Remembering Frank Rosenblatt

Frank Rosenblatt died tragically young 50 years ago, in a boating accident on his 43rd birthday on July 11, 1971. These reminiscences by Terry Koken, previously published only in the talk section of Rosenblatt’s wikipedia entry, give some rare and valuable insight into his intellectual genius and his life.

Part 1 (originally published April 15, 2009)

I worked for Rosenblatt on the Cornell Cognitive Systems Research Program from June 1960 to January 1962, and again from January 1965 to June of 1968. He and I roomed together at 125 College Ave. during the first stint, and I later lived in his house on Middaugh road in Brooktondale. In some ways I probably can claim responsibility for his buying the house.

I was an almost-lifelong astronomy buff, and thought I would eventually make it my profession. As a sixteen-year-old freshman at Cornell, I borrowed some paper from Rosenblatt in the Willard Straight Music room, and became acquainted with him. I must have in some way impressed him, as he stopped by the squalid quarters I was inhabiting in Syracuse shortly after my 18th birthday and offered me a job on his research program at Cornell, programming digital computers. It paid a little more than two bucks an hour, for that time an almost unheard-of wage for one of my tender years. I took it, of course.

Rosenblatt was a confirmed bachelor, and evidenced no visible interest in the opposite sex that I could discern. Whether he had any interest in the same sex is something none of us who worked for him ever speculated on; he was eccentric, and fun-loving, and had a hell of a good sense of humor, and such speculation just didn’t seem to matter. At any rate, my enthusiasm for astronomy must have been contagious, and at the same time he was looking for something to spend an accumulation of cash against, and he decided to buy a telescope. He chose a Fecker 12-1/2″ Cassegrain, complete with equatorial mount and drive, to the tune of about three grand worth, which was roughly nine months’ pay for me; an almost overwhelming amount. The instrument was custom-built, and it took some time to arrive (I think more than six months, but my recollection may be faulty). Realizing that College Town in Ithaca was a poor and improper place to put a telescope, he started house-hunting, and in just a few weeks had found and purchased a fine old brick house on twenty-five acres on Middaugh Road in Brooktondale, six or so miles east of Ithaca. Most of us who worked for him also moved in there, since the twenty-five thousand dollar price-tag on the real estate was a bit steep for him to manage without some people helping out by paying rent on rooms. We broke ground for the observatory in, as I recollect, summer of 1961. I must admit, I felt a little nervous over my role in this; I felt responsible for coaxing a friend, mentor, and employer into outlaying an overwhelming sum on one of my enthusiasms. But we dug, and poured foundations, and laid block, and built a pier just the same.

Some of the people involved were me, George Nagy, Steve (Steven Jon) King, Chuck Tappert, Dick Venezky, Trevor Barker, Dave Smith, our secretary Eirlys Tynan, her husband Mick, Dave Block, a math professor, and probably some others whose names I’ve lost in memory. Rosenblatt had the house painted white, and had a fireplace and chimney built, and bought a grand piano (he was an accomplished pianist, even though he could and did improvise endlessly on “Three Blind Mice”).

At some point in the construction of the observatory, the matter of telescope size came up in one of the not-infrequent bull sessions we would have after a day’s effort. I’m a little unsure of how we got there, but Rosenblatt boasted that he’d have at least a sixteen-inch scope on the premises within five years. The boast almost immediately became the subject of a wager: I bet him five bucks that this would not happen; he countered with an amendment that would give him a dollar an inch for anything over sixteen (I’d collect five dollars if I won, but would pay up to ten if I lost). We were, as I recollect, drinking beer at the time, and by and by I lost track of the details of the bet.

In 1962, I left staff at Cornell to return to university, this time at Syracuse. I endured a semester there, the assasination of a president, a sophomore slump, and in 1964 moved to Rochester and got married. My wife and I visited Rosenblatt in late 1964, and he made me another offer of employment, which I accepted. As 1965 came to a close, Rosenblatt remembered the bet, and, realizing he was about to lose it, got busy.

SETI was at that time something many were interested in. Most of the search at that time was being done at the 21-cm hydrogen wavelength. Townes’s ruby laser was, however, a very recent invention, and Rosenblatt reasoned that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence would be better done at visible wavelengths, where the very coherence of an electromagnetic wave would be a reasonable measure of intelligent origin of the signal. To this end, he designed a “Stellar Coherometer” which would ascertain whether emission in the spectra of stars was coherent radiation or not. He had connections with granting agencies, and was something (!) of a wheeler-dealer; he called up somebody he knew at NASA, I think it was, and, as it was near the end of their granting period and they had some unspent money in their vault, got told he could have seventy-five thousand dollars yankee for the project, which, by the way, included a twenty-inch telescope, to be housed on donated land at 119 Middaugh Road, Brooktondale, NY. Cornell would have to administer the grant, of course.

The Cornell administration took a look at it, and, horrified that the name of such a prestigious institution should be associated with such an outre` project, distanced themselves as far as possible from it. Rosenblatt, never one to give up easily (he climbed Mount McKinley once!) went across the valley to Ithaca College, and got himself an appointment as an associate professor there, so that they could administer the grant. They would get a fine research observatory out of the deal, so it was much to their liking. To the entire project’s extreme disappointment, however, the appointment took just a little longer than it should have, so that the grant period for that fiscal year had elapsed by the time it came through. The seventy-five thousand, unspent, reverted to the U. S. Treasury and was never seen again.

Part 2 (Originally published November 3, 2009)

Recollections of Rosenblatt: The following are anecdotal, some hearsay, some as told by Rosenblatt himself to me, and are my recollections; thus they may be faulty or incomplete.

He did both his undergraduate and graduate studies at Cornell, which was at that time not a very common practice; but Cornell has one of the most scenic campuses in the world, and I suppose that may have been a factor. He was a practical joker, and maintained that any practical joke must be well-tailored to its recipient. He and some others, whose names I never learned, drove to the town of Gibson one fine night, and stole the town’s “Gibson” signs. They trucked them back to the Psychology department in Morrill hall, and mounted them at the door of Professor Gibson’s office. When Robby MacLeod, department chairman when I was there, came in and saw them, he remarked to the department secretary, “Don’t you think Gibby’s getting a little ostentatious?” –The signs, according to Rosenblatt, were eventually cut up for use in various projects around the department.

Rosenblatt built a digital computer for the Psych department, I believe while he was a grad student there (?). It was named EPAC, for Electronic Processing and Analyzing Computer, and it was remarked that the vacuum tubes in it would serve to make about a hundred and fifty record players. When I was there in 1958, only scraps of the machine remained, but I don’t think anyone made record players out of it. 

Rosenblatt was enthused about digital computing, and spent a lot of time in the Cornell Computing Center. He used the machinery for reducing data in various rat-psychology experiments, and gained vast experience thereby. As I recollect, the first machine he worked on was a “Card-Programmed Calculator”, a pretty primitive machine about which I know little more than its name and the fact that its memory and its program were the deck of cards you put into it. The IBM 650 that Cornell later got was a big step up for them. It was a two-address magnetic-drum memory machine, which could add two bi-quinary ten-digit numbers in, as I recollect, two 96-microsecond cycles. General opinion when the 650 arrived was that it was pretty lame, and that such a prestigious institution should have had an IBM 704 instead (This is complaint passed on secondhand; I was not there until the university got their Burroughs 220), but for many years Cornell ran second-best in computing: the CPC when opinion said 650; the 650 when perhaps they should have had a 704; the Burroughs 220; instead of an IBM 7090, a CDC 1604, which was later replaced by an IBM System 360 Mod 67, whose multitasking operating system did not work for the first two years (as I recollect). Rosenblatt’s researches involved simulation of neural networks on these machines. His feeling was that a Perceptron needed to have a large associator layer; something above a thousand A-units was necessary to get most of the brain-like characteristics that the beast seemed to promise. Such simulations involved generating instructions to access and sum random cells in the machine’s “retina”; you’d write a program that generated as many “ADD” instructions as the unit had excitatory connections, and as many “SUB” instructions as it had inhibitory ones, and the process was repeated for each associator unit, so that for a large Perceptron you got a generated program that pushed the boundaries of available magnetic-core memories. Cycle-time was very important, therefore; at five thousand operations per second (Burroughs 220) you could eat up lots of computer hours before getting anything useful out, but forty-thousand (IBM 704) would make much faster work of it.

Rosenblatt’s PhD was inked in, I believe, 1954 or so, so that he was dealing with pretty primitive machinery. Under such circumstances, one had to be very efficient about one’s code. Rosenblatt, in order to get time on the various machines, became pretty adept at this, and once told me that out of sheer desperation, he re-wrote and optimized a sociology student’s CPC program so that he could then take over the ninety percent of the time she was using that the rewrite saved her.

He was pretty good friends with Bruce W. (Tuck) Knight, Jr., a physicist as I recollect; Tuck had spent some time at Los Alamos and Eniwetok. Tuck was braumeister of the Collegetown Old Undershirt brewery, and usually had a batch in the crock, one aging in the bottle, and the currently drinking batch. The recipe was simple: Six gallons of water, one can of malt (Blue Ribbon Hop-flavored Malt syrup), five pounds of sugar, and a teaspoon of salt; add yeast and let it ferment for a week, skimming off the foam as it boiled up; bottle in quarts with a teaspoonful of bottle sugar to carbonate it. Occasionally you’d get a pretty potable batch, but mostly it was not what you’d call premium beer, its virtue being that you could get drunk on it. It took its name from the fact that you covered the crock with an old undershirt to keep flies and other undesirable elements out of the fermenting brew. Tuck had brewed beer on Eniwetok, and at Los Alamos. He collaborated with Rosenblatt and Dave Block on a seminal paper on four-layer perceptrons, which was the predecessor to Rosenblatt’s analysis of the cross-coupled system, and which promised some interesting results as far as pre-processing of stimuli went.

Just before I went to work for Rosenblatt the first time, I brewed a batch in Syracuse. Some time later I brought a quart of it down to Tuck’s apartment, and the three of us broached, decanted, and drank it, and Tuck pronounced it acceptable, but insufficient. However, the only brew available at the time had been bottled only two days before. I think we consumed two or three quarts of the green stuff, and I have vague recollection of drawing an enormous abstraction in pencil on Tuck’s kitchen wall before staggering home; the following morning’s suffering convinced me that consumption of such stuff was not a good idea, and taught me the real meaning of “hangover”. Tuck and Frank, however, seemed little affected. I went down to Tuck’s to view my artwork some time later, when I was feeling a little better, but Tuck had already sponged it off the paint. Ah, well.

Occasionally when bottling the brew one got distracted, and dumped a second teaspoon of sugar into the quart one was working on. When this happened, an explosion was the sometimes result, delayed enough that usually people were away from the brewery at work or elsewhere when the explosion happened. Tuck told of one instance when they’d come back and found brown glass embedded in a wall some forty feet from the bottles, and a landlady complaining of a “brown sticky fluid” dripping through her ceiling.

At one time shortly before my arrival, one Hong-Yee Chiu, a physicist, camped at Tuck’s place for a while. Hong-Yee built his own perceptron, a fairly small system; he had a pretty good sense of humor, and Rosenblatt later showed me some of the A-units from it: Hong-Yee had drawn faces on each of the plaster-potted A-units. He decided at one point that Old Undershirt was not potent enough, and took a couple of quarts up to the Physics department in Rockefeller Hall, and distilled it. I did not see or taste it, but was told that he brought back a Coke bottle full of a noxious substance that tasted like fire and was somewhat dangerous to drink. Many years later, I ran into Hong-Yee’s daughter on a Caltech website. I think she was entirely unaware of her dad’s stint at Cornell.

Readers should feel free to correct any faulty recollections they may encounter here, with my thanks. –Terrell E. Koken

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