Arnold Spielberg, Computer Pioneer, Dies At 103

Arnold Spielberg is surrounded by his children, Nancy Spielberg, Steven Spielberg, Anne Spielberg and Sue Spielberg, at the celebration of his 100th birthday in 2017. (Photo: Business Wire)

LOS ANGELES--()--In the early 1920s, Arnold Meyer Spielberg was a young boy sharing a small room with his brother, Irvin “Buddy” Spielberg. Each night, they pulled their twin beds together, drew the covers, and Arnold would enchant his brother with a series of improvised bedtime stories. Inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan series and collection of science fiction books, Arnold would often get stuck, forgetting his stream of thought and mulling over the next best plot point to reveal. Before his own passing, Buddy fondly described his brother’s sense of wonder in these moments, saying that in an effort not to lose momentum or excitement, Arnold would earnestly turn to him and say, And then, so then...and then so then, what comes next…” Often, one or both of them would fall asleep before Arnold could come up with the next chapter of adventure in his head.

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on February 6, 1917, Arnold was the first son of Samuel and Rebecca Spielberg. Over the years, Arnold would describe the Jewish family’s modest means, sharing more apocryphal childhood stories about shoveling coal into wheelbarrows and carrying ice uphill with his neighborhood pals. But it was his early love of science and academia that would be the first indicators of a lifelong passion for learning and innovation, and ultimately for what his daughter, Nancy Spielberg, referred to as his ability to “stay rooted in reality while still being able to dream and invent.”

Fascinated by electricity at just six years old, Arnold turned the family attic into a vaudevillian laboratory and invited his friends in to experience his inventions. One by one, they would line up, hold onto the electrodes of a shock machine he crafted by wiring batteries together, and see how much of a current they could endure. At the age of 12, he acquired a ham radio and kept it tucked away in the quiet space. It was there in the attic where he put on his headphones, hibernated from the rest of the house on Windham Avenue, and opened his ears to a world well beyond the small Midwestern town. Ham radio operation would become a big part of Arnold’s life, and something he would eventually teach his own children about. Arnold may have become a storyteller at a young age, but as his daughter, Sue Spielberg, recalled that it was his interest in his ham radio that first opened the door to a lifetime of listening and friendship. “He made friends over the radio. He heard from people he never knew existed. He connected with strangers and this affability is something he carried over into real life, often befriending another person in line at Starbucks or the table next to him,” she said. Daughter Anne Spielberg also remembered how with the setup, her father was able to “create an idea of what was possible.” She said, “He would put the headphones on me and tell me to listen for sounds of the universe. He would say that if we just listened closely, there was more out there than we could ever imagine, and that there were people out there with stories, just like ours, ready to be shared.”

After graduating from Hughes High School in 1934, and to help his parents with the rent and the financial burdens of putting Buddy through school, Arnold wrote the next chapter of his own story by going to work for his cousin’s Lerman Brothers department store in Cynthiana, Kentucky. At five dollars a week, he earned his first salary as a stock boy. He soon rose the ranks to become assistant manager, a job he earned largely due to the progressive systems he created for tracking inventory and increasing the profits in the women’s shoe department.

On December 7, 1941, when Arnold and Buddy returned from seeing the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra perform, Samuel and Rebecca informed the young men of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Less than a month later, Arnold enlisted as a sergeant in the Army and brought his electrical prowess to the overseas war effort. As radio operator and chief communications man for the 490th Bomb Squadron, also known as the “Burma Bridge Busters” because of its designated mission of bombing Japanese bridges and railroad lines, Arnold volunteered for two combat tours in the China Burma India Theater of World War II.

Stationed in India and predominantly in charge of the communications between the bombers and the ground, Arnold worked on the intercoms inside the aircraft. In a move that presaged the illustrious career of his first child and only son, Steven Spielberg, Arnold also repaired the movie projectors used by the troops. Additionally, and much to the behest of his fellow servicemen who requested more contemporary fare, he wired the barracks for sound — and specifically classical music — a genre he would explore and appreciate for the whole of his life.

In fact, it was his love affair with classical music that underscored another love affair with a young woman from his neighborhood back home. In a series of transatlantic correspondence, Arnold wrote affectionately to Leah Posner, who shared his enthusiasm for Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms.

Leah was drawn to Arnold for his honesty and his unaffectedness, and what attracted Arnold to Leah was her captivation with the arts, her free spirit, and unsurprisingly, that same sense of wonder and adventure he had in himself. Arnold, an academic with a magnetism for electricity, was entranced by her energy. Steven described his father’s impression of his mother as that of “lightning in a bottle,” that there was a vibrancy in her that his father couldn’t and didn’t want to contain, and that she brought a spark he hadn’t otherwise experienced.

When Arnold returned from the war in 1945, they were married, and Steven, born the following year, would later describe their family home as, at times, a beautiful mix of music and machinery — “a remarkable intersection of the right and left brain.” With Arnold and engineers arguing in one room about integrated circuitry and design, and Leah in the living room playing piano with a violinist and a viola player, Steven and his sisters, Anne, Sue, and Nancy, grew up in an environment that encouraged both logical reasoning and marching to the beat of their own drum.

Shortly after his marriage to Leah, Arnold returned to school on the G.I. Bill, obtaining a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Cincinnati. In 1949, upon his graduation, he got a job at RCA in Camden, New Jersey. As Nancy describes, he was instrumental in the “early, early” days of computing, primarily working on RCA’s first commercial and business computer, the RCA BIZMAC. Anne draws on the incredible connection between his first ideas as a stock boy at Lerman Brothers and his work at RCA, explaining the extraordinary progression between having a “job in dry goods and shoes” and then “inventing something you can do the check out on.”

At General Electric, the company he joined in 1956, Arnold designed with Homer R. ‘Barney’ Oldfield and a team of others the GE-200 series of mainframe computers. Perhaps best known for the GE-225, the series was part of a collaboration with Dartmouth on the creation of a time-sharing operating system, a move revolutionary for the early 1960s in that it allowed multiple users to interface with one computer to solve problems of simple varieties.

From the Army to RCA and General Electric, to Electronic Arrays and SDS, to Burroughs and IBM, from his involvement with the patent on the first electronic cash register to his work in data processing, Arnold’s career in technology and computers took him across the globe from Southeast Asia, the Midwest, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Arizona, California, and countless places in between. A recipient of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Computer Pioneer Award, Arnold’s imprint of the future of computers proved immeasurable. Steven credits his father with his own love for gadgets and the sense of possibility they inspire, once saying, “When I see a PlayStation, when I look at a cell phone — from the smallest calculator to an iPad — I look at my dad and I say, ‘My dad and a team of geniuses started that.’”

With Arnold’s evolving career came numerous cross-country moves for the family. Once east coasters, and then finding a sense of home in Phoenix, Arizona, the family, again, moved to Northern California. Though the changes proved difficult and ultimately contributed to the end of the marriage, Arnold never gave up the role of bedtime storyteller, especially when it came to his children. Nancy loved that “he taught us how to say the Shema before we went to sleep each evening, and promptly had us follow it with a recitation of William Miller’s Wee Willie Winkie nursery rhyme.” And in the tradition of the fantastical stories he would concoct as a little boy, he told his own daughters and son the mischief of different creatures like Sammy the Whammy Dinosaur, or the seemingly semi-autobiographical fables of little kids like Joanie Frothy Flakes, a young girl who, as Sue has explained, “drank a fluffy concoction of cereal and floated off the ground every time happiness struck her.” In describing the almost ethereal experience of the four of them being tucked in by their father and treated to his tales, Anne once said, “You felt so safe. I always felt really safe with my father.”

Just as he fervently inflicted his classical playlist on his brothers in arms, Arnold tuned the car radio to scratchy, narrowly discernible classical music stations on family camping trips. On these vacations, he taught his children how to fish, how to pitch a tent, and how to build a campfire. But what they remember most about the time with him in the wilderness were his lessons on the importance of curiosity and his belief that listening was not just an act of patience, but of love.

Following a brief second marriage, in 1997, Arnold married Bernice Colner in a small wedding in Beverly Hills. A widow for many years, it was Arnold who brought her back to life. Together, they traveled to countries around the globe, spent time with their grandchildren, and even formed a tender and warmhearted friendship with Leah that lasted until Bernice’s passing in 2016.

At 95, in what seemed like a dramatic and final decline in his health, Arnold once again showed his profound resilience and will to live. After a groundbreaking bilateral micro hemilaminectomy procedure, typically not done due to the risks for patients that age, Arnold went on to live the better part of another decade. Over the last several years, he visited Israel with his daughters, attended Burma Bridge Busters reunions with his children in tow, studied pottery, traveled to sets for Steven’s movies, and visited the WWII Museum in New Orleans. In 2012, Arnold was recognized by the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for his promotion of humanity through technology, for his years of mentorship, and for his support of the work cataloguing and organizing Holocaust testimonials. And in more recent years, he and Leah came full circle, returning to the desert for an annual family Passover pilgrimage. “Kindred spirits,” as Sue called them, the two presided over the Seder, with Arnold often singing Jewish hymns from the Haggadah, reciting the Four Questions with his grandkids, and remarking on how wonderful it was to see his family once again, gathered around the table. True to form, he continued his thirst for knowledge until the very end. Enjoying online courses in everything from thermodynamics to history and astronomy, Arnold embodied the term, ‘lifelong learner.”

During his final days, Arnold’s family, friends, and medical team were privy to what Sue has always referred to as her father’s “strength, grace, pragmatism, and stoicism.” He was surrounded by his four children, screening movies, listening to classical music and Russian and Yiddish folk melodies, reading the ‘funnies,’ and sharing time with them on his patio overlooking the hills of the Pacific Palisades.

Holding hands, watching the ocean hit the horizon line, and looking up at the night sky proved poignantly reminiscent of the family’s early days in Arizona, where as Nancy would recall, “Dad would wake us all up in the middle of the night, drive us in our pajamas into the black desert, and watch meteor showers from the hood of the car.” Truth be told, that’s what Steven, Anne, Sue, and Nancy would all point to this memory of their father, saying that he taught them to “love to research,” to “expand their mind,” to “keep their feet on the ground, but reach for the stars,” and perhaps most fatefully to “look up.”

On the night of Arnold’s passing, just as his brother Buddy had done with his twin bed in the early 20th century, his own children pulled their chairs next to their father’s bedside. “You are our hearth. You are our home,” Steven said to his father.

But this time, they were not gathering for another fireside chat. They weren’t patiently waiting to hear another timeless story Arnold had dreamed up for them, or recalling the legendary tales he had regaled his grandchildren and great grandchildren with over the years.

Instead, in a moving tribute to the family man, they gathered around him, just as they had done all those years ago by the campfire. And in picking up the mantle of adventure, they gently returned the gift of storytelling their father had, for decades, imbued in all of them.

Thank you for my life. I love you, Dad, Daddy, Daddelah. And then so then, and then so then, what happens next…” they whispered lovingly, and for the last time.

After more than a century of contributions and commitment to his family, friends, and career, Arnold Meyer Spielberg passed away of natural causes on August 25, 2020. He is preceded in death by his brother, Irvin “Buddy” Spielberg, his wife, Bernice Colner Spielberg, and his first wife, Leah Spielberg Adler. Arnold is survived by his children, film director Steven Spielberg (wife, Kate Capshaw); screenwriter Anne Spielberg (husband, Danny Opatoshu); marketing executive Sue Spielberg (husband Jerry Pasternak); and producer Nancy Spielberg (husband Shimon Katz). He is also survived by 4 stepchildren, 11 grandchildren, 8 great grandchildren, and countless adoring cousins, nieces, and nephews.

Due to circumstances and safety precautions around the ongoing pandemic, a celebration of life will be held at a later date, tentatively set for Fall of 2021 and aligned with the Jewish tradition of unveiling the headstone.

The family has asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans or the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America.


Kristin Stark


Kristin Stark