life and times
Armand Van Dormael: The Life and Times
The life and the smiling face of a lawyer turned business executive before taking early retirement to write books on monetary economics and on the history of computing, are of minor interest. But it has become customary for an author who announces a new book to set up a web site, to communicate with internauts around the world and to share information about the serendipitous discoveries resulting from his research.
Several years ago I decided to buy a computer and discovered that industrial giants such as Siemens, Philips, Olivetti, Bull and ICL had given up production. I wondered why. Ever since, my field of study has focused on the history of the computer industry. The Silicon Revolution is an answer to the question.
It provides an historical perspective of the computer industry in the United States, Europe and Asia, and an explanation of the factors that made the difference between success and failure. It also sheds new light on the invention of the transistor and of the microcomputer.
My oldest childhood memory is the mental image of myself sitting on my grandmother's lap near a table and hearing her talk with two soldiers holding a rifle. Starting at six, on each school day I walked to the center of the village, which took about one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon. In the days of my youth, Belgian parents living in rural areas and wanting their boys to have a broader education than provided by the local village school, used to send them for ten years as interns to a collège run by "fathers". This gave Flemish kids a chance to learn French, the language of the middle- and upper class. For many youngsters their formative years were an oppressive experience. Locked inside barracks-like buildings, cut off from the outside world, subjected to strict discipline by guardians rather than educators, they went through a routinely regulated and dreary life, with nothing worthwhile remembering.
At an age when young minds have the highest built-in capacity to develop innate intelligence and absorb information, the tuition focused on rote learning, with tedious conjugation and memorization of Greek vocabulary and Latin ablatives, thereby stifling innate curiosity, imagination and creativity. The natural sciences which stimulate children into finding out by themselves through observation and experimentation, and help them develop personal talents and sharpen the faculties for discovery, analysis, logical reasoning and precise thinking, were completely neglected. Books coming from the outside were confiscated. Bedtime was the best part of the day, when an earphone connected to a crystal radio brought music and voices from the outside world. Hidden under my covers, no supervisor would find out, not even the confessor who regularly cleansed the soul of secret sin. Youngsters emerged from these schools with a hidebound outlook and a mediocre knowledge baggage, but with a diploma that gave them access to the university, allowed them to chose a bourgeois career and - if successful - lead a privileged life.
It was my exceptional luck to have parents who let me spend summer vacations abroad, which opened windows on the world. At 17, a two-month stay in London, with language courses at the Polytechnic School in Regent Street were sufficient to acquire fluency in English. The following year, my parents who ran a saw mill, sent me to Finland. Most of the timber they imported came from that country. From Vyborg to Leningrad was a short distance. Walking along the banks of the Neva River and the stately boulevards of this magnificent city, visiting the Winter and Summer Palaces was a fascinating discovery. I distinctly remember the pendulum swinging back and forth from the dome of the de-sacralized St. Isaac's cathedral. A six-week bicycle tour through Germany, lodging in youth hostels, was another interesting experience. German youth was trained to order and discipline. At the Nuremberg Parteitag, Hitler galvanized his followers with the prophecy of uniting all Germans into one nation. The militaristic character of the rally was foreboding.
At the university, student life was fun-filled, summer vacations abroad were instructive and a doctor of laws degree very easy to obtain. An academic title naturally opened the door to the Bar and to initial training in lawyering. A world all by itself, the judiciary is there to sublimate conflict and maintein order.
The law is the business of lawyers who are paid for what they say. The Rule of Law is maintained by conventional decorum and indeterminate situational ethics. Despite the ritualistic etiquette and an ambiance of solemnity enhanced by impressive robes, relics of another age intended to enhance the dignity of the profession and of the palaces of justice, the procedures involve comportments that would be considered morally unacceptable outside the courthouse.
Rights and wrongs are chancy; the ends justify the means; truth is arbitrary and open to appeal. Finding no satisfaction in representing litigants, in out-lawyering opponents or associating with crooks and wastrels in exchange of a fee, I soon became disenchanted with the duplicity inherent in the adversary system of legal alchemy, dispute, argument, counterargument, semantics and deceptive tactics.
Unable to solve the problem of role morality in legal practice, I turned my back to the bench and decided to try my luck in business by joining a large American company. Here the ground rules, the standards of conduct and the ethical values are of a different order. Mutual trust between colleagues, between buyer and seller, openness, reliability and integrity are the only acceptable mode of behavior. I applied for a job at the Brussels buying office of Sears, Roebuck. Thanks to my unusual language proficiency, I was soon put in charge of the European operations, responsible for setting up and supervising buying offices in Frankfurt, London, Florence, Vienna, Paris, Barcelona and Bienne. The assignment was both challenging and rewarding.
Sears, then the largest merchandising company in the world, purchased huge quantities and a wide variety of consumer goods, from toys, tools, cuckoo the Wirtschaftswunder years made me feel the pulse of an expanding economy. Serving as an intermediary between European industry and American consumers was a purposeful calling. But when steadily escalating manufacturing costs rendered the products of European industry uncompetitive, Sears' purchases gradually shifted to East Asia and the job became routine.
In 1975, I decided to start a new life, study history, economics and world affairs, write a few books, paint and sculpt. Having witnessed several monetary crises which I did not understand, I wanted to find out what lay behind them. The Bretton Woods monetary system had recently broken down. A considerable amount of literature was devoted to its demise, but nobody explained how the IMF and the World Bank were born. Exploring the origins of the Bretton Woods system by drawing from the original documents seemed like an interesting challenge. It took three months of wading though the files of the National Archives, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, the Library of Congress and several other institutions, and to photocopy about 2,500 pages. It took another two years to analyze them, sort them out and integrate the documentation into a chronological narrative. Bretton Woods - Birth of a Monetary System, was published in 1978. The book brought me into contact with the publishing world and with the academic community. It came as a pleasant surprise when the Hoover Institution posted a broad selection on the web site of the IMF.
Bretton Woods, by Armand Van Dormael, is in my view also the best. The author has unusually penetrating insight into how things happen in the real world and into the psychology of his dramatis personae. He has mined deeply the masses of documentation. Above all, he has complete mastery of the issues, however abstrusely technical, that were under negotiation, and has a rare facility for explaining them clearly even to the uninitiated reader. – Brian Tew. The Times Higher Education Supplement
…a surprisingly absorbing book. The author has sifted to very good effect a huge pile of official documents… this is an intriguing story. - The Economist
…a most valuable and authoritative history of interest to international economists and economic historians. - British Book News
...well written and well documented... a fairly objective evaluation of opposing views... Van Dormael's study... provides perspective and insights to evaluate current debates about restructuring the international monetary system. - Choice
... the best consecutive account of the birth of the postwar monetary system. Paul Bareau
... a thorough overview of the Bretton Woods Conference: - Encyclopedia Britannica
After finishing Bretton Woods, I took up sculpting for several years, while continuing to study history and economics. I may publish The Making of Europe or The Third Way on this site, although they are merely variations on a theme. But Keynes' aphorisms about money are addictive. Money has a mystical quality; its history is fascinating. The most extraordinary and fecund monetary creation is the Eurodollar, a deposit denominated in U.S. dollars but held in banks outside the United States. It developed by stealth during the cold war in the London and Paris subsidiaries of the Russian national bank as a stratagem by the Soviet government to protect its dollar holdings from the risk of blockage. Inventive bankers picked it up. Ever since, it serves the financial needs of the multinational corporations while defying any central bank's regulation about interest rates or reserve requirements. Because its value changes every day, European governments decided to set up a monetary system of exchange rates that would allow them to trade without being hampered by unpredictable currency fluctuations. In The Power of Money I tried to clarify and demystify the history of money and credit as well as the behind-the-scenes machinations for control of the global foreign exchange market.
In 1997, I decided to buy a new computer. I wondered why the European computer industry had vanished and had to withdraw from the high-tech manufacturing frontier. Why did European countries lack the ferment, the emulation and the start-up culture that turned California into the centre of the world's prime industry? What set of circumstances transformed poor and backward Asian countries, seemingly doomed to stagnation, into the factory floor of global electronics production?
I read a number of recently published books and articles, but did not find an answer to my questions and decided to fin out by myself. Unacquainted with the history of electronics, I had to start from scratch.
The history of computing inevitably leads to the transistor. William Shockley, Walter Brattain and John Bardeen received the Nobel Prize for the invention of the transistor. The genesis of the transistor is one of the great epics of modern physics and stands high in the history of human knowledge. Yet, very few academic historians have been interested in exploring the development of what is considered the most important invention of the 20th century.
While browsing for information about the development of the computing industry, I came across a small book, Der Transistor by H. Hillmer. The author revealed that between 1946 and 1951, Heinrich Welker and Herbert Mataré had produced diodes and transistors in France for account of the French government. He also mentioned that after his return to Germany Welker had been for several years in charge of Siemens’ research in semiconductor physics. I contacted Siemens and was told that his papers are deposited at the Deutsches Museum in Munich. Mataré’s papers are also preserved, but the archivist told me hat personal documents are not available during the lifetime of the scientist. As I expressed disappointment and was leaving the room, he called me back and gave me Mataré's address in Malibu, California. Within a matter of a few seconds, it opened a new research vista. I sent Dr. Mataré a copy of Welker's invitation to the 1948 Paris press conference which he had attended. Two weeks later, when I found in my mailbox a long letter explaining how he had developed the first transistor, it was one of the great thrills of my life.
Based on information provided by Dr. Mataré, I have tied to bring to life an episode of the electronics history that would probably have been lost forever. Writing the story of the "transistron" and explaining the intricacies, the issues and the complex theoretical phenomena, using an arcane technical jargon is not without risk. To make it stand up to scrutiny, I asked Dr. Mataré to review the drafts. On February 24, 2003, The New York Times published an article titled "A Parallel Inventor of the Transistor has his Moment. Fifty-five years later Herbert F. Mataré may finally get his due."The journey was worth taking. It gave me a chance to make a contribution to the history of computing. For more than half a century, the “French” transistor was a non-event. It is now history.