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  • InterviewsWillis H. Ware
  • David Walden and Willis H. Ware

For this inaugural installment of the Annals Interviews column, we interviewed Willis Ware, 1 who has been involved in digital computing since the mid-1940s. Ware had a knack for being at the right place at the right time and was involved in several important steps in the spread of digital computing. 2

David Walden:

Please speak a bit about your early life.

Willis Ware:

A year or so before I was born in 1920, my father was discharged from the Navy and took a job delivering produce with a horse drawn wagon. My mother of course was a homemaker, a life-time career.

In 1922-1923, my father had a house built in Pleasantville, New Jersey, which is on the mainland and separated from Atlantic City by several miles of wetlands and small creeks. He also took a job with the A&P food market chain. We stayed in Pleasantville until we moved to Ambler, Pennsylvania, in 1930.

When I was 10, I started making balsa wood flyable airplane models using twisted rubber bands for motive power. I also started making primitive radios starting with a crystal set. I read Popular Mechanics and various amateur radio publications for ideas and circuits. I snitched loaf pans from my mother's kitchen and used them for chassis. I never built anything larger than two to three tube radios. I also had a complete set of Tom Swift novels that helped me imagine adventures around the world.

I do have a sharp recollection of one event. One day I was riding my tricycle with an older friend who had a two-wheel bicycle. I could not understand why the friend was able to peddle much faster. I noticed that my tricycle did not have a chain, like his bicycle. I concluded that somehow it made the difference—a glimmer of the engineer to be.


When did you first become interested in science?


My interest in science and technology started while I was living at home in Ambler, but it didn't come from my family, whose education had stopped with high school. As I grew, my toys gradually became more complex and realistic. I think that my mother bought my first Erector set as a Christmas gift when I was 10. I then got into the habit of buying the "set of the year" each Christmas with money that I had saved. The sets cost $25 and each one made something special, like a steam locomotive or a zeppelin airship.

When I entered high school, having skipped the fifth grade, I came under the tutelage of George Meyers, the mathematics instructor. He made it a habit of identifying students who he thought had promise. Most days his "picks" stayed after school and drilled on problems—be it algebra, trigonometry, plane geometry, solid geometry. He would also persuade us to apply for scholarships at the University of Pennsylvania, generally in the engineering schools. My year [1937] he had four successes, two of whom chose electrical engineering. If I had to pick one factor that dominated my closure on engineering, it would be Meyers' influence, dedication, and encouragement.


Where did you go to college?


After graduating from high school in 1937, I commuted daily to the Moore School of Electrical Engineering [University of Pennsylvania] as a day student.


Had the famous Mauchly-Eckert ENIAC digital computer work started while you were at the University of Pennsylvania Moore School?


Pres Eckert was a classmate of mine. But if there were any computer events, they were well hidden. As I recall, nothing happened until John Mauchly joined the faculty. He knew about the Army's requirement to generate firing tables for weapons and proposed doing

Background of Willis H. Ware

Born: 31 August 1920, Atlantic City, New Jersey

Education: University of Pennsylvania, BS (electrical engineer), 1941; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MS (electrical engineer), 1942; and Princeton University, PhD (electrical engineer), 1951.

Professional Experience: Hazeltine Electronics, 1942-1946; Institute for Advanced Study, 1946-1951; North American Aviation, 1951-1952; RAND, 1952-1992.

Honors and Awards: Member of the National Academy of...


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pp. 67-73
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