Carnegie Mellon University isn’t a collection of buildings, professors or alumni — it’s a collection of stories, thousands of them, spanning fields from computing to robotics to drama.
Finding those stories and recording them is the job of acclaimed Pittsburgh filmmaker/musician Dave Bernabo and Oral History Program Director Katherine Barbera as part of their Cut Pathways podcast.
Unearthing great stories from CMU is less about finding a needle in a haystack, than finding a needle in a stack of needles. There are so many compelling stories that it’s hard to choose which ones to include.
One obvious place to start, though, was 100-year-old World War II codebreaker Julia Parsons.
“I think one of the things we like is how nonchalantly she talks about breaking German submarine codes,” says Bernabo. “It’s a part of history that you don’t hear too much of because it was classified for so many years.”
Parsons grew up in Pittsburgh, and her father taught at Carnegie Institute of Technology (before it was CMU). She went to school there in 1938 and wrote for The Scottie, a humor magazine.
“Women were not allowed to be engineers, which is what I wanted to do,” recalls Parsons, who lives in Forest Hills. “I liked math and I was good at it. I don’t think anyone had heard of a woman engineer in the ‘40s. We were stuck with household economics, secretarial work, clothing design, that kind of thing.”
After graduation, Parsons took a train to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, to train with other women to become codebreakers. Then she went to Mount Vernon Seminary in Washington, D.C., which the Navy had taken over to house their codebreakers. Their stories are told in Liza Mundy’s book, “Code Girls: The Untold Story of American Women Code Breakers of World War II.”
German submarines were sinking Allied naval supply ships at a furious rate, threatening Britain’s seaborne supply chain. However, Allied codebreakers deciphered Germany’s Enigma code, which encrypted Nazi communications — and was considered unbreakable.
“We just did the German submarine traffic,” says Parsons, who had taken a few years of German in high school. “It was odd because they were the enemy, but we got to know them so well.”
She overheard birthday congratulations for submarine captains, and messages from home announcing the birth of a child.
It didn’t feel like an abstract set of math problems. Parsons had a friend whose husband was on convoy duty in the North Atlantic, where German “Wolfpacks” of submarines hunted freely.
“She kept running in every five minutes and saying, ‘Have you broken the code yet?’ ” recalls Parsons.
Parsons recalls setting up a spreadsheet to track German communications, which helped find an anomaly — the Germans had gotten careless in their weather reports for the Bay of Biscay. That helped Parsons’ team to break their codes.
Bernabo’s experience recording music and making movies helps make the production quality shine. He also likes to zero in on specific, vivid details that bring the stories to life.
“One of the cool things about these oral histories is that you hear kind of mundane details that stand out in people’s memories,” says Bernabo. “So Julia talked a lot about the uniforms, and foods they ate while in training.”
The first two podcasts (of three released so far) are assembled around more CMU-specific themes — first impressions of Pittsburgh, and the origin story of the university’s Activities Board.
“The intentions of storing these are so that researchers, biographers, documentary makers, people writing their theses can access these histories and draw on them for their own research,” says Bernabo. “But with podcasts, we wanted to bring it out to a larger public, to let people know that these histories exist. Anybody can access them; you don’t need to be going for a Ph.D. or anything.”
The podcasts are available via cutpathways.podbean.com, and can also be found on Spotify, Google Podcasts, Audible and Apple.
“When we come to Season Two of the podcasts, we’re going to be focused on the ‘Wild West of Computing’ — computer science in the ‘70s and 80s,” says Bernabo.