Paul Armer, former director of Stanford Computation Center, dies at 91

A manager and lecturer in the Computer Science Department, Paul Armer voiced early concerns about computer privacy and surveillance.

Paul Armer

(Image credit: Courtesy Katherine Armer)

Paul Armer, an early director of the Stanford Computation Center and faculty member who was a pioneer in computing and its social implications, died Jan. 6 in Stanford Hospital. He was 91.

Armer led the computing center from 1968 until 1970, and then lectured in the Computer Science Department from 1972 until the 1980s. In those years, what was called the Computation Center operated as a nonprofit business, selling computer time on IBM and Burroughs machines to campus programs, said Edward Feigenbaum, professor emeritus of computer science at Stanford who held the director position before Armer.

“Paul was an intelligent manager, and he was interested,” Feigenbaum said.

As an instructor, Armer taught a variety of classes. One introductory class, for example, was designed to “acquaint students from all departments with what a computer is; the remarkable variety of applications of computers; how computers affect our lives; and the growing impact of these information processing machines,” according to the course prospectus.

“He lectured on computers and society,” Feigenbaum said, and worried early on about computer privacy and surveillance. Armer predicted in the mid-1970s that electronic banking, which then did not exist, would be dangerous.

“Such a system,” Armer wrote, “not only collects and files a great deal about your financial transactions – and that means a great deal of data about your life – but the system knows where you are every time you make such a transaction.”

“Paul was in the category you would call ‘world’s nicest people,'” Feigenbaum said. “He had an expression: One should always tell the truth because one has only one story to remember that way.”

Armer was an officer in the U.S. Army Air Corps and served during World War II in the European theater, earning three medals before discharge.

A native of Montebello, California, Armer graduated from UCLA in 1946 with a degree in meteorology. He was an avid birdwatcher, photographer and conservationist. He and his wife, Joan Roberts Armer, were peace workers and friends of Daniel Ellsberg, who in 1971 leaked the Pentagon Papers, a secret government history of the Vietnam War, said his daughter, Katherine Armer.

In the late 1940s, Armer began work at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California, where for 10 years he was head of the computer science department, which built the JOHNNIAC, an early computer used for engineering calculations. “He was always cutting edge,” Feigenbaum said. “When someone came up with a new idea, he was always on it.”

Armer maintained close relations with computer scientists in the Soviet Union, and was a member of a U.S. computer delegation to the U.S.S.R. in 1959. He believed open information exchange was essential to innovation, said his daughter.

Armer went on to become the founding executive of the Charles Babbage Institute, an archives and research center dedicated to preserving the history of information technology.

Armer suffered from dementia for the last 10 years of his life. He was a champion of science and donated his brain to be studied under the direction of neuropathologist Dr. Edward Plowey and the Stanford Neurosciences Institute.

“He would be pleased that in his death, he will continue to contribute to research at Stanford,” said Katherine Armer, specifically work being done on brain aging, supported by the NIH/NIA-funded Stanford Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center; the Stanford Health Care Brain Bank; and the Stanford Brain Rejuvenation Project.

Armer is survived by his wife, Joan Roberts Armer, and their three children, Kendra, Katherine and Michael; three children from his first marriage: Christine, James and Mary-Kay; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Mary Frances Ring, and their son, Thomas.

A memorial service will be held in the spring.

The family has established a memorial fund, and contributions may be made to benefit the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. Gifts can be made online at www.parksconservancy.org or by check to the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, Building 201, Fort Mason, San Francisco, CA 94123. Please indicate that your gift is in memory of Paul Armer.