Montana State University

Computer scientist and military defense developer celebrates 60th anniversary of graduation from MSU

May 3, 2010 -- Melynda Harrison, MSU News Service


Maury Irvine's home is filled with books. The life long learner will be celebrating the 60th anniversary of his graduation from Montana State University this week. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham)   High-Res Available

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Books cover every open surface in Maury Irvine's Bozeman living room. The end table stack is topped with "Japanese for Busy People." The large, round coffee table holds mathematics and microorganism biology textbooks, "Why Evolution is True" and "The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment."

Irvine isn't just book smart, he is the epitome of a life long learner. The 1950 physics-engineering graduate from Montana State University (then Montana State College) has spent his life participating in history that most people have only read about.

In May, Irvine will be celebrating the 60th anniversary of his graduation from MSU. He missed his 50th anniversary, so he is looking forward to reconnecting with old friends and leading his class on a tour of the Museum of the Rockies where he is a docent.

Irvine was part of a team that developed the first flyable transistor computer, a data processing system for a gap-filling radar on the DEW Line (early detection radars that lined the Arctic Circle during the Cold War to warn of Russian aircraft attacks) and several early Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Defense Systems. He dug for dinosaur bones all over the world and studied with the Dalai Lama.

Born in San Francisco to native Montanans, Irvine moved with his mother to the family ranch south of Cardwell at the age of nine. He rode horseback five miles each way to a one room school house. The family moved to Butte a few years later, where Irvine graduated from high school in 1941.

He started his career with New York Life Insurance Company in Butte, but switched tracks in December 1941 when the United States entered World War II.

"I had fallen in love with the Navy in San Francisco and tried to join," Irvine recalled. "I was rejected because of my poor eye sight, but I still wanted to do something."

Irvine entered a radio training program in Helena and then looked for a job as a flight radio operator. After being turned down for a job with TWA because of his eyesight, Irvine joined the Merchant Marines as a radio officer. In three years he sailed on six different ships.

Irvine's only duty was to man the radio shack. When the boats were docked or anchored, the antennae were taken down, making his job impossible. He used his free time to explore and sightsee--a passion that would last throughout his life.

While anchored off the coast of Italy, Irvine left the ship to travel from Naples to Rome by hitchhiking with Army trucks and a bomber. At Genoa he took a train to Venice and on the way back, stopped in Milan to see Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper. During a couple of anchorages at Le Harve he spent his time exploring Paris.

After the war, Irvine returned to Montana and enrolled in MSU (then Montana State College) as an electrical engineering major.

"I noticed that a lot of my friends had interesting books about physics," said Irvine. "So, I switched to engineering-physics."

Irvine went on to get a masters degree and Ph.D., both in physics, from Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. He started working for Bell Telephone Laboratories with the intention of working in industry for two years and then returning to academia to teach and research. As it turned out, he didn't return to teaching until he retired many years later.

At Bell Labs, Irvine worked on several projects in early computer science and military defense. Irvine's first job was on "TRADIC," a the first transistorized digital computer commissioned by the U.S. Air Force in 1954 for ground, or "flyable," research. TRADIC was used as the control unit for a bombing and navigational unit.

"You could enter the latitude and longitude you wanted an airplane to go to," Irvine said. "It used radar beams for terrain avoidance, so you could fly only 100 feet above the ground. Then it would drop the bomb at the target and return to base."

Irvine was also involved in the development of several early Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Defense Systems (ICBM) including, Nike Zeus, Nike X, Sentinel and Safeguard. They were used to detect, track and destroy incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles. A Safeguard System was installed in North Dakota to protect the Minuteman ICBM missile field.

"Then we signed an agreement with Russia that we wouldn't protect Minuteman missiles so the Safeguard System was torn down," Irvine said. "The last I heard the only piece left there is the Perimeter Acquisition Radar that's now used to track space junk."

Irvine retired from Bell Labs in 1988 after 29 years and moved back to Bozeman.

"I couldn't think of any place I'd rather live than Bozeman," Irvine said. "I still can't."

Retirement did not mean rest and relaxation to Irvine. He is a life member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and is active in the Bozeman chapter. He is also a member of the Gray Geeks, a recently formed informal group of retired professors and other professionals that meets monthly to "swap career stories and discuss technical topics."

Irvine is one of the longest serving docents at the Museum of the Rockies (MOR) where he has logged over 5,500 volunteer hours since 1990.

"When we need someone with an incredible base of knowledge, he is our go-to guy," said Susan Dickerson, visitor and volunteer services manager at the MOR.

Through the museum, Irvine has found his way back to teaching. He leads museum tours for the public, teaches classes for kids and adults and serves as a mentor for other volunteers.

When Irvine wants to learn more about something, he doesn't just read about it in a book. He has "tagged along" with MSU Regent's Professor of Paleontology Jack Horner on dinosaur digs on five different continents.

"Volunteering at the museum has been a wonderful opportunity to learn new and different things and interact with top notch people," Irvine said.

When not volunteering, Irvine is traveling. In 2008 and 2009 he took 11 international trips. He stood on the mid-Atlantic rift in Iceland; studied with the Dalai Lama, along with 7,000 other people; and attended a conference about a 2,000-year-old computer he is "obsessed with." The contraption was found in a shipwreck off a Greek island and dated to 100 B.C. Its gears and dials led scientists to decide it was a computer.

This year Irvine has been to southern Africa and is planning a trip to Japan in May. After each trip he gives a slide to show about his adventures so that others can learn and enjoy with him.

Irvine has been a part of many interesting things since graduating from MSU 60 years ago, and the lessons he learned in college set the stage for a lifetime of participating in history.

"I got a really solid education at Montana State," Irvine said. "It helped prepare me for a life of learning."

Linda Wyckoff at 406-994-2223 or lwyckoff@coe.montana.edu