Birth, family, ethnic culture: more about my early years

I was born on January 20, 1936 near the New Jersey Palisades Cliff, opposite 42nd Street in Manhattan. Born into a closely knit family of Jewish Eastern European immigrants.  A few came in the 1880s; more came in the 1920s and 1930s. They were hard-working lower middle class, religious but not ortrodox, and Zionists. They were very nurturing, supportive, and committed to  learning. None were “schooled” intellectuals, no college degrees. Sara Wittman Feigenbaum, my mother, was an American by birth, first generation after immigration. Solomon Feigenbaum was “brought over” by his brother Philip, and married Sara, the sister of Philip’s wife. Solomon died before I was two years old. My mothe with determination nurtured my early literacy. Family life involved much reading and singing– books, newspapers,  and traditional Yiddish/Hebrew and Zionist songs. My mother remarried in 1942, to a grocer’s son, Fred Joseph Rachman.  His activity after grocery hours was to travel to City College of New York to study for an degree in accounting. His education, and his profession as a CPA, helped to change my life.  He walked me through the first steps of an interest in Science by taking me on trips to the American Museum of Natural History every time the show at the Hayden Planetarium changed. We “studied” one museum room per visit. At home, on the Philco “console radio” (a  masterpiece of vacuum tube engineering, capable of the new FM) he listened mostly to classical music at every opportunity.  My love of classical music starts right there. He was an atheist, though quietly so in our Jewish family.

Experiences serving on the Board of Directors of Sperry Corporation, 1983-1986


I entered the world and the workings of the BIG corporation by being asked to serve on the Sperry Board—an eye-opening experience. Sperry manufactured and serviced the once famous brand of UNIVAC computers; then became a multi-industry diversified giant. I was the first and only computer scientist ever selected for the Sperry Board. Sperry was acquired in a hostile takeover by Burroughs Corporation in 1986, ending my life as a Big Company Director…

I was asked to form and chair Sperry’s Technology Advisory Board. This Board found weakness in UNIVAC’s research and its product offerings. Over my few years as a Director, UNIVAC management (near Philadelphia) made good plans to shift from selling computers (vs IBM) to selling software and services. Excellent concept, but died at birth when Burroughs bought Sperry, forming Unisys. In my view, Burroughs CEO Blumenthal, with clumsy management, got rid of the UNIVAC planning (and product line and people).

I am not particularly proud of one important and ultimately costly piece of business advice I gave to UNIVAC management (after being asked).  I gave the same advice to the Texas Instruments (TI) CEO and have regretted it ever since. It concerns the manufacturing and sale of LISP machines, a type of computer particularly well-suited for symbolic computation (vs numeric calculation). Interest in LISP, the software substratum of artificial intelligence (AI) research at the time, was high. The Japanese National Fifth Generation Project and the widely read book The Fifth Generation, by McCorduck and me, had significantly raised the profile of AI, hence LISP also. With government support, TI had developed a “LISP chip.” The question was: would it be a good business decision to build and sell a LISP personal workstation using this chip? Being asked, my advice was “yes,” but I was wrong. The “AI market” was practically non-existent. In the time it would take to build up this market, the inevitability of increase of chip capability under Moore’s Law would overtake the underpowered LISP chip.

Sperry’s UNIVAC division got caught up in this. Like TI, UNIVAC was looking for a “breakthrough” product.  They decided to use their marketing and sales capabilities to sell LISP workstations that they bought OEM from TI.  Again, my advice to them was wrong. It’s hard to sell into a non-existent market, and harder still when a sales force proves incapable of learning symbolic computation, LISP, and AI software and applications. I can’t blame them. They were brought up at the other end of computing.