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Peter Wegner: A Life Remarkable

Students who have recently arrived at the CIT may only know Peter Wegner, now retired for more than a decade, through his vigorous participation in colloquia. Others will be familiar with his research in programming languages. But as he nears a half-century at Brown, not just the course of his career but the story of his life bears telling. Below, we invite Peter to share his autobiography.

Peter was born on August 20, 1932 in Saint Petersburg (then known as Leningrad) to Austrian parents, Leo Weiden and Hermine Wegner. They had met as members of a Viennese Jewish left-wing group that included Bruno Kreisky, who became Chancellor of Austria in the 1970s.  After their marriage in 1931, Peter’s parents emigrated to Russia, because they believed that the Russian Communist system would provide a better life for Jews than the increasingly anti-Semitic Austrian society. They named their son “Putilo” after the famous Putilov steelworks where Peter’s father was first sent to work when he arrived in Leningrad.

In 1937 Peter’s father, who had become a senior librarian at the National Library of Science, was arrested during a Stalinist purge by the Russian secret police (NKVD). Peter remembers two men coming to the apartment one evening and taking his father away. He never saw his father again. He now believes that his mother discovered in November 1937 that her husband had been executed after a trumped-up trial that charged him (along with many other visiting intellectuals) with sedition. But Peter’s mother could not bear to admit that the system they so admired had executed her husband. Instead, she later claimed to friends and relatives that her husband had gone to Spain to fight against Franco and had been killed in the Spanish Civil War.   

Peter’s return to Vienna with his mother in January 1938 proved to be a case of “out of the frying pan into the fire.” Two months later, on March 12, 1938, Hitler marched into Austria and annexed it in a move called the Anschluss, and Peter’s mother had to escape at once, because everyone knew that the first people Hitler would hunt down were the Austrian Jewish Communists --  whose names were readily available at the communist headquarters in Vienna.  Years later, Peter learned that his mother, along with several friends, had escaped by skiing cross-country into Switzerland. She could not take five-year-old Peter with her on such a trip, so she left him with her mother, Jetta Wegner. From Switzerland she was able to obtain a visa for England by agreeing to work as a live-in maid in someone’s house.

The day after the Anschluss, watching from a window in his grandmother’s apartment overlooking the Praterstrasse (a main street in Vienna), Peter remembers seeing a parade driving up the street, with cheers of “Heil Hitler!” from Austrians lining the street. The parade included a car in which Hitler was standing. At age five, Peter did not understand what was going on, but he remembers his grandmother telling him: “That is the Chancellor of Germany, who is a very bad man.”

Soon after the Anschluss, many Austrian Jews, including some of Peter’s relatives, were arrested and sent to the Dachau concentration camp near Munich. When they returned six months later, they had lost a lot of weight, and Peter heard them tell his grandmother how badly they had been treated. During a walk in the park with his grandmother, Peter recalls being chased by some children who had found out he was Jewish and wanted to beat him up.  He managed to escape, but from then on he learned to be careful when out on the public streets.    

The Nazi authorities soon deprived Austrian Jews of their nationality and expelled Jewish children from the state schools, so Peter (whose family were secular, non-observant Jews) had no choice but to attend a Jewish school at the local synagogue.     

On November 9-10, 1938, there occurred Kristallnacht (“the Night of Broken Glass”), when Nazis in Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia (occupied by Hitler before the outbreak of World War Two) broke the windows of Jewish shops and burned down many synagogues in those countries. The next day, Peter remembers being taken to school, and finding that the local synagogue had burned to the ground. He also recalls going for a walk in the park with his uncle and seeing Jewish women being molested by Nazi soldiers and Austrian police.

Though Kristallnacht informed the world of the brutality of Nazi persecution of Jews, the only country to offer assistance was England. In December 1938, the British Parliament passed a resolution offering political asylum to 10,000 Jewish children from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia by letting their parents send them to England on special trains called Kindertransports, provided that their financial support was guaranteed by a payment of £50. Peter’s mother found a financial sponsor for him (Marks & Spencer, the well-known Anglo-Jewish retail chain) who put up the money.

On April 25, 1939, Peter’s grandmother took him to Vienna’s Westbahnhof where, along with about 300 other children aged between three and 17 years, he boarded a train bound for London, organized by the Quakers and the international Red Cross. The Kinder were supervised by young Jewish adults, who were required to return after accompanying them to the Dutch border, or no further transports would be permitted. Peter’s train left Vienna at 5 PM, passed through Munich at midnight, and reached the Dutch border at 9 AM the next morning. The train had been locked throughout the ride through Germany but the doors were opened once they crossed the Dutch border, and Peter remembers being allowed to get out and walk on the platform, where he received a mug of hot cocoa dispensed by kind Dutch ladies showing their concern for these Jewish children who had been persecuted by the Nazis.

The Kinder continued their journey to the Hook of Holland, crossed the English Channel during the night, and arrived at Liverpool Street Station in London in the early afternoon of April 27, two days after leaving Vienna. (Much later, in 2006, a realistic bronze sculpture by Frank Meisler, a former Kind, which depicted the Kinder arriving with their suitcases, was erected by the Association for Jewish Refugees outside the station entrance as a memorial.)

Peter was luckier than most of the children, as his mother came to meet him at the station and brought him to a house in the London suburb of Willesden, where she was working as a live-in maid. Her employers allowed Peter to stay there for four months, during which he attended a local primary school and learned some English. But after that he was sent away to boarding school, as his mother could not keep him indefinitely at the house.  

The Jewish Refugee Committee in London agreed to pay Peter’s tuition, room, and board at a primarily Jewish co-educational boarding school in Kent, about 50 miles from London. Its headmistress, Anna Essinger, had transferred her school from Herrlingen (near Ulm in Germany) to England in 1933, realizing that a mainly Jewish school could not survive in Hitler’s Germany. She was ethnically Jewish but had adopted Quaker principles during World War One while a graduate student in German at the University of Madison, Wisconsin. Once the school was set up in England she was able to accept Kinder and other Jewish refugee children and to hire some excellent teachers who had fled from Germany to England. The headmistress insisted that all classes be taught in English, and encouraged the children to speak English rather than German among themselves. (She had been born in Ulm in 1879, the same city and year where Einstein was born, and would die in England in 1960, outliving Einstein by five years.)

Peter entered Bunce Court School, near Faversham, Kent, in September, 1939, and stayed  there for nine years until the summer of 1948. When war broke out, the government required the school to move elsewhere, because it was thought that if the Germans invaded England, they would probably land in Kent. So in early 1940, Bunce Court School was moved to Trench Hall near Wem, Shropshire, close to the Welsh border, and allowed to return to Kent at the end of the War in 1945. The dining room at Trench Hall had a nice view of the Welsh mountains, and Peter enjoyed hiking through the beautiful Shropshire countryside.

Peter visited his mother occasionally in London during school vacations, and he remembers spending one night in a London Tube station to avoid the bombs during an air raid. His mother sometimes visited him at school, and his schoolmates remembered her because their own parents remained in Europe and could not visit their children.

As a long-term student, Peter was often consulted by his teachers about administrative actions, to gauge the reactions of students. He was known to be good at mathematics and science, and passed his School Certificate examination with high marks at age 15 in 1947, before leaving the school when it closed down in 1948. After leaving school, he continued to interact with his former classmates, and visited Anna Essinger in her old age to comfort her and read to her.

Meanwhile, Peter’s mother had earned some money running a clothing store, and was able to purchase a small house near Ascot, about 25 miles from London, and Peter moved there in 1948, travelling up to London every day to study at the Regent Street Polytechnic, near Oxford Circus. During the summer of 1949, Peter went hitchhiking through Europe, climbing Mont Blanc in July and visiting relatives in Vienna in August.  But on his arrival in Vienna, he was informed that his mother was seriously ill in hospital and that he must return by train to London immediately.  On arrival, he went straight to the Middlesex Hospital to see his mother, but found her to be comatose. The following morning he received a phone call informing him that his mother had died during the night, and the hospital asked him to arrange for her burial.

Shortly after his mother’s death, Peter asked the local education authorities for financial support, and they agreed to underwrite his college tuition. He was very grateful both to Marks and Spencer for supporting his move to Britain, and for the Labour Government’s financial support of his University education despite the fact that he was not a British citizen!

During his final year at the Regent Street Poly, Peter took an exam to enter Imperial College of London University, where he was accepted as a mathematics student in 1950 to work towards an undergraduate degree. His department head, Professor Hyman Levy, was a well-known Communist who, however, was expelled from the British Communist Party for writing an article that criticized the Soviet régime’s treatment of Jews.

While studying mathematics at Imperial College, Peter took Prof. A.J. Ayer’s philosophy course at University College, on his book Language, Truth and Logic, during which Peter gave a talk about the impact of philosophy on logic and computing. He also organized the University of London Philosophical Study Group, which sponsored lectures by well-known philosophers like C.E.M. Joad, J.B.S. Haldane and Karl Popper. These evening lectures were preceded by dinners at which Peter had discussions with the speakers. His interest in philosophy has continued throughout his life, and his writings about computers often include philosophical analysis.

During his final year at Imperial College (1952-3), Peter attended a lecture on computing by Prof. Douglas Hartree of Cambridge University, who invited him to work on the EDSAC computer in Cambridge during the summer, after completing his undergraduate degree. Peter was lucky to be invited to work on the EDSAC; this invitation was because he had personally met and interacted with Prof. Hartree following his talk.

After completing his summer job, Peter registered for a graduate program at Cambridge in Numerical Analysis and Automatic Computing, which included courses on both the structure of computing and mathematical programming techniques. He interacted strongly with Prof. Maurice Wilkes, Department Head and designer of the EDSAC, who asked Peter to write historical articles on early pioneers like Leibniz and Babbage. Peter stayed in touch with Wilkes throughout his latter’s life, later inviting him to lecture at Brown, and visited him at Cambridge in the year before his death. Wilkes, who had received a Turing Award in the 1980s and was knighted by the Queen during the 1990s, after which Peter began to address him as “Sir Maurice.”

In June 1954, Peter took his Final exams. By coincidence, these were held during the week when Alan Turing (who created Turing machines and had cracked the German Enigma code during World War Two) committed suicide because the police were prosecuting him for homosexual activities (then still illegal in England, the United States and elsewhere). Maurice Wilkes informed Peter of Turing’s death while he was actually taking his exam. Today, of course, Turing is venerated as a founder of computer science, and the Turing Award is seen as the equivalent of a Nobel prize for computer research. Wilkes and Turing knew each other well, and Wilkes felt that although Turing was a brilliant theoretician, he had not managed to build an actual computer because he was unable to organize the people needed to build them.

During his year at Cambridge, Peter often ate dinner on Friday night at the Cambridge University Jewish Society, where he interacted with other Jewish students. It was there that he met Judith Romney, a Newnham College student, who was nicknamed “Second-verse Romney” because she knew by heart all the words of all the verses of the Hebrew liturgical songs that the students sang during the Sabbath meals. Though they hardly interacted while at Cambridge, Peter and Judith met again by serendipity two years later on a tightly packed London Tube train; and the close proximity fostered by rush-hour travel led to their engagement and their marriage.

In 1954, Peter had received, along with two fellow-students, the “Post-Graduate Diploma in Numerical Analysis and Automatic Computing” (this was before there were any Master’s or Doctoral programs in Computer Science anywhere in the world), Peter worked briefly at the Manchester University Computer Science department. He then visited Israel for an academic year, where he was invited to the Weizmann Institute to work on the WEIZAC computer. His boss, Chaim Pekeris, asked him to explore mathematically the chances of finding underground oil in Israel (alas, none was ever found!) Peter returned to England the following year (1955); and he has since visited Israel several times, to lecture at the Hebrew University, the Haifa Technion, and other institutions.

On his return to England, Peter was hired by the Prudential Insurance Company developing actuarial software, and at that time he planned to qualify as an actuary. It was during this period that, as mentioned above, he ran into Judith during the rush hour. She lived in Wembley and, like Peter, was taking a Tube train into town every day to attend a Bar Final preparation course at Gibson and Weldon. (England had, and still has, no actual law schools of the kind prevalent in the United States.) Judith and Peter dated a few times, became engaged, and were married a year later in July of 1956.

Peter changed jobs in early 1956, joining CAV, an aerospace company, where he worked on airline programming with several former college mates from Imperial College. But soon after his marriage, he was offered a job at Penn State University under the Exchange Visitors program, popularly known as the “brain drain.” Even though the decision to leave England interfered with Judith’s legal aspirations, the Wegners decided to accept the offer, since the salary was far higher and Peter was more than happy to become an academic. In addition to the higher salary, the University supported research with grants. In 1959, after spending two years at Penn State, Peter was offered a job at MIT, where he worked with Fernando Corbato on the Multics project, for which Corbato would later receive a Turing Award.

At about the same time, Peter and Judith’s first child was born, and Peter made a brief trip to England to be present at the birth, but had to return quickly to continue his work at MIT. Judith brought their baby son to the USA after Peter had found a suitable apartment in Brookline. In 1960, Peter moved from MIT to Harvard, where he worked in the Mathematical Laboratory, helping faculty in economics and other disciplines with their programing requirements.

Then, in 1961, Peter was offered a lectureship at the London School of Economics, to lecture to economists on computing. Peter and Judith had always planned on returning to England, and were happy to take this opportunity. They bought a house in the London suburb of Harrow, and Peter traveled by train every day for an hour to his job in Central London.

The job at LSE was very rewarding, as several of the professors worked for the Government and had offices both at LSE and in Whitehall. They had interesting things to say about their government activities. Peter organized several computer conferences at LSE, and managed to write two books about computing while at LSE. To learn more about computing he attended several computer science conferences where lecturers described new practical and theoretical research. Peter’s reviews of these conferences, published in a computer journal, received high praise from the organizers.

But the low salary made it difficult to manage in London, and after three years at LSE the couple decided to return to America. Peter was offered an assistant professorship in the mathematics department at Penn State in 1964 -- this time with a green card that permitted the Wegners to reside permanently in the United States. On their return to Penn State, Peter taught courses on computing and invited well-known lecturers to speak about their latest research. His invitation of Juris Hartmanis to lecture on his work on computational complexity (for which he had received a Turing Award) led to an invitation to Cornell when Hartmanis was asked to found the Cornell computer science department in 1966, and Peter moved to Cornell to become one of the initial members of that department.

Cornell computer science faculty frequently had lunch together and discussed both their personal lives and their research over lunch. Peter learned a lot about Hartmanis’s early life in Latvia, and about his father, a Latvian general, who, like Peter’s own father, had been executed by the Russians. While at Cornell, Peter taught a revised course on programming languages and completed his book, Programming Languages, Information Structures, and Machine Organization (1969), which examined the evolution of programming languages and their relation to the broader discipline of computer science. He established a relationship with Donald Knuth, who was writing the first of his books on computer science and invited Peter to his house in Pasadena to show him early drafts of several computer texts he was planning to write. Peter invited Knuth to lecture at Cornell, and one weekend, they decided to attend services both at the local synagogue and at a Lutheran church. They discussed the possibility of writing a joint book, but did not do because their research techniques were very different.

While Peter was working on his book he also became a member of the ACM Curriculum Committee, which was creating a curriculum for teaching computer science. He was a central contributor to “Curriculum 68,” published by the Communications of the ACM in 1968, which included a detailed analysis of the ACM curriculum that was widely adopted by many universities during the next ten years. Peter is a good writer, and believes that the quality of his writing may have made a bigger contribution to his status than actual research, though both were non-negligible.

In 1969, Brown University offered Peter a position with tenure, and he accepted the offer.