Posts filed under 'Interviews'

An Interview with Ralph Echols (1922-2006)

In 2003 I had the pleasure of interviewing Ralph Echols, a World War II veteran who fought against the Japanese in northern Burma, at his home in north Dallas. Surrounded by his family, Mr. Echols relayed his experiences, some of which his children and grandchildren had never heard. This was one of the very first veteran interviews I conducted, and I was heart-broken when the audio from the interview was lost when my laptop completely crashed on me. However, Mr. Echols did provide me with some hand-written notes in preparation for our interview. Those notes are included here…

Note: Ralph H. Echols was born in Houston, Texas, on January 12th, 1922. He died on May 5, 2006. His obituary states: “ECHOLS, JR., RALPH H. Born on January 12, 1922 and died on May 5, 2006. Survived by his beloved wife of 50 years Phyllis Lesh Echols; daughters, Carole White, Barbara Kieschnick; son, Ralph Echols, III; grandchildren, Kelle and Brandon Kieschnick, Courtney Kieschnick Smith and husband Matthew Smith, Matthew White and Paul Echols. Ralph served in the US Army Air Corp. during WWII with the Flying Tigers as a P-40 Captain. He also received the Distinguished Flying Cross and other medals. Ralph graduated from SMU after the war. After graduating from SMU he went to work for ARCO as an electrical engineer.”

I was in the Army Air Corps, 14th Air Force in China. I enlisted in January of 1942, and I was discharged in the Fall of 1945. No injuries, except I do have a bum knee that I got from jumping off of a tent, of all things. I was trying to fix a stove, and those tents were made out of 2×4′s, and as I came back down, I jumped off, and that’s where I got my knee.

4 Air Medals, 2 Distinguished Flying Crosses, maybe 3.

I first heard we were at war at A&M.. I was playing touch football. Some idiot came out and said that Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. Well, I had never heard of Pearl Harbor. There was never any question- I was ready to go to war after being down there… We were all raised to go to war down there at A&M.. I was a freshman at A&M, 19 years old, no money. Tuition was 5 dollars. When the war started, I was ready to go to war… they had beaten my ass enough down there.

When I first got to boot camp they didn’t have any instructors, rooms, planes. It wasn’t until March that I got to Lackland in San Antonio. So that’s where we started. And we stayed there 3 or 4 weeks, and they drilled us, etc. I had never seen an airplane- none of us had ever seen an airplane- I’m serious about that. But I knew that I wanted to fly; mainly because you got 50% more pay, instead of $200 a month, you got $300 a month. That was a lot.

First time I went up in a training plane it was frightening I guess, but not overly so. The instructors were all old cropduster pilots; we did not get the cream of the crop, so to speak. I remember my first instructor would tell me “kick the stick”, which really meant to position the stick in a certain way. Well, I didn’t know that, so I would literally kick that stick. But everyone wanted to be a fighter pilot. At least half washed out, though. I was fortunate; actually I was pretty bad. I was on the brink of being washed out at least twice, maybe three times. And they knew my grades weren’t the best. Thankfully, we were given a check ride by an Army guy who knew what he was doing. And so, I passed.

After San Antonio, we went to Oklahoma City at Cimarron Field, and that was the beginning of flight training. We were there about two months. Each stage was about two months, except basic which was 6 weeks or so. I got to learn how to fly P-17′s.

I took my tactical training, after I got my Wings, in Tampa Bay. Mostly the guys down there were flying B-26′s. We were trying to ship us out as soon as possible. I originally thought, and thought that I was really suited for, going down to Panama. I had all the training for that, but then we really didn’t know where we were going to go. One morning they woke us up at 4:00 am, put us on a plane, and off we went on a plane to Brazil. We were on Ascension Island, then off through Chad, then on to India. As soon as we got to India, we were sent to Harachi, Pakistan. The real Flying Tigers- I wasn’t a real Flying Tiger, I was one of the guys that came in after the Flying Tigers- were coming out, out and we were coming in. Well, I don’t know if they arranged this or not, but we got a chance to be with those guys for about three weeks. We flew with them, talked with them about what they did, got a lot of insight and good advice, which was great. I really, really enjoyed that.

I really don’t remember my first mission; I remember most of them, but I don’t remember the first. One I do remember… I got the nickname “Dud” towards the end of the war. I had two or three nicknames during the war, but that was one of them. I bombed a place in northern Burma- kind of a fortress-looking thing, and my bomb went straight down a well- I mean right down that thing, and a big plume of smoke came right up, believe it or not. Just right up in the air, a big smoke ring, and everyone kidded me about that and started calling me Dud.

Most of the things I did were against the Japanese in northern Burma. It wasn’t a bad deal there- plenty to eat… if you notice, whenever I talk about China, we didn’t have much too eat over there. But it was OK in Burma. We were in there for a while, through the summer of ’43 we moved up to the Bama Kutra River, and stayed there though the late summer. Then we were all transferred, as a group, to China. This was about early Fall of ’43, down to Yun-Yang-Yi in China.

I flew P-40′s. Typical flying day in China started with us all reporting down at the flying line at 4:30 for instructions.. I don’t know why the hell we had to wake up that early, but we did. We didn’t have anything like radar, but we did have a fairly sophisticated radio system, which was actually operated by the Chinese, they would report what was going on- a plane spotted here or there, or troop movements, etc. Anyway, we would go eat breakfast after being briefed, and we would eat eggs. Not powdered, I mean fresh eggs. In fact that’s all we ever ate in China were goddamn fresh eggs! To this day, I can’t stand fresh eggs! We would go to the mess hall- it was pretty nice… we didn’t have electricity, but we had coal stoves. This was about 8-9k feet, so it got pretty cold. Lived with a constant headache the whole time we were there.

Depending on whether or not we thought we could catch a convoy or something early, we would take off pretty early when it was still dark. The P-40 has the ability to hold a single bomb, and we would use an electric switch to release it. Lots of times it just wouldn’t release; not mine, but it did happen to others, and we would lose those guys. We could carry up to a 500 pounder. Sometimes we would need to carry a gas tank underneath the plane if we were going far enough.

Add comment March 30th, 2007

An Interview with Howard Shao

In May of 2005 I had the pleasure of sitting down with Howard Shao, founder of Documentum, in Barcelona Spain during the Documentum’s European user’s conference. Documentum, now owned by EMC Corporation, is a leading enterprise content management (ECM) technology. Joining me for this interview was Jes Wills, a colleague and friend of mine. In this hour-long discussion, we touched on the current and future state of technology and Howard’s personal vision.  For an audio version of this interview, you can go to

Neil Brien: In different speeches and press releases you say that architecture cannot be an afterthought. What do you mean by that?

Howard Shao: One thing about building software is that it’s very much like building a house. Actually, believe it or not, in the software program at MIT the professor taught us architecture is everything. As an example, if you look at a mouse which is very agile running around the earth, but the fact is if you … blow him to the size of an elephant he will collapse on his own weight because his bone is hollow. Even though on the surface it looks like “why couldn’t mouse scale,” but the fact is structurally he was designed for that size and purpose and (it’s) the same thing [when] building a house. If you have a foundation that’s good for one or two stories. (If) you build ten on top of that it will topple. Same thing for software, data structures, layering, partition of the system. If you didn’t think through it doesn’t scale and that’s what I mean by after thoughts. Obviously you could renovate and you’ve got all the other things you could potentially do, but it’s often very painful.

One thing you often see in our world: we talk how our system is scalable and that’s reflected in multiple ways, but … the most fundamental level is our data model. Through analogy at my age we learn about FORTRAN programming and or C programming, right? We learn it’s very easy to write an array. Then you can just index access it or you can build a linked list. So obviously why wouldn’t everything be array? Everything could, except now you try to insert something in the middle. Now it becomes very painful, right? So it’s for what purpose it has and how you plan to grow and that also reflects after thoughts, meaning you had to think through what is the purpose, what is the intent of the scalability, to what range and what type of operation are you going to exert on that and then you come to a conclusion now what proper schema or model are you going to have and frankly that thoughtfulness has a pay off.

Frankly we didn’t always make mistakes because it’s very hard to anticipate what the future will be like ten, fifteen, twenty years from now. Frankly sometime even if we can anticipate, we may not be able to afford to build it that way. But from time to time we actually re-architected or cleaned up the portions which we know we had to go back and clean up. So we don’t just continue building (the) house. Occasionally we anticipate that the next level is going to exceed our foundation and we’ll go back and clean up the foundation, strengthen (it) and the people will continue to build, so it’s never in the situation so that we have an unbalanced architecture.

NB: Looking back on when you founded Documentum are there things that you wish you had done differently in the architecture?

HS: On the server side there isn’t that much and that’s partly because myself as well – John Newton and Razmik Abnous – we’re all database guys, so it wasn’t that we guessed right, we actually have done database for a decade or so and we’re the builder of database engines, so when we have a chance to build these; we kind of are already familiar with the general issue of if you think about Documentum both managing content but in a way that there is a lot of metadata tracking and that’s very analogous to database functionality. So that wasn’t a big deal and I think the biggest shock wave which we paid for was mostly the Internet era.

The flexibility of the web infrastructure and how quickly it evolved took us by surprise. I’m not sure necessarily how I would have done it differently, because living in that era is very difficult to anticipate where the future will lie. I remember for a while Marimba was going to be the thing of the future. Now nobody wants Java on clients, even Akamai is no longer in fashion, so it isn’t clear that at that point in time we could have done better. We probably could be more aggressive in investing money in that arena, but the truth is the majority of revenue and expense will be wasted.

I was listening to the Lester Thoreau’s pitch about – he is an economist at MIT – so, he was saying if you were Moses and you could talk to God in 1981 you go talk to God and God say, “invest in PCs because you will be shipping a quarter billion units a year.” And Moses comes down and he buys into the PC company; he will buy Commodore stock, because the real player like Microsoft did not show up until ’85, so I’m just saying it’s very difficult to bet on even the trends, but who knows? There could be more things done. But eventually we did manage to rebuild our architecture reflecting our learning and our competitor hasn’t and so far that has served us well.

NB: John McCormick (Senior VP at Documentum) mentioned this morning there was a debate as to whether or not Documentum version 5.3 should really have been versioned as 6. It looks like there will be a 5.4 version in about 15-18 months. McCormick had one slide with just a few statements about what 6 could be like and it sounded like you were going to address the repository, which has not been addressed for quite some time. What are some things that you think about when you think of 6?

HS: That’s fair. So, the learning about the Internet hasn’t stopped yet. What I mean by that is the Internet really are true learning. What is the user interaction to XML or the HTML, the hyperlink – all the things and collaboration among all, right, that’s very powerful. That’s now reflected in our system. But there is another thing that’s maybe not as obvious is the Internet turned out to be a highly agile infrastructure and totally self service meaning I bring up you to my website. I don’t need to inform everybody else in the world. It just takes care of itself, right? I introduce new a proxy server or a new cache somewhere. All the other browsers benefit from that, right? So if you think about it, that’s a departure from how we built our content infrastructure.

Our content infrastructure assumes planning; you anticipate; you sort of lay out in the right place (and) therefore, we do the right thing. It’s centrally managed and I think, while that’s not a bad idea, we can do better by taking the idea of the Internet, the more adaptive infrastructure. And so, imagine if our distributed content can automatically move around and find its way to the right place so cache and replication have no difference. Obviously that’s also part of the reason we got together with EMC, because we all in the last–actually it was thirteen years–I often thought if I had the ability to push more intelligence into the storage system the problem would get easier. So, for example maybe my software system Documentum don’t have to know the network topology. Let someone else delegate the problem down the line system.

The big difference between C and C++ versus Java is you don’t have to keep track of your pointers. You acquire, you free. In C if you mismatch you have corrupted the system. Java basically says the computer is so cheap let the computer tracked that. Well maybe not as quickly, but it’s got so much memory who cares? And you can imagine that may not be the absolute best and that may not be efficient, but it’s pretty effective. So the (my) thinking is like that. If my content replication, distribution – if my content can propagate to the right place, if my network then was as available and I can afford it, move it but have the systems still coordinate with each other–track it–and I think management of overall Documentum infrastructure could be dramatically simplified. That calls for a re-think of how we do business at the content infrastructure level.

NB: What about from a UI perspective? John mentioned about how with 6 you may have users able to drag and drop different components or sets of components and actually build applications for functionality through that method.
HS: That’s right. So that’s actually not something new to 6. It’s something we always have aspired to and build to. The fact is that 5.25 has already started doing that is, all our components are built in such a way it’s JSR 168 compliant, so why you can use WDK components in the Web Top that you can use it in the portal, have a drag drop behavior. We will take advantage of that infrastructure but go (to the) next step in the way I think the future application will be. Today if you use a product especially like an ERP system, even sometimes Documentum, you are using an interface, you’re seeing all the features laid out in the way somebody in the software vendor has chosen, have made the decision for you. A lack of a context about who you are, what your preference of what you exactly will be doing. Partly that was done because the infrastructure doesn’t support it, and partly because it’s not a well understood problem.

But because we’ve been investing aggressively in BPM engines and life cycle, you can imagine that actually by the time it’s your turn to do something I know actually who you are. I know you, therefore I know your preference, I know what your role is because it’s the context, I know where you in the process. So, potentially I can generate an application just for you, just for that role, just for that task – a moment in time. Then when you’re done you don’t necessarily have to check in everything, because since I know your context I know which one needs to be found, which one can be put away, which ones could be retained as memories and so we can get to the next level and hopefully the new user interface. It’s task-centric, role-centric and highly personalized. I think that’s something we’ve been working on, but you’re right; 6 is probably the time it will materialize as part of that offering.

NB: Will there also be with 6 a consideration of a closer integration with a hardware component or a more appliance view of the world as John talked about? I guess the follow-up question of that is what is the next integration point with EMC?
HS: When you think about and we already know that already, but the last fifteen months what really hit home is when I look at the major EMC drives, you open (them) up they have usually more computing powers than some of the servers, because that’s what it takes. Actually hardware guys have known now a long time that … how you implement–either software or hardware–it’s merely a design choice and so what they’re translating that into is we can pick and choose what the proper functionality is and then courtesy of VMware you can imagine I can easily wrap into say a software appliance. Now if I choose to put in an Intel processor and put it in the box that’s hardware appliance, but the flexibility is there.

So a couple of implications: one is something that we’ve been working on and we’re telling everybody about it is the embedded systems. People often think an enterprise system implies gigantic size. Actually, our footprint is not that big. We have a lot of products. That’s why often sometimes it looks big. But, the server itself and all the key components are rather small. To demonstrate, typically our system engineers with a laptop have everything we have running and can support basically a second prototype running. So, we can fit that in there, and imagine that we run Linux which we do. We run it on some open software, database, app server, whatever. Actually, it may not be open software, but it will be something inexpensive cost-wise and essentially I can create a content management appliance that can be distributed rapidly and that’s well within our capability and if nothing else, the EMC folks—-the classical hardware guy–will be better at selling the product.

But there is something that’s pretty cool that I’m working on with our EMC team. It’s actually trying to get all the file systems under control. So, what I mean by that is, to benefit from Documentum–to have a proper classif[ification] putting (the file) in the right folder with all the access control and life cycle–implies you have to check key every file which is great, but as hard as I try, 90% of the information is still on the shared drives or laptop for that matter. They’re not inside Documentum. True the high value (files) are in there, but there is so much more outside and the typical files that people look at.

If you run an analysis you’ll find out almost 50% of the information is duplicated. Because imagine I send you a PowerPoint document and what would you do? If you think that’s irrelevant well you will immediately put it in your shared folders and where everybody makes a copy (and) EMC thanks you for that, right? And then people come and go. It’s like my laptop. I never delete any file, because I’m always afraid I may lose something, so my drive goes from under 5 Gig to now 80 Gig and I’m running out of space. So imagine what could be done is with Documentum we could easily catalog everything. Since we already have a concept of external content I have no reason to take the content in. I could apply, I could analyze, I can look at all the files throughout, I could change the file names.

With our content intelligence service I can figure out what the concept is about. Doing some hash key of things I can find out whether there is a uniqueness and then imagine after I’ve done that I can now actually management your file system. One thing is if I find out all the duplicates I can remove every one of them, but fix up the link to only the original file. Now why didn’t we do that before? Because I don’t control the file system, but EMC has a file system. So, as far as the user is concerned every file remains in the same place, but they all point to the same place now. Now imagine the next step. I say, well now all these contracts and things like that should be on this shared drive. Import it into Documentum silently then leave the forwarding address where they are, so when the user is trying to access contract through their normal file system they get it.

NB: Like a break crumb?

HS: Exactly, but the real file is now under management with record management and all the proper “take care.”

NB: The user doesn’t care.

HS: That’s right, exactly. So we preserve the location integrity, which is really how people think about that kind of information. Yeah, we’re adding all sorts of value in a totally non-intrusive manner, and that can completely redefine what so-called managed content is and what it isn’t. It isn’t just copying to Documentum. I can decide this one was important, therefore move it to a disaster recovery site, but you don’t want everybody’s MP3 all moved over. Maybe you want, maybe you don’t, but the fact is now you can start choosing it. You do all those back-ups, archives, disaster recovery without human interventions. You just have to have a policy.

That’s also part of what EMC calls Information Life Cycle Management. So I can also tier to a slower storage serial ATA and things like that, but in essence all your information could be under management. And, actually, the level of management–the level of effort–can for the first time proportion to your business needs. It’s not an all or nothing exercise and something like that will be a natural progression of our marriage and we hope to have that out soon enough.

NB: We know from a Content Management perspective you have competitors like FileNet and Hummingbird, but with Information Life Cycle Management, if you look at two years from now, what are the threats to the strategy that you talked about?

HS: Well, actually Information Life Cycle Management is something that pretty much everybody embraced. EMC is the one I think coined the phrase of Information Life Cycle Management pretty much the same way we talk about Content Life Cycle. The thesis is information has different values in during its life cycle so you don’t need to … put that in the most expensive places all this time, because it doesn’t pay off and be able to assert knowing where they are through application awareness and application agnostic information like when it was last accessed and stuff like that, you can dramatically reduce your cost without sacrificing the service level. So that’s a very much a user perspective value proposition.

We really don’t see anybody who’s come out attacking that. The fact is, we see pretty much all the storage vendors are lining up embracing that–big or small. We’re talking about IBM, I’m talking about HP or Hitachi. Everybody is. If you go to the storage conference that’s what they all talk about. And, also, in the storage world the customer also has a huge demand for interoperability. So actually in that area we did a pretty good job, Documentum has. And EMC also encourages that we continue that way and actually the overall EMC software group – Dave DeWalt is the head of that organization – he is aggressively using our past experience best practice to recruit partners, open up the infrastructure, so instead of being highly competitive at every turn we’re really looking for a win-win, or “coop-petition” with pretty much everyone. Cooperation if possible, but at the end of day we believe we’ll be successful if we listen to the customer and deliver what they wanted rather than spend all our energy preserving what little we can … hold onto.

NB: Are there things in 5.3 that you’re especially proud of where customers said “we really want this” and you were able to deliver?

HS: Yes. There are really several things. I think the biggest one, which my personal pride and joy is the BPM engines. We’ve done a good job in that one. I always had aspirations to do a good job in that. That’s why we always had that router or workflow in there, but this time we really kick it up a notch and take the best practice off all the BPM engine and sunk enough money in there and actually being used by some of the largest mortgage processing—those high end BPM and then we benchmark that so we can have millions of transactions per hour for the workflow process. So that’s something that’s important.

The other one is less obvious to see. I’m talking about a user benefit thing is the time they spent in polishing the user interface and we are already getting feedback from our customer base. Customers say migration from the 5.2 to 5.3 actually requires significantly less customizations. A lot of things that you’re starting to do are all gone and a lot of our user interface–there is much less clicks to do. Ironically that’s a different server architecture. On (the) server people can see the benefits of that and UI – it’s attention to detail. It’s a polishing. It’s a huge amount of effort, but it’s not obvious where they are but if you’re a user you’re not hitting those speed bumps every step of the way and that’s very significant. These two are very user visible.

Architecturally obviously the most important thing for us is unification. Unification – it’s a dangerous word meaning we always unify – meaning we have a strategy – actually more than a strategy. here is a sort of ongoing religion. We acquire a company; we never buy one to sort of just connect them side by side. We don’t buy market share. We always pick up domain knowledge, which is expensive because we basically not only have to learn what the functionality is, we have to re-implement that so it will become part of our core competency and we’ve been doing that. Obviously when we first bought Bulldog, which is digital asset management systems and Relevance we’ve done each one of those things, but eRoom, by the time we bought that it was a pretty big company already. They do hundreds of millions annually and frankly they have a lot of know how that we did not have, so this one turned out to be a multiyear unification exercise and also TrueArc has been the record management being pooled in together. That’s painful. That’s painful, but I think it’s very exciting now, because you can do collaboration.

Well actually the whole idea is you should be able to have your user interface like we talked about past centrex so you should be able to do anything using any functionality inside of Documentum unconstrained by the application packaging or engineering architecture, which is a big difference flaw on unified products, because then you basically have to jump from one UI to another UI and one function doesn’t interoperate with another. We basically eliminated that so we can basically continue. You should be able to do anything you want unconstrained by technology. So again, it’s focus on the customer – what they wish to see.

NB: The other big one which affects users is the whole idea of information access. So you made a big switch from Verity to FAST. Can you tell a little bit about the switch?

HS: It wasn’t the main point of switching from Verity to FAST. It’s a very important one, but as I had mentioned in the beginning the architecture is not an after thought, but occasionally you learn something you need to redo. Why I rebuilt the whole server during the late ‘90s, search infrastructure was not rebuilt. We did not know enough about that. So the Internet really showed us the power of search. Actually it’s all about search and through search you emulate organization structure and also a collaboration capability as evidenced in by Google.

So, through that process we are always torn between how do you search fast yet secure. So nobody wants to one day expose everything inadvertently. So we finally figured it out, meaning I want to be able to deliver Internet search experience – I mean, sub second response yet ACL applied. You can imagine that’s a long trivial exercise. So we end up having to rethink how we built the system not to mention I ended up doing the XML which all the components of the structure or the folder or in the picture, so it’s a pretty big problem. It’s clearly a problem that we did not understand fifteen years ago. We finally got it, so other than we end up having to re-architect that particular portion. We yanked a whole portion of code out. We did that. When we do that it’s reasonable to say we still have the state of art search engine underneath us that can deliver. The world had changed. Our first repository maximum number of objects you can have in your database was four billion. Now it’s not a big deal. We rewrote 256 peta objects.

So Verity is like Documentum. Verity is actually older than Documentum. Its architecture reflects on the older thinking and to my disappointment they did not rewrite their servers, so what that translates into in extreme size of system we are free. I don’t think it we’re ready to say they definitely could not scale, but we are concerned how well they could scale. Now given we have a choice to look at alternatives we choose to go where it was one search engine – a well known Internet scale search engine, which is Fast and so we did two things. We re-architect and we pick a different vendor and we’ll go with that, but the other thing we also have done is we realize we may not be right and also an Internet search – just technology evolved that – the speed is unheard of. Frankly the money really helped driving that. We have now open system interface. What that means is now if the user feels Verity is appropriate we can still work with Verity to build a connector, so the Verity engine is still the one embedded or it could be FAST or it could be anybody else that may come along which has better mouse that people like. We make it open. It’s flexible now.

NB: Speaking of the future looking at some of the technological opportunities over the last ten years you’ve had the Internet, you’ve had mobile connectivity, nanotechnology is emerging. What are some emerging technologies that you think will impact the space of ILM?

HS: There are quite a few things. There is short term and longer term. The short term one I’m particularly psyched about (is) RSS. RSS, blog, WIKI- I think that’s changed the interaction model. Imagine anything you put in a folder I can syndicate through RSS. Who needs web content management? No, that’s exaggeration, but you can imagine management intranet website could be dramatically easier and I’m sure it’s just like any new technology–I most likely underestimate what it could do. But I see (in) RSS, blog and WIKI (that) they democratized the sharing of the information. They’ve gone beyond what the web could do and that means if you translate it into our world probably it means the exciting thing is contribution into a content repository world gets easier, simpler. A next level of – frictionless is possible. I think it’s a short term.

Longer term I’m particularly excited more like for grid computing higher bandwidth. Internet2 is going to hit the market commercially. It’s already on campus and that means it’s a hundred times the current Internet speeds. That completely redefines what’s near and what’s far, what caching means, what disaster recovery means. So when I talk about the content network initially we think that’s what we anticipate – something like that. That would be really powerful. That also means where the software engines sit could be very different. I think ASP in another life could be successful. If you’re thinking about Google an example I hear people use Gmail and actually build a file system and UI on top of that. Somehow nobody’s getting nervous. It’s not exactly … next door, so while I don’t think that particular implementation will win, I think that’s behavior modification so people just get comfortable with doing that type of thing. I think those type of things are pretty exciting – will change the world.

Overall I think virtualization, the location transparency – all the things will finally come to fruition.

NB: Someone said they remember talking to you ten years ago and you had mentioned that it was a personal hope of yours that Documentum would be one of the supporting technologies that would help find a cure for cancer. Tell me a little bit about that.

HS: Yes. So that’s also part of why we have aggressively invested in collaborations and so one of our taglines-—well we only had one tagline for a while – was “Uniting the world through content.” We may not be able to make anybody smarter, but hopefully we can at least let any individual know everything there is to be known about a particular topic, so out of that insight will come and there lies the categorization of the file system that ECIS can search all repositories, data systems or all content management system. And that’s also our acquisition of Relevance, content intelligence service, concept categorizations and things like that. Another thing is also why we are aggressively driving (the) content value chain. That means you go for the biotech, pharmaceutical, contract manufacturer, contract research hospital, FDA – we’re trying to link all that together and by getting everybody into a similar infrastructure – it does not have to Documentum obviously to be a standard, to be visible, accessible. I think we ultimately will change people’s lives. It may actually save our lives individually, because … I believe mistakes should be made only once and a lesson learned by everyone. So it’s a good point you say.

I think another thing, there is not enough progress, but I hope to drive part of that: overall knowledge management. Actually I should say courtesy of those terrorist activities they are a renewed interest in analytical content and analytical discover relationship where they are now. That’s the base for knowledge mining and we see more research in that arena and we would like to help out as well. The world will just be a better place.

NB: I know you’re very passionate about this stuff and there are a lot of founders who after they went public they would have quit or done something else, but you are still very, very involved. What drives you? What keeps you going?

HS: I think it has a lot to do with why would somebody start a company? It’s some for the glory, some for the money, some for the process – whatever. I did this because I think I really saw the world could be a better place like I mentioned those content value trying to sharing and learning and because I believe that and I also have been looking back. If you think about fifteen years ago what the world was like today, but back then what is today? Look at the type of things we could do today. We talk about pharmaceutical and new drug getting to market six months to a year quicker. Power plants (that) used to take four years to build can be done in two and a half years. A lot of things get done quicker, faster, more accurate and we are changing people’s life and (at the) end of day I’d like to leave the world a better place than I started. I also feel everybody feels that way. Life will be easier and I think I’m sure many people have the same wish, but I’m in good fortune that I actually could see the change made. That’s a huge reinforcement for me – actually for our team. You look at the world which you couldn’t share information easily until today. It’s a different world. It’s a better world and I know a few more years it will get better. It will get better and hopefully when my girls grow up they wouldn’t know what the ancient world was like. What a kick.

Jes Wills: If you weren’t doing this what would you be doing?

HS: It never occurred to me.

JW: This was always what you wanted to do?

HS: I always wanted to change the world for better. Actually in a way I’m merely trying to restore a timeline. I’m science fiction fan. So 1978 I’m a graduate of MIT. At that time there was Multix, there is VAX… software was the way it’s supposed to be; all the virtualization, VM, all those things were there. Then there was DOS which threw the world completely into tangents. Now credit (goes) to Microsoft. Now we have all these PCs, but a lot of the computer science knowledge is rendered irrelevant overnight. Not anymore. They’re coming back now. And we find even Microsoft is going to have a versionable file system eventually soon enough. EMC will have one, but I think … we’re getting back to the right track to really benefit from computer science. I think we have a very high level of all the innovations then we sort of go to the lowest common denominator. We’re rebuilding it. It takes a while. It takes a while. So to be able to put it back, it’s a good thing.

JW: Have there been any bits of architecture and pieces of architecture you put into Documentum where you’ve kind of been surprised that people didn’t share what you wanted to do with it and they’ve done stuff and you said, that really wasn’t what I planned or you had the vision and you put the pieces in and then it’s—

HS: That’s a good point. So when it comes to architecture I practice active management. Here’s an old phrase I learned from our old CEO Jeff Miller. He said, inspect, don’t expect. Architecture generally is another thing. Even architecture rebuilding they go into what work site to check, so we do that. Occasionally we do have incorrect implementation but by next release we get them out, because I’m firm believer there is no right way of doing the wrong. Take two, so if somebody took us the wrong path it’s easier just to shoot that problem and restart again and that’s why it’s expensive to keep it up, but we have benefit[ed] from that. We never evolved this as quickly as I wished and so I’ve been like this (for) fifteen years. If you ask me, I thought the world would be this way ten years ago. I’m learning. I’m learning. The world [isn't moving] at a pace I (would) like it (to).

NB: Is there anything else that we didn’t ask that you wanted to share?

HS: Since a lot of developers read your things I thought that there is a sort of culture I want to encourage. As we grow bigger people may be afraid of it, but we’re really reinforcing. Years ago I worked for a company who was famous for that technology, but not much of solutions and so when I start a company I focus on solution then we build a platform to deliver the solution. That has not changed and will not change. That’s actually how we’re trending. What we’re looking for is more developers who actually understand what we want to do and to help us get there. So change the world together. What that translates into the call to action is actually “talk to us,” say “this area sucks, fix this, fix that.” Tell us what we do wrong, and whether we [fix] it together… Like you helped us get the import done, because our customers say, how ridiculous is it to have a content management system with no easy way to import a system in there. Those are oversized and things like that. I think we’re trying to encourage … this one becomes a community and we would also like to know and say, “hey we don’t think you should be in this field. (Get) out of here,” or whatever, because that’s another thing I do. I want to be a kinder, gentler company, so it’s not like my way or no way exercise. Part of it is encouraging people to share our vision then go there together. Not here is EMC and thank you very much. That’s also why we invest in the community is we care. This problem is way too big for any individual, any company to solve and everybody sees this interaction. We could make a difference. We’re making a difference, but we could make a bigger difference if quicker.

I’m getting low on patience. I want to build before I retire.

NB: Is it as much fun now as it used to be or do you have to be so much more careful with what you say and who you talk to? Has anything changed since you started?

HS: Yes and no. We will talk about the difference between and start and here. It’s actually E=MC squared ironically. When you start you have high velocity acceleration for less mass. Now you have lots of mass and less velocity. You multiply together. That’s equal to impact and so I think there is some weight shifting, but clearly we’re careful what we say. Actually more importantly is I certainly feel and I’m sure a lot of our executives feel that way there is implied obligations meaning when I’m smart doing anything I want I’m less likely to cause collateral damages especially in our partner organization, because just like I see my employees or our team’s. It’s not my employees now, but I feel if you’re my team you bought my story, so we’re together and we should go to bat together, we have a lot together. It’s not like I’m stronger, you’re weaker, I win exercise. So now we are bigger EMC. I could inadvertently do things which are unintended causing harm and sometime even corrective action takes time to fix it, so that’s part of why I want to get more feedback or hear people who guide us. At least we have a willingness to listen and so I want to make sure as we are addressing customer’s needs, because what our customer is asking is give us a solution that can be deployed readily, cost hardly anything. I ask who doesn’t want that? And that’s as we’re moving from that so called visionary early adopter now to the mainstream invention laggers. People have different expectations. We have to move into an arena’s certain area, so we are trying to foretell our direction much in the longer term so everybody can kind of get out of the way or people know where to collaborate with us to magnify the power and benefit from that and I thought those things are becoming a bigger issue in my mind than ever.

NB: So is it the difference between steering a small boat and steering an oil tanker?

HS: Yes. Very much so. Yeah. It’s no longer sort of a joy ride’s let the wind take me. Right? Now I have to plow the path, because otherwise I would .. I could run onto the island too. You know what I’m saying? So yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s more premeditated; more thinking going behind. But the good news is when I get there I do get there and it’s what we can move the whole industry to, so that’s another thing. Besides another thing for the developer is I really think part of the reason for our willingness to sell to EMC – to join forces with EMC is I do think software industry is a joy and I often think some of my hero economists because they see (the) macro-picture. So, in 1900 there are about 1,000 automotive vendors, because every bicycle manufacturer is now building cars. Thirty years later there are hundreds of automotive companies. Fifty years later three automotive companies. Distribution channel behind each dealership’s manufacturing capability even though just a few that distinguish people from the first top three and the rest of it just gone. I think software is gradually turning into that situation. Channels matter. Customer wants only one neck to choke, they’re looking for solutions that are interoperable, so if you think about Documentum partnership it is not only just building on the platform.

What we can bring [to] our developer community is we can bring channels to the community. So that’s why Rob Tarkoff is strategically driving that. Imagine that in the future it’s the catalog. You can buy all the accessories, therefore you know this product works and it’s greater for customers and greater for our developers, but because you don’t have to worry about the channel’s setup. Life gets easier and so that’s another angle to look at this now is beyond this particular software supplier. We can do more for our partners.

NB: Howard, thank you so much for taking time out to speak with us.

HS: Thank you. I really enjoyed the discussion.

Add comment March 29th, 2006

An Interview with Dr. Thomas Dunlap

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Recently I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Dr. Thomas Dunlap, who teaches History at Texas A&M University. Dr. Dunlap is the author of several books and articles, including Nature and the English Diaspora. His forthcoming work, Faith in Nature, describes the environmental movement as the ultimate commitment. Our interview focused on the life of Alexander von Humboldt, the great naturalist who explored much of Central and South America from 1800-1804. However, our discussion also touched upon a variety of subjects including natural history, and the future of the environmental movement.When Charles Darwin embarked on his famous voyage to the Galapagos Islands aboard The Beagle, he took along only three works to read- the Bible, Milton, and the writings of Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt has been somewhat lost to history, but his influence on modern natural history, ecology, geography, and taxonomy cannot be overstated. Darwin revered him; even Thomas Jefferson, who entertained Humboldt during a 6 week stop-over following the completion of his expedition, called him an “intellectual giant”, and was an enthusiastic correspondent throughout the rest of their lives.In October of 2003 I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Thomas Dunlap, Professor of History at Texas A&M University. Our conversation focused on von Homboldt and his legacy for future generations ofHumboldt_small (Dunlap).jpg scientists, but also touched on environmental policy and other topics. Dr. Dunlap is the author of three books, DDT: Scientists, Citizens, and Public Policy; Saving America’s Wildlife; and Nature and the English Diaspora. The author of numerous articles and book chapters, Dr. Dunlap has also served as Chairman of the Forest History Society. His forthcoming book is Faith in Nature, due out in March of 2004, from The University of Washington Press.

Neil Brien: Tell me a little about yourself, what you teach, and maybe how you got interested in natural history.

Dr. Thomas Dunlap: Oh, good heavens! Well, I grew up in the country. I was just one of those kids who grew up in the country; I was bussed to school. I was out in.. well, in high school we literally lived out in the woods about four miles in northern New Hampshire in what was then regarded as “summer people” country. I was going to be a chemist like my father. Eventually I got sort of straightened around…

NB: Straightened around? (laughter)

TD: Well, I started thinking about what I wanted to do for a living, as it were… and after I got drafted I spent two years in the army, got out, came back to school and asked the professor I knew before I got drafted, “do you remember me?” He said yes, and so I told him that I was in history now, and asked him what he thought I should do my Master’s thesis on. And he said that given my background in chemistry, a history of DDT would be a natural. Now, this was 1970. So I started on that, and that’s where I started getting interested in things like our whole attitude towards nature because it seemed that DDT was an ideal vehicle for talking about how Americans deal with nature, how science changes our ideas about nature, etc. And I had a wonderful time doing that. I moved on from there to writing a book about wildlife policy, and then Nature and the English Diaspora, and now I’ve got another one that’s coming out with the University of Washington Press called Faith in Nature, and it will be out in March or April, and it’s about environmentalism as the ultimate commitment. That is, the way people see their commitment to the environment as part of their description of how they see themselves as human beings, and their relation to the world, and how people therefore ought to live. It’s… it’s exactly William James’ definition of religion, a sense that there is something beyond us; that our happiness lies in adjusting ourselves to that power, or rather to that world, as it were. And that’s basically what happened- one thing led to another, and luckily I’ve been able to combine my interest as a child with my interest in nature, and… well, I watch birds.. and with, you know, my professional work. And I’ve been able to take advantage of my scientific background.

NB: What were some of the influences that got you interested in natural history? What were some of the characters that drew you to the subject?

TD: Well, it started out with two things: a) just living in the country, and b) all the nature books that were lying around in the public library, books like Thornton W. Burgess’ Tales of the Big Woods. And that’s really what I started with when I was in about second grade. I would get these natural history books out of the library about topics like.. the classification of fishes. And when I was in grade school I read all of the old romantic nature writers of the 1890′s like Charles Roberts and Ernest Thompson Seaton.. the same ones that people like Loren Eiseley and Aldo Leopold had been reading a generation before. Because I was out in the country we had attic sweepings in the public libraries. I wasn’t really forward, or current on this stuff- I think I was 16 before I read Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us. But I just read everything in natural history I could find, which isn’t saying much. I read everything I could get my hands on that had print on it including the cereal box. So, I had much more of an interest before I even knew that natural history was a science, or was a kind of standard discipline.

NB: Reading about Humboldt, he was certainly influenced by the whole German enlightenment, especially Kant’s writings about the unification of all science.. how everything is related to everything else, which was a radical idea at the time..

TD: Yes

NB: Was he perhaps the first true ecologist, or at least one of the first true ecologists? He made observations while he was in the Andes, came up with the whole theory of “stratification” for example…

TD: Oh yes- and it was an enormously influential theory.. I mean, there’s the enlightenment idea about the unification of knowledge. But there was also, and this is the thing that really drove a whole generation of people, the idea of natural history, that is that now it is possible for us to catalog every living thing in the world and understand all of them. It was often linked to natural theology, the idea of somehow understanding God by understanding the world. It was also the idea that if we could.. just put all of this together, we could actually see what was going on. And with Humboldt, it was the further idea that once we knew the particulars, then we would know the generalities. If you knew the butterfly and the mountain, then you would know how the two related to each other… you would understand the true sense of the world. Humboldt had that sort of glittering vision, which was quite influential. But his big influence on people was the fact that he went out and spent five years in South America.. I mean everybody from Charles Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace, John Muir, all wanted to go out and collect in the Tropics. And they explicitly wanted to go out and collect in the Tropics because they read Humboldt. Humboldt sets himself not only as an intellectual figure, but as a very romantic, emotional, and active figure. Humboldt becomes for the 19th century the ideal of the scientific explorer, and indeed it’s a combination of intellect and romance that I think really accounts for much of Humboldt’s long-term influence on several generations of people.

NB: Why is he not better known today? I mean, everyone knows who Darwin is.. everyone knows about the voyage of the Beagle…

TD: Right.

NB: With Darwin you mention his name, and you either get a smile, or you get a scowl. But anytime you mention the name Humboldt, you get “Oh yeah- Humboldt County”..

TD: Yes.

NB: Or the Humboldt Current…

TD: Or it’s the Humboldt Sink.. his disciples put his name all over the world. But you’re right; it’s surprising because Humboldt at the time was extremely well-known, and his theories were quite influential. He did develop the idea of stratification, which shows up in the life zone theories and in the biological surveys which then go on to influence the ecological classification of North America in the 20th century. In the 1850′s, Humboldt’s theories were the basis for Frederick Church’s landscape paintings. Things like the Heart of the Andes (1859) were explicitly designed to show Humboldtian bio-geography.. you know, the whole picture is the tropics at the bottom, right up to the Arctic at the top (of the picture). And Church had prepared, in fact, to ship the painting over to Germany so Humboldt.. so “The Master” could approve it. Unfortunately Humboldt died by then, but there you have the whole thing from landscape geography to actual, what we think of as “hard science.” Humboldt had an incredible influence. And you’re right, he did essentially “drop out”.. part of the problem was that Humboldt neverchilean_ruins (Dunlap).jpg wrote a single, clear work that “stamped” his theories as the statement of his influence in the public mind. He wrote Kosmos which was designed to unify everything, but it was huge, it was diffuse, it had all sorts of things in it, and he had no single monument. Darwin wrote The Origin, and quite aside from anything that Darwin wrote, that in itself would have made a serious reputation, because everyone remembers The Origin. But there’s no single idea closely associated with Humboldt today that seizes the public imagination. He did drop out of the public interest and the public view fairly soon after his death.

He’s not an attractive figure in the modern intellectual world. He’s faded down to people talking about him as a mere influence, and he didn’t have a life that left behind traces… the adventure that he undertook really doesn’t resonate today, and seems to appear to people today as too conventional; he went out and discovered things, and measured them. Well, we know about both of those. I mean, Darwin is the key romantic figure; here’s a man wrestling with this enormous intellectual problem. He doesn’t go anywhere adventurous so to speak, but he has embarked upon this really perilous intellectual voyage, which Humboldt never does. That’s why I think Humboldt doesn’t attract, because we’re not interested in the sort of intellectual problems he faced, and the sort of character that would do that sort of thing.

NB: I read a letter that Louis Agassiz, a famous Humboldt disciple, had written in which he sadly commented that even in the 1840′s, he understood that 100 years hence, he thought that few would remember Humboldt. And he attributed it to the fact that at the time of the Enlightenment, the “Renaissance Man” concept was still in full force. You had not yet seen the sectionalization of knowledge, and that really didn’t start to change until towards the end of Humboldt’s lifetime. It seemed to me that Agassiz felt that Humboldt had not advanced a single theory, but had rather advanced a dozen or more theories.

TD: Well, there’s something to that, but Darwin himself was a classic naturalist, and Darwinian evolution comes straight out of natural history which was supplanted by the 1880′s.. I don’t think it was so much the education or the specialization, as it was the lack of an idea that would serve the next generation as a scientific focus, and indeed the great project that Humboldt would be identified with, that is the classification of everything on earth and exploring the world, as far as visible organisms were concerned, was pretty well over by the 1890′s. And in a sense, Humboldt is a figure from the Enlightenment. Darwin was a figure from the Enlightenment, but he was also a figure from the next generation which involves not just discovering and classifying organisms, but relating them to one another. And in a real sense, Darwin picked a problem that occupied people. Whereas Humboldt had something that, along with the next few years, people saw as a great project, died with the 19th century. He wasn’t so much a person of his own time, but he did suffer from the fact that science became specialized, that science and the humanities was splitting, whereas his major goal was to unify them. And you’re just at the point where it began to diverge into what we came to see as two cultures. But he was trying to run the opposite way. His reputation may get rediscovered, and I think to some extent it has been. There have been some appreciations of Humboldt, by Stephen Jay Gould for example, comes to mind. But to some extent it will need to be the result of some new intellectual current.

NB: At the beginning of his travel narrative he writes, “In a few hours we sail round Cape Finisterre. I shall collect plants and fossils and make astronomic observations. But that’s not the main purpose of my expedition – I shall try to find out how the forces of nature interact upon one another and how the geographic environment influences plant and animal life. In other words, I must find out about the unity of nature.” Is that the whole theme of 19th century natural philosophy?

TD: Not really. At the time most of what was done was on the particulars.. Let’s put it this way- Linnaeus develops the basis for classification… In one sense, Humboldt is one of those followers. He literally sends people out and says, “Go and collect in the far corners of the world.” And some of them died from disease out there. They became the original martyrs of science. And Humboldt himself was doing exactly that. He was in essence from that older generation. But the unity of science, he wants to do it by measurement. And in that sense he moves forward into science. One of the hidden legacies of Humboldt is that you see the beginning of serious quantitative studies of natural history. He was one of the first people to pay serious attention to bringing along instruments that will accurately measure things, and recording observations, and continuing to record observations, and keeping his instruments in good repair. He wasn’t satisfied with a collection here or a collection there. He measured everything. And if you look at the list of instruments that he took along with him, it’s just incredible.

NB: I thought we might spend a few minutes talking about the expedition itself, and how they physically did this. He catalogs at least 40 different instruments they took along, and one of them, if I remember correctly, was a two-inch sextant?

TD: Yes.

NB: Another was designed to measure the gravity of seawater.. I mean as far as the journey itself, if he hadn’t been introduced to the Spanish court, it probably wouldn’t have happened..

TD: Oh no…

NB: But as far as the journey itself, how did one go about planning such a journey?

TD: From a physical point of view, it relied very heavily on horses and servants. You simply have got to get someone to pack all this stuff and carry it, and then get it into the canoes. But it also involved an enormous amount of physical attention by the people involved. That is, Humboldt couldn’t simply allow people to pack these things; he’s got to keep watch on these things. He’s got to make sure they’re packed correctly and watch them closely. He’s got to keep them in good operative order and calibrated correctly. In effect, he spends a great deal of time watching over the instruments, far more than ever really shows up in the narrative. In the narrative, it sometimes appears that they’re moving along at a leisurely pace, and in some ways it certainly is true; they spend a few months here or there, they go to a mission and spend some time, but part of it is that they’ve got to transport all this stuff…which takes time, and then he’s got to be around to make all of these observations. What’s also missing from the personal narrative is the repetitious nature of the work that must be done to collect all these observations. You know, he talks about climbing and so forth, but he’s also making observations as he goes up.. notes, observations, etc. He created a catalog really, of bits and pieces of data that, when put together, will describe what nature is like. It’s that great little intellectual dream. One of the things about the unification of knowledge, and E.O. Wilson has in fact explicitly revised and committed himself to it in Consilience, is related to this very point. It’s in fact a modern recurring dream; people want it. But in the 19th century it dropped out. Everybody wanted to collect all the particulars. We were going to understand nature by dividing up everything into little bits and pieces. And Wilson really ratifies that by in effect saying, well, now we’re ready to continue the project. Now we know enough about socio-biology that we can do this sort of thing. Which was by implication was that the Enlightenment figures of the 19th century could not. They carried it as far as they could. Then we had to wait for 200 years of science, a particular kind of science so to speak, before we could begin the great Reunification project.

NB: What does the reunification project mean for the environmentalism movement?

TD: I don’t think there’s any way to see it as a single line of influence. Environmentalism as a movement is built upon the idea that we are all part of the world, and that we’re all connected to it, and that everything we do has consequences. We can’t throw things away, because there’s nowhere to throw everything away to- everything we do, we are all part of the world. We can’t take bits and pieces. And that really depends upon ecology, the idea of interconnectedness, and food chains, and trophic levels, and all these other things which in effect give a scientific backing, and a scientific picture of the romantic intuition that human beings are part of nature. And until something else emerges.. I mean Wilson has an idea of unifying knowledge, but socio-biology hasn’t proven to be, shall we say, the “spark” everybody wants. It’s come under serious attack, it has its own intellectual limitations.. it may be the thing that transforms the movement, but I really wouldn’t bet on it.

NB: E.O. Wilson, he’s sort of known primarily as “the ant guy”…

TD: Yes.

NB: He has a firm belief in the unification of all living things, and in The Diversity of Life, he’s sitting there in the African bush listening to the buzz saws, and these two worlds are going to collide, and it’s going to be awful… I remember a story I heard once about John Sununu speaking with Wilson about species extinction, and Sununu trying to get Wilson to say that it’s “OK to lose a few (species)”. Apparently Wilson was firm in his counter-argument, and supposedly Sununu said, “Well, I guess the devil is in the details.” To which Wilson replied, “No- it’s God that is in the details.”

Has this attitude changed at all? It seems that environmental policy has taken a beating lately. In terms of the movement, if you had to drive a stake in the ground, where are the winds right now as far as political change?

TD: Well, as far as political winds, it’s all running against the environmental movement. The Bush administration is by far the most radical anti-environmentalist administration we’ve seen… it’s far worse than James Watt under Ronald Reagan. And it clearly has an enormous amount of support from Bush’s backers. On the other hand there’s still, and this continues to be true, a shift within the public. That is, people do accept a lot of things. They accept that 40 years ago would have been completely strange in terms of context. Reality has in fact driven many of these things. If you read Ecotopia, for example, which was written in 1974, it has these utopian ideas about recycling. Well, those utopian ideas can now be found within American cities. There’s a whole set of things that seemed quite radical and odd in the 1970′s that have become so deeply incorporated into policy now. No one thinks, for example, that we can simply keep pouring cars into the Los Angeles basin and let them drive around. Everyone understands that we’re going to have to do something about gas formulation, and even the California politicians, well Californians have been pushing for 30 years for changes in the automotive industry. Very few people like, or will be willing to accept, radical change and yet more and more are coming to understand bits and pieces which are in fact going to add up to radical change. A lot of people in the mid-80′s were very depressed about the environmental movement, believing that the movement had failed. Well, the movement hadn’t failed. The movement set out to change the basis of Western economic life over the previous 300 years. You’re not going to do that in 15 years. You’re not going to do that in 30. The best you can say is that the environmental movement has done a serious amount of change, and that reality is going to force more of that.

You’ll also notice that with SUV’s, people will buy them, but there’s a fair amount of guilt associated with buying them. People will place a bumper sticker on them saying “I’m changing the world climate,” which does provoke a great deal of anger in some people, but still indicates an understanding that they’re perhaps doing something they shouldn’t. We have not, in a real sense, taken a serious look at how we are going to live in a sustainable way, and I suspect that that’s going to take another few hundred years, if we’ve got the time or if nothing terrible happens, to work that out. It is going to take an awful lot of time because what we are facing here is one of the great transitions in world history.

NB: You’re talking about things in a 50-100 year context…

TD: Or more..

NB: Or more.. But will the population be so out of control by then that sustainability is not even an issue anymore?

TD: Well, that has been one of the great fears since the late 1960′s.. that it’s too late. And we’ve in fact seen continuing struggles between groups, and sometimes even within the same person, between optimism and pessimism between the belief that we in fact can make this work, and the belief that it’s just too late. But it is that threat that seems to hang over everyone’s head, and it is not an inevitable threat, but it’s certainly a credible threat to anybody that’s looked at the evidence in any sort of serious way. I mean what has driven the environmentalism movement is not simply an intellectual love of nature, or a hope of preserving nature in some way, but also the fact that somehow, if we don’t do this, we ourselves might wind up badly. Rachel Carson was able to convince people to pay serious attention to pesticide residues because they already knew about things like radioactive fallout; they’re used to the idea of circulation in the ecosystem and about bio-concentration. And in that sense it was the early environmental education that allowed people to see it. But what really brought it home was the idea that we all have this stuff within our body, and it has unknown effects on you and on your children. Nothing concentrates your mind like the threat of deadly disease for you or your children.

NB: When Humboldt was in South America, he wrote about the possibility of a canal, and he actually picked out five possible locations for such a canal. He wrote about how such a project would devastate parts of the environment. Back then it was a regionally-based concept, as far as environmental influence..

TD: Yes

NB: At what point do humans begin to realize that man, and the things that we put into motion, can have a serious effect on the environment which could then backlash against us?

TD: Well classically, the first book seriously to make the case for the human species as a worldwide geological force was George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature which was published in 1864. It was out of print until the 1950′s, and then began to come back. Marsh grasped the astonishing truth that humans could, even under low technology, over long periods of time, dramatically affect even the soil or water or forests over an enormous area. He was talking about the Mediterranean Basin. The invention of machinery allowed us to have this effect much faster, but it’s with Marsh that you begin to see the first real appreciation. Then there’s a line of thought and action, a whole set of books that run through this. More and more, each one talks about ecology. Books like Paul Sears’ Deserts on the March (1935), Volks’ The Road to Survival (1948). But Humboldt is the beginning of how you can begin to theorize about widespread human interactions because of enormous construction projects. I suspect that, had Humboldt seen some of these projects, he would have immediately grasped the implications. I mean if he had seen for example the building of the Panama Canal, or the clearing of the great North American forests, he would have immediately grasped what was going on. But it took a long time to translate the understanding of a few prescient people into a general understanding.

NB: One of the most interesting things, at least from an American history point of view, is the thought of Humboldt visiting the White House, of Humboldt and Jefferson walking and taking about all manner of scientific topics, of their trip to Monticello, etc. I mean Jefferson took natural philosophy very seriously, and apparently they had a life-long friendship…

TD: Jefferson fit exactly with Humboldt’s ideas. He wanted to understand things, he wanted to understand everything, he was interested in measuring them. The Lewis & Clark expedition was quite explicitly designed to approach the world through natural history. Jefferson had done excavation of early Indian artifacts; there’ssave-yellowstone-river (Dunlap).jpg a whole set of things. Humboldt, from Jefferson’s point of view, was exactly the kind of European savant that he wanted to imitate, that he wanted Americans to imitate, to understand the world through natural history. And in a real sense, that’s how 19th century Americans understood it. And Jefferson and Humboldt shared a love of “tinkering” with things, with instruments, of trying to discover new things and new applications that would prove useful.

The classic activities of natural history were collecting, classifying, and mapping. And that really is the argument that, in at least the explorer’s minds, would show Americans what their country actually looked like, and what’s in it, and what’s on it. From the 1830′s, you begin to see state geological surveys in place which say “this is what’s underneath us.” Mostly, of course, they were concerned about precious minerals, but they expand by the 1880′s and 1890′s to include in effect biological surveys of the state, which then become part of the ecological research establishment, which was beginning to grow at that point. And in a real sense, this is part of Humboldt’s vision, and Humboldt’s hope. And I think he would have been enormously pleased. I’m sure he must have been enormously pleased with Jefferson, the idea that Jefferson might infuse this sentiment into a whole people and that they would then somehow carry forward his project which in some ways they did. All you have to do is look at the map because there is Humboldt’s name scattered all over it by his disciples.

NB: Fremont was one- he put Humboldt’s name all over Nevada and the American Southwest..

TD: Exactly.

NB: Getting back to your whole thought that he combined intellectual curiosity and romanticism. It’s clear that Humboldt read and savored the previous European romantic explorations of the world up to that point, including Cook’s expeditions. At the time, there was still an enormous portion of the globe that was still unexplored by the European powers, and it seems to me that the desire to know more about the rest of the world was just part of being a curious human being at that stage of history. You really can’t understand that phase of history without understanding the context in which they saw the world..

TD: That’s right. Well, if you look at in terms of American history, it begins with Bartram (William Bartram), and particularly Bartram’s expedition into the South. Here’s someone wandering all over the place, coming back and putting the plants in his garden. Then there’s the Lewis and Clark expedition, there are the further expeditions of the army, and the various surveys of the West after the Civil War. The last great adventure of that time was Powell’s passage down the Colorado in 1869 which is, in a sense, classical Humboldtian. We’re going into the unknown with instruments, and we’ll map and measure. And Powell’s expedition seems to be one of those that still seizes the public’s imagination. It still shows up on the History Channel as a documentary now and then. Because that’s the great ideal, that you can “strike out,” and it’s that particular period for which Humboldt was one of the great exemplars, one of the great leaders and pioneers. The idea of the educated man going out beyond what is perceived as the limit of western civilization, and bringing back information, knowledge, extending this intellectual property, going out and finding things.

NB: I know this is merely an intellectual exercise, but if Humboldt were alive, what one or two environmental problems would he look at and say “this is insane,” or “this is something that we’ve got to stop.”

TD: I think the first thing he would look at would be global warming. I think he would be absolutely fascinated with it, and in many ways completely horrified. But that’s the kind of thing that he saw, that the climate of the whole world is changing with unpredictable consequences for individual areas because of something that’s being done. And I think he would be just absolutely transfixed by this sort of thing.. and I think if you gave him money, he would get a research project out if it immediately. (Laughter) In many ways, a lot of the things that we’ve raised about world eco-systems are the types of things that would fascinate Humboldt. I think if you could bring him back and introduce him to what’s going on, he would be flabbergasted and deeply intrigued by a lot of the research that’s going on, particularly about biological change, as well as climactic change.

NB: And perhaps all of the advances made in instrumentation..

TD: Oh, the instrumentation he would love. Humboldt is the beginning of that line of people who really loved instruments, and who get instruments and really work with them. A few of them were fascinated by gadgets, but much more they are fascinated with the information they can get out of the gadgets. For example, David Mech, the wolf expert, ran across the idea of radio collars and transmitters. Nobody made them at the time. Mech and his crew made the original ones for the wolves by taking stock components and putting together what amounted to tiny radios, which were then put on to collars, which were then water-proofed and weather-proofed by being embedded in dental acrylic, the sort of thing you make the gums for false teeth out of. It was hand-done, hand-made, and pushed through the community of wolf experts; not by some great scientific plan, but by someone looking at it and saying, “well we have these collars which someone needs,” and then someone else saying “well, I’ve got a better set of collars,” and someone then went out and showed someone else how to use them.

NB: Dr. Dunlap, thank you very much for speaking with me.

TD: You’re quite welcome.

Add comment March 28th, 2004

An Interview with Dr. Carolyn Eastman

Liberty Bell in stained glass

The American Revolution was the first event of its kind in which the media played a central, if not defining role. In a major way, the media served to shape public opinion surrounding a break with England. Recently I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Carolyn Eastman, who teaches United States History at the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Eastman is an expert on the role that the media played in shaping the early citizenry’s sense of what it meant to be “American.” What follows is various excerpts from that interview, along with other notes and thoughts.common_sense_doc_image.jpgThe early American media played a critical role in connecting citizens to events that shaped their national experience. Whether it was Paul Revere’s widely distributed (and essentially inaccurate) engraving which depicted the “Boston Massacre” (he called it “The Bloody Massacre”) in newspapers across New England, Patrick Henry’s fiery “Liberty or Death” speech, or John Dickinson’s thoughtful and popular “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania” essays that rallied colonial opposition to the Townsend Act in 1767-68, early American newssheets, pamphlets, newspapers, and oratory played prominent roles in shaping the early formation and growth of our nation.

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Carolyn Eastman, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Eastman is a recognized expert on the subject of early American media history. She is currently studying the ways in which early Americans began to think of themselves as being “American” after the Revolution by examining the ways that they learned to participate as members of a public.

The Early Colonial Press

According to Dr. Eastman, by the 1770′s, Americans were becoming a very media-conscious people. “By the early 1770′s, there were hundreds of papers, pamphlets, and other news available on the streets in cities in the colonies, especially in the north. So early Americans were closely connected and networked though print and oratory. This is in part because by the time of the Revolution, printing presses had become cheaper as people acquired the raw materials needed to build their own; before that, they would import presses from Europe, which was expensive. Literacy was high in comparison with the rest of the world, especially in the north; census statistics in the south are more difficult to come by (in general, they suggest that the rate of literacy was lower than the north but still higher than most other nations). Reading was very important, not only crossing income levels as a principal form of entertainment, but also very necessary for preparing oneself for a life in commerce.”

Eastman continues, “But getting to this media-conscious level was a slow process. During most of the colonial period, most Americans would have had access to the Bible and perhaps a few other religious publications, but very limited access to much else. Printing in the colonies was expensive and usually limited to religious tracts; importing publications from England and elsewhere was also very expensive. Thus, those individuals who read broadly came from the highest echelon of society.”

As early as 1640 there was a printing press in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The press was run by Stephen Day, and his first publication was the “Bay Psalm Book”. The first newspaper to appear in the American colonies was a newssheet called “Publick Occurrences”, which appeared in Boston in 1690. It lasted one issue. While equipment for printing presses were still being imported from England well into the 18th century, there in fact was a paper mill established in Germantown, Pennsylvania as early as 1690. William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, had hired a master printer named William Bradford early in the colony’s development. Brought over from England, Bradford produced religious publications and other printed material. In 1725, Bradford moved to New York and established the New York Gazette, the first newspaper in that city and one of the first in the new world.

In 1733, a group of merchants and public officials, apparently upset with William Cosby, the colonial governor, offered their backing to a young printer named John Peter Zenger. The only other newspaper in the city, the New York Gazette, was run by Bradford, who also happened to have become the government printer. Zenger’s New-York Weekly Journal, which first printed in November of 1733, had no implied or expressed restrictions on its content, and it began to regularly attack government policy and the existing establishment. Cosby subsequently had Zenger arrested and he was jailed (interestingly enough, his wife continued to run the paper in his absence). During the trial, Zenger’s lawyer pleaded directly to the jury, urging them to “break precedent”, and in the “cause of liberty, to lay claim to the Right… the Liberty.. both of exposing and opposing arbitrary power by speaking and writing- Truth.” After a brief deliberation, the jury came back with a verdict- “not guilty.” Zenger was released.[1]

Historians Michael Emery and Edwin Emery concluded that the Zenger case had tremendous inspirational impact. “The trial did enunciate a principle- even if it did not establish legal precedent- and this principle is vital to our libertarian philosophy today in matters of free speech and the press.” According to Gouvernor Morris, the prominent revolutionary figure, the trial of Zenger in 1735 was the “morning star of that liberty which subsequently revolutionized America.”

Dr. Eastman says that the focus of early newspapers was different than today’s major dailies. “Almost always, newspapers of the day would cover foreign affairs first and foremost; this was just because events abroad were very important to early Americans as a whole,” Eastman continues. At this time, Americans viewed themselves as inhabiting a remote country far from the center of civilization. “So you would see front pages covering what was going on around the world. Then you would have advertisements for businesses, which also helped to subsidize the paper, and only then would you have coverage of local events.”

The gradual expansion of the newspaper press during the 18th century permitted larger numbers of ordinary people to read more broadly by the time of the American Revolution. By that time, newspapers had become a centrally important form of media coverage. At the outbreak of the Revolution, Thomas Paine began distributing “The American Crisis” (1776-83), a series of pamphlets aimed at rallying morale. “…the summer soldiers and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of every man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” George Washington had “The American Crisis” read to his troops at Valley Forge.

By the 1770s, newspapers had become a vital part of colonial life. In a society where communication between the colonies, and even between towns, was difficult, they provided one of the most efficient means of spreading news. The newspapers announced events such as the Boston Massacre, Bunker (Breed’s) Hill, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, as well as Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown. And as a result of the Revolution, newspapers became the principal means for conducting and participating in political discussion within our emerging democracy.[2]

Reaction to the Stamp Act

At the end of the Seven Year’s War, in 1765, England’s coffers were exhausted. The English Prime Minister, George Greville, proposed legislation for the now infamous “Stamp Act”, which imposed taxes on the British colonies on everything from newspapers and legal documents to playing cards. News that Parliament had approved the act reached the colonies in April. Reaction was almost universally hostile. Patrick Henry, a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, introduced a set of resolves opposing the act. These resolves were subsequently printed and distributed to various printers and newspapermen. The editor of the Virginia Gazette, a prominent Virginian newspaper at the time (and owned by a Royalist), refused to print them. But on June 24th, the Newport (Virginia) Mercury printed the full text. Other papers soon printed the resolves too, including the Boston Gazette.

There were Sons of Liberty chapters already in existence throughout most of the colonies. These chapters were secret organizations formed throughout the colonies in response to the Stamp Act. They took their name from a speech made by a man named Isaac Barre, in which he railed against the Act and Parliament in general. These chapters kept in touch with another through “committees of correspondence” which were essentially writing committees whose goal was to spread news and information between like-minded individuals. There were many colonial printers among these insurgents including Benjamin Edes of the Boston Gazette, Isaiah Thomas of the Massachusetts Spy, and William Goddard of the Pennsylvania Chronicle. Due to intense pressure by the Sons of Liberty
and organized protests in nearly all the British American colonies, the Stamp Act was dissolved by Parliament in March, 1776. But Parliament quickly supplanted it with other tax acts that led to increasing protest organizing by the colonists.

Colonial protest movements had to face the fact that their effectiveness was mitigated by their lack of coordination between the colonies. Each colony had a separate group of leaders, tactics, and goals, and very little communication existed between them. But the succession of tax acts passed by Parliament strengthened the growing feeling among the people that they might be able to overcome their colonial differences and offer a united front against the King and Parliament. Franklin, himself an accomplished printer, was so distressed by the colonists’ inability to put their differences aside and work together on virtually any issue that in 1754, when French attacks on Virginians on the Ohio River escalated, Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette published a depiction of a dismembered snake, each section representing a different colony.

Promotion and Credibility

“During the Revolution, the press helped to inform citizens in the far-flung states about the progress of the war, but printers also took advantage of this position to promote their own services, says Dr. Eastman. “Pamphlets and newspapers often discussed the fact that only printed materials could disseminate information across such a large nation. As a result, the celebration of the press became a common aspect of late 18th-century nationalism; citizens believed that this might be one of the best-informed countries in history, with a nation full of educated and informed citizens. Even the classic text, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, is an example of this phenomenon. This pamphlet stated that thousands of people had read it and that, as a result, ideas of independence from Britain were onpaul_revere_revolut_boston_engraving.jpg everyone’s lips. Paine folded that image of print spreading ideas far and wide together with the image of a new age of critical citizens who could make radical political decisions in extreme times. Ironically, he radically over-inflated the number of his readers — the scholar Trish Loughran has shown that the overwhelming majority of printed editions of Common Sense remained in the immediate Philadelphia area. But nevertheless, Paine’s rhetoric about the tie between literate, politically-sophisticated citizens and the print media remains a central aspect of American nationalism.”

After the Revolution, newspapers quickly became tied to the emerging two-party system. At first, the founders of the new nation and the Constitution didn’t recognize the degree to which political parties and partisanship would come to define politics in America. They worried about other issues, such as “whether commerce, or the market, could corrupt the media,” as Eastman states. But especially during the administration of John Adams in the late 1790s, political leaders who opposed Adams began to use newspapers as organs to circulate opposing political ideas. Many leaders were deeply disturbed by the idea that American politics might become so divided, but few people ever questioned the notion that newspapers themselves would be partisan. “They would never have thought that a paper ought to not represent a particular party view,” Eastman says. In towns and cities throughout the nation, newspapers sprang up that openly advocated either the Federalists or the Republicans. Even the smallest towns came to have rival newspapers; very few areas supported only one. In the largest cities, Philadelphia and New York, the Federalists and Republicans supported several newspapers on each side. Eastman notes that the conglomeration of the media so prevalent today is a far cry from the media diversity of the early Republic. “It’s strange in a way that today, for whatever reason, the market dictates that only one paper in a market such as Austin, for example, is sufficient.”

Defining Ourselves as “American”

“One of the most interesting aspects of the American Revolution, and the events immediately following our independence, is that the wide geographic, religious, commercial, political, or wealth differences that existed between the colonies led all kinds of ordinary people to attempt to define a new national identity with common desires and goals,” Dr. Eastman comments. “Correspondence of the day indicates that many people understood the enormous hazards associated with winning independence and establishing the new country’s place in the world. Many individuals worried that this new nation wouldn’t last, or that democracy would lead to social chaos. This led to a heightened sense of the importance of creating a national identity and a shared sense of the nation’s goals for the future. The thing is, there was never any clear, coherent way of getting that sort of information out to the public (given the limited number of papers any one printing press could print). This is one of the big shifts I study – the transition from a kind of uncertain understanding of what “nationalism” meant in the late 18th century to a much more vibrant, familiar nationalism during & after the War of 1812.”

Dr. Eastman continues, “I analyze how Americans learned to think of themselves as being ‘American’ after the Revolution by examining the ways that they learned to participate as members of a public. I do this by studying ordinary people’s experience with the media — print and oratory — because, in such a diverse country, these were the only means by which public information could be transmitted. But I don’t just look at this as a one-way street of information flowing outward from a center. I also look at the ways that ordinary people themselves learned the skills of composition and oratory, skills that they believed were central to being good citizens. Their own educations made men and women particularly critical and engaged members of the public. So when I read people’s diaries and letters, I frequently find them criticizing local ministers or politicians for being poor speakers at the same time that they agonized about their own attempts to sound polished and educated in writing or in conversation.”

The Importance of Oratory

Another huge factor in Americans’ new sense of self-awareness, was oration and oratory skills, skills that overlapped with literacy and the importance of keeping abreast of printed information. “I believe that Americans after the Revolution believed that oratory was valuable to all people, not just formal public speakers,” Dr. Eastman says. “I think it fed their sense that they were training an entire country to be well-spoken (rather than to present themselves as the ‘hicks’ that the British believed them to be) and to be educated and well-read. They also believed strongly that the new nation required a public made up of critical and knowledgeable citizens in order to ensure the long-term stability of the country.” Of course, the media had a strongly interconnected role in this skill; most important speeches of the day were transcribed and printed for everyone to read, in their entirety. Children in schools were asked to memorize and recite those speeches as a part of their everyday schoolwork.

Patrick Henry (Eastman).jpgPrinted oratory played a large role in promoting nationalism, especially following the War of 1812. Since many Americans felt that this was the moment at which they had finally gotten the country out of Britain’s economic stranglehold, nationalistic writing and oratory accelerated. Many biographers and writers began to collect and publish the writings and correspondence of prominent revolutionaries. Paying homage to the people who formed the nation in the first place was important to many people. “The histories of the Revolution and especially the biographies of prominent Americans were very much a part of that move”, Eastman says. “I found that one of the ways that leaders promoted nationalism among young people was to encourage them to ‘be like’ Washington, Fisher Ames, Patrick Henry, and other patriotic men — these men’s characters and oratorical abilities were described in excruciating detail in order for young people to emulate them.” Young people recited their speeches in school and learned how to emulate Washington’s gentility or Henry’s fervent patriotism, qualities that were now defined as “American.” As a result, Eastman’s work shows that oratory remained as important to the new nation as were the burgeoning print media.

Further Reading

I asked Dr. Eastman to recommend any books, current or otherwise, where one might better understand the basis or background for this subject. “One of the best is Jay Fliegelman’s ‘Declaring Independence’. I also love Kenneth Cmiel’s ‘Democratic Eloquence’. On the state of the newspaper press in the early Republic, see Jeffrey Pasley’s ‘The Tyranny of Printers.” These are all brilliant books and extremely well-written.

About Dr. Carolyn Eastman

Dr. Eastman teaches United States History at the University of Texas at Austin. Her work A Nation of Speechifiers: Print, Oratory, and the Making of a Gendered American Public, 1780-1830 (forthcoming) examines the ways that the media functioned at the center of American public life in the early Republic. She analyzes the active roles of ordinary men and women in helping to define American nationalism, civic roles, and gender identities, in part through their engagement with print and oratory. Professor Eastman teaches courses in gender and sexuality studies, early American history, and the public sphere.


[1] In addition to the books recommended by Dr. Eastman, I also found “The Press and America: An Interpretive History of the Mass Media” by Michael Emery and Edwin Emery (1999) especially useful on this subject.

[2]Another really good source on this subject is “Muckraking!: The Journalism that Changed America” by William Serrin and Judith Serrin (2002).

Add comment January 5th, 2004

An Interview with Jones Quincy Adams

Berlin 1 - Interview a Vet

In February of 2003 I had the great pleasure of interviewing Jones Quincy Adams, a World War II veteran who served as a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator. Mr. Adams flew 50 missions, and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery. Here is an abbreviated version of that interview.

In February of 2003 I had the great pleasure of interviewing Jones Quincy Adams, a businessman living in Dallas, TX. Mr. Adams served with the Army Air Force, the precursor to today’s Air Force, as a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator from November 1944 through May 1945. As a 19 year-old lieutenant with the 15th Air Force, 484th Bomber Group, Adams was stationed at an airfield in central Italy, along with many other American soldiers. He flew 50 combat missions, and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery. What follows is an abbreviated version of the interview.

I was first introduced to Mr. Adams by Mr. Dan Davis, a friend of my father’s who also shares a deep love of history, especially the stories of the pilots who served in World War II. Adams and Davis met each other while attending Southern Methodist University in the late 1940′s, and the two have remained close friends ever since. I went with Mr. Davis to Mr. Adams’ home. Mr. Adams greeted me warmly, and invited us in. He was recovering from a recent knee surgery, and moved slowly from the front door to his living room with the help of a cane. Settling into his couch, he listened attentively while I explained that I was doing the interview as a volunteer with the Veteran’s History Project, an initiative sponsored by the Library of Congress designed to enlist the public’s support in recording first-hand accounts of 20th century American war veterans. Before our interview began, Mr. Davis walked across the living room, removed a small, glass-enclosed frame from the wall, inspected it, and then showed it to me. It was Mr. Adams’ Distinguished Flying Cross medal, centered on a simple background of fabric, with an inscription detailing the presentment date and circumstances surrounding how he earned it. “I didn’t even know Quince (Mr. Adams’ nickname) had earned this,” Mr. Davis said. I looked at Mr. Adams.

“Really?” I asked.

“Well, I just never wanted to make a big deal out of it, I suppose,” he responded. And so our interview began.

Jones Quincy Adams is from Royce City, Texas. After attending one year of college at Texas A&M he volunteered, along with a bunch of his fellow classmates, in the Army Air Force. After winning his commission as a second lieutenant, he began the training required of all recruits that intended to fly. He did well. Adams and his fellow airmen began intensive training at different spots around the country including southern California, Tucson, and Nebraska. While in Tucson, they spent two month’s worth of flight training with sand-filled bombs that would have smoke-filled tips to indicate where they would hit on the ground. As part of his bombardier training, Adams would spend weeks in a gymnasium on top of large, rolling wooden platforms. These platforms would be rolled across the gym floor, and Adams and his fellow bombardiers would practice their bombing skills. They made practice runs all over the country. After passing final flight tests, it was off to Italy.

Cerignola, Italy

Adams and his fellow crewmates were part of the 484th Bomb Group, 15th Air Force, stationed at Torretta Field, which was about 12 kilometers south of the town of Cerignola, in Foggia province, just off the Adriatic Sea. Their plane? The Flying Prostitute (“no visible means of support” according to Adams and his crew). The living conditions were tough; the food was horrid (spam was a staple), the ground in their tents alternated between frozen solid, or knee-deep muddy. For heat in the winter, the men would rig up an improvised stove from a discarded 55 gallon fuel barrel and one-half of a 155mm shell they would fill with fuel and ignite. “We had to improvise everything.” Just outside of Adams’ tent, he would occasionally hear “two old Italian women” laboring behind a wooden plowshare with oxen. “You know, I have often thought about those women… here they are, having to plow land that has been worked over for thousands of years… I mean that land was not fit for growing anything! Yet here they were- doing what they had to do to survive.”

Adams’ father would send cheese and other “luxuries” in the mail, and Adams would occasionally trade with the women, exchanging various items for a few fresh eggs. “One of my uncles raised pecans, and he would send me huge bags of them, and we would hang them up in our tent, and everyone would come by and eat Texas pecans. My tentmate’s wife had a baby while we were in Italy, and she sent over cigars. My parents sent me cheese… wool socks were a real luxury… it was a lot better than a foxhole, but it was still very primitive. We were always dirty and never really felt clean. We would occasionally take turns getting into trucks and driving 50 miles to go take showers in a village down the road, but in general the water was awful. We would have water sent in, and we would have these big canvas water bags positioned all over the camp. The whole ‘don’t drink the water’ thing. Not having good water was terrible on the teeth, too. I came out of Italy with 11 cavities. When I first volunteered, I weighed 135 pounds, and could run all day long. When I got out, I weighed 103 pounds…we were all like that… having to deal with the food, the stress, being on oxygen so much. But you know, while we were there, there was never any griping.”

Conditions weren’t much better in the air either. “You see these old movies where pilots are wearing these nice leather jackets… well, at 18,000 feet, you can freeze to death. We wore electrically-heated suits that plugged into batteries in the plane, and then piled on other clothes… and unfortunately they (the electrical suits) didn’t always work.”

The Liberator

More B-24 “Liberators” and its derivatives were built than any other aircraft in history, before or since, with approximately 19,000 built during the war. Production facilities for the B-24 were scattered all over the country in San Diego, Fort Worth, Tulsa, and Dallas. The largest Liberator factory was in Michigan, which turned out almost 7,000 completed aircraft and another 1,900 airframes for final assembly elsewhere. At one point in the war, there was a B-24 being produced somewhere every 55 minutes. The B-24 had a wing span of 110 feet; the wing was called the “Davis Wing” and was superior to other wings of the day, although according to Mr. Adams, you would never know it by looking at it. “It was a very thin wing, and from an aerodynamic standpoint, you would look at it and say- this thing will never fly.”

The aircraft housed ten .50 caliber weapons, and could carry up to 8,000 pounds of bombs. But according to Adams, one of the deadliest features of the plane was a newly improved bombsight, the Norden bombsight. “It was a vast improvement in technology in terms of precision and accuracy.” Before the Norden bombsight came along, in order to place enough bombs on a target to be effective, bombers had to fly very low. A man named Carl Norden developed a new, gyro-stabilized bombsight in 1923 and put it through tests for the Navy. In 1943 the Norden M-series was delivered. By 1944, bombardiers like Adams were able to place a large percentage of their ordinance within hundreds of yards of their targets. This may not seem like a big deal today with the use of laser-guided “smart-bombs”, but before this advancement bombardiers had to rely almost exclusively on their training and experience with reckoning, while flying at low altitudes. The Norden bombsight enabled bombers to fly at much higher altitudes, while dropping their payloads with increasing levels of accuracy.

The Missions

The 15th Air Force’s main goal was to engage in bombing runs on targets in northern Italy, Austria, Checkoslavakia, and Germany itself. Their principal targets: German fighter aircraft plants, ball bearing and rubber plants, oil refineries, marshalling yards, and munitions factories. Each morning when there was a mission scheduled, the crews would rise very early, and be briefed by staff officers on their targets, the weather conditions, and what kind of opposition they could expect. The briefing officer was typically in his mid-20′s. Most of the pilots and crewmembers were 19 or 20, with only a handful in their mid-20′s or older. The bombers assigned to each mission would take off from their airstrip at Torretta Field, which was nothing more than rolled gravel, and assemble into tight, plane-to-plane “diamond” formations. Missions lasted an average of 8 hours.

The tail-end position in the diamond formation was nicknamed “Tail-end Charlie”… “I remember one mission where we started off in the #6 position of the formation. We had some engine trouble, and what you did on those occasions was you would drop out of formation to see if you could rectify the problem or not. In the meantime, the remaining planes in formation would tighten it up a bit, mving forward. Well, we fixed the engine trouble, and upon rejoining the formation, we took the Tail-end Charlie spot. On this particular mission we were flying relatively low, and the plane that had moved into our old #6 spot took a direct round. It just disintegrated before our eyes… we didn’t see any parachutes.”

The missions varied from so-called “milkruns”, where no serious flak or enemy fighters were expected, to missions bordering on suicide. “Some of them were easy, some of them were real hard, and some of them were kind of in-between.” When I asked him about the toughest mission he completed, he immediately said, “It was a mission over Blechammer, Germany. We were supposed to go after a ball bearing factory if I remember correctly… . We were in the back-end of the formation… I mean those German fighters they came after us; they were like a swarm of bees, and they just shot us to pieces… we got back OK, and fortunately most of our squadron did, too. Well, we were scheduled to fly the next day. And so, not knowing where we were going, we went in for the briefing. The briefing officer said, ‘OK guys, this is where we’re going today’… and he pulled back that curtain (to display the maps of targets), and we were going to that exact same place… and the groans, they went up, you know. We all said to ourselves, ‘they shot us to pieces yesterday, and we’re going back to the same place?’ That mission proved to be equally the same.”

“In general, you would be OK while the fighter escort was with you, but eventually they would have to turn back because they would get low on fuel. Well, the Germans knew their range, and they would come up to meet us soon after that. Then, when you got close to your target, the German fighters would peel off so the flak guns could take a crack at you. And that was just getting to the target. On the way back you had it all in reverse: the flak some more, and then the fighters, until you could hook up with your fighter escort again.” According to Adams, the U.S. airmen did not hate their enemy. “We never had any personal animosity towards the Luftwaffe (the German Air Force). We respected them, and they respected us. We knew they weren’t nazis… they were kids, like us. And they were defending their country.”

Late in the war, the strategy of the 15th Air Force shifted from a sole focus on factories, oil refineries, and railroad yards, and began to also take on ground troop support. “In April of ’45, we flew a low-level mission, and we put up every B-24 and -17 that would fly in the 15th Air Force, and we all had aiming points from the Adriatic all the way over to the west side of Italy. And we dropped fragmentation bombs, the theory being that we would drop our loads far enough in advance of our lines, and across the entire width of Italy for a depth of several hundred yards. If we all hit where we were aiming for, the theory was that no living person could live through all that. And because we were flying at such a low altitude, we were pretty easy targets. But it was successful; immediately following that, our forces just took right off, like they were just cocked and ready to go.”

“I’ve often thought that I would someday like to talk with some of those men who were in the infantry and tank battalions, who had to go through that. Can you imagine that- those fragmentation bombs just falling everywhere, and then you being told just to take off?”

Targets of Opportunity

The weather played a huge role in whether a mission had a chance of success or not. When the weather was too bad over the primary target, the crews would usually have a secondary target to go after. If they couldn’t reach that, then they went after what were called “targets of opportunity.”

In one mission, Adams and his crew were not able to drop their payload due to weather. Flying back over Austria towards Cerignola, the pilot spotted a train snaking its way through the Austrian Alps. “He yelled out ‘Hey Quince! 10 o’clock.. take a look at that!’ We all saw this train, making its way through the foothills, and it was going down into this valley, and I said ‘get us over there and lined up, and let’s see if we can take him out.’ Well, he was moving, but we were able to get down, and I dropped our entire load of bombs, and just blew it to smithereens, the engine, everything just… went. And I’ve wondered a million times, you know, what was on the train, how many people, and so forth. And how they were probably thinking, ‘how in the world did this bomber find us up here?’ But those kinds of things happened all the time.”


I asked Mr. Adams at what point did he begin to reflect on everything, and understand the importance of what he did. “You know, we weren’t politically astute. We were 18-19 years old. But we were there to fly, and do a job, without any thought about whether the Germans were superior to us. Remember, they had taken over nearly all of Europe, so they had some real scalps under their belt.. We just knew that we were going to go after them, do what we were told to do and not gripe about it. But we were just kids. The oldest guy in our whole squadron was a 23 year-old who we called ‘the old man’. We just knew we had a job to do, and we had a lot of faith in everyone around us.”

“But to answer your question, I guess at two different times.. when I was at SMU, there were a lot of veterans there, and we would sometimes talk about it.. the campuses were filled with veterans. You never really talked about your specific experiences, but you would share some things, and begin to reflect on everyone’s experiences they had to go through. Then when we were weighing my first-born. I thought to myself, ‘I hope we never have to go through this again.’ I think it never really hits you until time goes by.”

“I don’t think that many young people think too much about the philosophy behind life… but it’s important. I’ve seen the movie Saving Private Ryan more than once, and that film touched me in a very personal way… the sacrifices that were made by the American soldier in World War II… After seeing the film one time, I drove back to Royce City, and drove around my ‘roots’, the cemetery, etc., reflecting on everything, about the sacrifices we all made. It’s important. You know, it was hard to see the Vietnam vets go through what they did when they got back home.. they were drafted, most of them didn’t volunteer. That was a real low point for us, and I think as time goes on we’ll see that that was so politicized. These veterans were called upon to serve their nation, to do whatever they were told to do, serving in combat. I saw Sam Johnson (U.S. Representative from Dallas, Johnson flew 25 missions in Vietnam before he was captured and held as a Prisoner of War for nearly seven years, more than half of that time in solitary confinement) speak one time, and he spoke of the indomitable spirit of the American soldier. Whatever your politics, we should all support them, no matter what.”

“Mindful of the secret trust about to be placed in me by my Commander in Chief, the President of the United States, by whose direction I have been chosen for bombardier training… and mindful of the fact that I am to become guardian of one of my country’s most priceless military assets, the American bombsight… I do here, in the presence of Almight God, swear by the Bombardier’s Code of Honor to keep inviolate the secrecy of any and all confidential information revealed to me, and further to uphold the honor and integrity of the Army Air Forces, if need be, with my life itself.” The Bombardier Oath

Add comment March 13th, 2003


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