An Interview with Leona Fernbach

Leona Fernbach


LF = Leona Fernbach
GAM = George Michael




GAM: Today is March 12, 1997, and we are going to interview Leona Schloss, Leona Fernbach as she became after marrying Sid. Why don't you begin by telling us how you came to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and when.

LF: I was born in New York City, graduated from Queens College in 1951, I worked for two years at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, in the reactor theory department.

My sister married and moved to Phoenix and I decided that the cheapest way to visit her was to go for an interview at Los Alamos. So they paid for my way to Albuquerque and I had an interview and they offered me a job. Then I went out to visit people in California and I met an ex-Brookhavenite who arranged for an interview at the Lab at a time when you went up to the hill in Berkeley and they drove you out to Livermore. Kent Ellsworth interviewed me.

GAM: Kent interviewed you?

LF: Yes, Dave Judd at Berkeley and Kent Ellsworth at the Lab. Kent was telling me about all the Lab virtues which included a day and a quarter vacation a month. At Brookhaven it was two days a month and at Los Alamos it was two days a month and I thought this was just a general thing and I said, "Is that ALL the vacation?" And then Kent got unhappy because he discovered that 15 days a year was not state of the art. It was pretty funny. Anyway, I took the job at the Lab instead of the one at Los Alamos.

GAM: That's interesting, they hired you after the interview and you had to go through a PSQ?

LF: I had some clearance. I had Q-clearance because I was doing the reactor theory at Brookhaven, but I had to get the PSQ, or whatever the letters were for the Lab. But I wasn't coming out immediately anyway. This was in January, and I didn't come out until the end of April.

GAM: January of what year?

LF: 1953. The Lab was only a few months old.

GAM: Well, as I've been able to verify, it started in July of 1952 and some of the people that we remember were actually hired in November of that year. Most of the big influx came in 1953.

LF: The 40th anniversary party was in September of 1992. So I assume September was sort of an official date.

GAM: Yes that's true. I was thinking that Sid was actually hired´┐Ż.

LF: He was hired from Stanford.

GAM: Yes, from Stanford, but I think it was July of 1952.

LF: It could have been, because he was there for a post doc for a year. It was a choice of that or the University of Pennsylvania.

GAM: So, what was your first Job?

LF: Hand Computing. I worked for Glen Culler. And Kay Purdom and Mary Glenn. Mary was the daughter-in-law of one of the physicists, I don't remember his name, he committed suicide [1]. He had been at Los Alamos. There was somebody else. I think there were four of us who worked for Glen. Inez had a big influence in this.

GAM: Avelar?

LF: Yes, she worked for Bob Mainhardt, I guess.

GAM: She would take everybody around and introduce everybody to everybody. She was just a wonderful person.

LF: Do you want an Inez story?

GAM: Yes.

LF: Well, she had lied on her clearance form, she made herself 8 or 10 years younger by changing a digit in her birth date. And then they found out and she really worried that it was illegal. The FBI said, "Oh, women do this all the time." She was a lot older than she seemed to be.

GAM: That's interesting.

LF: That was Inez. Kay and I mostly did the hand computing for a long time. Then I switched over to FORTRAN. The FORTRAN [2] Group with Bob Kuhn and Ken Tiede. Ken would be a great one to talk to. There was somebody else—there were four of us.

GAM: One of the first things that Ellsworth did was to...

LF: I guess that maybe Kent was the fourth one.

GAM: Yes. He built his own compiler. To be honest, it may have been a great idea, but it was terribly implemented. Very awkward to use and that meant it never caught on. It's all been recorded and Bob Kuhn was a part of that too. But Donald Knuth came over and produced a complete history of all that early Laboratory compiler stuff. Kompiler was under the inspiration of Grace Murray Hopper, and Tom Wilder.

But, FORTRAN, being simpler, caught on and also since it was, what you might say, native to the IBM machines, it was easy to use.

LF: I remember one evening, Sid and I were going to play bridge at the Duplicate Bridge Club and we stopped off at the Lab because one of the IBM machines was being delivered. This was probably 1954 or 1955 and it took several vanloads, it was enormous.

GAM: Well, all those tape drives and stuff like that made it enormous. Plus, there were a few drum cabinets.

LF: Then, after Sid and I got married, I had to leave Computing of course, because you can't work for your husband.

GAM: When did this marriage take place?

LF: December of 1955.

GAM: December of 1955, you ran off to Mexico together, right?

LF: It was Las Vegas, but you are in the right direction.

GAM: So, in December of 1955, you and Sid got married and you had to move from the Computation Department. Where did you go?

LF: I had a choice of reactor or fusion. I had done reactor at Brookhaven and I had an old boyfriend, who was in fusion, so I thought it would be easier to be in reactor. So I went to reactor. Reactor was way down one of the streets, not near an entrance, and I got a permit to park on the Lab site that I pointed out to Sid. He never got a permit to park on the Lab site. Any little one-up-man thing, you know.

GAM: The reactor was in this big hanger?

LF: This was reactor theory again. It was Jim Carrothers, Cal Andre, and I forget who else.

GAM: Allen Kirschbaum.

LF: Yes, yes, I worked for Al, yes.

GAM: Great! So that was sometime after December of 1955?

LF: It would have been around January or February 1956. Sid thought I would retire, and I said, "No way."

GAM: But you did eventually!

LF: Well, I did in August, because I was pregnant with Paul, who was born in December. He was born a year after we were married. I liked reactor, I always have.

GAM: Do you remember any strange things that went on while you were still in Computation?

LF: I do remember that was when I learned to drink coffee black because we didn't have any milk. It was very primitive in buildings 161 and 162. It was hot and primitive; we didn't have any refrigeration to store perishables.

GAM: Indeed it was. Let's see then, you actually left shortly before Glen Culler left, huh?

LF: Glen left before I did. He went to UCLA.

GAM: Wasn't it UCSB?

LF: No, he got his Ph.D. at UCLA.

GAM: Oh, I thought he had it already.

LF: No, he had a Master's Degree. He went down maybe January of 1955. I remember afterwards Sue Culler and Bob Cralle, who's a good one to talk to.

GAM: I've talked to all those guys.

LF: OK, Glen was already at UCLA and Sue and Bob and I went to see a play in San Francisco.

GAM: The thing that's interesting about all those guys is that none of them can remember dates very well.

LF: Well, if you've worked there a long time. I didn't, so I can remember, it limits it.

GAM: Well, Glen ended up being a Professor, and all that sort of stuff, at Santa Barbara.

LF: And starting companies.

GAM: Well, yes, but the first thing he did was he took several years off and went to TRW. There, with the help of Burton Fried from UCLA they developed a so-called Culler-Fried terminal that was sort of the first time we had some computer support for symbolic mathematics, I guess you'd call it. Evaluating functions and displaying their graphs on a screen of a tube. It was just very interesting.

LF: Oh, OK, at the Lab at one point, Mitzi Teller, who was a Mathematician or a Physicist or something, was thinking of coming to work at the Lab as a hand programmer. We were terrified.

GAM: Who was this now?

LF: Mitzi Teller, Edward's wife, and we were terrified that she would come join us.

GAM: Why?

LF: This was another whole world. We were peasants and this was the aristocracy. We really didn't want it and she didn't come and it was fine.

GAM: I remember that you were one of the persons who helped us do the first calculations for a program that we were going to run on the UNIVAC.

LF: I remember that.

GAM: We had to prove that every number that we produced would be correct and so you guys did the hand computing to twelve decimal digits.

LF: The first time that they were doing testing in the Pacific, the first shot was a disaster and they didn't know whether to do the second shot. It turned out that it was Friday that we had to make a decision and that Friday was payday. We went out to the wineries and got all our sampling at Ruby Hill and came back a little happy and then I had to go calculate. They had the calculations to do it and they also put it on the CPC. But the CPC made a mistake and I didn't. So I beat the CPC, even being a little happy.

GAM: A triumph!

LF: And how it was!

GAM: Well, on that particular thing, we also had to run the UNIVAC program and we had to take the machine for an additional 40 hours, almost, to run the calculation to see what it would show. And bigger heads than ours decided whether this meant anything at all, but we did it.

LF: Ok. How about Edna Vienop-Carpenter?

GAM: Yes?

LF: Did you talk to her?

GAM: She's been interviewed, yes.

LF: You're very thorough.

GAM: I interviewed her and we got some stories about the CPC. That was with Joe Brady. He was put in charge of it initially, and then, of course, they added the 650 to that which IBM supplied to us.

LF: Another name, Dick Levee.

GAM: I really don't know where Dick Levee is.

LF: He's in Santa Barbara, the Canfields are in contact with him all the time. He really wasn't in Computing.

GAM: Well, again, he's a target of opportunity and I have him on the list.

LF: And Pat Levee, Dick's retired, but she's still working and travels to Hong Kong, and the Netherlands, and so on.

GAM: Really? Well, it just proves over and over that the women are more enduring than the men.

LF: Well, they are younger for one thing. Oh, I have a Kay Purdom story, sort of. Kay was, of course, very high society. Her family was a group called FFV, which is First Families of Virginia. Which is about as high as you come, and her father was an Annapolis graduate. He was in charge of the PT Boats during the war in the Pacific and that was Kay's background.

She was in my car pool and there were four of us in the car pool, which included Doug Gardner.

GAM: Wonderful person.

LF: Anyway, Sid worked as a consultant or something in Australia in Canberra about twenty years ago. Kay and her husband had worked there just before that and he didn't see her but he had heard that they had been there. That was the last I heard of Kay. She worked at Rand after she left the Lab.

GAM: Yes, I remember that.

LF: I visited her down there.

GAM: She was one of your regular Bridge partners wasn't she?

LF: Ken Tiede was. Ken and I played Bob LeLevier and Kent Ellsworth. And the first day Ken came to the Lab he said he wanted to play bridge and we played and we got one of these very weird hands and he's bidding four, five, six and he gets up to seven and Kent Ellsworth doubles very confidently and we made it. I knew then that Ken would be a friend. I mean anybody who these weird things happen to would be a friend. He's a good one to talk to.

GAM: I have him on my outside list.

LF: I have an address and phone number.

GAM: I'd love to get it, yes.

LF: Gene Canfield has a lot of these addresses because they do things with the Tiedes and the Levees.

Sid always hired on the basis of ability and he was basically colorblind as far as anything was concerned. Which meant that he had a much higher proportion than in the general population, of minorities because other people wouldn't hire them and they knew they could get hired at Livermore. Around 1970, maybe, each of the departments was supposed to have an equal opportunity plan to get up to the right percentages. Sid's department, of course, was way above because people had stayed on and he had hired them always. He refused to produce an equal opportunity plan. So he got into trouble because he refused to have a plan although he was way above the quota. I think people, for instance, Bob Hughes, and Doug, and a lot of the Orientals, because Orientals couldn't even buy a house in Livermore then. Which is why some of them lived out on East Avenue toward the Lab; it was out of Livermore. Sid hired them because they were very good technical people.

GAM: He was very good that way.

LF: Also, at one point, as he was looking over, there was a picture that he had found of Sid with Hans Bruijnes, Bob Abbott, Marilyn Richards and Tad Kishi. It looked like an equal opportunity, you know he had the oriental and the black, the foreigner and the woman and it wasn't deliberate, he didn't go out of his way to do this.

GAM: Well, he had a very good reputation about that. With everyone who has commented about Sid, the common thread was that he was a great people person.

LF: He was!

GAM: He was not good as a manager, he didn't like managing, but he had the vision of the future, about how computers fit in and he was good with people.

LF: Yes. He was still writing papers; his last one was with Frank Bjorkland and Izzy; Isabelle Blanford.

GAM: Yes, on the liquid drop model. Isabelle Blanford, she married Corbatto at MIT.

LF: Well, they both died young.

GAM: Izzy did yes.

LF: Well, so did Frank, Frank was 38. He died as a result of swallowing a chicken bone. There were two or three operations that were not successful at removing it and then, finally, the last one was successful at removing it, but he got a staph infection and died of it.

GAM: I didn't know that.

LF: Sid came home one day and said Frank died and I though he meant his brother Frank Frank is the brother who painted that picture of Sid. He looked so desolate when he came home from work early that day. It was so unusual for him to come home early. But it was Frank Bjorkland who had died. Sid was very fond of him.

GAM: Well yes, they were working together pretty closely during those early days.

LF: These are people I haven't thought of for years.

GAM: Yes, I don't know why, but I was supposed to console Elsie Bjorkland, Frank's wife. Give her the condolences of the department, which was then Theoretical Physics. I got to meet Frank's children.

LF: Yes, I had met the boys. They were both people who had left the Mormon Church, but his parents insisted on a Mormon funeral and it was a very Mormon funeral, which is not what she would have chosen. It was not what he would have chosen either.

GAM: This is also stuff I didn't know about.

LF: We had gone to the funeral and it was rough because he was young.

GAM: Yes! Now those papers that they put together were done in the middle fifties at the very latest.

LF: Well, at one point Sid couldn't decide, should he do more physics or should he just do computing. I pointed out to him he was never going to win a Nobel Prize in physics. He was a very good computer person and he wasn't that great a physicist. I mean he was good enough to get the Ph.D., but after that he just did computing.

GAM: Well, the story is they called him over at Stanford and gave him the job of setting up and running computation right from the beginning.

LF: I didn't know they did.

GAM: I believe they were doing something they knew had to be done, but they didn't think it was important. Sid turned around and made it VERY Important. In fact, one of the most important aspects of the Lab.

LF: He was in that original group that went back east to learn UNIVAC. Teller was part of that group too.

GAM: Yes! And so were Bob Jastrow and Jules Mercel.

LF: Jules was my first bridge partner at the Lab. We both said that we're not good, but we're lucky. Sid never held cards in bridge and I always got the cards.

GAM: You guys were very dedicated followers of the duplicate club every Monday night?

LF: Yes, we were there and Sid played, but he wasn't very enthused.

GAM: I thought he was very gung ho about it?

LF: Because it was a way to do things with people, but that stopped. We got here (Alamo) and we never played duplicate bridge again. Once we moved from Livermore.

I'm trying to think of more people at that time.

GAM: Well that's fine, we've got you through your exposure at the Lab and now you've moved from the Computation Department into Reactors and then you left the Lab.

LF: Yes, I left the Lab it August of 1956.

GAM: That kind of covers it. By August of 1956 I had made one trip out to the test area in the Pacific and I was, you might say, hooked. The difference between the planning and execution of stuff on the machine and going out to see an actual test installation and a test was just staggering for me.

LF: Sid went out to one of the tests just to observe, and he came back early. That was when the Lab wasn't overly successful out there and we all said it was because he wanted to be ahead of other people in getting a job when the Lab folded.

GAM: It's hard to tell, you know? We learned an awful lot from every test that was conducted so the question of success is in a definition.

LF: Well, success in the way of producing megatons.

I have another name for you from the earliest days of the Lab before the site was chosen, which is Jack Peterson, whom I just saw on Monday because I'm a good friend of his wife.

GAM: Is he still at Berkeley?

LF: He is retired, but he lives in Danville.

GAM: I got to know Jack pretty well because when he went off to go back to school, Hans Mark came in to take his place so the three of us would argue on occasion.

LF: Jack was with Herb York, he was the fourth person hired. He was with Herb York and, I guess, E. O. Lawrence, when they chose a site for the Lab.

GAM: Yes, well I think it was largely Lawrence that did this out here and I love the stories that go along with the early days.

LF: He was a good friend of Herb York's. He'd be a good source for the very early days. They are going away on Friday for a bit.

GAM: Well, I've got to take the long view on things, you know.

LF: I know, anyway, Jack is around.

GAM: Well, I think we've covered your career at LLNL. Thank you for taking the time to discuss it with me.




[1] Roy Goranson.

[2] The original work done by the Ellsworth group predated FORTRAN by several years and was known as the Kompiler. In addition to Grace Hopper, the Kompiler was inspired also by Tom Wilder.




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