IEEE

Oral-History:Thelma Estrin (2002)

SHARE |

From GHN

(Difference between revisions)
Jump to: navigation, search
m (About Thelma Estrin)
(2 intermediate revisions by 2 users not shown)
Line 1: Line 1:
 
==About Thelma Estrin==
 
==About Thelma Estrin==
  
Thelma Estrin was born in 1924 and was raised in New York, New York. Mathematically oriented throughout her childhood, she pursued an academic course at Abraham Lincoln High School. She started to study business administration at City College of New York in 1941. There she met Gerald “Jerry” Estrin, whom she married later that year. When he entered the Army the following year, she took a three-month course at the Stevens Institute of Technology. She then began working at Radio Receptor Company, where she developed an interest in engineering. As Jerry was likewise fascinated with the subject, they moved to Madison, Wisconsin to study electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin at the end of World War II. She earned a B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. in 1948, 1949 and 1951, respectively.
+
[[Thelma Estrin|Thelma Estrin]] was born in 1924 and was raised in New York, New York. Mathematically oriented throughout her childhood, she pursued an academic course at Abraham Lincoln High School. She started to study business administration at City College of New York in 1941. There she met [[Gerald Estrin|Gerald “Jerry” Estrin]], whom she married later that year. When he entered the Army the following year, she took a three-month course at the Stevens Institute of Technology. She then began working at Radio Receptor Company, where she developed an interest in engineering. As Jerry was likewise fascinated with the subject, they moved to Madison, Wisconsin to study electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin at the end of World War II. She earned a B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. in 1948, 1949 and 1951, respectively.
  
 
In the early 1950s, they moved to Princeton, New Jersey, where Jerry joined John von Neumann's group at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). Thelma joined the Electroencephalography Department of the Neurological Institute of New York at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where she received her introduction to biomedical engineering. Through his work at the IAS, Jerry received an invitation from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel to direct the Weizmann Automatic Computer (WEIZAC) Project. Jerry and Thelma spent more than a year there working on the machine, which was the first electronic computer in the Near East, in the mid-1950s.  
 
In the early 1950s, they moved to Princeton, New Jersey, where Jerry joined John von Neumann's group at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). Thelma joined the Electroencephalography Department of the Neurological Institute of New York at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where she received her introduction to biomedical engineering. Through his work at the IAS, Jerry received an invitation from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel to direct the Weizmann Automatic Computer (WEIZAC) Project. Jerry and Thelma spent more than a year there working on the machine, which was the first electronic computer in the Near East, in the mid-1950s.  
Line 977: Line 977:
 
1. Thelma Estrin. 1992. Interview by Rik Nebeker. Santa Monica, 24-25 August. Archived at IEEE History Center.
 
1. Thelma Estrin. 1992. Interview by Rik Nebeker. Santa Monica, 24-25 August. Archived at IEEE History Center.
  
[[Category:Computers_and_information_processing|{{PAGENAME}}]]
+
[[Category:Computers and information processing|Estrin]]

Revision as of 17:56, 11 June 2012

Contents

About Thelma Estrin

Thelma Estrin was born in 1924 and was raised in New York, New York. Mathematically oriented throughout her childhood, she pursued an academic course at Abraham Lincoln High School. She started to study business administration at City College of New York in 1941. There she met Gerald “Jerry” Estrin, whom she married later that year. When he entered the Army the following year, she took a three-month course at the Stevens Institute of Technology. She then began working at Radio Receptor Company, where she developed an interest in engineering. As Jerry was likewise fascinated with the subject, they moved to Madison, Wisconsin to study electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin at the end of World War II. She earned a B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. in 1948, 1949 and 1951, respectively.

In the early 1950s, they moved to Princeton, New Jersey, where Jerry joined John von Neumann's group at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). Thelma joined the Electroencephalography Department of the Neurological Institute of New York at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where she received her introduction to biomedical engineering. Through his work at the IAS, Jerry received an invitation from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel to direct the Weizmann Automatic Computer (WEIZAC) Project. Jerry and Thelma spent more than a year there working on the machine, which was the first electronic computer in the Near East, in the mid-1950s.

Soon after returning from Israel, Jerry accepted a position as Associate Professor in the Computer Science Department at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Thelma joined the new Brain Research Institute (BRI) at UCLA in 1960, organizing the BRI's Data Processing Laboratory the following year. She served as Director of the Data Processing Laboratory from 1970 to 1980. In 1980, Thelma became a Professor in Residence in the Computer Science Department at UCLA. She also served as Director of the Engineering and Mathematics Division of UCLA Extension. She retired in 1990.

Thelma has been very active in IEEE. Most notably, she was the first female IEEE Vice President in 1982. She also served as President of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society. Furthermore, she has received many honors from the IEEE, including being named 1977 IEEE Life Fellow "for contributions to the design and application of computer systems for neurophysiological and brain research."

In this interview, Thelma reviews her educational and work history. She begins with a brief discussion of her early educational experiences in New York. Next, she explains how she became interested in engineering while working at the Radio Receptor Company during World War II. After speaking about her consequent academic career at the University of Wisconsin, she describes her work experiences in New York, Israel and Los Angeles over the next four decades. Here Thelma is candid about the challenges she faced in securing a professorial appointment. In addition, she discusses her service to the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the IEEE. In reflecting upon her own career, Thelma also comments on more general topics such as the evolution of the computing field and the status of women in computing.

For an earlier oral history, see her 1992 interview for the IEEE History Center. Thelma was also featured in a series of 1983 interviews with the WEIZAC team for the Computer Pioneers Project.

About the Interview

THELMA ESTRIN: An Interview Conducted by Janet Abbate for the IEEE History Center, 19 July 2002.

Interview #594 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, Inc.


Copyright Statement

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

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

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

Thelma Estrin, an oral history conducted in 2002 by Janet Abbate, IEEE History Center, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.


Interview

INTERVIEW: Thelma Estrin
INTERVIEWER: Janet Abbate
DATE: 19 July 2002
PLACE: Estrin's home in Santa Monica, California

Note: Gerald "Jerry" Estrin was also present at this interview. Here Thelma is referred to as "T. Estrin" and Jerry is referred to as "G. Estrin."

[Notes courtesy of interviewer Janet Abbate]

Growing Up in New York

Abbate:

I’m going to go back to the very beginning.

T. Estrin:

Okay.

Abbate:

Can you tell me where you were born and where you grew up?

T. Estrin:

I was born in New York, and I grew up in Brooklyn.

Abbate:

And that was . . .?

T. Estrin:

I was born in 1924.

Abbate:

What did your parents do for a living?

T. Estrin:

My father was in the wholesale shoe business. He had a small company, and after the Depression went on the road selling shoes to companies in the northeast. My mother was very active in the Democratic Party, unusual at that time, for a woman. She was an Eastern Star; which was a “fraternal” order for women. She was the one from whom I obtained my interest in a professional career. She wanted me to become a lawyer.

Abbate:

Because she was in politics?

T. Estrin:

Yes, I was supposed to grow up and do something professionally.

Actually, I was a twin, but the twin died in the hospital, and then she had several miscarriages, and I was the only child. Unfortunately, both of my parents died when I was young. She died when I was about seventeen, and my father died about ten months later. There was just no question that I would go to college and become a lawyer, or do something professionally.

Abbate:

She must have been a very strong-willed, outgoing person to be doing what she was doing.

T. Estrin:

Yes! She was socially outgoing and always helping people. She was active in the Democratic Club. If somebody received a ticket (not many people had cars then), she would go to an official and they’d dispose of the ticket; things like that! [both laugh]

Abbate:

And she had some college education?

T. Estrin:

Yes, probably a year or two, but she didn’t graduate.

Abbate:

Now, you went to the regular public schools in New York?

T. Estrin:

Yes.

Abbate:

Which were very good at the time, right?

T. Estrin:

Yes, but not particularly for women. I was also active in high school and was a student court judge, and also worked for the Dean.

Abbate:

What did you mean, “Not so much for women?”

T. Estrin:

Well, my high school was typical; they didn’t encourage a woman to do anything but take a commercial course. I still can’t touch-type, because I took an academic course, but I type quickly looking at the keys. Typically they encouraged middle class women to do what most did then, secretarial work.

Emerging Interest in Engineering

Abbate:

Were you interested in math and science from an early age?

T. Estrin:

Not science, but math—I was always good in math. In 1942, after the Second World War began, I took a war training course for about three months and then worked in a small company that was producing communication equipment. I worked there for several years, and that’s how I became interested in engineering. Also my husband excelled in math and he was placed in an engineering environment after he was recruited into the army. We have been married for sixty one years. I was married before I was 18. Very soon after that the Second World War broke out, and I took a war training course

Abbate:

Now, let me see if I have the chronology right. You got out of high school, and then did you do a little bit of college before you did the war training course?

T. Estrin:

Yes. That’s where I met my husband. I graduated high school in January, and I went to City College, downtown, which is a school of business administration. My parents were both ill and dying. I had a very close friend whose father was a physician. He felt that I should go to City College School of Business Administration and specialize in Spanish for secretarial work. It was a school of business administration, and not the uptown campus, which specialized in letters, sciences and engineering. The School of Business Administration produced accountants and business leaders. I went there and met my husband, who was in his third year. Then the war broke out.

Abbate:

And then you went to a radio plant, which was in New York City.

T. Estrin:

I worked there for a couple of years, while Jerry was in the Army.

Abbate:

And you were as I recall, in the machine shop.

T. Estrin:

Yes, I worked in the machine shop.

Abbate:

Was that electrical?

T. Estrin:

No, mechanical with lathes, milling machines and drill presses. Actually, I was not very good. A good machinist must be very precise, very accurate, and very careful. I didn’t advance to fine work, but quickly learned how to use all of the equipment and produce rough items which advanced machinists refined.

Abbate:

So how did you end up there? Did you want to be in a machine shop?

T. Estrin:

No, but I liked it. I had taken a three-month course at the Stevens Institute of Technology, after the war broke out. I took a bit of math, a bit of physics and some drafting. It was after that course that I got my job at Radio Receptor Company.

Abbate:

And Stevens is in Hoboken, right?

T. Estrin:

Yes.

Abbate:

Okay, that’s why I thought you were from New Jersey. So how long were you at the Radio Receptor Company?

Studying Engineering at U of Wisconsin

T. Estrin:

Over two years and then I went to join my husband for the last six or eight months of the war. I left Radio Receptor and went to join him. He at that time was in Alabama, but then soon got shipped to California. I recall the conductor let me go on the train with the troops with one other woman. We arrived in California, and I obtained a position selling shoes in a shoe store for several months before the war ended. We both went back to college and decided to major in engineering. My husband had been a senior majoring in history, but had gotten into radio communications during the war. We then decided to go to the University of Wisconsin and both majored in engineering.

Abbate:

Now, when you joined your husband, was it the first time you had left New York?

T. Estrin:

Well, no. My father was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and I had some relatives in Atlanta, which I had visited.

Abbate:

How did you decide on Wisconsin?

T. Estrin:

A very good friend was at Wisconsin—and we wanted to leave New York City. We were both from New York, but we couldn’t get into Cornell, where we would like to have gone. (I believe they were all filled). A friend went to Wisconsin, and we applied there.

Abbate:

So you both started out there as engineering students, from the beginning?

T. Estrin:

Yes.

Abbate:

How many women were doing engineering?

T. Estrin:

Nobody! There was one woman, who dropped out right away. That didn’t really bother me. The only thing that I recall that did bother me, was when I was proposed to get into Tau Beta Pi, the engineering honor society. They did not want me because I was Jewish, not of northern European descent. I went to talk with the Dean and finally was admitted to Tau Beta Pi, the next year. Jerry got in immediately.

Abbate:

But isn’t he Jewish, too?

T. Estrin:

Yes. But it was different.

Abbate:

Did they not know?

T. Estrin:

I had a stronger New York accent, and then I was a woman. I had also heard there was a certain degree of anti-Semitism among a few young men.

Abbate:

Were you the first woman who ever got elected to Tau Beta Pi?

T. Estrin:

Yes, I think so, probably in the country. I don’t know if any woman in other engineering schools had been elected. Today there are many women in Tau Beta Pi, and many are officers. Women engineers tend to be more social and more interested in auxiliary things.

Abbate:

That’s funny.

Now, do you think the fact that you had already done some hands-on technical work gave you more confidence about being the only woman there?

T. Estrin:

No, it just never bothered me. Maybe it did, but I don’t recall that in retrospect.

Abbate:

You were at Wisconsin for your Bachelor’s and Master’s and Ph.D. straight through, and got out in ‘51. What was your Ph.D. work on?

T. Estrin:

It was mostly mathematical, finding the capacitance of annular plate capacitors.

It’s really more mathematical—applied math, you would say. And I had a very nice advisor. He was wonderful. He died recently, but I kept in touch with him until the very end. He was very supportive and just a fine man with no prejudices.

Abbate:

Who was that?

T. Estrin:

Professor Higgins, T. J. Higgins. Of course, Jerry was getting a Ph.D. with another professor, in microwaves, and he required equipment for his experiments. That kept us in Wisconsin and it seemed appropriate for me to get my Ph.D. then as well. We enjoyed Wisconsin, and liked what we were doing. Jerry wanted to become a professor, in which case you needed a Ph.D. He interviewed for jobs as a professor; but that never even occurred to me; which is interesting. At that time I must have thought of engineering professors as men.

Abbate:

I was going to ask what you thought you were going to do with your degree.

Going to Princeton

T. Estrin:

I guess get a job, which I did. But no, it never occurred to me to look for a job as a professor. Jerry was looking to obtain such a position, and he planned to interview at several universities. However a professor at Wisconsin informed Jerry that John von Neumann, a famous mathematician, was building a computer in Princeton, and why didn’t Jerry write to him and apply? Jerry did and von Neumann answered immediately, “Yes! Come, and I’ll hire you.”

Abbate:

To help build it?

T. Estrin:

Yes, and we went to Princeton. Now, I had not finished my Ph.D, but Jerry had. I had about six more months to go, but my thesis was analytical. We both went to Princeton where I finished my dissertation. I returned to Wisconsin once or twice, and obtained my Ph.D., while Jerry worked at the Institute for Advanced Study. I began to look for employment and tried RCA which had its laboratories in Princeton. RCA had a huge lab there. I went and was interviewed. They would not give me a job because they did not have a lady’s area for professional women. [laughs] They only had a lady’s room for secretaries, and of course I could not use them! I then obtained, through a friend, an interesting position at Columbia Medical School in New York City and traveled four hours a day to get there and return to Princeton. That is how I entered the medical electronic field. Meanwhile I had my first child, Margo, and could not make the four hour commute daily. I obtained a half-time teaching position at Rutgers, about a fifteen minute drive from Princeton. I taught half time in the mathematics department. I’m just telling you this next incident as an aside. There was a young man in the Department, who was cheating, just incredibly cheating. Finally, after telling him or whatever, I finally turned him in. That was very interesting. They investigated the whole case, but let him go. I was an Acting Assistant Professor, but it was only years later that my sex occurred to me. I think they let him go because I was a woman, and he was a male student there. I mean, his cheating was so flagrant, but I never thought of the male-female issue at the time.

Building the WEIZAC in Israel

T. Estrin:

While we were at the Institute many scientists from other countries were there. An Israeli scientist, Professor Chaim Pekeris, asked Jerry if he would consider going to Israel to build a computer. I worked with Jerry in building the computer, with most parts and equipment imported from the United States.

Abbate:

Was that called the WEIZAC?

T. Estrin:

Yes that was the WEIZAC, Weizmann Institute Advanced Computer.

Abbate:

And you still hadn’t ever used a large scale computer? An IBM or anything?

T. Estrin:

No.

Abbate:

So you were going to build one, and you hadn’t actually used one?

T. Estrin:

Yes. I had to do very lengthy computations, and many were done manually. I did use a differential analyzer for my Ph.D thesis, but I didn’t use it directly. I think I gave the material to an operator. I don’t recall. There was analog computing equipment, but it was not one of the new digital computers just emerging.

Abbate:

Well that was a long time ago. So you went off to Rehovot for two years.

T. Estrin:

Yes, almost two years.

Abbate:

What was that like?

T. Estrin:

Oh, that was fascinating. We loved it. It was very interesting and life styles were very different. It was like living in a small town, with very few people coming through. It was exciting. Everybody was building a country, and it was interesting.

Abbate:

I guess the university must have been fairly new at that point.

T. Estrin:

The Institute had been there for quite a while. It had been an institute for chemists and chemical engineering, because Weizmann himself was a chemist. It was expanding into other dimensions. A graduate place, where people with Ph.D.s would come, or do research for an advanced degree. A very well-known applied mathematician came to Princeton to use the computer for geophysical studies he was doing. He said to Jerry “Wouldn’t you like to go to Israel and build a computer? I have a fellowship you can apply for.” About a year later we went to Israel to build a computer similar to the Princeton IAS machine. It was called the WEIZAC.

Abbate:

So you got to see the WEIZAC running. Was it completed while you were there?

T. Estrin:

Yes it was very exciting. We had to order a new high speed memory being manufactured in Los Angeles. Though many scientists and mathematicians at that time weren’t interested in the computer. Pekeris, who was a geophysicist and applied mathematician, was. For many scientists, if you were an engineer working to build a computer, they considered you similar to a machinist. You are building or working on a machine. Even though it did tremendous calculations in milliseconds of time, they couldn’t yet understand its role for the physical sciences.

Abbate:

Was working with the computer a lesser status?

T. Estrin:

A bit. Researchers were mostly physicists, biologists, chemists, involved mostly in theoretical work. Pekeris was a geophysicist and had huge calculations that required the computer. Based on that he won several awards.

Abbate:

So scientists didn’t really have a sense at that point that you could use computers for more theoretical stuff?

T. Estrin:

No, I don’t think they did yet. [To G. Estrin] Could you come here?

Janet would like to ask you a question. [To Abbate] Ask him.

Abbate:

Sorry I didn’t mean to disturb you.

T. Estrin:

No, no, that’s okay. She asked me, “How did the scientists in Israel feel about us building a computer there, when we were there?”

G. Estrin:

They thought we were crazy! And they thought that Pekeris, who was head of the Applied Math Department, was absolutely nuts to be spending that much money in this tiny country. But Pekeris had experience at the Institute for Advanced Study and worked with von Neumann. Von Neumann told me before we left Princeton, that if nobody else used the computer, Pekeris would make use of it twenty-four hours a day!

He had a backlog of scientific problems that were worthy of it. But still: the first week we were in Israel, there was a cocktail party, and faculty from the Israeli Technion were there and thought that building such an expensive computer was ridiculous.

Abbate:

There was no sense at that time that scientists could use computers to advance theoretical work?

G. Estrin:

In Israel? Very little. Pekeris was a pioneer in applied mathematics work in geophysics.

T. Estrin:

No, few Israelis had that idea.

G. Estrin:

And he had done that work here in the States. We had met him when he was visiting the Institute for Advanced Study.

Abbate:

Was it a prestige project to build the WEIZAC for Israel?

T. Estrin:

No! [laughs]

No. I mean it turned out that way, but it wasn’t an issue at the time.

T. Estrin:

But even to this day, I don’t believe anybody has ever said to Jerry, “You’ve built the first computer in Israel, despite the initial absence of materials, tools, and personnel. “

G. Estrin:

It was not a prestige project. This happened in some places. I think in Italy they had one of the early computers, and there was a huge prestige factor behind it. Also in other places. Remember there were no commercial machines to talk about.

T. Estrin:

But I recall when a serious war in the ‘70s occurred, a friend who went to fight returned and told us, “I was able to register by computer.”

And scientists at the Hebrew University and other places made use of it. The gentleman who just stepped down after fourteen years as President of the Institute (Haim Harari) did his graduate work as a student on the WEIZAC. A lot of people who are in business began to use computers, or a lot of people in history, who were doing research. I think you have to be able to sort out many factors and distribute them, and being good in math was not a big deal anymore. There was little question about the computer’s great impact on society. Israel had a technological lead: they had cadres of people who were engineers and programmers, and that would never have happened so quickly otherwise.

Abbate:

Right. Israel is sort of known as a place with a concentration of computer experts.

G. Estrin:

Yes, that’s right.

Abbate:

But I guess that’s a more recent phenomenon.

G. Estrin:

Well it began pretty early after building the WEIZAC.

T. Estrin:

And that change in attitude happened in the world too. Before then it was just a machine for mathematicians, or people with very large computing problems.

G. Estrin:

Remember, IBM never expected that there would be a need for more than a dozen machines!

Abbate:

Right. That’s interesting. I mean I know the Soviet Union had this kind of nationalist agenda behind building computers.

T. Estrin:

But it was later.

G. Estrin:

Yes, but they had an early machine.

T. Estrin:

But it was still later than the WEIZAC.

G. Estrin:

Yes, maybe. WEIZAC was the first machine outside of Western Europe.

T. Estrin:

It was built in’54, finished in ‘55.

G. Estrin:

And you should have seen the scrounging we had to do for parts! We were looking in dusty little electronic shops.

Abbate:

Because this was all tubes, right?

G. Estrin:

Oh, yes! Yes, yes.

Abbate:

And there probably ten thousand of them

G. Estrin:

Those we brought from the United States,

T. Estrin:

And there was a big problem getting them into the country. He had to go and argue with the customs people about letting them in.

G. Estrin:

Yes, because they thought they might be bootlegged for use in radios.

Abbate:

Well thank you.

G. Estrin:

That’s okay.

Abbate:

That’s interesting.

T. Estrin:

It’s interesting but few people have ever said that Jerry built the first computer in Israel. And Jerry is not really going to say, “I did it.” It didn’t matter to him to get the credit.

Abbate:

But it still must have been a thrill to see it turned on.

T. Estrin:

Yes, it was exciting. It was wonderful. The country was wonderful.

G. Estrin:

You may want this as background material. A paper on “The WEIZAC Years” from the Annals of the History of Computing.

Abbate:

That’s great; thank you! [To T. Estrin] Did you want to stay in Israel? Or were you ready to go back?

T. Estrin:

Yes, I did want to stay. We couldn’t read Hebrew, even though we are both Jewish. Jerry never had a bar mitzvah, which many boys do when they are thirteen and then learn some Hebrew. In our stay in Israel we had little time to learn Hebrew. I had a daughter born in Israel. Judy was born in Israel.

Abbate:

So that was your second daughter.

T. Estrin:

Yes. She’s in computing also.

Abbate:

Was it hard doing work on the WEIZAC with one, and then two, small children?

T. Estrin:

At that time it was easier in Israel than in the USA. There were many unemployed people, who came from poor countries and help was easy to obtain. Also we lived and worked in the same physical environment. The housing complex was close to where the computer was being built.

Going to UCLA

Abbate:

So how did you end up coming back to the States?

T. Estrin:

Well, we built the computer, and then decided we weren’t going to stay in Israel. Jerry went back to Princeton, and we stayed in Princeton a short while, and then he began to look for a position. We had heard that von Neumann was going to UCLA. He was in Washington, DC, at this time, and planning to come to UCLA; so Jerry applied and was interviewed and got accepted, and that’s how we arrived at UCLA. And then von Neumann died, and never came here.

Abbate:

And this was in the late ‘50s?

T. Estrin:

This was in ‘56. The end of ‘55, beginning of ‘56, I think.

That’s right. We went to UCLA, and that’s where we have been.

Abbate:

You started at UCLA in 1960?

T. Estrin:

I did but Jerry started in 1956.

Abbate:

So for those four years were you just raising kids?

Working at the Brain Research Institute

T. Estrin:

Yes. For two of the years, I was an instructor in math and drafting, at a state college in the San Fernando Valley. Then in 1960 I was able to get a job at the Brain Research Institute (BRI) which was just established. I heard a talk by a researcher and decided I would try to get a position there.

Abbate:

What kind of qualifications were they looking for? I guess you had some background at Columbia.

T. Estrin:

Yes.

Abbate:

Did they want a mathematician, or what did they want?

T. Estrin:

An engineer. There was an electroencephalographer, Molly Brazier, who had a well-known reputation and was moving to the UCLA Brain Research Institute. Underneath her reputation she had a streak of dishonesty. She came from the MIT area and knew people in the computer science field. She pretended she was informed, but she really was not. H. W. Magoun, who founded the BRI wanted to have a conference with electroencephalographers, engineers and mathematicians, and Molly was to have responsibility for organizing it. There was to be a conference in 1962 or 1963, and she really needed someone to organize the conference and bring in local mathematicians. They hired me. This conference was successful, and is published, though you cannot see my name in it, which is typical of Molly. I invited a number of first-rate the mathematicians from the Rand Corporation, in Santa Monica, including a well-known researcher by the name of Richard Bellman, who was an old friend. He accepted and brought several colleagues. The two groups were trying to find out the “secrets of the brain” that an electroencephalogram might convey. Magoun then obtained funding and I was to obtain equipment and set up a computer laboratory for the Brain Research Institute. The purpose was to get analog signals into a digital computer for analysis. We obtained funding from NIH and installed such a system. The system was built by a commercial firm, whose name I cannot recall. I set down the specifications and carefully followed the construction. I also was establishing a data processing laboratory in the Brain Research Institute, and we began to interest brain researchers in using computation for their research.

Abbate:

Was this one of the first places trying to use computers?

T. Estrin:

Yes. There was one other place, MIT. Molly came from MIT and knew some of the people there. The second place was here at UCLA.

Abbate:

So neuroscientists and health researchers could become involved in computing.

You were developing software for them? Or being the interface between figuring out what they needed?

T. Estrin:

Well, both. I was not developing software, but I knew the software, and could develop specifications for programmers. I obtained funds from the National Institute of Health (NIH) for equipment and personnel for the laboratory.

Abbate:

So you were running the laboratory and doing the financial part?

T. Estrin:

Yes, I also taught some classes on biomedical computing for the engineering school.

Abbate:

But did you personally think, “Well, digital is the way to go?”

T. Estrin:

Yes there was no question, because of the accuracy you could obtain; it was much more reliable. The digital world was coming forth and computer science emerged as a popular discipline. Jerry was the first professor in the Computer Science Department. The Brain Research Institute rented a computer system from the Scientific Data Corporation and we were funded by NIH for at least a decade.

Abbate:

You were director from 1970-1980, something like that.

T. Estrin:

Yes.

Moving to the Computer Science Department

Abbate:

And then you moved to the Computer Science Department?

T. Estrin:

Yes. I moved to the Computer Science Department for two reasons. It was part of my struggle to get a professional appointment.

Abbate:

You mean the Brain Research Institute wouldn’t hire you?

T. Estrin:

Well, they hired me, but I was not a Professor. I was a member of the BRI.

Abbate:

Did they not have academic appointments in the BRI?

T. Estrin:

For an academic appointment you had to be in a department as well.

Abbate:

You had to be somewhere else too. I see.

T. Estrin:

Yes, I was in the Anatomy Department. In the Anatomy Department I had a research appointment, Research Engineer.

Abbate:

But they weren’t going to make you a Professor of Anatomy, so that’s why you moved to Computer Science.

T. Estrin:

It was a struggle to get a professorial appointment.

G. Estrin:

But they were more welcoming to Professors in Residence, who had no tenure. They certainly were.

T. Estrin:

Yes, they were more welcoming. [laughs] I mean it was just part of a struggle to get someplace I thought I should have been. As a Professor, I taught for about two years to freshman and sophomore engineers. Many students were Afro-American and Hispanic, and my course was about engineering and society.

Abbate:

Interesting. I’m surprised they even offered those in the early ‘80s.

T. Estrin:

The school had a bit of history. Dean Boelter, whom the engineering building was named after, was very interested in social issues for the engineer. There was also a program to interest people in technology and society, and I taught a couple of classes in that program.

Serving as Director of the Engineering and Computer Science Division of NSF

Abbate:

So you taught for a couple of years in computer science, and then you went to NSF for a couple of years?

T. Estrin:

I went to NSF from ‘82 to ‘84. I was the Director of the Engineering and Computer Science Division (EECS). You see, there was not a separate Computer Science Division yet. Computer science was in my Division. That was the first time a woman had held a director position in the Engineering Directorate.

There was one woman director of the biology section at NSF, in biology. She was well-known and there permanently. Mine was a two-year appointment. I received it because the Director of NSF was Afro-American. I had known him thru the IEEE. He was a new Director but didn’t like the position. He left after about a year, but he was the one who asked me “Why don’t you apply to NSF?” He knew I was an electrical engineer, and that the engineering division had a department with communication engineering, biomedical engineering, and computer science. There was no computer science division at NSF at that time. Following my two years, computer science became its own division. I liked being at NSF, and there for a year without Jerry. For the second year, Jerry took his sabbatical at George Washington University. I enjoyed my stay at NSF.

Coming Back to UCLA

Abbate:

So you went back to UCLA, and you stayed there until you retired?

T. Estrin:

Yes.

Abbate:

And at some point you were actually a Dean?

T. Estrin:

Yes, I was a Dean, the Assistant Dean for Continuing Education.

Abbate:

And that was in the Engineering School?

T. Estrin:

In Engineering, yes.

Abbate:

So how did that happen? Was that unusual as a woman? Did they have other women deans?

T. Estrin:

No. For a while there was a dean of the engineering school named George Turin, and he appointed me. He then returned to Berkeley, where he came from.

Participating in IEEE

Abbate:

You talked about meeting someone in IEEE. Where you very active in the IEEE?

T. Estrin:

Very! I even was the first woman who ever ran nationally. I was Vice President. I was the first female who ran for office on a national scale, and I did get elected.

Abbate:

Did you have a particular agenda you were trying to pursue at the IEEE, for the organization?

T. Estrin:

Nothing special. Well, there was the issue concerning women in IEEE—which is what I assumed you were coming to interview me for.

Abbate:

About the IEEE part?

T. Estrin:

Yes. That’s all in here.[1] In 1971, there was a woman, who has since died, who was very active in IEEE. She was an M.D. and also interested in engineering; her name was Julia Apter. IEEE is divided by what your field is, and she was a member of the Biomedical Engineering Society. She was very interested in women, and she was having a struggle for equality for women with both NSF and IEEE. She was active in the IEEE Engineering Medicine and Biology Society (EMBS). She was a physician and annoyed with the male membership. She wrote a letter to all of the women in IEEE; maybe there were seventy-five or a hundred at that time. I answered her and was in touch with her and became active in EMBS, of which I was a member also. I met her in 1971 and in 1974 she set up something called the Committee on Professional Opportunities for Women, which is called COMPOW. She tried to interest women, but few responded. She then left IEEE, angry with the membership and its lack of concern for women. She died at quite a young age.

I then took over the leadership of COMPOW, and became friends with Violet Haas, a professor at Purdue. We put out a newsletter for women students. I became head of COMPOW, and in ‘74 put out a questionnaire about what women were interested in. We had a response to the questionnaire in ‘75, but there weren’t many women. About half did not answer. We tried to recruit women to attend national meetings and had a women’s suite at a few of them. Attendance was poor, and nothing significant happened. I was also very active in the Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society (EMBS), and went on to become the President of EMBS, with a few thousand members. I then became active on several IEEE national committees and met another woman, whose name is Irene Peden.

Abbate:

I think I’ve heard the name.

T. Estrin:

And there was Martha Sloan, who later became the President of the IEEE Computer Society; and then a third woman, whose name I can’t remember. A lovely woman who died at a very young age. The four of us were the only female leaders around in 1983. I then decided to run for IEEE Executive Vice President. I had also been a Division Director in IEEE, which had about six divisions. Several societies make up a Division, and for a couple of years I was a Division Director. When I wanted to run for the IEEE Executive Vice President, I remember that the Business and Management Society, which was part of my Division, did not want me to run; they thought a woman could not handle the position. It was up to the Governing Board of IEEE to decide this, and they decided I could run. I did and was elected.

Abbate:

Do you think you were following in your mother’s footsteps, in a way, in terms of being interested in that kind of activity?

T. Estrin:

Oh, yes. Yes, no question. My interest in society, and caring what occurred. There’s no question that was true. Even though my mother died when I was seventeen, I had instilled in me that women were not to take a back seat. I was elected Executive Vice President of IEEE. It was a big deal, to run for national office in the ‘80s. I loved working in the IEEE, but I finally left being active which involved a lot of traveling. Or perhaps I became more interested in what I was doing at UCLA . I think that’s part of what happened.

Serving as Director of the Engineering and Mathematics Division of UCLA Extension

Abbate:

Because when you went back to UCLA after being at NSF you were running both Engineering Extension and also Assistant Dean. It sounds like you were busy.

T. Estrin:

They interviewed me for the extension position while I was in Washington—A UCLA representative came all the way to DC to interview me, which was sort of funny! UCLA Extension is a pretty big place; there is one part of it that is Engineering and Mathematics, and I was the Head of that Division for two years. That was sort of fun; but of course, if you’re head of a division, you are, on the other hand, looked down upon by “true” academics.

Abbate:

Right! Yes, I know that hierarchy.

T. Estrin:

So you know all that.

Abbate:

Was that also a way to reach out to underserved populations?

T. Estrin:

Yes, that was very interesting: getting new programs going, and being concerned with under-represented people. The whole idea of Extension is to get the community interested in what you’re doing, and I really enjoyed the role. I finally retired because UCLA then offered a very good retirement package. The Head of Extension, who was a man I liked a lot, was also going to retire. The retirement offer was only good for one year, and I retired in 1990 at 66 years.

Abbate:

Did you do consulting or something after that?

T. Estrin:

Well, I do, without compensation.

On the Rewards of a Career in Computing

Abbate:

What have you found most satisfying about working in the computer field?

T. Estrin:

Preparing information for the computer and manipulating it. The ability to look at a problem from an analytical perspective and break it down to its parts. The ability to see results happen so quickly. Now the Internet is a whole way of life, entering our existence daily in hundreds of ways.

Abbate:

There has obviously been a lot of changes since you first encountered computers.

T. Estrin:

Yes.

Abbate:

What stands out most for you, in terms of the way the field has changed?

T. Estrin:

Well, you can’t single out one thing. The field developed from a mathematical and engineering entity to encompass our whole lives and everything we plan. It has changed the whole way we live, think, perform activities and schedule the events in our lives.

On the Status of Women in Computing

Abbate:

Have you noticed that women end up in certain areas of computing; either in computer science, or in applications?

T. Estrin:

Yes: more in the mathematical and organization side of it. Also, many use computing to help evaluate social problems, as opposed to the people who are designing advanced hardware and algorithms. I recall when my daughter Judy looked for a computing job. She entered the field in the late seventies and still had acceptance problems.

Abbate:

Now, you have three daughters, and two of them went into computing?

T. Estrin:

Yes. The oldest is a physician, and the other two are in computing.

Abbate:

So I guess—I mean, both their parents were in computing, so . . .

T. Estrin:

Yes. Well, Judy only really liked math. She’s the one who went on and became very successful financially. She has started four companies and has been very successful in the field. Deborah, my youngest, really went into computing because she was interested in the social applications. She quickly switched and became interested in the technical side. She also was very good in math, and is just incredibly busy. She now has about thirty graduate students and is totally tied to her advanced research in academia. She was a professor at USC, but they recruited her about two years ago to UCLA. She applied for a large institutional grant for a Center for Embedded Networked Systems and was funded.

Abbate:

This is the NSF one?

T. Estrin:

Yes.

Abbate:

Do you think the field has become more open to women over time?

T. Estrin:

Oh, yes! I mean, of course. The only obvious thing against the field is the attitude that many working men still have against women from their personal backgrounds and upbringing in a world where there was little equality. You see discussion of this on the SYSTERS network. Men who were brought up in a different culture often practice on a day-to-day level in ways that women believe are discriminatory. That will take at least another decade until everybody gets retrained. They just were brought up, you know, in the typical family with mother and father, where the mother did the housework and men only performed certain jobs. I think that will take another generation to go away. But working life has changed a lot for women.

Abbate:

Did you encounter a lot of discrimination? I mean, you’ve told me of certain incidents about promotions and things . . .

T. Estrin:

Oh yes, I think so. I would probably have had a much more prominent position at UCLA, because I’m interested in planning and directing activities. But I never had that kind of opportunity. I took what came and tried to make the best of it. And I’ve been active in women’s organizations, particularly with the IEEE, which now has an active women’s membership group.

The world has changed. Engineering and science are slower, but they are changing too. Also our government and our society are accelerating the changes.

Abbate:

Did you have mentors or role models who encouraged you? You mentioned one Professor T. J. Higgins, who was really helpful.

T. Estrin:

Yes, he was enlightened. He was my Professor, and he didn’t care about my sex.

Abbate:

He didn’t care if you were a man or woman, you mean?

T. Estrin:

Yes.

Abbate:

Were there other people along the way?

T. Estrin:

No, not particularly.

Abbate:

So you were kind of self-motivated.

T. Estrin:

Yes.

Abbate:

Do you have any advice for young women who are thinking about going into computing?

T. Estrin:

No. But I do think that some of the social applications of computing are good areas to think about. There are more women going into computing. If they are reasonably good in math—and it’s not even clear today that to get ahead in computing you have to be that good in math: you have to be bright, and able to handle many variables at one time.

The conception that society has about the intellectual differences between men and women, is beginning to disappear. We’re just part of a process, and it’ll take another generation to erase it.

Abbate:

You mentioned skills, and I think that’s an interesting question, because there is this idea that it’s all about math. I’m wondering what other kinds of skills are useful for people doing computing, or applications of computing, that maybe we don’t think about.

T. Estrin:

Well, I don’t even think you need the math anymore. I think you have to be able to handle many variables at one time, and know how to evaluate and sort. Many people who are in business, social or historical fields do many factors and distribute them. I don’t believe being good in math is as big a deal anymore.

Abbate:

Do you think the social skills for being successful in computing are important?

T. Estrin:

It depends where you want to go with it. If you love computing and just want to work doing computing and you’re excited by what you’re doing in computing, I don’t think the social skills are significant, once you have your position. But if you want to become a leader and use those skills to influence other people, then I think you need both sides of the coin. And I think more women have both sides of the coin.

All right, do you have anything else to ask?

Abbate:

No, I think I’m ready to wrap up. Thank you so much for talking with me!

Notes

1. Thelma Estrin. 1992. Interview by Rik Nebeker. Santa Monica, 24-25 August. Archived at IEEE History Center.