First-Hand:Edward E. David, Jr. (1925-2017): Personal Memories

Submitted by A. Michael Noll

February 15, 2017

© 2017 AMN

As a college student, I read the books about sound and hearing that were written by John R. Pierce and Edward E. David, Jr. The books were crystal clear, and John and Ed were my pinnacles of greatness at Bell Telephone Laboratories. Never then would I realize that I would actually work for them and get to know them well over the decades.

During the summer of 1962, after I had been hired as an apprentice engineer at Bell Labs, I had a summer rotational assignment working in a research area that was directed by Ed. Some of the people working in Ed’s directorate included Manfred R. Schroeder, James L. Flanagan, and Max V. Mathews. I was assigned to Manfred who reported to Ed, who reported directly to John Pierce, who reported to William O. Baker who was Vice President, Research.

I did a little experiment comparing a painting by Piet Mondrian with a computer-generated image and wrote a paper about the results of the experiment. Ed suggested to me the title of the paper “Human or Machine.” It was perfect. I remember a slide show in a conference room that Ed presented showing photographs he had taken on his trip along the Pacific Coast Highway in California. Ed was an avid amateur photographer. And we all who attended were fascinated and all longed to visit California. Decades later, I would make many trips up and down the PCH, always thinking of Ed.

Ed was a superb manager of research, and his talents were clearly obvious to Bill Baker. Baker believed strongly in computers as a tool for research and also computing as a topic for research. Accordingly, Baker created a new research area for computing and promoted Ed to be Executive Director of that new area, reporting directly to Baker. Those who would later invent the “C” programming language and the “Unix” operating system worked in Ed’s area. Ed was responsible for the development of the MULTICS time-shared operating system, which ultimately failed of its own complexity.

The inventor of the BEFLIX programming language, Kenneth C. Knowlton, and his colleague, Leon Harmon, programmed a large image of a pixilated nude. They hung the image in Ed’s new office in Building 3 while Ed was away on a business trip. Ed was impressed upon his return, but management felt a giant nude was not appropriate. A number of us removed the image, carted it down the stairwells, and it was transported in a trailer to the basement of Ed’s home.

Bill Baker spent much of his time in Washington advising presidents on science and technology. As just one example, he and Clark Clifford spent an afternoon with Richard Nixon. In 1970, Baker arranged for Ed to become Nixon’s Science Advisor. The science community was shocked that a relatively unknown engineer from an industrial R&D facility had become Science Advisor – a post usually reserved for pure scientists from the academic world. I see now that Ed with his knowledge of computing was a perfect champion of Baker’s advocacy of the increased use of digital computers by the intelligence community and government.

Baker arranged for me to join Ed in mid 1971 at Ed’s Office of Science and Technology (OST) in the Executive Office of the President. Much of my work at OST for Ed involved computers in such policy areas as the Cold War and security and privacy. Ed had a party at his DC home, and the electric fuse blew plunging his home into darkness. Ed and I went to the basement and were confused in replacing the fuse. I wondered why it took two doctors in engineering to replace one fuse!

William Ruckelshaus was head of the Environment Protection Agency under Nixon. Ed had a meeting with Ruckelshaus in the conference room in the old Executive Office Building to discuss EPA’s plans to tighten more strongly its regulation of aircraft emissions. Ed and the White House were opposed. After much discussion, Ed abruptly left the meeting disgusted with what he considered the bad science that EPA was using to justify the proposed new regulations. In the end, only Ruckelshaus, a few staffers, and I remained. Ruckelshaus took very strongly his responsibly as head of EPA to perform his regulatory duties. But Ed was quite correct in the lack of any real science behind what EPA wanted to do.

Nixon was very unhappy about the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC), which Ed and OST managed. After his landslide second term, Nixon decided to eliminate PSAC along with the office of the Science Advisor and OST. So in mid 1973, we were all without a job. Ed went to Gould, Inc. in Chicago to lead its R&D and planning as Executive Vice President and asked me to join him. I declined and returned to Bell Labs, which was a career blunder for me in the short term. I was told back then that Ed was offered to head the Atomic Energy Commission, which was slated to become a new Department of Energy, but Ed most likely had enough with Washington.

Ed ultimately left Gould and after a short term with his own consulting work, became President of Research and Engineering for Exxon. Ed planned and built a new R&D facility in Clinton, NJ, which he headed, for Exxon. I visited him there, and he was proud of the brand new facility. He wanted to show me a laboratory but did not have the key to the locked door. I chided him (tongue in cheek) that here he was in charge but did not have a master key! A guard had to be called with the key.

Ed left Exxon and retired to his farm in Bedminster, NJ, with his own consulting work. Nearly every summer, I would visit him. We had sandwiches at his home. We had lunch together at his favorite restaurant, The Tewsksbury Inn. As time progressed, I would drive, and his wife Ann would trust me with him. Ed had trouble walking, and his memory was failing. But we had grand times, which I will cherish, talking about Bell Labs and all our experiences. I would kid him about his huge “lawn” at the farm and ask whether he cut all the hay!

Ed invited me to join him on New Year’s Eve 2000 for a millennium party at an abandoned mine in northern New Jersey. Ed collected rocks and knew the owner of the mine. The party was a joke in that we would be locked in the mine to survive the expected millennium disaster when all technology was predicted to fail. There was many years’ worth of food and water to keep us all alive as we restarted humanity!

Ed was, in my opinion and small personal perspective, one of the three greats at Bell Labs along with Bill Baker and John Pierce. I have been honored to know them all over the years – they are all missed.

Ed David passed away peacefully at his home on February 13, 2017.