Ray Remembers When

Brookhaven National Lab / Willy Higinbotham / Bob Spinrad

A little more about the Willy Higinbotham story. It is described in The Digital Deli book too. I just ran across it as I paged ahead of my reading this morning over coffee. It also quotes Willy giving credit to his associate, Dave Potter. That is just like Willy. Dave Potter, who was one of my good friends and one of our Computer Systems Group, was fresh out of college, and only on the job for a month or two, and simply followed Willy's instructions. But if there had been a patent, the heading would have been "Potter and Higinbotham."

Willy was the head of the Instrumentation and Health Physics division for 35 or 40 years. The lab opened in 1949 and was operated by Associated Universities under contract from the old Atomic Energy Commission until recently. Associated Universities was a group of universities including Cornell, Rochester, MIT, Yale, Princeton, Penn, Johns Hopkins and a couple of others. It was absolutely the best place in the world to work.

BNL is the only National Lab that does no classified work, no weapons research, only research into the peaceful use of nuclear physics. I worked with people from Poland, Yugoslavia, East Germany, and got to meet people from Russia and China who were visiting scientists on two year programs. There is no academic snobbery, everyone is treated equal, and I ate lunch daily with Nobel class scientists and janitors. If a paper was published about our work then my name was among those acknowledged for their contributions without fail. Once I even had my name on the top of paper because I wrote the magnetic tape handling routines for the system. They were very complex and had to operate with 20 levels of interrupt enabled and not lose any data, but couldn't disable interrupts for anything. It was fun, but I was the only one who understood the hardware thoroughly enough to do it. So I, a kid that barely finished high school 'cause he couldn't stay awake in class, had my name appear with four world renowned scientists and engineers. And, I owe it all to Willy! Don't ask me why I ever left there. It was the computer age that did it. We all caught the bug to some extent, but only four of us succumbed to the temptation, and we were the best acquainted with at least a dozen millionaires.

My immediate supervisor and another mentor, Dr. Bob Spinrad, left to become the V.P. of programming for Scientific Data Systems, and when Xerox acquired the company, he became a V.P. of Xerox, and a millionaire himself through stock options. I am quite sure he was the Director of Xerox PARC when Steve Jobs and friends were hanging around getting ideas leading to the Mac. Three of us went on to found ADDS, along with the man who was assistant director of BNL, for business. (The director was a scientist, for obvious reasons, but Bill, who had a PhD in business from Columbia ran the place fiscally.)