John B. Schwarz

An Autobiographical Sketch

The Early Years, 1927 - 1944

I was born in Louisville, Kentucky on July 28, 1927, the only child of John C. Schwarz and Veta VonAllmen Schwarz. My father owned and operated a Ford automobile dealership early in his career, but later sold this to become an executive for Sealtest, a milk and dairy distributor. My mother was the daughter of Emil VonAllmen, an immigrant from Switzerland, who founded a milk dairy company which he later sold and bought a dairy farm. He became one of the most noted dairy farmers in Kentucky. My mother worked for her father until she married.

I attended a small rural school through the tenth grade (there were only ten students in his graduating class), and a large public city school for grades eleven and twelve.

The Academic Years, 1945 - 1952 >>>

The Academic Years, 1945 - 1952

After graduating from high school in 1945, I entered the University of Louisville on a part-time basis, taking a variety of math and liberal arts courses. I had expected to be drafted into the army and eventually was ordered to report for inductance; but three days before I was to report, the draft ended. (The war, World War II, had ended a few months earlier.) I then enrolled as a full-time student in electrical engineering. I was an excellent student and was awarded an honorary scholarship one year for having the highest class average.

While at the University of Louisville, I began dating a physics student named Ruth Fitzmayer. It was love at first sight and a year later we agreed on marriage. But I had two years of engineering school to complete and Ruth was committed to a fellowship she had received from Harvard University. This made marriage a difficult option and we decided to hold off for another two years. There was no formal engagement because I wanted Ruth to be able to date freely at Harvard and not be in a committed relationship.

During their years apart, Ruth and I communicated by mail during the school year, and dated during the summer months while she was at home (teaching summer courses at the University) and I was on a co-op program. Finally, in June of 1950, we were married and went together to Cambridge. It worked out well, I had been accepted in a special two-year engineering science degree program at Harvard, and Ruth had two years of work remaining on her thesis.

The two-year science program that I was in was tailored for students who planed to go into industrial research and development, as opposed to teaching where most Ph.D. graduates went at that time. It involved two years of course work (the same as for a Ph.D.), but unlike a Ph.D. program, the courses could be concentrated in one particular area, in my case, circuit design and analysis. And no thesis or oral exams were required. Both Ruth and I received our degrees in 1952.

<<< The Early Years, 1927 - 1944

The Career Years, 1953 - 1989 >>>

The Career Years, 1953 - 1989

In 1953, Ruth and I were both hired by Philco Corporation in Philadelphia. At that time, science was in the early stages of a technological revolution. Television was being perfected, computers were being born, and a new electronic device called the transistor had just been discovered. Philco, already a leader in television and home appliances, had decided to invest heavily in transistor development and was one of the leaders in the field. The Schwarzs joined a cadre of other young scientists that had been previously hired to pursue this goal.

I worked on transistor development for a year, but then transferred to a division that was involved in the design of electronic equipment, an area that was more suited to his qualifications. For the next two years I designed a variety of circuits (using vacuum tubes!) for television, radar and high fidelity audio equipment. But this was a period of great turmoil in the electronics field. The fast-coming advances in transistors and memory devices was creating enormous opportunities in the design of television and computers as well as all other fields of electronics. The demand for design engineers was so great that the average starting salary for new graduates was increasing at a faster rate than the average salary increases within companies. At Philco, for example, engineers with one or two years of experience found themselves making less than newly-hired engineers just out of school. Philco management was unable to adjust to this situation, and the result was an enormous turnover as junior engineers left the company for higher paying positions in the expanding job market.

So it was that I went for an interview with Univac, a relatively new company (also located in Philadelphia) whose founders had invented the modern-day computer. After being quizzed at length on circuit theory, my interviewers seemed visibly impressed. I was offered a starting salary that was well above my present salary, and after discussing it with Ruth decided to accept the offer.

Univac had just begun the design of a new computer using transistors rather than vacuum tubes, it would be the world's first transistorized computer. Computer design centers around a basic logic circuit that becomes the fundamental building block for implementing the various operations that are to be performed, and for the transfer of data between operations. The speed at which this basic circuit operates is paramount in determining the overall performance of the computer. For the computer under design, several basic circuit candidates were being considered, and I was assigned to investigating one of them. After an extensive investigation during which I perfected a unique method for optimizing circuit performance, my circuit was selected above all the others. Then, just when it appeared that it was impossible to meet the speed requirements that were being sought, I came up with a novel way of increasing circuit speed that allowed the design goals to be met. My work on the basic logic circuit immediately propelled me into a position of great respect. I was given other critical circuits to design, and at the conclusion of the design phase was selected to serve on a three-man task force assigned to reviewing all of the circuits in the system.

After completing my work on the first transistorized computer, I was given a special assignment. Another division of the company located in Norwalk, Connecticut, was designing their first computer system and they needed guidance. So for the next few months, I spent one or two days a week at the Norwalk facility answering their questions and providing insight to the intricacies of transistorized circuit design. The engineers there were at first apprehensive about an "outsider" telling them what to do and how to do it, but this attitude wore off quickly and I was soon accepted as one of the group.

Following the Norwalk assignment, I was assigned to the research division to do research and development on possible future computer circuits and devices. I tested and analyzed numerous electronic and magnetic devices to determine their basic characteristics, and then designed circuits and even small prototype systems to further determine their potential as a computer element. This work produced several patents, and along the way I became manager of the Advanced Circuits Department.

The position of department manager was not to my liking, however, because it tended to take me further away from the hands-on work. So after serving in this capacity for nearly a year, I asked to be relieved of this position. Fortunately, shortly after I submitted the request, there arose an urgent need for someone to do a special assignment for the company's vice-president, J. Presber Eckert. I was immediately assigned to the task.

Eckert and John Mauchley had invented and built the first electronic computer, and then founded their own computer company -- Univac. Eckert was considered an electronic genius who personally directed the design of the early machines. As the company grew and merged with other companies, he became a vice-president and served as technical advisor to the president. As such, he frequently descended, unannounced, on design groups with a plethora of ideas and things he wanted investigated. His brusque and overpowering presence usually left engineers one step closer to a nervous breakdown.

By this time, the transistor technology had advanced to the level where it became possible to fabricate other circuit elements (resistors, capacitors, diodes) on the same substrate as the transistor, thus creating an entire circuit (dubbed the "integrated circuit") in one package. This was a boon for computer design which required only a few basic circuits but large quantities of them. At this stage of the game, however, there was the problem that the technology for fabricating these devices was in the hands of semiconductor companies that had little computer know-how, whereas the knowledge of the circuit requirements was in the computer labs that had no semiconductor background. Eckert wanted to transcend this gap by finding out what circuit structures the semiconductor industry could make, and then build these structures out of discrete transistors, resistors, etc., and determine which ones were best suited for computer usage.

The first step in this investigation was to gain insight into just what the semiconductor capabilities were, what they could do and what they could not do. Had I tried to find this information on my own, it would have involved going through a company's sales representative who then would relay the questions back to company headquarters. The answers would then be sent back to me via the sales rep. Judging from past experience, the answer more often than not would likely have been "sorry, we can't answer that question, its company confidential". But with Eckert, a vice-president, in the picture, there was direct entry into the top level of the loop. Thus I found myself in conference calls with directors of research and vice-presidents of manufacturing. Surprisingly, these people seemed very willing to discuss their capabilities, limitations and future plans, with little regard for confidentiality.

Armed with this information, Eckert was ready to begin his investigation. For the next several months, I often worked side-by-side with Eckert in the lab. Eckert talked incessantly about all the things he wanted to try, what experiments should be done and why what everybody else was doing was wrong; and when there was nothing technical to discuss he passed the time singing commercial theme songs. Meanwhile I used half my brain to listen to what Eckert was saying, and the other half to furiously design circuits for the technician to build and test. Then after the test results were obtained and studied, Eckert would see a whole new set of things to try, and the loop was repeated. At the end of the day, I was left with a pile of papers on the various designs and test results, all of which had to be entered into a lab notebook in an orderly fashion (for possible patent purposes) in time for another go-around the next day.

Eckert had other obligations to fulfill that frequently kept him out of the lab, but while he was on the scene the going was intense. At lunch, I spent as much time taking notes on paper napkins as Eckert did eating. Even trips to the bathroom were no respite, Eckert would plop himself down in the adjacent stall and continue his monologue. When Eckert was on the road, I would receive calls from him at airport terminals, railroad stations and turnpike toll booths. But finally the investigation was completed. A comprehensive report was written and presentations were made at other company locations. Eckert seemed pleased with the outcome. One day near the end of the project, my supervisor called me into his office. "I just wanted you to know," he said, "that Eckert said that you are the best circuit designer that he has ever worked with." And a few weeks later, when I went into the hospital for some minor surgery to remove a cyst from the base of my spine, a flowering plant arrived with a note attached: "Thank you for your efforts -- Pres Eckert."

But there was no time to rest on laurels, a new crisis had arisen. It involved the company's high-speed mass storage equipment. In those days, all high-speed mass storage was done on magnetic media. Univac had been highly successful in using a metal-plated magnetic film that had been developed in-house; everybody else used an oxide magnetic film similar to that used in the original magnetic tape storage drives. The Univac systems were extremely reliable. Part of this reliability was due to their mechanical structure (huge drum-shaped devices as compared to the flat disks used in the oxide-film systems), and part of it was due to the large, well-controlled electrical information-carrying signal that the metal-plated film produced compared to the oxide-coated films. The superior electrical signals made the design of the amplifying and decoding circuits very simple, so simple that almost no expertise was required, and as a consequence, none was developed.

The Uniac storage systems had one disadvantage, however, they required a lot of physical space. Customers were extremely pleased with their operation, but as the need for more and more high-speed storage increased, the space problem became intolerable. So finally the company had to abandon their long-used metal plated technology and switch to oxide disk systems. But this meant that the amplifying and decoding circuits used in the past were now obsolete, and because of past neglect in that area, there was no one in the company with expertise in that highly specialized type of design. The company tried to fill the gap by hiring on the outside, but there was no one available. So I was assigned to lead a select group of engineers to develop the know-how to design this type of circuitry. It was a challenging task because other company's designs were highly guarded secrets, and there was virtually no published material to aid in the learning process.

For the next seven years, my group successfully designed the circuitry that did the writing and reading of information on a number of magnetic storage systems, even though it took nearly two years to reach a point where we felt like they were up to par with the outside world. But then another catastrophe occurred. Late in the design of a major disk storage system, an enormous blunder in the design of the mechanical drive system that positioned the read-write heads was discovered. The only way to correctly resolve the problem would have been a redesign of this mechanism, but this would have caused a considerable delay in an already tight schedule. So bandaid-type fixes were employed. Since this approach also caused some delay, management decided to make up time by going on a three-shift work schedule. To the design engineers, this was idiotic since it meant that the available personnel was simply spread out over three shifts rather than one. Engineers now had to do much of the technician work because the technicians were on other shifts -- testing equipment that would be obsolete when the new fixes were installed. Furthermore, important decisions often had to be delayed because all of the key engineers needed to make a decision were not on the same shift.

So the design fell even further behind schedule. The factory where the machines were to be built complained that unless the designs were released soon, it would be impossible to meet promised customer delivery dates. So the company CEO, being an ex military officer trained to handle such crises, took charge. His way to solve such situations was to set firm completion dates. That way those engineers that were always trying to perfect their designs rather than settling on something less than perfect, would be forced to fall in line. So he issued an executive order: On such-and-such a date, all designs would be released -- period. So on the such-and such date, all designs were released. (The fact that the engineers knew the designs would have to be changed for the system to work seemed irrelevant.) The factory was happy, they could now order parts and start to assemble the circuit boards that contained the electrical circuits. But then an annoying thing happened. The factory began to be flooded with one change order after another. Six or seven changes for circuit boards was not uncommon, and some of the changes even reverted the board back to where it was previously. The solution -- another executive order: On such-and-such a date, no more change orders would be allowed. So on the anointed date all change orders were halted. Again the factory was happy, they could now complete construction of the machines and have them ready for test. Everything seemed to be in order except for one small detail -- the machines couldn't meet performance specifications! To complete the list of brilliant decisions, design engineers were sent to the factory to find out why the machines weren't working properly. (They knew the reason, of course, before they went.) The whole bizarre affair was like a drama of comedy and tragedy acted out on the stage of real life.

As if things weren't bad enough, there was an internal company battle going on between the engineering department and the marketing department. The marketing department, that loved to wheel and deal with the marketing department of other companies, was trying to convince the company CEO that mass storage systems should be purchased from outside sources, and not developed in-house. Furthermore, they contended that one company (call it Company A) had a machine ready for delivery that met the specifications of the besieged machine being developed in-house. The engineering department contended that Company A did not have such a machine ready for delivery. The debate grew so intense that the chief engineer decided to call marketing's bluff and sent a group of key engineers (I was one of them) and high-level personnel to see a demonstration of the Company A machine that was "ready for delivery". The entourage flew to California, went to the Company A facility, was told that the machine was not ready, and flew back to Philadelphia. (Why the CEO, with his decision-making genius, couldn't have resolved this internal dispute in a simpler, less costly way is not clear.) For those engineers who were pressed for design time and were already sacrificing much of their own time to that end, the two day delay caused by this episode was inexcusable.

In the end, marketing won out; or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that engineering lost out. The company didn't just buy Company A's storage systems, they bought Company A outright. All mass storage development was moved to California. As part of the sale, Company A could choose any engineers they wanted from the Philadelphia mass storage engineering staff. About one in three were chosen, I was one of them. I was invited to California where I was wined and dined, given tours of the area and sales pitches on the benefits of relocating, but in the end decided not to go. This left me in a state of limbo because at that point I had no job with the company unless they chose to essentially rehire me.

But they did rehire me. And they made me technical director of a group of young engineers designing circuits for several different medium size computers. These engineers reported to different managers, but they all received technician supervision from me. Among other things, it served to make sure that the same design standards were being used in all the machines. As these systems were completed, however, the company became involved in a new type of design.

Whereas the advent of the integrated circuit had allowed several different circuits to be fabricated in a single package, the state of the art had now advanced to the point where tens of thousands of circuits could be fabricated and interconnected in a single package. It was called "large scale integration", or LSI for short. The center for computer design was shifting from the computer companies to the semiconductor companies. I was assigned to solving a variety of special problems that the new technology had introduced.

One of these problems was to define the rules for interconnecting large numbers of LSI devices. These interconnections were not made with individual wires as in the past, but with multilaminate circuit boards containing many layers of plated interconnections. How close could these interconnections be without electrically interfering with one another? How long could they be before distortions in the electrical waveforms occurred? How wide should the interconnection lines be, how thin could the laminates be? These were some of the issues to be resolved.

Another area that I became a specialist in was the design of the master clocking system that controlled the sequence of all the operations in a computing system. The master clock had to supply a carefully shaped, highly regulated clock pulse to almost every device in the system. Fortunately, there were now new design tools available. Computer simulation programs made it possible to predict the shape of electrical signals and the distortions they received under a variety of conditions. Instead of solely using lab tests to design and optimize circuits and their interconnections, much of this could now be done on the computer. In a sense, computers were being used to breed new computers.

The new technology also gave rise to a number of temperature problems. I spent a whole month in a temperature-controlled chamber wearing hat, gloves and overcoat investigating why a particular computer made errors in the first few minutes after it was first turned on in a 40oF room. (The designers never envisioned operation under such conditions, but in Japan it was apparently common to operate a computer this way.) The problem was receiving a lot of attention and people were constantly coming to the lab to find out how things were progressing. When I was outside the chamber analyzing data, and saw someone approaching I didn't particularly want to talk to, I would quickly jump inside the chamber and remain there until they left. (The chamber had a glass window but was soundproof and had no means of communicating with the outside.)

And lastly, the new LSI technology introduced a myriad of new electrical noise problems. Whenever a malfunction could not otherwise be explained, it was blamed on noise, a safe assertion because it was very difficult to prove whether it was really that or not. But it put an engineer like myself in the defensive position of constantly trying to prove that the problem was not noise but something else. Nothing was more dreaded than the phone call that went "John, come down to the lab, I think we've got a noise problem".

The frustrating thing about noise problems were their unpredictability. In around-the-clock operation of a system under test, noise might cause an error to occur only once every several days, statistically a very small percentage of time, but totally unacceptable for computer usage. What would cause a computer to perform billions of operations correctly, make a single error, then perform billions of more operations correctly? I had observed noise before in my work in magnetic memories, where the signal received from the recording media was often smaller than the surrounding noise. (Data recovery techniques made it possible to operate error-free even under such conditions.). The noise could come through the air from fluorescent lights, for example, or from electrical equipment through the 60 cycle electrical outlets. I once startled a fellow employee, who worked in a lab some distance down the hall, by telling him exactly when he had turned his test equipment on that morning. (I had recognized the engineer's signal patterns superimposed on his own magnetically-recorded signals.) So its easy to see how a computer error might be the result of something as innocuous as turning on a coffee pot and a desk light in just the right sequence to induce enough noise to cause a marginal circuit to make a single error.

In addition, the new LSI technology brought with it its own new sources of noise. Since the LSI devices contained thousands of circuits, they had to be housed in packages containing dozens of pins in order to carry the various electrical signals into and out of the device. This gave rise to a whole new source of noise. In addition, the higher speeds of the new technology only made all the previous noise sources more severe. In many respects, it seemed a miracle that the computers worked at all considering the enormous number of components involved and the endless number of things that could cause errors to occur. But work they did as the problems were overcome one by one.

Problems in the corporate structure could not be so easily solved, however. The company had been acquired in a hostile takeover by another computer company. The resulting company was hopelessly in debt, and the computer market was contracting. Layoffs and plant closings were rampant. Then one day the word came down, the engineering division that I had worked in for over 30 years would begin closing down in six months. There were no thank-you or farewell parties for the years of devoted effort. Because of my involvement in a number of critical areas, I was one of the last to go.

On my last day, I stayed until most of the others had left for the day. As I walked down the hall toward the exit door for the last time, I was a bit sad. But I was also happy about all that life had given me. I had been a key designer in the world's first transistorized computer, ushering in a whole new area of technology that would profoundly affect our society. My career had taken me from vacuum tubes, to transistors, to integrated circuits, to LSI, and into many types of circuit designs and challenging problems. There was hardly a circuit in the computer that he had not touched on in one way or another. I had been in the right technology at the right time, and had been told from several sources that I was considered the company's top circuit engineer. It was time to depart.

<<< The Academic Years, 1945 - 1952

The Post Career Years, 1990 - >>>

The Post Career Years, 1990 -

Retirement gave me much more time for physical activities. I began playing tennis on a daily basis, swam every day during the summer, and took extensive walks throughout the year. One day while in the checkout line at the grocery store, I noticed that the checkout clerk had a textbook on circuit analysis. Upon inquiring, I found out that the clerk was a community college engineering student who was about to flunk out because of poor grades. I offered to help him, and thus began a new career.

For the next two years, I tutored my student in math, physics and engineering, often several times a week. Since the student worked full time (with frequent overtime) while going to school full-time, his study time had to be used very efficiently. So I sat with him while he did much of his homework so that instant help was available and erroneous thinking could be immediately corrected. For exams, I coached him on what was important, and what was not so important. Grades rose from D's and F's, to B's and C's, and eventually he was able to graduate. Graduation day was a proud event for both of us. My student maintained contact with me for many years thereafter, even though he had moved out of the area.

I also began tutoring other engineering students at a local college, and was even offered a staff teaching position which I turned down. In addition to young students, I began tutoring older adults who wanted to improve their math skills in order to pass the GED exam, or to prepare for entrance exams in various fields. This was done as part of an adult tutoring program done at the public library. I later wrote an extensive math learning guide for other tutors and students to use. The program coordinator was very impressed and took steps to have it published.

The tutoring work in general was a bit erratic, however. Math is a difficult subject to learn for many adults, and study time is usually limited. While some people could be dramatically helped, most found it difficult to devote the necessary time and effort required. And college students seemed to need help in spurts, usually at the last minute before an exam, making it difficult to maintain continuity in a subject.

So I decided to drop tutoring all together, but then someone suggested I look into the needs of the public schools. The high school he inquired at had no interest in free tutors, but when I contacted the grade schools they were more than happy to have some help. So I began tutoring fifth and sixth graders one day a week. After a few sessions, they asked if I could come in two days a week. Then they asked if I could come in three days a week and take third and fourth graders as well. And finally they said there were first and second graders they would like me to work with, and could I make it four or even five days a week. I was apprehensive at first that the teachers would resent my presence, but it was just the opposite. The feedback that I got was that not only were my students doing better in math, but they were also gaining more self esteem overall. Students who had rarely spoken up in class were raising their hand and speaking with confidence. And the next year, with my going full time right from the start, the results were equally impressive. At the end of each school year, the teachers took up a pool to buy me an expensive present, but the gift that meant the most were the student successes.

In addition to tutoring, I became very active in environmental activities. I joined an environmental group and before long was its vice-president, then president and finally the executive director. The group sponsored environmental talks and exhibits, was active in the early recycling movement, and carried out a number of environmental projects. For nearly two years, I spent several days a week emptying cans that had been placed in shopping centers for the collection of household batteries, which at that time contained heavy metals that would add toxins to landfills had they been disposed of in the regular trash. I also printed a pamphlet on where to recycle items not covered by the normal curbside recycling program, and organized the cleanup of trash from nearby streams and parks.

I also was appointed to his township's environmental advisory committee. In this capacity I contributed to the writing of a tree ordinance and no-smoking regulations, was active in obtaining state funds to plant more trees in the area, and served as a watchdog for maintaining high environmental standards in the township. I wrote a monthly environmental column for a local newspaper, and had several environmental articles published in local papers, including the Philadelphia Inquirer.

When a townwatch committee was under consideration, I distributed nearly 400 flyers door-to-door urging residents to participation in the program. And when an acquaintance of mine decided to run for a state congressional seat, I delivered over 300 campaign flyers door-to-door in my friends behalf. Both efforts were successful.

But in May, 1996, tragedy struck -- Ruth, suffered a stroke. There was severe brain damage and she required 24-hour care, and I was the sole care giver. Despite the confinement this entailed, I found plenty to keep me active.

One project that required my immediate attention was learning how to cook and handle food. My first meals were taken from a 60 year old boy scout manual, but gradually I began experimenting with recipes and cooking methods of my own. This led to an intensive study of food and nutrition. I compiled a detailed record of the nutritional content of all the foods they were eating. In conjunction with a study of the recommendations of experts in the field (I subscribed to five medical newsletters), I began adjusting my diet and eating habits to achieve optimum nutritional health.

Another project that required my attention was an analysis of our finances. I made a detailed study of the role of stocks, bonds and cash reserves in financial planning, and the best means of investing in these areas. In order to implement an investment strategy, I made a detailed analysis of our expenses over the past several years. This study caused me to question and reconsider many of our expenses, particularly insurance policies -- what they covered, what was needed, what other companies were offering, etc.

One of my new responsibilities in the role of sole caretaker involved cleaning the house. It soon became clear that this task would be much simpler if the amount of knick-knacks and bric-a-brac that required individual cleaning could be reduced. There were also closets and a large attic filled with rarely-used items (many of which had not been touched in over 30 years) that made cleaning difficult. I therefore engaged in a "downsizing" campaign to get rid of everything that did not have a reasonable expectation of being used in the foreseeable future. By investigating which consignment and second-hand outlets offered the best return, I was able to make this a very profitable venture. Sadly though, it was becoming more and more apparent that long-term considerations and short-term considerations were becoming one and the same, that old age was really here.

In addition to making the inside of the house easier to maintain, I also began making the outside of the house easier to maintain. Hedges and bushes that were difficult to prune were removed. The yard was reshaped so that grass cutting and leaf raking would be simpler. Vegetation that required a lot of attention was removed or severely cut back.

As these projects reached completion, I was able to expand my interest in vegetable gardening.

This biographical sketch was written for the benefit of my children, grandchildren and their generations to come, and for all those who shared in my life.

<<< The Career Years, 1953 - 1989