Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Dr. Willis Ware 1920 - 2013

I was devastated yesterday to hear of the passing of one of the most interesting people I have ever met or worked with, Dr. Willis Ware formerly of the RAND Corporation.

Dr. Ware passed away at the far too young age of 93 years old.

Most people at RAND had no idea what he did, just that he was very senior.

I met Dr. Ware at the RAND Corporation when I was just 21 or so years old, and Willis was already some sort of Scientist Emeritus at RAND and while no one seemed to know exactly what he did he, suspiciously, had a three window office and a full-time secretary/assistant. With this information we knew he was powerful beyond measure. They said that he testified before Congress on the issues of privacy, and that of course was important but seemed to only add to the mystery.

Several clues revealed themselves as time went by.

Clue #1 He knew my interest in graphics and he wanted to show me a film he had with a user interface that he thought was interesting. It turned out to be none other than one of the famous films of Ivan Sutherland's Sketchpad thesis work at MITRE when he was a graduate student at MIT. To this day I consider that user interface to be one of the top five or so I have ever seen.

Clue #2 We were chatting about nothing in particular and he told me the story of how he had worked to bring Dr. von Neumann to RAND after the war and when he was bored at the Institute at Princeton. von Neumann, whose computer architecture you are using while you read my blog, most likely, was going to come to RAND and UCLA and split his time between them. But unfortunately he died suddenly of brain cancer.

Clue #3 Somehow it came to my attention that Willis had received his PhD in Electrical Engineering from Princeton in 1939. Look up 1939 in history, recall that the new Intelligence agencies (really the proto-agencies, the ones we know were formed after WWII from these proto-agencies) recruited heavily from the Ivy League and imagine what someone with a PhD in EE might do in the upcoming conflict.

Clue #4 Although Willis did not seem to work on any run of the mill projects at RAND, he did travel every six months and spent a week somewhere in Maryland. Fort Meade, Maryland, as it turned out. In fact, I saw above his secretaries desk an agenda and it said he attended the "SAB" at Ft. Meade, Maryland. Now, what is at Ft. Meade? Well, the National Security Agency is. And what might the SAB be ? Well, it is something called the "Scientific Advisory Board" which meets every six months.

The Scientific Advisory Board of the NSA is the body responsible at a very high level for advising the NSA on technologies of interest and issues that they should be addressing. In short, Willis had some sort of very serious position advising the NSA. A senior spook, at least in part.

Clue #5 Willis and I were discussing WWII and Enigma one day and I told him that I was guessing that there were still secrets from WWII that had not been revealed. And he said to me that he knew for a fact that there were secrets and events from WWII that had not been released and that, in his opinion, they should be.

Clue #6 At random intervals, maybe once or twice a year, Willis would travel on a short trip to Washington, DC. No one knew what he did there, but it was suggested to me, by someone who knew Willis well, that he was used by various elements of the Intelligence Community when it was necessary to liason with another part. In other words, he was some sort of prestigious messenger when some sort of issue or discussion needed to take place. Now, I may have that wrong, or incomplete, and of course it is vague, but I think it still has valid information.

Clue #7 In 1967, DARPA commissioned a report on "Security Controls in Computer Systems".  The report was reissued in 1979.   Written by Dr. Ware, you may find this report on the Cryptome site at

And so, who was Dr. Willis Ware ?

I think he was a pioneer of computing and information technology, and a recognized authority on the impact on policy, particularly the policy of privacy, at very high levels of government. I think he was in some sense a spook during WW II and that he maintained his relationship with the primary user of computers in intelligence, the NSA, and was on their advisory board. He maintained an office at RAND and did his own work because it was a useful platform that kept him in touch with Washington, yet outside the beltway madness that so many succumb to. RAND gave him a certain long term cachet, and RAND management of course loved him because their very raison d'etre is to influence policy in Washington, and clearly Willis did just that.

I also suspect that there is more public history here than I know and will no doubt discover over the next few weeks. Willis was probably involved in the Mathematics Division of the RAND Corporation back when RAND had two mathematics-related departments: abstract and applied.   Computer science, such as it became, came from the applied math department.   When I was with RAND, we had a small computer science department that was in some way derived from these much larger efforts of the past. Today, RAND has no computer science department although there are individual computer scientists and programmers lurking in the hallways. (1)

Finally, Willis is one of the reasons that I am so screwed up today. You see, back then, at RAND, I was treated as a real human being, with intelligence and something to contribute. Today I am treated like garbage by nearly everyone but especially in my own field and it was those expectations that got set at RAND that led inevitably to my downfall.

I will really miss you Willis, wherever you are.

[The NY Times has an obituary of Willis at]


1. Part of the reason that RAND had a computer science department(s), was because RAND believed it was of strategic importance to the US Government. As time went by, computer science spread to the more traditional venues of University and Industry and so RAND no longer needed to do that. There were other things that were more important and more in line with their specific missions in the context of Congressional limitations on the maximum size of the annual budgets of places like RAND.


  1. Really glad you wrote this Michael. It's really something special to hear about such people.

  2. Willis was also kind and always interested in people. He went out of his way to ask me questions about life, and was truly concerned. I loved seeing him in the hallways at Rand. He would look at me with a twinkle and ask me about myself. A very rare and wonderful man.