Willis Ware, Computer Pioneer, Helped Build Early Machines and Warned About Security Privacy


Nov 27, 2013

Willis Ware, 1962

Willis Ware, an electrical engineer shown above in 1962, was instrumental in developing RAND’s first digital computer, the Johnniac.

RAND Corporation

Willis Ware, a RAND Corporation engineer who in the 1960s predicted the ubiquity of the personal computer, the ways it would propel people into lives of perpetual change, and the perils it would pose for personal privacy, has died. He was 93.

Much of Ware's research focused on the use of computer technology by both the military and society at large, forecasting in the 1960s that “a small computer may conceivably become another appliance in the home.”

In 1966 he wrote: “The computer will touch men everywhere and in every way, almost on a minute-to-minute basis. Every man will communicate through a computer whatever he does. It will change and reshape his life, modify his career and force him to accept a life of continuous change.”

Decades before it became a popular concern, Ware predicted that increased reliance on computers would present serious privacy issues. He led several committees aimed at safeguarding computer user privacy rights, including the Privacy Protection Commission created by President Ford, which led to the creation of the Federal Privacy Act of 1974.

“Willis helped usher RAND into the computer era at a time when computers existed mostly in the realm of science fiction,” said RAND President and CEO Michael D. Rich. “He was ahead of his time in thinking about the profound effects that computers could have on information privacy. The principles he set forth in 1973 remain relevant to today's debate about privacy and security.”

Those principles, set forth in a RAND paper, decreed among other things that there should be no secret data record-keeping systems and that people should know what information about them is being recorded and have a way to correct it.

Ware, an electrical engineer, was among the crew during the late 1940s that built the IAS computer at Princeton University, which was one of the first electronic computers. The IAS computer is among a handful of projects credited with the dawn of the computer age and the design of the IAS computer was widely copied.

Ware came to RAND in 1952 to help build the Johnniac computer, a clone of the IAS machine that helped propel the use of computers forward. The Johnniac was retired in 1966 and currently resides at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. The computer was named for mathematician John von Neumann, who headed the team that designed and construction of the IAS computer.

“Johnniac demonstrated a lot of firsts — a machine that could run hundreds of hours without an error, early program tricks of the trade, a multiuser environment, the first rotating drum printer … and for a short while, the largest core memory,” Ware recalled during an interview with IEEE Annals of the History of Computing about his career.

Ware worked at RAND for more than 55 years and was one of the nonprofit research organization's longest-serving employees.

“Willis's work defined the whole field of computer technology in the ’60s and ’70s,” said computer scientist Bob Anderson, who worked with Ware at RAND. “He was able to foresee things we couldn't even begin to imagine back then. He was truly a pioneer in the field.”

Ware authored studies in the 1990s that explored new dimensions of privacy in an increasingly computerized world. One focused on the vulnerability of the nation's information infrastructure to external attacks and other kinds of disruptions. Another focused on privacy in medical recordkeeping. In 2008, he wrote a memoir, “RAND and the Information Evolution: A History in Essays and Vignettes.”

In 1994, Ware was selected as a member of a committee to examine national cryptographic policy under sponsorship of the National Academy of Engineering's National Research Council. Cryptographic policy had never before been examined in a cohesive way, or by a non-governmental group.

Ware was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Aug. 31, 1920. He studied electronic engineering at the University of Pennsylvania and MIT. Ware worked at Hazeltine Electronics Corporation in Little Neck, New York, during World War II designing classified radar detection tools for the military and gaining experience with digital technology.

He joined the IAS computer project in 1946 and completed his doctorate in electrical engineering from Princeton during the same period. Ware moved to the Los Angeles area in 1951 to work in aerospace, but left after to join RAND's Computer Sciences Department in Santa Monica. He was a manager of that department while Paul Baran did his seminal work on packet switching and distributed communications, the basic technology behind the creation of the Internet.

In addition to his work on the Johnniac computer, Ware also worked on various U.S. Air Force analytic studies generally related to computer technology and its use by the Air Force. He started as a member of the research team, and worked his way up to deputy vice president for Project RAND, now known as Project AIR FORCE.

Ware was a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a Fellow of the Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers, a Fellow of the American Association for Advancement of Science and a Fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery. He was the recipient of numerous honors, including the Computer Pioneer Award from the IEEE Computer Society, a lifetime achievement award from the Electronic Privacy Information Center and a Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. This year he was inducted into the National Cyber Security Hall of Fame.

Ware is survived by two daughters, Deborah and Alison, son David, and their spouses, Edwin Pinson, Thomas Manoli, and Astrid Erling, and granddaughters Arielle and Victoria Manoli.

A memorial service is expected to be held early in 2014.