How I Accidentally Ended Up a Professor of Engineering

In my younger days I got a Master of Fine Arts degree from Yale Drama School. I had the privilege of working with George Izenour, one of the great pioneers in theater engineering. George was known as the Father of Modern Stage Lighting. Among his many contributions was the invention of the first electronic lighting control system for theater.

I had worked in summer theaters since I was about nine years old, mostly doing technical theater work. When I was graduating high school I couldn't decide whether to go to a school where I could indulge my love of engineering or drama.

I happend to meet Edward C Cole, the Dean of Yale Drama School who told me that Yale had a unique graduate program in Theater Engineering and that I would be much more valuable in the theater as an engineer than as just another drama school graduate. So I went off to Tufts and got my bachelor's in Mechanical Engineering. When I was finishing up one of my professors asked what I planned to do the next year. I said I was going to go off to Yale to get and MFA. He said "With your grades you won't get in." I told him "They've already taken me in. They just said I need to send in an application so they will have some paperwork."

Ironically, that's how I ended up a Professor of Engineering. I was one of three people who received a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship in Theater Engineering which allowed us to work and study in George's lab on such projects as the first punch card lighting control system for the Metropolitan Opera House, Harvard's Loeb Theater, and many other exciting projects. (Below are a few brief excerpts from one of Izenour's books published by The Yale University Press showing some of the hardware I worked on.)

I also got to study under such famous faculty as Stanley McCandless, the "father of modern lighting design". McCandless invented such things as the ellipsoidal reflector spotlight and wrote the classic "A Method of Lighting the Stage" back in 1932 which is still taught as the basis for theater and film lighting. As a class project for McCandless's lighting course I came up with a concept for a small hand-held computer controlled lighting console I called the "Time to go fader". Stanley was excited by the idea and in June of 1964 asked my permission to pass my report on to Fred Wolff, the Executive Vice President and Chief Engineer of Century Lighting Company. I believe this formed the basis for some of the theater dimmer systems in use today.

While I was in the Drama School at Yale I was taking half of my courses in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Yale. It turned out to be the best general engineering education I could have hoped for. I took graduate special topics courses from top professors in topics ranging from reinforced concrete design to mechanical vibrations to electronic control theory. To be a theater engineering consultant you need to be a generalist, able to handle unique problems. Acoustics and vibrations (how do you isolate the theater from the sound of the passing subway train? What will be the accoustical effects of different wall geometries?), air flow and heat transfer (is the curtain going to be pulled up the flyloft due to the rising hot air?), structures (how do you make a movable ceiling so the opera house can convet into an intimate stage?) electronics (how do you make a computerized control system for lights, rigging, stage elevators, turntables) and so forth.

I heard there was an incredible graduate kinematics course taught by a wonderful professor named George Sandor so I went over and signed up. It turned out to be one of the best random decsions of my life. That led to several other graduate special topics courses with George Sandor and I started helping him on his NSF project and programing on Yale's huge new transistorized IBM 7040-7094 DCS mainframe.

When I finished up my three years in the Drama School I casually mentioned to George Sandor that I enjoyed the kinematics research and was there a way I could continue to work on it during my evenings and weekends while I worked with George Izenour as a theater consultant. Before I knew it George had hustled me out to lunch and talked me into "n" more years of school where "n" was an unspecified large number.

The following year I found myself back in Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science working towards a second Master's in Engineering and then move on towards a Ph.D. (My three-year MFA degree from the Drama School was distinguished in part from the one-year MA degree by entitleing me to wear a Doctor of Fine Arts gown at graduation if I wanted. When I got my second Master's in engineering I was tempted to botch up the color scheme by wearing the DFA gown.)

I now had an NSF research assistantship t Yale so I was working even harder on the IBM mainframe computer. I would put in a run of punch cards on Monday and get them back through the glass doors on Wednesday. If you were lucky you could get in three runs a week so you checked very carefully for typos before submitting your boxes of cards. (I have a dozen more powerful old computers stacked in my basement junk pile even if that was a four million dollar machine!)

I was the first person to do a really big symbolic manipulation project using the newly developed language SNOBOL4 to derive and punch out a FORTRAN program to do five position kinematic synthesis. In the midst of pages of printouts of complex artithmetic equations with thousands of terms strange errors would appear, like the time of day or my system password. I was having all sorts of problems for months trying to debug my program which seemed to be perfect.

Finally, in desperation, I called up Bell Labs, the developers of SNOBOL. They were excited to hear of my error messages and said the problem was with SNOBOL and they had just discovered the problem the night before. The problem only occurred when there were thousands of symbolic manipulations in a row and up to that time they had only used the symbolic manipulation program to print out the string "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year" in the form of a Christmas tree. My project was the first serious mathematical manipulation problem that really taxed SNOBOL's garbage collection abilities. They asked me to send them a tape with my program and a few weeks later they sent back several big seven track tapes with a new version of the compiler and a thank you note saying my program was fine and the problem was with the SNOBOL language itself. So my kinematics program played a little role in debugging SNOBOL4, the granddaddy of modern symbolic manipulation languages!

George Sandor left Yale to become the head of the Division of Machines and Structures at RPI and he took me with him as his first grad student at RPI. Next thing I knew I was a Professor of Engineering at MIT and was too specialized in the arcane topic of kinematic synthesis to go back to work in the theater!



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