An Interview with Edward Teller
GAM = George Michael
GAM: It was June 30, 1995 and I was going to interview
Edward Teller. Quite unintentionally, this interview
turned out rather differently from all the others. It
happened this way: About two weeks before the date of
the interview, on the recommendation of Edward's
secretary, I sent a memo to him outlining what the
interview was about and some of the things we wanted
to cover. So, the morning of the interview, I was ushered
into his office and he smiled and said, "Why are you
coming here?" I said, "I'm here to interview you." He
said, "What about?" I said, "I sent you a memo
describing that I was trying to record some of the
history of the early days of the computer department,
and since you were very active then, I was thinking that
you might have something to say. He looked at me and
said, "I don't remember." Then he added, "I didn't
really have much to do with the establishment of the
computer department. Sid Fernbach did most of that,
but I will tell you a story about Johnny Von Neumann.
I happened to be in Washington, D.C. for some sort of a
meeting and Johnny called me to his office saying he
wanted to talk about the UNIVAC LARC, which we
were then trying to procure. When I got to his office, he
said, "I think you're asking for too much memory.
You don't need that much memory for a computer."
We were trying to get twenty or thirty thousand words.
I was too smart to argue with him, and I just left and
came back to the lab. We talked about it at the Lab and
decided that we had to talk to Johnny at the Lab. So, I
called him up and asked him to come out so that we
could talk about this problem. When Johnny arrived, we
showed him one of the design codes that was being
prepared for running on the LARC. We asked him, "Can
you make some suggestions about how we might
fit this into ten thousand words, or less, since you are
saying we don't need any more words than that? We
know that if everybody was as smart as you are, we
would already have figured that out, but since we don't
have those kinds of people here, we'd like to ask you."
Well, the long and the short of it is that Johnny
withdrew his objections and we were free to get the
amount of memory we thought we needed. Ultimately,
the LARC was delivered late, but it had thirty thousand
words of memory on it.
GAM: The LARC memory was available in multiples of ten
thousand words. Each ten thousand-word piece was
housed in a cabinet that was about 8 feet tall and about
16 feet long and about 3 feet wide. So having thirty
thousand of such words meant that we had three long
cabinets that filled the LARC room. The
majority of the cabinet was filled with driver circuitry
and the memories worked well, but they were huge.
Anyway, that ended the interview, with Edward telling
me that the strategy they followed was essentially to get
Von Neumann out here and show him a big code and
ask him how to shrink it to less than ten thousand
words. Obviously, he saw that that was not possible, so
he withdrew his objection, and we were able to outfit the
LARC with the amount of memory we thought it needed.
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