A Tribute To Herbert Simon >> Biography >> Herbert A. Simon: A Family Memory


Herbert SimonHerbert A. Simon: A Family Memory
June 15, 1916 to February 9, 2001
By Katherine Simon Frank

If you look at Herbert A. Simon's bookshelves, you find an amazing array of books representing writing in dozens of academic fields: psychology, computer science, economics, mathematics, politics, philosophy, biology, physics, linguistics, astronomy, chess, classical literature, poetry, and dictionaries of dozens of languages. An even closer look reveals books from the first third of the 1900's, books that Herbert acquired in his childhood. There's his handbook on insects and beetles, where he learned the classification and Latin names of beetles, an enduring fascination throughout his life. His seventh grade history book (U.S. to 1865) has his teacher's name written in young Herbert's hand inside the front cover. Another school book about Wisconsin--its history, geography, politics, and industry dates from the same period. A book on inland waters hints to us of young Herbert's interest in hiking, camping, and canoeing in Wisconsin lakes and rivers. There's a volume of ornithology of the mid-west where Herbert learned to identify birds. And a similar volume where he learned to identify trees and shrubs of the upper mid-west.

One can imagine young Herbert, always a voracious reader--son of Arthur Carl Simon, an electrical engineer/inventor/patent lawyer, and Edna Merkel Simon, a pianist-turned-homemaker--growing up in a household in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with his brother Clarence (5 years older), his maternal grandparents, and for a short while his uncle, arising very early in the morning, running to a nearby park, and climbing a tree where he read until time for the return run home for breakfast. As a young boy, Herbert developed and pursued, quite alone, interests in stamps, beetles, and chess. But he was not just a solitary child. Beginning in high school, he joined the Boy Scouts and a variety of school clubs (debate, science, Latin, and student council) and became a leader in many of them.

Dinnertime with his family was also a stimulating social time when the family heatedly discussed politics and science. He loved to listen to adults, and just as much he loved to ask them questions. In these ways: questioning and reading, he guided his own education with frequent visits to the public library and museums; referred to the Encyclopedia and the almanac, and read his uncle's and brother's books. It is interesting to note that even as a young boy, Herbert showed a similar wide-ranging interest in manifold subjects that was to characterize his adult intellectual and professional life. Early on, when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he answered in standard ways to satisfy the questioner, but deep down he knew he loved learning best, and he knew he wanted to be an intellectual.

Herbert always loved the out-of-doors. The family vacationed rustically in the wilderness of Wisconsin's North Woods while Herbert was growing up. As a teen, he spent several summers farming on a marsh in Wisconsin, a tract in which his family owned an interest. As uncharacteristic as it may seem, this self-proclaimed young city-born and bred "intellectual" described his experience on the marsh as the "real adventure" of his life. Sporadically throughout his life Herbert climbed and camped in mountains in various parts of the world. His last serious climb took place in the Alps in 1981 when he had his 65th birthday. During that solitary week he wandered by himself from inn to inn.

After high school, he attended the University of Chicago where, under Hutchins' New Plan, he met several players who became significant collaborators and colleagues for the rest of his life. Two who have remained close friends are Harold Guetzkow and William (Bill) Cooper. Herbert and Harold met on the train to the University of Chicago as they set off to begin their freshman year, and Herbert and Bill met in the dormitory where both lived. The University of Chicago at that time was an ideal place for a man like Herbert who had such diverse tastes. Herbert often bragged that he only took one course as an undergraduate, and that was boxing. He received a "B". For the rest, he studied on his own, attended only the lectures he chose, and graduated by taking (and passing all the required exams. During Herbert's graduate student years, Bill introduced Herbert to Dorothea Isabel Pye and they married December 25, 1937. Herbert and Dorothea began their family in 1942 when Kathie was born, followed two years later by Peter, and two years after that by Barbara.

Herbert's colleagues and fellow research collaborators can speak better than I about his academic and intellectual life. But there is one incident that stands out like a bright star in our family memory. Peter, Barbara, I, and our mother remember keenly the first demonstration that "machines can think". After working with Allen Newell and Cliff Shaw on the theoretical underpinnings of a process to instruct a computer to solve problems, Herbert was ready to try out the heuristic. One evening in early January 1956, he invited us (his family) to a classroom at Carnegie Tech to participate in a trial run of the theory he, Newell and Shaw had been working on. I (age 13), Peter (11), and Barbara (9), my mother, Dad, Al Newell and at least one graduate student were there. Our roles were to each "be" a subroutine that performed a specific function in a computer program. Herbert and Al laid out the logic problem we were to solve. Each of us was given a card with an assignment and a list of instructions written on it. We were told to follow the directions on the card exactly. Peter remembers sitting in a row of chairs and standing up when it was his turn to perform his subroutine ("not p"). Barbara (the theorem memory subroutine) remembers sitting in a circle. My memory is of writing the branching process on the chalkboard (I was the branching subroutine.) Mom was the executive program. Each of us at appropriate times, following the instructions on our cards, did exactly what the card told us to do. It worked! We humans had simulated a computer solving a logic problem! I cannot recall exactly the group response when we reached the solution that evening, but we all knew what we had done was somehow important. We all felt and shared the "inventors'" excitement of discovery. I believe the story is true, as some have reported, that my father walked into his class later in January and announced that over the Christmas holiday he and Al Newell and Cliff Shaw had invented a "thinking machine".

Other recollections we have are of family vacations, packed into our tight little car, driving across country for the summers when my father worked at the RAND Corporation in southern California. After vacationing with him on the beaches of Santa Monica for a couple of weeks, we continued north with our mother to spend the rest of the summer with her family in the Bay Area, meeting up again with Herbert in August for the return trip to Pittsburgh. We rarely took "just a vacation." Vacations were always coupled with a conference or other work engagement. This was wonderful, I thought, because it took us from Georgia to Maine to California, and even occasionally to Europe. Peter remembers a wonderful visit with our parents, meeting in Marseille and driving through Northern Europe. Barbara visited Mexico with them one winter, and a few years later travelled with them to England, Ireland, and Scotland. My family and I toured with our parents in Norway to see the midnight sun when my son was not yet 1 year old. And, of course, we all remember December 1978 in Stockholm, Sweden when we joined Herbert when he received the Nobel Prize in Economics.

I remember Thursday evenings during my teen years walking with my father, both of us in intense conversation, four blocks to the Bookmobile where we returned the books we'd read, selected new books together, then came home and began reading.

We remember sitting in the dining room after dinner dishes had been cleared, homework spread out over the table. In the adjoining living room, Dad played phonograph records on a hi fi that one of his graduate students built for him. We listened to music by Beethoven, Bartok and Stravinsky most often, but Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Brahms were also favorites. Dad sat right next to the phonograph player, reading or learning a language. There was such a sense of community then, each of us doing what we needed to do with the others available whenever a question arose.

Herbert not only listened to music, but was skilled as a pianist. He studied piano as a child, motivated, no doubt, by his mother. He played every day, usually choosing his favorite Bach Inventions and Preludes and Fugues or some Mozart or Beethoven piano sonatas. This may have served as "thinking time" for him, I always suspected, because no one ever interrupted him when he was playing. For the past several years, he loved nothing more than the evenings when his friend Fred Reif came to the apartment to play music with him, Fred on the violin, Herbert accompanying him. And recently, for a while a student joined them with his viola. It is so characteristic of my father to enjoy playing music with others--true always to his desire to collaborate! A few years ago when our parents moved out of their house on Northumberland Street to a condominium on North Craig Street, the only possession my father insisted he had to move was his piano, the baby grand he had inherited from his mother.

We all loved playing together with words and ideas. Sometimes the play began with Herbert reciting or reading a poem or a section of a classical piece of literature. Sometimes we were set off by a particular combination of sounds or a notion that came to one of us. Then we began to play with what we heard. Often we all ended up laughing so hard that tears flooded our eyes.

Herbert was a self-professed workaholic. All of us knew that his work came first, Mom was clearly next, and we were third. But, while third, we didn't feel unvalued. I remember only that Herbert made time for his wife and children. He answered questions, shared interesting stories about his daily contacts with others, taught us things when appropriate, and referred us to sources where we learned we could find information that led to answers. Our family dinners, like Herbert's as a child, were full of talk about politics and science, as well as stories of our daytime activities. "And what did you do today?" invited our responses, each in turn. Usually, at least once a meal, someone jumped up to grab a volume of the Encyclopedia or almanac from the nearby bookshelf to check a fact or embellish a viewpoint for Herb was an impassioned debater, often arguing as the Devil's advocate for the sport of it.

Barbara and I both remember Dad waking us up summer mornings before sun-up when we were teens to dress in the cool morning, arriving at the tennis courts just as the sun slid above the horizon. We played tennis until we felt very warm, then went home for breakfast. Herbert also joined family members in the garden evenings after dinner, sitting cross-legged in the grass, pulling weeds, hour after hour after hour. Another time to think, I suspect, but in our company.

Despite Herbert Simon's dedicated and prolific professional life, he lived simply: one car, one hi-fi, no television. He owned a particular beret, one at a time, the new one purchased in the same shop each time the current one wore out. He and Dorothea lived in the same house for 46 years, never desiring to move to anything fancier. He walked a mile to work and another home each day. In a piece he wrote to himself, he mused that he was sure he held the record as the only person on earth who had ever walked 25,000 miles on Northumberland Street. I am sure he's right.

Peter A. Simon, Barbara M. Simon, and Dorothea P. Simon made valuable
contributions to these recollections.

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