Bob Seitz' Biosketch
Left: Bob, after one of Tommie's
Tommie Jean, Glamour Puss
Mother was the daughter of a farmer-turned-small-town-dairy-owner. Dad
was the son of a stone-mason-turned-brick-layer with a fiery temper.
(Grandpa Seitz was the victim of technological unemployment, with the invention
of diamond-edged stone saws.) Mother's family was very respectable. Dad's family lived on the wrong side
of the railroad tracks--poor, self-educated, and erratic.
When Dad was 14 and in his first day at Willoughby High School, the teacher
seated him behind a beautiful girl with long chestnut hair —Mother,
who was also experiencing her first day at Willoughby High School. .
Dad was smitten on the spot.
|This is Mother a few years after that first day of school at Willoughby High School when Dad was smitten with her on sight. . Dad and his father were rooming with Mother's family, who had just moved to Willoughby from their farm in Kirtland. The year is 1916. The electric streetcar line from Cleveland comes out as far as Willoughby. Electric lighting, city water, and natural gas are plumbed throughout the little farm town, with the Standard Drug, the Cleveland Trust Bank, Mr. Neville's barbershop, and Hull's Variety Store lining the town's main street. Dad makes his first impression upon Mother one day when she and Aunt Florence are carrying home groceries. Dad tips his hat to the ladies, shoulders Mother's grocery bags, and induces Mother's 13-year-old brother, Ray to carry Aunt Florence's grocery sacks. By 1916, traffic in Willoughby is probably largely by horseless carriage, although horses from the countryside must still ply Willoughby's brick-paved streets. Kleifield's Restaurant is a morning mecca for coffee, as it will be for the next three-quarters of a century.|
Shortly afterward, he announced to Mother that he was going to marry her. Mother stamped her foot and said, "Never, Francis Seitz! Over my dead body!" There followed a romance worthy (on Dad's part) of Heloise and Abelard. Dad had eyes only for Mother all his life. As an adult, when I read about men having affairs, I thought it was mostly media hype. It's only been in the last few years that I've realized male infidelity wasn't a rare avis.
Bobby and his Daddy in front of their family automobile, 1929.
Infant Bobby and his mother in front of the family automobile, 1929
I was born the summer before the Crash of '29. My sister,
Barbara, arrived when I was 2 3/4ths. Mother said I was very energetic
and terribly curious—into
The years from 1929 through 1932 must have been pretty bad for so many, as the Great Depression gathered momentum. During his election campaign, Herbert Hoover had promised, "A car in every garage, and a chicken in every pot." ("Keep cool with Coolidge, hot with Harding, and stand by the Great Engineer!") Chicken was a great delicacy back in the 30's. A chicken (feathers and all) cost $1.00, which would be the equivalent of, perhaps, $15 today. Once in a while, Grandma served fried chicken for Sunday dinner.
Throughout the early 30's, President Hoover continued to promise that, "Prosperity was just around the corner."
In front of our two-story, three bedroom home, there were sidewalks and an oiled, crushed-cinder street. We had street lights, city water and drainage, and natural gas. Dad and Mother had a gas stove and a gas hot water heater, but a coal-fired furnace. They bought a refrigerator in 1932 when I was three. We had one car. Dad took a city bus to and from his job with the Baltimore and Ohio railroad at an office building in downtown Akron. (There was bus service on Chestnut Boulevard at the end of our street.)
The picture below shows our suburban neighborhood in 1933, and it tells a story of the times.
The two-story homes in the background would have been built in the 1920's, as people flocked in from the farms. These houses had basements, small living rooms, dining rooms, and kitchens on the first floor, and three bedrooms and a bath on the second floor. They had hardwood floors, lath-and-plaster walls, tiled baths, and linoleum on the kitchen floors.
"Euey" McCoy and Bobby Seitz on Bobby's new swing, c. 1933
The people who lived in these houses were members of the "lower-to-middle" middle class... 1st-level factory and clerical supervisors, a struggling young dentist, a local-department-store "executive", and others of modest means. For example, "Euey" McCoy's father was a shop foreman who worked on the assembly line at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. Dad was "Chief Clerk" in a six-clerk shipping office. This was a neighborhood of rank-and-file high school graduates. These people kept their jobs throughout the Depression, and while that economic hurricane may have interfered with their promotions and raises and may have required frugality, they would have ridden out the twelve years of the Depression (1929-to-1941) largely without incident. (Having personally experienced from 1967 to 1979 the aerospace/engineering Depression that accompanied the post-Apollo drawdown, I can attest to the lie-awake job loss anxiety that besets anyone in this kind of threatening economic situation. We can handle belt-tightening, but the specter of no job at all is truly frightening.)
Dad and Mother paid $40 a month to rent our house in Cuyahoga Falls, or about $600 a month in today's dollars. A bag of potato chips cost 5˘, equivalent to 75˘ today. Ditto for a Coke (5˘, equivalent to 75˘ today) and an ice cream cone. (A really good ice cream cone cost 10˘, equivalent to $1.50 today). Haircuts were 50˘, equivalent to $7.50 today, as was admission to movie theaters. Our one-hour piano lessons from Miss Spaight cost $1.00, equivalent to $15 today. A new Ford got down to $645, equivalent to about $10,000 today. Dad's salary was $220 a month, equivalent to about $3,300 a month today.
In 1936, Dad and Mother bought a house in Stow's Crossroads, which was four miles farther from Akron than Cuyahoga Falls. Our house was at the edge of town, and backed up to fields, and then to a broad and deep wooded area on either side of a deep ravine.
Before 1950, housewives canned food from the garden during the summer, sealing them in Ball jars, and they prepared jellies and jams, straining the jellies through cloth, and sealing their preserves with molten paraffin. I have vivid childhood memories of Mother canning on "canning days" and putting up jellies and jams. I can still see the blocks of paraffin that were melted, and poured on top of the jam jars to seal them. A few of the canned fruits and vegetables and the jams and jellies wouldn't seal properly and would "spoil" later and have to be thrown out. We also saved potatoes in the potato bin in the "fruit cellar". By spring, the potatoes would have begun to sprout, and the sprouts had to be cut off before the potatoes could be cooked. In the summers, we had fresh apples, peaches, pears, cherries, and vegetables from our garden, but in the wintertime, we were generally reduced to canned fruits and vegetables. By spring, it was time for "spring tonic".
I remember I enjoyed visiting our local library after school to take out books on fairy tales. In school, I had time on my hands to read, calculate, or daydream. I began to read Dad and Mother's monthly Reader's Digest at 7, and by 9, had at least a mouse-eye's view of the gathering storm in Europe. I vividly remember stepping out on my grandparents' pyramidal back steps on September 1, 1939, to bring in the newspaper, and seeing the huge black headlines: "GERMANY INVADES POLAND". I remember hearing on the radio before Pearl Harbor and, maybe, before the invasion of Poland, a German propaganda announcement that long-distance operators were standing by for any American who wanted to hear more about Germany's side of what was going on in Europe. I remember being very impressed with their willingness to explain and defend their positions. I thought about calling them, but I imagine Dad and/or Mother vetoed the idea.
We basically had very happy childhoods, as described in "The World of My Childhood: 1930 - 1950". I participated all the usual childhood misdeeds, joining Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, going to Scout Camp, building model airplanes, playing with Erector sets and electric trains, joining in sandlot baseball and football games, caring for injured rabbits, operating lemonade stands, selling homemade ice cream (obligingly made by my mother and Eugene McCoy's mother) from door to door, etc.
I began reading "Astounding Science Fiction"—now "Analog Science Fiction and Fact" when I was 11.
High school was a bummer. Everyone was at the age of separation, and on top of that, it wasn't cool for a guy to get good grades in that country high school. For the first time, I hated school. I was Chief Nerd in my class. Well, maybe I wasn't even Chief Nerd. Maybe I was just a nerd.
I went to Kent State
University for two years. Then I had to drop out and work for a year to
continue. Dad and Mother were struggling to pay off the loans that had
saved them from formal bankruptcy. I transferred to Ohio State, losing
about two years in the process, as it turned out later. In order to maintain
my draft-deferral status, I had to maintain a full-time course load, and
I had to work part-time in order to support myself. Dad and Mother helped
as as best they could, but they were in tight financial straits, and Barbara
had started college when I started at Ohio State. It was one long struggle
against discouraging odds, depression, and my lack of experience in studying.
I tried to force myself to study out of guilt, and I soon burned out. My
vices were science fiction, classical music, intellectual discussions,
and creative ideas. Luckily, they were limited to talking and thinking. I basically couldn't
date because I had no money
In 1953, I had a brainstorm one afternoon about accelerating ions to propel a spacecraft. I went over to the Ohio State Student Union and mentioned it to a friend who was a senior in electrical engineering. He said, "You're talking about an ion rocket. I've heard of that." To this day, I don't know where he came up with his information. The only reference to ionic propulsion in 1953 of which I'm aware would have been an article by Lyman Spitzer, Jr., in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, in which Lyman Spitzer describes asteroid mining using solar cells to melt and vacuum-cast re-entry vehicles and, using ionic propulsion, to bring them from the asteroid belt to the earth's orbit, where they could descend through the earth's atmosphere.
In 1954, I was admitted to graduate school in physics at Case Institute of Technology.
In the fall of 1955, I met a shy, blue-eyed girl standing along the wall in the parlor at the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing. One thing led to another, and we were married in 1956. Ruth provided the focus and stable outlook I needed to get my act together. I received my M. S. degree in physics from Case and was well on my way to my Ph. D. when we received an offer from Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger to join him in Huntsville to work on ionic propulsion. It was... just getting off the ground? I had been corresponding with him for about two years when the offer arrived. We decided to pack all of our worldly possessions into our gray Volkswagen, and move to Huntsville, Alabama, to join Dr. Stuhlinger and the von Braun team. Susan arrived a year later.
That first year, 1959, in Huntsville, was a time of great excitement and enthusiasm. Physics and engineering departments still looked down their noses at space flight. Consequently, you could make important space flight contributions more easily than you could in the more-popular fields. We conducted and published some early studies in ionic propulsion in 1959, and to a lesser degree, in 1960 and 1961. In the fall of 1961, the ionic propulsion program was transferred to the Lewis Research Center as the Marshall Space Flight Center geared up for the Apollo program. Ruth urged me to take this window of opportunity to go back and finish my Ph. D. So in the fall of 1962, once again, we made an Okie migration, this time moving two-and-a-half-year-old Susan and most of our furniture to Willoughby Hills, close to Mom and Dad. It was quite a treat to be able to study full-time without having to also work full-time, mow the yard, etc. The next year, we returned to Huntsville, where our son, Rob, was born, and where I finished the dissertation for my Ph. D.
As soon as I got my Ph. D., I became interested in interactive computing. These were the days of wooden computers and iron programmers... of huge multimillion-dollar central computers that ran about as fast and stored about as much as a good HP calculator today. I set about to develop a mathematical computer system that would allow you to enter equations in mathematical format (using up and down arrows on your keyboard), and would automatically extract the answers for you. It would support a number of time-sharing users on one computer, and would utilize Tektronix storage-scope graphics displays for graphics output. We developed a programming language called AMTRAN (Automatic Mathematical TRANslation) that was simpler to use, more powerful, and more capable than BASIC. After about a year, visitors from GE came by and said they would inform a vice-president of GE that this new programming language might be what he was seeking to run on the new GE time-sharing service. Unfortunately, the connection with GE that was supposed to have taken place didn't. The local GE representative who was asked to report back to GE's vice president never came nigh. So BASIC was installed on GE's time-sharing service, instead of AMTRAN. Working for the government as we were, I and my partners-in-crime couldn't distribute our products without leaving the government, and in the 1960's, computer software was given away with mainframes. There wasn't yet a marketplace for software. In the meantime, in 1967, the aerospace engineering drawdown of the post-Apollo era had begun.
Reductions-in-Force began rolling over NASA and DoD twice a year. I had to keep my job and our federal Blue Cross Health insurance. Per my management's requests, I gradually withdrew from personal technical work, serving as a Branch Chief and later, as an Assistant to my Division Chief. It was no time to be a prima donna.
The next twelve years are a meaningless blur. In 1981, when NASA offered early retirement, I took it, joining the Huntsville Research Operations of Georgia Tech. There ensued another 12 years of meaningless, sponsored busywork. Seven weeks after I retired from Marshall and joined Georgia Tech. Ruth was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. We fought it tooth and toenail but it recurred in 1988, and we were given to understand that there was no hope. Ruth died in April, 1992, and I retired from Georgia Tech the following February.
The lovely Tommie Jean (who's prettier on the inside than she is on the outside) and I met in 1994 at a Hospice grief group. Tommie is a widow. Tommie has three children, all living here in Huntsville, and two grandchildren. We were married in 1995, and are living happily ever after here in town, with all our children and grandchildren around us.
After Tommie and I married, I began to look around for opportunities to do the meaningful work I wasn't able to do during most of my working years. A cause that has engaged me is that of seeing if we can't find ways to better nurture and utilize our best minds. There aren't that many of them, and from their ranks are drawn our geniuses and paradigm-shifters. I felt that my own career had been trivialized away by the exigencies of the NASA-DoD drawdown, and by the demands of continuously and reliably supporting my family. I realized that, insofar as I'm aware, no attempt is made to identify and mentor the very brightest children and adults in our society. They're thrown out upon the world to land wherever happenstance places them—as happened with me. When I began to investigate this situation, I was shocked to discover that many of our best are ostracized as children, and fare worse than I had. They never realize their full potential. (I'm sure I would never have completed my Ph. D. program without Ruth there to keep me on track.) This seems to me to be a tragic loss both for the individuals and for society as a whole. This gave new impetus to my urge to work with others of like mind to provide support—emotional as well as financial and scholastic—for our severely gifted.