Computer pioneer honors wife and grandson with scholarship

May 14, 2013


Harwood and Frances Cliek Kolsky met while students at the University of Kansas and married just before Harwood left to serve in World War II. "Most people expected that the war would only last a year, and then we would soon be back home. It was difficult to be immediately separated for three years," said Kolsky. Frances was a 1943 graduate of the University of Kansas, as was Harwood. She taught high school while he was in the army from 1943 to 1946. Harwood returned to KU for a year then he started graduate school at Harvard. Once again, they were separated, this time for a couple of months, because Frances was expecting. Frances and Harwood had four children, three grandchildren, and now, one great grandchild. They were active members of the Saratoga Federated Church. The Kolskys celebrated 60 years of marriage in 2002. They were looking forward with enthusiasm to moving to the Saratoga Retirement Community. Sadly they lost their grandson, Patrick, and Frances passed away in 2003 before this dream could be realized.
Patrick was the Kolsky's grandson. Harwood remembers that Patrick was always interested in computers. "I had one of the first PCs, in 1984 or '85, from IBM. It had a simple game that Patrick was fascinated with as a little kid. He played this a lot instead of being outside on the beach," said Harwood. While a student at Novato High, Patrick was a teacher's assistant for the computer science class and an intern at the software company Autodesk. He was later an online writer and critic for Team X-Box, which resulted in invitations by Sony Corporation to attend game preview parties held for visitors and potential investors from Japan and other areas. "He really hit his stride in college" said Harwood. Patrick was a freshman studying computer science at CSU Chico when he passed away unexpectedly from undetermined natural causes. His colleagues at Autodesk, who established a scholarship in Patrick's name that helped five students achieve their educational dreams, called Patrick an "outgoing, enthusiastic, and talented young man."
Harwood G. Kolsky made important contributions to the emerging field of computer science in the mid-1950s. He was a physicist working at Los Alamos when he hired by IBM as a member of the product planning group for the "Stretch" computer, one of the earliest supercomputers. He joined the newly formed UCSC Computer Engineering Department in 1985 as a visiting professor. In 1986, he retired from IBM and began a new career as a full-time professor at UCSC. Recognizing the historical value of the work on which he was engaged; Kolsky collected and donated a large document collection to the Computer History Museum.

"It was an exciting time," said emeritus professor and philanthropist Harwood G. Kolsky about the early days of the new department of computer engineering at UC Santa Cruz.

"We had about 75 students in that first class and at first we had to share resources with the computer science department (then called a “board of studies”), which was already established in what is now Baskin Hall." There were other groups in the building. "There was even a dance studio on the upper floor."

Kolsky was one of the first three professors of computer engineering at UCSC. He taught and managed research projects from 1986 to 1996. Before coming to UCSC, Kolsky was a senior scientist with IBM for 29 years, first in New York and then in the Bay Area. 

Kolsky has given $50,000 to establish a scholarship fund at UCSC in memory of his wife, Frances G. Kolsky, and their grandson, Patrick A. Kolsky. Patrick was a freshman studying computer science at CSU Chico when he passed away unexpectedly. The Patrick A. Kolsky Endowed Scholarship will support promising engineering undergraduate students at the Jack Baskin School of Engineering.

Kolsky grew up on the Great Plains of Western Kansas during the Depression. His grandfather immigrated from Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) in 1879, seeking personal freedom and the chance to own land. He later sent for his wife and four children. "Pioneer life was very hard, but they prospered," said Kolsky. 

"My mother always insisted that education was my path to success," he added. "I was helped by three scholarships to get through school so I know how important they can be."

He met Frances while they were students at the University of Kansas, although their families had known each other for much longer. Her family had also left Bohemia for a better life for their families. Frances and Kolsky graduated from the University of Kansas in 1943. Kolsky received a B.S. degree in engineering physics.

After graduating, Kolsky served three years In World War II in the U.S. Army, as a cryptographer.  In 1944 he participated in the invasion of the Marianas Islands in the Pacific Theater. The Marianas were the staging areas for later assaults on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He remembers the horrors of war. "They burn in one's memory," said Kolsky. "A lot of Japanese civilians were driven to commit suicide by jumping off the cliffs into the ocean." 

Using the GI Bill he earned his Ph.D. in physics from Harvard University. His first position was with the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he became a pioneering user of large computers. 

In 1957 he moved to IBM in Poughkeepsie, New York, joining the "Project Stretch” group planning a new super computer. He transferred to the IBM San Jose Research Laboratory and later became a manager at IBM’s Palo Alto Scientific Center. He was named an IBM Fellow in 1969.

During his career with IBM he directed a variety of research and development projects including programming languages, microprogramming, scientific applications, and digital image processing. 

After retiring from IBM he began his new career in the new computer engineering department at UCSC, where he taught courses in computer architecture. He has an interesting story about what brought him to UCSC.

One of Kolsky's jobs at IBM was to lead review teams to visit IBM scientific centers around the world. One visit was to the German scientific center in Heidelberg. "I got a bright young scientific expert to go with me--who happened to be Pat Mantey." They had a long day of meetings and then dinner at a bier stube. As they were walking along the main street, Hauptstrasse, lined with 19th century buildings, Pat told him that he had been approached to set up a new department (then called a “board of studies”) in computer engineering. They discussed the details. "I think you should take the job (as chairman)," said Kolsky, "and I'll come and work for you."  And a year later it happened.  The third founding faculty member of the department was Alexander Brandwyn, and Glen Landgon joined soon after.

"I didn't come to UCSC to retire. In some ways, I worked harder because although you become an expert in one area in industry, you don't have the broad background needed to teach. The first time one teaches a course, it's very involved." Kolsky set up his classes with the same constraints one would find in industry, creating a real-world environment to challenge his students. 

In 1989, he initiated a new course, "History of Computing," at UCSC. "This really forced me to go back and re-read the old reports and to appreciate what a major effort Stretch really was, especially in terms of technical innovation." Project Stretch was famous for contributing many innovations to computer architecture. While the IBM 7030 was not considered commercially successful, it spawned many technologies incorporated in future machines and microprocessors. Stretch was the fastest computer in the world from 1961 to 1964. Incidentally, it was one of the members of the Stretch project (Werner Buchholz) who came up with the word "byte."

The Patrick A. Kolsky Endowed Scholarship is not Kolsky's first act of philanthropy and service. He has generously supported both UCSC and the University of Kansas. In 2006, he donated to help establish the UCSC Senior Design Capstone Project Contest in computer engineering. He also served as a judge for the first contest, which challenges students to work in cross-disciplinary teams to create working prototypes. In 2013 he received the Colfax award from the Odd Fellows of California for “distinguished and exemplary service” at the Saratoga Retirement Community, where he now lives. 

The state motto of Kansas is Ad astra per aspera (To the stars through difficulties). "It's been my motto too," said Kolsky. "I've lived the American dream."

By Denise Lee

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