Article: From the Collections--Grosch's Law :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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Alison Oswald, Lemelson Center Archivist
Humorist Herb Shriner (left), host of the game show Two for the Money, with Herb Grosch, around 1955. From the Herb Grosch Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

I first met Herb Grosch (1918-2010) in 1996 when he was a fellow at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. Curator Paul Ceruzzi introduced us and it was a fortuitous meeting. I was still in the throes of untangling a web of release forms for our Computer Oral History Collection and Herb was kind enough to assist me with that task. After all, he was a Computer Oral History interviewee, contributing six interviews from 1970 to 1971. I learned quickly that Herb could weave a tale....

Born in 1918 in Saskatoon, Canada, Grosch attended grade school in Ontario and Ohio and high school in Michigan. He then earned his B.S. (1938) and Ph.D. (1942), both in astronomy, from the University of Michigan. An outspoken and controversial figure, Grosch is best known for formulating "Grosch's Law" around 1950. The law states that "the costs of computer systems increase at a rate equivalent to the square root of their power."

In 1941-42 Grosch was an astronomer for the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., and also worked on fire control and optical engineering projects. He moved on to the IBM Watson Scientific Computing Laboratory in New York in 1945, first to do backup calculations for the Manhattan Project and then to help run the Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator. Grosch was fired from IBM in 1951 and went to MIT where he worked as a part of the design group for the Whirlwind II computer. He then joined General Electric (GE) in 1952 to set up and oversee computer operations in Ohio, Massachusetts, and Arizona. In 1958 he returned to IBM and was the manager of its space program ... before being fired again in 1959.

Grosch next moved to Europe and began working as a consultant, notably conducting a survey of the European computer industry for Control Data in 1962-63. He returned to the United States in 1965, and spent two more years at GE before becoming director of the Center for Computer Sciences and Technology for the National Bureau of Standards from 1967 through 1970. He was the editor of Computerworld magazine from 1973 to 1976, and president of the Association for Computing Machinery from 1976 to 1978. Grosch's autobiography, Computer: Bit Slices of a Life, was published in 1991 and he was named a Fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery in 1995.

He donated what is now the Herb Grosch Papers, 1948-1998, to the Museum in 1999. The collection documents the life and career of this early computer professional through correspondence, newspaper clippings, diaries, flight logs, photographs, computer disks, reports, and other printed materials. The largest and most comprehensive series within the collection focuses on his employment, in various capacities, with General Electric. The Control Data material is of special interest due to its in-depth studies of the European computer market in the early 1960s.

When Herb passed away in January 2010, his caregiver contacted me about additional materials documenting his career. Some of the items added to the collection include ephemera that provide insight into his personality: a GE Elfun Society certificate, Christmas card lists, a receipt for mescaline sulfate, personal sketches, stamps, bank cards, expense cards, chronologies, flight logs, and diaries.

Parts of the collections hint at a personal motto: write it down somewhere. Grosch filled flight logs, pocket diaries, and other scraps of paper with handwritten daily entries noting dates, events, conferences attended, speeches given, names of people, and expenses. For example, in 1953 he wrote, "Completed 701 installation in Everdale, Ohio, on schedule in spite of floods and strikes." Or, a list of his personal strengths, touting such attributes as "A notoriously successful recruiter," "An exceptionally effective and very popular speaker," and "Great drive and physical stamina." Grosch's earliest diary from 1940 notes that he took the civil service exam at the Ann Arbor, Michigan, post office and that he was "dreaming of California a lot." 

When examining his 1963 desk diary, the page for Wednesday, March 6, was torn out and Grosch noted why--"to remember Elizabeth's birthday" (Elizabeth Yeager was his second wife). On July 20, 1969, the diary entry reads, "On the Moon!" How appropriate for an astronomy guy. In a nearly complete record from 1959 to 1998, the flight logs detail the flight number, type of plane, dates, destinations, times, and total mileage flown. Grosch's travels took him to all corners of the globe to meet people from all walks of life (including American humorist and television host Herb Shriner). I hope he had frequent flyer miles!

For more information about Herb Grosch, visit the Archives Center's website and for more on the Computer Oral History Collection, see the online finding aid.

From Prototype, June 2010

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