An Interview with Cecilia Larsen

Cecelia Larsen


CL = Cecilia Larsen
GAM = George Michael
June 7, 1996


NOTE ADDED: One of the standard rules followed in producing these interviews was that the person being interviewed was requested to review the typescript, to ensure that it said, as accurately as possible, what he or she intended to say. Despite several attempts, we have been unsuccessful in getting with this person to complete a review. There may be a variety of reasons for this to be so, but the effect is always an uncompleted interview. So, the reader is warned that this interview is not finished, and awaits possible further editing, if and when the interviewee wishes to do so.


GAM: These are some of the memories of one of the first people who ever came to the Laboratory�in fact, one of the founders. Her name is Cecilia Larsen. Cecilia, why don't you start by telling us when you got here, and who you are and so forth, and we'll go on from there.

CL: My name is Cecilia Larsen, and I was hired for the Lab in September 1951. I was hired by the University of California as a "girl Friday." I saw the advertisement in the ads in the Livermore Herald, I believe. The University, at the time, was trying to set up Dr. Lawrence in his own laboratory, and he was trying to get Dr. Teller. And I was trying to get a job in my home town.

When I first started, there were no buildings out here as such, but the engineers were coming out from Berkeley and trying to set up the different buildings for the different departments. The first one, of course, was the Electronics Engineering Department. Then, when I came in, there was nothing for me to do here except check badges as people came in to the Lab from Berkeley. That got to be pretty tiresome, and the weather was pretty hot. So I asked Mr. Norton, who was head of the Electronics Engineering Department, if I could do something that would enable me to be more oriented to the work of the Lab, so that I could be more useful.

Mr. Norton set up an internship program for me, and I was sent to Berkeley for many months. I spent about three months in several departments, learning the way they functioned, and how important they were. Some of them were administrative and some were not. I even worked in the Tool and Machine Shop with John Kohot for a long time, and I learned a lot there. He was a very well-disciplined and very well-organized man.

In those days they called the main office "Facilities." I don't think they use that term anymore, do they?

GAM: I haven't heard it.

CL: So, I went to work in Facilities to see how people came in and out of the Berkeley Lab. At that time, the Berkeley Lab had guards, and you had to have a badge. Of course, nowadays you don't need that, because they don't do any classified work at Berkeley. Anyway, I was up there for a long time. I really enjoyed it, I learned a lot, and I got to see how Professor Lawrence worked�all the important people, the Nobel Laureates. It was quite an education, and very impressive.

When I finally came out to the Livermore Lab, Mr. Norton and the engineers were getting ready to buy the first digital computer. He came up to me one day and said, "Would you like to go to Philadelphia with the engineers and learn how to do the input work for the computer?" And I said, "Sure, when are they leaving?" He said, "The day after tomorrow."

I went with them, and I was there for several weeks. We learned all about the input and the output for the computer, and it was really a hassle, because you had no way to check your input. You couldn't make a mistake or they'd have your head. So, I learned quickly not to make mistakes. And if somebody really wanted to know if the tape that they were giving me was right, I'd have to do two tapes, and then they'd compare the two tapes on the machine to see if there were any discrepancies.

Anyway, when we got back from Philadelphia, the Computer Engineering Group was set up. Before I had gone I had helped Mr. Norton, who was with Electronics Engineering. We had set up a Technical Information Department (TID), because Dr. Teller was coming. He had a lot of classified documents and they had to have a place for them. So one of the ladies at TID, Margaret Folden, came up with me, and a girl from Berkeley applied for a job at Livermore�Annie Strongman. Annie eventually married a UNIVAC technician.

After we set up the TID Library and posted all of Dr. Teller's documents, and got ready for him, we then went to work on the UNIVAC itself, working with the engineers, the technicians, and the programmers. The first thing I worked on was what they called the Unityper. It looked like a typewriter, but it was the input machine for the tapes that were used. And it was a very cumbersome thing. It was about 8 feet tall and about 3 feet wide and 18 inches deep, and it was a very erratic, very temperamental machine. I remember that sometimes when it wouldn't work, I would call one of the technicians, and he'd just give it a good, swift kick. That was Tommy Thompson�do you remember?

GAM: Yes.

CL: And the thing would start working again. We had some very unusual experiences! The first people who worked on the UNIVAC were the physicists and a couple of programmers. Most of the physicists tried their hand at the machine�people like Mike May, and the astronomer from Berkeley, Dr. Cunningham. People like that were the first ones who really used a lot of time on the computer.

It was really interesting to see the different kinds of mathematicians and programmers and all the people from all over who came to see the machine. They were all excited and enthralled by this machine that could do computations so quickly. And, of course, now it's nothing. But they would come from all over. We had Albert and Dick Latter from Rand Corporation and people from Washington, D.C. People from other countries would come, plus General Groves, the Defense Department person who was actually in charge of the whole thing.

Anyway, I worked in there for about five years, and it wasn't just doing the input work. I had to train girls to do the input work, because we kept getting more and more input. Then the machine evolved from Unityper 1 to Unityper 2, which had an added feature of verification. That was good, because then we didn't have to type two tapes for everything. And you could actually tell when you made a mistake, because the machine would lock up with this verification�and a gadget that was on it.

GAM: I remember that.

CL: Yes, it was pretty good. But the things were always breaking down because we did so much work. Do you remember those physicists who came from down south? They were so temperamental�we'd work half the night for them. The people who came up at night�and they were very temperamental�were from Computer Science Corporation. I think the Team Leader was Louis Gatt.

GAM: I didn't know any of that.

CL: There was also the fellow who ended up writing science fiction stories, who's very famous now�Dr. Robert Jastrow. Anyway, we were there, I guess, for five years on the UNIVAC. Computation at that time still wasn't "Computation." I think Computation became a department in 1970.

GAM: Yes, something like that. Before that, it was just part of Theoretical Physics.

CL: Theoretical Physics, right. As a matter of fact, Dr. Fernbach was the head of Theoretical Physics.

GAM: No, at first he was just the head of Computation, within Theoretical.

CL: Mark Mills was the first head of Theoretical.

GAM: When Mark was killed, Sid Fernbach was named for both jobs. Mark died in a helicopter crash in the South Pacific in 1958. The helicopter crashed into the lagoon during a storm, and Mark, Harry Keller, and a colonel were on the thing.

CL: Yes.

GAM: The colonel got Harry out.

CL: Well, anyway, after Mark Mills was out of the picture, Dr. Fernbach became the head of Theoretical Physics. But it was still quite a while before we had Computation.

In the meantime, several girls that we had hired of course did the input work. Actually we had quite a few�we had about six. I became involved with writing the engineering manuals and editing some of the documents that the engineers were preparing for publication. I got involved with the work that Dr. Fernbach was doing on the history of the OCTOPUS system that Dave Pehrson wrote. Cecil Russell and I worked very closely with Dave in finishing that document.

GAM: But this is way, way late�in the '70s?

CL: Is that when Dave did his paper?

GAM: Yes. You see, we started the OCTOPUS�actually it was an idea that Norman and I put forward with Sid.

CL: And Bob Abbott?

GAM: He handled the group that did the first operating system. Norman Hardy did some of the operating system design, and there were some very talented young people in Abbott's group. Abbott's job principally, according to others who were involved then, was that he really designed an implementation language and, as it got used, he kept extremely good records, notes. So you knew where you were. And that's probably one of the most important things that you could do, especially when you're breaking new ground the way they were. In any case, Abbott elected to leave shortly after that, and then he came back later to work on the Research in Secure Operating Systems Group (RISOS). But what were you working on in the '60s?

CL: In the '60s, I was involved with publishing all the papers being written by the physicists�like Art Edwards on his different software programs. We published a lot of software documentation. And we had one after another, after another�we became like a little publishing business in Computation. We also had to edit and publish the notes for the CIC meetings�the Computer Information Center. We had a regular center, and we published our own documents. I think they're still over in the library. There's a lot of stuff in those, too.

But, after the UNIVAC, most of my work then became administrative, and I became more and more involved working with Dr. Fernbach and some of the people who were writing documents and were preparing stuff like that. Then, like you say, I was still involved with the engineers and some of the physicists. What was the name of that little magazine that Computation had?

GAM: Tentacle.

CL: Yes, we did a lot of work on Tentacle.

GAM: You know, I can remember coming here as a young person in the '50s�I got here in 1953. And one of the great stabilities of the place and the era and so forth was Cecilia Larsen. She always remembered everything, and she knew where everything was. She never flapped; she never lost her temper�that was very important to all of us young guys who didn't know what the heck we were doing!

CL: Well, that's because there weren't very many women here anyway�do you remember?

GAM: Well that's quite true. We had some, but...

CL: And all those young guys who came out�that was really pitiful because Livermore was such a small town. There weren't any good restaurants, and there was no place to go for fun or dancing.

GAM: Everybody would go to Granucci's.

CL: And that's how the Yin Yin Restaurant came into being, I think. But there was no place for young, professional people to go to meet anybody. So, in desperation, they would go out of town. And also, George, if you remember, there were hardly any places to live.

Cecelia Larsen
GAM: Well that's quite true.

CL: And people, when they first came, lived in those old duplexes. Those were really miserable.

GAM: I remember Ken Street, the head of the Chemistry Department, was paid enough so that he rented two of them�one for his kids and one for himself and his wife.

CL: Right, I remember that, too. Things were really bad, because people who were coming to work here were from universities or from large cities, where they were used to having cultural arts, places to go to socialize, and different things to do besides sports and theaters and things like that. Here, in Livermore, we had nothing like that, so they had to leave Livermore whenever they'd want to see something. Mostly people worked so many long hours, and they depended on each other. I know most of them became bridge fiends. Do you remember?

GAM: Oh, yes.

CL: Oh, and some of those bridge groups lasted for almost thirty years. The same people, even after they quit the Lab, would come back in just to have lunch and play bridge with their cronies. Things were pretty bad in those days, I guess, compared to now. We didn't think they were bad, because we were working hard and we had a lot of fun, and we met a lot of interesting people.

GAM: I agree.

CL: But nowadays it's so different�they seem to have a lot of controversy over everything! In those days, we knew what we had to do, and we did it. And the Lab would see that we got the things that we needed. We didn't have all this stuff about funding and proposals. If you needed something, and you really could justify it, you would get it.

GAM: Right.

CL: Yes, and there were no complications. Anyway, it was very exciting when Lawrence was here, because everybody just loved him.

GAM: I remember you blew me out of the water one time when you came marching down with a bunch of other people behind you with a birthday cake for me.

CL: Oh, I don't remember that.

GAM: Well, it was the first time it had ever happened to me.

CL: Well, there wasn't much else to do here then.

GAM: Well, they also had birthdays for the UNIVAC, if you'll remember.

CL: Yes, and we used to hide the cakes inside of the machine, you know, inside of the cabinets. And Dr. Fernbach never knew that, or at least he said he didn't know.

GAM: Oh, yes, he knew.

CL: Did he know it? Oh, God!

GAM: Well, we liked it, too, you know.

CL: We had a lot of fun. Anyway, a lot of the people who worked with the UNIVAC� the engineers�all got good jobs, great jobs. They didn't all elect to stay here at the Laboratory. And they were hired to go to very important positions in Europe and in the United States. And so many of our friends are scattered all over the world. It's really amazing to think that all these people got started here in Livermore.

GAM: Do you remember some of them?

CL: Oh, yes. Lou Nofrey.

GAM: Well, Lou Nofrey, Bob Crew, Dick Karpen, and Bob Price.

CL: Oh, Bob Price, yes. It was nice to see him at the symposium.

GAM: Yes. They told me stories that I didn't remember.

CL: Oh, Bob could tell them!

GAM: Well, do you remember any particular person, like your favorite supervisor� Norton, or Fernbach, or Wilder? Did you have a favorite?

CL: No, I didn't have a supervisor. I worked for Norton, who was back and forth. He was a big wheel in Berkeley and Livermore. I was part of the UNIVAC crew, so I worked I guess for Nofrey for a while when I was in the UNIVAC group. Then when Dr. Fernbach took over, he was my supervisor. I never had a direct supervisor. In those days, we didn't have supervisors.

GAM: Yes, well, I understand.

CL: We were just told, "This is your job, and that's it." And we had to do it right. I was upstairs across from you in that building�was it Building 116?

GAM: Yes, it could be Building 116.

CL: Well we were there, and we didn't have any supervisors up there. Do you remember? I don't remember any.

GAM: No.

CL: That was when we were working on all those documents and books. Then the IBM company got involved in some kind of a legal action.

GAM: Oh, yes, they were being sued by the (Federal) Justice Department Anti-Trust Division.

CL: Well, somehow the Lab was involved, and Dr. Fernbach had me go to Building 113, and I worked there for three months sorting through all kinds of documentation.

GAM: The Lab really wasn't involved. It was IBM being sued by the Justice Department.

CL: It was an antitrust thing, but the Lab was involved in some way, because we had to produce documents.

GAM: Only because Sid was here, and he was appearing as a witness for the plaintiff, the Justice Department.

CL: Okay. Anyway, I got involved in that deal. I got involved in all the stuff like that, and all the documentation. Oh, it was really something.

I remember one day Dr. Fernbach was in his office with a general and some bigwigs from Washington, and my son called me. I was over in the UNIVAC building, and he said, "Did you hear the radio?" And I said, "No, we don't have a radio in here." "Well," he said, "Kennedy was just killed in Texas." And I said, "What?" He said, "Yes, everything's in an uproar. The radio's full of it."

So, I thought of all those people from Washington over in Sid's office, and I called over there. Kathleen answered the phone. I said, "Kathleen, I've got to talk to Dr. Fernbach right away. It's very important." And she was so afraid of Dr. Fernbach and of upsetting him. She said, " No, you can't talk to him." I said, "I'm sorry. I have to talk to him." "Well," she said, "No, you can't." I said, "Well, very well, you talk to him. You knock on the door and tell him President Kennedy was just killed." And she said, "Are you kidding?" I said, "No, I'm not kidding, Kathleen. This is very serious. He'll be furious if we don't tell him."

And so she knocked on the door, and she broke up the meeting. Boy, those people went flying out of there like crazy. Really, it was something. That was really a terrible time.

GAM: Yes, it was. America lost a little bit of innocence then. Well, you know, it's clear that the Lab did not have a building to house the UNIVAC when you got here. So they had to build it, and they put the fire doors on it and all that stuff.

CL: Yes, right. And not only that, we didn't have any air-conditioned offices in this place until the UNIVAC came, and then they got air-conditioning.

GAM: And everybody would crowd into the UNIVAC area.

CL: The air conditioning was for the computer! And everybody would come in there on a hot day and gasp, and gasp, and then run out again, and then come in again. That's right, it was the first air-conditioned building that we had. You know, it's strange, though, when you spend so much time working, you have so many people- -I was the only one in there to work with the engineers, and they all had things to do. They had things that I had to research in the library for them.

In fact, when Bob Lee was hired, it was Dr. Fernbach who asked me to see that he had all the historical information about Computation and the programmers, and if I could provide him with all the documents that we had been doing and had published. I had to go to the library for hours and hours and hours. And poor Bob Lee, he must have had about a hundred pounds of documents in the mail at least once a month. So, when he came to Computation, he knew what Computation was.

Another time I got involved in a research project was when they set up the Computer Security group. They asked me if I would go to the library and research anything and everything that we could find on computer security. I thought I wasn't going to find very much. I thought Abbott was the only one who worked on computer security. Oh, but here I found tons of stuff�all kinds of stuff�just pages and pages of references. So I furnished them. Those people were kept busy, too. So I was always involved in some kind of a research project.

GAM: Do you remember when lightning struck the power supply on the UNIVAC?

CL: Yes, I remember that, when the tubes got covered with dust or something, and everything stopped.

GAM: Boy, it was a traumatic two weeks.

CL: That was when Dick Karpen was tearing his hair out by the roots.

GAM: Yes, he came up with a "tube cooker" idea, to age the tubes. They would all have to be aged 200 hours before he would put them in the machine. And it worked.

CL: It did work, yes. And he kept saying that the tubes from G.E. were no good. But that wasn't the case at all�it was just the way that the tubes were being used.

GAM: Well, they were not accustomed to being run at that duty cycle at all.

CL: Yes, right.

GAM: And their tubes were falling apart, blowing�plates would go out. Well, the early days of the computer were pretty interesting from the point of view that you had hardly any components that were reliable. And nobody knew what to expect.

CL: No, but I think that everybody was surprised at how our machine did.

GAM: Oh, yes, I quite agree.

CL: They were really surprised. I think they got a lot of good out of it. Of course, I also worked on the proposals for the other computers. When Dr. von Holdt was alive, I used to do a lot of the work typing, editing, and compiling the stuff for the STAR� on all that stuff that von Holdt did. He was always calling me for something. He'd even call me up in the middle of the day and say, "How do you spell this, how do you spell that?" He'd just pick up the phone and ask Cecilia, you know�that's it. But he was another one that was really a professional. Oh, so many things, so many people.

GAM: Well, Cecilia, I'm sure you know how esteemed you are by the engineers and most of the older programmers. You definitely helped to make the Lab an interesting and pleasant place to work for all those pioneers. It seems to me that we are at a natural place to stop, but for sure right now I want thank you for taking the time to recall your early career at the Lab.




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