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  • An Interview with Max Mathews
  • Tae Hong Park

Max Mathews was last interviewed for Computer Music Journal in 1980 in an article by Curtis Roads. The present interview took place at Max Mathews's home in San Francisco, California, in late May 2008. (See Figure 1.) This project was an interesting one, as I had the opportunity to stay at his home and conduct the interview, which I video-recorded in HD format over the course of one week. The original set of video recordings lasted approximately three hours total. I then edited them down to a duration of approximately one and one-half hours for inclusion on the 2009 Computer Music Journal Sound and Video Anthology, which will accompany the Winter 2009 issue of the Journal. The following article is a lightly edited transcript of that edited video recording.

The Early Years

Park: Could you tell me a little bit about your background: where you grew up, where you went to school—a little bit about your background that we don't usually hear in interviews.

Mathews: Oh, I'd be glad to. I was born and grew up in the middle of the country in Nebraska. My parents were both schoolteachers. They both really liked teaching sciences. My father taught physics, chemistry, and biology in high school and was also the principal of the high school. It was a small school, with class sizes of about twelve students, and it was a very good place to begin an education. My father let me play in the physics, biology, and chemistry laboratories, so I enjoyed making lots of things—making motors that would run, making barometers out of mercury, playing with mercury—you could do that in those days.

Park: Hopefully you didn't hold it in your hands.

Mathews: Oh yes, I held it in my hands, and I am still here at 80. One of the important things I learned in school was how to touch-type; that has become very useful now that computers have come along. I also was taught in the ninth grade how to study by myself. That is when students were introduced to algebra. Most of the farmers and their sons in the area didn't care about learning algebra, and they didn't need it in their work. So, the math teacher gave me a book and I and two or three other students worked the problems in the book and learned algebra for ourselves. And this was such a wonderful way of learning that after I finished the algebra book, I got a calculus book and spent the next few years learning calculus by myself. I never really graduated from high school; I just stopped going there.

This was in 1944, and instead I took an exam for the Navy and enlisted as a radar repairman and essentially fell in love with electronics at that time. [Editor's note: Mr. Mathews moved to Seattle.] I did find out that the two schools that the teachers in Seattle recommended were Cal Tech [California Institute of Technology] and MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]. Since [my wife] Marjorie was in California and was going to Stanford [University], I chose Cal Tech, and that was a very lucky and wise choice, as the undergraduate education I got at Cal Tech was superb. The techniques I learned in math and physics in freshman and sophomore classes at Cal Tech were the techniques that enabled me to pass the doctoral qualifying examinations when I went to MIT for my graduate work. On the other hand, even though I graduated from Cal Tech in electrical and mechanical engineering, when I got out of Cal Tech I didn't know how to simply build a simple audio amplifier; but at MIT I learned how to build complicated computer circuits out of the rudimentary operational amplifiers that were around at that time.

Another great stroke of luck came when I was refused employment at the 3M Company after they had offered me a job, as a result of a back injury that I had, so instead of going to Minneapolis—which I [End Page 9] favored, since my family...


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