related to electrical and computing technologies it was sort of at the far end and was much more theoretical and not very hands-on. When I faced power engineering history it was a stretch for me.  
 
It was natural for the IEEE to come to look at people like me or Jeff [Jeffrey L.] Sturchio at the Center for the History of Chemistry because we were at these disciplinary science and technology centers and knew the kinds of things [that] were done at them. I was a natural fit in that regard. Also, I was a fit in the sense that I did history of computing. But I wasn't nearly as good a fit as any of the other three directors of the Center – yourself and before me [[Oral-History:Robert Friedel|Robert Friedel]] or Ron Kline – because all of you had electrical engineering backgrounds. I had a mathematics background. To the degree that I did history of something that was related to electrical and computing technologies it was sort of at the far end and was much more theoretical and not very hands-on. When I faced power engineering history it was a stretch for me.  
  
When I came to interview for the job I interviewed with Eric Herz, the General Manager of IEEE, and Eric said to me that he was very concerned about the long-term prospects for the Center. That they had gone out and hired what they regarded as two highly qualified people to be the Director - and indeed both Ron and Robert have had distinguished academic careers since then - but both of them left within just a few years. He wanted someone who was going to really stay there for a long time and make a mark for the Center. If that couldn't happen he was thinking about whether the IEEE should stop having a [[IEEE History Center|History Center]] of any sort, so part of it was a promise that he was trying to extract from me about staying for a while.  
+
When I came to interview for the job I interviewed with [[Eric Herz]], the General Manager of IEEE, and Eric said to me that he was very concerned about the long-term prospects for the Center. That they had gone out and hired what they regarded as two highly qualified people to be the Director - and indeed both Ron and Robert have had distinguished academic careers since then - but both of them left within just a few years. He wanted someone who was going to really stay there for a long time and make a mark for the Center. If that couldn't happen he was thinking about whether the IEEE should stop having a [[IEEE History Center|History Center]] of any sort, so part of it was a promise that he was trying to extract from me about staying for a while.  
  
I liked Eric a great deal and felt I could work with him, and the organization had such strength, and the technology was so important to society, it just made a lot of sense to try this out, so I came to work in the Center in New York.  
+
I liked Eric a great deal and felt I could work with him, and the organization had such strength, and the technology was so important to society, it just made a lot of sense to try this out, so I came to work in the Center in New York.
  
 
=== Wolff Report and Moving the Center  ===
 
=== Wolff Report and Moving the Center  ===
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'''Aspray:'''  
 
'''Aspray:'''  
  
Thanks very much.  
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Thanks very much.
  
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[[Category:Communications|Aspray]] [[Category:Computers and information processing|Aspray]] [[Category:Computer science|Aspray]] [[Category:Environment, geoscience & remote sensing|Aspray]] [[Category:Radar|Aspray]] [[Category:Scientific tools and discoveries|Aspray]] [[Category:Mathematics|Aspray]] [[Category:IEEE|Aspray]] [[Category:Conference activities|Aspray]] [[Category:Geographical units|Aspray]] [[Category:Historical activities|Aspray]] [[Category:History & heritage|Aspray]] [[Category:Publications|Aspray]] [[Category:People and organizations|Aspray]] [[Category:Universities|Aspray]]

Revision as of 17:28, 30 June 2014

Contents

About William Aspray

William Aspray grew up with an interest in mathematics which carried into his studies at Wesleyan University. After graduating with a bachelor’s and master’s in mathematics from Wesleyan, Aspray attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison originally in mathematics, but after a year he switched to the History of Science program, writing his doctoral dissertation on Alan Turing, John von Neumann and the origins of computer science. He taught mathematics at Williams College for two years after receiving his PhD, and later taught history of science for a year at Harvard. Aspray then served as Associate Director at the Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota as an external-facing historian for six years. In 1989, Aspray became Director of the IEEE History Center, and during his tenure created a bigger oral history program, started Center conferences, and built an international presence for the History Center. Aspray left the History Center in 1996, becoming Executive Director of Computing Research Association (CRA). After CRA, Aspray returned to academia at Indiana University, where he stayed for six years. Currently, Aspray is Suit Professor in the School of Information at the University of Texas in Austin.

In this interview, Aspray talks about his education and career, with particular focus on his years as Director of the History Center. His early interest in mathematics is discussed, as is his decision to switch to History of Science while at Madison. His time at the Babbage is covered, as well as his reasons for going to the IEEE. The issues he faced while Director of the History Center are talked about – such as funding, the Wolff report and finding a new site for the Center, the relationship with Rutgers, publications, and interactions with the History Committee – as well as the highlights and accomplishments from his IEEE tenure. He also discusses his decision to leave the IEEE, his later choice to return to academia, and his current interest in information studies. Aspray mentions various colleagues from throughout his years at the IEEE such as Andrew Goldstein, Rik Nebeker, Eric Herz, Emerson Pugh and Michael Williams.

About the Interview

WILLIAM ASPRAY: An Interview Conducted by Michael Geselowitz, IEEE History Center, 17 January 2011

Interview #563 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, IEEE History Center at Stevens Institute of Technology, Castle Point on Hudson, Hoboken, NJ 07030 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:

William Aspray, an oral history conducted in 2011 by Michael Geselowitz, IEEE History Center, Hoboken, NJ, USA.

Interview

Interview: William Aspray

Interviewer: Michael Geselowitz

Date: 17 January 2011

Location: Austin, Texas

Mathematics to History of Science

Geselowitz:

Bill, if you would, I would like you to start with your early life and education and how you came to become an historian of computing.

Aspray:

All right. From quite early in my life I had thought I was going to be a mathematician. I went to college at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and loved the mathematics I studied. I started taking graduate courses when I was in my second year of college and graduated in three years with both a bachelor's and a master's in Mathematics. I then went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I was originally in mathematics, but one of the things that had happened in my early career was that I moved very rapidly into graduate study and a lot of the material is the same but it is done at a much more abstract level. I could push the symbols around but I didn't know what I was doing exactly and what motivated it, so I started studying history for the purposes of understanding the motivation. Then after a year in graduate school I decided I would change from Mathematics over into History of Science. I had been interested in both mathematics and philosophy, and logic in particular, so I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Alan Turing, John Von Neumann and the origins of computer science out of mathematics, focusing on the notion of constructivity. Through that I became interested in the history of computing. Early on and for a long time I was really a historian of mathematics.

Geselowitz:

Okay. You got a PhD in the history of science from Madison.

Aspray:

I wandered quite a bit. In the course of graduate school I did a master's at Madison. Then I went to Princeton for a year to study with Mike [Michael S.] Mahoney and Tom [Thomas S.] Kuhn. Then I decided that was not quite the right place for me so I went to study with Ken [Kenneth O.] May, the great historian of mathematics at the University of Toronto. Finally, mainly because of the woman that was to be my wife, I went back to Madison and finished my degree there and got a PhD up there.

Geselowitz:

Okay.

Teaching, Babbage Institute

What was the next step in your professional career?

Aspray:

It was a time when it was hard to get academic jobs, especially academic jobs in the history of science, so I traded upon the fact that I taught mathematics all the way through graduate school to keep an income coming in. I took a job in a mathematics department rather than a history of science department. I went to Williams College and taught there for two years. Then I got an offer to go as a lecturer to Harvard in history of science and went there.

Geselowitz:

By the way, we overlapped for a year at Harvard.

Aspray:

Oh, is that right?

Geselowitz:

Yes.

Aspray:

I didn't know that.

Geselowitz:

I was a graduate student then in anthropology.

Aspray:

In anthropology. That's interesting. At that time the Babbage Institute at the University of Minnesota was looking for an Associate Director. I had been the first holder of their Fellowship and the people there knew me well. I was hired to be the Associate Director. I stayed there for six years.

Geselowitz:

Who was the Director at that time?

Aspray:

The Director was Arthur Norberg. I arrived before Arthur arrived and the place had been sort of just getting going. Arthur and I worked together at things. We hired Bruce Bruemmer as the Head Archivist. The three of us had this incredibly fertile interaction. We felt like we were changing the world at the time. I have never had that kind of intellectual stimulation the way that I did while I was there.

Geselowitz:

In what sort of way? In other words what was the Babbage doing that was so exciting? Was it the preservation of computer history? Was it the research? Was it their conferences? What was it?

Aspray:

It was a variety of things. It was intended to be a combination of an archival and historical center and the two were supposed to support one another. Until Bruce Bruemmer got there as the archivist I took responsibility for the archives, but I wasn't a particularly good choice of a person to do that. Arthur and I helped to write a schema for trying to understand what we should document and what kinds of records that were associated with them. One time when we had a small grant we hired Sheldon Hochheiser to come through to do a study on what records were produced by high-tech organizations and which ones should be preserved. That was just indicative of a kind of set of activities that we did.

When Bruce came to take care of the archives my job was to be the external-facing historian for the organization. I took on my role of knowing who was out there and what the literature was. It was a field [that] did not have very many scholars at the time. I also worked on building ties to a lot of different places. I tended to organize workshops mainly just to keep things going, whether they were professional Society meetings or stand-alone meetings of the Babbage Institute.

Arthur was really wonderful in the sense that instead of pushing off lots of the administrative work on me he took it all on so that I could focus on the research side of things and research community building during that period of time. It was really exciting.

Geselowitz:

Okay.

Interviewing at IEEE

What then led you to move on to the IEEE?

Aspray:

I was an academic professional. I was not a faculty member. It's hard at a university not to be a faculty member. I was as productive as any of the historians of science in the History of Science and Technology Program, but I did not have the same kind of status on the campus. That is why I decided I would move on. I was not really in a hurry to do that. How I came to the IEEE is that I knew Barney Finn at the Smithsonian and I knew Ron Kline who had been the second director of the Center. Ron and I had been graduate students together at Madison.

Geselowitz:

As had Sheldon Hochheiser, who you mentioned earlier.

Aspray:

Right. It was one of the leading history of science programs, and it had several faculty members (Aaron Ihde, Terry Reynolds) with strong interests in history of technology. Terry was on my committee but my committee chair was Victor Hilts, who was a great advisor to me.

Geselowitz:

That program has a pretty impressive track record.

Aspray:

Right. Anyway, I was not sure that I wanted to be outside the Academy, and so the first couple of times I was approached about coming to IEEE I thought about it and declined, but then as it was becoming clear that nothing was going to happen at Minnesota for me in terms of getting a faculty post I decided that this would be an interesting thing to do.

It was natural for the IEEE to come to look at people like me or Jeff [Jeffrey L.] Sturchio at the Center for the History of Chemistry because we were at these disciplinary science and technology centers and knew the kinds of things [that] were done at them. I was a natural fit in that regard. Also, I was a fit in the sense that I did history of computing. But I wasn't nearly as good a fit as any of the other three directors of the Center – yourself and before me Robert Friedel or Ron Kline – because all of you had electrical engineering backgrounds. I had a mathematics background. To the degree that I did history of something that was related to electrical and computing technologies it was sort of at the far end and was much more theoretical and not very hands-on. When I faced power engineering history it was a stretch for me.

When I came to interview for the job I interviewed with Eric Herz, the General Manager of IEEE, and Eric said to me that he was very concerned about the long-term prospects for the Center. That they had gone out and hired what they regarded as two highly qualified people to be the Director - and indeed both Ron and Robert have had distinguished academic careers since then - but both of them left within just a few years. He wanted someone who was going to really stay there for a long time and make a mark for the Center. If that couldn't happen he was thinking about whether the IEEE should stop having a History Center of any sort, so part of it was a promise that he was trying to extract from me about staying for a while.

I liked Eric a great deal and felt I could work with him, and the organization had such strength, and the technology was so important to society, it just made a lot of sense to try this out, so I came to work in the Center in New York.

Wolff Report and Moving the Center

Geselowitz:

At the time you were interviewed had they already had the Wolff Report? I think that's the name of the report.

Aspray:

Yes.

Geselowitz:

Then they already had an idea that there ought to be an affiliation with an academic institution.

Aspray:

This history is interesting. The Wolff Report had been prepared a year or two years before I came and there had been a lot of interest in a move of the Center among the members of the IEEE’s history advisory group, the IEEE History Committee, and particularly among Barney [Bernard S.] Finn and Jim [James E.] Brittain from Georgia Tech. But the senior staff and the IEEE Board had essentially rejected the Wolff Report. One of the reasons that they had rejected it was that there was a feeling that if they brought in a director from the academy that there was too much difference in culture and attitudes between a Director and the senior leadership, both volunteer and staff of the IEEE, and that if they allowed the Center to go off someplace far removed that it would probably be a success but it would not be the thing that the IEEE wanted it to be.

For example there had been some significant talk about moving the Center to MIT at the time. I do not think that would have happened anyway because MIT would have expected the IEEE to pay a lot of the expenses to operate the Center and the IEEE expected the university to donate those kinds of services. A much more realistic possibility at the time was to move to what had been Brooklyn Polytechnic, now Polytechnic Institute of New York University. There had been a long tradition of senior volunteers at IEEE being related to that institution, it was right there in the metropolitan New York area, and it had a strong electrical engineering program. Some of my action was in trying to squash the enthusiasm for that. We went and did a site visit over there and we found that there were almost no historians, almost no humanities or social science scholars on the faculty - the library had gotten rid of all of its journals and was moving to an all-digital format. It just didn't seem like a hospitable place for a History Center to be – even if it was a good place in engineering. Eric Herz listened to me and he listened to Barney Finn and Jim Brittain and he finally stopped the people who were most enthusiastic on the Board of Directors from pushing Poly. For a while it looked like we were just going to stay in an IEEE facility.

In my first year while we were there we moved. IEEE was expanding the Piscataway building and shrinking the amount of space that they had in the Engineering Center in New York, and so we moved all of the physical artifacts of the IEEE out of this one room in New York into a space that was all right for it. It was larger for it, but it was not climate-controlled in any good way. There was talk about our moving the staff entirely over there at some point.

But in the meantime I had started talking with the people at Rutgers, and in particular I had started talking with Reese Jenkins, who was a full professor in the History Department known as a distinguished historian of technology from his work on the history of photography. He also was the Director of the Edison Papers Historical Project. I went out to visit at Rutgers and over a long lunch we started talking about what would be required to move the center to Rutgers. Afterwards Reese asked me if I would write something up about how an arrangement would work.

I knew that if I went to the IEEE management and asked about this that this would be a cumbersome process, so I intentionally took a risk and wrote a document that said here is what IEEE would supply, here is what Rutgers would supply and gave this to Reese. Reese took this to Rudy [Rudolph M.] Bell who was the Chairman of the History Department. Then he took it to Paul Leath, who was the provost. Maybe he took it to Dick [Richard] Foley, who was the Dean of Arts and Sciences. I'm not sure. They said, "Yes, we can do all this." I wasn't sure how IEEE would react, but I took it back to Eric Herz. Eric said, "Well, you should not have done that, but now that it's been done and they have expressed an interest in being a partner and there are some specifics down on paper about what would happen, I'm willing to run with this. I'll play this in the right political way." It was surprisingly easy at this point after it had been so difficult and after the Wolff Report had been rejected by the organization. I think nobody wanted to take the first step. There were some things that were structural in this. The History Department was most interested in having support for its doctoral students, so we set this up with four research assistantships (paid for by the Rutgers provost). I was interested in building up a community of scholars who were young and had an affiliation with the IEEE and the IEEE History Center, so I had insisted on there being a postdoc position as part of this (which the provost also agreed to pay for).

We asked the university for space and I didn't know what would happen about that, but that was straightforward. It was originally in the building in which the History Department is located. We had a suite of offices in the basement for a short time, but we knew from the beginning that we were going to be moving into the house which I assume you are still in right now. Right?

Geselowitz:

Yes.

Aspray:

That was sort of the operation. IEEE paid all the other salaries, and in order to make this work and to give Rutgers credit there was a period of time where we talked about there being a Rutgers Center for the History of Electrical Engineering and an IEEE Center for the History of Electrical Engineering, but they were really one and the same thing.

In hindsight it was surprising how easy thing came together. This got done within two months or something like that.

Center Staff

Geselowitz:

When you came to IEEE who was on the staff of the History Center?

Aspray:

The only person on the staff at the time was Joyce Bedi. Joyce was responsible for the archival collections and I guess she was responsible primarily for the Milestones Program at the time. Joyce is a very strong-willed individual. She was angry with Eric Herz that he would not allow her to have any say in the hiring of the Director. Joyce and I did not get along very well. I wanted to build a research program in addition to continuing the archival program and the reference service to the organization and she didn't feel like there were resources to do that. She was very protective and very good for maintaining the archival collections during this period of time. I encouraged Joyce to go back to school because she wanted a professional career and I knew she was not going to get what she wanted without further education. She did not have an archival degree and she didn't have a PhD, so she went to the Material Culture Program at the Hagley Museum and Library and has had a successful career since then.

The IEEE Life Members Committee had been paying for a summer intern at the History Center for four or five years by the time I came. Someone walked into my office in the first few months that I was there looking for a job, and that was Andy [Andrew] Goldstein. I didn't have a job for Andy at the time - we didn't have any slots for any other hires - but he seemed so bright and inquisitive and willing to do anything and hardworking that I wanted to find a way to hire him. When it came time to hire our summer intern I hired Andy into that job and made enough ways for him to impress other people around the organization so that when the summer was over I was able to make a successful pitch to Eric Herz to hire him on as the next employee – which was actually an increase in the size of the staff.

Geselowitz:

Was this before the move to Rutgers?

Aspray:

Yes.

Geselowitz:

Now it was you, Andy and Joyce. Joyce had not left yet.

Aspray:

That's right.

Geselowitz:

Okay.

Aspray:

I'm not sure I remember exactly the timing for what happened, but I had known Rik [Frederik] Nebeker from when we were graduate students together at Wisconsin – in mathematics, not in history of science – and he had gone off to be a mathematics teacher in Europe, had gotten married there, and it was quite a few years later that he came back to do a PhD at Princeton. When he was a student at Princeton, Mike Mahoney asked me if I would be Rik’s external examiner. During that time Albert Tucker, the former Chairman of the Mathematics Department for many years who had come to Princeton in the 1930s and had been there ever since, had established an oral history program about Princeton mathematics in the 1930s. The faculty at Princeton in History of Science asked me if I would be the chief interviewer for this project, [and] I had got Arthur Norbert's permission. It started then and it continued when I came over to IEEE. Rik Nebeker was the Research Assistant on this project while he was a graduate student at Princeton, and so I renewed my relationship with Rik during this time.

When Rik graduated he got a job working as a Research Historian for the Center for History of Physics which was located at that time about two blocks away from us in New York City. Joan Warnow, the Associate Director at the Center for History of Physics, had been one of the major movers in the documentation strategy movement where you would develop a multi-institutional plan for documenting a particular field. Helen Samuels at MIT had been the other person who was pushing this. Joan had gotten some external funding which paid for Rik's time to document high-energy physics using the documentation strategy. I had been asked to come in and help out a little bit with some of the more mathematically oriented interviews, but I just had a small part. It was mainly Rik's effort. Working with Rik on that project I saw how orderly he was. In addition to his traditional historical skills and his knowledge of science it turned out that he was just exceptionally well organized. I thought this would be a wonderful person to have on the staff at the IEEE. I had been working with the IEEE History Committee and with Eric Herz to build up the size of the operation and when we were planning on going to Rutgers I was allowed in advance to hire (for the contract with Rutgers called for us to employ another historian), and that is how Rik got hired to the staff.

Andy and Rik and the postdoc and I and one sort of general purpose Administrative Assistant was where the staff stood for a long time – plus the four Research Assistants. Every once in a while we would have money for somebody else to come in for a period of time, but that was pretty much what the staff was.

Geselowitz:

Andy essentially took on Joyce's responsibilities of running the archive and the Milestones Program and other responsibilities as well. He was sort of factotum.

Aspray:

Right. Reese Jenkins had been complaining that the introductory American History Survey courses never did enough science and technology, and he thought we should take responsibility for changing that. I agreed to teach one of the American History Survey courses – the one from the Civil War to World War II or something like that – maybe later than World War II. Probably until 1970. Anyway, I taught it and I realized that while I was sort of familiar with American history I had never taught American history, and I was busy. I was really busy trying to keep a research career and keep an administrative career going.

Andy stepped in and gave about half the lectures in this course as well. We were irritated afterwards that Reese never delivered on his promise to teach it next. He never did teach an American history introductory survey course.

Relationship with Rutgers

Geselowitz:

What was the formal relationship between the IEEE staff and Rutgers? What were your appointments or positions at Rutgers?

Aspray:

Most of the members of the Center had no kind of appointment at Rutgers whatsoever. I had an appointment as an administrator for Rutgers and I had an adjunct faculty position in the History Department. There was no formal relationship between the Edison Papers Project and the Center though we saw these people often. For example, for a while we ran a joint internal History of Science and Technology Colloquium that was mostly populated by the people from those two, plus a few other people like Phil [Philip J.] Pauly, Historian of Biology. We saw them a couple times a week and for a while we were in the same building with them. When we moved to the new building we were just two blocks away but we didn't see them all that often after the move.

Over time Reese went back to being just a faculty member in the History Department and gave up the directorship and Bob [Robert] Rosenberg came in for a while as the Director and then Paul Israel came in. We had very close workings with Paul – more so than with Bob or with Reese before that. The relationship was one of colleagues across campus.

Geselowitz:

What had been your intent when you wrote the white paper for the relationship of the Center to the History Department and the Edison Papers?

Aspray:

I'm not sure I had a particular goal in mind. I was pretty sure that there was no good way to have a close formal relationship, partly because the Edison Papers Project had been partially subsidized by Rutgers but was mostly operated on soft money. It ran on NEH grants for a long time. I knew that IEEE was not going to want to take the responsibility for those expenses. The papers project was doing a first-class job of editing those papers, and it had first-class costs associated with it. I was just happy to have them as colleagues across campus. They were a strong set of historians of technology, studying one of the most important figures in the history of electrical engineering. It is too bad that more could not be made of the possibilities. Paul Leath, the provost, once suggested merging us and moving us to an available building on campus to start a public electrical history museum. After some initial discussions, the impediments seemed too high and the plan was quickly abandoned and forgotten.

I had expectations that we would attract doctoral students who wanted to do dissertations in electrical history, and that was by and large not the case. The only person who did – during my time there – was Jill Cooper. In fact we had a few minor problems with the appointments to the research assistantships. We generally hired American historians into these jobs, but in almost all cases they didn't have science and technology backgrounds and they didn't have science and technology interests. We had them doing a lot of editing of transcripts of oral histories, and this is a thankless job. I hated doing it, they hated doing it, and a few of them would balk at doing the work. I must say that Rudy Bell, who was the Chair of History during all this time, was really firm with the students in saying, "This is not a Fellowship. This is work for hire. You are supposed to be over there doing things that are valuable to them." I remember one student didn't show up all semester in the fall, and he insisted that she stay over the Christmas vacation and catch up for all the work otherwise he was going to put her out of the graduate program in History. He was very supportive in that kind of way. But the History Department at Rutgers – a very good history department – was strong in areas other than science and technology, and the students reflected the strengths of the department. American cultural history for example and American women's history were areas where we had a number of students coming through working for the Center.

Geselowitz:

Okay.

Director Highlights, Publications

What were some of the interesting highlights or accomplishments during your tenure as the Director?

Aspray:

That's a hard thing for me to say. I thought some about this in advance of the interview. We built up scale, we built up a big oral history program which has continued, and now you have one of the major oral history collections in the United States. There were a few oral histories prior to my coming, maybe fifteen, but by the time I left there were well over a hundred, maybe two hundred.

We were trying to build a research program. Individual members of the faculty were all doing research in various areas that were of personal interest to them, such as the history of computing. Rik Nebeker had taken a strong interest in the history of electronics by that time. Janet Abbate came in as one of our postdocs and she had done her doctoral dissertation on the history of the Internet. I encouraged her to broaden and write on the history of communications - she did that while she was there and then sort of abandoned it after she left. She is still doing work on the history of the Internet.

Geselowitz:

What about the conferences?

Aspray:

Yes. In order to celebrate the move to Rutgers we decided we were going to have a historical conference, and Eric Herz and I went out and found $30,000 someplace or other – I can't even remember where anymore – to put this on. The big figure in the history of technology and who had written about the history of electrical engineering was Tom [Thomas P.] Hughes at the time. He was at Penn. Oddly enough I didn't know Tom before this, but I took his advice on putting this first workshop together. It was a workshop to celebrate the move to Rutgers, and it was going to be on technological competitiveness, which was [a] hot topic in American society and politics at the time. We wanted this to have good historians not only from the United States but from around the world, and indeed we invited people from all over the world to participate. Essentially Tom said, "I know everybody in the world. Here are the good people," and we invited them all. We just took his list and invited them.

We did run some other workshops as well. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is that we ended up having a close relationship between the Center and its workshops and the publishing arm of IEEE. The IEEE Press was a growing concern in the early years when I was there. Later on it was scaled way back. They had hired Dudley Kay as their new Director from commercial publishing. He was a guy that was gung-ho to make this place work. He took a risk on our books. I can't imagine he thought he was ever going to sell any of our books, but he wanted to be supportive.

At some point or other Eric Herz had made the sensible decision, or somebody had made the decision for him, that he had too many direct reports, so there was a reorganization of the staff into three units each of which had an Associate General Manager. For most operating units it was clear where to put them but it wasn't so clear where to put the History Center. They decided to put us into the publishing business. IEEE has a large-scale publishing operation and there were four or five Directors as well as an Associate General Manager. I would spend an hour or two each week sitting in meetings with these people talking about page rates and things like that that were totally unrelated to anything the History Center did. Dudley was reporting in that group and Dudley became a close friend. Phyllis Hall, who was the Associate General Manager, became a really supportive person at the Center in the early days, and she was a marvelous manager. I felt really fortunate to have both Eric Herz and Phyllis Hall as my direct supervisors. They each taught me a lot about doing things.

External Funding, IEEE Funding Issues and Fundraising

I had also wanted to do some other projects. I had gone to NSF a couple of times to get small grants to do projects. There was one about using history to teach technical fields. This is the one place where I had a fair amount of frustration with Eric Herz. Eric Herz believed that the IEEE should not apply for external funding in a place [like] the National Endowment for the Humanities or the National Science Foundation because we would be putting ourselves in competition with individual members of the IEEE. I strongly disagreed with him on this point because the IEEE had organizational capability that an individual member of IEEE did not have, and so we could do certain kinds of things that the individual members could not do. He balked for a long time at allowing me to apply for money, and it was made more difficult by an unfortunate situation.

When I had been back at the Babbage Institute, Arthur Norberg and I had gone out and gotten money from both NSF and DARPA to write their institutional histories and the impact that they had on the development of computer science. Arthur was going to be the PI on the DARPA project and I was going to be the PI on the NSF project. Three or four months after we got the NSF grant I left to go to IEEE. The question was what should happen to this - should we just leave it at the Babbage Institute and let somebody else take over? We decided instead that I would take the NSF grant to the IEEE. But I knew that I was not going to have enough time to do all the work on it myself, so we hired Bernard Williams from the University of Kansas to be the Project Historian and I was mostly the project manager though I was also doing some of the historical work. Unfortunately it turned out that Bernie went through a really messy divorce right after he accepted this project and he just was not working on the project, so Andy Goldstein and I took over doing the work, and I spent a week a month for a year and a half in Lawrence, Kansas because the only time that Bernie would pay attention to the project was when I was physically present.

I was doing 30 hours a week of work on this project plus 50 hours a week of work for IEEE. I remember that I didn't see daylight on my trip between home and work for almost a year. It was really pretty dreadful. It was a contract, not a grant. Our supervisor at NSF was the NSF Historian, and he had just been moved out of the office of the Director and into the office of Legal and Public Affairs.

We had written this study with the understanding that this was to be an objective history, and we would talk about the limitations of NSF as well as the very many considerable strengths that they had. Well, the people in Public Affairs did not want to hear any of this. This was a PR document as far as they were concerned, to get more appropriations from Congress, so when we sent the document in for them to approve it the Director of the Office of Legal and Public Affairs went through and crossed out large sections of our manuscript. That was unacceptable to us. There was a period of time where IEEE, who was a subcontractor - the University of Minnesota where the Babbage was located was the contractor - and I as the PI were fighting with NSF. Eric Herz did not like that. He did not want to be in a situation where there was talk about lawsuits. It was just very messy. This also was part of the mindset about, "What kinds of problems are we going to get ourselves in if we take external funding to run this operation?" But Eric allowed me to write very small, very focused grants a couple of times when I was there, and it probably brought in no more than $100,000 or something like that while I was there. That's how some of the conferences came about. By the way, the final outcome with NSF was that they accepted our final report and buried it. We were allowed to write papers for publication so long as they indicated this was not official NSF policy, and my colleagues and I published three papers from this study.

Geselowitz:

Since you broached the subject, do you want to say a little more about the funding issues you faced in IEEE over that period?

Aspray:

When we were going to move to Rutgers we needed to have more formal arrangements and we had to have a big jump in the budget to be able to do things. Eric Herz could not have been more supportive, and I could not have been more stupid in this particular situation. I drafted out a budget and he and one of his finance people looked it over and made some adjustments here and there. But then he said, "Look. There is only going to be goodwill with the Board of Directors once or twice in your time here. We are starting this new relationship. You have put together a pretty modest budget. Are you sure this budget is large enough? Don't you want me to put some more money in it?" I said, "Well, I don't really need any more money" to do the things that I was doing, and so "Let's just go with it this way." This was such a mistake. We wanted to grow after we started being successful at doing a number of things, going on the road to technical societies, reaching out to the professional community, doing some book projects and so on. We needed more staff. We were getting a lot more reference calls than we had been getting before. Everybody was working really hard. This became increasingly a problem.

We went back to try to get some more money for spending a little bit and we were unsuccessful. What we were told was to raise our own money. I was frustrated because we could not go to NSF, a natural place to get project money. What we decided to do was to build up some of our activities in fundraising. We did several things.

First of all there had been individual gifts by members of the IEEE. That did not amount to very much money. It amounted to maybe $10,000 a year or something like that. I started a campaign of trying to build up those individual gifts and we started giving gifts to people who gave at least $100. We would give away our books and we had some awful T-shirts that had pictures of famous electrical engineers on them, and we gave those away as gifts. We were able to triple or quadruple the amount of money we were bringing in from small individual gifts from that effort.

We then decided that we would also set up Friends of the History Center. This was going to be a committee inside of the IEEE Foundation. I need to go back and say a little bit more about the IEEE Foundation in order to explain what is going on here. One of the major organizations within the Foundation was the Life Members Committee and the Life Members Fund run by and for retired members of the IEEE. They had been very strongly supportive of history all along. They paid for one of our history prizes, they paid for the summer internship, and they were allowing us on an increasingly regular basis to come to their meetings and apply for project money in the range of anywhere between $10,000 and $50,000 at a time. During my time there we probably had four or five such grants from them. They were increasingly a part of the regular budget of the organization. The Foundation did not have any very active committees other than the Life Members Committee at the time, though Emerson Pugh and Henry Bachman decided that the Foundation should be a much stronger entity. They tried to start building it up. The staff who had supported the Life Members Committee were given another job to support the Foundation, but because I was there so often I was also asked to help to staff the IEEE Foundation in minor ways.

Then there was this new entity, the Friends of the Center. The architect of this was Emerson Pugh. Emerson had just finished his presidency of the IEEE. He was a distinguished researcher at IBM Research and had a deep interest in history and seeing the IEEE succeed. He took over first as the head of the Friends Committee and later he took a term as the head of the History Committee as well. His goal was to get companies, wealthy individuals and technical societies within the IEEE to make large one-time gifts.

At first we tried to do this without giving anything back. The General Manager's Office had just hired a very promising new Director of Publicity or Public Relations, Jon. You'll know his name. He is still with IEEE.

Geselowitz:

Jon Dahl?

Aspray:

Yes, Jon Dahl. He looked like the young star who was going to rise. Anyway, Jon was tasked to work with us to put together a campaign and we were given a budget by the Foundation to put together glossy materials. We used a lot of pro bono work from a top New York PR firm to get this work done. The first part of it was all pretty good, but the follow-through was not so good. We identified a few people who had interest and were willing to make modest gifts – $10,000 being sort of the average kind of gift. You could make as small as a $2500 gift at the time and be in this elite Friends group.

Then Emerson decided that we were not going to succeed with our fundraising goals by this strategy. He did not really like making [inquiries] of corporate executives, nor did I. He felt much more comfortable going to the presidents of the technical societies, so he started to push on getting funding from them. He felt that they were not going to be willing to give just for the goodness of history, that we had to do something else – that we had to have some major project that was going to inspire them to donate. He came up with this idea that we would write a multi-volume book that told the entire history of electrical technology. I was not very eager because, as one of my colleagues says, "You have to build the bricks before you can build the road." You do lots of narrowly focused studies. There were not enough bricks yet to build the road to write this kind of history, so I was unenthusiastic. I didn't say no, but I was unenthusiastic about doing this project. I encouraged him to take his plan to the History Committee, and the History Committee was deeply divided. All of the engineers that were on the History Committee were enthusiastically in favor and all of the historians on the committee were skeptical that we could achieve this result. But he decided to go ahead, and we got our first couple of grants from technical societies. Rik Nebeker took over the lead role of trying to write this history. We were not going to write it in chronological order. We decided that there was already a lot written about the early years and that there would be more passion for things in the post-war era and so we would write that piece of it first.

Six or eight months into this project with four of the History Center staff diligently spending lots of their time on it, it was clear to me and soon to Emerson that we could not possibly deliver on the promises that we had made in a timely way. Emerson had thought we could do this project in two years or something like that. We started to backpedal. We started to narrowly focus in on writing pieces of the history. Janet Abbate was writing about the history of communications, Rik was writing about the history of signal processing and then Emerson sort of changed the direction of the promises. He promised that we would write some scholarship in the history of the technical area of a particular society and that we would do something else for them. We would either write a history of that technical society as Rik did with the Signal Processing Society, or we would help them to put together an exhibit at one of their meetings - that was the package that we would deliver.

The staff at the Center [was] very much in favor of doing research. I was gung-ho about research. I was willing to do some service to the IEEE (and did quite a bit), but I was gung-ho about research. Taking time off from a research project to prepare an exhibit for a technical conference or to write an institutional history of a society was not a very popular thing among the staff. Most of those institutional histories were pretty dull. I had to push pretty hard to get people to work on these things. There was goodwill, but the day they had to go in and spend the day on those things was the day that they just had to be at work and it was not why they wanted to be there.

We were having modest successes at raising some money from both societies and from a few individuals, but it never amounted to the kind of money that would allow us to build up the budget we wanted. We started to have some small successes replacing the money that the IEEE was providing to us by external support. This never got completely resolved by the time that I left.

Differing Ideas: Milestones and Oral History

Let me segue from this into another topic that I think is of importance here. There was a difference in the attitudes between historians and engineers about what was important. Part of the difference was what was valued most. The engineers loved the Milestones Program. It was a program to put up plaques on historic sites where important electrical events had taken place. The historians thought that it was just not all that interesting. It was okay, but it wasn't that interesting. Barney Finn had made a really strong push to make the engineers do some history if they wanted a milestone. If some group of people, like an IEEE section or chapter, wanted to have a milestone they had to do all the background reading and write a short white paper about why this should be supported. He thought that this would be a good way of getting the engineers to understand the value of history more.

What it did was it limited the number of milestone reports that came in. In order to have quality control the History Committee appointed three-person ad hoc committees to evaluate any proposal. There is one particular proposal that I think is a good object lesson here, and this was the Opana radar. The local Hawaii chapter wanted a milestone for the Opana radar. The radar system had worked properly and detected planes going overhead on Pearl Harbor Day, but the human-technological system failed. That's why all of our ships were destroyed and a lot of our planes were destroyed at Pearl Harbor. The first year when this proposal was submitted the committee consisted of two historians and one engineer and the vote was 2-to-1 opposed to giving a milestone to this. The Hawaii section was very disgruntled about this, and put a lot of pressure on the Board of Directors and on the Chair of the History Committee. The next year two engineers and one historian was put on the committee and the outcome was that this was approved 2-to-1. But there was this sense that the technology itself and how it operated was the important thing, whereas the historian saw it in a much bigger socioeconomic context. This was a problem not only with this particular milestone but across all of the operations of the Center over time – as to what were the important issues and priorities.

Talking about the differences between historians and engineers and their attitudes, another place where this came up – not only in the IEEE but in other places I have been as well – is in regard to oral history. For engineers to have an interview with a distinguished engineer – somebody who created their field – that is a finished product as far as they are concerned. They would be happy to have that published in a book or in a magazine. For the historians this is not finished work, this [is] a means to an end. It is raw data that gets interpreted together with archival material and published materials and interviews with other people so that what was going on could be interpreted. Historians do not necessarily believe everything that this famous person says. This person had one perspective and this might have happened thirty years ago. It is human nature to rationally reconstruct something – especially the thing that was the most important event in his or her life. He or she makes the story more linear, more logical, and there might have been lots of opportunities missed and so on.

We often had problems with how we treated oral histories in the organization. One of the projects we did was a project to compare executives in Germany, Japan and the United States. The question we were trying to get at was: in a technological company, does it make a difference whether the CEO has a technology background or not? We did a number of interviews, and my goal had been to use those as information together with a lot of other information in order to try to write some sort of a coherent, analytical essay about this issue. I was overruled in this particular case and what we decided we were going to do was to publish all of these interviews in a book that came out as Engineers as Executives. By the way, the outcome was that we had far too few interviews to be able to really learn anything exactly about our primary topic. The thing that was most clear from the interview process was that the Japanese worked a lot more hours than the Germans did in the normal year and that probably could account for a very high percentage of the difference in the innovation rates between the two countries. The U.S. was somewhere in between the two in that regard. There were noticeable differences in the relationships between management and labor, Germany of course having a very strong formal role for labor. But generally speaking the larger point here is that engineers thought oral histories were one thing and historians thought it was something else.

Early Issues: Publications, Eastern Europe

I would like to go back, before we go on to other questions, and talk about two things that happened really early on in my time at IEEE. I came to work the first day and Eric Herz took me to lunch and he said, "I'm sorry I'm not going to be here. I like to be around for my new directors, but I have to go away for a week or two and I'll be out of touch. I'm going overseas. But nobody knows you and things are usually quiet in the History Center. You shouldn't have any problems while I'm gone." The next day just after he left, I started getting irate phone calls from engineers who were members of IEEE – especially older engineers. They were objecting to a paper that had been published in one of the magazines - I guess it was IEEE Technology and Society - that had been written by a freelance author, Rachel Maines, on the use of electrical technology for vibrators in sexual use by women. They thought that this was an inappropriate topic to have published or endorsed in any way by the IEEE. The calls were really quite angry, and they assumed that because it was an historical topic that the History Center would have something to do with it.

I did not know what to do about this situation. I have never seen the article and did not know the author. I was not offended by it, as they were. I did not have Eric Herz to talk to but I went down to the executive suite and I got a really good answer. The answer was, "Don't worry about this particular case. Worry about the process." One of the other senior staff members helped me to call the editor and find out whether this had been reviewed according to the policies of the Publications Committee and whether the Editorial Board had been consulted and whether the Editor had done his job in the right ways. While at first these angry engineers had been talking to members of the Board and I had started getting calls from the Board too, as soon as we confirmed that the right process had been used there was no more support from the IEEE Board of Directors for these angry people. The individual engineers were probably still angry, but the Board said, "We had a procedure. We did things according to the way we do it." But this was quite an interesting start to my career at the IEEE. I didn't know what to expect the second week if this was what the first week was going to be like!

I came to work at IEEE shortly after the Berlin Wall had come down, and there was increasing pressure upon Eric Herz to do something more for the engineers in Eastern Europe. He was severely over-committed and he had no time to make an extensive trip to see what was going on in Eastern Europe. Eric often would walk down the hall to my office late in the afternoons when he was sort of taking a break before his final push for the day and sit and chat for a while, and we talked about all kinds of things, including European politics. Then he had this idea that I should be sent as his emissary to Eastern Europe. After I was on the job for maybe six months I was sent for two weeks to Eastern Europe. I went to Romania and Yugoslavia and a couple of other places to talk with the leaders of the electrical engineering communities in those countries. For example, I remember in Romania the Minister of Science was an electrical engineer, so I was given an evening with the Minister of Science for the country of Romania. I sent back a long report to Eric. I am not sure whether it got used or not, but I was surprised to be asked to do this job. I was delighted to do it. It was an interesting occasion.

Leaving IEEE

Geselowitz:

You have mentioned both the tensions and challenges but also some of the successes when you were Director. What led you to finally leave?

Aspray:

Well, if you look back on my career I have stayed about six to seven years every place I have been, so it's sort of not surprising that I left. But there were some things about the job that were structurally wrong that I could not fix and that caused me to be unhappy. Also it made me feel like I was not necessarily the right person to be doing the job for the IEEE. One of them was that I was not an electrical engineer. I knew about mathematics and theoretical computer science, and those were the areas that were most interesting to me and not the wide spread of electrical engineering topics such as power and radar and so on – though I did projects with all those areas over time.

Another issue was that I had a stronger affinity to Rutgers than I had to IEEE. I tried not to show it in my everyday work. I was very, very loyal to IEEE, but I had several offers from Rutgers. The first offer that came was that in my capacity as the Director of the Rutgers Center for the History of Electrical Engineering I reported directly to the Provost, Paul Leath, a physicist. Paul was unable to give attention to all the research centers that reported to his office. He offered me the job as Assistant Provost to take care of all thirty-six research centers that were on campus. I had some interest in doing this and when I went to talk to the IEEE management they said, "Nothing doing. We won't give up one moment of your time to do something else. Even if they pay your salary we don't want to have to go out and hire another person for the Center." I was sort of unhappy about not having the chance to do that.

The second thing was that the Department of History offered me a tenured faculty position with the approval of the dean of arts and sciences. The idea was that I would stay as the Director of the Center but would also take a little bit larger role in teaching in the History Department and could chair dissertation committees and so on. I went back to IEEE with this and they said no. They wanted to control me, to be [my] sole boss. They were not in favor of my having independence as a faculty member. That didn't sit well with me.

There was one other incident that caused me to finally leave, and I'm a little reluctant to tell this story, but I'll go ahead.

Geselowitz:

Sure.

Aspray:

Rutgers had been having a pretty significant financial problem at the time, and yet they were completely onboard with upholding every bit of their responsibilities under the contract and giving us a little extra as good will. A new president of IEEE came in named Tom [James Thomas] Cain. Tom had this attitude that IEEE was the greatest organization in the world and that anybody should simply be happy to work with IEEE. That's a good attitude for a president of the IEEE to have. He felt that the terms of the contract with Rutgers, which had another three or four years to run, were not favorable enough to the IEEE. He wanted to get rid of the existing contract and set up a new contract that was on much more favorable terms to IEEE.

He wanted for example for Rutgers to pay half of the personnel costs of the Center, or to put an equivalent amount of money into the budget. He did not go through the History Committee or through my boss. He came directly to me with an email message telling me to go renegotiate this. I told him, "Nothing doing," and that I was not about to do this - that they had upheld their bargain and then some, even in hard times. IEEE was in very good financial shape at that time. An extra $100,000 someplace would not even show up in their budget. This was just hubris. He was fighting mad.

It turned out that I was just about to leave to go to Hawaii because we had been building ties between the IEEE and the IEE Japan. The IEEJ History Committee had decided that we should have a joint meeting and we should hold it in Hawaii. We had a good meeting. It was mostly a meeting talking about how we did things in our Center because they were thinking about building a center. All the time I was gone I wondered whether I was going to have a job when I came back because from the message I had gotten back from both my boss and from Cain directly he was not used to having this kind of response from IEEE employees. Emerson Pugh interceded in this case. He was powerful. He said, "Leave him alone. He is doing what he thinks is the right thing for the organization. He is upholding a contract that we have signed." But Cain was not happy. I decided at that point I'd had enough and I went looking for jobs. Two weeks later I had a job offer and left within a month.

Center’s International Presence

But let me come back and talk about a more pleasant matter. One of the things that I tried to do was to build up more international presence for the IEEE History Center. I'm an Americanist, so it would have been just fine for me to do the things we were doing, but IEEE is an international organization. We should be covering the international history of the field. I did a whole series of things over a course of time, often with help from Eric Herz.

One of the things we did was that the IEE in the UK had a very strong archival program but it did not have a history program. I was seconded to spend a month in London to work with both the volunteers and the staff of the UK’s IEE. I gave a workshop on how to do oral history for example. I had a number of meetings with both senior staff and volunteers over how we ran our operation, how we paid for it and so on, and I spent most of my days in the archives at the IEE with Lenore Simons, who was the Director of the Archives. We talked about how we could build up collections jointly or could do things in complementary manner, or how we could use these collections – sort of programmatic building on the things that we had. I am not sure how much came out of that. There was an Oral History Program that the IEE had. They elected not to set up a History Center, though they did consider it. It went all the way up to their top Board of Directors.

With the Japanese, Yuzo Takahashi is the person who really deserves mention. He was a professor at one of the universities in Tokyo who had incredible amounts of energy and enthusiasm for the history of electrical engineering. He organized two visits to Japan for me. One of them was a visit to do the interviews with the Engineers as Executive Project that we were talking about before. Another was to do a set of interviews with key people who had made a difference in Japan in electrical engineering. I let them choose all the people. All of those interviews reside in IEEE History Center's collection now, and it's really among the few things we had on Japanese electrical engineering history in there.

I must tell you that I never worked so hard in my life as I did while I was in Japan. A typical day would start by them picking me up at 7:30. We would go and try to do at least two interviews during the day at two different locations. There was getting to know one another, so there were social events before the interviewing. Then there would always be a social event in the evening. Then at the end of the day as they dropped me off at typically 9:30 or 10 o'clock at night they would hand me a stack of papers and say, "This is your prep material for tomorrow." I would be up until 1 o'clock reading that, and then they'd pick me up at 7:30 the next morning. This went on for two weeks. It was exciting, but it was tiring too. I thought we built really good ties between the Center and the Japanese during that period. I really have not followed what has gone on since then.

The third place that I made real efforts to build ties was with Germany. There I used not the IEEE but my own personal contacts. I knew that a lot of the history of technology in Germany was associated with the Deutsches Museum in Munich. There is a research and teaching center that is located on the premises of the Deutsches Museum that is run jointly by the University of Munich, the Technical University of Munich and the Deutsches Museum. It had a staff of really top, top quality international historians of science and technology. We did several projects with them. We ran conferences there and we did some interviews with them. They did the German part of Engineers as Executives. We did a project on radar and microwave history and the book that resulted from it was a joint publication of the IEEE and the Deutsches Museum. One of the reasons that this worked as well as it did was that a member of the History Committee had been Otto Myer. Otto Myer had been both the Director of the Deutsches Museum in the past and also the Director of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian, and so he had these ties. He was German, but he had lived in the United States for a long time and was able to build these kinds of relationships. That continued all the time I was there. I don't know if it continued after that. But I was pretty proud of these international efforts.

Geselowitz:

Were they appreciative of IEEE at the time?

Aspray:

I don't know the answer to that question exactly. I know that there were small but not zero sales of the book [on] radar history. I know that Eric Herz appreciated it. Whether it was even noticed within this big thing that is IEEE I am not so sure. But I felt like it was the right thing to do because of the international character.

I also made two trips to Yugoslavia because of Nikola Tesla, and as you are well aware there is a Tesla cult. I had no particular opinion about Tesla one way or the other but we tried to build ties. One of our summer interns was somebody who had come from one of the research centers in Yugoslavia. That never worked so well. Partly it was because of the animosities across the country itself and then political strife at the end of my time there. I remember that the Chief Financial Officer of IEEE was delighted that I was going to be making a trip to Belgrade because he had all this dues money that he could not transfer into Western currency and I could take it with me – except that it was Croatian currency, so I couldn't use it either. But there was this hope for a while that he could get this off the books. Tesla had worked in Croatia a lot of his life and then had had gone to the big city in Belgrade. But I was able the first time I went to visit the sites where he had done his early work, but I could not do it the second time I went.

History Committee

Geselowitz:

Anything else from your IEEE career? You had tantalized us with mentioning that you got a job offer within two weeks. We are anxious to find out what happened to you next, but first I want to make sure you have had a chance to talk about your accomplishments at IEEE.

Aspray:

I guess I would like to say just a little bit about the History Committee, and then that's probably all that I'll say. I am not an easy person to get to know closely. I'm a little standoffish. Probably some people in the organization saw me as arrogant. I didn't mean to be, but that is probably the way I seemed. I didn't have the kind of warm relationships that Ron Kline had with the History Committee, though I had good working relationships with some of the members of the committee.

There were a few people that just deserve to be mentioned in any history because of their real importance in doing things. I was very much more oriented towards the historians than I was to the engineers, and I didn't fully appreciate the engineers and probably didn't take advantage of all that they could offer, especially in building ties within the organization. The two people who were engineers who were really important on the History Committee and in the history of the History Center were Mike [Michael R.] Williams and Charlie [Charles] Wright. Mike of course had been the Chair of the History Committee at one point, and he was already a close friend through our work in the history of computing. He went on to become the President of the Computer Society, and I guess he has been on the IEEE Board. And you told me earlier that he is now back as your Chair.

Geselowitz:

Yes.

Aspray:

I can remember prepping him to go before the IEEE Board to make presentations, and I was always really nervous because he wouldn't say the things that I would have said. I would even cringe a little bit every once in a while. But he knew the right things to say to that audience, much more so than I did. He was very well received by them.

Charlie Wright was just passionate about history and he was the nicest of men. He had been on the Committee for a long time, and he wanted in the worst possible way to be the Chair of the Committee. I had the same sort of attitude about him that I had about Mike Williams. Charlie was much older than I was and I didn't know him all that well, but I liked him as a person a lot. I was asked if I thought he should be the Chair and I said no. And Emerson Pugh was coming off his appointment as the President and he said no. Charlie was disappointed by not being able to be the Chair. He stayed on the Committee until he got ill late in his life. But in hindsight I think I made a serious mistake. I think that his understanding [of] what was important to the engineers would have made him a great Chair of the committee. He might not have been such a good Chair for evaluating programs and programmatic direction, but that is not the only thing that chairs are good for.

On the opposite end of things was Bernie [W. Bernard] Carlson, an academic who was one of Tom Hughes' students and a professor at the University of Virginia. He had a very acute mind and was a very good historian. He was really sharp in helping to refine and define programs and worked really hard to make an effort in the IEEE. But he was never accepted as one of them. He was okay on the programmatic side but not on the bridge-building side of the organization. The two senior statesmen of course were Barney Finn and Jim Brittain, both of whom had great love over a long period – 25 years or more – for history within the organization. They were different people. They had different interests. Barney was always interested in us doing more material culture in the organization and we never did all that much. I was not opposed. We just never got there somehow. Jim had been trained as an engineer and then became a historian later in his career and really could bridge the two. He became disaffected with the things that were done at the very end of my term that were sort of being pushed by Emerson Pugh and to which I concurred, and I felt bad about that. His identity was closely related to the Center and he had been such a loyal, strong supporter of it. It just felt bad to have him not be totally in synch with what was going on in the organization. I don't want to blame Emerson and I don't think I am to blame - I think it was [the] sort of changes that were being pushed from outside on the organization, but it was something that I was sorry to see happen. Those are the people that I wanted to mention.

CRA, Returning to Academy

You asked me about jobs. Well, a job just happened to be open at the time I went looking to be Executive Director of Computing Research Association in Washington. Because of the NSF project that I had been doing I had learned a fair amount about policy, and I had also worked on the DARPA project. They are the two big funding players in Washington, therefore I was an attractive candidate and I had all of this management experience in a small organization from my years at the Babbage Institute and IEEE. I took the job as Executive Director at CRA and stayed there for six years. It is the organization that supports the PhD Departments of Computer Science and Computer Engineering and all the industrial research labs in Computer Science and Computer Engineering. It was a great experience. My Board was very distinguished. There at one time that a quarter of the Board members were members of the National Academy of Science or Engineering.

I will quickly tell you what the rest of my history has been like. When I was at CRA, Peter Freeman was one of the active board members, a longtime board member. He was the Dean of the College of Computing at Georgia Tech and later he was the head of Computing at the National Science Foundation. Peter had decided that this new interdisciplinary “iSchool” movement should have a home inside of CRA. He started meetings of the deans of these schools. I supported that personally and was at a lot of the meetings, so as this new movement of iSchools started to happen I knew every dean of these schools in the United States. Indiana was starting a school anew, they weren't changing an existing school. When they got a very big allocation from the state legislature the dean of the school, Michael Dunn, came to me and said, "You have been active as a scholar all along. How about coming back to the Academy?"

I had left the Academy early in my career. I taught two years at Williams and one year at Harvard and I had never really seen whether I could make it or not as a faculty member. I went back as I guess the fourth member of this new school, and I was soon appointed as the first distinguished professor of the school (Rudy Professor). Now it has seventy-five faculty or something like that. I stayed for six years. The school had promise of being interdisciplinary but it became more and more oriented towards computer science over time. It merged with the Computer Science Department for example. I felt much more affinity with the Social Science and Humanities scholars. I also had an issue in that I wanted to be with my partner. She was a research scientist at the University of Colorado. For two years I commuted back and forth between Indiana and Colorado. We looked for jobs together and we ended up going to Texas. This is my third year here at Texas in Austin. It's a congenial place. I hold a distinguished professorship (Suit Professor) in the School of Information. She is a research professor in the same school.

Relations with IEEE, Current Teaching and Focus

Geselowitz:

Have you continued any relationship with IEEE since you left the History Center?

Aspray:

Not very much. I talk to people who are on the staff from time to time. I talk to Rik Nebeker. I talk every once in a while to Andy. I talk to David Morton who was one of the postdocs at one point. I talk to Janet Abbate occasionally. I haven't had active involvement with IEEE projects, but that is partly because my interests have changed over time. While I was at CRA I did a lot of things that were related to the contemporary professional issues for the computer science community. Actually in doing those things we have had an active involvement with the Computer Society. The Computer Society was one of our members. I did a couple of projects about IT workforce and about off-shoring that had active participation from the Computer Society.

Since I have come here to Texas I have changed yet again. I'm doing a lot more information studies, so I am looking at things like information-seeking behavior in everyday life. I'm doing a lot of work on privacy and some work on policy still. But it is as much about information and information science as it is about computing or engineering. The tie is not so natural, though oddly enough our closest ties on this campus are to electrical and computer engineering with the School of Information. I am doing work on health right now and tying some projects to some of the electrical engineers up in Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Geselowitz:

Who are probably IEEE members.

Aspray:

No doubt.

Geselowitz:

They may not know that you once worked for the organization.

Aspray:

That's probably true.

Geselowitz:

What sort of courses do you teach now? Is this a graduate program or is it graduate and undergraduate?

Aspray:

It's only graduate. A large master's program and a small doctoral program. I teach Information in Everyday Life, Privacy and Its History, and History of the Information Domains. I teach sometimes about users and usability issues on the border between psychology and sociology. I teach a little bit of oral history, technique and theory. We all teach in the core so I'm teaching the doctoral students about what it means to be a researcher and I'm teaching the master's students about information in social and cultural context. Very different from what I had done in the past.

Geselowitz:

Interesting. Is there anything that we have forgotten to cover? I think that it has been a very thorough and interesting interview.

Aspray:

No, I think we're okay.

Geselowitz:

It's your interview. I can't resist asking one last question since you said you are still in contact. What is Andy Goldstein doing, who was so critical in the early years of building up the program at Rutgers? He stayed on one year after I came. He actually acted as Acting Director immediately after you left until I was hired.

Aspray:

Oh.

Geselowitz:

Then he stayed on for another year and then he left and I have not had contact with him.

Aspray:

He is located in Los Angeles. He has had a series of jobs. I think he likes his life of being an independent scholar and working at sort of semi-intellectual things, but it's not a traditional career.

Geselowitz:

Interesting. Okay. Thank you very much for your time. We really appreciate it, and we appreciate what you did for the Center. I appreciated the infrastructure put in place. It was there when I arrived. Hopefully it will continue to thrive.

Aspray:

Thanks very much.