Autobiographical Notes

John W. Senders Life, Science and Digressions as recounted to Abigail Sellen and Neville Moray, 2001 edited and revised by Warren Senders, 2010


I was born in 1920, in a house on Lexington Avenue in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and lived there until I was about 12. About ten or twelve years ago I was back there, visiting various nephews and nieces. I went to look at the house and knocked on the door. The door opened and, when I told the man who I was, and that I had been born there, he said, "There's a woman just two houses down who was born in the house she lives in. She's about your age. " So I said, “Let's go call on her.”
So we set off, and this fellow ran ahead, and banged on the door, saying, "Someone's coming to see you! It's a Professor Senders!" and she said, "John Senders!" Her name was Helena De Marco, and she was three years older than I was — a classmate of my youngest sister, Henrietta. We went in and had an absolutely hilarious time.

She recalled all kinds of things. Apparently when I was born, our street was a dirt road. I remember it being paved, but it was never plowed in the winter. The milkman, the ice man and the wood man would come with horse-drawn trucks on skis. These were called "pungs" - a pung is a horse- drawn sledge truck, and they were used for delivery along there. We used to go out and stand on the trailing runners while the horse trudged down the street. Great sport when you're four years old!

I said to Helena DeMarco, "Do you remember the May party?" And she said, "The May party?"

I had been talking about the fact that when I was very little, walking down the street towards Fresh Pond, from where I knew not, would come a parade of children, and kids would come out of their houses and join in as it went down the road. At the end there would be a maypole, a King of the May, and a Queen of the May. We would all go out, and we sang as we marched down across Huron down the road to Fresh Pond. There we would have a May Party, and the song was, "May Party, May Party, Rah! Rah! Rah! Who are we? Who are we? We are the members of the A B C !” So we had this chant going down the street. Helena De Marco practically burst into tears. She joined in singing. It was a really nostalgic thing that goes back essentially to natal times.

Q: Were your parents immigrants?

They came individually. Father came in 1903 or 1904 from Russia, near the border of Belarus. I think he was about 20 . He served one term in the army. He was tall, blond, blue-eyed, and said he was in the Tsar's guard, because that was the criterion. He had met there another man, whose original name would have been Joseph Zubelievitsky, and they both were aware that they would be called upon again. Joe got away and went to America. Then a year later he wrote to Father, and said, "This is where you ought to come."

So father came over in 1904 and lived for while with Joe, and a little while later Joe's younger sister came over; They met in Cambridge and got married in 1908. They lived next door to Norbert Wiener, whom I later encountered in Crozier's laboratory. My father's family name was probably Senderowski, which became Senders; and mother's name was Zubelievitsky.
Elizabeth and Henry Senders

My parents were non-religious Jews, descended from people who were religious. I don't know whether as children they ever practiced. I never heard anything that suggested that they were practicing. When they came to America, that was abandoned. They never spoke Russian, they never spoke Yiddish, or German, although they had five or six languages, as people in central Europe often do. They never spoke French or Polish or Czech, although they could speak all those languages.

The language of the house was English. I grew up learning a much more precisely enunciated English than people who grow up in a normal English environment. It sounded as if no one was quite sure what, but sure as hell it was not a standard American way of speaking, because I enunciated everything. For example, my mother would say, "A most extra-ordi-nary event". I think my sister Rosella deliberately practiced an upper class Boston accent. She would correct me if I did not enunciate properly and speak with the right cadence, and by the time I was six, I spoke far better than I speak now — “proper Bostonian” speech.

Father worked to save money. He worked at all kinds of things. He was fundamentally a very honest person, and therefore was very easily conned.

A friend who owned a store said to my father, "What you want to do is save a little money, and buy a store, and then you will know that you will always have food." So father went looking for a store. He started off perhaps with $500 to see what he could do. He went around, talking to real estate agents. "After one day I looked at these men, who sat in big offices, across big desks, with somebody typing on a machine, and I saw that they were stupid, and that I could do anything that they could do and do it better. So I decided to become a real estate man."

And he did. He did very well. until the great crash of 1929, when he was extended in property. All of a sudden the bottom fell out, and he went bankrupt. He later paid back every dollar of it. He told me that the bankruptcy was to save his own neck, but he still owed the money, so he paid it back. But of course that was when a house in Cambridge probably sold for $10,000, but would now be $1.000.000.

My parents bought a house in Somerville which we ungraciously called “Slumerville”. It was a bigger house, a marvelous house; I would love to have it now. It is probably worth a million. It was on a hill looking over all of the city, but Somerville was not a “proper” address. The girls refused to go. Rosella took an apartment in Cambridge, and she and I used it as a changing place when we went there to play tennis.. Eventually my parents bought a house in Arlington.

There were five children: my oldest sister Virginia, then Grace, Rosella, Henrietta and me. I was born in 1920.
Front row: John Senders, Henrietta Jacobsen, Rosella Howe. Seated: Elizabeth Senders. Standing: Virginia Browne, Grace Dane. 1971

Virginia was born about a year after they were married. She went to Cambridge Latin School as we all did. Virginia unquestionably skipped some grades: she finished high school at the age of 14 and went to Radcliffe. I think she was at Radcliffe for two and a half years. I have no idea how much she completed. Then she switched to law school and completed a law degree, I think at the age of 18. Never did anything with it, mind you. That would have been in about 1927. She got a job as a secretary to Professor Grass at the Harvard Business School, where she met and married a graduate student, Wayles Browne, who was a collateral descendant of Thomas Jefferson. Virginia had two children, both prodigies, both fiercely intelligent.

Grace went to Boston University, majoring either in social anthropology or sociology. She also worked as a secretary, and she met and married John Dane (who was, as it so happened, John Dane the 10th). They had four children, three girls and a boy.

Rosella was the next. She was born about 1914, and she married Hartley Howe, the son of Louis McHenry Howe, who masterminded Franklin Roosevelt's bid for the White House and was essentially his chief political adviser. They spent quite a lot of time visiting; attending receptions at the White House and staying there as family guests. Rosella and Hartley had four children, three boys and a girl.

Henrietta was the youngest of the four sisters. She married Jens Jacobsen, a Norwegian accountant who lived next door with his sister and his mother. They eventually moved to Texas, where she functionally ended up running the University of Texas at Austin, and Jens ended up as the director of contract research. They had no children.

I married Virginia (Ginny) Loftus. Her father was a first or second generation Irish immigrant and a very successful salesman. Her mother was a Mayflower descendant and a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution; they lived in Westchester County. We have two sons, Warren and Stefan. Ginny and I were divorced in 1975. In 1978 I married Ann Crichton-Harris, who had three children from a previous marriage, Daniel, Abigail and Adam (Sellen).

Q: What did your parents have planned for you? What did they expect from you?

It is difficult to say. I never had a feeling that anybody voiced an expectation. I have no recollection of anyone saying, “You must do this”, or “You must do better“, or even, "Have you done your homework?" I think I did it and worked when I was at elementary school. I think that when I was in kindergarten, and Henrietta was in second grade--she was three years older than me--I used to help her with her arithmetic. I would have been four and she seven. This was things like long division, which seemed perfectly transparent to me. I wasn't under pressure; I had a marvelous time in elementary school. When at high school I found it again pleasant, but a bit flat. Mathematics, English, trivially easy. History — I hated the teacher and she hated me. All the other courses were fun. I got good grades, but not as good as I could have.

Q: Do you know where your love for science and technology came from?

Oh yes, I know exactly where it came from.

I had two favorite reading materials. The first one was the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the famous one, that father and mother bought for us. And I read that through “S.” I knew everything in the world through “S.” But nothing from “T“ onward. The other was that father subscribed early on to Popular Science, and I read every single issue of that. Popular Science is simplified, but on the other hand it reported what people were doing, and how things worked, even if nobody quite knew. That had a tremendous effect on me. It was why it was possible for me to be an engineer without ever having taken a course in engineering – because Popular Science was technology.

So I learned everything about all the new things that were coming along. I felt completely at home with the things I didn't know but had to figure out by going to a book, – how to calculate a/c circuits, and things like that. Father knew how to do everything; if he didn't he would go to a book and read it. I was once invited to go horseback riding. I think I was about eight. I said, "How do you ride a horse?" And he said, “You go to the Encyclopaedia, and you look up under 'Equestrianism' " . So I did. It told me how to ride a horse. It told me how to ride English saddle, not a Western. I had a hell of a time, but I managed to stay on the horse and behave creditably by reading the Encyclopaedia Britannica on "Equestrianism ", which I thought was remarkable.

So whenever I needed to do something I would go read about it and learn how to do it. I was able to try it out and turn instruction into action fairly easily.

Father really had only one guiding principle: everybody was taught everything about how to make a car work. How to change tires, how to crank it, how to prime the engine, why you had to do this, how the engine worked. We had lectures, and we had races — who could change the tire fastest, and so on. His rule was that anything you use, you must understand how it works; and you should be able to make it yourself, given enough time, (preferably not too much time).

He said that you should be able to go into the jungle naked and come out fully dressed with a working radio. And by God, I think I could! I know how to come out with clothes and tools, a hammer, nails, because I learned how to do blacksmithing, I learned how to smelt, sew, cook, skin a cat, (not a cat exactly, but whatever,) and that was the only basic instruction.
Henry Senders

Father's rule was, “If you use something, know how it works, and how it is made, and be able to make it. “ He made us take things apart and put them together again. I once wanted a model airplane. He was an imaginative man, and so he went to a lumberyard and bought a clear cedar shingle 6 ft long. He took a plane and rounded the leading edge because it was already tapered, you see. The he took a piece of 2x4 and with a plane shaped a fuselage, and then made a mount for the wing and constructed a non-flying model of a generic airplane. It was beautiful. He was able to envision transforming a shingle, or a clapboard, into a wing; and transforming a piece of 2x4 into a deep rounded fuselage. That was magical. So I began building model airplanes at a very young age and very rapidly learned the dynamics of flight and how they fly. When I got to fly an airplane as a pilot for the first time I knew exactly how it worked, all the aerodynamics, all the controls. I soloed after about eight hours. I think I could have soloed in the first instance but they wouldn't let me. But I knew exactly what to do, how to get into a spin, and how to get out of a spin. (It frightens the hell out of you!)

Q: Did your sisters acquire these goals?

Henrietta did, the others did not. Henrietta became a very good mechanic. She and I were expert tire changers. And she was always very appreciative. She was my guardian angel at school. Other kids would try to beat me up because they called me little professor, and there was a comic strip that had an overbearing know-it-all called “Mr. Bozo”. So I was called Mr. Bozo. But if anybody said it, Henrietta would slug them. Nobody messed with Henrietta.

I was not given any directed ambition at all by my parents, so when I got through high school I did not see any need to go to college. But the family decided that I ought to and sent me to Antioch College, saying I already spoke as if I'd been to Harvard, so why waste the money. Later I did go to Harvard and when I finished, nobody suggested graduate school, not even Ginny. I think overall I would have said, “Why do I want to do that?” I was the chief engineer of a company by then, and I knew how to do anything. At Harvard, I had already sat through all the graduate courses in psychology anyway, and I had studied with all the best people in the world, so why would I want to go anywhere?

It didn't occur to me to be an academic, although in a sense almost all the people I knew were. Had I not had my sisters, who were overlords of academic performance, I probably would have been a prodigy, particularly if I'd been the oldest as distinct from the youngest. They were dominant in my life; I grew up with four exceedingly bright, exceedingly academically successful sisters, except for Henrietta. She rebelled,and never went to university, but I never rebelled, I never did anything, just floated along, and whatever happened by chance, just happened. I became an engineer by chance. I entered Harvard in a sense by chance, because Ginny said, “You ought to go to Harvard”. Otherwise it wouldn't have occurred to me to go back to university.
Q: Why do you think you're so competitive?

Because of the family.

At dinner there were seven of us, and it was intensely competitive, – gaming, puns, word games, verbal attacks; when somebody said something, immediately someone else contradicted. Everything was competitive. I learned whist at a very early age. I learned chess and immediately I played it to win. The point was to win. Tennis to win. Girls did not play tennis to win, but Rosella played tennis to beat Grace, and I played to win, because I had all these people I had to beat. The whole way of life, Bridge, Chess, Checkers, Scrabble, anagrams, 20 questions, charades, – everything was a game. Every day there were games. Every day you either won, or you were beaten, in no uncertain terms.

So you had to win; you had to win. I had to win, and they had to win, too. It explains a great deal. I never saw it as competitive. To me that was what games were. It’s never occurred to me, as other people have told me all the time, “You're so competitive!” I'm not competitive, I just want to win! But my victories don't stick in my mind; my defeats do.

Q: You've been criticized for being extremely intolerant of people, not to say rude to them.

Well, I grew up with people who could see exactly what the point was. When you began a sentence, you didn't have to finish it. And if you tried to, they would finish it for you.

My father's complaint used to be that I would always finish his sentences. So he would change his sentences in midstream. But I learned that, so I would force him finally into a position totally the opposite of what he intended in the first place, by always ending his sentences so he had to switch. That was when I was very young.

I am intolerant, exceedingly intolerant, of people who are supposed to be experts. They are the plumber, they are the electrician, they are the lawyer, they are the doctor, they are the dentist, and then it turns out that they don't know as much as I do about their trades. And I think that they are fraudulent, and that I cannot stand.

For example take the doctor. It turns out that I tell him something and he says, "Oh yes, yes, of course." But he hadn't known it, or he had forgotten it, and I just can't stand that, because I think, “What the hell's he doing being my doctor? I could be his doctor.” And the same thing is true of the plumber. The plumber doesn't have a clue. Electricians don't have a clue. They just don't know.

With so many things, it's a curse that I see something, and I see immediately how it has to work. Then I find that other people can't see that. That's extremely hard to take.

I've learned to be tolerant of the fact that the terrific knowledge I have is a singular talent of seeing how things work.

Let me tell you about things working. Ginny and I were once driving in a horrible blizzard. We were in a Model A Ford. (This is the car of which Jerry Bruner wrote, "When John invited me to get in his car, I reached out and found myself grasping not an automobile handle but a doorknob. I said to myself, ‘This man will go far’." ) In any event we were driving along, and suddenly in the middle of the bloody road, which was densely traveled, there was a car stopped with the hood open. A mechanic had gone there with his tow truck with the lights behind blinking, and there was a couple, probably in their sixties, and I did what I always do, which is to pull over and say, "Can I be of assistance?” They said, "We were trying to get to the hospital where her son is, who had an accident, and our car won't run." The mechanic was not able to make it go. So I said, "Will you let me look at it?" I couldn't even see anything because there was no light. It was pelting down. So I reached down, and just felt round the carburetor, and I felt something that seemed wrong. There was a line in it, and a toggle, and it seemed to be in the wrong position. So I pushed it a bit and it snapped into place, and I said, "Try the engine." And it started just like that! They said, “Oh, what did you do?”, and I said, “The choke had gone over center, so it was locked into the fully closed position and was flooding the engine. Probably an adjustment on the length of the pushrod or pullrod will take care of that. Just don't put on too much choke at any time.“ Then there was a big discussion going on, and the man ran across and pressed a bill in my hand. I said, "I don't want any money. I did it because you were in trouble." And he said, "You must take this, my wife will not allow me to go back with it." It was a 20 dollar bill, which was a hell of a lot of money in those days! I said, "Fine. Thank you very much."

But the thing is, it didn't even occur to me to think it strange that I could feel in the dark what was wrong, because for me devices have always been that way. These days, when things fail, I just set them right. It is a blessing. But it is also a curse, because I end up fixing everybody's everything. I have always done that.

For example, Grace moved into a marvelous house in Brookline. All the windows had cranks to open them and big broad windowsills. Some of the cranks were missing, so they could open a few windows, but very few. I said, "Oh, I'll take care of that." I bought some solid brass rod, took a hammer, and forged the square ends and the cranks and so on. I made brass cranks for everything in the house. It was nothing.

But the thing is, most people wouldn't even know how to begin. I had never actually forged anything, but because I had been told that you have to know how to do anything, I knew how one did forging. I had read about it under “F” in the encyclopaedia, and in Popular Mechanics and Popular Science. Things to me have always been that way, and I hate it when people who are supposed it to know how things work don't. So I've repaired my own hearing-aid by taking it apart and fixing it. I have repaired my own microwave by taking it apart and fixing it, even though they don't want you to do that. It was because the people who came to do the work couldn't even read a circuit diagram, but I could. So while he was doing it I borrowed the manual and made copies of the circuit diagram and told him to put it back the way it was, go home and I'd pay the bill. It was $90 an hour; in one hour I'd diagnosed it, took the chip off, found that the relay was defective, telephoned somebody, and they sent me one for nothing! They said, “It would cost too much, Professor Senders, to bill you for it.“ So they sent me the $7 relay, and I put it in, and it worked. But the mechanic couldn't do that. So I fired him. To me that's an insult, that he should come and that I should know more than he about his product. That's unacceptable.

The difficulty is that most people in the world are in service positions, and most of them haven't a clue as to what the hell they're doing. And I get very angry. So that attitude stems from the fact that for me it's always been easy to see a mechanism. Vacuum tubes I could read. Solid-state I couldn't see anything, and therefore I had a long period in which I simply refused. I just didn't want to go anywhere near anything made of solid state. It's because I was afraid of it, because I couldn't see how it worked. Then suddenly I was able to visualize in my mind the mechanism. With that I could go in and deal with it. But until I could visualize the mechanism it was an impossibility.
I think that a lot of science is being able to conceive either visually or in some more primitive way the underlying mechanism of what's going on, whether it’s reaction time, or a transistor, or a solid-state device. When I had a crystal set nobody at that time seemed to know why a crystal set worked. But I knew what I had to do to find a sensitive point, and I sort of learned to be able to see where the sensitive point would be and sort of conceived a natural transistor. At that point it became crystal clear as to how this worked; and so then I made my own radios, winding coils, making capacitors, and so on. Automobiles are transparent. Aircraft engines are transparent. Jet engines are transparent.

All these things are immediately obvious, and you know exactly what's going on. You could make one if you wanted to. At one point, just for fun I designed an interesting horizontal gasoline engine very much like the one that Volkswagen later made. I had the idea about 20 years before. It was just an exercise to see if I could design it, so that the valves would work and would be timed correctly, and I found it was an easy job. I think it would have been a rather good engine, but of course I didn't bother to build it.

My father insisted you had to know how to make everything. So even if I didn't make it, I had to know how to make it — how to make a clock, a knife, a nail. When you put that together with the competition, and a brain with a great deal of mathematics, then everything else begins to just flow.

Q: Why do you never go anywhere for pleasure?

Well, because I get pleasure from going places to visit people.

If I came to England, it might be good for about three or four days, but most of the time I like visiting people and talking. Talking shop – what else do I do when I talk? Furthermore, I have many shops! So I talk eye movements, or error, or I talk medicine, or I talk law, or I talk perceptual and motor skills. I don't really take holidays. Ann makes me go sometimes, but we always turn it into something exploratory.

A trip to South Africa was in a sense a holiday, but in a sense it was also business, because it was tracking down family roots for Ann. Going to Tanzania was a holiday, but then I learned a great deal, both about anti-malarial drugs and about the economics and politics of Tanzania; and we did a lot of research. I learned how to read old war maps. So in a sense it wasn't a holiday.

I used to go skiing, but then I discovered it would cost you no more to pay the tolls and not ski. So if the family wanted to go skiing, I'd go. But I was sitting on a chairlift once at Sugarloaf; it was about 30 below zero with a 30 knot wind. And I said, ”What the hell am I doing here? I'm freezing.” So I rode the chair down and went into the lounge. I discovered it didn't cost me any more to do that than it did to ski. So I changed my policy.

Q: Would you just go to see somewhere, not to do anything in particular but just to see what it was like? A sort of National Geographic holiday?

Well, that's a holiday. And I've gone on such a trip on two or three occasions. Ann's cousin came to California when we were there, and we spent three days going to the Grand Canyon, which was pure holiday. I rode a mule down to the bottom, and so on. A nice party — but very rare.

When I was at college and when Ginny and I were at Wright Field, we had a lot of holidays. We were in the middle of the country, and we would drive to California. So I've made nine transcontinental automobile trips, and about six North-South intra-border trips, and those were holidays, although sometimes I would stop off and visit a laboratory or something on the way back.

Even before the advent of e-mail, I enjoyed visiting people more than places. People were the thing. If I went to Germany I would visit people and go into their homes because that was interesting. But then the people that I met were all professional, people I didn't know, people in other trades. So what might have been a holiday turned into a sort of business holiday.

I went to a beach once – Ginny and I went to Jamaica. We flew out of Minneapolis at 20 below zero, landed in Jamaica, got into swimsuits, went out on the beach, Ginny got stung by a jellyfish, and I got burned. I spent the rest of the week in bed, being treated by a tropical disease fellow from the Royal Air Force, who was retired in Jamaica. He and I got along famously, and then at the end of the week I was well enough to go home. So he said, “Don't ever go out on the beach again. With your skin if you go on a beach you'll get burned.” And everybody's told me that ever since. So I always very carefully wear a hat, and that explains the relatively unmarked cheeks. I've always been very pleased that I don't look like a prune.

Q: Did you try it to bring up your sons on the same philosophy as you were brought up on?

Pretty much.

Q: Do you think you succeeded?

To a degree. Warren makes his own instruments. He makes instruments for other people. So he can, in a sense, play anything. His degree is in ethnomusicology. He sort of can do anything. Stefan is also pretty much that way. He likes building large structures, like houses, but he can do anything. He's a good carpenter, and a good engineer in an intuitive sense. They both managed to evade their parents’ field, Warren more successfully. Stefan almost got into psychology, but he managed to get out of it and go into social anthropology. But he's still a very good experimental psychologist.
Warren and Stefan Senders

When they were very young, I got a dowel and a yardstick, and I had them catch the dowel, and measure how far it fell; and then we worked it out and plotted it, and then Stef ran an experiment in a public school, in which he measured the reaction times of children and plotted them as a function of age and sex, to see how bright they were, and so on. He discovered all the amazing things that one discovers in that kind of experiment. They both have an experimental turn of mind, but Warren asserted his independence at a much earlier age than Stefan did.

When Ginny and I went to Canada, Warren stayed in Lincoln. He wanted to stay in that school, so he lived with my mother, which turned out to be quite successful. Stefan came with us. And then when Ginny went back, Stefan wanted to stay with me, so he did. We stayed in Toronto. I think he must have finished high school in Toronto. He bought a car, but he could never really make it work, so we got rid of that. Then he wanted to go on a hitch-hiking walkabout, so it was agreed that it he could do that, but he had to take Willow, our black standard poodle. It was because I had much faith in Willow.

In fact Willow and he had a very successful journey, and Willow saved him from a number of unpleasantnesses, by growling, and so on. Stefan said that some cars Willow refused to get in, so he couldn't get in. The crowning moment was, he was down on the coast in Alabama, and somebody picked him up – a young woman. Stefan got in the car, and then said that he wanted to get out at a particular place at the water's edge, and he got out there with the dog. It was a place where the road went down to the beach, and he and Willow went down to it. He had been told to turn left and there would it be a place where he could probably camp out. Willow refused and wanted to go right. So he went right, and Willow led him to a place and just lay down. So Stefan pitched his camp because he had to, and when he woke up, he was surrounded by people camping. But the other way? There was a washout. Water and so on, and Willow wouldn't let him go. Very clever. Willow was a very bright dog. When we were living in Maple, one night someone banged on the front door. Most dogs go to the door and bark, but Willow came up to the bedroom door and barked, to wake us up. This displays a high level of thinking for a dog.

EDUCATIONAL HISTORY: School, College, Early Work Experience

Prior to high school I was at the Russell School for eight years, and I had a marvelous physics teacher, absolutely superb. It was a public school. I learned a great deal of physics there. Things were done at the school which had a tremendous impact on me as an experimentalist and also in theory. A great deal of theory was explained even though not in mathematical terms. In my first year of high school an event happened that I really understood only decades later.

The geometry teacher, the plane and solid geometry teacher in first year high school, called me in one day, (and by the way I was really a very lazy student, spent most my time playing chess, never did any homework), and he said, "Do you think your parents would send you to a private school? ". And I said, "What?", and he said, "Well, I think you ought to go to St. John's." I’d never heard of it, and I assumed that it was because I wasn't doing well. I realized, 30 years later on, what he meant was, "This isn't the place for you, you want to go there, they'll be able to deal with your ability."

But at the time, I talked to my parents and they didn't understand either. This was something that had never occurred to them, that a teacher might suggest to a student, who seemed like a good student, that he should be sent off to some private school. It sounded remedial. I realized later it wasn't. What he meant was academically it would be better. But I didn't; I stayed there.

But I did what some people today do, namely first and second year University mathematics. I got through high school when I was 16, but in fact because I didn't like my history teacher I did nothing, and failed history. I had to have a passing grade in history in order to graduate, so I had to spend one year doing one course. And then when I finally graduated from high school the headmaster called me in and said, "John Senders, I could recommend you for a four-year fully-paid scholarship to MIT. But I'm not going to because you could have done so much better than you did. "

During that year, I worked. I mixed paints in a paint factory. I formulated paint, so I learned a great deal about paint. Then in 1939, somebody told my sisters about Antioch College, and the family decided that would be the ideal place for me. So they sent me off in 1939 in a five-year program, which would have put me in the class of ‘44.

Q: What was so special about Antioch?

Well, they had a so-called work-study program. So you could spend as many as six years getting a degree, because you would spend so many weeks at school, and then so many weeks working. They accepted me: I think I had good enough school grades, but I was thrown out to at the end of my first year. I was sent down in relative disgrace. All I’d done was go to the classes I enjoyed and not the ones I didn't enjoy. I played chess with a physics professor and beat him, and things of that sort, and mostly ignored other things.

So they sent me home, and they sent a letter, saying that it's "very rare that we send somebody home in his first year, but in the case of your son we’ll make an exception." And my father sent me a letter saying, "They will always make an exception for you.“ Much later, when Ginny became a professor at Antioch, she immediately plunged into the files to find out the truth behind all the stories. And there was a copy of the letter!

My father was prescient, because people have always made exceptions. Why did they throw me out of Antioch? Well I was rebellious really. I didn't want to do anything I didn't want to do. I refused. They had courses with names like “personal management”, where you learned how to open a checking account. I had a checking account! That was all crap. So I just quit, but that wasn't permitted. I quit anyway. There was another class I slept through because I was gambling all night, earning my way through college, so I did very well in physics and mathematics, and German, and very badly in everything else. And they didn't like it.

So that was that, and I had to go to work. I said, "How you get a job?" My father said, "Never talk to anybody who is not in charge. The president is the ideal person to talk to.“ I said, "Any suggestions?", and he said, “You can always work in a lumberyard.“ So I went to the lumberyard, and insisted on talking to the manager, and eventually he hired me on condition that I would stay a year. I became a lumber inventory clerk. Apparently he wanted me to stay on, but I quit after a year and a day.

Then I got a job at General Electric's River Works. They made aircraft generators, and this would have been just at the beginning of the European war, in 1939. A person who had been in Antioch, the son of a tool-and-die maker who, I think, had been going through the same extended six year program, called me one day and said GE was training tool-and-die makers, and that this was a very good thing to do to make a lot of money. So I went to the employment agency they were running in Boston, and marched in and told them I wanted to apply for the training scheme in tool-and-die. They gave me a lot of tests, – the wiggly block test, and I went like this and put it together; and a vocabulary test, and I told him what all the words were; and then it might have been a Stanford-Binet in which I got everything right. So he said, "No, I wouldn't dream of it. Why don't you apply for a job as an engineer?" I said, "I've never taken any courses in engineering, and in fact I've only had one failed year in university." He said, "That won’t matter. You talk to them and they'll hire you." And by God they did – a test engineer for aircraft generators!

I went on the late night shift at the River Works, and by the end of six months I was on the day shift and teaching people engineering tests for aircraft generators. I stayed there for about a year and a half. It was a long commute, and somebody told me that the National Company, which made naval equipment, (naval radio equipment such as transmitters, receivers and so on), was looking for production engineers. I didn't know what a production engineer was, but by this time I had learned that if I talked to someone they would hire me. So I went there--it was not so far to commute, over in Malden. I went to the National Company and after bits of work in the lab, they said, "All right, we'll take you on as a production engineer."

Actually I was a very good production engineer. I increased the output, increased quality, and did the first human engineering experiment in late ‘42 or early ‘43. The inspectors of radio tuning condensers held them up against the light and made sure that nothing touched. They were complaining about eye strain, and also there were quality problems. So I surmised that if the eye is not completely achromatic, then what we need is an achromatic light, so that it would be easier to focus precisely. I didn't know anything about light, so I got gels, which of course are terrible because they're not achromatic at all, and I tried blue gels, red gels, yellow gels and so on. And with the yellow gels everyone was very happy. They seemed to make fewer mistakes. If we put the yellow gels on, everyone stopped complaining and production went up. So that was fine, and the company was delighted. I'd never heard of human engineering, but that was what I did. I didn't become a director there, but my department increased and I had a lot of responsibility. I finally worked the job so that I trained my secretary to do everything. Then the Army and Navy quality inspector quit the government's Inspection Service and joined a small company in Boston, General Controls, as general manager, and he invited me to come and be production manager. So I went there in late ‘42 or early ‘43, as production manager.

That's about the time that I met Ginny. After about six months it was clear that we might conceivably live together, get married, and so on. She took me over to the psychology department, and gave me an IQ test to make sure I was of good stock or something, and apparently I did very well on the intelligence test.

So we decided that we would get married, and we did, but not immediately. She said, "Well, you ought to go back to college“, and I said "Where?" Ginny said, "Why don't you go to Harvard?", and I said "All right, what do I do next?", and she said, “Well, take the examinations.“ So I took the exams, whatever they were, and I later learned through a Boston cousin's husband, (who was at that time assistant dean of admissions,) that my grades were the third highest ever recorded. So they expected great things of me. However I was still working full time, so I did not summa my way out. However my freshman counselor, because I had done very well in mathematics, put me into second year math, which was differential equations, which I'd never heard of. He said there was a new course,"Calculus of Probability," taught by a fabulous guy named lRichard Von Mises. Von Mises was one of the Vienna Circle. The course was Math 9, which is a third or fourth year course. My tutor said, "You ought to take that."

I started out truly knowing absolutely nothing, but I did very well. I spent four years at Harvard which were extraordinary years. I entered in September ‘44, and graduated in June of ‘48. I took the entrance exams, they may have been SAT, or they may have been college boards or they may have been Harvard exams, I don't know.

When I was at Harvard, the first year I lived at 63 Mount Auburn Street, a flat in a wooden building right across from the Lampoon. The Crimson was on the second floor. These were mostly grad students in Psych and Social. I met Talcott Parsons there, and Fred Whipple. He was courting one of the psychology graduate students. And Whipple and I became good friends. It would have been at the tail end of ’44. What happened then in psychology was that I took the introductory pair of courses, which E. G. Boring and Gordon Allport taught back to back. One half year was Experimental, and one half year was General Psychology. And from that point on I never took another pure undergraduate course. I had a course with Licklider, I had a course with Skinner. I had a course with Eddie Newman and undergraduate seminars. I can't remember what they were, but I took as little psychology as I could to get a BSc. The rest of it was Sarton in the history of science, Quine on logic, Schumpeter in economics, Cossell in physical optics, – an absolutely extraordinary collection of people. Amazing people!

So I got through. Also, because of Ginny, many of my companions were graduate students. She was doing a Ph.D., so my companions, dinner guests, and so on, were George Miller, Leo Postman, Ward Edwards, and a lot of others. Everyone was there at that time. And the Lickliders, Eddie Newman and his wife, and even E. G. Boring came around a couple of times.

This was during the war, and people didn't know how to cook. So I used to go down to the Prosperity Wholesale Meat Market, and I made friends with the butcher, and I'd get this really great stuff and invite faculty and graduate students to dinner. I had a marvelous time, and when I got through I knew everybody, and I had learned from all of them about everything, more than my grades would reveal, because I never really had any time for homework, or even for reading.

I went to lectures, skimmed the reading, and didn't do very well in the exams; not outstandingly, but I knew a great deal. I've always, to some extent even today, been able to take a technical book, and read it very, very quickly, and absorb everything that's in it. .

That's what I did then, perforce. A lot of this is an amazing collection of coincidences, which structured my view of the world and of science, all quite subliminally: you pick up amazing amounts of stuff. I got married in my freshman year, bought a car and a dog, became a second year student and worked full time. When I graduated, you know what happened: I became a single client consultant to the general consultant.

So that was Harvard.

About 1947, when I was in my last year at Harvard I was working at General Controls as chief electronics engineer. One of the clients of the firm, somebody who was a manufacturer of paper making machinery, invited me and Ginny down to visit the plant, totally out of the blue. We drove down to Connecticut and joined him and his family at dinner. And at the close of dinner, he took his glass of wine and said, “I want to drink a toast to our new president.” I looked around, and he named me!

He had a son who was uninterested. I guess he was about 58, and this was a company that in those days was sizable, it was doing 3 or 4 million dollars a year, and he was pulling out of it something like $750,000 personally - enormous income for 1947. And he was essentially offering me the company. I looked at Ginny, and she looked at me, and I thought, "What the hell do we do with this?", because it wasn't what I wanted to do, particularly because I hadn't ever thought of a thing like that. I politely took it under advice, thanked them, thought about it, and eventually said no. If I had done it I probably would be exceedingly rich now. But on the other hand I wouldn't be myself. I'd be some other kind of animal. And mostly I think I'd rather be the kind of animal I am.

But it made me turn into a consultant, because he wanted a lot of special attention, so I resigned from General Controls, with plenty of notice as I always do, and set up essentially a shop of my own because I would have more freedom. I began designing and manufacturing controls for paper conversion machines, (presses, perforators and things like that). These would be installed in machines and actually sold. I had 92 employees, and, if there was an interesting question or trouble, occasionally I would have to leap into the car or an airplane and fly out to where a customer was having trouble.

These machines were all digital in the sense that they were ganged relays, each of which is a binary device - you see I never thought of it as bits. You could hear the machines operating. I found out that I could have them take a telephone on a long cord and push a button, and I would listen and I would say, "Replace the tube third from the left on the machine", because I knew from the sound exactly what was failing. I did that for a couple of years, and it was profitable and gave me freedom.

After Harvard I spent two years at Wellesley, where Ginny was an instructor. They really treated her shamefully. They paid her $1,800 a year, a little bit like English salaries are now! At the end of the first year as instructor, she got the catalog and observed that she was still an instructor, which is lower than an Assistant Professor, albeit with $2,000 a year. So she went to the head of department, who agreed that she should have been promoted to Assistant Professor, but the catalog was all printed. Dissatisfaction spread through the ranks and the idea of going elsewhere surfaced.

When Ginny got a job at Antioch I just moved myself out there. In 1950, I think it would probably have been, In April or May of 1950, we got into the car one day, and put the dogs in, and took them to the vet. And when we came back, our house had vanished. There was an identical house right next door, and so we saw what looked like our house, but there were all these people around. Our house was literally just a flattened pile of rubble. It had caught fire and burned down. Totally. We looked through where our house was, to the next house, and there was nothing there. My total business was gone. All my papers, my designs, my inventions, my invoices, my data, accounting, everything had vanished. I have a few souvenirs. I have one silver spoon, one melted silver spoon, and one globule. There was one metal globule about this big, which I found in the rubble, which was a gold watch. Everything vanished. So I now had to start doing something else.

I began trying to do local consulting in general, as opposed to working for a single client, and I got a little business but it wasn't a great deal. And then in about four months I went to the laboratory at Honeywell on a visit, and, lo and behold, I was hired. So I stopped the consulting and let it go at that. I joined Wright Patterson in October 1950 and left in May 1956. I went in quite by accident. I was acting as a consulting engineer in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Ginny was a professor of psychology at Antioch College. I met the people of the lab, Bill Beil, Ed Ward, Bell Warwick, Gordon Extrand, and a number of other people, also the group at the University of Wisconsin, Spike Tanner at Michigan, Dave Green, and, of course, all the people associated with Tanner, Harry Harlow.

All these people became very good friends, and I became interested in psychology again, I met all these people, and what they were doing sounded very interesting, because both Ginny and I had pilots’ licenses, and I was interested in aviation, dating back to Lindbergh’s flight. (I first flew in 1928, a long time ago, 72 years ago, when I was eighteen years old. Not as a pilot (although I probably could have been a pilot!) and that imbued me with a love of aviation.) So I became interested in it, and I wanted to go to the space lab, to see what they were doing, because it all sounded absolutely fascinating. Ginny was directing the group that was reading the original IBM card data on eye movements from Paul Fitts and his colleagues. I thought, "That sounds really fascinating", and I told them that I wanted to go over to the lab. Well, that was just when the Korean war started, and the security was clamped down. They weren't letting anybody in, but I discovered that if you were an applicant for a position they would let you in, so that you could talk to people in the laboratory that you had applied to. So I filled out an application form. Now I was applying for a position in psychology! I had a bachelor's degree in psychology, but I'd never done it. All my experience was as an engineer, because when I entered Harvard my experience was as a production manager of a small firm, which I couldn't do when I was in the University because it required continuous oversight of what was going on.

By the time I had finished my bachelor's degree, as an electrical engineer, I had started a local laboratory without having had a course in engineering, let alone electrical. When I went to the Air Force they didn't need an engineer, but they needed a psychologist, so I applied. I filled out an application which said I was a designer, which was true, because I had done it as an engineer. I designed devices; I analyzed human function in order to devise mechanical substitutes. And that got me in. In fact I had done design, because I used to work in the paper products industry, with presses and folding, leafing and perforating machines, while I was at Harvard; and I had devised, designed and built a number of digital control devices to run the machines, and in order to know what to do I had to watch people doing it, in order to design the automatic function. So that's what I said. I always tell the truth - sometimes limited, but I always tell the truth. The story’s true. So they sent for me and the first thing I did, I spoke to Walter Grether, who was head of the Psych lab. He said, "You've applied for a job, because the place needed somebody in psychology.” And I said, "Look, I don't want the job; I just wanted to find out what the lab does". He said, "That's great." (He was essentially Paul Fitts’s successor.) So I got a very good tour of the lab, we talked, and looked at all the various things that people were doing, and then I went back to doing consulting. One day, a few months later, the people of the lab whom I had got to know decided that they wanted to hire me. But they couldn't imagine how they could possibly do it. They wanted to hire someone, me in particular, to be the chief engineer of the branch, run the apparatus development shop, devise new ways of doing experiments, and so on. So we had this long discussion. I said, "Gee, I'd love to come. How can we do it?", and they created a job for me.
In a sense it exemplifies almost everything that ever happened to me. It was all serendipitous. I really never had any ambition to do this or that, although I did want to learn to fly. (And I would have loved to go into a space ship at the right age. ) But mostly a vacuum would turn up, of which the filling was obvious, so I'd fill it, and then I'd discover that just by having done so I'd be an expert in that field in the eyes of people who had been unable to fill that particular gap (like the computer storage for all the world's libraries, which I entered knowing nothing about how to start or anything else). But the mere fact of having solved a particular problem creates the illusion of great expertise, and everybody insisted that I was an expert, even though I knew perfectly well that I wasn't.

So that's also what happened to me all along. They couldn’t hire me as a psychologist because I didn't have the qualifications. I'd never done any psychology. I had a bachelor's degree. And I didn't think I was qualified. I've always had a very limited view of my abilities, because of my more brilliant older sisters, who subjugated me. (Well, I grew out of it eventually!) But within the week I got a letter in the mail which said, “This is not the offer of a position, but based on your application, you are hereby qualified as an aviation physiological psychologist. Grade GS 9.” (which is the Ph.D. level). So I called the branch and said, "Hey, you can hire me as a GS 9 aviation physiological psychologist", and they said, "Great!". So they hired me as the engineer.

I had two technicians, and we threw out the other junk and started building a good apparatus development shop. I think I was there about six months. I looked at what they were doing, and the research was terrible. This was in controls, so I devised my own experiment, built the apparatus, and ran the compensatory and pursuit tracking experiment. The first one I ran when I got there was one there had been a lot of arguments about. They seemed to get different data this way and that way, and no one knew why. But I knew why. So I ran the first experiment, and the second experiment--including the visual perception of velocity-- immediately revealed that the difference vanished, and so on. I published too! I was asked if I would be chief of the control center as well. I was then the chief of controls and apparatus development. Then after about a year the Air Force headquarters sent down a request for work on unusual environments, in the arctic, in the desert, - stuff like that; low pressure, vibration, etc.. They asked me if I would do that. So I said yes, and I headed the section on that. I now had three sections that I was running, and I did a lot of interesting work. Most of the time what I would do would be one study, merely to demonstrate that this is the way that something should be looked at, and then go and do something else. I didn't want to turn the crank.

I did one study where I picked up on something that Doug Olsen had done in 1948 showing that in the pedestal sight of the B-29 the probability of being on target in elevation was less than random if you were on target in direction. If you are to target in direction then you were more likely than by chance to be off target in elevation. But he was never able to quantify it, except to state what the probability was. I on the other hand pulled out the tetrachoric correlation. The tetrachoric correlation is a 2 by 2 matrix for data which are inherently continuously distributed, preferably symmetrically, ideally Gaussian. The human error in tracking is very nearly all of these. Artificially it can be dichotomised if you take the marginals, and divide by the sum of the squares of all the marginals and take the square root, lo and behold! You get a number that lies between -1 and + 1, which is a best estimate of the underlying correlation. So I did that, and I found that the correlation was indeed negative between the performance on dimension A and dimension B. So I said, “OK, if it's positive we will call that 'coordinated', because you can obviously do things simultaneously; 'uncoordinated' means that they are purely random, each does its own independent thing, as if individual people are doing it; and 'dis-coordinated' is when if you're doing one you screw up the other.” (This by the way is what Shu Min did later for his 1992-1993 paper, and also what Maurice Maslia is doing for his PhD.)

So I did a paper on coordination, and I then did the confirming experiments, having the same task with one person doing one and another person during the other, such that neither was able to see the other’s display, (they were in different rooms) and lo and behold! it’s “uncoordinated”: the correlation is zero. Of course I knew it had to be that. If you do experiments that are based on a mathematical theory, provided the theory is reasonably coherent, the behavior has to conform to the theory at the margins. There is no alternative way of performing, which leads me then to the concept that if you push people to the margins, their behavior is totally controlled by the system. All that led to the secondary task tests, with people always doing as much of one task as they can, and operating at the behavioral margin, and therefore what they did was totally controlled by the task, within the limits of the adaptation of the human being on a variety of tasks. And again I did one experiment on that, and I didn't bother to publish it. In the sense that there was an obvious explanation, it was boring, so there was no particular motivation to publish. I realize now that this was an error. Even so it seemed too easy.
I remember Paul Fitts invited me to go down to the laboratory at Ohio State to talk to his graduate students, and Walter Grether called my office and said, “I want to give you a word of warning: don't tell them your ideas. They’ll steal them!“ And I said, "Walt, if they steal them, maybe they'll do something with them!" Well, it's quite true I was delighted to give them away, and I sometimes even gave them the credit. So in any event, I did the work on the perceptual motor skills tracking, and then in 1952 I was interested in the eye movement problem, because Ginny had been looking at the IBM stuff, namely IBM cards based on photographic 8-per-second recordings of pilots’ eye positions. This work was laborious and painful. I've always had a good mathematical intuition about the way the world works, and I can find solutions just instinctively without working it out.

I went back to Shannon, the 1947 article, read the thing again, and decided that the Sampling Theorem would be the controlling factor. Irrespective of what people wanted to do, what they could do, the limitations would be mathematically defined. So in order to do that I had to get some data, and to do that I had to learn about eye movements. So I read all about eye movements and developed my own electrodes using silver coins. Dimes were silver in those days, so we took a dime, soldered a wire to it, stuck a couple of dimes into a saline solution and ran current through it, and got some cathodic silver chloride deposited on the negative electrodes. Then the silver chloride was used with the skin potential electrodes that we used because the silver chloride essentially defended against extreme polarization. You scratched the skin and attached these. A dental drill was the most effective way. You would drill just a little bit in the skin, then fill it with the gel and then put the electrode on. You got very good contact, and a very good record. I needed to get a continuous recording in order to assess the validity of Shannon's theorem in live people. So I did that, and got enough data to make records. I actually ran the original critical experiment, I think in 1954, to determine that if I put in bandwidths of known spectral composition the behavior of the people had to be often more or less as the sampling theorem would predict. That was partly true and partly not true.

And then I talked to Larry Fogel, and we discussed this. He was a very good analyst. He was a visiting scientist from a corporation. (He is retired now, but his son has a Ph.D. in the same field, and does evolutionary programs.) At that time he worked out that at higher frequency, where my earlier work had shown that perception of rate made better tracking possible, people sampled less often than the sampling theorem would predict, and at very low frequencies they sampled more often. He worked out an extension of the Sampling Theorem, showing that, if you sampled two derivatives to see position and velocity, you needed to take only half as many samples as Shannon’s theorem would predict. It's an extension of Shannon's theorem. So as far as I was concerned, that explained why the slope was always less than unity. But what led me into generalizing the eye movement data, in particular to looking at the information content in a set of displays and making the second prediction, which was for the duration of observation. By the middle of 1956 I had completed the data and actually run the first experiments showing that the duration is related to how much information or uncertainty has built up since the last look. And I had a million IBM cards and I carried these cards around, and never had the time to analyze them. I wanted to look at the last interval and the next duration of eye movement observation which was the critical observation to make, because it follows from the longer it has been, the more time you should spend looking, because you will be that much more uncertain about what is on the display. It follows if the interval were short and it's a random event, you should have spent less time looking.

Q: How did you end up in Alaska?

By October 1955 I had advanced in grade as rapidly as the law would permit (sometimes even more rapidly). As it was simply a “can do” situation, it wasn't a matter of university degrees. It was just a question of whether I was able to do anything. So I got promoted. An opportunity arose to go to Alaska, and I'd never been to Alaska, and Ginny hadn't been to Alaska.

So we decided, why not? She was pregnant and expecting our first child. She wanted to write a book, and she could live in reasonable comfort in good quarters in Alaska with a great support facility and do the book. So we set off by airplane. In those days it wasn't easy to get to Alaska. In 1956 I think there was only one airline that went up there, and the only way to get it was to go to Fort Wayne, Indiana. So we drove to Fort Wayne and stayed overnight in a motel, to catch the plane the following day. Then Ginny went into premature labor; the child was hydrocephalic and did not live. So that was a difficult time, a difficult situation. I think it didn't occur to us that the real reason for the trip was now gone. We weren't going to have a child in Alaska.

But the momentum carried us on. When she was released from hospital, which I think was about two or three days later, we got on a plane and went to Alaska. I'd been offered the job of Head of the Psychology Department. Perhaps I expected too much of it. It turned out to be an exceedingly remote situation, like having a tiny medical laboratory in a small oasis in the middle of the Sahara desert. It was a research laboratory affiliated with the Air Force hospital. It had a lot of interesting people, but most of them were escaping from something. They went up there and spent their entire time hunting moose and caribou and almost going native. It wasn’t my style at all. There was no e-mail in those days. You couldn’t get anything done.
In Alaska, 1956

Everything that was needed had to be flown in. To give you an idea of the difficulty of getting things done, in the grocery store all cans of food regardless of the contents were the same price. Because most of the cost was transport it didn't make any difference what the hell was in it. It could be lobster or it could be nachos. Getting equipment was almost impossible. It was a struggle just to live. You always made economic decisions. Electricity was 12 cents a kilowatt hour, (about a dollar in today's money,) and gasoline was a dollar a gallon, which would be about $12 a gallon in today's market. However it turned out it was slightly more economical to leave the automobile engine running 24 hours a day than it was to plug in an electric heater.

You spent a lot of time getting cold driving and making sure you didn't have flat tires. You didn't know whether a tire had air in it, because the rubber would freeze solid. They were using a new neoprene which becomes pervious to nitrogen at below -30. So when the temperature got bad, all the nitrogen would go out but the thing got frozen in an inflated position, and then you drove and it went flat when it got warmed up. So you always had to be checking on things. We used to light a little bonfire at the back of the Volkswagen. You'd use newspaper and wood, and you'd light that and hope it wouldn't explode. Then after it burned a little bit you'd get in and crank it up and away you'd go. It was a struggle.

I was there one year and one day. The Air Force had moved us up. They came to the house in Ohio and they moved everything. They even took a sheet of plywood, 4 feet by 8, that I had in the garage. And they crated it with two sheets of plywood on the outside and wood around it. And moved it. So it arrived in a plywood crate. Everything was like that. We were planning a tour for two years, and the Air Force rule was that if you left before the end of a year you had to pay them for getting you up there. In the second year they would pay to take you there but wouldn't pay to get you back. The colonel in charge of the laboratory was a baby doctor, a pediatrician, and genuinely didn't have a clue as to what research was. While I was there I tried to run a research program. It was very difficult to run research programs because the place was dedicated to Arctic operations. Research programs had to be related to the Arctic, temperature and so on, and to find ways of increasing the visibility and detectability of downed airmen. I wrote lectures, and gave lectures on survival in the Arctic, the psychology of survival, and the human factors of survival. But when anybody wanted to do research on people, say the problems of dexterity, what did they do? They sent them down to Natick, Massachusetts, to the Army research place where they had controlled temperature rooms. You could get the temperature, this amount of wind, and so on, and you could do your little task. I figured, if I'm in Alaska to do research, and I’m going to send the subjects to Natick, what the hell am I doing here?

So I decided to leave. I sent a letter to the commanding officer. I sent a letter saying I thought it would be in both my own and the laboratory’s best interests if I left. I got no argument. Ginny got her book done, the book on statistics, and it was very successful.It was a good book.
Leaving Alaska in a VW Beetle, 1957

We were in Alaska for 366 days, and we drove back to Honeywell. They got in touch with me and asked if I would consider. I think what had happened was that while I was in Alaska I was invited by the air training to visit Lackland Air Force Base, which was the center of training. They were just then in the business of installing simulation and analog computation. I'd done a lot of work before that on perceptual–motor skills, and I was asked to come down and spend a week. I can’t for the life of me remember what the hell I did. But I have in my files a detailed letter from the commander of the Lackland Base to the commander of somewhere in Washington or Alaska saying what a marvelous job I did, and how I straightened it all out. I think that called me to the attention of Honeywell. But they felt that they needed someone to deal with aircraft control and a jet supported platform. In 1960 I was with Honeywell, and I had taken what must have been one of the first industrial sabbaticals. I told them I was going to Santa Barbara for the summer, and either I would have a job when I came back or I wouldn't, they could choose. They said, “You'll have a job when you come back.“

So I went off, and, while I was there, Licklider was in Los Angeles, and he called and said, “Can I come up?” And he came up and invited me to join Bolt, Beranek and Newman. It was only later, at the time of the post-retirement celebration for Lick, that I had an appreciation of what that meant. It was commented on then that the operating rule that Lick had at BBN was that if you meet someone who is smarter than yourself you hire them immediately. And I didn't think that I was smarter than Lick but I was roughly the same. And I suddenly realized that that's what he had done. He had come because he was able at that moment to hire me.I had already left Honeywell, and he persuaded me to change, for which I was always grateful. I was out in Santa Barbara, because I had known Gottsdanker for many years back in the 50s when he was at Tufts, and I was at Medline. At that time, Lick persuaded me that BBN would be a good place, and Ginny was persuaded that she would be able to find an interesting place at the New England Board of Education, so we moved back to Boston, and I started at BBN in 1963.

Well, Licklider hired me and then quit. Naturally. That was the way things were. I was there for just two or three years. So I did quite a lot of stuff, but then I got the invitation to teach statistics at Brandeis, and that's what led me into teaching at Brandeis. I think it was in the third year of BBN.

There was a meeting at which we were handed a request by Lick. He had proposed a massive program to the Council for Library Resources in Washington which was called, "The Library of the Twenty First Century", and it followed, as everyone said about BBN at that time, iwhat you got was "A Lick and a promise".

One of the tasks we'd been asked to do was to assess the digital contents of all the world’s libraries. So Lick said, “Can you do that?” And I said, “Sure.” I didn’t know how, but it obviously didn't violate physical laws, so it could be done. In about two months we completed three independent assessments and wrote a paper which I then published in Science. I regarded it as strictly a tour de force and not a particular interest of mine. It plunged me into the storage of information, information retrieval and digital libraries. There was a need, and I was appointed next year as advisor to the National Science Foundation Information division, a division I didn't know anything about. I said that and they said, “Well that’s all right, we know better.”

I did that for about 12 years, and I was on the Communications Committee of the Administrative Council. Information Science then became dominant because I got calls from all kinds of people to talk, to write, to speak — and, with David Lopez, published in the Sociological Journal, and gave talks to the American Sociological Society editorial processing centers. These were the early 60s.
Later I was at Brandeis University. Sheridan and Young were at MIT. At Brandeis Rick Morant was Chair of the psychology department. I was there for 7 years, but they found it psychologically impossible to give tenure to somebody who only had a bachelor's degree from Harvard. It stuck in their craw. I used to bring in vast funds, and graduate students liked money. They used to seat me next to Abe Maslow, (who was a very good friend,) because they thought we would disagree on everything, but we agreed on everything: namely, we agreed that they were all no good. So it didn't work.

I was working with the chap who did work on vestibular things. His wife is the daughter of Ezra Krendell who used to be at the Naval Research Laboratory in Connecticut, and did all the original work on the dynamics of the inner ear. In any event he's still there. That brings up John Thurbron, who's in Florida I think. He was the dean or vice-president of Central Florida University, and he and I used occasionally to do things involving the Navy like rotating platforms and disorientation. He was a vision man mostly.

At the time of Brandeis I was doing a lot of consulting. I can't remember the names, but I have all the records showing what I did. I worked on some specialist CIA-type stuff. It turned out that they simply didn't have any concept of the controlled in-feed of information, in which you plant rumors and then see how they are transformed before they get back to headquarters. To do that makes you able to assess the reliability and validity of data gathered by agents in the field. They never could quite understand about it. It was exactly what I tried to do with a jet engine inspection of blades back in the 50s at Curtis Wright, which had a terrible rejection rate, very unreliable. I said, “You must take defective blades of various kinds, with trace marks on them so you can pull them out, and send them through the lines, and gather statistics on the individual inspectors.” And they could never understand these ideas.

That became a sort of fifth leg to a career which ended up with nearly as many legs as an octopus, and that led into the Electronic Journal. When I finally said to the National Science Foundation that I was living in Canada and I didn't want to really spend the time to go down anymore to do that, they said, "Well what would you like to do?" They offered me a blank cheque. So I said I would like to start an electronic journal. That was about 1976. The first articles I wrote about electronic journals were before that, and in the summer after that. The first were predictive, the second were analytical. I suppose really by the time we got through with that, the nuclear power racket had reared its head again.

Immediately after Three Mile Island, there was a demand for people to attend meetings. I was asked to a lot of meetings, and then I got a call in late 1979 or 80 from the president of Maine Yankee Atomic Power Co. asking would I come and do this control room redesign. I went and told them what I would do, and how I would do it, and what I would charge for it. We went ahead and did it. It was highly commended by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and cost less than any of the others on record.

What I did was to take a fresh graduate of my own program at the University of Toronto. He had two instructions. One is, you live in the plant and you do what I would do. And if anybody objects, you say, "Call John Senders". Those are your two operating instructions.” It was a very successful program. I hardly ever got any calls.

Going back to BBN years, it was the second phase of eye movements. In 1963 that was what got me into automobile driving, which was an extension of the Sampling Theorem for vision, the Shannon theorem, and which I generalized for aperiodic sampling. That in itself grew out of the earlier work on periodic sampling. And that led me directly into automobile driving, which was again just a telephone call from the Bureau of Public Roads. Somebody there called up and asked if I had any ideas about how to investigate normal driving? Safe driving. So I thought for about a minute, and I said, "Yes". He said "Send me a letter," so I wrote, and they sent money. It was about $300,000.

We did what had taken about a minute of thought, which was to think back to the time I was driving from Wright Field to Cleveland and we had a constant windshield wiper sweep rate, and I observed that there was a maximum speed at which I could go on a perfectly straight road. Above that speed I had made the observation that on a perfectly straight road with periodic looks at a fixed rate and a fixed duration there was a critical speed above which I could not drive in comfort, but below which I could drive completely comfortably. And when I was asked ten years later, about 1963, when I was asked if I had any ideas about safe driving it came immediately to mind, and I said,"Yes". I set up in my head the experiments, then I wrote them down. These were done very well and provided a model and a methodology that could be used, although most people use the methodology without understanding the model. They're just standard experimental psychologists.

Youtube: Driving on I-495

At BBN I always said I was doing “engineering psychology”. At that time, when Lick invited me to join, it was a collection of centers, each having one person who created the money for the mission, such as, for example, Dewey who did the neurophysiology. When Dewey was there, the money came in. As and when he decided to leave, it just closed up, because the reason for its existence was his interest. In the case of Human Factors, when I left, there was no need to close it down because there were many people who were quite competent and the contract flow was high, with a lot of money.

Actually that was also true of Honeywell. When I first went there, there was in existence a sort of embryonic Human Factors Group, but I built it up so that we had 15 people, and eventually it acquired a good reputation, some people said second only to Bell Labs. So we had pots and pots of money, because that was when the space stuff had begun. I was there about six years or so. I had done some earlier work when I was at Wright Pat. We had one of the first analog computers, it may have been the first analog computer, I arrived there in October, 1950, and we got our first analog machine sometime in February the following year.

Of course I'd never heard of an analog computer, but, immediately when I discovered what it was, I set about getting one, which is another story. But at any event we had it around the time of Sputnik. I remember when Sputnik went up, it was scorned as a basketball in the sky, and the order came down, “No one is to waste any time and money working on space travel: ICBM is the new posture of the Air Force Tactical”. So we did what amounted to illicit experimentation on control of pure, inertial, frictionless systems with three degrees of freedom. Some of this was at Wright Patterson. I did this in 1955 before going to Alaska. So I did some work on the control of space ships too.

At Honeywell I was brought in to set up a Human Factors Group, and we did aircraft control and stabilization before the big space program. I went to Honeywell in ‘57, and probably within that era the space program began to take off. Prior to that I did a lot of analytical work on the thing called DYNASOAR, which was DYNAmic SOARing, Boeing's concept for a global bomber. And I also invented the second-by-second operational analysis and the information and theoretical measurement of workload in Mission design, and I also set up the little push button box for measuring excess capacity as a primary task, and that was used in assessing the flight control system of the X-2.

I showed this to someone at Honeywell. It is amazing, you see. I would do this and demonstrate the work, and, because they were engineers, it worked. It would work anywhere. So they took this bloody thing in the airplane, and into simulators, and began to say, “Well, this flight control system is as good as that flight control system”, using this simple device with lights, and with a little button to push. It was amazing. Anyway, it seemed to work and it seemed to come out right.

Then the space program began and I was asked in the very first instance, I think it was as in 1957, to become a member of the bio-astronautics committee of the National Research Council, and this, in 1957, was based on the fact that I had run the controls section at the Honeywell environmental section and the apparatus development section of Wright Patterson. So I was three section heads in one. And all these fed into the space program, because nobody really had done anything of significance. So I was part of bioastronautics.

This led to my proposing various programs, so we ran an open competition for flight controls and displays for Project Mercury. And we won it. That just launched this, and from that point on I had a group working. This was all at Honeywell. We did some work on Gemini and a lot of work on Apollo. We did some work on lunar landers. That was very interesting. The lunar lander automatic control system had been won by the controls theory group at Honeywell, and they were at that time into optimum control. Well, optimum control should mean optimum control. They calculated what they would do, and they managed to get it down where they wanted to go on the simulation, but it didn't seem to be very good. So I requested that they do certain things. What I had been doing in fact was merely to quicken the display, because I'd worked out the theoretical solution to quicken the display of landing, and it turned out that the human being was better than optimal. This made them very unhappy. So what they did essentially was to change their theoretical approach so as to include the kind of stuff people were doing. They came up with a very good solution.

So we worked on the lunar lander. That was the culmination of something that started when I was six years old, reading the very first issues of Hugo Gernsback's “Amazing Stories.” Prior to that he had written a novel, “Ralph 124C 41+” and this was a space adventure. I was either six or seven, and it absolutely hooked me on space travel. So what if Honeywell finally closed their books when they finally got there?

While I was at Honeywell we did an operational analysis of the rear radar operator’s task in the C F 100 and demonstrated that improvement of the C F 105 system was unnecessary. I continued with the bioastronautics committee. I was appointed an advisory member of the Vision Committee, and an Advisory Member of the Committee on Hearing in Bioacoustics and Biomechanics, the Road User Committee, the Highway Committee (because of the automobile driving experiment); and I was also a member of the Space Science Committee of the Academy.

Chris Kristofferson was at BBN with me. In fact it was probably my association with him that meant we were both at a meeting in the 50’s in Florida on artificial intelligence. Marvin Minsky was there. I hadn't met him, and I was there with Hilary Putnam, the Professor of Philosophy at Harvard. Putnam and I presented papers. He was talking about philosophical things and I raised a question: how do you measure the IQ , the g, of artificial intelligence? Minsky felt this was an absolutely foolish, terrible question.

I felt and still think that it's a bloody important question. Because when people talk about artificial intelligence, it is an important issue to say how intelligent you have to be before you will accept artificial intelligence. If you could be a perfectly good cockroach, would that be artificial intelligence? I think yes, with an IQ of 3. But one has to ask these questions. Suppose you have two chess playing machines. They have an identical program, and one has a gigahertz cpu, and the other a KHz cpu. This one will take months to make a move, that one will take 10 seconds. Are they equally intelligent? We tend to forget that we apply the human timescale to the machine, and if it doesn't appear intelligent on our timescale then we tend to say it is unintelligent. But if you took a motion picture of a week of artificial intelligence and then compressed it into human time, it would behave like an intelligent animal.

So I felt the question was a good one and I still think it is.

I got to know a lot of interesting people (this was at Honeywell). I got to know Julian Bigelow, and then Oliver Selfridge. Then I met Warren McCulloch and we became very good friends. I used to visit him at his farm, and when Warren died, Rook sent me a complete set of his reprints from his lab with his stamp on them. He was a fascinating man: erratic, a lot of fun, and he was involved in some of the stuff I got involved with in Washington. I think it might have been in some of the space stuff, with regard to questions of reliability. We would take planes together out of Cambridge and have a lot of very interesting discussions.


Before your move to full time in Maine where were you living ?

Ann and I lived in Chinatown in Toronto. We had been in Toronto there in Chinatown behind Human Factors North, and were spending our summers in Maine and also a fair amount back to about 1980s. I was really full time at Toronto only until the end of the academic year ‘ 81, or about ‘82. Prior that I was full time in the Industrial Engineering Department. Then beginning in 1981 we spent one semester in Toronto and one semester in Maine. After I came back from sabbatical I spent the next year full time, and then at the end of ‘81 went on half time. Every year I went on half time so that they couldn't kill the position. Then in 1998 the University of Maine, to my eternal pleasure, decided it couldn't afford me any more, when I was the highest paid person around, so I taught a last course in the first semester of ‘99 and then just went into consulting.

I continued as a consultant, and when we decided to move back to Canada, I carried on, and there was a sort of lean year because in Maine I was doing mostly civil litigation and liability work for accidents, some marine accidents. I became a specialist for a while in marine law. And then when I came back to Toronto my clients were in intellectual property.

1980 and ‘83 were signal years. The first error conference, the “Clambake Conference”, was in 1980, and the next one in ‘83. That was a deliberate effort to discover or create an “invisible college” of people interested in working on human error. And I think it succeeded, and I believe it may have had more effect than anything I've been engaged in. Certainly the 1983 conference combined with the first one resulted in a change in the way people looked at error. Out of that came ultimately Reason’s book, and Dave Woods’s book, and our book WHAT BOOK, and Sue Bognor’s book; and I think these books have had a tremendous effect.
The "Clambake Conference", Columbia Falls, Maine, 1980

The University of Toronto Department of Industrial Engineering hired me. I had been invited by York in 1971 to come up as a Distinguished Visiting Professor in psychology, and it was not convenient at the time. Then the following year while I was on vacation I got an invitation in engineering psychology from Toronto, as a Visiting Professor of Engineering, and it was agreed that Ginny would go as a Visiting Professor of Psychology at Scarborough. At the end of a year, she returned to her previous position at Framingham State College, which was the beginning of our separation, in the fall of 1974.

Ann was born in ’36, so it may have been at the end of ‘74. It was just the fall of her 40th birthday; she was over 39 when we met. Ann I immediately pursued, deliberately, politely, inexorably, and she — I think worn down by pressure — agreed to marry me, and to my knowledge has not regretted it.


Have I told you about my meeting with Shockley? The transistor Nobel Prize winner. Shockley you may recall had tried to persuade the National Academy of Sciences to undertake serious work on the nature of the genetics of intelligence. He said that given the kinds of data that we have, it either is or is not the case that there are genetic racial differences, as well as probably genetic intra–racial differences. Everybody agreed to do the study. Nobody would accept the Inter–racial. Everyone would do it except the Inter-racial, which doesn't really make much sense when you get down to it. They kept rejecting it. They said, “No, we can't do that: it's too hard.” So he essentially said, he maybe indeed said, “All right then, I'll do it myself.” He gathered together everything there was to read, read it all, began doing analyses, and published. And the coals of hell rained down upon him, for even daring to discuss the topic. As you know the data all seriously indicate that that there are racial differences which perhaps are explained by other things, but nobody's managed to do it yet. I was in Washington at an APA meeting, and I had nothing to do for a while. In the late morning I noticed in the catalogue there was a panel discussing race and intelligence, of which Shockley was a member. The rest were all psychologists. So I went in and sat at the back.

And these were the rudest bunch of psychologists ever. They argued ad hominem against him. They did not consider his arguments. They didn't even attempt to gainsay them, because his arguments were purely statistical, and there wasn't much you could say about them. You could not say you're wrong, because the numbers were regrettably what the numbers were. So they attacked him. Hideously. So I took a business card and wrote my room number on it, and said, “Join me in my room after this is over.” I marched down the center, stood in front of him, handed him the card, turned around and marched back to my seat. He looked up and I looked at him and he nodded and I nodded, and that was that. I left after that. I couldn't stand it. It was just a terrible performance. I was in my room and the telephone rang, and it was Shockley. He said, "This is Bill Shockley", and I said, “This is John Senders.”

He said, "Are you alone?" I said, "No, I have Bruce Webber of the University of Florida and two of his graduate students who came in quite by chance. I didn't invite any of them. But they are all interesting people. They won't say anything, they’ll listen. We would like to have you up."

So he came up, and Webber, Shockley and I sat round with a bottle of Scotch which I providentially had. He came in, shook hands sat down turned on a tape-recorder and put it on the floor next to him. So I said, "You've been misquoted!", and he said, “I'm always being misquoted." Then he started off by telling how he was on the cover of Time magazine as he was coming back from Japan, and he actually hadn't seen it, but he knew it was there. He took a cab in Los Angeles, and the driver kept on looking back at him, and eventually he said, "Have I seen you somewhere?" And Shockley said, “I'm sure you haven't.” And the cab driver said, "I know! You're the guy on the cover of Time. You're the guy who invented the transistor radio." Shockley said, “I could have died!", and that got us off to a funny start and we had about three hours of hilarious conversation, absolutely hilarious. He was, as you would imagine, exceedingly bright. And as bright people very often are, exceedingly funny. And we just had a field day. The students were sitting there just absolutely blown away by what they were listening to, because we discussed everything under the sun. We discussed race, education, psychology, intelligence, philosophy, mathematics, transistors, everything. We just had a great time. I saw him a few times. I ran into him occasionally when I had meetings in Washington, at the Cosmos Club, and so on, and really enjoyed him.

Someone who knew me in Alaska is Thomas Davis, former prime minister of the Cook Islands. He was a physiologist, and I was head of the psychology. He was head of physiology at the Arctic Medical Laboratory. We got along very well. He is still in the Cook Islands, and we are going to try to stop off there on one of our next trips to Australia. We did stop and visit him in New Zealand when we were there, and had a hilarious time. He was the one who invited me to go on this trip from the Cook Islands, Rarotonga, to Auckland in an open outrigger canoe, some 1600 nautical miles. I asked him what he was doing, and he said, “Well, I'm making a canoe." I said, “Tell me what kind of a canoe”, and he said, "Well, it's about 60 ft long, and outrigger, and then I'm going to have a go at sailing it to Auckland; I thought it would be nice to sail it to Auckland." He said, “Do you want to go?” Ann said, “Not on your life!” I said, “What you need is a chase boat. This will be a long voyage, and you ought to have a chase boat and sell it to the National Geographic.” And he said, "God damn it, I've tried but nobody has the budget, or not this year, maybe next year." I said, “It's no use talking about next year, he’s going to go when he goes.” These highly structured big corporations can't move. An independent could do it, you see. So he was almost onto the phone. He said that we are going to take a practice run to Tahiti. It‘s only 800 nautical miles.

So I called him a few months later, and got his grandson, who said, "Well, Grandpa has gone to Tahiti", and he eventually got back, having made a successful 1600 nautical mile trial run. But it was still impossible to get anybody to do a chase boat. He's a brilliant man. He's funny, writes books, does good physiology, and so on.

John Lilly and I used it to know one another pretty well. We would meet in Washington and spin the ideas. I remember I was quite sure that in a conversation we had once he told me that I had proposed to him that these dolphins are very clever, but it's very difficult to teach them to communicate except by whistles and grunts and groans. He said I wish they could do keyboard, but flippers don't work very well. So I said take a young dolphin and surgically separate the individual digits. He thought that was a very good idea but I later told him it was his idea. But he said, “No, it was your idea.“ He used it to spend a lot of time floating in warm water and dreaming strange thoughts.

Probably many people know me. You see one of the joys of being a scientist, and particularly being a sort of bizarre scientist, who is involved in so many different fields and activities, is that I have met and known an interesting collection of about two dozen people all of whom are extraordinary in their own way. You may count yourself among that lot. Some of them have died like Donald, and Quine wasn't part of that group, he was part of the formative group. McCulloch has died; they’ve all died, before me. If my sister is any indication, I shall live a long time. But it's been a most extraordinary life.


The machine and man are mutually predictable one from the other. That for me is where engineering psychology should be going. So I will confess, I prefer a quantitative tool. I prefer ratio scales to interval scales, interval scales to ordinal and ordinal to none. And the reason I prefer the ratio scale is that I prefer the analytical to process modeling, to statistical modeling. If possible I want analytical modeling, what the time course of events of this particular process will be. I strive for that. If I cannot have that, and I believe that the process is driven underneath by quasi-random events, (as I feel strongly about the eye-movement business) then what you have is an analytical solution to every statistical or probabilistic problem, which is what I've tried to do.

And then there is the whole question of randomness, when one thinks of the eye movement data. Jones and Fitts presented data that showed that people look here so much, and there so much, and you have link values. They made no effort (as indeed they shouldn't) to say that "this will be a sequence." The thing that they didn't do was to measure secondary sequences. In other words, if the probability of looking here is p, and that of looking there is q, the probability of looking here and there in succession should be equal to pq. It turns out that's not true.

In reality you get some degree of sequential control of looking. And the reason for that is that the device which is being controlled consists of a single physical object, the parameters of which are all presented on the instrument panel. So what you have is a 6 degree of freedom physical object, and it is clear that if you rotate in this direction, certain other values will change and they are going to rotate in that direction, rather than somewhere else. So they are not random.

Expert pilots in fact have learned, unconsciously probably, what is efficient looking and what isn't. What they do is realize from the dynamics of the system, if this is off, you look here.. It’s had to be that to cause this. And this underlying causality is absent in my experiments.

In fact, in my experiments, the prediction of that pq relationship, which is the random choice, worked, but it doesn't work in reality. It works only in the laboratory model. And the reason for using the laboratory model is that one is trying to excise the pure essence of the response, whereas in the real world you're trying to solve problems. It is a totally different matter. So to me there's a tremendous world of research to be done in looking at systems whose dynamics, whose inherent correlations between signal A and signal B are all the way from 0 to 1. And we could then examine what people look at.

We did a preliminary experiment of that sort at Honeywell when I was working on the Mercury space capsule instrumentation. I arranged that one of the instruments they looked at had a highly correlated level of correlation with one of the others. It turns out that when the correlation between instrument A and instrument B will be, say, 0.6 or 0.7, if people had looked at A, the probability that they would look at B went down. Or if they looked at it they would spend less time looking at B, because in a sense they knew it was within a constrained range. I never published it because in a sense it was a trivial demonstration of necessity. When things are necessary, you should simply be able to say to someone that is the way things are and they should believe you.

Well, the 0.7 was as positive correlation, and negative correlation just mirror imaging. Of course a number of things may be important. We only had four or five. If you had a very large number for the correlation between two of them, then people would learn it. If the correlation is zero of course people will never learn. The assumption of continuity holds, and the only thing I don't know is where things leave the base line. You see, as far as I was concerned it was just a tour de force. It's obvious. So we just measured it and left it like that.

If you use a Poisson distribution you can predict how frequently they will look at things, which was the whole object of the queuing theory analysis which Morty Posner and I did. He and I felt that should have been the end of that thing. Everybody should have said, "Oh all right. Now we can analyse everything from a nuclear power plant to four dials in the laboratory and say how many signals will be missed.”

I wrote the draft of the chapter on control theory for the first edition of the Bioastronautics Data Book. I've written a number of other pieces, various things. I confess that I didn't write as much as I should have, because, to be quite blunt about it, most of the stuff seems so obvious and trivial. You just tell somebody about it and they know what to do. Of course it turned out that that wasn't true: you tell them about it and they don't know what the hell to do. But to me it was totally transparent. I was fortunate. I could look at the stuff and it was all transparent.


In Toronto I worked with Shu Ming Star, with Paul Milgram, and with Allison Smiley. I worked quite a bit with Don Donderi, in that he and I have had a fairly vigorous correspondence, mostly about intellectual property law and cognitive science. What I'm trying to do is to introduce the dimensional analysis methodology that he's developed, contrast it with others, and use them as a validating technique for a purely mechanical analysis of similarity of all names of drugs, which has been developed at Harvard and the University of Illinois at Chicago. We had two totally different systems for mechanical computer-based assessment of the so-called Liechtenstein difference: that is, how many changes do you have to make to convert one name into another? The other one is a measure of the number of identical digrams and the number of identical trigrams in the two names. These two are highly correlated with the error data gathered by Mike Coles down in Philadelphia. One of the problems was that we didn't know anything about their relationship to perceptual measures, which would make it much easier for us to proceed.

I've been working on medical error for quite a few years. Two things happened. There's a task force that was set up by the Canadian Society of Hospital Pharmacists (of which I was a founding member) to develop a system in Canada for the reporting of medication errors and for their analysis, and to assist hospitals in deciding how well they're doing. I've been active in that. And I’ve also participated in coroners' inquests about medication error leading to death

I’ve done a lot of trademark work. I was the coroner's scientific advisor on the Toronto subway accident. That involved me in an understanding of railways and subways and large-scale transportation systems. I acted as mechanical engineer and as behavioral scientist and statistician, and gave testimony at the inquests and the final analysis.


How did I get to teach at university? Well, when I was at Honeywell, one of the people I'd got to know very well was a Dean of Engineering at the University of Minnesota. We knew one another off and on, because I would use their students; and when I joined the Cosmos Club in Washington it turned out he was a member also. We were chatting one day when we happened to be in Washington for a research council meeting, and I said, "You know engineers ought to be taught this stuff." This was in 1963. And he said, "Do you want to teach it?", and I said, "Well, I think I would. I would like to teach a course in man-machine systems analysis." He said, “What department do you want to be in?” And I said, “I think mechanical engineering would be the place.” He said, "OK, done!" I said, "Don't you think you ought to ask the chairman?", and he said, "I'll tell the chairman." So he did, and the following term I was teaching in the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Minnesota. 1958 or whatever, I can't remember when. I enjoyed it immensely.

I've taught mathematical statistics and mechanical engineering at Minnesota. I've done psychology, quantitative and experimental psychology and statistics and mathematical statistics at Brandeis. I taught industrial engineering at Toronto; I was lecturer in mechanical engineering at MIT; I was professor of psychology and engineering at the University of Maine, (that was in mechanical engineering and experimental psychology); then I taught law at York University. It is of interest that I never had a course in engineering, I never had a course in law, and all I had was one course in statistics (taught by Licklider).

I am now 90 years old, and I live in Toronto. I’d been in Toronto since 1973, and after the years in Maine, we moved back in 1994. Prior to that we were living in Columbia Falls. I think in 1987 we moved there more or less permanently. We had a place from ‘75, but it was only part time. We actually moved there, and I was at that time Research Professor Of Mechanical Engineering And Psychology at the University of Maine. I taught one undergraduate course in Man Machine Systems in the Mechanical Engineering Department and consulted; then Toronto half-time and in Maine half-time; and then in Maine full-time; then eventually full-time in Toronto. I resumed my office in the University of Toronto as Professor Emeritus. I proposed a course in Intellectual Property Law and Cognitive Science to the law school at York University. I’ve been teaching it ever since, and I've also been doing consulting (about 70 percent in the legal area) for the present government and for organizations of one sort and another).

Memorial contributions may be made to The University of Toronto's “John W. Senders Award for Medical Innovation”.  Donations may be made by calling Kristin Philpott at 416-946-7827, or at

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John W. Senders