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Richard Rubinstein

Richard Rubinstein

Human Factors and Interface Design Consultant (Ret.)

By David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project
August 4, 2022

DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Thursday, August 4th, 2022. I'm very happy to be here with Richard Rubinstein. Dick, it's great to be with you. Thank you so much for joining me today.


ZIERLER: Dick, to start, would you tell me your current or most recent title and affiliation?

RUBINSTEIN: Well, I'm retired. I've been retired for quite some time, since I was 60. I'm 75 now. But I had a career in human factors in user interface design. I guess I'll get a chance to tell you how I got there, but that's not where I started. [laugh]

ZIERLER: Let's just start with definition. What does that mean, "human factors"?

RUBINSTEIN: It's a design trade. It's a mixture of engineering and psychology. It's making the outside of things with computers in them easy for people to use. That's it. In my career, I did quite a wide range of things, everything from cell phones and medical instruments to customer service webpages.

ZIERLER: Dick, did you have your own businesses, or you did this working for other companies?

RUBINSTEIN: No. I only discovered that that's what I was doing in my second job. [laugh] I had been working for Bolt Baranek and Newman, doing education stuff, AI in education and handicap-related things, which I'd done a little bit of as a graduate student. I changed jobs in 1980 and, in the process, discovered that I was a human factors guy. I didn't know that. [laugh] But I had the right background because I have a bachelor of science from Caltech in engineering. They didn't have an engineering degree back then, so I'm a generalist. I have a PhD in social sciences from UC Irvine, also a generalist degree. Notice it's not psychology. They didn't have a psychology degree. They had a couple degrees, but mine was the [laugh] generalist one. I didn't really know that I was a human factors specialist until I'd been doing it for a while. I'd actually been doing it as a graduate student. I just didn't know what it was called. The education work was very much of that form because it's all about what's on the outside of a computer system. We taught people to do electronic troubleshooting with a system that had an AI language understanding base, and circuit simulation, SPICE. You may have heard of SPICE, an electronic circuit simulation. We were teaching people to diagnose a little Heathcote power supply with AI-based language input [laugh] and the circuit simulation.

Anyway, so I went to Digital. I was there for 13 years. It was at that point that I came in as a user interface designer, and there wasn't much of a community at Digital at that point. That was 1980. Over the time that I was there, we built a community of people across the company who were doing user interface design, and concerned about usability issues. After that, I worked for three or four different companies, but most of time was at a consulting firm called Human Factors International. I was with them for most of a decade, and that's where I did a lot of this variety that I talked about: medical instruments, and customer service [laugh] webpages, and that sort of thing. That was where I got most of my diverse experience of human factors. That was fun because it had a lot of variety, and I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to figure out where each customer company kept its angst. Companies are very different [laugh] about that, if you know what I mean. Often as a consultant, you're hired to do something in name, but it's not really what they need. It's something else. In particular, it's always a people problem. It doesn't matter what they say. It's always a people problem. I did a lot of corporate training and so on.

ZIERLER: Dick, where would we see your work either in a consumer product or in the systems around us that we might not notice specifically?

RUBINSTEIN: I don't think there are any current products out there?

ZIERLER: Or over the course of your career.

RUBINSTEIN: Well, for example, when I was at Human Factors, we worked on blood analyzers for a company that, when you have your blood taken at the doctors, they have a big machine, or they send it to a lab with a big machine, with a bunch of little test tubes in it. It tests them. We worked on the user interface for the operator of that kind of machine. That's one thing. When you call American Express, or Sprint, which I guess is no longer [laugh] quite a thing. But we worked with their customer service people to improve their internal software, the kind of thing, you call someone in customer, and they have an initial conversation with you to find out what's your problem, what's your account number, that kind of thing. The amount of navigation they have to do in their own system in order to get to where they can deal with that problem is a usability issue, and it's bottom-line dollars for the company. If it takes an extra minute for that navigation, and it's a five-minute phone call, then there's a cost associated with that. We were all about making that be easy for those agents to do what they have to do. A lot of interesting stuff, for example, it turns out there's a difference between men and women in that role. Overall, women are better at having a little bit of chitchat while doing the navigation than men are, by and large. [laugh] If you pay attention to that next time you call into customer service, you'll probably hear it. [laugh] Anyway, so, I've done a lot of that kind of interface optimization. Now that I'm retired, I'm still doing it. [laugh]

ZIERLER: You do consulting, things like that?

RUBINSTEIN: No, not for money. Never for money. Thankfully, I don't need it. I, for a long time, was a letterpress printer hobbyist. I got into that when I was at Digital because I somehow ended up, you know, "Dick's going to do the typefaces," and so I had to learn about typography. I ended up writing a book about typography. I also wrote a book with Harry Hersh at Digital. One of the early human factors books— published by Digital Press. Those are my two books. I lost the thread there, I'm sorry.

ZIERLER: Just what you were doing more recently in retirement.

RUBINSTEIN: I'm still doing the human factors stuff. I'm Chair of the condo board here where we live. We're doing a big repair project on the façade, a lot of deferred maintenance. It's stuff that should've been done 10 years ago, but my board is doing it now. My motto is, "The can stops here." [laugh] They've been kicking the can down the road for years. But we needed a website to tell the owners what's going on, and I've been designing that. It always seems to come up somewhere.

ZIERLER: Well, Dick, now let's establish some context. Before undergraduate, where were you for high school? Where did you grow up?

RUBINSTEIN: I was born in Los Angeles, and I grew up in LA. Went through my first year in high school in LA, and then my family moved to the San Fernando Valley, and so I finished high school in Northridge, at Grenada Hills High School.

ZIERLER: Was your family's move part of a broader demographic shift to the Valley at that time, would you say?

RUBINSTEIN: That's a good question. I'm not sure. The neighborhood that we lived in is now an almost entirely Black neighborhood, but I don't think that happened until a while after we lived there. I don't know if you remember. There was a flood from the Baldwin Hills Dam that broke that was above the house in that neighborhood, and that happened a year after we left—

ZIERLER: Oh, wow.

RUBINSTEIN: —just incidentally. That probably had something to do with the change in the neighborhood. I don't know. But, no, my father got a job out in the San Fernando Valley. He had worked for the Department of Water and Power. [laugh] He was a mechanical engineer. The Department of Water and Power decided they were going to build a nuclear power plant. This was in the day of personal fliers, and they weren't somehow going to crash over your backyard [laugh] trying to get to work. I remember Popular Science was just full of that stuff. Anyway, the public utility in Los Angeles was going to build a nuclear power plant. They needed people who knew about nuclear power plants, so they sent my father and our whole family to Schenectady, New York, where Knolls Atomic Power Labs run by General Electric was. I was 9 and 10 years old when I lived in Schenectady for a year and a half, and then came back. I went to high school in the San Fernando Valley, and two of those summers, I had jobs at UCLA in physics labs. I went one summer to a National Science Foundation Science Institute at what was then called San Fernando Valley State College. It's now San Fernando Valley State University, upgraded by Ronald Reagan, our then "acting" governor. [laugh] I graduated mid-year. California, I don't know if they still do but had mid-year graduations. I graduated in January from high school. Of course, Caltech didn't have and doesn't have mid-year admissions, so I went to UC Berkeley for a semester, which was enlightening but frustrating because I couldn't take any of the courses. I wanted to be a physicist, I had since I was 9 [laugh], and I couldn't take the introductory chemistry, physics, calculus, any of that, because it all started on even-year boundaries. It was academically a little bit disappointing. But I discovered at that point that the professors' office hours were wide open, except the day before an exam, and so I spent time with the head of the chemistry [laugh] department. It was true at Caltech too. I learned that at UC, but I would show up at office hours at Caltech, not because I had a question about the course necessarily, but just to yak, and learn stuff. That was great fun.

ZIERLER: Dick, what year did you start at Caltech?

RUBINSTEIN: 1965 and graduated in '69.

ZIERLER: Growing up, Gell-Mann and Feynman, did you know those names? Did that loom large in your imagination?

RUBINSTEIN: That's a good question. I probably knew. I don't remember. I probably knew about Feynman. Those were the days of educational TV—this is before public television, really—and I would get up at 6:00 in the morning, and I would watch a freshman physics class on TV before breakfast. I had breakfast, and I went out to fiddle with electronics in the garage [laugh], and then go to school. I was the neighborhood TV and radio repair kid—

ZIERLER: [laugh]

RUBINSTEIN: —which seemed like stealing. I don't know. It was so easy for me because those were the days of vacuum tubes, and all you had to do was see which tube wasn't lit up. [laugh]

ZIERLER: [laugh]

RUBINSTEIN: If it happened to be one of the serial filament ones, then you had to take all the tubes off to the drugstore where they had a tube tester, and figure it out. A 10-year-old gets five bucks for fixing the TV—

ZIERLER: Pretty good.

RUBINSTEIN: —[laugh] in the '50s.

ZIERLER: Dick, you mentioned you wanted to be a physics major, but then you switched over to engineering at some point?

RUBINSTEIN: Yeah, I did that at the beginning of my junior year. I always said I was never going to be an engineer. My father was an engineer, no, no. [laugh] But it was a combination of abstract algebra, which made no sense to me, and quantum mechanics, which just wasn't the kind of visceral physics that I had been interested in. It was abstract in a way that it just didn't make sense to me.

ZIERLER: You're more of a Newtonian guy?

RUBINSTEIN: I guess. [laugh]

ZIERLER: [laugh]

RUBINSTEIN: I wouldn't have put it that way but I guess that's fair. [laugh]

ZIERLER: [laugh]

RUBINSTEIN: But the engineering fit well. They didn't have specialties in 1968. You got a bachelor of science, and you can throw an "E" on the end, in engineering. For example, you could not major in computer science. It didn't exist. I took all of the computer courses. I took a course from Don Knuth, who was famous later for his three-volume book that everybody studied for years, The Art of Computer Programming. I took a hardware course and—what else?—statistics, and all the things you take to make an engineering major but it wasn't called that. I got interested in social sciences also.

ZIERLER: Dick, I want to start first—

RUBINSTEIN: Pardon me?

ZIERLER: No, go ahead.

RUBINSTEIN: I got interested in social sciences. For example, I took an anthropology course from Thayer Scudder, and I just found that fascinating. I don't know. I'm trying to think. [laugh] I'm blank on the fellow's name, the fellow who had a joint appointment in computer science and philosophy or something: Fred. What was his last name?

ZIERLER: We can look it up.

RUBINSTEIN: Yeah, I'll have to look it up... Fred Thompson. I'm embarrassed I didn't remember it because he [laugh] made a big impression on me. He refused to become my advisor. I'm afraid I had an advisor who, you know, I'd show up at the door with an add drop card, and he had signed it before I got the first sentence out about why I wanted to do whatever that I was doing. I never had a conversation with Fred, even in an elevator, that I didn't come away challenged from. He actually got me pointed at the social science program at UC Irvine, in the end. I had the choice between going into the Peace Corps and going to graduate school. I sat on one side of the fence, and saw how much greener the grass was on the other, and jumped over, and then looked back, and it was pretty green back there, and I just jumped. I ended up in graduate school only because I ran out of time. It was not a clever or [laugh] a well-thought out choice, but it worked out well.

ZIERLER: Dick, the first of the two major topics I want to talk to you about today, first, Wally Rippel, and the great electric car race against MIT. How did you get involved in that? How did you meet Wally? How did you sort of jump on board?

RUBINSTEIN: Actually, we should talk about the student research project first because that's where it came from.


RUBINSTEIN: This was the ASCIT research project. It was funded by the—I don't know—was it the Office of Energy? It may or may not have been the Office of Education. But it was a research project staffed by students, not faculty, and it was air pollution research, and it was real research. It wasn't an educational project. It had a bunch of parts. The whole thing was orchestrated by Joe Rhodes, who was the student body president at that point, and a friend of mine. We can talk more about Joe. But he was the lightning rod [laugh] against which all of this stuff happened. He was a Black man, and he was the only Black student in my class or I think up to that point. I don't know if there were any Black students prior. But, certainly, in the class of '69, he was the only Black kid. He quipped that he'd asked about that when he had his interview, and was sort of reassured that, "Oh, it's OK." But then he discovered [laugh] he was the only Black guy in the class. He was a force to be reckoned with. He became student body president, and actually they had changed the rules because he was president for two years. The previous rules only allowed a single year for president. He was a political character, in a way, and went into politics after Caltech. We can talk about that some more.

But he started the thing about getting women on campus. He wanted this research project to be more inclusive. He wanted to get more diverse students to work on the project, and he wanted to have women, so he had to approach… who was the master of student houses? Was that the title of the guy who ran that?—and said, "We have to be able to house women this summer. We're going to have women in this project." "We can't do that." But, of course, they did. [laugh] I went on a recruiting trip to find Black students who would participate in this summer project. There was one other Black guy in a later class, whose name escapes me. I was trying to remember his name. We flew to two or three historically Black colleges. Stillman College was one of them, and Jefferson City, Missouri. There this Black guy and this white guy show up, and we were recruiting. We weren't received well [laugh] at Stillman College, but we made the effort. There was a more diverse set of students in 1968 for that project than there had been previously, and certainly than there were in our class in the previous classes. That was an air pollution project. There were a bunch of pieces to it. There was a piece that analyzed the public transportation, such as it was, in Los Angeles, and made the case that they should drop the requirement of fares; that it cost two bits to ride the few buses [laugh] that there were. They made the case that it was almost a wash because the cost of collecting all those coins, and the back office business of dealing with them, and keeping the fare machines—remember those coin machines?—keeping those things working, and the insurance for the drivers, all that stuff ate most of the 25 cents they collected. There were things like that. I was involved in a piece that was statistically correlating hospital admissions with air pollution levels—a big project. I personally read 300,000 IBM cards into the computer in the sort of third shift, starting at midnight—

ZIERLER: Wow. [laugh]

RUBINSTEIN: —in the computer center, which was data from the hospitals. Why they gave it to us, I don't know. Today, they would never do that. [laugh] But we got the data, and could do that analysis. The electric car race came out of that summer project. Wally Rippel decided that he was going to build an electric car. He had a VW Microbus; took the back seats out; replaced that area; filled it with these golf cart or forklift batteries. He modified the chemistry somewhat. Golf cart batteries are deep discharge batteries, but he added something to the electrolyte that made that work better. I don't remember the details of that. Wally could tell you. Then he challenged MIT to a race across the country. I was on that race. We had two vehicles. We had the electric car, and we had a chase vehicle that I was one of the drivers of. This was a 24-7 kind of trip, so we had multiple drivers for both cars. The chase car pulled a generator. The way the thing worked was we had charging stations every 50 miles or so. The electric utilities were just delighted with our project, but this was also something you see [laugh] crazy Caltech kids show up. But those were the days of Reddy Kilowatt, pushing electric use so the utilities were delighted with the idea. Every 50 miles, there was somebody standing there. It might be at a gas station or next to just a telephone pole in the middle of the desert. But there was a guy there with wires coming down [laugh] so we could charge. If we didn't make it to a charge point, then we paid a penalty in the scoring between the two teams, and we had to charge with the generator, which also took longer than charging from the power line. That was a big adventure. I can tell you a couple things that happened, if you're interested.

ZIERLER: Please.

RUBINSTEIN: One thing was we were driving along in one of the western states up a moderate incline but long, miles, miles long. Wally was driving, and he was going—I don't know—30 or 35. It was posted a minimum of 50 miles an hour, and he got pulled over. He had a nice conversation with the cop, and he said, "Well, I'm only going 35–40 miles an hour because it's an electric car, and I get the best mileage that way." He said, "No, you got to go 50," so he went 50. [laugh] I don't remember whether we made the charge point [laugh]—

ZIERLER: [laugh]

RUBINSTEIN: —that time. But it wasn't that the car wouldn't go 50 miles an hour. But outside Phoenix, Wally was driving again, which is thankful because he blew up the motor. The modification of the car left the clutch in place. Now, an electric car does not need a clutch, but it was mechanically simpler to leave the clutch in the drivetrain to connect the electric motor. He put the clutch in, and shifted gears, and powered the motor, and it just blew up. Here we are on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere—I've forgotten—20–30 miles from Phoenix, and stuck. I'm credited with telling Wally, "I'm going to Cambridge. How are we going to get there?" [laugh] We had a new motor air-freighted to the Phoenix Airport, astoundingly overnight, I think. We were in Phoenix. It was 103 in the shade. Everything was in the shade. [laugh] It was 3:00 in the morning. We got the motor. We installed it on the road. Then we moved on. We went the entire distance under electric power, which was something. MIT did not, I must say. They had this Corvette or something, and we met in the middle, and the difference was just overwhelming from a human factors point of view. Our car had a voltmeter and an ammeter, and it looked like a car. It had a dashboard. Their car had an oscilloscope and wires everywhere. [laugh] It was just a nightmare. I don't know why anybody would look at that and want to have an electric car.

ZIERLER: [laugh]

RUBINSTEIN: It didn't make any sense. We saw that when we met in the middle of the country. They got to Pasadena before we got to Cambridge, but they towed most of—they didn't have a chase car with a generator. If they ran out of power, they just towed the car, and they paid a penalty for that. They found out they could make time by towing. [laugh] When they had some—I don't know—some electronic failure or something towards the end of the race, they just towed the rest of the way. They got there ahead of us, but we won on points. That following weekend, there was a Cars of the Future exhibition at the Smithsonian, and we took the electric car there, and showed it.

ZIERLER: Dick, what aspects of the race do you see as an environmental response to smog, and just recognizing that there needed to be a better way?

RUBINSTEIN: Well, that's really what it was about, the same reason that everybody talks about electric cars now, that the internal combustion engine is inefficient, and produces pollution. We were more focused on the pollutants than we were on carbon dioxide. We weren't thinking particularly about global warming or anything. I don't remember that being on anybody's mind at that point. It was really about the health of the people having to breathe the air. Of course, you get control over pollutants by centralizing the production of the energy to drive cars, and the cars themselves are zero emissions. That's what it was about.

ZIERLER: Dick, did you ever think of pursuing—like Wally and so many others did—a career building electric vehicles, or this was more adventure novelty for you?

RUBINSTEIN: Well, I guess it was adventure. [laugh] At age 75, I realize I'd had a dozen or two dozen projects that I was excited about once, but that I never finished. My senior year—this was my junior year, '68—my senior year, somebody who had been interested in this stuff had gotten a dead Isetta. I don't know if you know what an Isetta was.


RUBINSTEIN: But it was a little three-wheeled car with one door that opened in front. Nobody thought about how do you get out of it if you run into a tree. [laugh] But it was kind of a stupid little car, but it was very lightweight. The idea was, well, why don't you make an electric car out of that as a demonstration that you can do it? Somebody had gotten this Isetta that had a defunct engine, and was going to make an electric car, and then left town, and left it for me. Then it was my [laugh] unfinished project for a year, and I passed it on to somebody else. The last I knew of it, it was decorated as a tank, and used in an anti-Vietnam War demonstration. [laugh] I had the idea of making an electric car, but I never got it together the way Wally did. Wally was very serious about it.

ZIERLER: Dick, what was your sense of how the electric car was a point of pride for Caltech institutionally? Did administration figures celebrate this? What was happening in that regard?

RUBINSTEIN: Well, I don't know really whether the administration was tooting its horn over this. I don't remember that. Maybe they were. But we, as students, talked about it a lot. One of the things that was unique was that the summer effort was not an educational project. This was real research. We were really doing upfront research on something that we cared about, and so I think there was a lot of pride around that. I also had good feelings about Caltech as a proponent of the electric vehicles and, I guess in retrospect, usability compared [laugh] to the MIT performance. We got some points for that, in our minds anyway.

ZIERLER: Dick, now, let's move onto the second topic I wanted to talk with you about, and that was the group of students—men, of course—undergraduates who were pushing for the admission of women to the undergraduate student body at Caltech. To start, what were the conversations, at least informally, that led to this becoming a real program, a real thing that students were pushing the administration to do?

RUBINSTEIN: Well, I didn't have much connection with that other than through Joe Rhodes and the student research project. That was my connection with that. It was sort of a stake in the ground, I guess. We had, as Caltech still does most years, the interhouse dance. We had these events where you brought women into the campus. People were obviously interested. But I don't remember personally having discussions with people about that, but it's a long time ago.

ZIERLER: Tell me about Joe Rhodes, and some of the leadership initiatives he took.

RUBINSTEIN: Well, Joe is a buddy. We were both in Blacker together, and he was a real pot-stirrer. He didn't accept things the way they were, and so he had a lot to do with admissions policy, both in terms of women and diversity. He was an organizer. He got people's attention and, as I remember, rather easily got elected as student body president, and then for a second year. There's not a lot I can tell you. They're doing fire alarm testing in my building.

ZIERLER: I can't hear anything. It's fine.

[unrelated conversation]

RUBINSTEIN: I told you I'm Chair of the condo board. We've got a literal million-dollar project to replace our fire alarm system, and we're at the end of it, and they're doing this final testing this week. You can't just upgrade a fire alarm system because you can't turn it off. [laugh] You have to build a parallel system, and get it completely up and certified, and then switch over from the old system. Our floor is one of the ones they're testing today. Well, it's quiet again.


RUBINSTEIN: In a funny way, I got to know Joe better after we graduated. We lost touch for a while, but we got connected again. He was living in the Boston area, in JP, I think, Jamaica Plain. We got together socially, and talked about stuff. His career, he became a Pennsylvania House of Representatives force to be reckoned with. [laugh] He had, I think, three terms there. Two terms? Maybe it was two terms in the Pennsylvania House. There's a good Wikipedia article on him, if you're interested, that doesn't talk about the student research project, and it doesn't talk about his Caltech days much. But he was on the Public Utilities Commission, and actually had a lot to do with writing the regulations that were picked up by other states and eventually, I guess, the FCC. Caller ID on phones didn't exist before, and he got involved [laugh] with that. He was involved in a number of high-profile things, the committee on Kent State in the killing of students, that kind of stuff. He got quite a name for himself. He was on the Nixon blacklist because he spoke out. He spoke his mind. He didn't always please people. He was perfectly capable of saying things [laugh] and making people unhappy. But truth to power, that was the kind of thing that he was about.

ZIERLER: Now, were you involved specifically in the student organization that communicated this desire to have women be admitted, or were you more on the sidelines?

RUBINSTEIN: No, I was drawn into the two projects. Look, I'm a gay man. I didn't figure that out until much later. But it wasn't a personal issue for me to bring women to the campus. I was fine with it, but it just wasn't a hot button for me. Maybe I should've learned something from that but I didn't at the time. [laugh] I got involved with the research project and with the electric car race. Those were the points of contact. I was involved in a couple of the research projects—the air pollution hospital study, for example. But, no, I wasn't one of the people who was beating on the doors of the administration about that. I'm sure you can find some of the people who were but I wasn't one of them.

ZIERLER: Dick, did you know that you were gay at even a fundamental level when you were an undergraduate?

RUBINSTEIN: No. In fact, I married a woman; was married for almost 20 years; had two children. It was a bad marriage on other grounds. My wife became a crazy person after we were married about five years. I don't have to go into the details, but it was pretty horrible. I stayed with it because I thought it was important for the children. When they were in high school, we separated. That was the point at which I figured it out. But, no, I wasn't sexually active with men until after the marriage broke up. I've always been a pretty loyal guy [laugh], sometimes to extreme. That was later, but there were certainly—somebody who was sensitive to that sort of thing could've figured it out, and told me, I guess. Curiously, Joe's brother's a gay man, and I went back. I'd been to a couple of reunions since I graduated; one I went with my late husband, Eric. I was curious because I don't remember there being anything gay while my class was there, nothing, no sniggering about guys off in the corner, zero. I thought Joe would know. I asked Joe about that, and he said, "No, there really was nothing." It was not part of anybody's awareness, at least, to talk about it in 1969 and the years before then. There was no model. If it had been there, and if there was a gay organization and stuff, maybe it would've helped me figure it out [laugh] at that point, but it wasn't there. There were other people in our class who were gay, and I don't think they knew it either. [laugh]

ZIERLER: It just wasn't the culture at the time?

RUBINSTEIN: No. In fact, I remember, Eric and I were at a class dinner. It was like the 35th reunion, or something like that. One of the guys from my class was sitting next to Eric, my husband—later husband, when it was possible—and came out to him for the first time [laugh] sitting at that dinner. His plan was he flew on airplanes, and he was going to meet somebody on the airplane as a seat mate, and that was going to be the love of his life. It was not a good plan. I think that there were probably several closeted people, whether they knew they were closeted or not. I was certainly in that category. I was always attracted to men but I just never did anything with it.

ZIERLER: Dick, in just informal conversations as an undergraduate, there are of course a range of motivations that the students had in terms of admitting undergraduate women. What was your sense of what they were? What were those motivations?

RUBINSTEIN: Dates, I think. [laugh]

ZIERLER: [laugh] Not so much the highfalutin equal rights kind of motivation?

RUBINSTEIN: No, I don't think so. The amount of trouble you had to go to to get a date, you had to drive 20 miles and back to some other college. You had to have some intermediary to help you with it. In a certain sense, the Disneyland in Caltech, the dance, was a reason that a woman would put up with having to be driven 20 or 30 miles [laugh] each way to get to this event at Caltech. It was a lot of trouble. I do remember we had a variety of visitors on campus. I'm trying to remember some of who they were. But we had poets, and I was editor of the literary magazine. Go figure. [laugh] We had various people come on campus. I remember one of the people, whose name escapes me, just up and said, "Why aren't you guys screwing? What's this place about? How come you're not having any fun?" It was kind of a meat grinder. We were all very, very serious. I remember the issue being raised one way or another. Why is this so narrow a place? But I think the reaction took a little while, and certainly after my class left.

ZIERLER: Dick, I wonder how you might connect that sentiment with the fact that in the late 1960s, Caltech was not a very political place in general, certainly compared to places like Berkeley or Columbia.

RUBINSTEIN: Well, I was at Berkeley for one semester. It was after the free speech movement, and so it was quieter in that respect. But I was not a political kid. I wasn't much interested in that. I was interested in science, and that's what I read about, what I talked with friends about. I may have had a more narrow experience in that regard at Caltech because it wasn't what I wanted to do with my buddies. We would talk about science. There was a guy who built himself one of the first electronic calculators. That was a big deal.

ZIERLER: [laugh]

RUBINSTEIN: [laugh] I did the design for the inter-house dance thing one year for a gizmo in the courtyard. It was a sort of gambling theme, and we made this big electronic dice thing that showed different numbers. I designed that. That was the kind of thing I was into. I wasn't much interested. I wasn't interested in women, I'm afraid, and so that wasn't a conversation I got into much.

ZIERLER: Dick, was the draft something you needed to contend with?

RUBINSTEIN: It was indeed, not while I was at Caltech but, at first, in '65. But by '60…what year was it? I can't remember the year. It was '67 or '68, the draft became a real issue. You had a lottery number. I was a conscientious objector. I got support from the people at the Y. I had a hearing with the draft board. In a funny way, they took me seriously and didn't take me seriously. They took me seriously as a Caltech student, and said, "Go back and study."

ZIERLER: [laugh]

RUBINSTEIN: They didn't take me seriously as a conscientious objector. [laugh]

ZIERLER: [laugh]

RUBINSTEIN: That was sort of the end of my involvement. But, certainly, a lot of people were upset about the war, and it doesn't surprise me that the Isetta ended up in [laugh] an antiwar march. That made lots of sense. That pleased me when I heard about that.

ZIERLER: Dick, of course, I can't ask him myself, but was your sense—was Joe Rhodes basically accepted among the undergraduates? Did he have tensions, any racial troubles as an undergraduate?

RUBINSTEIN: No, I don't think so. I don't remember anything like that, and that may be in part because of the sort of apolitical [laugh] character of the place. But, no, he never complained to me about that. It was more like he wanted to make changes in how things were done—like, for example, admitting women, and having more Black people on campus, and having women living in the dorms for this project—and so he was a thorn in people's side about that. But I don't think there was any racial component. I think he was just a rabble-rouser [laugh].

ZIERLER: What were his academic interests? What was he passionate about?

RUBINSTEIN: Well, he got his degree in history, but he certainly knew the science. We talked about science. But that wasn't the core of it. He was more of an organizer. I think he just knew a lot of people. He talked to a lot of people, and that was part of his being able to be elected to the president of the student body. But I don't know. I'm pretty sure there was never any racial elements. I don't remember ever seeing or hearing about that.

ZIERLER: How well did you keep up with him over the years?

RUBINSTEIN: Well, we were out of touch for a number of years. When he was in the Pennsylvania Legislature, we were mostly out of touch. But when he moved to Boston, we got back together, and we got together socially fairly often. I don't know if you've seen the—I did some interviews with him on tape with one of the people from the Caltech Alumni Office, I guess. Those tapes are in the archive.


RUBINSTEIN: That was fun. He liked talking about [laugh] the history, so we managed to capture some of that. But he was a character. I remember [laugh] he didn't always please people. He could be really upsetting. We went out to dinner once at a little restaurant, he and I guess my husband and I. He was just really nasty with the waiter, and didn't want the food that was on the menu.

ZIERLER: [laugh]

RUBINSTEIN: It was a little place where they have three main courses of whatever is good that day. That's what they have. Embarrassed us. He could be very—what's a good word?—singular [laugh], I don't know, in his opinions. I think that was part of his success in politics was that he spoke his mind, and he had the integrity to be respected even if people disagreed with him.

ZIERLER: Dick, after you graduated, what was available to you? What did you want to do next?

RUBINSTEIN: Well, as I said, I had a choice of going into the Peace Corps or going to graduate school. It was Fred Thompson in the computer science and, I think, philosophy departments who had suggested, "Well, why don't you go to UC Irvine?" He connected me with John Seely Brown, who had a joint appointment between social science and computer science at Irvine. John became my PhD chairman, and John was also a mover and shaker. [laugh] Irvine was a funny place at the time. It was a small campus. It's huge now, but it was a small campus of—I don't know—5,000 students or something. Social sciences refused to divide itself into departments. They would not be pigeonholed. That's part of the reason there were only three degree programs: social sciences, and I think it was political science and something else. He had a joint appointment between that and the department of information and computer science, which was a department that refused to join a school because [laugh] they didn't want to be pigeonholed to be part of social science or part of physical science. No way. It was that kind of an environment. It was fun, and his split between the two was really what got me going in the direction that I did. I built a braille terminal for two blind students for the time-sharing terminal; modified teletype, embossed braille. John was an AI person, so I took courses in AI. Lisp was my language [laugh] for my PhD, if you can believe it. I got off easy. In retrospect, I wish I'd picked up on my French or something but I didn't.

Then when I finished there, I spent a year as a lecturer at Irvine, part of finishing my PhD. Then I was gainfully unemployed for a year while I looked for a job. There were no academic jobs. This was 1974 or '75. It was the high-tech downturn, so there just weren't a lot of jobs. That was the year of other unfinished projects [laugh] and looking for work. In the end, I contacted John Brown, who was at that point at Bolt Baranek and Newman here in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He said, "Well, why don't you just come here, and we'll see if we can find you something?" He didn't say, "You'd have a job." [laugh] But I packed up everything and I went. That was just a leap. I arrived at Bolt Baranek and Newman, and John said, "There is your desk," and they started paying me. I only found out [laugh] six months later that he put me on overhead. He didn't have any direct funding for me. Once we got a couple projects going, then I had some funding, so that was a very generous thing for him to do. I was at BBN for five years, doing computers and education, and then I went to Digital, as I think I mentioned before. John shortly thereafter became Director of Research at Xerox PARC, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, which was a good position for him because he was very much an innovator. I benefited a lot from the graduate school situation and my time at BBN. But then, at that point, I figured out I was a human factors guy. [laugh]

ZIERLER: [laugh] Dick, two last questions to round out our discussion. First, have you been an active alum over the years? Have you been involved in various functions for alumni at Caltech?

RUBINSTEIN: On and off but not very much recently. I've been to a couple of the reunions. I pick up some of the lectures on Zoom. The last reunion I went to was our 50th, and we've had COVID since then, and all Zoom stuff since then. I was really glad that they were able to do that. My partner, John, came with me to the 50th. There's a Boston group, and, quite some time ago, I would go to some of the beer [laugh] gatherings that they would have. I have not done that recently. I've been involved in other stuff like the condo association. I'm a member of a Maker Space here in the Boston area, Artisan's Asylum, which is a nice community of weirdo people, people [laugh] who don't fit one mold or another. There's no single mold they fit at all. [laugh] I've been involved in that. I've put a lot of work into that. Mostly what I do there is make sets and props for theater. I've done a lot of community theater work. I'm also a member of the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement, which is a peer learning program, another place where I've done usability stuff. I work with another guy to develop the software for all their course submission and planning, a core thing. But I haven't had much involvement with the Caltech guys. Jeff Hecht, I haven't seen in a couple of years but, I think, pre-COVID. But there's still a few people I've kept in touch with.

ZIERLER: Finally, Dick, looking back on your undergraduate experience at Caltech, of all you accomplished, simply, what are you most proud of?

RUBINSTEIN: What am I most proud of? Caltech opened a lot of doors for me. I guess in the end, I'm proud of having figured out that I wasn't a physicist. [laugh]

ZIERLER: [laugh]

RUBINSTEIN: Caltech got me going in a useful direction when I really wasn't headed there in the right way for who I was or what I could do. I've been figuring myself out for 75 years. Some of that happened at Caltech and at Caltech's instigation; some of it happened much later.

ZIERLER: It's a process. [laugh]

RUBINSTEIN: Yeah, it's a process. [laugh]

ZIERLER: Dick, this has been a great conversation. I'm so glad we were able to connect and capture your memories. Thank you so much.

RUBINSTEIN: My pleasure.