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Morrow, longtime head of Lincoln Labs, to retire

Walter E. Morrow Jr., who was on the original staff of Lincoln Laboratory when it opened in 1951 and was appointed the director of the MIT-managed research facility in 1977, has announced his retirement, effective June 30, 1998.

"In addition to his outstanding service as director, Walter is widely valued in federal defense policy circles as an advisor of great integrity, analytical capability and wisdom," said President Charles M. Vest.

Professor Morrow, Lincoln Lab's ninth director, celebrated his 69th birthday on July 24. Upon his retirement as director, he plans to work on topics such as recognition theory and high-speed optical switches at Lincoln Lab while relinquishing his administrative responsibilities. He also plans to pursue some projects on his own, including research on new types of electric motors and developing a super-resolution optical microscope. "If one of them pans out, I might start a company," he said.

When the lab opened in 1951, Professor Morrow worked in the Long Range Communications Group, developing disposable transistor-powered radios for Voice of America to distribute in the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. He keeps one of those radios in a desk drawer to this day.

"I had no training in transistors," recalled Professor Morrow (SB '49, SM '51, electrical engineering). "We had to invent it as we went along."������������������������������������

The radios led to satellite communications and before he knew it, the job had become a career. The work was stimulating, his colleagues were bright and committed, and there was a sense of mission. Promotions came and there was no reason to move on.

He was named head of the Communications Division in 1966, assistant director of the laboratory in 1968, associate director in 1972 and director in 1977 when his predecessor, Gerald P. Dineen, become assistant secretary of defense.

Provost Joel Moses said Professor Morrow deserves much of the credit for the impeccable reputation and stature enjoyed by Lincoln Lab.

"Walt Morrow has a unique combination of insights and skills," said Provost Moses. "He understands in a deep way the needs for future defense systems for the US. He also deeply understands the core technologies that will enable such future systems to exist. After 20 years as Lincoln's director, this great laboratory has been largely remade by Walt."

Lincoln Laboratory was originally slated to be located in the town of Lincoln but was finally placed in Lexington on the site of a World War II fighter-plane base that had once been a pig farm. The lab has always been at the forefront of technical and scientific research on electronic systems. Founded to develop air defense systems by the Air Force, Army and Navy, everyone assumed it would cease to exist once that project was completed.

The SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) led to the DEW (Distant Early Warning) Line. Then, in the Sputnik era, attention turned to ballistic missile defense. A testing site was established on the South Pacific atoll of Kwajalein to support the program.

The first non-defense projects were undertaken in 1971, involving solar power, air traffic systems, educational technology and health care. Then came the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983, and a record year in 1990 with $385 million in Department of Defense funding and a high of 2,800 employees. Then the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 and defense priorities shifted to other issues, including countering terrorism.

"The problems of national security have not diminished because of the disappearance of the USSR," said Professor Morrow. "Look at history. The future is not easily predicted. Serious problems can occur. All is not peaceful and tranquil throughout the world, and the United States is heavily involved. Defense is likely to remain a significant concern of the nation."

Lincoln Lab is likely to continue to play an important role in confronting these defense issues. "Because our interests are focused on national security, we have a close-up view of the problems facing the country," said Professor Morrow. "Lincoln itself is an apolitical place. We focus on technical solutions to national defense problems. Sometimes, we see the problem before the government does."

Institute Professor John Deutch, who has worked with him as undersecretary of defense and as MIT provost, credits Professor Morrow with building Lincoln Lab into the strongest laboratory involved with the Department of Defense. "That's no mean accomplishment," he said, citing Professor Morrow's technological know-how, judgment and managerial skills. Professor Deutch chairs the committee that oversees faculty and student interaction between the Lincoln Lab and MIT.

Retired MIT President Paul Gray, who appointed Professor Morrow as Lincoln's director when he was chancellor in 1977, credits him with keeping the lab's focus on technological development when others were shifting to systems studies. "It's my strong impression that the laboratory is regarded as the most effective and competent of all the federal research centers," said Dr. Gray.

Donald MacLellan, who was a graduate student when Professor Morrow hired him in 1955 ("he's been my boss ever since"), admires him for his scientific know-how, his imagination, curiosity, daring and intellectual integrity. "He has outstanding technical competence coupled with a complete lack of pretentiousness," said Mr. MacLellan. "He is also extremely patient and always open to discussion in the pursuit of knowledge."

William P. Delaney, who was affiliated with Lincoln for 40 years, cited two traits that made Professor Morrow an outstanding director. "He's very comfortable listening to other people's ideas," said Mr. Delaney, a Director's Office Fellow, "and he has an unrelenting drive to develop new programs."

Mr. Delaney remembers how Professor Morrow ordered him to overcome his own timidity and pursue advanced air defense research in 1977, shortly after Professor Morrow had been appointed director. "It turned out to be one of our most important pro-jects," recalled Mr. Delaney.

Professor Mor-row has served on the Defense Science Board, the Chief of Naval Operations Industry Advisory Committee and the Technology Advisory Committee to the US Space Command of the Air Force Studies Board. He also was a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Space Research. He is a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the National Academy of Engineering. The American Association of Engineering Societies honored Professor Morrow in 1995 with the National Engineering Award.


Professor Morrow said he believes Lincoln Lab's relationship with MIT gives the government access to brain power that would not otherwise be available -- people who normally shun careers in private industry and government. "MIT is considered a good career move," he said. "We recruit each year in all the leading technical universities."

MIT, in turn, derives several advantages from its relationship with Lincoln Lab. "For example, there is a significant level of research on campus that is sponsored by Lincoln," said Provost Moses. In addition, research assistants perform their research at Lincoln and faculty consult there. At the moment there are 17 RAs at Lincoln. Over the course of a year, 30-33 RAs cycle through. Typically, there are 12-14 at any one time.

Professor Morrow, who has had the longest tenure of any of the lab's directors by far (Mr. Dineen ranks second, serving from 1970-77), heads a staff of 2,200 -- 1,120 of them researchers and the rest support personnel. He thinks the job title is director for lack of better terminology. "You don't really direct 1,100 engineers and scientists," he said. "Your job is to create an atmosphere where they can work out the solutions to complex problems. We don't really have a term that describes that."

Lincoln Lab received $343 million in federal research funds last year, and Professor Morrow believes the future is bright. Defense-related research will continue to be a major mission, and in addition to its work on ultra-high-speed optical logic and computers, Lincoln could also play a role in developing algorithms in signal processing that will lead to more sensitive, higher-resolution radar systems. Within 30 years, Professor Morrow thinks faster computers will lead to recognition systems that will match the human brain in capability. He also sees the lab focusing on air traffic, perhaps space and ocean exploration, and atmospheric problems.

While continuing to pursue some of his research interests after he retires, Professor Morrow plans to devote more time to his study of naval history and strategy during the Napoleonic era and perhaps hone his skills as a Scottish folk dancer. Among other things, he won't miss the weekly trips to Washington. Over the years, he estimates that he has logged more than one million miles flying up and back to the nation's capital. But don't expect him to cash in his frequent-flier miles to take a round-the-world trip.

"I think," he said, "I'll stay put for a while."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 10, 1997.

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