Military service launched Arnold Spielberg’s career in digital design


World War II snatched Arnold Spielberg from his early days as a small town department store manager and propelled him into designing computers, including an early prototype of electronic point-of-sale systems.

Mr. Spielberg, father of director Steven Spielberg, went to work at a Lerman Brothers store in Kentucky after graduating from high school in 1934. Spurred on by the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, he volunteered for military service and was sent to India as a radio operator for an Air Force bomber squadron. His ability to repair radios was appreciated.

The GI Bill allowed him to study electrical engineering at the University of Cincinnati after the war. Next are computer design jobs at RCA, General Electric.,

International Trade Machines and Unisys.

In the mid-1950s, he led the design of an RCA electronic cash register system that kept track of sales and inventory. Tested at a Higbee’s store in Cleveland, it crashed frequently and was ultimately abandoned by RCA.

“Technologically, it wasn’t ready,” Mr. Spielberg said in an oral history. His career often involved trying out concepts when the time was not right. “This is called the sticky neck position,” he said.

The IEEE Computer Society recognized him as an industry pioneer with an award in 2006.

Mr Spielberg died on Tuesday at the age of 103.

Arnold Spielberg with his son Steven in 2006.


Kevin Winter / Getty Images

In a 2016 interview with representatives from GE, Mr Spielberg said he tried to interest his son, Steven, in electronics. “But his heart was in the movies,” said elder Mr. Spielberg. “At first I was disappointed, but then I saw how good he was at making movies.” An obituary prepared by the family stated that the film “Saving Private Ryan”, directed by Steven Spielberg, was in part inspired by his father’s war experiences.

Arnold Meyer Spielberg was born February 6, 1917 in Cincinnati. His parents, Ukrainian immigrants, ran a general store. He developed an early interest in radios and magnets and built an electric shock machine to delight his friends. As a teenager, he communicated with distant strangers through his ham radio station.

College was unaffordable when he finished high school, so he went to work, first as a stock boy, for cousins ​​who owned department stores in Kentucky. His starting salary was $ 5 (the current equivalent of about $ 97) per week. Within a few years, he was promoted to a managerial position and found ways to improve profits in the women’s shoe department.

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In the Air Force, he was assigned to a B-25 squadron known as the Burma Bridge Busters. He took part in combat missions as a radio operator, but “when they found out I could fix radios, they grounded me” to do repair work, he said. in an oral history with the Charles Babbage Institute. He later worked in a team developing a high frequency radio signal receiver to guide the bombs.

After graduating as an engineer in 1949, he worked for RCA and designed electronic circuits for missile systems. He then joined an RCA team that developed the Bizmac computer, based on thousands of vacuum tubes, quickly rendered obsolete by advances in electronics. A Bizmac, sold to the military for around $ 4 million and requiring 20,000 square feet of floor space, was used to keep track of spare parts for tanks and other vehicles.

In 1957, the machine was programmed to predict batting averages among major league baseball players, then ridiculed for an unimpressive performance in that area.

Mr. Spielberg joined General Electric in the late 1950s and helped design the GE-225 computer, on which the Basic programming language was later developed. At IBM in the 1960s, he worked on computers to control factory processes.

After retiring from the computer industry, Mr. Spielberg supported the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, founded by his son to videotape interviews with Holocaust survivors and other witnesses to genocide.

Along with Steven Spielberg, his survivors include three daughters, 11 grandchildren and eight great grandchildren.

Write to James R. Hagerty at [email protected]

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