This study summarized here is part of a larger work-in-progress. It begins with the 19th century boyhood of Henry Ford and develops some notions of how childhood tinkerers become technological pioneers. It covers a dozen living, American-born, computer hardware pioneers, a disproportionate number of them raised on farms or in very small towns in the Midwest.
One basic concept is a spiral of motivation in which success at tinkering creates positive feedback - rewards and satisfactions that in turn encourage further attempts and make success more likely (Bloom, 1976; Harter, 1978). If the spiral continues, the result can be a teenager of high skill and motivation - what Amabile (1983) has studied as "intrinsic motivation" and McClelland (1961) as "achievement motivation." Drives become so internalized that the young adult may persist at new technological projects despite, in Harter's term, a "thin diet of reinforcement."
Jay Forrester (1918- ) led the MIT team that began soon after World War II to develop Whirlwind, the world's first interactive computer and prototype for those used in the SAGE air defense network. Forrester himself invented the three-dimensional core memory, the first commercially-viable RAM, which facilitated IBM's entrance into the business market. One Whirlwind spinoff was the Digital Equipment Corporation, which became second only to IBM among computer giants. Forrester later left engineering and created the discipline of Systems Dynamics, which analyzes feedback loops in the operation of organizations and other complex systems.
Early Years Jay and his younger sister grew up on land their father homesteaded in the Nebraska sandhills in a scattered "community of pioneers.1" Their home had running water but no electricity, and the nearest towns (Climax and Anselmo) had only 35 inhabitants between them. With "persistence and courage" the father shifted from farming to ranching when the inhospitable terrain seemed to require it, though many others lost their farms.
Jay's parents were originally both schoolteachers, and their home was called a "cultural oasis" for its value on education and large number of books. The children were expected to earn good grades in the one-room schoolhouse and to go on to college, as their parents had done. Formal religion was weak in the home but morality was strong, based on a sense of business ethics and an aversion to alcohol and tobacco. Discipline was through words or looks of disapproval, and Jay was spanked only once.
The power of electricity was apparent on the treeless prairie. Jay's grandfather had been crippled by lightning, and Jay watched his father get knocked off a ladder when it struck the chimney. When Jay was in third grade his father brought home a radio, which conveyed a touch of magic. It provided adventure programs for the children, symphonies for their mother, and weather forecasts vital to the preservation of the herd.
TinkeringsJay was an early tinkerer, making toy tractors from the innards of old wind-up clocks and carving chess pieces from old carpentry tools. His first science books came from the state's Traveling Library - a footlocker full of books left at the school and replaced each year. From them he learned how to make his own batteries, doorbells, and telegraph equipment. His parents did not try to influence the direction of his interests, but they provided support for the interests he showed. They treated his tinkering "as if it were worthwhile and important" and showed pride in his accomplishments.
Jay disliked the biological side of ranching but loved the mechanical, and soon he could repair equipment so well that his father only served as his helper. By age 8 or 9 Jay was driving the family Model T around the ranch. When he graduated to the tractor he was not only driving it but repairing it. Ranch life, he reflected later, provided the “continuous challenge" of making things work. He learned to work for results, to "fix what needed fixing." He developed a "devout belief in Murphy's Law" - not the fatalism that things would go wrong, but the conviction that it was easier to fix things right the first time so they couldn't go wrong later.
During his high school years he was inspired by a magazine series on the life of the inventor Charles Kettering, an Ohio farm boy who turned tinkering into fantastic discoveries. He was also inspired by a visit to the Chicago World's Fair, where an exhibit of little cars driving through a cloverleaf interchange reinforced his interest in mechanics and electricity.
In shop class he carefully measured, cut, and soldered a sheet of galvanized steel to make a tight-fitting cap for the roof of the ranch house. At home he invented a mechanism to control where the mowing machine dumped its grass. He developed and printed his own photographs in the root cellar. He prowled distant auto junkyards for magnets and ignition coils, using them to build a screen door that electrocuted flies and a Tesla coil that generated its own 6-inch lightning.
During his senior year he designed and built a power plant for the house. A four-bladed windmill drove a Dodge starter-generator, and batteries stored the power for use during calmer periods. It allowed the family to replace kerosene lamps with bulbs and to run shop motors and a kitchen mixer. He looked back on it as an experience in project management - "another step in learning how to succeed in uncharted territory."
His training in electrical engineering at the University of Nebraska was rather routine, but it allowed time to pursue his own projects, including building and operating a ham radio. He also won a prize for building an electrostatic dust precipitator from general descriptions in the literature.
Computer CareerWhile a graduate student at MIT, Forrester designed devices to guide naval artillery and maintained them at sea until his aircraft carrier was crippled by Japanese bombers. He was picked to head the team that developed the Whirlwind computer for the Defense Department, and by the age of 30 he was directing hundreds of researchers. As the cost of the project rose, his government sponsors grew highly skeptical but he showed great ingenuity and inner-directedness (Redmond & Smith, 1980). He pursued his own remarkable vision of the future of interactive computing with a "courage and persistence" equal to his father's in the shift from farming to ranching.
Forrester's early lessons in Murphy's Law served him well. Each computer used 30,000 vacuum tubes, and a failure of any one of them could cause a malfunction. Yet used in tandem the SAGE machines performed more than 99.8% of the time, and some were still in service a quarter century later.
MotivationForrester's motivation was not money but seeking "to demonstrate that we could do the impossible - what maybe other people considered impossible." From that pursuit he derived "fun, challenge, satisfaction." While he has become fairly wealthy from his share of the patent on core memory, he continues to work diligently at age 75.
He attributes his notable persistence to his series of earlier achievements: "Only the experience of having succeeded in past pioneering programs and the belief that history would repeat sustained us against the opposition of the doubters." Through "trying things, failing, trying things, and succeeding," he explained, you get "your own calibration as to what you can do and can't." He has his own brief expression for it: "Success is a habit."
Many of the themes in Forrester's childhood are echoed in other computer pioneers, but he is unique in having developed a science of the feedback mechanisms so important in his own development.
1 Quotations are from the author's interviews with Forrester, Cambridge, Mass., January 13, 1988 and November 6, 1992, and from Forrester (1991).
Amabile, T.M. (1983). The social psychology of creativity. New York. Springer-Verlag.
Bloom, B.S. (1976). Human characteristics and school learning. New York: McGraw Hill.
Forrester, J.W. (1991). From the ranch to System Dynamics: An autobiography by Jay W. Forrester. Unpublished manuscript.
Harter, S.(1978). Effectance motivation reconsidered: Toward a developmental model. Human Development, 21, 34-64.
McClelland, D.C. (1961). The achieving society. New York: D. Van Nostrand.
Redmond, K.C., & Smith, T.M. (1980). Project Whirlwind: The history of a pioneer computer. Bedford, MA: Digital Press.
Permission to reprint article was granted by Ohio Psychology Press.
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