IEEE

Oral-History:Max Weiss

SHARE |

From GHN

Revision as of 19:12, 30 July 2014 by Administrator1 (Talk | contribs)
Jump to: navigation, search

Contents

About Max Weiss

Max Tiber Weiss
Max Tiber Weiss

Max T. Weiss is largely credited with shaping the Aerospace Laboratories during their formative years in the early 1960s. He first joined Aerospace in 1961, after spending nearly 10 years at Bell Labs and 2 years at Hughes Aircraft. He joined Aerospace as Director of the Electronics Research Laboratory. He became Assistant General Manager of the Laboratories Division in 1963 and General Manager in 1964. He served in that capacity until 1967, when he left Aerospace to work for TRW. He returned a year or so later to serve as General Manager of the Electronics and Optics Division, where he remained for 10 years. In 1978, he became Vice President and General Manager for Laboratory Operations. He served as Engineering Group Vice President from 1981 until 1986, when he left Aerospace to work for Northrop Grumman. Throughout his long career, Weiss received numerous awards for his research in physics and electrical engineering. He received the IEEE Centennial Medal in 1984 and was named an IEEE Fellow in 1987. IEEE awarded Weiss its Fredrik Philips Award in 1993.

The interview covers Weiss' career, focusing on the organizational aspects of Bell Labs and Aerospace and on his working relationship with colleagues and employees. He also discusses his shifting responsibilities from technical management to business management, as well as the importance of keeping current with the latest science and technology.

About the Interview

MAX WEISS: An Interview Conducted by Andrew Goldstein, IEEE History Center, 2 March 1995

Interview #248 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:

Max Weiss, an oral history conducted in 1995 by Andrew Goldstein, IEEE History Center, Hoboken, NJ, USA.

Interview

Interview: Max Weiss

Interviewer: Andy Goldstein

Place: Telephone Interview

Date: March 2, 1995

Agenda for Interview

Goldstein:

This is Andy Goldstein, recording an interview with Doctor Max Weiss on Thursday, March 2, 1995, over the telephone from our office in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Weiss:

Hello, this is Max Weiss.

Goldstein:

Hi, Dr. Weiss, how are you?

Weiss:

Fine. How are you?

Goldstein:

Let me apologize for all the shifting around of plans. I hope this telephone arrangement works out. I would like to tell you a little bit about what I hope to accomplish with this interview.

Weiss:

Sure.

Goldstein:

I am new to your area of work. I’ve looked more at circuit engineering and device engineering than systems, so I hope that you’ll step in and steer this conversation to the topics and the concepts that you think are the most important.

Weiss:

Okay. But you know I have been involved in the past with things other than systems.

Goldstein:

Yes. That's what I mean. We have two goals for the interview. First, we want to cover your career. Second, we want to learn more about the development of the technologies that you’ve worked with. I am most familiar with your work with systems in the aerospace industry, but we are also interested in other aspects of your work. We want to talk about the technologies you’ve worked with and then also maybe technological development in general. But the first goal is to learn about your career: the most important events in it, such as the major projects you’ve worked on, and the developments you were behind, as well as the critical junctures and moments in it. While we are doing that, I’d like to try to focus on some more general questions relating to technological development. When we’re talking about your personal history, maybe the stories from your career will serve as case studies to shed light on these more general questions.

Weiss:

Okay.

Goldstein:

Here are a few of them I'd like to keep in mind. We’re interested in the ways in which your training as an engineer has related to your responsibilities in the working world. We are also interested in how your responsibilities have related to those of the engineers working with you and under you and how your input has influenced the direction of technical development in comparison with the input of the engineers working with you or the other research directors and executives who were working at your level or above. We would like to talk about the major technical developments in your field and compare these with some of the major institutional developments. And finally, we’d like to try to consider the importance of some of these developments beyond their immediate domain. How have developments in the aerospace industry, for example, affected other industries, or engineering science in general?

Weiss:

I’ll try to keep these in mind.

Goldstein:

I know that's a lot. I hope the conversation is freeform enough that we can work these things in informally. But let’s start with your background. Where were you educated?

Education

Weiss:

If you’re not familiar with it, I have a bachelor degree in EE from the City College of New York, and then a master’s in Electrical Engineering in Control Systems from MIT. Then I switched to physics; my doctorate is in physics.

Goldstein:

Was that a smooth or continuous shift?

Weiss:

It was smooth and continuous. Those were the years when physics became much more important in electrical engineering than it had been previously. So it was quite appropriate to make that move. The physics that I was working on, for example, was involved with microwave spectroscopy. The technology was microwave, which was relatively new at the time. So a lot of the technology was similar, although fundamentally the work was physics, not engineering. That combination was very, very valuable in the fifties.

Microwave Research at Bell Labs

Weiss:

From there I went to Bell Laboratories. I spent about nine years there in what was called the radio research department, but we were involved mainly with microwave kinds of things. There was a significant amount of work on ferrite devices. With some others I wrote a hundred-page article for the Bell Systems Technical Journal — that was the Bible for a while. I also got involved with the magnetic form of the parametric amplifier. As soon as the diode form came out, we dropped our work in favor of the parametric amplifier. Electric fields, I said, are always better than magnetic fields. I spent about nine years there, and then left for the West Coast.

Goldstein:

Were you in the research or development wing of the labs?

Weiss:

It was called the radio research department. So it was really research. But I would say it was somewhere between research and development. It was a research department, clearly, but we got involved in device research which moved to development rapidly.

Goldstein:

Was there any explicit system objective behind the research?

Weiss:

At that time at Bell Labs, everybody had a system objective — not a specific system, but everyone had the idea that microwave systems would become important for communications. And so, it involved whatever input there could be for the radio relay system that was used for communications and was specifically — can still see towers today. This was the immediate system issue. But the research was closer to what I would call basic engineering research.

Goldstein:

What do you mean by that?

Weiss:

We looked at properties of ferrites, for example, in various microwave fields and devices, without saying, “Tomorrow I’m going to produce a product.” It was more basic and fundamental than what today one would call development work — "I need a circulator of such and such a size."

Goldstein:

So you didn’t necessarily come up against design tradeoffs and dilemmas because you weren’t trying to come up with a specific product?

Weiss:

Right. However, we all realized that if you wanted [your research] to enter into the full development stage, you had to demonstrate that it was practical; that losses were low; and that you could go right into development and productize it, because no real research would have to be done on it.

Goldstein:

Was economic feasibility always on your mind?

Weiss:

Yes, it was always on our mind. That was the beauty of Bell Labs. But later a distinction developed between what was basic research and what was applied research, and what was development kind of disappeared. People felt responsible for the gamut of it, and wanted to make sure that whatever they were doing would have some sort of application.

Goldstein:

How does what you were doing compare with other work around the other labs, such as RCA, for example?

Weiss:

RCA and West Coast labs and so on were also working on [this project]. I’d say that we tended to be able to obtain materials much more easily than other labs could. We'd just go down the hall and call somebody up saying, "We need this kind of ferrite, or this kind of diode," and we’d get it. The availability of new things was different at Bell Labs. We were led by curiosity. If something showed some unusual properties, we would go find out what was wrong, what was right. I recall having talked to many others in more commercially oriented companies. I'd say, "Well, why didn’t you make the following measurement?" "I don’t have money!" So the great distinctions between Bell Labs and other places were financial pressures of getting a product out, and not being able to investigate in great detail as to why things happen.

Goldstein:

If you uncovered something fundamental during research, did you have the opportunity to publish? You mentioned your hundred-page article in the Bell Labs Technical Journal. Were there other publications coming out more regularly?

Weiss:

Yes. We’d publish in a variety of places such as IEEE and Physical Review Letters.

Goldstein:

Was anything proprietary or secret?

Weiss:

No. We always had to document it for patent purposes, and so we needed a release from the patent department prior to publication. But they were very cooperative and helpful in filing whatever patent applications were necessary prior to publication.

Killing Millimeter Waves for Fiber Optics

Goldstein:

What did your work lead to? How did it fit in to some system that was eventually erected by either AT&T or some other organization?

Weiss:

I would say the significant component that we worked on was eventually incorporated into the radio relay system and eventually into radars and a variety of other things. So it had implications to general microwave transmission. I also accomplished some work on millimeter wave equipment. Bell Labs was at that time working on a millimeter wave transmission line for long-distance transmission of very high capacity, say from New York to Washington. But the brilliance of Stu Miller — one of the leaders of this — was that when optics came along [he saw they were important.] This was long before fiber optics came along. With early optics the transmission losses must have been a thousand dB per kilometer, and there were no room temperature diodes, phases available.

Original fiber was very lossy. Nonetheless, Miller had the vision of realizing that if we could ever make it to work, fiber optics would really be the way to go, not millimeter waves with two-inch pipes. They were highly expensive things that would be tremendously costly anyway. Although economically feasible at that time, they would certainly not compete with optical transmission. Optical transmission allows you to have much wider bandwidths, and, of course, you can bend it and do all kinds of things. With low loss transmission pipes the cost per foot was enormous.

Goldstein:

You mentioned two advantages for optical transmission: the flexibility of the fibers, and the electrical property, its broad bandwidth. Were either of those more important than the other, or was it sort of a package deal?

Weiss:

It was a package deal. And so work on a millimeter wave transmission line was stopped, and the work was moved into the optical field. I thought that was certainly a brilliant streak on the part of the Bell Labs people. They were willing to kill a project that they have worked on for fifteen years and go on to something new. And so everybody was a hero.

Goldstein:

Do you know anything about how a decision like that gets made?

Weiss:

Oh, a lot of people have to agree to it. But one brain has to think it through, make the recommendation and say, "You know, be kind enough not to do this this way." At the time of the decision I’d left Bell Labs, but I think it was Stu Miller, whom I’d worked with for a long time, who said that.

Goldstein:

Often, it seems, the people who are working very closely with the technology and who have that intimate familiarity with the potential can clash with the people who have to make decisions. The latter may be one or two levels above and thus more insulated from the specifics. How the communications across those levels go?

Weiss:

There is an enormous difference between how those decisions were made at Bell Labs then, and how they are probably made most other places and perhaps even at Bell Labs today. Nobody was concerned that if we terminated this project and moved on to the next one, he wouldn't have a job or somehow his life’s work would be destroyed with nothing good ever coming out of it for him. With proper leadership and stability at the organization, I was feeling, "Well, gee, maybe the guy’s right; we’ll do something even greater!" I have found throughout my career that the most difficult thing to do is to kill a program. The technologists have such a personal stake in it, and management often is ignorant of the details and ignorant of the technology. So killing the program is next to impossible, despite the fact that the economics is clearly impossible, or the development funds are grossly inadequate.

Goldstein:

Ivan Getting has a book in which he talks about a project at Aerospace, the same project. He says that people’s careers died when that was stigmatized as a failure. It sounds like you’re talking about something similar.

Weiss:

I’d say that throughout my career, I have noted that a great impediment to progress is the fact it is relatively easy to start a project off, and then it's very difficult to kill it.

Goldstein:

If a project is already in place does it preclude investigation of alternates?

Weiss:

Well, again, if you don’t have adequate capability to review the project then the project leaders and the people working on it say, "Oh yes, we’re in trouble, but in two months we’ll be out of it." And that goes on and on. It is necessary for management to be knowledgeable enough so that they can comment on the project and to make a decision based on their own judgment. This implies knowledge both of the technology and the economics of the work. If this is not the case, you have to have outside people come in. Internally, the people who are working on a project just have too much at stake and will oppose cutting the project. They will find a million reasons.

Development of Parametric Ampflifier

Goldstein:

How did the work on parametric amplifiers compare with some of the other amplifier work at Bell Labs at the time, say with measures or traveling wave tubes?

Weiss:

Well, the traveling wave tube work was critical, but that was earlier when Rudy Kompfner was there. In fact, he was part of that overall microwave team. His work, in collaboration with that of John Pierce, was obviously very brilliant. This work was important for a long time because it was the critical element in much transmitter work. Since then, of course, it’s used on all spacecraft and so on. The parametric amplifier is a low noise amplifier, relatively small and cheap. I don’t think it had the economic impact over the many years of the traveling wave tube, but nevertheless it’s a critical element.

Goldstein:

What sort of work did you need to do to push its development?

Weiss:

Well, a lot of hard experimental work. And we had to have an understanding of the theory, as well as access to materials. The critical element was whether it was diodes or ferrites. And once it was demonstrated, of course, the rest of the industry could take it over and do a lot with it.

Goldstein:

Was that Bell Labs' game plan? To demonstrate feasibility and then —

Weiss:

I don’t think it was a game plan. It was just the natural course of events. Those things just happened.

Goldstein:

How were results in progress communicated? Was it mostly through published literature, or demonstrations?

Weiss:

Published literature, plus the various IEEE meetings that we went to and gave papers at. It was relatively open. We were proud of what we did, and we did not feel the kind of competitive secrecy that many other companies felt at that time.

Goldstein:

Can you give me some sense of the scope of the operation? You said that Stu Miller was leading the work. How many people were working on it?

Weiss:

Not many; probably half a dozen. I’d say a relatively small group.

Goldstein:

Was there any kind of rigid division of labor?

Weiss:

No. Everybody has his own project on which he could decide what he wanted to do, with approval of his supervisor. You felt a significant amount of freedom to propose [ideas] and to do what you thought was appropriate. If the group, and particularly your boss, had confidence in you, then you were allowed to do it. It was a very fine environment at that time.

Move to Aerospace and Management

Goldstein:

But you left in 1959?

Weiss:

Right, for various reasons, but not because I was unhappy with Bell Labs. I went to Hughes Aircraft and spent a couple of years there, continuing on ferrite work. Then I went to Aerospace Corporation, where I spent about twenty-three years, with one break.

Goldstein:

At TRW. What were the differences in your responsibilities at these different stations?

Weiss:

At Aerospace Corporation I rapidly became responsible for the totality of research laboratories. At first, I was briefly responsible for electronics. But pretty soon I was responsible for the total laboratory operations, which included everything from physics and chemistry, electronics, aerodynamics — you know, aerospace kind of engineering — and space science. I was responsible for the totality of all of that.

Goldstein:

How do you think you got that responsibility?

Weiss:

Oh, being at the right place at the right time, I guess. And I think my past experience at Bell Labs and my reputation were both helpful.

Goldstein:

Your reputation for technical ability?

Weiss:

Technical ability and observation. I guess on the part of Ivan Getting and Charles Sherwin my personality or whatever, whatever made people feel confident that I could do the job. So that’s how the responsibility was given to me.

Goldstein:

And what made you decide that you wanted to get into research management? Did that seem like a natural career trajectory?

Weiss:

Well, it was kind of a natural three-year trajectory. I didn’t have a plan to go into management or senior management, because I always had that nostalgia for research. But it happened, and I would say that while my career was not a random walk, it wasn’t planned. It was a mixture.

Goldstein:

A moving along a tract of opportunities as they presented themselves.

Weiss:

There was a variety of work and [I had] responsibility for so many diverse areas, but in each I had some knowledge for some reason. The fact that I had a physics degree helped a lot, because that meant I had a fundamental understanding of a good deal of chemistry and thermodynamics and nuclear and electronics and everything else. So, it was very good training.

Goldstein:

Do you think you’d have been able to do the job you did at Aerospace if you hadn’t worked at Hughes? Was the Hughes experience important in exposing you to the concerns of a company like Aerospace?

Weiss:

Well, the fact that I was on the West Coast probably helped. But I don’t think it was critical, no. Probably the fact that I had a doctorate in physics as well as an engineering degree, plus my experience at Bell Labs, were more critical.

Goldstein:

Did you have any anxieties or apprehension about starting up at this new company? I understand it was not-for-profit. The opportunity for payoff looked lower there than with some other companies.

Weiss:

That’s true. There are two things I might say. One, when I went to Bell Labs I was offered twice the salary from some other company. But I accepted Bell Labs without much thought because I thought it was an exciting place to be. Here at Aerospace, it looked like the new exciting place to be for the new space age. I also had a lot of respect for Ivan Getting, whom I had heard about. In fact, he was at MIT when I was there. I didn’t know him too well because instead of taking his course I took a competing course in the same subject, for which he never forgave me. But you know, the future of space was there. I thought it would be a great place to work.

Creating Aerospace's Research Facilities

Goldstein:

When you got there what was the research facility setup, or did you have to take a formative role there?

Weiss:

Well, there were some research facilities, but nowhere near adequate to do the total job. So we started building things. Certainly the electronics lab was particularly poor. So we put some antenna ranges up, and new facilities too eventually, after we built a new building.

Lots of things happened. The relationships with customers, particularly the Air Force, but [inaudible] was very important [to establish and maintain], so you had to do some, what one might call, marketing. You had to tell them why something was important and why the government and the Air Force should support it. That was an important element in my work, along with deciding what to do. It was important to make [our work] relevant to the mission of Aerospace Corporation and the Air Force.

Goldstein:

It seems like at that early stage there was tremendous opportunity to influence the future. When you stocked your lab and built your facilities, right there you made the decision about what sort of projects you could work on and what kind of progress you could make.

Weiss:

That’s true. Those decisions are very much influenced by your personal and past experience. Because it’s an open book, a blank sheet, you can do things. And your own experience counts for an awful lot. Then of course the ability to fill it, and the decision makers have to pay the bill.

Goldstein:

Can you remember any instances where you had an instinct about something that may have been tough to defend?

Weiss:

Well, I had an instinct that we ought to move ahead and try to do much more in antennas, in microwave areas, because of the technological importance of that for future systems, whether it’s communication systems or any other of the Air Force systems that needed to talk to satellites. The kind of research that would promote that — without being very specific on a specific system — would be, say, a research activity on radio astronomy using actually solar astronomy. Anyway, radio astronomy research using antennas, you know, on top of a roof of one of the buildings proved very useful over decades. Not only were we able to publish papers in that field, but every once in a while there were problems with spacecraft, and we could use it. So it was a means to an end. It was a sort of basic research, but nonetheless heavy enough technology so that the people who did the research could make very major contributions to the technical problems of the Air Force and communications.

Goldstein:

Do you think you were trying to set up a research environment that was similar to the one you had enjoyed at Bell Labs, or were there certain mistakes you specifically set out to correct?

Weiss:

Probably the former. I tried to set up the kind of environment that Bell Labs had. Much of Bell Labs also had this: people who were doing fundamental research. Even the physicists were doing a sort of applied research. The fundamental research guys were also able to contribute to real practical problems. I tried to set up similar things at Aerospace. You could publish papers and, at the same time, make contributions.

Goldstein:

Do you consider yourself a physicist more than an engineer?

Weiss:

No. I would say I am an engineer. Since I left Bell Labs my prime contributions have been engineering in nature. But in running the laboratory in the time that I was talking about, in addition to having the engineering laboratories, you need expertise in certain specific areas. We could put up some telescopes and do some things because the Air Force was interested in optics and also in some space science. So we did those things. For instance, we built hypersonic wind tunnels at the time, potentially for re-entry of various things such as rocket motors. But the study started with a fundamental understanding of hypersonic, or wind, tunnels and [like] phenomena rather than our actually building something practical. It turned out that these things were useful to the government.

Goldstein:

When you were building staff, did you like to see people with physics training who may have been more abstract, or less applied, than people who came out of engineering traditions?

Weiss:

No, I would say it depended on the field. In our aerodynamics laboratory there were engineers that had aerodynamics backgrounds, electronic and a mixture, from various universities. There were lot of engineers and number of physicists. Physics and chemistry laboratories obviously had physicists and chemists. But I’d say probably say more than half were engineers.

Goldstein:

This may be hard without numbers in front of you, but I wonder if you could give me a sense of the growth of the research facility? How many did you start with and how did it grow over time.

Weiss:

I can’t recall exactly, my guess it that we started with one hundred and fifty people and ended up with five hundred.

Goldstein:

Do you remember the size of the budgets? Were you involved in that kind of thing?

Weiss:

Yes, sure. You know, we were fighting for budget all the time, probably in the order of fifty million a year. It was fairly large, sizable.

Systems Engineering at Bell & Aerospace

Goldstein:

Somebody mentioned to me recently that Bill Baker had said that Bell Labs really invented this systems engineering concept. Do you think it’s true? Do you think you carried it with you?

Weiss:

I don’t know whether that’s true that they invented it. The communications system was indeed a system, and probably the first very large system. It was transcontinental and everything had to interact with everything else. But those days it was important but it was a smaller part of the totality than each individual component. You know, the switching system — the mechanical switches and the electromechanical switches that they had in those days — that technology was important. And they didn’t mind putting Nobel Prize winners on that. So, yes, there were systems engineers there.

Goldstein:

But they were actually focused on the components of the system?

Weiss:

Well, there were systems engineers that looked at the total system, but a relatively small number. The bulk of Bell Laboratories was not systems engineering. But as complexity in systems became more important, obviously systems engineering and systems architecture became all the more critical for everybody.

Goldstein:

Was this true at Aerospace? Did you find yourself working at the systems level?

Weiss:

Work at Aerospace was primarily at the systems level. That is, the dominant architecture of the new Air Force systems, with everything interacting with everything else, was systems engineering. In looking at contracts and the details of the system, first the architecture had to be determined.

Goldstein:

What sort of engineering skills are needed when you’re working at that level?

Weiss:

One, a great deal of flexibility to understand a variety of things, not just one field. Optics or structure or control systems — all of these things have to be understood at least to some extent. Common sense was important above all. Statistics come in, and understanding rules of thumb:

"That doesn’t look right. That doesn’t sound right, because of the following reason." It's also important to have analytical skills. But the problem is if you only have analytical skills, and don’t test it against experience, you come up with terrible answers.

Goldstein:

What were some of the major projects that you were working with at Aerospace during the sixties?

Weiss:

Well, we did a variety of things, you know, some of which, obviously, were classified, and maybe still are. We also worked on the early warning systems in missile attack — fascinating optical IR systems. You started off with a system that you thought was experimental, but it worked and became operational. Those were exciting things.

In communications, the Fleet Sat Com program was an interesting one, and we worked on a variety of other communication systems. We were heavily involved in launch vehicles as well, both with design and operation. Usually we fixed problems, less of straight system engineering. But how you made sure, at least at my level, what was the root cause of [the problem] and so on. There was a mixture. It was not systems per se only. It was a hell of a lot of good judgment.

Here’s a set-up I recall. In Fleet Sat Com, we were confronted with a problem of finding out at the last minute, when [the satellite] was on a launch vehicle, that this satellite had fifty diodes that were contaminated. You have to say, "Well, what do I do now? Do I take it off and bring it back? It’ll cost ten million dollars a day or something." You know, "How do I determine it?" So, you have to do some chemistry to determine: what is the contamination and what is the likelihood that it’ll destroy the satellite, or that the life of the satellite will be limited because of this contamination of the diodes? And you also have to do some statistical analysis to test this. You look and you plot certain things — there is Arrhenius’s Law as to chemical reactions, for example — and my conclusion was that it was good for another seven years. That’s a gutsy decision to make, because if it fails — even for other reasons — your reputation is dead.

Goldstein:

Were you doing analyses like that yourself, or were you overseeing a staff?

Weiss:

I led the team and had to make the final recommendation to the government. And I did make that recommendation, and seven years later — ten years later! — it still worked. I call that luck, although it was based on clearly some technical judgment.

Goldstein:

Is a story like that more common than not? In that story, you were putting out a last minute fire for an operational system that’s ready to go, whereas you had suggested that you were more involved with fundamental research.

Weiss:

Well, as I said, the fundamental research was sort of the background for the ability to do these things. I was called on for these tough technical issues to marshal the forces of the laboratories (these were in the sixties) to meet these tough problems. Those were important things. But let me say this. You know, I left the laboratories to lead some engineering organizations for quite a while as well.

Heading Electronics & Optics Division

Goldstein:

Could you tell me something about that?

Weiss:

I left Aerospace for about a year or a year and a half, to go to TRW, where I headed up the Microelectronics Center — the big one. Business, profit and loss, all those things were involved. It was fascinating. And again, I knew very little about it to start with, but somebody said, "You can do it." So I took it on, and we did a pretty good job. But Ivan Getting kept after me all the time to come back, and so finally I did. I came back as head of the electronics and optics division, which was really an engineering division.

Goldstein:

Was that a matter of wanting to get back to technical questions?

Weiss:

Yes, it was a technical job. But, of course, it was also a management job with a couple hundred engineers involved in all aspects of electronics and optics. But there were reliability or control systems or optical systems or data compression, coding. All those things were involved.

Goldstein:

How did your input compare with the input of the engineers who were working under or with you in determining the final shape of the projects you were developing?

Weiss:

There are two aspects to this. In order to decide, for example, which labs to build — I built some engineering laboratories — there was input from the people working for me. But finally the decision had to be made by me, from my experience. I had to decide which ones were likely to fill the need of the company. The engineers who worked for me certainly had a lot of input. But the final responsibility was mine as to making the recommendation and selling that. And I had to sell it primarily to Ivan and the Air Force and convince them that it was useful. And so we built up reliability laboratories that [didn't] exist before, and this turned out to be quite useful. So, it was both my judgment and the people working for me. But in the end, in issues such as what happens to that satellite, or other engineering issues with critical issues, somebody’s got to take a stand. The buck usually stopped with me: I had to take that stand.

Goldstein:

Could you be comfortable with the information that you had to make that decision, or did you ever feel like you needed to find out for yourself? What was the transition like from being an engineer answering his own questions to one relying on staff?

Weiss:

Well, that’s an interesting thing, because you have to rely on staff to do the work and get the data. Many engineering managers merely transmit that and say, "Okay, this is what my guys say." My tendency has always been that it's got to go through my mind. Do I understand it? Am I comfortable with it? And therefore, if my life depended on it, how would I make that decision, rather than merely saying, "Well, this is what the experts say," and just transmitting it?

Goldstein:

Would you suggest some of the tests to run?

Weiss:

Yes, I would. And I constantly met with the people who were doing the work to find out how they’re doing and asking some tough questions.

Goldstein:

But there was none of this at TRW?

Weiss:

At TRW there were interesting problems also of a technical nature, but it was primarily business. You had to run a business.

Goldstein:

How were your job responsibilities different when you came back to Aerospace?

Weiss:

Well, they were much more immediate. There were immediate engineering issues that were involved, either in working on current systems or in designing new systems. Whereas in the laboratories, there was that too, but a hell of a lot of it was simply doing the research. I would say the former was far more engineering oriented than the latter.

Space Shuttle and Classified Satellites

Goldstein:

What happened in Aerospace during the seventies?

Weiss:

Well, the highlights in the seventies were the absolutely fascinating issues regarding [inaudible] satellites and communications satellites. The space shuttle was coming along, and we were involved with it. In fact, for a short time I was a member of the manned space flight board. But the Aerospace position was that the space shuttle would not replace expendable launch vehicles, which was something that NASA didn’t want to hear. There was some conflict with NASA on that issue.

Goldstein:

Why do you think NASA was committed to the shuttle project?

Weiss:

Well, one, they believed in it. I think they truly believed that it was going to be very inexpensive, because it’s reusable. And they had a lot of faith in manned space. One can have faith in manned space, but from a purely economic point of view, [the shuttle] simply doesn’t do the same job as expendable stuff. That was our feeling, and the economic analyses made to justify the space shuttle were faulty. You know, the assumptions of weekly flights and so on. By the way, I personally favor the shuttle, but not for the reasons expounded at that time.

Goldstein:

What were the projects with communications satellites that you mentioned?

Weiss:

In the seventies, the communication satellite business exploded. This surveillance satellite, I would call it, to detect missile launches, became important. There were arguments about whether we should change it or not, a lot of studies on that kind of interesting thing. It was a continuation of the sixties, though with perhaps less excitement than the sixties. In the fifties of course everything was new. In the seventies and eighties things were more routine.

Goldstein:

You mean you were interested in improving the performance of existing systems?

Weiss:

Yes, improving the performance of existing systems or new systems. The new systems that were most technically challenging, and therefore most exciting to the people, were the classified systems.

Goldstein:

I don’t know how much I can ask about the classified systems. Is it possible for you to talk about them now?

Weiss:

Usually they were challenging because there were needs to solve certain problems that were very difficult. And money had to be made available to solve these things in an unusual way. So the most advanced technology that one could think of and the most advanced engineering concepts were applied to those.

Goldstein:

But isn’t the tradeoff for the engineers that they work in anonymity and they can’t take credit for what they accomplish?

Weiss:

That’s true. That made it difficult, particularly for the families, because they couldn’t talk about their work. But, on the other hand, from a technical point of view, it was extremely fascinating. And there is always the normal human reaction to knowing something that nobody else knows about.

Goldstein:

Did that inspire camaraderie among the people who worked at Aerospace?

Weiss:

There was a tremendous amount of camaraderie among those people who were involved in these programs. Usually they were very much together because each program had its own space and its own group. They were probably less subject to the bureaucracy of a large corporation than some of the unclassified programs.

Funding and Contracts

Goldstein:

Did the different programs regard one another in an adversarial way? Were they competing for limited resources or was there cooperation across the entire operation?

Weiss:

At that time I would say probably not; there was cooperation. There could be competition with concepts that other people came up with, in other companies, which would initiate some of the work that we were doing, obviously. It was a normal human reaction to that. But I would say that most of the time we didn’t have the kind of concern that scientists at a commercial company would have about their program being killed and being out of work. And if another program came along, we’d be responsible for the system engineering and overall oversight of that program as well.

Goldstein:

In general, would the Air Force or someone else issue a request for an RFP? You’d submit one and then get the contract, or —

Weiss:

Well, this is called a federally funded research and development company, and therefore we would be given a budget. The Air Force gave us a statement of work that they wanted. And we would say, "Well, these things require X engineers for X number of hours and so on," and make a proposal, and the Air Force would fund us. There were some key negotiations about rates and so on, but basically it was a simple contract covering a variety of programs that we were supposed to work on. So it was not that we competed; it was noncompetitive to begin with. All of this was sole source. It was a fundamental rule that Aerospace would not compete with industry.

Goldstein:

I see. Did you have the freedom to either reject an Air Force project or alter its terms fundamentally based on what Aerospace wanted to do?

Weiss:

Aerospace felt a great deal of responsibility to the customer, though we may have disagreed with the customer from time to time. For example, you probably know the story of GPS, the Global Positioning System. Ivan was getting pushed even though the Air Force didn’t want to fund it. So he funded the study for it out of Aerospace fees, and that must have gone on for ten years. Finally the Air Force said, "You know, it’s a good idea," and established a program office and started funding it. If we had ideas that the Air Force didn’t think were okay we could still do work on it using Aerospace fee money, which was an important element of the research program.

Goldstein:

You’ve made it sound like there wasn’t too much tension, too much arguing over turf or the livelihood of projects. Were all the disagreements strictly technical?

Weiss:

There were turf problems between program offices and engineering. Program offices wanted to have total control over all the engineers. Engineering wanted to have independent functional organization. I always had to go through the process of justifying the fact that we do have a matrix organization. We had to explain that and justify it not only to the program offices but also to the Air Force. Every Air Force program office wants to have total control over everything. Obviously, when I was in the research labs, there was a constant battle for funds, because the total dollars that Aerospace had was fixed by whatever formula. Therefore money was going into research, leaving less funds available for some other engineering activity. So there were a lot of turf battles of that kind; nothing terrible, but constant justification. Arguments with industry about the nature of our mission occurred too, because we would go in and oversee [projects], and make comments and recommendations which were basically enforced by the Air Force contractor.

Goldstein:

You mean with private companies with whom you were contracting...?

Weiss:

With whom the Air Force was contracting. Some looked on us as friends who were helpful in resolving problems and solving technical issues, and some looked at us as, "Gee, these guys are coming in and telling us what to do!" There were the usual human problems, interactions and turf issues. But it was not as intense as in some other places.

Goldstein:

You mentioned the program offices. Where do they fit into the organizational picture?

Weiss:

Well, the Aerospace Corporation had a matrix organization, in which engineering was separate. Through the last five years of my career there I worked as a general manager of the engineering group, so all engineers came under me. There was another group called programs. The program group would be the one that lived with the Air Force and had direct responsibility of interfacing both with the Air Force and the contractors. They used the engineering capabilities to do the work. And they had their own competent engineers, but not in every specialty, and not in the depth that engineering had. So you had two groups, programs and engineering. Programs, together with the Air Force, would like to have so much control that they want every engineer that works on a program to live with them, to be part of them, and to be responsible only to them.

Goldstein:

Was it your job to allocate the resources in engineering to the programs?

Weiss:

Yes, I allocated the resources in accordance with my concept of the needs. So I would say, "Oh, well, right now this is a crisis here. Let’s pull them off that program and put them on this program." And I had to use my judgment for that.

Problem Shooting with Contractors

Goldstein:

What did the engineers do if the project specifications came down from the Air Force and contractors were doing the bulk of the work? Then where did Aerospace fit in?

Weiss:

Well, in the early phases, we fit in the whole issue of what should the system look like, the system architecture.

Goldstein:

Was it Aerospace’s job to figure out whom to contract with? It wasn't as if the Air Force said, "We’ve got TRW working on this"?

Weiss:

No, we did not decide whom to contract with. But we did do the systems engineering and the early systems architecture ourselves. Often we had the help of contractors, but often we did not. Once the contract was let and the development was in progress, we would have oversight over the contractor. As they ran into trouble, as every program does, we would determine how to help them, how to fix the problem, whether it was fixable, or we would change requirements. These were complex development programs, and often after they were fielded, problems would arise. Suddenly a spacecraft wouldn't work, so we would simulate and determine how to fix it. Twenty-four thousand mile screwdrivers, so to speak! We’d get the telemetry and analyze it in great detail. We might decide that it indicated that if we pushed this button and fired that motor, somehow or other it would shake something loose and it would fix it. Or we'd switch from one box to another. We went through the whole gamut from early system design to the development and in operation as well.

Goldstein:

As you were responsible for more projects and the technology advanced, how did you stay on top of it all? How did you stay fresh?

Weiss:

Well, I listened a lot. Went down and talked to the people who were actually doing the work and understood it. Read a lot. And I was always curious about things as they were going along. That is the only way to keep fresh and understand. I was lucky to have bosses who were also that way. Ivan Getting and Eb Rechtin were certainly that way. They understood everything. They were curious. They read. It was time consuming, I must admit, but you have to avoid knowing very little about everything.

Digital Signal Processing & Miniaturization

Goldstein:

As you look back on the developments in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, can you point to any major developments and think about why they happened that way? I am thinking about things like digital signal processing, and miniaturization — large-scale trends in electronics.

Weiss:

There was a need and certainly the availability for digital signal processing. Certainly, the availability of a hell of a lot of talent at universities had a lot to do with that. There was also an enormous explosion in the communications field requiring it. And people made money off it, as well! There were Solomon codes. All those things came along and became very important.

Goldstein:

Were the advances that were most important to you coming out of industry or universities?

Weiss:

They came more out of industry, I would say, than out of universities. Industry was being reasonably well funded for research at that time. Obviously the early genesis of many of these things was in universities, but rapidly they became disseminated in industry, and industry did the job. Miniaturization followed a similar pattern.

Goldstein:

Was Aerospace and the work it did influential in setting the direction of any of these major developments?

Weiss:

Well, I would say we used them. I don’t think that we were leaders in miniaturization, except that after it came along it was obviously incorporated into the various systems and made them much more capable. We did not do much research on that, though we attempted to. We had a semiconductor laboratory and so forth, but the commercial world was so much more powerful that it was not something that we did. In coding we had to know about it, but I can’t say that we were leaders compared to universities and some areas of industry.

Aerospace's Technological Contributions

Goldstein:

Earlier you said part of the appeal for working for a company like Aerospace is the excitement of being on the cutting edge. If one is on the cutting edge, there are opportunities to make fundamental discoveries and set research agendas. Are there any examples of that?

Weiss:

Clearly, in research there were. I would say that Aerospace was a leader in space science because they had designed experiments, had access to the spacecraft, and could influence the Air Force to incorporate [the experiments]. So space science was one area where Aerospace made a lot of major contributions. We also made significant contributions in some areas of optics and some areas of data compression, as well as in more mundane areas of reliability. Years have passed by, and it's hard to remember everything! But there were annual publications of the Aerospace Laboratories which were very significant. There were a large number of papers — in the hundreds — and they encompassed a variety of things.

Goldstein:

It would be interesting to take a look at those. Are there any technologies or approaches to a technical problem that are commonplace today that came out of the work at Aerospace?

Weiss:

I would say there are, very definitely, in a couple of areas. In the classified program, there is no question that we had a dominant influence on design, or various aspects of it. The fundamental concept of the current system for detecting missile launches, which is a very complex satellite, was done at Aerospace and implemented by TRW. They may object to our claim of credit, but it was an Aerospace fundamental design, which worked out to be successful and has lasted for twenty-five years.

Goldstein:

Is this the current detection system?

Weiss:

It's called the DSP, Defense Support Program. It was classified at the time, but it no longer really is, except for the details of it. And now it’s changing; we’re going to have a different system soon. Many of the space systems were very heavily influenced by Aerospace on the systems side. For example, Aerospace can point with pride to Titan Three, a Martian program, the detailed concepts and implementation of the guidance system. It can also point to GPS— GPS above all, in fact. The Collier Award was given to the various participants in the Global Positioning System, of which we were one. The systems design was done dominantly by us, although some of it was a Navy system called Transit which predated our work. It was a different concept but certainly a contribution to satellite navigation.

Goldstein:

Previously, you characterized the GPS as Getting’s baby, as something he really wanted. How did his dedication to the idea sit within Aerospace? Did he have the support of the other people close to him?

Weiss:

Well, he was the boss, so obviously.... [laughs]

Goldstein:

Well, I wonder if there was room for dissension.

Weiss:

No, I think he had this vision of a navigation system based on space. He promulgated it and had some people working on it. I would say he had everybody who worked on it very enthusiastic about it. Then when it got sold to the Air Force it was taken over by others. Those who then went to implement it years later may have forgotten his contribution, but I think it was great.

Move to Northrop & Business Management

Goldstein:

Did you leave Aerospace when you retired? You're at Northrop now.

Weiss:

Corporate officers at Aerospace have to retire at age 62, and so I retired. And I wondered what the hell I would do, so I went to Northrop Corporation, and started off again heading up their research laboratory. I left after one year and moved to the corporate office. Eventually I became the general manager of the electronics systems division. Recently we’ve merged with Grumman Corporation. I was almost ready to retire, but instead I became deputy general manager for the electronics and systems integration division, which is probably the largest division of Northrop Grumman. I started in research and ended up in business.

Goldstein:

Does that just surprise you every time you think about it?

Weiss:

It really surprises me every time. A lot of people think of me as a scientist, because of my Bell Labs experience and my physics doctorate. I ended up in engineering, and then I came back as "the scientist," and then I ended up heading a two billion dollar business. That is surprising.

Goldstein:

Do you think your technical background brings anything to your business function?

Weiss:

Absolutely. Business judgment is absolutely important, but I can go — and have gone so many times in my early years — to look at problems which have a strong technical component. I have been able to come up with a solution or recommendation that turned out to be right. This makes people feel confident that I can do whatever has to be done.

Goldstein:

What was behind your moving around at Northrop? Was it a matter of finding the right position for you?

Weiss:

No. There were some problems at the corporate office. They needed an electronicer who really understood both the technology and the business aspects. So they brought me up to corporate to help the group vice-president for the electronics division — the electronics group at that time. Then he got involved with urgent matters elsewhere, so it sort of got left to me. It was just the right thing at the right time, and I happened to be around. People had confidence in me, and that’s how I got to move around. Every other year Kresa would give me some additional responsibilities. And finally, when they needed somebody to head up the Electronics Systems Division, Kresa said, “Why don’t you take it before you retire?” So I took it on.

Goldstein:

We’ve gone from the start to the finish of your career. Has anything occurred to you, any specific job that you’ve worked on, that we haven’t discussed and which you would like to?

Weiss:

Well, at the beginning of this interview I was not comfortable with what the hell this was all about. But now I am delighted to have had the opportunity to talk to you. I think everybody enjoys talking about his work

Goldstein:

Well, not always. It’s always nice when somebody opens up with anecdotes. It’s a good place to start to work on history. Of course you can’t take what people say as gospel —

Weiss:

Particularly when it comes totally from memory, without any access to documentation.

Goldstein:

Right. You have to double check and see what the written record has to say. But I’m glad you laid things out for us in this way. Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?

Weiss:

No, that’s about it for now. If you have any additional questions, why don’t you give me a ring?

Goldstein:

Yes, we'll do that, after we digest this material and focus in on very specific aspects of your career. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me!

Weiss:

Thanks very much. It will start bringing back memories to me! Thanks and have a good day.

Goldstein:

You too.

Weiss:

Good-bye.

Goldstein:

Good-bye.