Arvid Jacobson

On June 22nd and 23rd, 1954, several dozen representatives from the US government, academia, and the major computer manufacturers met at Wayne University in Detroit, Michigan. They were all there to discuss the problem of recruiting, training, utilizing, and retaining personnel to operate computers. I’ll write more later about the content of the conference proceedings, which are fascinating, but the first thing that struck me was the impressive list of attendees. It read like a who’s who list of 1950s computing:

And a number of other representatives from institutions like RAND, MIT, Harvard, General Electric, Remington Rand, and the US Air Force. It was not just teachers, industrial developers, or academics but a wide range of people with a stake in what the future workforce of computer operators would look like.

As I read the marginalia around the proceedings, I noticed that the conference was organized by Arvid W. Jacobson, an Associate Professor of Math and the Director of Wayne’s Computation Laboratory. This wasn’t a name I recognized, so I started looking to see who it was that had pulled all these luminaries into one place.

The very first thing that I discovered was an article describing how he was arrested by the Finnish government for espionage charges. Apparently he was a communist and spied for the USSR while in graduate school in Finland!

His wikipedia page expands on the story. The most interesting detail they provide was that a Soviet agent recommended against using him as an agent “because of his truculent temperament and the fact that he was missing fingers on one hand.” Wow!

I couldn’t find anything about his life after he returned to the US in 1935, but it’s pretty intriguing that by the middle 1950s he was organizing a significant conference with many representatives from the US government and corporate industry. I’m imagining a story of Cold War high espionage, but it’s more likely a pretty standard story of academic community building. I searched Google scholar for anything on his research, but only turned up two patents that don’t seem related to computing. The Wayne State Library archives have some material about the “Computing and Data Processing Center” which he directed, but they aren’t digitized. Then I found a memoir from Harvey Cohn that contained much more details:

Arvid Jacobson, who pursued applied mathematics with literally religious zeal for what he called “industrial community service.” His career was extraordinary. He spoke with an accent acquired from a Finnish-speaking community in northern Michigan. He became involved with, but later renounced, Communism, after a disastrous imprisonment in Finland. He then returned to Christianity with messianic zeal, always speaking of “spiritual leadership and community service” with a combination of religious and secular meanings.

Cohn goes on to describe the people that Jacobson was able to attract to Wayne State, including Harry Husky (which explains his presence at this conference). He also mentions that Joseph Weizenbaum of Eliza fame was there, but appears to have been a grad student who got his MS at Wayne State in 1950. He concludes by saying that “Jacobson quit in despair, and went into private consulting in 1959. He summed up his career as “pushing a great big sponge.”

What a fascinating character. If anyone knows any more about Arvid Jacobson I would love to hear from you.