Remembering J. Francis Reintjes, 1912-2008

Friday, February 29, 2008 (All day)

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, 2008 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. Mr. 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 dinner and never left." The dinner was a gathering in Boston of the Institute for Radio Engineers at which he met and was later invited by Dr. W.L. Barrow of MIT to become involved in the new radar school at MIT. He arranged for a leave of absence from his position at Manhattan College and joined MIT in 1943. Other than a year at General Electric in 1946, Reintjes stuck with academia and returned to MIT on a faculty appointment 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 approached by Prof. Gordon S. Brown, who was moving on to head the Dept. of Electrical Engineering at MIT, to take on the directorship of the Servo Lab. Brown had founded this lab in 1939 at the request of the US Navy for emphasis on servomechanisms and fire control. Reintjes accepted and 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. Reintjes and Ross built the APT system to the point that the only way to proceed was through wide introduction to private industry and by 1959 seventeen companies were involved.

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 50's, the lab, renamed the Electronic Systems Laboratory, ESL in 1959, became a haven for not only masters but for doctoral studies. Annual reports in the 60s 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 became the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems, LIDS.

When Reintjes stepped down from leadership of the ESL in 1974, he moved on to other key interests including heading up Project INTREX, a program of 'information transfer experiments' designed to advance information storage and retrieval in libraries. In a sense, Reintjes had launched the first search 'engine' system using general-purpose computers to locate research in professional literature.

Reintjes' interest in pairing academia with industry throughout his career eventually paved the way for his taking on 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 Dept. 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 leagacy 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 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.

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