Ralph Gomory

Notice: We are in the process of migrating Oral History Interview metadata to this new version of our website.

During this migration, the following fields associated with interviews may be incomplete: Institutions, Additional Persons, and Subjects. Our Browse Subjects feature is also affected by this migration.

We encourage researchers to utilize the full-text search on this page to navigate our oral histories or to use our catalog to locate oral history interviews by keyword.

Please contact [email protected] with any feedback.

ORAL HISTORIES
Image not available
Interviewed by
Dan Ford
Interview date
Usage Information and Disclaimer
Disclaimer text

This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the American Institute of Physics.

This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.

Please bear in mind that: 1) This material is a transcript of the spoken word rather than a literary product; 2) An interview must be read with the awareness that different people's memories about an event will often differ, and that memories can change with time for many reasons including subsequent experiences, interactions with others, and one's feelings about an event. Disclaimer: This transcript was scanned from a typescript, introducing occasional spelling errors. The original typescript is available.

Preferred citation

In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:

Interview of Ralph Gomory by Dan

Ford on 2004 September 12,Audio and video interviews about the life and work of Richard Garwin, 2004-2012Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/40912-12

For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.

Abstract

In this interview Ralph Gomory discusses topics such as: Richard Garwin, International Business Machines (IBM), the development of touchscreens.This interview is part of a collection of interviews on the life and work of Richard Garwin. To see all associated interviews, click here.

Transcript

[Abrupt start of recorded material]

Gomory:

— her progress to capture is the straight ahead. Supposing IBM is making semiconductors, and the next step in semiconductors is to make them smaller, to make all the devices smaller. Your people contribute to that process one way or another. IBM captures that, because it's in the business. You see? An invention or even a product is not a business. A business is a whole stream of things: it's customers, marketing, manufacturing, development, product, idea. You have an idea; you can't make money on it unless all those other pieces are put in place or are in place. Now in the example I gave you on semiconductors, they're all in place. You got a little improvement. All the other pieces are there. You come with something where there isn't all the rest of it. It has to be pretty big before the… So very novel things are difficult, especially for a big company, to put all the rest of it in — if it's not straight ahead. Very often a little company — they don't — oh, let's try it on a tiny scale, and they become bigger.

There is a difficulty, and Dick, of course, his ideas tend to be novel rather than straight ahead. Although I think he made, very often, good technical suggestions that people would incorporate into things. Then you never know how much credit to give. So I don't think — I don't think that the… When I think about Dick, I wouldn't think of his contribution to IBM in those terms, like he made this product and this product. Occasionally you get a person like that, like John Backus really — John Backus ran a team that invented FORTRAN, and FORTRAN was this discrete thing. It was a programming language, and it fit into the world that was ready for programming languages. It made a big splash. You could really say John and his team made — and then you could count up all the sales for that. But that's unusual.

I don't know that Dick was associated with a thing like that, but he could tell you — or someone else could — better than I, because I don't have that kind of recall about where everything came from. But he was a useful person. He always added something. If you had him come in to discuss something, you always learned something. Now, how much money we made out of the fact that I learned something from him, or someone did — it's somehow not capturable.

Ford:

When I was talking to [James] Levine about the touch screen in their laboratory, right there they built — it was like a lectern where there… It was essentially a precursor to these pressure-sensitive styluses, and so the lecturer could just use the stylus to display things, to control his own presentation. But then what they did was, they developed more software for it, and they made a touch-screen airline reservation system — pick destination, blah blah, and so forth. Levine said that he and, I don't know if Garwin was involved or whatever, that the people who were working on this, they dealt a lot with the marketing people and the companies. They, you know — look at this stuff. And people don't have to stand in line at the airport. You can just put these things in shopping malls, and people can get their airline ticket. When IBM was developing this Prodigy network, the early — one of the internal working titles for Prodigy — was America Online.

Gomory:

But they preferred Prodigy.

Ford:

They preferred Prodigy.

Gomory:

That's mysterious.

Ford:

At any rate, they tried to do something to get the Prodigy system to offer this to people, that you could have this on your own home computer to make airline reservations. I've used many times the online reservation systems, and this model that I saw must be something like 15 years old — worked much better than the ones that have become popular. The conclusion to the story was that, they were told, no, IBM didn't want to touch this thing, because they had too many mainframe appliances in the airline business, and the airlines wouldn't like them to interfere with their —

Gomory:

I think you have to… These eighth-hand stories about what corporate decisions are based on are, at least, dubious to say the least.

Ford:

That's why I said I wanted to find — who can I talk to?

Gomory:

About why touch screens were not introduced earlier into airline reservation systems? I don't know. But, you see, you have to realize that… For instance, do you use a computer?

Ford:

Oh, sure.

Gomory:

All right. How do you — you have a cursor. How do you position it?

Ford:

Mouse?

Gomory:

Yeah. You see, it's easier to go like this, but it's not life and death. A mouse works too, so you could have an airline reservation system without going to a desk by using a mouse, by using that little stick thing. It's not the only way. One should not have the notion that this big application lived or died on whether you can poke it with one finger instead of moving a mouse. There may have been many reasons why they didn't want to bother.

Ford:

I'm an economist by training. I'm perfectly prepared to believe that the decision makers at the company sit there, and they have 55 good proposals every day, and they decide — we have a system or method for filtering and screening and studying —

Gomory:

It's not like that. That's an economist's view. Look, if they trying to do airline reservation, and if they really had a big incentive or desire to move people — make your own. They could do it with or without a touch screen. There are too many ways to position something on the screen. Touch screen's better, but it probably wouldn't be the life or death of the application. Maybe it would be, but then when you get to touch screen — I remember there were a lot of contending ways to do it. One was pressure. I can remember systems being proposed which would locate your finger by beams of light. So, these things are all good, but they only happen when finally someone really needs that, and it's cheap enough, and it's simple enough. It's not like it's a conceptual breakthrough that suddenly makes a million things possible. The business of locating a position on the screen can be done a lot of ways, and it sure helps if it's cheap, and it sure helps if it's simple.

You have to realize that much technical progress is of this nature. Ideas there, it doesn't fly for a long time, then the right application comes along, and suddenly it starts. The history of the steam engine happens to be something I know very well. I once wrote a paper about it. The steam engine — the popular view is that… Who was it? Beginning with a W. Watt. Watt invented the steam engine. Wow, that really changed that — that's bullshit. Steam engine has a long history.

The steam engine was in commercial operation before Watt was even born. But it found a little niche. You see, it didn't compete economically. It took more dollars worth of coal to run a steam engine than to march a donkey around pushing a bar. Except, at the bottom of coal mines, because the animals didn't thrive down there. The earliest steam engines in practical use, and they were very crude, were introduced in the bottom — into coal mines, pumping out water. They weren't competitive with animal power, but because they got into use, they started to get refined. They got better. All sorts of people made improvements. And Watt made significant improvements, but he was one of a long line of people. By the time you got from 1720, when they were being used in coal mines, to 1820s, those things had improved through a whole series, so they were much cheaper than horse power. And they took off. Lot of stuff like that.

Ford:

I did some research on the steam engine myself. I wrote a book about the Three Mile Island accident and so there was a bit of history of steam power leading to nuclear power. But the checking department of the New Yorker wasn't satisfied with my explanation. They were going back and forth with the chief mechanical historian of the Smithsonian, all of this, because I had referred to Watt as the inventor of the rotary steam engine. The checking department insisted that what Watt invented was the rotative —

Gomory:

Rotative?

Ford:

Rotative steam engine.

Gomory:

I thought he invented the separately cooled boiler, but we'll go into that later…

Ford:

At any rate, they told me — they'd gone back and forth with the Smithsonian and all of this, to the Museum of Science and Industry, and London… They wanted to know, would I accept the —

Gomory:

Rotative?

Ford:

— use of rotative, or did I want to see if they could look further and justify rotary.

Gomory:

There's a very good book… At any rate, sorry for the details of that. I think we would probably agree that these things come into being as an idea; they need a niche. Then if they can get going, they steadily improve, and they may turn into something awesome. Which is what happened with the steam engine. I'm sure that touch screen technology is that kind of thing. It's not like it was a unique thought. There are many ways you can locate something on the screen, but it doesn't take off until it gets something — where it has some worthwhile advantage.

Ford:

I guess for me, the thing that I'm interested in as one part of his life, science, policy, and government work —

Gomory:

Sure, that's very big.

Ford:

That's all very big, but that's all separate. I would like to find out, what can be intelligently said about the fruit of his work for IBM?

Gomory:

I think it's going to be somewhat difficult, because I think — if I didn't — if I had lost Garwin, I would've thought it was a real loss. Fortunately that never occurred. Because he's just helpful. In almost any situation, he has good ideas, provocative ideas, and so forth. Most of them will never work out, because that's true of all ideas. Some will. The ones that do will never be associated with him. But, he pokes people. He stirs them up. He has ideas. His remarks to me, originally about the filtering, I think that was a three-minute exchange, but I'm conscientious, so I went back to Dick and we went on, and we ended up writing an op-ed about it. For a lot of people, they would've gone off, and you'd never had known Dick had an impact on it. He's that kind of very live person. Instantaneously can think and have good ideas. There may be something that I'm overlooking that was sort of a Garwin-to-IBM thing, but I don't know what that is. But was he valuable to IBM? I haven't got the slightest doubt.

Then of course on the science side, then you can pin him more closely to certain experiments which he helped conduct, and which he invented. But on the IBM side, I would say that his contribution was real, and I would've missed him enormously if he wasn't there. But it was diffuse. It was here and there, making contri- always worth talking to.

Ford:

Just to switch slightly —

Gomory:

We will have to stop very soon.

Ford:

OK. He's always helpful and provocative. One of the questions that I had was —

Gomory:

We can always have another meeting some other day, but there's so many things I have to do today.

Ford:

No, they just told me that I was booked 'till five.

Gomory:

No, I'm sure they didn't say that. Who said that to you? Because my secretary came in and said it's ridiculous: He's proposing until five, whereas I had told her 45 minutes beginning a quarter after three, so she surely didn't think that.

Ford:

I dealt with a couple different… Well, it doesn't —

Gomory:

Well anyway, I'm sorry if anyone said that to you, because that was never in the cards.

Ford:

The last subject — we can continue later — is simply that he is very provocative —

Gomory:

Yes.

Ford:

— with his testimony about the SST, ABM, and Star Wars, all of this. I guess one of my questions is, did the White House or the government or the Pentagon or whatever come pounding on IBM's doors —

Gomory:

I never heard of it.

Ford:

— saying you have to curb this fellow?

Gomory:

Well, I don't know if they did, but I think if they did during the 20 or so years I was responsible for the Research Division, I never heard of it. And believe me, I would have. That's — maybe they pounded on him and told him to shut up. I don't know. We never shut him up. I mean, if the government asked for advice, it gets it. They don't like, that's their problem, right? Obviously he annoyed them at times, but that… Dick always tries to give an honest opinion. A lot of situations, people don't want an honest opinion. So, what the hell? But that never deterred him, and frankly I think that's just great.

Ford:

I think his role as science adviser and the whole science advisory — that's clearly the main —

Gomory:

The main event.

Ford:

— the main event.

Gomory:

I thing you should check carefully on his physics contributions.

Ford:

Oh yes, that's… It's just, I've been talking about IBM because, for me, that's the most unknown.

Gomory:

Well I'd be happy to talk to you more. Why don't you get a little farther into it, but always feel that you can come back. But, we seem to have had a misunderstanding, because this is my first week back after vacation. I was very clear to my secretary, and she claims that she was very clear.

Ford:

One of the secretaries told me that there was some secretary leaving and some going, and I talked to a couple different ones, so I don't know.

Gomory:

Well, we'll have to improve our system, then.

Ford:

It's no problem. But I'm very glad to see your little filter —

Gomory:

Yes.

Ford:

— the interest in it. I will see if I can prod these —

Gomory:

Sure, I'm always happy to hear from them.

Ford:

— French people to — even if it's confidential — to make some disclosure of what they have. I really think they could be doing a hell of a lot more with it, quicker.

Gomory:

I think they will find as we have —

[Abrupt end of recorded material]