Arthur Norberg: Setting an Impactful, Lasting Course of Research, Archives, and Oral History Infrastructure for Computing History (1938-2021)

Editor’s/Author’s Note: This biography keeps with Bits & Bytes style of less formal (non-scholarly) articles and with recognition that CBI Senior Research Fellow William (Bill) Aspray wrote a wonderful 5,000 word plus formal biography of Arthur Norberg for IEEE Annals of the History of Computing. Bill’s biography covers Arthur’s life in a far greater degree of depth, and he knew Arthur best, a colleague and close friend of his for more than 40 years. I had the privilege of working as Arthur’s Associate Director of CBI from 1999 to 2006, his second tenure as CBI Director. Bill and I did a 2006 oral history with Arthur in two sessions, in Chicago and Minneapolis. Bill interviewed him on his early life, education, family, his first tenure directing CBI, and years teaching full time before returning to CBI, and I took the reins as interviewer covering his second tenure directing CBI. In this short biography, I focus on the CBI years, with brief sketches on earlier life, education, and other professional positions. It essentially is a braided blend of short career biography and my personal reflections. I strongly urge readers to seek out and read Bill’s richly insightful and deeply researched biography to appear in a future issue of IEEE Annals. (Please check CBI’s website for an announcement.). Bill, Tom Misa, Arthur, and I have long had overlapping views (and have had many conversations) on CBI’s primary mission as infrastructure. Other elements, while very important, generally are in part also strengthening infrastructure for computing history/study (local and global). I benefited significantly from reading a draft of Bill’s excellent article.

For the history of computing to gain traction, momentum, and thrive required vision and infrastructure. On September 9th, 2021, we lost one of the pioneering figures so critical to this with the passing of Arthur L. Norberg to cancer.

In the late 1970s, partially overlapping but largely independent small groups of industrialists and computer scientists pushed to assure their heritage would not be lost. This mobilization and associated fundraising soon led to the formation of much evolving and somewhat differently focused institutional infrastructure: the Charles Babbage Institute (CBI), the Charles Babbage Foundation (CBF), the Annals of the History of Computing, and the Computer History Museum of Boston. The Computer History Museum moved to Silicon Valley (“Visible Storage” by invite in a hanger of Moffett Field) in the 1990s as a collection, and to its home in the early 2000s in Mountain View, a breathtaking and important museum, appropriately at 1401 N. Shoreline Blvd. As a museum in Boston and in California, it has focused on artifacts, exhibits, and education, hiring professional historians as employees only in recent years, and a few historian consultants earlier in the 2000s. The Annals began a journey as an American Federation of Information Processing Society’s (AFIPS) journal (later an IEEE journal) with computer scientist editors-in-chiefs, resulting in internal-type articles and “firsts” dominating the content of its first two decades. Conversely, from its very start in 1980, as a physical institute (an idea and office a few years earlier) at University of Minnesota, CBI was all about scholarship, doctoral education and fellowships, and the underlying archival, oral history, reference services, and mentoring infrastructure to allow scholarship to thrive.

Over time, CBI, CHM, and Annals have overlapped partially in domains and programs in helpful, cooperative, and complementary fashion. CHM has grown beyond just being the top IT museum in the world (incredible artifacts, and permanent and thematic exhibits) to include very extensive and impressive programming, most of it more popular, and a portion of it, academically oriented. It now also possesses a substantial, and like us, fast growing archives. Annals evolved into the premier academic history of computing journal. Arthur served as Annals’ Associate EIC, as did CBI Associate Director Dr. Anne Fitzpatrick, and significantly later, I served as its EIC. While all of these institutions are incredibly important, CBI launched and made possible a new academic field in the 1980s and helped it greatly thrive and accelerate ever since.

At the start, advised by some top historians and curators at Harvard and the Smithsonian Institution, CBI’s and CBF’s (a supporting funding and advisory foundation to CBI) founder Erwin Tomash appointed a decision committee to issue an RFP and lead a competition for site selection for a university home for an institute/research center. The University of Minnesota, with its thriving History of Science and Technology PhD Program, an insightful leader of this Program in Prof. Roger Stuewer, and a top 15 academic research library (and even higher in special collections and archives) in University Libraries (UMN’s UL) fully on board to partner, became the first and only home of CBI. It beat out a substantial number of other top schools. Minnesota’s IT industry was still very prominent with Control Data, Cray Research, Sperry Univac (soon to be Unisys and later a part of Lockheed Martin here), Honeywell, etc. It, however, was less Minnesota’s rich industrial lineage or present state, than the very strong dual commitment and partnership of HST and UL, and Roger’s extensive and deeply impressive proposal. The time, thoughtfulness, and care Roger put into this really stood out, it was truly exemplary. Roger aggressively recruited Arthur away from the National Science Foundation (NSF), where he was a Program Officer. Arthur, recognizing the opportunity to make CBI the key and needed academic and archival institution and infrastructure, with great foresight, made the most of it. He established CBI with some core focal points and programs that set it on its impactful course that is important to this day: archives, research/publishing, oral history, doctoral fellowships, service, and grants. He and CBI launched a future for computing’s past, making the academic history of computing an important research domain!

Norberg 1986
Arthur Norberg giving a presentation at the 40th anniversary of ERA in 1986.

Arthur was born in Providence, Rhode Island, attended private school on scholarship, and completed a degree in physics from Providence College, having to turn down an offer to Brown University due to lack of funds. While beginning a doctorate in physics from University of Vermont, he grew disillusioned with this path, was supporting a family by this time, and secured a job at Westinghouse. He did not like working in industry and returned to the University of Vermont, where a faculty member suggested to him the history of science as an area given his interests, a doctoral degree field generally only offered at some large, standout research universities. He attended one of the best in history of science at that time, the University of Wisconsin, writing a dissertation, under primary advisor Prof. Daniel Siegel, on Canadian American astronomer and mathematician Simon Newcomb.

With a PhD fresh in hand, the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley hired Arthur to direct the History of Science Office. His duties focused on conducting oral histories and collecting archives on science and technology. Oral history was something that Arthur took to and perfected early, which became a key cornerstone of the many impressive things he did for CBI.

Arthur left the position at the Bancroft to become a program officer in science and technology ethics at the NSF, where he served for two years. Initially a rotator with term appointment, NSF offered him a continuing post. Stuewer, however, recruited Arthur away for the permanent CBI Director position, a search he led while serving as CBI’s Acting Director in 1980. Roger knew Arthur from the History of Science Society Council and was impressed with his leadership and intellect. As computing history generally was not really an area of focus yet for historians of science and technology (with several exceptions), the right academic and management skills, and background were what Roger sought. Arthur, with his Bancroft Library and NSF experience, and service within the History of Science Society, fit well. In 1980, UMN’s Institute of Technology/College of Science and Engineering hired Arthur as Associate Professor of Computer Science and of History of Science and Technology. He later became the first holder of the ERA Land Grant Chair in HST.

From the 1980 launch of CBI at University of Minnesota until 1989, the Charles Babbage Foundation and AFIPS (which provided a portion of annual funds) had a partial governance or oversight role. In 1989, revised documents on official governance clarified CBI only reported within the UMN Institute of Technology, which was later renamed the College of Science and Engineering.

The 1980s dual reporting led to challenges as some influential leaders on the CBF Board (and often those with leadership roles within AFIPS), pushed for indiscriminate collecting rather than targeted collecting, and for collecting over research. Arthur battled this and forcefully stood up for research being critical to the enterprise. He always framed it as engaging in the historian’s craft effectively informs collecting. This is very true. It has proven itself time-and-again in CBI’s history. Perhaps not articulated initially, but something Arthur (and Bill and I learned) research, associated networking, and oral history set up some of CBI’s important collection development opportunities, which we in turn forwarded to the CBI Archivist/Curator. CBI’s tremendous Archivists/Curators, past and present, also network and create important and impactful collecting opportunities, contribute to archival practice and theory scholarship, instruct class sessions, design exhibits, aid researchers, and much more. The synergies of the research and archives are incredibly abundant and profound and have been key to CBI’s success for 40 plus years.

It was initially just Arthur until he hired Bill Aspray as Associate Director in 1983 and worked with UL as it hired Bruce Bruemmer as CBI Archivist the following year. This leadership triumvirate helped build the infrastructure for the field in the 1980s, all in a highly impressive way. Arthur secured NSF and National Endowment for the Humanities grants and studied the Minnesota computing history of Engineering Research Associates, a pioneering digital computing firm, along with Eckert-Mauchly, the first digital computer firms, both taken over by Remington Rand in the early 1950s. This became Sperry Rand, and its computer division, Sperry Univac, in 1955, with Remington Rand’s merger with Sperry Corporation. The history of these companies, this industrial genealogy, was the basis for Arthur’s book Computers and Commerce, published in 2005, long after he had completed much of the research, as other projects and contracts became more pressing priorities. Arthur set the culture of putting CBI first, which we all have done, on both the archives and research sides, as we see all that key infrastructure yields in transforming possibilities for a field (or now, interdisciplinary fields). Time to get back to earlier individual scholarly work generally materializes at some point down the road.

In the 1980s, Bill’s research led to important grants and publications. Bruce’s aggressive collecting resulted in corporate records of major companies such as Burroughs and Control Data, technical and professional association records like (IBM) SHARE, Inc. and the Data Processing Management Association, and personal papers of influential scientists, including ACM cofounder Edmund Berkeley, and Margaret Fox, Betty Holberton, Alan Perlis, Willis Ware, and many more.

Above all, what funneled Arthur’s publication focus away from Minnesota’s industry history for a time was his securing of a transformational $600,000 DARPA contract for CBI, one to study how the agency’s Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) funded a revolution in key areas of computer science (AI, graphics, time-sharing, and networking/ARPANET/Internet) between the early 1960s and mid-1980s. This became Arthur and Judy O’Neill’s Transforming Computer Technology, published in 1996. With this landmark book published by Johns Hopkins University Press, Arthur became a full professor. It was a project in which Arthur, Bill Aspray (prior to his departure at end of the 1980s to become Director of the IEEE History Center at Rutgers), and Judy O’Neill conducted many dozens of frequently downloaded and cited oral histories. These were interviews with key pioneers (from J.C.R. Licklider, Ivan Sutherland, Marvin Minsky, Allen Newell, Fernando Corbato, and Alan Kay to Edward Feigenbaum, Paul Baran, Leonard Kleinrock, Vinton Cerf, Bob Kahn, etc.), many Turing Award recipients among them. Arthur and Bill jointly conducted the only true oral history with Licklider, a rich and lengthy transcript his biographer, noted science writer Mitchell Waldrup, credits as critical to his popular and impressive book, The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and The Revolution That Made Computing Personal (Penguin 2001). It is a very special example, but also is one of many, where our research and oral histories made the research of others—scholars, students, journalists, etc.—possible.

Norberg lecturing
One of many HST lectures given by Prof. Norberg ca. early 1980s.

Arthur was dedicated to excellence in the classroom and taught history of technology and history of computing courses primarily. He served in multiple stints as HST’s Director of Graduate Studies and Director of Undergraduate Studies, and briefly as Acting HST Director as well, all with great distinction.

Very formal in dress and manners, Arthur had a forceful, authoritative, confident exterior that resonated with most of the CEOs, VPs, and top computer scientists. He was a wine connoisseur, enjoyed fine dining, socializing, and was a captivating storyteller. The graduate students who studied under him, perhaps slightly intimidated by his personality at first, soon recognized a very caring, helpful, and supportive mentor.

Bill Aspray has emphasized how Arthur shielded him from much of the politics, administration, and finance, to free up Bill’s professional development and research time as a historian. In my case, I took on much of these managerial tasks as I had already been doing them under the prior CBI Director, Bob Seidel, who I worked under for 10 months, before Bob rotated back to teach full time and Arthur rotated back to the CBI Directorship in 1999. Arthur believed in participatory management and I gained extensive managerial experience and am grateful for this.  

With his technical background, Arthur often favored a more technically-oriented type of history in his own research, and this was also evident in his style for conducting oral histories, a quite interventionist approach where he was quickly interjecting questions to clarify and make as precise as possible. With my greater background and interest in social and cultural history, and different style of oral history interviewing (encouraging longer narrative before follow-ups), Arthur was always supportive. This was one of his great qualities, helping students and young academics but recognizing and appreciating different styles, methods and paths.

With our different focal points and approaches, we were often working on different individual projects. Early in his second tenure, he was co-editor of History of Computing: Software Issues. This was an important volume. It theorized on early software history and historiography and was a greatly needed early foray into this domain.

We, however, did team up some and it was always a great pleasure. With regard to an event, Arthur, Martin Campbell-Kelly, and I organized a major CBI conference at Xerox PARC in 2000, Unbundling History: The Emergence of the Software Product. With industry speakers like Watts Humphrey, Martin Goetz, and Burt Grad and top historians such as Steven Usselman, it along with our NSF grant on software I drafted and then led as PI-PD, really gave boost to CBI’s already impressive research and collecting in software history.

In terms of publications, I also teamed up with Arthur for project on IBM Rochester for its 50th anniversary, which resulted in our IBM Rochester a Half Century of Innovation. It was archival (informal archives on site at IBM Rochester) and oral history based, and I really enjoyed the dozen or so trips to Rochester and working on this roughly 5-month research and writing project with Arthur. While our ideas on history and historiography differed somewhat there was overlap to a degree with business history. The technical R&D understanding Arthur brought to the IBM Rochester research, analysis, and writing, coupled with my interest in business strategy, manufacturing, and labor complemented very well for this project. Most important, it was a tremendous pleasure collaborating with and learning from Arthur. It was his second to last year at CBI, as he retired in 2006.

In his first few years of retirement, Arthur did several oral histories for ACM and came to CBI to prepare. He was always there for new CBI Director Tom Misa to consult for several years if needed, but also conscious to let go of the institute and enjoy retirement. Sadly, after a couple years, Arthur truly retired from the profession and distanced himself from professional colleagues (Bill was a close friend and remained in touch throughout his life), including us from CBI and HSTM at the University of Minnesota. He took joy in his new relationship and multigenerational household, and reading outside of history more, though he always was a voracious reader and rarely watched television, retirement lent itself to his reading all the more.

Arthur was a generous, politically astute, skilled manager, dedicated professor, and talented historian. Most important, he set CBI on fruitful and impactful path with research, archives, oral history, fellowships, and grants. He thrived and he helped others thrive. Our archives are unparalleled, our fellows are many of the field’s leaders today, our scholarship extensive and influential, and by far most meaningful, the number of students and scholars’ work we have aided is of incredible scale and scope. We have a greater interdisciplinary mission and programmatic focus now, one targeted to the social, political, and cultural, to the diverse producers, maintainers, users, and landscapes of our digital world. The paths and contours of earlier programming and infrastructure, however, remains an everlasting, bright beacon. We have Arthur to thank.

Jeffrey R. Yost


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