In my line of work, there are two kinds of people: the ones who can answer my questions, and the ones who won’t be telling us anything any more. Over time I have become deeply attached to many of the people whose traces I stumble across in our archives, even though I will never meet them. There’s a long list of people I wish I could have talked with, people who could have explained things that will instead always remain slightly mysterious no matter how much research I do. Some of these people are the obvious suspects–George Brown, Ken Pitzer, Harry Wiess–but others are less well known.
At the top my my list is Zevi Salsburg. Salsburg earned his Ph.D in 1953 at Yale, where he was a member of the influential John Kirkwood group in statistical mechanics. He came to Rice in 1954 as a member of the chemistry department, later holding an appointment in mathematical science as well. He was widely regarded at the time as one of the most brilliant men on campus–he published extensively in chemical physics, held fellowships from NSF, the National Research Council, and the Guggenheim Foundation, and consulted for both Los Alamos and the Lawrence Radiation Lab at Livermore. Salsburg was also a key contributor, as a fund-raiser and designer, of the R1 computer that was built by Rice faculty in Abercrombie lab. It was Salsburg’s need for a machine that could simulate fluid flow that led to the project in the first place.
But there was more to Salsburg than his intellectual work. He was a committed citizen of the university who served as an associate at Will Rice and as a member of the faculty advisory committee for the presidential search in 1968-69. He also seems to have been a gentle fellow and a man of compassion for others. Quietly and diligently, on his own, he raised scholarship money for poor and minority students and then went out on the road to find students who could benefit from those scholarships. He supported many of those same students once they were on campus, tutoring them in math and science.
Zevi Salsburg died unexpectedly in 1970. It was summer, and he was visiting his parents in California. He was 41 years old.
The photograph above was taken in 1963. It shows Salsburg, third from the right, along with John Iliffe, Martin Graham, and John Kilpatrick in front of the R1 computer. We have several of the computer panels in the Woodson Research Center, as well as one of the platters from the hard disk. It’s about three feet across and weighs twenty pounds. An excellent short history of the R1 can be found here.