Robert Spinrad, computer pioneer, RIP

Pioneering computer designer Robert Spinrad, former director of Xerox PARC, has died. He was 77. Dr. Spinrad was a prototypical maker who turned his passion for hacking electronics into groundbreaking research on laboratory automation and the use of computers in scientific experimentation. From the New York Times:
 Images 2009 09 07 Technology 07Spinrad190 Trained in electrical engineering before computer science was a widely taught discipline, Dr. Spinrad built his own computer from discarded telephone switching equipment while he was a student at Columbia. He said that while he was proud of his creation, at the time most people had no interest in the machines. “I may as well have been talking about the study of Kwakiutl Indians, for all my friends knew,” he told a reporter for The New York Times in 1983.

"Robert Spinrad, a Pioneer in Computing, Dies at 77"
Dr. Spinrad was the father of our pal and former BB guestblogger Paul Spinrad, an editor at MAKE. Our thoughts go out to Paul and his whole family.


  1. Thank you, David and everyone! My sister Susan and I have been supporting our mom, Verna, who was my father’s high-school sweetheart and wife of 55 years, and we have all been appreciating what a nice family we’ve had.

    My father was my hero, the best dad a guy could ever hope for, and I feel so lucky and thankful for him. A few weeks ago he told me not to worry about him, because he had had a good life.

    Here is one of his favorite pieces of poetry; My sister and I grew up with this, and it was one of the things that we read at his burial on Friday:

    The Moving Finger writes: and, having writ,
    Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
    Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
    Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

  2. I’m so sorry for your loss, Paul.

    I lost my father to ALS.

    My heart goes out to you and your family. What a great man your dad was.

  3. Sounds like your dad had a great attitude toward life and death, Paul. Apply yourself like mad toward your discipline, blaze as many trails as you can and pass away with contentment upon a life well lived. Wonderful. Sad and wonderful.

  4. #I-PSPINRAD- need I tell you what fortunate children you and your sister were,to have such a man that would quote Omar Khayam and have such confidence in you both, that you would remember his favourite stanza during his remarkable life and in his passing. I think he would have also liked this stanza on his crossing over.

    “For let Philosopher and Doctor preach
    Of what they will, and what they will not-each
    Is but one Link in an eternal Chain
    That none can slip, nor break, nor over-reach”

    Your Da enjoyed Fitzgerald’s translation, Ah! woe is me a kindred soul has moved along. There aren’t many of us left y’know that appreciate the D.W.P’s

  5. The name rang a bell. I read on, and sure enough, there was an old familiar name – Scientific Data Systems. Robert Spinrad was one of the “names” there. I was just a young aimless idiot until I got a casual job there in El Segundo.

    What are all those shiny things? Amazing works of the future, SDS 930’s (the first computer I ever touched), hydraulic disk drives, the place was magic on a polished concrete floor, waxed so heavily your shoes squeaked.

    Forty years and a half-million lines of software later, I’m still in the business, although I’ve moved up a bit since I was nicking the unclaimed EDN magazines out of the mailroom. DES-1, Sigma 2,3,7 and 9, plated wire memory, and delivering mail to a lady later lost as an astronaut in (I think it was) the Challenger disaster. Putting an AM radio next to the M register of a 940 so you could hear the progress of your Fortran II compile (“Hear that? It’s sorting its symbol table now”).

    For a bucket full of memories and strange, strange inroads into human progress, I salute you Dr.Spinrad. I salute you and that amazing institution you helped build with Max Palevsky. You were a builder, a maker, and now a legend. Vale sir, vale.

  6. Wow, Xeni, I didn’t know that– thank you, and my heart goes out to you too, back through time! It’s an awful disease.

    Thank you all for your kind words!

    Wolfiesma– yes, amen to that.

    Wizardofplum– that’s beautiful! But what’s a D.W.P.?

    Nefariouswheel– wow, what a nice story, thank you for sharing that, and for your gracious valediction! I love the part about using an AM radio to suss out what the computer was crunching on. By all accounts, the {S,X}DS-940 was a great machine, and it certainly also had an interesting history.

  7. #8-PSPINRAD.
    D.W.P. = Dead White Poets. Your father pointed the way.I hope you will continue along the same path with his grand-children. I remember as a six year old, in the midst of a German air-raid, my father reading Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” and William Blake’s “The Tiger.” The chaos outside diminished, softened by his sweet Welsh lilt and the cadence of his voice…I slept.

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