Learning from the Soviets

Allen Kent

    Early in February 1958, my colleagues and I organized a national meeting at Western Reserve University in Cleveland to discuss a proposal to establish a national center for scientific and technical information. The stimulus for this proposal was the launching of the Soviet Sputnik in October 1957. Many U.S. scientists suggested that one of the reasons for the Soviets taking the lead in the space race was the existence of their Institute of Scientific Information - which was characterized by a British scientist who visited as "really shattering ... No other agency in the world is doing this job."
    On January 17, 1958, two weeks prior to the meeting, an enterprising reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, having learned of the forthcoming meeting published a major story that occupied eight columns across the front page, entitled "WRU plans world document center" (see figure 1).
    The fallout from this story was dramatic - newspapers, magazines, and wire services throughout the country picked up the story, leading to a phone call from Hubert Humphrey, then chairman of the Committee on Reorganization for the Senate Committee of Government Operations. Senator Humphrey opened the phone conversation with the question "Just what are you fellows in Cleveland up to?"
    The rest is history: based on our phone discussion and subsequent visits with him and his staff, he organized hearings to evaluate the U.S. posture in my field of endeavor. It led to major funding for information programs, from the National Science Foundation and other agencies.
    The foregoing was the forerunner of events of special moment for my career. In August 1958, I received a phone call from James Rand, President of Rand Development Corporation and Chairman of the President Eisenhower's Patent Council. He indicated that he was in New York City, shepherding a Soviet delegation headed by a Minister of the USSR. The visit was occasioned by a letter from the Soviet Premier to President Eisenhower requesting most favored nation status in regard to financial credit. The request was denied, but with the suggestion that an exchange of visitors to assess developments of mutual interest might lead to a reversal of the decision.
    Rand indicated that the visiting Soviet delegation had expressed considerable interest in my work and that an invitation for me to visit would be in order.
    I met the delegation in New York and it led to a month long visit to the USSR to explore the topic "Information Retrieval and Machine Translation - U.S. vs. USSR developments (see Figure 2 - Allen Kent in center conferring with officials of the Computer Institute).
    The chronicle of the visit is not the subject of this brief summary, but suffice to say, it was a turning point in my career, and was the subject of an article in Harpers Magazine in 1959.

Below (Figure 3) is another view of the Western Reserve University Searching Selector from the German journal Nachricten fuer Dockumentation, Vol. 10, Heft 3 (1959), p. 129; with thanks to Michael Buckland for locating and providing it.

     Western Reserve University Searching Selector, 1959
           (Figure 3)


    Figure 4 is a photo of Allen Kent and his wife Rosalind on the occasion of his retirement party in December 1991.

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Biographical Information on Allen Kent

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