Robert Everett, computer pioneer who led MITRE Corp., dies at 97
In the mid-1940s, Robert Everett was working in MIT’s Servomechanisms Laboratory when his colleague Jay Forrester went off to a meeting about plans to combine an analog computer with an aircraft simulator.
“He came back and he got us all together and he said, ‘We’re now building a digital computer,’ ” Mr. Everett said in an interview for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Infinite History Project. “And we said, ‘Good, what’s that?’ ”
The project became the Whirlwind I, which was among the world’s first digital computers. An expansive machine, the Whirlwind stretched out through the equivalent of several offices, yet it was an essential foundation block for the much smaller high-speed digital computers of today.
“It was quite clear that computers had a tremendous future,” he recalled in the 2009 interview with Toby A. Smith.
Mr. Everett, who went on to serve as president and CEO of the not-for-profit MITRE Corp., was 97 when he died Aug. 15. He had divided his time in retirement between Mashpee and Bradenton, Fla.
“He was iconic and he was extremely down-to-earth,” said Joel Jacobs, who is MITRE’s chief information officer and chief security officer.
He added that Mr. Everett was a humble leader who “had a way of disarming people with his presence, even though he was probably the smartest guy in every room he was in.”
Prescient decades ago about the increasing speed of technological developments, Mr. Everett observed in a 1964 Globe interview that “electronics organizations are generally young,” and that at times there were limits to how effectively seasoned workers could adapt to emerging concepts.
“It depends on when you stop changing,” he said, adding that when he was in college, he studied “a field in which I believed I could work all my life. Now, the cycle of the art is about 10 years.”
Yet Mr. Everett himself “was one of those guys who anticipated the redeployment of technology toward other fields,” said Jacobs, who added that “he had the wisdom to say, ‘This can be applied to other things.’ ”
Mr. Everett worked with MITRE since its inception, including when an earlier version of the corporation was spun off from MIT. The firm operates federally funded research and development centers whose work includes systems engineering.
According to the company, he was MITRE’s first technical director and first vice president of technical operations. In 1969, he became its first executive vice president, and he was named president a few months later. Mr. Everett was MITRE’s president and CEO from 1969 to 1986, the company said. At the time of his death, he was an honorary trustee.
In the 1950s, Mr. Everett played a key role in the development of SAGE, the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment air defense system. That was an era of greater “freedom to do things,” he recalled in a 1995 interview with Renee Garrelick for the Concord Oral History Program.
“I remember on the SAGE project we spent money on what we thought was important and did what we thought had to be done, and people accepted that and paid for it,” he said. “You can’t do that anymore. The bureaucracy procedures have grown very complex.”
During and after his career, Mr. Everett and his work were frequently recognized. According to MITRE, his honors included the Duke University Distinguished Alumnus Award, the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service, the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association Gold Medal Award for Engineering, and the National Medal of Technology.
“It’s nice. I like winning awards,” he said in the Infinite History interview. “I mean, they’re not the end-all and be-all. But it’s nice to have somebody think you did something good.”
He didn’t bask in the accolades, though. “They were all packed up in boxes,” he said of his medals.
Nearly as significant as the awards was the assessment of Forrester, who died in 2016. A National Medal of Technology recipient himself, Forrester led the Whirlwind project and devised magnetic core memory.
In his Infinite Project History interview with Smith in 2009, Forrester said Mr. Everett was “perhaps the only person that I know who, if he and I differ, I will give him more than 50 percent odds of being right. He was a very, very effective colleague.”
The younger of two brothers, Robert R. Everett was born in Yonkers, N.Y.
His father, Chester M. Everett, was a civil engineer who designed waterworks and worked out of New York City. His mother, the former Ruth Melius, was a homemaker.
The boys were tutored at home until they were around middle school age, and after that, “I went to six different private schools, one each year,” Mr. Everett said told the Infinite History Project.
He graduated from Duke University in 1942 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. He chose the school in part because he had been diagnosed with sinus ailments and a doctor suggested considering colleges in the South. Duke “seemed the most promising,” Mr. Everett recalled in the interview.
In 1943, he graduated with a master’s in electrical engineering from MIT, where he went initially for a program in which he was supposed to alternate semesters between classroom studies and working for General Electric. Instead, he became a graduate student in the Servomechanisms Lab and began working for Forrester, who was three years older.
Forrester, he said, was “just a brilliant guy, amazing fellow,” a colleague and mentor who “taught me a lot and did a lot for me. I hope I did something for him.”
Mr. Everett spent essentially his entire career with what became MITRE Corp., rising steadily into leadership. In the Infinite History interview, he said he considered the company “a thing that I had a big hand in creating.”
At times, however, he lamented what happens when electrical engineers move into management.
“They start out actually working on something, and then if they’re successful, they spend more and more time dealing with people who work for them, or for whom they work,” he said in the interview. “And if they get successful enough, they hardly ever design anything again in their lives.”
Services will be private for Mr. Everett, who leaves his wife, Ann; six sons, Robert of Reading, Pa., Bruce of Chatham, Doug of Belchertown, Ted of Geneseo, N.Y., Michael of West Yarmouth, and Dave of Boston; six grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Though Mr. Everett had many professional duties, “he was unsparing with his time and attention and remained a source of wisdom, guidance, humor, support, and encouragement to every member of the family,” his children said in a statement. “We are grateful that he retained his full mental acuity and sharp wit right up to his death.”
Bringing the precision of an engineer to making a company work efficiently, Mr. Everett used to say: “Good people make a great organization, which gets good jobs, which attract good people.”
At MITRE, that observation was known as “the Everett cycle,” said Jacobs, who added that he “heard it quoted last week by one of our executives.”
Mr. Everett, he added, “lives on in some of that positive folklore.”