Willis H. Ware, computer engineer, dies

Pioneering electrical engineer for early computer design dies at age 93

Willis H. Ware SM ’42, an electrical engineer who in the late 1940s helped build a machine that would become a blueprint for computer design in the 20th century, and who later played an important role in defining the importance of personal privacy in the information age, died Nov. 22 at his home in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 93.

His death was confirmed by his family.

Ware’s experience working on a classified World War II project to identify friendly aircraft led mathematician John von Neumann to recruit him to help develop a computer at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., in 1946.

That machine was not the first digital computer, but it was based on a set of design ideas described by von Neumann that were broadly influential — first on the design of computers built by scientists around the world, and then on an early IBM computer known as the 701. Many of these concepts are still visible in the structure of modern computers and smartphones.

Ware, part of a small group of engineers working on that machine, was first to try to engineer many of the components that would become vital for modern computers. His experience in designing high-speed electronic circuits during World War II was essential to his design work on the computer at the Institute for Advanced Study, said George Dyson, a historian who has written extensively about the project.

Ware, who worked at the RAND Corp. for more than 55 years, was also one of the first people to gain a broad view of the effect computers were having on society, in their impact on automation and the threats they posed to privacy.

“The computer will touch men everywhere and in every way, almost on a minute-to-minute basis,” he wrote in 1966. “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.”

While at RAND, Ware led an early Pentagon study exploring computer security. Afterward he was asked by the secretary of commerce, Elliot L. Richardson, to lead a committee to address “personal privacy” in the computer era. Some of its policy recommendations were adopted in the Privacy Act of 1974.

The committee dealt with problems including the increasing reliance on “universal identifiers” like Social Security numbers.

“Willis Ware laid the foundation for modern privacy law,” Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said. “His insight was that, in the computer age, organizations that collected private information would have to take responsibility, and individuals who gave up personal information would need to get rights. That insight has informed virtually every discussion of privacy law ever since.”

Willis Howard Ware was born in Atlantic City, N.J., on Aug. 31, 1920, and developed an early passion for mechanical and electronic projects.

In an interview with the IEEE Computer Society in 2011, he traced his interest in engineering to a childhood observation. While riding his tricycle, he noticed that an older friend on a bicycle could pedal much faster than he could. He concluded that the lack of a chain on his trike was an obvious disadvantage.

He would go on to study electrical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After graduating from MIT, he joined the Hazeltine Corp. to work on classified electronics projects. He obtained a PhD in electrical engineering at Princeton while working on the Institute for Advanced Study machine.

He moved to Los Angeles to work for North American Aviation, and in 1952 joined RAND, where he was manager of the department where engineer Paul Baran did early work on packet switching, a technology that was the basis for the Internet.

Ware is survived by two daughters, Alison Ware and Deborah Pinson; a son, David; and two grandchildren.