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Professor Emeritus J. Francis Reintjes dies at 96

J. Francis Reintjes
J. Francis Reintjes

MIT Professor Emeritus J. Francis Reintjes, celebrated for his keen wit and unassuming but steadfast leadership in electrical engineering and computer science, passed away Feb. 21 after a brief illness. He was 96.

He was born in Troy, N.Y., on Feb. 19, 1912, the son of George and Katherine (Lynch) Reintjes. Reintjes was a graduate of LaSalle Institute in Troy, N.Y., and received bachelor's and master's degrees in electrical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.

During his career as an electrical engineer, educator and researcher, his work touched many of the technological advances of the 20th century. He began his career as an engineer with General Motors in Lockport, N.Y., and subsequently taught electrical engineering at Manhattan College in New York City.

Reintjes playfully described himself in a 2006 interview for the MIT Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems as "the man who came to dinnerand never left." The dinner was a gathering in Boston of the Institute for Radio Engineers at which he met and was later invited by W.L. Barrow to become involved in the new radar school at MIT--ultimately joining the Institute in 1943. He would remain in academia, earning a faculty appointment at MIT in 1947.

Over his 65-year association with MIT, Reintjes' research interests expanded from the areas of radar and electronics, and early information storage and retrieval, to applications of computer-communications technologies. After five years working as a research staff member in the Research Lab of Electronics, Reintjes was appointed as the director of the Servo Lab, where he remained for 21 years.

As the Servo Lab grew under Reintjes' leadership, the emphasis focused increasingly on computerization of numerical control. Using the Whirlwind I computer, Reintjes and colleague Douglas T. Ross MS '54 developed an automatic programming system for numerical control in two dimensions, collectively known as Automatically Programmed Tools (APT).

Although he referred to the early Servo Lab as a kind of "military job shop," Reintjes was well aware of the need to build its theoretical and academic side. With added faculty through the 1950s, the lab, renamed the Electronic Systems Laboratory (ESL) in 1959, became a haven for not only master's but also for doctoral studies. Annual reports in the 1960s gave testament. Thesis research averaged 47 per year--not only in electrical engineering, but spilling into chemical and mechanical engineering, physics, mathematics, biology, nutrition and food science and aeronautical and astronautical engineering. ESL continued to prosper, ultimately taking on its current, independent lab status and from 1978 on became the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS).

Reintjes, in a sense, also launched the first "search engine" system, using general-purpose computers to locate research in professional literature through Project INTREX.

Reintjes' interest in pairing academia with industry throughout his career eventually paved the way for him to take on the directorship in 1960 of the MIT VI-A Cooperative (Internship) Program in Electrical Engineering. He opened up the program by putting admission to the VI-A MS degree on the same academic requirements scale as admission throughout the EE Department and spread the scope of administrative involvement across the department by assigning faculty members to take charge of the cooperative relationships with each of the companies, a practice still followed by VI-A today.

Retirement in 1978 did not hold Frank Reintjes back from remaining an involved presence in the EECS Department and LIDS. He returned weekly, attending events and meetings and often serving as the best source for historical information. As described in the May 2006 edition of LIDS|ALL, Reintjes is "friendly, funny and inspiring ... and his legacy won't be forgotten."

Frank Reintjes is survived by two sons, William F. Reintjes and his wife, Ann Marie, of Annandale, Va., and John F. Reintjes and his wife, Maura, of Alexandria, Va.; a daughter, Ellen E. Reintjes and her husband, Don Tatzin, of Lafayette, Calif.; a grandson; a sister, Marion R. Baker of Troy, N.Y.; and several nieces and nephews. His wife of 64 years, Elizabeth A. Walsh, passed away on May 19, 2007.

Funeral services will be held privately. For those who wish, in lieu of flowers, contributions in Mr. Reintjes' memory may be made to MIT for the J. Francis Reintjes Excellence in VI-A Industrial Practice Award, Account 3914000, Office of Memorial Gifts, MIT Room E19-370, 77 Mass. Ave., Cambridge, MA 02139, or to the American Cancer Society, 30 Speen St., Framingham, MA 01701.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 5, 2008 (download PDF).

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