L. L. Thurstone (autobiography)
THE biography of an individual scientist cannot be expected to be of general interest except when there has been a spectacular achievement or a colorful personality or both. The present case has no claim to either. Some students may find encouragement in knowing that something can be accomplished in spite of much floundering with objectives that do not seem as clear as they will in retrospect.
Picture taken at the Educational Testing Service (ETS) on the occasion of the dedication of Thurstone Hall; April 14, 1962.
From left to right:Bob Thurstone, Conrad Thurstone, J.P. Guilford, Harold Gulliksen, Clyde Coombs, Henry Chauncey, Thelma Thurstone, Fritz Thurstone, Lyle Jones, Jim Regan, Harold Bechtoldt, Dorothy Adkins, Ledyard Tucker, Paul Horst, Bob Abelson, and Fritz Fredrickson
Both of my parents were born in Sweden. In order to get some education my father joined the Swedish army and became an instructor in mathematics and fortifications. In later life he was a Lutheran minister, a newspaper editor, and a publisher. My mother, born Sophie Strath, had a very good voice and a strong interest in music. My sister, Adele, is two years younger than I. Both of us were started at the piano when we were quite young. My sister was the better student, both in high school and at the piano. She finished a Bachelor of Music degree.
My parents changed the family name, which was Thunström, because it was so frequently mispronounced and misspelled. I have never joined any Swedish clubs and I have had very few contacts with Swedes until recently when I have become acquainted with Swedish psychologists.
I was born in Chicago on May 29, 1887, but my elementary education was in many scattered places, including Berwyn in Illinois, Centerville in Mississippi, a public school in Stockholm, Sweden, a boys' school in Stockholm, a grade school and a high school in Jamestown, New York.
At the age of fourteen it was expected that I would be confirmed in the Lutheran church. This was a problem because I declined to learn the catechism. When it became evident that this was really awkward, there was a conference with my father and another Lutheran minister and myself. I was offered the proposition that if I would select any three questions in the catechism to which I was willing to learn the answers, then I would be confirmed. I accepted this proposal and thus I was officially confirmed in the Lutheran church. When I accepted this proposal, my seniors really won the case
(295) because I read the catechism voluntarily in order to select the three questions to which I would be willing to memorize the answers.
The only honor that I received in high school was a first prize of thirty dollars in the Prendergast competition in geometry. With the prize money I bought a second-hand bicycle and a box Kodak which was the starting point for my work in photography. This is still my principal hobby. When I was a high school sophomore I had my first publication. It was a short letter to theScientific American,published in June, 1905. At that time there was a good deal of discussion about the hydroelectric power companies at Niagara Falls. The power companies were accused of diverting so much water to their power plants that the beauty of Niagara Falls was being ruined. I proposed a very simple solution for the conflict between the power companies and the tourist interests. This is what I wrote:
"How to Save Niagara"
"To the Editor of theScientific American:
"There has lately been much discussion on how to save Niagara Falls. I take here the liberty to describe a method for utilizing the greater part of the energy in the falls without injuring in the least the beauty of the falls and without necessitating any engineering structures in the vicinity of the falls.
"Suppose a dam, constructed across Niagara River, a few miles above the falls or at the beginning of the river. Let the gates of the dam be closed half of the time and opened half of the time, making the river flow, say, twelve hours in daytime. There would be no danger of overflow when the gates are shut, with the large area of Lake Erie above the dam. It is evident that twice the regular flow of the river could be extracted from Lake Erie in the daytime. Let the regular flow pass over the falls and take a quantity equal to half the regular flow continually for power purposes. This would give about 3,500,000 horsepower without injuring in the least the beauty of the falls. The gates of the dam could he open, say, nine hours in the day and three hours in the night, in order to make it possible to see the falls also at night. It seems to me that if these arrangements were possible, it would give a great amount of power and at the same time save the destruction of the falls.
Louis L. Thunström.
Jamestown, N. Y., June 20, 1905."
There was a comment in one of the national magazines that I was proposing a way in which we could eat our cake and have it, too.
Every high school student has probably puzzled at some time about the old problem of trisecting an angle. As a high school sophomore I worked
(297) out a French curve which could be used with a straight edge for trisecting any angle but, of course, the solution was not within the restrictions of Euclidian geometry. In a freshman class in analytical geometry at Cornell, I learned how to write the equation for that curve and I showed the solution to my instructor. Professor Hutchinson told me that he knew over twenty solutions to that old problem but that he had never seen this particular one before. The solution was published in theScientific American,and this was my second publication.I also learned a good deal of physics in high school by puzzling about the old problem of perpetual motion.
At Cornell I started in civil engineering but changed to electrical engineering. Perhaps I should have majored in physics, instead. In the basement of Rockefeller Hall I worked with one of the physics instructors, Dr. Nasmith, who was studying the singing arc. I set up some experiments in the transmission of sound through a light beam by projecting the sound into an arc and receiving the light beam on a selenium cell. The idea was eventually to record the variations in light intensity on the edge of a motion-picture film by means of a cylindrical lens, but we never got that far. At the same time I was playing with a new design for a motion-picture camera and projector. In this design every point on the screen is continually lighted so that there is no dark interval or flicker. The film moves uniformly through the projector without any intermittent motion. These two effects are accomplished by means of two rotating sets of mirrors which keep the distance from the film to the objective constant, even though the film is moving continuously. This machine was actually built and demonstrated. But it was not until several years later that I demonstrated it in New York.
In the engineering school I had great admiration for Professor Dexter Kimball. His course on machine design was probably the best arranged instruction that I have even seen. For example, when several hundred students were working on the design of a shaper, he had the problems so arranged that no two students were working on exactly the same problem. In his lectures on machine design I acquired many ideas that have been useful in other contexts. He pointed out, for example, that in a design problem one starts at the cutting edge and that the frame is the last thing to be designed. The uninitiated probably sees the frame first and his impulse might be to design the frame and then to hook the mechanism onto the frame, which is the most ineffective way to proceed. Kimball's admonition that one should start to solve a problem at the cutting edge is a useful idea in many other contexts. In a committee session one can sometimes be helped by formulating as precisely as possible what is to be accomplished. That is the cutting edge of the problem. An organizational outline might then correspond to the frame of a machine.
In one of his lectures Professor Kimball described some psychological characteristics in the history of a machine such as the sewing machine or the lathe. In the early stages in the development of a machine the designer introduces decorative effects which have nothing to do with function. It is as if the designer were trying to compensate for the inadequacy of the design even though he may not be aware of it. In the more mature stages of a machine its beauty is found in the close relation between design and function. These ideas were well illustrated with lantern slides of the history of mechanical devices. I remember thinking at the time that the curlicues on automobiles were certainly examples of nonfunctional additions. If we look at the automobile designs today (1950), we must admit evidence of immaturity even now. The useless and expensive shapes of automobile bodies and the distracting decorations on the automobile dashboard are evidence of the immaturity of present automobile design, and this is forty years after Professor Kimball's lectures on that subject.
Ever since my undergraduate days I have been interested in the psychological aspects of machine design, especially as regards human limitations in visual-motor coordination in the controls. During the Second World War a lot of military equipment was designed under pressure of time with inadequate consideration for this problem. The results were often serious. One does not have to go far to see examples of design defective because of psychological factors.
While in the engineering school, I became interested in the possibility of studying the learning function as a scientific problem. Partly in this connection I visited several lectures in psychology. One of these was a lecture by Professor Bentley on the higher thought processes, and I heard a lecture by Titchener. I remember being interested in his lecture but curious about his extremely formal and pompous manner. I certainly had no idea that I would myself be lecturing in the same subject. Boring finished his engineering degree at Corned several years ahead of me, but I did not know him at that time. In the senior year I was elected a member of the electrical engineering fraternity, Eta Kappa Nu, an honor that I appreciated all the more because I did not earn it on scholarship.
The motion-picture machine problem had interested me off and on for several years during high school and college. Since Thomas Edison was manufacturing one of the best known motion-picture projectors at that time, I arranged to demonstrate my model in his laboratory in East Orange, New Jersey. A demonstration was arranged in 1912 and I went there with my working model. I met Mr. Edison and his chief engineer, Bliss, and several other men who expressed considerable interest in the model. They spent a good deal of time on it and they were evidently considering the possibilities of marketing this type of projector. They told me finally that it would
(299) be necessary to retool their whole plant for the manufacture of a machine of such radical design and that they were unwilling to do so; they said they had no doubt that the new type of projection would eventually be generally used, because it entirely eliminated the flicker. At that time the flicker was much more of a problem than it is in present machines. It was then that Mr. Edison offered me an assistantship in his laboratory. Immediately after being graduated with a mechanical engineer's degree, I went to work in Mr. Edison's laboratory in East Orange. I saw him daily and I had a very good chance to observe his work habits.
Thomas Edison was a man of strong convictions and he did not have much admiration for university education. For every experimental failure he seemed to produce three more experiments to try. In this sense he seemed to be tireless. The cot in his office was probably used for lying down to think about his problems as often as it was used for sleep. Thomas Edison seemed to have a startling fluency of ideas, which often ranged far from the immediate problem. He seemed to have an absolutely endless array of stories; very few of them were fit for publication. If problem-solving ability is to be studied scientifically and experimentally, it will be advisable to include studies of different kinds of fluency. Edison was interested in educational motion pictures but he had rather inadequate ideas on that subject. Even now, nearly forty years later, motion pictures have not found their proper place in the teaching process. When motion pictures are used in teaching, they usually cover so many ideas for each minute of the film that they are intelligible only to those who already know the subject. Effective teaching must be much more deliberate and it must include judicious repetition and summary. I have seen few motion pictures that satisfy this fundamental criterion for teaching effectiveness.
In the fall of 1912 I decided to return to a university with a good graduate school, and I accepted an instructorship in descriptive geometry and drafting in the engineering college at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
In my freshman classes I had two students who have won distinction in their respective fields and who are now on the University of Chicago faculty
They were Karl Holzinger, who is professor of Education, and Thorfin Hogness, who is now professor of chemistry and director of the Institute of Radiobiology.
While teaching in the engineering college for two years, I had my first instruction in psychology from Professor Herbert Woodrow and from Professor J. B. Miner. Woodrow taught experimental psychology and he was very generous with the engineering instructor who became interested in the experimental study of the learning function.