An Interview with Margaret Gee

Margaret Gee

MG = Margaret Gee
GAM = George Michael

GAM: It's February 11, 1998 and we are interviewing Maggie Gee. Maggie, why don't you start by telling us how you got to the Lab.

MG: I came to the Laboratory in April 1958. I was looking for a job after being in Europe for four years. Friends from days at UCB, Bill Noh, John Killeen and David King, were working at the Laboratory and they encouraged me to apply. I waited many months for interviews and clearance, and I was finally hired to be in the theoretical division (T Division). That was, I think, the only division around at that time. There were other satellite groups. I was hired by George Bing to work in his group. I worked on a "Large Design Code" [1] (LDC) with Bill Schultz. Bill was just writing a LDC for one of the large computing machines. I had not been exposed to big machines at all. I had seen one, at the Bureau of Standards. So, when I got here, this was entirely new to me. I think it was not unlike many people who worked at the Lab. I had to go down and see what the machine looked like. I started working with Bill Schultz and he had me write a generator to set up the zoning information. I had to do a lot of learning. Bill was very good. He was a person who was very, very thorough, lots of patience, and I learned much from him. At that particular time we worked night and day. I commuted from Berkeley, I never moved to Livermore but I would spend nights out here. They had dormitories at that time. We went to the machines directly to program our calculations. There was such good comradeship, I felt good about it. It was nice. It was a small place and I had my office by myself in an old officer's barracks building as I recall.

GAM: Yes, Building 162.

MG: 162, very pleasant. Bill Schultz was across the hall from me and there was another chap in the next office named Chris Calsoyas, who kept to himself. There were always lots of conversations with Bill, in particular, when people came for scientific discussion. There was a lot of shouting when people like Roland Herbst or Chuck Leith were visiting. The noise level was a determinate of whose idea was being listened to. It was very nice and it was an inclusive type of society. It was a time when you felt as if you knew everyone at the Laboratory.

GAM: It was a nice community.

MG: My one regret, at that particular time, was that I didn't live in Livermore, because I felt I was missing out. Nevertheless, I was happy that I did get an opportunity to socialize as much as I wanted to with the people who were here and with the people I liked very much. The nice thing about the Laboratory, it was an informal place and I guess it was E. O. Lawrence who really had set the pace for that. There was a medical doctor who came to work in the Bio-Med group, a very nice man. He received a telephone call one day when he wasn't at his desk. Juanita Whitten, who was an operator, called him and she paged him, we'll use the name Joe Smith. She said "Joe Smith you have a telephone call" and Joe Smith came up to her outraged, he said "I am Doctor Joe Smith." She replied, "everyone here goes by first names, we don't recognize titles. Dr. Fernbach is Sid Fernbach here. We are informal." He took it very well and he was never called Dr. Smith again, at least by the telephone operators. That sort of gives a feel for how the Laboratory worked at that time. Also, as far as the scientists were concerned, the meeting place was the computing room. Everyone had to go there if they were working with a computer, at first just to get on the machine and, after awhile, to put their cards in for running your programs. The machine room was a meeting place.

GAM: So, George Bing hired you, but you wrote the generator for Bill Schultz.

MG: I worked on the LDC as it was being developed. That was one of the first assignments. It was to get the information into the IBM 704, which wasn't simple to me at that time. I worked with Bill for quite some time. It really was a pleasure to work with him.

GAM: I remember he mentioned you quite a bit.

MG: He made those wonderful charts, flow charts. Very nice, he had wonderful patience. In our group of two, we had 3 or 4 major programmers working with us. Each moved on to other codes or to systems work.

GAM: What was your next assignment after you finished the generator?

MG: I went into the Weapons Program to do design. Well, actually, it was still related to the LDC and some associated problems. So, for many of the people who came along, I was the person who helped them with their LDC problems; they were running them for A Division. So I got to know a lot of the people who became Directors later on because of that. It was a nice interaction.

GAM: Before we get too far away, I remember hearing about you, very early on, that you were a lady pilot during the war. Why don't you tell us something about that experience?

MG: Most people don't know that, during World War II, there were a group of women pilots. There were really only 1,074 that graduated; twenty five thousand women applied, but just that many graduated. When the war began, there was a shortage of pilots, and they were going to England as fast as they were trained. Jackie Cochran convinced General Hap Arnold to use women pilots. She thought women pilots should have an opportunity to serve; there were the WAC's and WAVE's at that time, but she wanted flyers. What she wanted to do was prove that women could serve. There was kind of a trial, when they sent twenty-five women to England to fly Spitfires. It worked out and it didn't work out. Where it didn't work out was it was all the women that they had. They tried to collect the women who had commercial licenses and had a lot of experience, which was relatively few in this country, and they flew whenever they could, which wasn't very often. Well, the country is small, England is small, and the weather isn't good, it was very hard. So, she decided to take this bunch of women back to the states. Some of them stayed with the ATC, which is the English Air Command. After false starts, the Women's Army Air Corps Service Pilot (WASP) was born. The whole purpose, initially, was to take the planes from the factories, which were in California and the West Coast, where all the airplanes were being manufactured, to the East Coast to be shipped to England to our Air Force. It took all the women who were willing to serve who had commercial and private licenses. But they had to go through training. We had the same training the men had. I got in sort of at the tail end, when they took women who were eighteen years old. I was nineteen, too young to get into the regular service, and I had about fifty hours of flying time. I consider myself very fortunate, that I could do something that I really enjoyed. I felt I was doing something for my country, I was working as a draftsman and a welder at that particular time, when I joined the WASP. I had an opportunity to copilot a B17 which was the largest plane I flew. I did get to fly all the wonderful training planes. The most fun, of course, were the open cockpit biplanes that did acrobatics. Before the war was over, women were sent home. If I consider some of the abuse that we took from the men at that time, getting out wasn't all that bad. Then, the men didn't figure it as abuse - that's the way the world was and it's fine. It's probably gone to the other extreme today.

GAM: So you were mustered out?

MG: Yes. We were civilian pilots and we became veterans only years later. They disbanded us before the war was over.

GAM: And then you went to Berkeley?

MG: Yes, I went back to school; I had started collage before the war at U.C. Berkeley. I grew up in Berkeley and so I returned there. What else would you like to know?

GAM: You were sort of the person who guided the new comers through the LDC's rocks and shoals, then, in your second assignment. I remember talking with you and Bill Noh on many occasions.

MG: Oh, I moved on, that's right, to work with Bill Noh.

GAM: That was more hydrodynamics.

MG: Yes, pure hydrodynamics. I didn't really contribute much to his CELL code, but I did work on his 2D BBC Code.

GAM: I wouldn't say you didn't contribute much. You contributed as much as anyone else. I would say there were enough people around so that no one had to contribute very much but the sum total of everyone contributing was some very large and powerful programs.

MG: Yes, the sum total was big, but it didn't gain the support of the administration for a while.

GAM: I don't think that I would put it that way. It was a beginning code and it just matured into something else, and among other things it was the Lagrangian code CELL that Bill put it in.

MG: But CELL started before BBC.

GAM: Yes, I know, but the ideas were worked out in BBC. Also, I don't believe the Administration was exercising much control over the kind of codes being developed ... they weren't meddling.

MG: Oh yes; but there was sort of a decision later on, maybe in the 70's that we should look at all the codes - we had quite a few codes that overlapped and when money became a little short, we were told that we should spend more time on some specific codes.

GAM: When you were doing these things even back in 1958, when you worked on the generator, were you using upper, higher level language? Do you remember, was it FORTRAN?

MG: Well, I didn't use machine language, so I must have used FORTRAN. FORTRAN was around then.

GAM: Well, it was around it '56.

MG: Yes, and this was '58.

GAM: I remember one of the great, what would I call it, sacred, stories of the time is that in exasperation because they couldn't get the LDC through the FORTRAN compiler - the compiler was too full of bugs. So, Norman Hardy sat down at a keypunch with the FORTRAN deck and did the equivalent of compiling it in his head. He then keypunched out the equivalent assembly language program. That's awesome.

MG: Oh, yes, he was wonderful. I don't know what he is doing today though.

GAM: He's doing the same thing.

MG: Oh, yes? In fact, the Laboratory had a number of people similar to Norm Hardy.

GAM: Leo Collins, also worked on the LDC, Harry Nelson, and Charles Miller.

MG: I worked with all these fellows because I was around the LDC at that time.

GAM: Did you go into any other code systems, I mean problem systems. the LDC was one.

MG: Oh yes, on quite a few.

GAM: you worked on CELL, and BBC.

MG: BBC, I did a lot of work on BBC. I wrote a lot of their peripheral and special routines. I worked with people in A Division on design problems - I worked with Pete Moulthrop for about 10 years. That was very interesting because he always had interesting problems and they were not long-term problems.

GAM: Well, to sort of take a panoramic view of it, was there a favorite thing that you did, of your entire career? Like, you enjoyed working on the 6600 or you had a very good time doing this or that?

MG: I was just a generalist I guess, I thought it was interesting whatever I had assigned to. I liked assignments and I didn't mind being moved around within that group of people. In fact, it made it nice because I worked with so many different individuals over the thirty years. I was attached to Bill Noh, but I was doing various other things while I was in his group.

GAM: Most of this time you were in Theoretical Division?

MG: I was always in Theoretical. I'd have to pause now and think what did I do all these thirty years. You're making me start to remember, but I don't think I can do any more at this moment. Maybe I can come back.

GAM: OK. Well, we are sort of at a quitting point. Thanks for taking the time to run down a memory lane.

[1] In deference to possible security issues, we will use he euphemism "Large Design Code" in lieu of the actual name.