Commemorating the Sixth Anniversary of the Curmudgeonly Professor Blog: My second post in November 2007, with comments on the Kennedy assassination the day of my doctoral dissertation defense at the University of Michigan
When I was in graduate school at the University of Michigan in the mid-1950s the ultimate in calculators was the sleek little Monroematic which was deemed a major step up from the old cumbersome Fridens. By l963 when I returned to Michigan to complete my degree so that I wouldn't have to work for the Treasury for the rest of my life, the university had installed the wondrous IBM 650 computer which consisted of a large room full of flashing vacuum tubes. I was working on a doctoral dissertation on estimating travel demand for various travel modes based on survey results from the Survey Research Center, where I had a research assistantship. Data entry required copying numbers by hand on large spreadsheets, and then giving these spreadsheets to a keypunch operator. Skilled keypunch operators were highly valued people because you couldn't proceed without them. The IBM punchcards then had to be hauled to the marvelous IBM 650 computer to feed it the data. I remember hauling heavy boxes of IBM punchcards across the snowy and icy campus and needing to stop and put my load down several times before I arrived at the computer center. Then the 650, the marvel of the ages, chomped up the data and calculated all of my estimating equations and fed me the results. This beat the heck out of trying to solve multiple simultaneous equations on the Monroematic. Although one night I stayed all night for my results, since grad students were low priority users. Lightening shorted the computer at 4:30 a.m., and so another evening must be spent recalculating the results. For the annual Michigan economic forecast, at least 23 simultaneous equations had to be solved in a 23 x 23 matrix, more or less. I was told when I started my doctoral work at Michigan that the legendary Arty Goldberger could do this in less than 24 hours on the Monroematic and the lowly grad students brought the coffee to keep him going. One mistake and you're dead; you have to start all over again. It took me half the winter to code the survey results by hand on spreadsheets for my dissertation research, and even more time to recalculate equations which I had messed up.
Now it was time to write the dissertation. In high school I learned to type on an old upright L.C. Smith typewriter, and by the time I was a senior I bought a Royal portable, which was my pride and joy. When I arrived at Michigan to finish my dissertation in 1962, I bought a wonderful IBM Selectric II typewriter which I could type 80 or 90 words per minute on, not counting mistakes. Velna, my wife, typed dissertations for other students at night while our four kids were crammed into two bunk beds in our two-bedroom student apartment after she had worked all day on campus. We typed all of the dozens and dozens of statistical tables with the results cranked out by the IBM 650 computer and all of the pages of text. Then my esteemed committee picked it apart and we typed it all again. And again. And then, we thought it was finished and one of my professors got off the boat from a time spent in Greece, looked at the table of contents and said, "Put this here, and put that there, and what in the world do you think you're doing with this organization?" This situation was not a democratic one, so what choice did we have? If you have mistake on page 3 that changes the sequence of the following hundreds of pages, you crank the whole blasted thing out again. And not without complaints.
And then, I came back to Ann Arbor from Penn State, where I had accepted a faculty position, on November 22, 1963 for my final oral defense of my dissertation. I remember someone asked me the fatal question as to whether I had made an original contribution to knowledge. Holy cow. Someone else kindly intervened and said that if we expected all doctoral students to make original contributions to knowledge we would never award any Ph.D.s. So after I stumbled around for awhile with my embryonic knowledge of econometrics, I was excused while my fate was deliberated. When I went into the outer room, the secretary told me the President had been shot. I immediately went back to the examining room and told my faculty committee, knowing that some of them had been directly involved with the Kennedy administration. I had just spent a year at the Treasury, where I could watch Caroline ride her pony on the south lawn of the White House. No further deliberations took place. The orals were over. I was summarily told I had passed with no discussion. But there was no joy, no jubilation, no relief. Just sadness, long faces and teary eyes as a dark shroud covered the earth. I retrieved my eleven year old son who had come to Ann Arbor with me and drove through the brilliant autumn of the Pennsylvania hills back to State College, a palette of blazing colors lighting my way and reminding me that life must go on. I may have become a newly minted doctor of philosophy, but that accomplishment didn't seem to matter. To be continued.....