"Imagine you are blazing a trail without a compass -- where will you end up? You'll probably do a random walk, but if you don't start out with a particular goal, I suppose that doesn't really matter... and if it is a nice forest you'll enjoy the scenery... I suppose that describes my career."

When I decide to make a story, I begin by asking myself, can this story touch my life? Only after I am convinced of my own interest can I concern myself with making a story timely and interesting for others.

I first met Jerry Wiesner in the late 1970's, shortly before he stepped down as President of MIT. Two years later, I visited him in the hospital after he had undergone heart surgery and asked him why he had chosen to retire when he did. He responded by offering a memorable metaphor: he equated the leadership of an institution with a force on a see-saw. Sometimes, he claimed, you tip the see-saw so far in one direction that the institution requires someone else to step in to equalize the situation. I always wanted to have a more specific conversation with JBW about this metaphor.

At the time of my visit, Jerry was still weak from surgery and I did not want to tire him, but I had one other pressing question: Would he continue his efforts to realize a media laboratory at MIT? He responded that sometimes you get into something so far that you cannot pull out.

Jerry's vision of a "media laboratory" began many years ago, during his leadership of MIT's Research Laboratory of Electronics. As technology advanced, his vision developed and grew in its sophistication, scope, and clarity of mission. Jerry worked tirelessly and called in many hard-earned favors to help build a unique, first-class facility which brings together the best minds and state-of-the-art equipment. Through my collaborations with Richard Leacock as well as in my faculty position at the Media Laboratory, I have enjoyed the benefits of Jerry's vision of communication and the pro-active ways in which he sought to bring science and the arts into closer harmony.

What can we learn from the life of a man?
"I started out thinking I was going to be a mathematician or a physicist or somehow involved in electronics, and I had a lot of trouble making up my mind until I got to thermodynamics in the physics department, and then I decided I was going to be a communications engineer and a mathematician."
John Donne wrote, "No man is an island..." As we considered how best to construct a media portrait, we observed that in his work to put the "nuclear beast back in the cage," as well as in his unceasing pursuit to make MIT a more dynamic, intellectually robust and diverse scientific community, Jerry Wiesner built his influence around knowledge. His knowledge was derived as much from a listening ear as it was from a questioning mind.

No one can take a meaningful action in the world without leaving some sort of evidence behind. Jerry Wiesner's actions and achievements have left a trail of many scattered clues which provide glimpses into the mind of this influential man. Our approach to understanding Jerry's story was to gather together many of the scattered sources which describe salient aspects of his life and times, and to shape these story fragments into an information landscape which the curious investigator can navigate and explore.

Click on the square above to enter
the Hyper-Portrait of JBW.

Also, you may click on an element
below to enter or return to the
Hyper-Portrait at a particular period
of time or with a particular person.

The Hyper-Portrait Structure:

As the historian John Putnam Demos so powerfully demonstrated, history is the study of framework and pattern, of text and subtext. Insight into past times can help us understand our own situation and to act in the interest of future generations. Historical discourse becomes richer when we discover its context, which can be conveyed through a matrix of chronology, biography, psychology, and sociology.

Rather than laying out our story materials in a single-stream or linear presentation, the "Hyper-Portrait" form allows us to build an understanding of context in various ways. The media pieces and texts which serve as the soul of this portrait are linked into a "structured context." This context becomes visible through an interface which invites our audience to pro-actively explore and select particular elements of interest. The individual explorer is also invited to add to and exchange views with the larger society of audience through our "chat pages."

The primary structure for the Hyper-Portrait, as we discover it in the interface, includes a division of Jerry's life into five periods: "The Early Years," "Up the Ladder at MIT," "The Washington Years," "Governance at MIT" and "The Later Years." These broad categories allow us to access reflections on his activities, knowledge, and influence in a loosely chronological fashion. The interface groups the voices of colleagues and friends in proximity to represented time periods. Finally, the interface provides us with a framework to contemplate specific themes which we associate with Jerry's diverse activities.

The Early Years, 1915-1942
In 1915, JBW was born in Detroit, Michigan. He unwittingly entered a world filled with economic and social conundrums and territorial imperatives. Internationally, these forces were creating large-scale social turmoil. At the same time scientific invention ushered in a new age of global communication, it also introduced the most terrifying scientific invention, thermonuclear devices.

JBW grew up in Dearborn, Michigan, a "company town" which was more or less owned by Henry Ford. His parents, Ida and Joseph, were first-generation Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe; they ran a profitable dry goods store. His father was well-traveled and, according to Jerry's younger sister Edna Wiesner McNeil, read constantly.

In the interests of family heritage, Ida took Jerry and Edna on a three-month tour in Europe. They returned to Dearborn shortly before Black Tuesday, which signaled the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the beginning of the Great Depression. Edna remembers that the family did not seem to lack for anything during the Depression. However, she also remembers that many people in town ran up debts at their store, and her father used to explain to the children that if wealth were more equally distributed, people would not need to run up such debts. We can only suspect the long-term effects that these moments had on Jerry's concern for the human condition.

JBW's formative years at the University of Michigan introduced him to the formal study of electronic circuits and acoustics. As Associate Director of the university's radio station, JBW had the opportunity to experiment with new techniques in sound recording: in 1939, he engineered a live broadcast of a lecture given by Archibald MacLeish, the then-librarian of Congress. In 1940, a recently-married JBW (and his wife Laya) moved to Washington to become recording engineer at the Library of Congress.

Up the Ladder at MIT 1942-1961
Jerry's involvement with the military-industrial complex began in 1942, when he joined MIT's Radiation Laboratory. JBW's uncompleted memoirs offer a fragmentary first-person account of his research and his observations there. They reveal Jerry's on-going struggle to affect a workable resolution in the use of nuclear weaponry.

While Jerry Wiesner's memoirs provide a rich introduction to his early knowledge of weapons systems, a scene from the 1960 documentary, "The Thinking Machine" (made by CBS to mark MIT's 100th Anniversary) reveals something of Jerry as a public spokesperson for science research. In the film actor David Wayne plays the role of interlocutor as Jerry Wiesner, the friendly and affable scientist, explains the ways in which computer systems were being programmed to "think."

Interviews with contemporary colleagues Amar Bose, Noam Chomsky,Jerome Lettvin, Louis Smullin, Ted Saad and others bring the laboratory to life with memories of specific moments.

The Washington Years, 1950's - 1963
Jerry's contributions to decision-making in Washington were many. In 1954, he served on a committee chaired by former MIT president James R. Killian; they made a study for then-U.S. President Eisenhower on how the United States should defend itself against surprise attack. In 1957, he served on Gaither Panel, which considered how to defend large civil populations against nuclear attack. Colleagues from these times, including Spurgeon Keeney and David Beckler, attest to JBW's commitment to honesty, fair-mindedness and truth in these efforts. He was a valued advisor regarding the relationship of science and politics during what we came to know as the Cold War.

In 1961, JBW accepted the position of Science Advisor to President John F. Kennedy and moved to Washington. His tireless efforts to inform the President about science and to achieve a what became the first Nuclear Test Ban Treaty are achievements that had a profound and lasting effect on our world. JBW's memoirs and letters, insights from science journalist Victor McElheny, and reminiscences by collegue Marcus Raskin, and assistant Ellie Conners give us a glimpse into these years.

Governance at MIT, 1964-1980
"Ours in particular, is the quest for learning, the nurture of learning, the transmission of learning. No doctrine, no orthodoxy, no conventional discipline or gust of political passion can be allowed to divert us from this purpose."
When JBW returned to MIT in 1964, the sentiments which stir the daily life of the community were shifting. The nuclear stalemate was paralleled by an enormous social restructuring taking place at many levels in the population. The black community having passed through the period of peaceful rallies and becoming increasingly insistent on gaining recognition as part of the American social and political fabric. The friendship of the Wiesners with Ruth Bateson, a black activist in Boston, reveals the social and intellectual contradictions of the era.

In 1965, Howard Johnson became president of MIT and asked Jerry to serve as Provost. There are many voices who remember the years which followed. In particular, the student unrest in the fall of 1968 bifurcated the administration from the student constituency, which also wanted its voice heard. Through it all, as footage from Richard Leacock's November Actions and reminiscences by Paul and Pricilla Gray, Carolla Eisenberg, Benjamin Snyder, Kathryn Willmore and others reveal, JBW sought to listen and help steer the teeming and conflicting interests to a consensus whereby the institution could survive.

"The Later Years" 1981-1994
As JBW went back to teaching, his oratory on the subject of nuclear weaponry and the need to ban its use and proliferation became legendary. His collegue Emma Rothchild provides a perspective on his teaching in these years.

Internationally, the 1980's will be remembered for the winding-down of the Cold War. We will probably never know precisely how influential Jerry was in this process but certainly his was a significant voice. As the Russian scientist Roald Sagdeev attests, the Soviet scientists were awed by the honesty and directness of this man who had already had influence and a direct line to President Kennedy. During these years, JBW extended his influence by serving on the boards of many foundations which were actively pursuing programs to help formulate world security.

The final, most difficult and heroic task of our subject's life is also the most personal. Following a severe stroke, JBW's random walk brought him back to moments of earlier research and basic leaning.

Any attempt to weave an historical whole out of a random walk must be dismissed as insufficient. Nonetheless, the very act of constructing a hyper-portrait indicates the pressing need to better understand how an individual's contribution can affect the broader population's pursuit of personal dignity and political well-being. The technology allows us to publish an unfinished portrait which will expand and evolve as we add stories and as our audience engages in dialog with it and with each other.

Glorianna Davenport
Associate Professor of Media Technology
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
September 30, 1995