Article by Keio University Global Research Institute (KGRI)
This post is originally published on 【Interview】Professor David Farber (Part 1) – How one Child became the “Grandfather of the Internet”
Who set the stage for the information age we are living in now? This is the tale of a man who is sometimes called the “Grandfather of the Internet”–a critical player in the development of the Information Age as we know it today.
This is the story of David J. Farber, who arrived in Japan in April 2018 as the Distinguished Professor and Co-Director of the newly-established Cyber Civilization Research Center (CCRC) at Keio University, to continue his adventure in the exploration of the future of the Internet.
To celebrate his election in late 2018 as a AAAS Fellow of the Council of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, this story explores and uncovers Farber’s incredible journey–the serendipity of his circumstances, coming of age in the early stage of cyber civilization.
For this article, Professor Jiro Kokuryo from Keio University sat down with Farber to listen to his life story.
*Jiro Kokuryo: Vice-President / Professor, Faculty of Policy management
David Farber’s AAAS Fellow certificate
Growing up in the Early 40’s
Farber still vividly remembers two things from these early days: the time he had a very bad case of pneumonia, and the exact day in 1942, when he heard on the radio about Pearl Harbor.
“Those days are very vague,” Farber reflects. “I was very young and remembered only a few snippets of it.”
First Encounter with Electronics
Farber says he didn’t find anything very interesting, “but it was still my introduction to electronics.”
Other things that got him interested in electronics were the early television his family had and the “Heathkits” that were available at the time. “It was a kit that you could use to build your own radio. And a good thing about it is that it had a manual that told us why it worked. And they were easy to build, and affordable.” He says those kits vanished not long after that time. “Boy, I miss seeing that now. There is no equivalent thing that I can find.”
This Heathkit was, for the young Farber and for the people who were interested in radio and technology in those days, a big introduction to the world of modern technology.
Farber in his Teens – from High School to University
“Back then, I wanted to be a cosmologist.” He was inspired by books on cosmology and the Hayden Planetarium, “But in the end, I gave up, partly because I was convinced by a school counselor saying it was not a good idea for earning a living. But to this day, astronomy and cosmology remain an area of interest for me.”
In high school, he excelled at mathematics. He used Boolean algebra for a literature term paper assignment, by analyzing an author with Boolean logics. As Boolean algebra is one of the first steps in learning computing architecture, this episode shows how he was unwittingly already getting into the field of computing.
As Farber neared graduation and started to think about college, “I had to worry about tuition, because my family had no way to afford college.” He explains how he started a weekend job at a grocery store which he did during the last two years of high school.
“I earned enough for one year in college, although once I was admitted to college, my aunt offered to help with my tuition because I was the first kid in our family to get into college.”
Farber’s Days at Stevens
It turned out that Stevens was an excellent general engineering school.
“You’ve got a little bit of everything, including how to weld, how to do gears, cast the gears, machine the gears, the whole deal. And I found that all really interesting, even though I didn’t get near it in my future career. I understood how things are built, and we had to actually build these things.” Academically, he performed well. “As I moved [to a dormitory] on campus, I also learned a lot from fraternity. Living with a bunch of people had a major impact on me socially.”
Introduction to Computers – From Analog to Digital
“I got the job with a guy named Detrich Wally, who had built the world’s first transistor analog computer,” says Farber. “It was in the days when air-conditioners were scarce,” he says. “Let alone my fraternity house in Washington, even the navy building didn’t have AC, except two rooms: the cryptographic room and the lab, to protect the transistor from burning up. So, I spent a lot of time in the lab, talking with Detrich and others.”
“Analog computers are strange things. You needed to be very sensitive to electrical ground levels.” He recalls the first test-run they had gone through. “We got this beautiful curve, except that it was not what we should have gotten. Then we saw a little squiggle up there; that was what we wanted, the rest was the ground noise.”
Farber says he spent a huge amount of time learning about analog computers. “And that got me interested in the possibilities of computing. Although it was an analog computer with limited capacity, it was still a valuable thing.”
Building a Digital Computer
“We talked to a chemistry professor, who had an idea of an automatic chemical analyzer…. Our senior thesis was to build it, make it work. So, we tried making it. And much to my astonishment, we built a relay-controlled computer with an input of a huge punch card. It actually worked and was used for years after that,” says Farber.
“And the serendipity of that moment, that probably made my future.” Farber, now 84 years old, looks back fondly to that particular day when, as a 22-year-old, his life would irrevocably change course.
Photo courtesy of David Farber (except 1st and 3rd photos)