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Phyllis Fox

Oral History (pdf)
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Interviewer: Thomas Haigh

Abstract: 
Phyllis Fox grew up in Colorado during the Depression of the 1930s, before earning a degree in mathematics from Wellesley College in Massachusetts during 1944. After graduation she worked for two years at General Electric in Schenectady, first as a human computer and then as operator of a differential analyzer. After earning a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Colorado in 1948, she went on to obtain a master’s in Electrical Engineering (1949) and a Sc.D. in Mathematics (1954), both from MIT. During 1949 she worked with the Whirlwind team, producing a program for the still-unfinished computer as part of her master’s thesis. From 1954 to 1958 Fox was on the staff of the AEC Computing Center at the Courant Institute of New York University, working on Univac programs for atomic research. In 1958 she accompanied her husband back to Massachusetts, where she worked as an research associate for MIT, at first with Jay Forrester’s industrial dynamics group to develop the DYNAMO simulation language, and then with John McCarthy’s artificial intelligence group, for which she wrote the first programming manual for LISP. From 1963 to 1973 Fox was on the faculty of the Newark College of Engineering. In 1973 she moved to Bell Labs, where she had previously undertaken work on mathematical software during the summer of 1967, with Joe Traub and Morven Gentlemen. At Bell Labs she oversaw creation of the PORT mathematical software library and its enhancement through two expanded releases. As its name suggests, PORT was designed to achieve portability across a wide range of machines, something it achieved through the use of machine constants and through use of a common subset of Fortran instructions (enforced via a tool known as the PFORT verifier). Contributors to this project included Norm Schryer, Linda Kaufman, Jim Blue, Wayne Fullerton, David Gay, Andy Hall, Wes Petersen and Barbara Ryder. Fox retired in 1984, when funding for PORT was eliminated in preparation for AT&T’s legally mandated breakup.

Key words: mathematical software, Whirlwind, UNIVAC, DYNAMO, PORT library

Funding Agency:

Time frame: 1940's, 1950's, 1970's, 1980's

People: Jay Forrester, John McCarthy, Joseph Traub, Morven Gentleman, Norm Schryer, Linda Kaufman, Jim Blue, Wayne Fullerton, David Gay, Andy Hall, Wes Petersen, Barbara Ryder

Location: Wellesley College, General Electric Schenectady, University of Colorado, MIT, AEC Computing Center, Courant Institute, Bell Laboratories

Interviewer: Thomas Haigh

Citation: Phyllis Fox. Oral history interview by Thomas Haigh, 7 and 8 June, 2005, Short Hills, New Jersey. Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, Philadelphia, PA

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