Navy Radar Training launched a career in IT
Bruce W. Arden spent part of his childhood on a Kansas farm with no indoor plumbing or electricity. At 17, in 1944, he enlisted in the US Navy and learned the elements of electronics as a radar technician.
“Luck introduced me to digital computing,” he wrote in a memoir offered to his friends and family. After WWII, in the Allison division of General Motors,
he helped design parts for jet engines and went from slide rules to an IBM board-programmed calculator. “My responsibility was to make it work,” he recalls.
Later, at the University of Michigan, he used a mainframe computer to calculate the trajectories of Boeing missiles. He also helped the university find more efficient ways for researchers to write programs and share processing and memory resources on a mainframe. In 1959, along with two colleagues, he created the Michigan Algorithm Decoder, used to convert language that is meaningful to people into instructions that a computer can read.
“My efforts were mainly aimed at making programming more accessible to non-specialists,” he wrote.
He has chaired departments of computer science at the University of Michigan and Princeton University, and was dean of the University of Rochester. Among his students at Princeton was Eric Schmidt, later CEO of Google, who described the professor as “one of the founders of IT.”
Dr. Arden died on December 8 in Livonia, Michigan. He was 94 years old.
Bruce Wesley Arden was born May 29, 1927 in Minneapolis. His father, John Wesley Arden, was an accountant who went on to work for International Business Machines Corp.
and other companies. (The eldest, Mr. Arden, had concluded that there were too many John Anderson in Swedish-American communities and changed the last name to Arden.)
Bruce Arden’s mother, Clare Newton Arden, who grew up in part on the Chinese island of Hainan as the daughter of a Presbyterian missionary, was a science teacher and aspiring novelist. She resented traditional notions that women should devote their lives to housework. When Bruce was about 5 years old, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, subjected to a prefrontal lobotomy and confined to mental institutions.
Bruce and an older brother were “brought up,” as he put it – sent to live with relatives on a farm near Salina, Kan. There he encountered dust storms, swarms of grasshoppers, and a weekly bathing ritual involving shared water in a metal tub on the kitchen floor. The water in his bedroom sink sometimes froze during the night.
Each evening, using a kerosene lamp, her great-grandfather read aloud passages from the Bible in Swedish.
Overall, it was a 19th century existence, recalls Dr. Arden.
When he was 8, he and his brother were put on a train and sent to live with their father and new wife in Bloomfield, NJ. The family also lived in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, and Wilmington, Del., While Bruce was growing up. He fondly remembers a teacher who “brought Caesar’s wars to life by standing on the desk with a helmet, short sword and shield while fighting barbarians in Latin”.
Eager for his own adventures, he enrolled in a Navy program offering training in radar technology, which he completed at the end of World War II. The Navy deployed it to an outpost on Kodiak Island in Alaska, where post-war perils included bears and a lack of human company.
After his release from the Navy in 1946, GI Bill helped pay for his education at Purdue University, where he earned a degree in electrical engineering. He met Patricia Ann Joy, pianist, and they married in 1951.
Work at a University of Michigan research center, where a mainframe was being designed and built, placed him at the forefront of the digital age. While working for the university, he obtained a master’s degree in mathematics and a doctorate. in electrical engineering.
In the late 1950s, he developed the Michigan Algorithm Decoder with Robert M. Graham and Bernard Galler. The set-top box was known as MAD, and the cover of one of the early textbooks mimicked the look of another MAD, the humorous magazine. The set-top box was used for decades, until personal computers supplanted mainframe computers for most tasks.
In the early 1960s, before computer science was established as a subject of university study, Dr. Arden wrote a textbook called “An Introduction to Digital Computing”.
In the late 1960s, he chaired a National Academy of Sciences committee to examine computer technology supporting America’s anti-ballistic missile system. It was not certain that the computers would be able to identify all the dangerous objects rushing towards the nation. “It’s possible to believe that it didn’t make any difference if the ABM defense worked, as long as the other side believed it possible,” he later wrote.
Towards the end of his career, in his late 60s, Dr. Arden cycled over 7 miles to work.
His wife, Patricia Arden, died in 2003.
Although he had devoted his career to exploring new uses for computers, Dr. Arden was skeptical of matchmaking services on the Internet. His daughter, Michelle Arden, persuaded him to try one. As a result, he met Peggy Greif. They got married at the end of 2004.
She survives him, along with his daughter, one son, Wayne Arden, and two grandchildren.
Write to James R. Hagerty at [email protected]
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