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Oral-History:Mary Tsingou Menzel

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About Mary Tsingou Menzel

Mary Tsingou Menzel was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on October 14th, 1928. Her parents moved to the US from Bulgaria and were Greek. She spent several years in Bulgaria before returning to the US to attend high school and college. Menzel attended the University of Wisconsin where she majored in mathematics and education.

After college, she applied for a job at Los Alamos National Laboratory and began working as a hand computing mathematician. While at Los Alamos, she was recruited to work as a programmer in the MANIAC Group. As an integral part of the Group, Menzel worked on computing theoretical weapons problems as well as weapons coding problems. Here, she mostly worked with the MANIAC I computer.

Menzel went back to school in the 1950s to get her Master's in Mathematics from the University of Michigan. After graduation, Menzel returned to Los Alamos to work on MANIAC II. At Los Alamos Menzel participated in different projects where she worked with IBM 704s and the Theoretical Division, the Controlled Thermonuclear Reactor, and the Accelerator Group. While part of the Accelerator Group, Menzel helped do the programming for the "proton storage ring" as part of President Reagan's "Star Wars" initiative. She also worked on a program called "Poisson Group Codes" that calculated the magnetic field of magnets being used for the "protron storage ring" in order to make the correct adjustments to those magnets. Throughout her long career at Los Alamos, Menzel worked in applied mathematics solving problems for the various projects being conducted at the Lab. Most of the programming she did was in FORTRAN.

In this interview, Menzel talks at great length about her time working at Los Alamos and the different projects she participated in. She also describes the way she was treated as a woman working in the Lab. She shares her opinions on the field of computing today and gives some advice for young women thinking about going into computing.

About the Interview

MARY MENZEL: An Interview Conducted by Janet Abbate for the IEEE History Center, 4 April 2002

Interview # 611 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.

Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center.

Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, IEEE History Center at Stevens Institute of Technology, Castle Point on Hudson, Hoboken, NJ 07030 USA or ieee-history@ieee.org. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

Mary Menzel, an oral history conducted in 2002 by Janet Abbate, IEEE History Center, Hoboken, NJ, USA.

Interview

INTERVIEW: Mary Menzel
INTERVIEWER: Janet Abbate
DATE: 4 April 2002
PLACE: Mary Menzel's home in Los Alamos

Background and Education

Notes courtesy of the interviewer, Janet Abbate

[Note: After the interview, the conversation continued and was joined by Dr. Anne Fitzpatrick, a researcher and historian of computing at Los Alamos National Lab. Two excerpts from this conversation have been inserted into appropriate sections of the interview, as indicated.]

Abbate:

This is an interview with Mary Menzel on April 4, 2002.

I always start at the very beginning, so can you tell me when you were born and where you grew up?

Menzel:

Well, I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, October 14th, 1928. I went to school there until I was about seven. My parents are from Greek descent, and they only spoke Greek at home, so when I went to school [I didn’t know much English]. I have a sister who is just a year older, and when she went to school she didn’t know any English at all; but I was a year younger, so by that time I had picked some English up. But when I was seven, my parents decided to go to Europe, back to Bulgaria—that’s where they were from—so we went there. We were there four years and came back and in 1940 or ‘41, when the war was starting in Europe and they asked all the American citizens to come back. So we came back, and I had a little difficulty, because I had forgotten the little English I knew. I had gone to Bulgarian school, and my parents spoke Greek at home, so there was a combination! Fortunately, I was able to skip quite a few grades. They had put me back in second grade when I was eleven years old!

Abbate:

Oh, goodness! Just for the English?

Menzel:

Because that’s where I left. When I left, I was in second grade, so when I came back four years later . . . But fortunately, once I picked up the language, it was easy, and I skipped quite a few grades.

I went to the school in Milwaukee, and then I went to the high school, West Division, in Milwaukee again, where we were living. Then I went to the University of Wisconsin. They had an extension in Milwaukee, so I went there for two years. From what I understand, now it’s a complete four-year program, the extension; but at that time, you could do only your first two years. So the next two years, I went to Madison, Wisconsin, and finished. I majored in mathematics, with educational courses to teach math in high school. That’s what I was hoping to do. I remember when I was in high school, the counselor said, “Oh, you won’t any problem getting a job. They always are looking for math teachers.” And my other friend, she was going to go into education, too, but she was going to major in English, and they told her, “English is over-crowded.” Well, four years later, the atmosphere completely changed; because what happened was that the veterans came back, and most of the guys majored in the sciences, math and sciences. So at that time, when I was applying for a teaching position, they would say, “We have all the men we can get. Why should we hire a woman?” It was just like that. They felt that they preferred to hire men over women.

One of my teachers, who was teaching advanced differential equations, said that in Los Alamos they were looking for hand computers—math majors who would do hand computing—because at that time, we didn’t have these machines; we would do the hand computing. She said, “They actually want people who are getting their Master’s.” I think it was my senior year, and so she said, “Why don’t you apply?” So I applied, and I think three other women from the University of Wisconsin applied; all the other three had their Master’s or were going to get their Master’s. We came out December ‘51 for an interview here, and I think one other woman accepted it, and I was offered the position. I didn’t graduate till June of ‘51, and then they had a little hard time getting my clearance through, because I had lived in Europe.

Abbate:

Ah, interesting.

Working at Los Alamos: Hand Computing to MANIAC

Menzel:

Bulgaria was under Communist control at that time, so it took a while, and I think it was in the Fall, near November, when they called me and said my clearance had gone through and that I could come—because at that time, you couldn’t come here unless you had clearance. Now people do come, and there’s unclassified work; but at that time, everybody had to have clearance. If I remember correctly, I came January 7, 1952. I thought, “Well, I’ll wait till after the first of the year.” So that’s when I came out here.

As I said, there was a group that did hand computing. I don’t know how much you’re familiar with. They had Marchant calculators, and there were as many as forty or fifty of us, mostly women; I think there were a couple of guys, too, but mostly young women, just right out of college. We would do hand calculations. A lot of these integrations would be done numerically: so you’d just multiply it by four, if you do Simpson’s rule, or multiply it by two and you add them up, and stuff like that. So there was just hand computing.

But as soon as I came, the MANIAC Group was [recruiting]. We were on the second floor, and they were on the first floor, and they said that they’d offer computing classes, so a group of us women took the class. But like I said, we were all young, just right out of school and twenty, twenty-one years old, and we wanted to stay together; so after we took this class, no one wanted to transfer to work with the other group. We were in what was called T-1, and this was T-7, the MANIAC Group. But then the Division Leader came along, and told us that the machine was going on the air, and they didn’t have programmers at all. So they asked me, and Mary Kircher—did you talk to her?

Abbate:

Yes, I talked to her.

Menzel:

Mary Huntsburger, she was at that time. They asked us if we would just transfer downstairs for six months, till they get more people, and if we’re unhappy we can transfer right back. So that’s how we transferred into the MANIAC Group. Marge Devaney was already there, and Lois Cook, I guess. She got married later—what was her name?

Abbate:

Luergans?

Menzel:

Luergans, yes. Did you ever get in contact with her?

Abbate:

No, I just heard about her.

Menzel:

I don’t know what happened to her. She left later on, after she got married.

Jack Jackson was the one that was the Head of the Computing group. He was on this software project; it was in the Computing part, and he was the one that taught us the class. He went on and became, I think, a Vice President of Research at IBM later on, in Washington.

Anyway: We started computing various problems, mostly weapons problems. Mary and I would code one program together for a while, then each of us went in different directions, because what happened was that people who wanted some computation done would come and ask us to do various problems. So I started working, at that time, with Stan Ulam and John Pasta. (He, later on, was Head of the National Science Foundation in Washington, DC, but he passed away quite early; he was only sixty-two or so.) That’s where I did a lot of theoretical-type as well as some weapons-coding problems.

[One of the best known of these theoretical problems is described in E. Fermi, J. Pasta, S. Ulam, M. Tsingou. Report LA-1940: “Studies of Nonlinear Problems.” May 1955. A footnote on page 3 comments, “We thank Miss Mary Tsingou for efficient coding of the problems and for running the computations on the Los Alamos MANIAC machine.”]

[Excerpt from post-interview conversation:]

Menzel:

Of all those guys—Fermi, Pasta, and Ulam—I’m the only one left! Well, I was just a programmer. They’re the ones that were trying to find out about the vibrating string: if the mode would come back to where it was when you started off. That was just a theoretical problem.

Fitzpatrick:

Yes, it was, but it was very famous.

Menzel:

Quite a few other people at the university [were interested]. We had a couple of grad students come out who had done some work on it, too, and they wanted to continue with it.

What else did we do? We did some studies of different things, like the Schrödinger equation; we did something with that. Bill Barr, I think, was involved with that a little bit. . . . These were little things that we did on the side—it wasn’t a major project—and those are the things that are remembered more! [laughs.] Those were just things that they would come up with. They’d say, “Oh, that would be interesting, to see what happens here.” Because the thing with these electronic computers was, you could grind the same thing over and over again, and to do something like that by hand would be just so long and laborious that no one would ever do it. Here, now, we can do it forever, practically, and see what happens; whereas before it was limited by how much time you wanted to spend on it. Now you just put it in and a computer can do the same thing over and over again.

You write a program if you’re going to do a lot of the same thing. If you’re going to just do it once, you could do it yourself by hand easier than writing the program. But anything that you’re going to do over and over again—that’s where computers come in. Of course, now computers have spread into all businesses; keeping track of inventory, stuff like that. It’s just amazing. I was reading the other day that before a pilot takes off now, he puts the data into his computer and it tells him what speed to take off, and what the wind speed it, and what type of thrust to use, and all that.

[End of excerpt]

At that time, of course—people can’t understand how computing was done [back then], because they had so small a memory that they didn’t have any of these software programs. Actually we coded machine language. Marge probably told you. If we wanted to add two numbers, we’d do “clear and add”; so you’d clear the register and add. That instruction was “AA.” I still remember that: AA. The number you want to add was stored in some location, and so we’d say “location ten,” or something like that. And then AB means just add, don’t clear the register. And I don’t know what “store” was—CD, or something like that, when you stored things. So you had to actually do every step, and of course memory was very, very tight. Everything was done on little tape. We’d type the tape, and sometimes some of the data would be read from the tape, because we didn’t have memory; so if you’d want the data, it would say “read,” and it would read from the tape the number, do whatever calculation we wanted done, and then we would store it—we’d print it out on a tape again.

Abbate:

That’s a punched paper tape?

Menzel:

Punched paper tape, yes.

But then at that time, a lot of the scientists that would come here to Los Alamos [would do their own]. Enrico Fermi was here that one summer, and he would sit there and type his own little tape up. If I remember correctly, Elaine Alei was the one that did some programming for him. I had no direct contact; I mean, he was there in the office and stuff like that, but I didn’t work with him directly. Hans Bethe was here, of course, and would come. A lot of the people that were here during the war and had gone back to universities would come here in the summertime and do some work.

Of course, Nick Metropolis was our Group Leader. From what I understood, they started the design of the MANIAC the same time that von Neumann started the design of the Johnniac, and we were supposed to keep the things going in a parallel direction; but most of the guys that were designing it were really young, almost in their early twenties; and for some reason, from what I understand, we veered from what they were doing at Princeton, and we got ours to work, and they never got theirs to work! So whatever [the Los Alamos group] did, they did the right thing. That was MANIAC I, and that’s where I worked for most of the time: MANIAC I.

Like I said, I did a lot of programming for Stan Ulam and John Pasta. In fact, the thing I was just telling Marge that I remember: John Pasta came back for a meeting once, and he said to me, “You know, Mary, that we probably did the first graphics on computers.” Because what we had done is follow a flow of an explosion, an equation that showed how it would expand; we had one of the little scopes, and so we did it on the scope: showed how it would expand. And of course it wouldn’t be symmetric, but what we wanted to do was have it symmetric. That’s one of the problems they have with nuclear weapons: they want it to be symmetric, so it compresses it in all directions rather than erratically. But we’d actually plotted it. I had forgotten! We had it plotted on this little scope, and it would show that; and when you got as far as the width of the scope, it would contract and then go ahead [on a smaller scale]. He mentioned it to me, because he was in mathematics with the National Science Foundation, and he said, “I put that down, that we were one of the first to do graphics on computers.” I had forgotten! [laughs.]

Abbate:

You were working on the plotting for that?

Menzel:

Yes, I coded the problem. He was the physicist, and they would give you the equations, and we would have to write them up. There is no way that those people could do their own coding. Now anyone can get on the computer and solve problems: you can integrate; you can differentiate; you can do a lot of stuff just automatically. Even for a simple thing like the sine of an angle: now, in these little calculators, it has the trigonometric functions, and you say “sine of thirty degrees,” or a radian, or whatever you give it, and it comes out to be “one half,” or whatever. But then, in order to do the sine, you had to actually code how you get a sine. The sine could be computed by a series, so you had to actually compute the thing. So unless you had experience, it would be—it wasn’t hard, it was just that most people just didn’t want to get involved with it.

Abbate:

So you were doing numerical methods as well as coding.

Going Back to School and Working with MANIAC II

Menzel:

Yes, yes. Actually, I was just telling my husband, Joe, when I was thinking about you coming [to do this interview]: Jack Jackson, who taught this class for us first on computing, asked us to do a little problem, and that was to compute the sine of an angle: given the angle, to compute the sine. That was my project, and I computed it and coded it up, and I kept checking it over and re-checking it; and then finally I punched the tape, and I put it in, and it worked immediately! And like I told Joe: that was the first and last time I ever had a problem work immediately. I’ve never been able to duplicate it! [laughs.] In all my almost forty years of programming, I was never able to do a problem and put it out and have it work immediately. So it was really a surprise, and that was one of the reasons Jack Jackson said, “Oh, get Mary to come down. She can program the stuff.” But as I say, I was very careful. I went over and over, to be sure that it’s going to work; and fortunately it did work.

I worked with MANIAC, then I went back to the University of Michigan. I came to Los Alamos in ‘52 and I went back to school in ‘54 and got my Master’s in mathematics. Then when I came back in ‘55, MANIAC II was on; they had upgraded the machine.

Abbate:

Now, did they want you to get your Master’s, or was that your idea?

Menzel:

No, that was just mine. Here, actually, most people had Ph.D.s in mathematics or a science. A Bachelor’s degree is more general, you know. Do you have a Ph.D.? In what?

Abbate:

Yes, in history.

Menzel:

History. But you know, a Bachelor’s degree, you have to take all these courses, and you take maybe seven or eight courses of mathematics beyond calculus, or something. When you go for your Master’s, even though it’s a one-year program, you really concentrate on the mathematics; that’s all you do, is take math courses.

Actually, when I came, the University of California was offering classes here—graduate classes—and so I was taking some in the evening. Then I thought, “Well, I’d like to get my degree,” and they were able to transfer some of my credits, and I was able to do it with one summer and a semester at the University of Michigan; so I decided to go. I was still single. So I went and got my degree.

Abbate:

It sounds like you were pretty career-oriented.

Menzel:

Yes, definitely. I was very much interested. A lot of the other women always felt that they were going to get married and forget about it, but I was always very much interested in my career, and interested in advancing.

Parents' Influence on Career

Abbate:

Did your parents encourage you? Did they sort of inculcate in you that you needed to have a career?

Menzel:

Well, my dad always thought that we should become teachers, because they had a good pension. You know, my parents went through the Depression, and so they always wanted security.

It’s odd that both of us went into mathematics, my sister and I. The reason why I probably took the job is, my sister had graduated the year before, and she had a hard time getting a job in teaching. She got a job in Milwaukee—I don’t know if she was doing any math or engineering classes or something—but then she applied for a Civil Service job, and surprisingly enough, by the time I got my job here, she went to work for the Bureau of Standards.

Abbate:

Oh, right.

Menzel:

So she went into working on . . .

Abbate:

SEAC? [Standards Eastern Automatic Calculator]

Menzel:

SEAC; maybe the SEAC machine. And so it was really ironic, the fact that we both went into computing—in different parts of the country. My parents were unhappy that we left Milwaukee, but you know how parents are: they want kids to stay home! [laughs.]

Abbate:

Did your parents do anything mathematical?

Menzel:

No. My dad worked in a factory. As I said, they were from Bulgaria, and Greek citizens, and they had a hard time; struggled to make it. My mother, I think, only went through second grade in Bulgaria, because women at that time were not even encouraged to go to school. But they always provided for us to continue.

But I think both my sister and I, more or less, were self-driven individuals. They wanted us to go more into secretarial work, or women’s-type jobs, and they said, “Well, mathematics, you’ll never be able to get a job,” and stuff like that. But both of us were interested in mathematics, and [fortunately] it turned out that computers came—otherwise it was very hard to get jobs in mathematics. Stan Ulam, whom I worked for there for a long time: he said that before the war, he had a Ph.D., and he said it was really hard to get jobs in mathematics. Finally, he said, he got a job with the University of Wisconsin, and was paid only two hundred dollars a month or something like that, but everybody was celebrating: all the mathematicians were celebrating that he was able to get a position. So it wasn’t an open field, except they always wanted mathematics teachers. They were always short on math teachers, so I thought I’d be able to get a position that way.

Abbate:

And you’d been interested in math from a pretty early age?

Menzel:

Yes. And since I was here, I taught some classes here, graduate classes. Well, I’m not sure you’d call it graduate: at the Graduate Center, but mostly calculus and lower graduate classes. I taught at the university here, nights.

Abbate:

That’s the University of New Mexico?

Menzel:

Yes, University of New Mexico Extension. I think for about four or five years I would teach a class or two in the evening; mostly adults, or kids that wanted to start here before they transferred down to the University of New Mexico.

Abbate:

And that was just because you liked teaching?

Menzel:

I enjoyed teaching, and I like to keep up with things. I retired in ‘91, and since then I sort of haven’t done much. But I’ve enjoyed retirement.

From IBM 704s to Cray to Stretch Computers

Menzel:

Let’s see now: after MANIAC, I switched over to working for what was called T Division directly. Stan Ulam was there in the Group. You see, Metropolis left. He went to the University of Chicago, and actually he wanted me to go along with him; but by that time I was thinking of getting married. I was going with my husband-to-be. We went together for five years before we got married.

Abbate:

Was he at the Lab as well?

Menzel:

No, he was in security. He worked for AEC.

I didn’t want to make the move at that time, so I moved away from the MANIAC Group and went into the other Group: the IBM machines, the 704s. I did a lot of computing there—again, for various people in the Division. But by that time, they started having software where you could at least write the equation out. Like FORTRAN: you can write the equation out. If you wanted “A plus B equals C,” you would put that down; you didn’t have to say “bring it in, add it, store it”; a software program would pick it up. Because again, they started being able to increase the memory. Then the Cray computers came on; those were the big computers.

I worked with Roger Lazarus quite a bit. Did you talk to him? Well, you’re interviewing women, so you’re not interested. He’s here, and he knows a lot. He worked with the MANIAC, and then he got to be Division Leader. Division Leader—in our hierarchy—is higher than a Group Leader. He became Division Leader of C Division, which is “Computing.”

Mostly they were Cray computers that we had, and IBM computers. A new computer was designed specifically for Los Alamos, and I think Roger Lazarus and a few other people actually had a lot of input into exactly what they wanted.

Abbate:

Was that the Stretch?

Menzel:

Stretch, yes: the Stretch machine. But unfortunately, by the time it was designed, I think technology advanced so much faster than what we thought. The biggest problem they had with computing was that these Wilson tubes that they had would drop: I don’t know the electronics, but it would drop what they called “bits.” It would drop the number, so you didn’t even know if you were doing it correctly. In fact, a lot of times, when we wanted to find the answer, we had to run the problem twice—and it wasn’t just a couple of minutes; it’d sit there and grind and grind, and it might take ten hours to run a problem!

Abbate:

Just because the hardware wasn’t reliable?

Menzel:

Well, no: because it took a long time. It’s not like now. I don’t know how many operations they do in a second, but at that time it was [not very many]. The computer was slow to start with, so if you wanted it to do a problem, it would take sometimes running ten hours: we’d come out with one answer, and then we’d run it again, and we’d come out with another answer! [laughs.] So one of the things I think they did with the Stretch computer, one of the designs they did, is that every time anything was called from the memory, it had a sum of all the digits. I don’t know how much you know: the only thing computers can do is a light on or a light off; so it’s ones or zeros, basically. A word has [a set of bits] that indicate something. So one of the things they wanted to do with the Stretch is add all those bits up and have the sum at the end of the word, so that when it’s called in again, they would do the same thing, and check to see that the sum is correct, so at least you know that that operation has not dropped one of the bits. They worked on that, because that was a big problem—accuracy—because there were all of these machine errors. So they designed it with that, but by that time, the technology had improved, so I think the Stretch was not as big a success as they had hoped it was going to be.

And then, as I said, the Cray computers came along. They started with 150K of memory, or something like that, and everybody thought, “Boy, those are really [advanced]!” But even those, a lot of times, had problems on weekends. We’d have people run our problems, and we’d sign up for four or five hours for the problem to run, to get some results. Probably it wouldn’t even finish, and they dumped the data onto a tape, and the next weekend—because a lot of times long problems would not be run except on weekends—you would pick it up. Also, for your own sake, when you were running your problem, after an hour or two you would dump it—because in case the machine went down, you lost [your interim results].

Now, as I say, things are so fast that people get a little disturbed when they get on the Internet and have to wait a few minutes! [laughs.] But at that time . . .

Abbate:

. . . you were waiting weeks to run! [laughs.]

Moving to the Accelerator Group and Working on the "Proton Storage Ring"

Menzel:

Later on, I worked with John Gammel, quite a bit. That was in T Division.

Abbate:

“T” is “Theoretical”?

Menzel:

Theoretical Division.

Then I transferred into CTR, which was Controlled Thermonuclear Reactor. They were trying to build a machine that would compress, so that they could produce energy.

Abbate:

That’s a fusion reactor?

Menzel:

Yes, a type. They had a big program, but Livermore had more of a success than we did, and finally they abolished that. So then I went with what’s called AT—Accelerator Group—building accelerators. That went into the Star Wars program that Reagan initiated—well, Reagan didn’t initiate it; he provided the funds. [laughs.] AT really expanded into that, to produce a beam that would be able to stop incoming missiles. So we worked on that.

Then I helped do programming for designing what they called a “proton storage ring.” One of the things that they have here is what they call a Meson Facility: Los Alamos Meson Physics Facility (LAMPF)]. It would get the beam down a stream, and it would accelerate the beam; then it would bombard some material, and when it bombarded the material, it would release neutrons, and then they can study other materials. But the biggest thing is trying to get the beam at a high speed, so that it could break up the atoms. This was why they decided to design the storage ring, because the beam would go around instead of straight. The meson just goes straight down, and it was only 800 MEVs [million electron volts], if I remember. The storage ring would have the beam keep going around and around and accelerating as it went round and round; and then, when it was at the height that they wanted, it would go into where they would do the research.

They were hoping to use one of these beams for shooting down missiles before they entered our atmosphere. So that was a big project there for a while, but then it sort of fizzled. But one of the things when they were designing the proton storage ring: they have to have these magnets, and the magnets have to be a certain way to keep the beam on course. So I worked a lot on the program called “Poisson Group Codes,” a group of codes that would calculate the magnetic field and also adjust the magnet, so that they would get what they wanted at that particular area. I worked with Harvey—I can’t remember his first name; he was one of the physicists here. So we built these magnets for the proton storage ring.

Abbate:

How much did you know about the projects you worked on?

Menzel:

I always felt I didn’t have enough physics. I just had general physics. I knew I could do the computation and stuff like that, but I could never design the magnets myself. Now, once they gave me the equations of the magnets, then I could program it and do what they wanted. They’d say, “Well, we would like to have this equation come out this way”; then I would do it. But I always felt a little bit the fact that I didn’t have as much physics and science. I only had just one year of physics in college. I had chemistry in high school, but not in college. It was mostly mathematics.

Actually, when I went to the University of Michigan, I asked one of the professors to write me a recommendation, because I wasn’t sure I was going to stay with Los Alamos. In fact, I think I had applied for a job with General Electric, and I was offered a position. He wrote to me and said, “Oh, don’t go into applied mathematics. You should stay in theoretical mathematics!” And I said, “Well, I’ve got to make a living!” [laughs.] Theoretical mathematics means you have to be at a university, and probably have to have a Ph.D., so he thought I should go back and get my Ph.D. But I was mostly doing applied mathematics.

Abbate:

It sounds like he thought pretty highly of you, though.

Family Life

Menzel:

Oh, well, you know: people were very satisfied with all the work I did, and I worked hard. Even when I had children, I only took a little time off, and was able to have fairly good babysitters.

Abbate:

You had two daughters?

Menzel:

Two daughters, yes.

Abbate:

Was that hard, to balance your work and your family life?

Menzel:

It was a little hard; but my husband worked in the Pro Force, so he would come home at three o’clock, so he was here. Especially after the kids were in school, he’d be here, so he could take them to swimming or gymnastics or all these after-school activities. So that helped; otherwise it would be hard to do. And the fact that my working hours were flexible helped, too. I didn’t have to be there right at eight o’clock. But I worked late at night; lots of times I’d be there. I’d usually go in on weekends, too. When you were running these programs on weekends, even if they had people doing the running for you, you had to go in and check and see that things were going correctly.

It seemed to have worked. Also, I think it motivated my daughters, the fact that there was a model. I remember when my oldest daughter, Annie, was interviewed at Johns Hopkins: she went to the University of New Mexico here, but she applied for the early entrance into medical school at Johns Hopkins, and she went there, and they asked her, “Do you think you can balance the medical profession and marriage?” She said, “Well, my mother has done it, so I think I can do it!” [laughs.] It was surprising that she was accepted, because most of those others were from the elite colleges, and with only two years at UNM she was accepted at Hopkins into their five-year program in medical school. So in the five years she finished her Bachelor’s and got her M.D.

She said that “my mother was able to do it”—so they thought that they could do it. But now my younger daughter is staying home with the kids, even though she has done her residency both in internal medicine and in nuclear medicine.

Abbate:

She has the four kids, or two?

Menzel:

No, the one who has the four kids is a pediatrician. She’s my oldest one. She’s a pediatrician and she loves it, except that right now things are really bad in medicine. She just told me, “You know, mom, I got a forty percent cut in salary from last year.” So they have to work long hours. Three of them are trying to get a practice going, and the Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh is supposedly supporting them, but it’s really hard. Everything’s being cut. My husband thought once we paid for getting these kids through med school, they’d have it made; but it’s really hard, today, in medicine. So I think they would have been better off if they had gone into mathematics! [both laugh.] Or something else. But usually what happens with children is that they want to follow what the other guy is doing. Carol—that’s our younger daughter—she said, “Well, I want to go to medical school, too”; so she went to medical school at University of New Mexico.

Abbate:

So neither of them wanted to go into computing, then?

Menzel:

No, not too much. But actually, Annie—our oldest—was going to get a degree in biomedical engineering. That’s what she was going to do, because I said, “Well, take something in case you don’t get into medical school. Have something to fall back on.” She started taking some engineering courses during her second year; and when they called us to say that she was accepted—there were only eight or ten students from all over the country who were accepted into this program—that morning, I still remember, she said, “I’m not sure I want to go into medicine. I sort of like the engineering part!” It was too early [for her to have to make that decision], because she was only nineteen at that time. I said, “Well, why don’t you try it?” I mean, an opportunity like that doesn’t come very often. So I said, “Well, try it.” She really likes pediatrics, but it’s a hard field to be in. Things have changed so much. You can’t believe it, how much things have changed in the last seven to eight years since she graduated from med school and did her residency.

Reflections on the Field of Computing

Abbate:

How do you think things have changed in computing, as a profession, since you started?

Menzel:

As a profession? Well, the thing is: now, you’ve just got to learn to run a program that someone else has written. Like with Windows, or any of these programs: you’ve got to know how to do the files; you’ve got to follow their directions. It’s learning to run a software program that somebody else has written. So it’s not as challenging, I don’t think. You can’t make any changes; you’ve got to do it exactly the way they say and the way the directions are. But with us, if a person would come in and say, “I’d like to print this out,” or “I want to do another calculation within this program,” we’d be able to do it. Now, you have to do it separately if you want to. So it’s changed quite a lot. When I left, which was ten years ago when I retired, I was working on those Poisson problems, and I knew the coding, and I was able to go in and make the changes that people wanted and things like that. But now, these programs are written, and you’ve got to do exactly . . . It does what you want. They have so many programs that if one program doesn’t do exactly what you want, you can use another program to do it; and of course, a lot of the computations are done for you, rather than having to write the equation. You just ask for an integral, or something like that, and it gives it to you.

I think if you were writing the software, it might be more interesting. I think Marge went into writing software. Is that what she said she was doing, over in Engineering?

Abbate:

She was writing editors, and operating system stuff.

Menzel:

Stuff like that—see, that’s [systems?] software. I never did that. I was always in applied mathematics, the problem-solving type thing. Now there are programs that do those things. In fact, some people who wrote some of these programs are making a living by just consulting on the program that they run. I think the Poisson Group Codes were done by [Ronald] Holsinger. I have the manual; I could look it up. He was here. They are free; whoever wants them can get them, and they’ve been put on various computers: on PC’s; I was writing [a program for] it on the Cray computer before I left.

On Using the Cray

Abbate:

What was it like to use the Cray?

Menzel:

The Cray? It was a fast machine. It’s fast and it’s huge. Initially we had cards, and we had to actually take the cards and go down to the machine room. At first we ourselves would put the cards in, and go behind there, and we’d be assigned five minutes or something—not even five minutes, they’d give you—of machine time to debug your program. So you’d take these cards down there, and you’d have whatever time it was—nine-fifteen till nine-twenty—and so you’d got to be there. You’d go and put your cards in and get your program going, and you would print a few things in between so you could check your program, because you were trying to debug to see if things came out. But later on, they had people to operate it; they wouldn’t allow you to go to the computer. You’d just put the cards in, and they would do it for you, and you’d get the printed material and you’d have to look at it. And that took [a long time]. Sometimes you’d only get one or two runs a day; so there wasn’t very much progress, because in between, you found a mistake, you’d correct it, and it would be five o’clock before you had your program run again and could see that it worked or it didn’t work.

Then they were able to put [card readers] all over the Laboratory, where you could put your cards in right near the office where you worked. So the cards would go in, through, and onto the computer. So that helped.

Abbate:

So you had card readers on a local network or something?

Menzel:

Yes. It would connect directly to [the Computer Center]. And again, you only had a certain amount of time during the day that was assigned—that you could get—in each group. They only had so much time, and if it was used up, we didn’t get any machine time with the Cray. So that’s why they started going with these PCs. They had all these smaller computers: Sun computers were coming in, and of course the Vaxes were popular, too, and now the PCs. When the PCs got fast and had large memories, a lot of people started putting their programs on the PCs, because then it was an individual machine, and so you could get your work done.

Before, we would go into the main computers and store the material on tapes. I’ll bet they still have—well, they probably got rid of my tapes. But that’s the trouble with computing: you always store everything, and then you forget what you stored, and you don’t want to get rid of it! [laughs.] So you keep storing and storing stuff, till one day they say, “You’ve used too much storage space. You’ve got to get rid of stuff.” So then you go back and you start getting rid of stuff. That’s why they said these various companies that are doing storage were the thing to invest in, because people are always going to store things. It’s so much easier to store it than to know if it’s worth storing! [laughs.]

Most of the programming I did was in FORTRAN: that’s a mathematical language for equations that IBM had done. I think even before I left, most of it was FORTRAN. New systems were coming in that would interpret [other languages], but FORTRAN was acceptable. They have so many languages now: Java, C++, different languages. What was the one they had mostly for business?

Abbate:

COBOL?

Menzel:

Yes, COBOL.

On MANIAC

Abbate:

What did you find most challenging about doing this kind of scientific computing?

Menzel:

I think it was really great when you’d got a program, and you’d sit there—especially on the MANIAC: you’d actually see the lights flashing—and you’d look at it and say, “I actually did this!” And they would just go flashing all around. [laughs.]

It was very primitive. In order to debug the problem, we could do one step at a time. There was a little switch. I mentioned the operation “clear and add”: we’d do the operation, and then we’d look at the register to see if the number we wanted was brought in. We could actually see it.

Abbate:

You were looking at the lights to see what bits were in there?

Menzel:

Yes, to see that the right number was brought in. “Clear and add from position ten”: you’d see the operation, and then you could see the register. I think there was an addition register, and the multiplication was a separate register. So you’d see it come in, and then you’d go to the next; you’d push the switch again, and it would do the other operation, and you’d see that. Finally you got it debugged, and then you let it run! The lights would flash, and it was very satisfying to think that you could make something like that go.

Abbate:

Marge was saying you could debug by the sound.

Menzel:

No, not by the sound! [laughs.] It had sound, yes, but we’d just print things out. We had a teletype printer, that’s what we had. It wasn’t much of a printer. It only printed numbers, I think; the MANIAC worked on the hexadecimal system, which means it used A, B, C, D, E, and F as well as the numbers, and those are the only letters that were available. So there was no way you could print, “Pressure equals this,” or “Temperature equals that.” You’d never print that, because it wasn’t available. Only numbers would be printed, so you had to know what the numbers meant yourself.

Yes, it was quite primitive! But people were very happy, because they were able to do computing. As I said, Fermi was here that summer, and another pair that did a lot of computing was the Rosenbluths [Arianna and Marshall]. They were a husband-and-wife team, and I think Marge worked with them. Did she mention them?

Abbate:

I don’t think so.

Menzel:

I think she coded a big program. This was all weapons programs, trying to find what the yield was going to be of the different weapons. They tried to solve them various ways, numerical ways, that they could think of: write the equations down and try; but we were really limited by speed and memory. When you wanted to calculate flow or anything like that, you only could use a few points, and so it does not give a complete picture. If you want to see what’s happening, the more dense it is, the better you can see what’s happening; but if you have a point here and a point there—you only calculate here and calculate there—you assume that this is continuous, but it might not be from here to there. So it doesn’t give a very good picture. But it was better, I guess, than the hand calculating that they had been doing previously.

Abbate:

Did you have to develop special tricks or techniques to make the most use of that limited memory?

Menzel:

Oh, yes, we did. We were very careful when we coded. The question was, if you made a mistake in your coding, what should you do? You want to put another operation in between two existing operations: what should you do? Because the memory was all taken: there was memory 1, memory 2, memory 3; and so now in memory 2 you want to add something, but space 3 is already taken. So, should you redo the whole thing? You’d have to recode the whole thing from 2 on. Or, you could say “transfer out” to another place where there was a little space, and do the operation you want, and then transfer it back and continue from where you were before. But the only thing is, that took two words—transferring out and transferring in—and so a lot of times we would sit down and write the program again, in order to save those two words, rather than doing the transferring out.

Abbate:

So you’d punch the whole thing out on tape again.

Menzel:

Yes, you’d have to write the whole thing out, retype it all, and stuff like that.

But somehow they were able to do a lot of the calculations, and it was surprising when they’d come back from the tests that they conducted at Rocky Flats and their calculations were pretty close. Actually, Stan Ulam told me about when they were doing some calculations about going to the Moon for the first time, and he said, “With the back of an envelope we did a better calculation than all these computers could do”—that they were completely wrong, I guess. But most of the calculations here: they were surprised how well some of the results fit with the experiments they would conduct.

Abbate:

Would they come back from a test and tell you your calculations were correct?

Menzel:

Yes, that we were correct. Then they’d want to put some more plutonium in; if we put more percentage of this, we would get a bigger yield. Or they wanted a smaller device; stuff like that. The program was there, and then they’d just make modifications of what the [weapon] was.

Witnessing Nuclear Testing

Abbate:

Did you ever see a test?

Menzel:

Yes! Actually, if you’d been here a number of years, they would fly you out to Nevada, and you’d get to see one. But we were just here a short time, and a group of us young people decided we wanted to go out. They’d let you go out on your own, so a group of us went out to see a test. It was worth it, I thought; it was so exciting at that time! The day before, they took us around and showed us all the experiments that were set up, and the cameras, and what they were going to do. At that time—now, in hindsight, they probably regret doing it—they had soldiers go in: as soon as the nuclear device was detonated, they had them go in. Supposedly that’s what they were going to do in battle: even though there was a cloud and all this radioactivity, they’d send these people in. And they had some little houses built, and some cars out there, to see how they would stand a nuclear blast. Most of them, of course, were completely demolished.

We were—I don’t know, was it ten, or seven, eight miles away? They had spectators. [laughs.] You know, people would come to see a device go off. They had warned us: you’ll see the blast, and then you’ll feel it; the sound would come later. First you’ll see the blast, and we had to wear glasses. We were about seven or eight miles away, and you saw the blast, and it’s just like they show it—you know, that mushroom cloud coming up. But the thing that I didn’t realize is that sound—it was a few seconds later—the sound wave hit us; they had some bleachers there, where we were standing, and it almost pushed you down onto the bleacher.

Abbate:

The shock wave.

Menzel:

The shock wave that came through.

But people weren’t as worried about radioactive fallout—or maybe they weren’t as knowledgeable. So they had people going out, especially Washington people coming out there to see a blast occur.

Some were dropped from a plane, and some were on a tower. They’d put the bomb on a tower, and then blast it off, and keep testing it. They kept testing, I guess, until finally they made some agreement to stop air testing, and they went to underground testing for quite a long time. And now, under [President George W.] Bush: he wants to resume it, I guess. The Lab: I don’t know if they’re pushing for it. I have no idea.

Actually, they have computer programs that can simulate what goes on in an explosion much better than anything that they can see, probably. But they still—you see, if they have a test, they can put the numbers in, and they can extrapolate; but if you don’t have a test, [you don’t have the numbers]—especially with the design of new weapons.

Working on Classified Projects

Abbate:

Was your work classified?

Menzel:

It was classified when I was working in [the Computer Division?]. Until I moved into T Division, most of it was classified work. We did theoretical work, with just interesting problems that Stan Ulam would propose, and stuff. Then there was CTR, the Controlled Thermonuclear Reactor. I worked on reactors, too. I did some programming on a nuclear reactor that they were hoping to develop here—it was just a research-type reactor—but then they abolished it.

There was a Reactor Group here, and they were going to design a reactor to go out in space. That group was called “Kiwi.” One of the people had done some programming; he was working on that, and he asked me to join the group, but I stayed with T Division at that time. Then Kiwi was [disbanded?]. The thing is, at first they thought that nuclear energy was going to be the thing that was going to provide power and electricity and all that stuff, and they didn’t realize how they could not control radioactivity and all the byproducts. Like now: where to store all these byproducts is a big problem.

Stan Ulam told me—looking back, he said they thought, “With nuclear devices, we can control the weather. If a hurricane is coming, we can detonate a bomb and break it up!” [laughs.] But what happens to the area? You detonate a couple of big thermonuclear devices and pollute the area.

Abbate:

I’d rather have a hurricane!

Menzel:

But at that time he thought it was a great idea that we can change the weather and do all this stuff. A lot of these ideas that people had: you know, when a kid reads about it, and when they’re in textbooks, it just seems like their ideas worked; but they don’t describe all the failures they had. They just say, “From this we went to this,” rather than that some of the ideas were wrong.

It’s just like [Edward] Teller, you know. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Teller. He claims to be—at least he wants to be—the father of the hydrogen bomb. He worked here with Stan Ulam, and [Ulam] told me, “Well, he had a lot of bad ideas”—that his ideas wouldn’t have worked. “It [the hydrogen bomb] was a group design that we all came up with. But a lot of Teller’s ideas would not have worked at all.” Like I say: when you read it, it seems like they went from the atomic bomb to the hydrogen bomb with no problems. But some people provided ideas; others, some of their ideas didn’t work; and then they were able to assimilate different ideas together and come up with a solution.

Abbate:

When you were working, was it usually just you and a physicist?

Menzel:

Yes, a physicist. I worked with two or three people; sometimes two or three people would work [together]. I’d be the one they’d call the Programmer, and did analysis and stuff like that: the mathematics; and the other people would give me the equations, or what they wanted to compute.

It was an interesting career. I’m not sure I would go into computing as it is today.

They found out, after I came here, that people that majored in music and in art were better at coding. I read an article that said they actually were better programmers than people in the scientific field.

Abbate:

Who found this out?

Menzel:

One of the articles I was reading said that people that were in art, and English, and stuff like that, were better programmers. They had a bigger picture: because it’s not as much mathematics as just seeing a picture of how things should go, and a certain order of things, and being able to detect what you want it to do, or which path to take. There are a lot of decisions to make if you’re going to program something: “If this is bigger than this, am I going to take this path? If this is smaller than this, which path should I take, in the coding?” So it’s sort of having to see the whole picture; and they thought that those people that were away from mathematics actually did better, as far as programmers are concerned. Once you give them the equation and stuff, they could do the programming better, supposedly. This is what I have read, so I’m not sure.

Abbate:

What did you think made a good programmer? Did you ever train anyone?

Menzel:

Well, I always had people working with me, and I had some new people that I [trained].

[DISC 2]

Reflection on Career in Computing

Menzel:

I really enjoyed it. I probably wouldn’t have retired in ‘91, but they came and offered us incentive to retire, and I was getting up to the point where I was working for about three percent of my salary. Because I had worked here almost forty years, I would get a hundred percent, retired; and then they gave us an extra five years. I think I still would have worked a little longer, because I really enjoyed it!

Abbate:

What was the most satisfying part of computing for you?

Menzel:

Well, seeing a program work. And then, people coming in and saying, “Can you make this do [what I want]?” And I’d say, “Oh sure, we’ll get it for you,” and get something out that they wanted, and be pretty confident that it was correct. That’s the thing: that the answers that we were getting were correct. I always checked my programs out really well; I won’t attest to the accuracy until I’ve checked every aspect of it out. Then I was pretty sure that the answers I was getting were correct, even if they thought the answers were wrong; I said that the program was doing what we wanted it to do. So that was very satisfying.

And working with people. Scientific people are very nice to work with. The camaraderie, friends, and stuff like that; the fellows were pretty nice, too. They were all very nice.

Abbate:

It sounds like it was quite social. I mean, not you in a room by yourself with a machine, but a lot of interaction.

Menzel:

We had a lot of interaction. A lot of the top scientists of the nation were here, and it was an exciting time. When we came, we felt we were doing something for the nation. All of us here were thinking that we were really helping keep our country strong, and that we were actually working towards [that]. Maybe because we were young: young people are very optimistic, and feel they’re going to change the world, and stuff like that. So people worked hard at that time. We worked long hours; we’d come in long hours, especially if some computation had to be done before the device was completed, or anything like that.

People felt that we were doing something good for the country, and I think that feeling was gone later, and people always wanted promotions and stuff like that, rather than working as a group. I think it’s a little more competitive, maybe. At that time it was not; everybody would work together.

Abbate:

Were you working together in the sense that it was a big problem and several people were working on it?

Menzel:

Yes, yes. And everybody was treated the same—equal—no matter who it was. We had keypunch people that punched our tapes, but if they weren’t available, we’d do our own punching. Like I told you, Fermi would sit there and do his own punching, and try and get a problem going, and things like that.

Details of Classified Projects

Abbate:

How long did it typically take, from when you started with a problem until you actually got something running?

Menzel:

Well, it depends. Debugging the problem took a long time. Writing it did not; but debugging, you had to check things out to be sure that things were done, and a lot of times you thought that it would give you the right answer, according to the equation, but then things would happen that you didn’t expect. One of the things: you’d divide by some number, and you never think it’s going to be zero, and it happens to be zero, and then the thing blows up! [laughs.] It’s things like that that you have to anticipate. You say, “Well, it’s never going to be zero,” but for some reason it got to be zero.

Abbate:

Just in case; right.

Menzel:

So, things like that.

When I started, Mary Kircher and I worked together. We coded and checked each other out. We did a code for Roger Lazarus at that time; a method of computation.

In the latter part, we had more programs that people wanted changed, rather than starting from scratch, and we had to be able to go into a program and make some changes to accommodate what they wanted.

Menzel:

[Excerpt from post-interview conversation:]

One of the biggest problems we had was that people would bring problems from Europe—from Germany, especially—and then we would have to try to get them to work on our computers. Most of the stuff would work, but just enough to cause you problems! [laughs.] So anything that’s universal [would make transferring code between machines easier]. But unfortunately, they want the old programs to work, and the programs are so embedded and so complicated that there’s no way that you can understand. They just want them translated exactly into the new machines, but I think they’re better off [starting over]. I tried to tell my boss a couple of times, “It’s better off, at a certain stage, to forget that you have a program—no matter how big it is—and start over.” Because there are new techniques, new things.

[For example,] we were always economical with storage, with words; what they call machine capacity. Instead of using a whole word for something, if you only needed a bit, you used portions of the word to do different things; so then you had to extract that portion out to look at it. Now you don’t have to do that, because you have almost infinite memory; and the old method takes time—it has to be extracted. Those Poisson programs I was talking about were like that: and I mentioned that we should forget it, and instead of spending a couple of years on translating the old programs, start over and do it completely [from scratch].

It’s just like with any device: it’s better, after ten years, that you don’t keep it. You abandon your car and buy a new car, because you’ll be better off! I think the same thing is true with these programs. But for a lot of them, the people who wrote them are no longer there; and they’re running, and they’re getting some results; and the users say, “Well, we want these programs to go over to the new machine.” And so you have to write programs to do some translation of the operations that are not compatible. It’s a decision: whether they should do that or start over. Because it’s not an easy problem, starting over. . . . It’s both ways. I know how complicated the programs are, and that no one knows what’s in them anymore.

W Division (which is X Division now) always wanted their programs translated. Any time we got a new computer, they wanted to be able to take their programs and put them on immediately. And they’d get really upset, because they were paying. The computers were paid by the Weapons group, and so they would always come into C Division, or Theoretical Division, and say, “We want these programs to work. Otherwise we don’t want the machine.” . . . I remember when they went to the Cray computers, they were complaining that they wanted to keep the old machines, because their programs were running. But once they start using them they’ll be happy, because they’re faster and they can do a lot more things.

[End of excerpt]

Abbate:

Would you be working on several different problems at once?

Menzel:

Oh, yes! Sure. More than one problem would be going. Especially when we only had five minutes on the computer [laughs]: you’d be working on something else, because you’re not going to get the answer for another four hours! So you’d be working on something else. We had two or three things going at one time.

Being a Woman in the Field, Striving for Equal Pay

Abbate:

Did you ever feel that, as a woman, there were obstacles to getting promotions or equal pay?

Menzel:

Yes, it was always there. It was always there. They told me, when I came here as a hand computer, that they wouldn’t even have hired women, but the Korean War was on, and men were not exempt; so that’s one of the reasons why they went to colleges and asked for women to come out. And they’d tell me, “You will be doing the same work that most of the guys were doing, but you will get paid less.” Just like that, they told you!

Even later on, when I was teaching in the university, they kept saying, “Well, we’re trying to bring you up to par”—because women weren’t getting paid the equivalent to what men were. “We’re trying to bring you up.” They always were “trying,” and I said, “Well, why don’t they do it?” [laughs.]

Abbate:

How hard is that? [laughs.]

Menzel:

I mean, why not give that? But, on the other hand, we were paid better than industry would have paid at that time, and it was good work, and they were flexible. If my kid was sick and I didn’t get there, no one complained. Otherwise, if you had to be there from eight to five, [it would have been difficult]. So it worked out quite well, with a career and a family. But most of these other women did stop. Like Marge Devaney: she worked part-time, didn’t she, for a long time, while her daughter was young. Most of the women did stay home for a while. I think Marge went back and got into the engineering part, too, didn’t she?

Abbate:

Yes, she did go back over there.

Menzel:

She was with the computers there, before she retired.

Abbate:

I know she was in C-7; I forget exactly when.

Menzel:

Yes, C Division. She was in C Division. She was a very bright young person. She was there before I was. She was hired directly into the MANIAC group, and we came from what’s called “upstairs” to the first floor—downstairs—about six or eight months later.

Reflection on Other Women at the Lab

Abbate:

Did you have any people you would consider mentors or role models who helped you along, or people you admired and wanted to be like?

Menzel:

Well, some of these guys were pretty nice to me. When I went back and got my Master’s and came back, Stan Ulam went and tried to get me a 25 dollar-a-month raise! [laughs.] Things like that. But as I said, with women, we were always second citizens. Things started improving, I think, in the last ten years before I retired; in the eighties they started improving. When I came, most people with a Bachelor’s degree were just Research Assistants; that’s what they were called. Staff Members were usually Ph.D.s or Masters or something. I think maybe that’s why I went back to school. But in the late fifties or early sixties, I remember reading, there were only about twenty or thirty women Staff Members in the Laboratory.

Abbate:

So were most of the women in computing Research Assistants?

Menzel:

Research Assistants.

Abbate:

But you became a Staff Member after you got . . .

Menzel:

After I got my Master’s.

But then, when [Norris] Bradbury was Director, he had a woman—which was really surprising—as his Deputy Director of the Lab, when I came here. I can’t think of what her name was. She was a scientist, and then she went into the office. That was sort of surprising, that they did have a female Deputy Director. But most of the Division Leaders were men; Group Leaders were all men. But later on, I think in the eighties, things started to change. In fact, I was supposed to coordinate this Affirmative Action Program: to check, when they hired people, whether they could hire a woman or a minority. Percentage-wise, I think it was something like ten percent: we should have about ten percent women in this field. So when they would hire someone, I would look it over and try and get so that each group would bring their [proportion of women] up to ten percent—because that’s how many people were out in the field, available, you see.

Abbate:

In computing, specifically?

Menzel:

It was for the Group, at that time. When I was Affirmative Action Representative, it was for the whole Group that they wanted so many percentage of Staff Members that were women. And according to what was out in the scientific field, the maximum that you could get was ten percent, because there weren’t that many women in the field. So we tried to meet this quota. I think it was President Lyndon Johnson who proposed this Affirmative Action that they started with women and minorities, the percentage of minorities that were in mathematics and in the science field. Each Group was trying to at least meet the minimum that was required.

So it opened up then, when that came into play. The Lab did make an effort to hire women—if, supposedly, they were equal; but you know, no one’s completely equal. If they had the same education, and the same background; if it was two equal people, and you were under-represented by women, you should hire a woman, even though there was a fellow just as good. You would hire the woman, supposedly. But it’s always hard. No one’s completely equal: they didn’t go to the same school, they didn’t take the same subjects; one might have better grades, the other guy might have done a little more, had more experience; so it was never completely comparable. But they tried, and the university did try too, to meet their goals. They had to meet some goals in each Group, and each Division had to meet these goals.

Abbate:

In the computing area, what was the proportion of women? I guess it would be in the sixties when you were trying to do this?

Menzel:

The proportion of women? Most of the programmers were women. There were some men at that time. But there were only a few of us to start with. [laughs.] You know, there were just a handful!

Abbate:

Of programmers at all?

Menzel:

Of programmers. There were some guy programmers, too, come to think of it.

But later on, when FORTRAN came in, a lot of people started writing their own programs. For short programs, they’d write their own programs; they could write them for themselves. But these really huge programs, which one had to keep up and make changes and stuff like that, were done by programmers; and there were, by that time, equally men and women doing the same thing. Some were actually not mathematicians or programmers; they were actually physicists who were keeping these programs going and supporting the programs.

That’s about it. I’ve been talking a lot! [laughs.]

Advice for Women in Computing

Abbate:

Do you have any advice for young women considering going into computing?

Menzel:

Yes: I think it’s a good field! I don’t think it’s as challenging now, or as fulfilling, maybe. You don’t see your product as much as before, because you’ve got to take what’s there and maybe do something with it; but before, you started from scratch, and you would actually see the end product. It’s just like designing furniture: if you start and you actually build a thing from scratch, it’s much more satisfaction than just painting it, or doing just a minor little thing to it.

But on the other hand, in software—people going into [commercial] software programming—I think it’s probably just as challenging, because they have to write these programs that people are using. For instance, Windows is a pretty good program that everybody uses now, and probably in Microsoft they have a lot of people supporting that, thinking of new ways to improve it and make it more user-friendly and all that stuff.

The only thing is that programming itself, I think, is not as much in demand, because people can do it themselves—can do a lot of small things. I would think software is where the field for programming would be now, rather than the applied programming that I did.

Abbate:

It sounds like you had a lot of fun doing it.

Menzel:

Oh yes! It was fun, and I enjoyed it, and it was very satisfactory. And people were very nice. We all worked together, and everybody was treated equally, and it didn’t matter who. I remember the Division Leader coming down to look at the answers coming out of the printer, a lot of times when I was there; things like that. People worked together. It was a really cohesive group, all the time. People were very nice. It wasn’t competitive. Here at the end now, when I was leaving, it got a little more competitive.

Abbate:

I just want to thank you for talking with me for so long.