HARUT BARSAMIAN = (Logic + Intuition) x humor
By Mary Terzian*
On a bright summer day, in 1966, a young man arrived in the United States from Soviet Armenia, with his mother and three siblings. He had $150 in his pocket, a Russian-English dictionary of technical terms in his valise, and determination to make a successful beginning in the land of opportunities.
He indeed realized his resolve beyond his wildest dreams. Today, Harut Barsamian is an internationally recognized engineer in Information Technologies, and an Adjunct Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of California at Irvine. In the last forty years he has attained a vast array of professional achievements that include patents, publications, awards and honors from national and international organizations. Among others, he is an elected member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) Computer Society's exclusive Golden Core, the New York International Academy of Sciences, and the Engineering Academy of Armenia. He is listed in the 2006-2007 edition of Marquis "WHO's WHO in Science and Engineering" and is the recipient of the Jubilee Medal from the International Academy of Engineering. In January 2007 he was elected IEEE Life Fellow, the highest honor granted by the prestigious Institute "in recognition of his contributions to computer architecture, dynamic microprogramming and associative search algorithms."
Born in Aleppo, raised in Beirut, educated in Yerevan and Moscow, and mastering a successful career in the United States, Harut's life reads like a rare tale of calamities and successes , unfolding like a fascinating movie of epic proportions.
The youngest son of immigrant parents from Arapgir, Turkey, little Harut's first flight into space, to relieve him from his inexplicable pains, was inside thick covers, from a second story balcony down into a blanket held by seven men headed by his father. However unorthodox this and other similar homespun cures - recommended by the neighborhood "grandmothers council" - may have been, they eventually freed him "from the grips of the devil." Later, barely five years old, a new mystifying hip ailment tossed him back into "devil's clenches ".
In 1938, father Sahag Barsamian, moved his famed Chaussure Baron business from Aleppo to Beirut for better prospects. Harut enjoyed a carefree boyhood there, full of fun and mischief, despite his slight limp. He was mesmerized by the intellect of his teachers who stimulated his passion for knowledge. Along with a good education, he perfected his communication skills with friends and classmates, developed intuitive insight at poker games, and learned logic and tactical moves on chess and backgammon boards. These qualities served him well throughout his personal and professional life in balancing risks versus rewards, and in aiming at "optimum" results.
The well-to-do Barsamians repatriated to Soviet Armenia in 1946 to participate in the reconstruction of their Motherland. Disenchantment started at arrival in Yerevan, with the "disappearance" of their equipment and supplies for a planned shoe factory. The family continued their traditional hospitality for old friends and new acquaintances, despite prevailing anti-repatriate suspicions, apprehensions and betrayals. In 1950 Sahag Barsamian was arrested as "traitor of Motherland and enemy of the people," and sentenced by the military tribunal to twenty-five years of incarceration. The Soviet authorities confiscated the sizable family assets, including a large collection of Persian rugs.
Harut, barely sixteen then, and his two older brothers, matured overnight. Since the family's survival was on the line, they decided to stay put, without interrupting their studies, and to initiate father's custom shoemaking business, under cover, with clientele in Tbilisi - the capital of neighboring Georgia. Harut treated the peaks and pits of their new life like mathematical puzzles begging for solutions. He used viola cases and elderly women - babushkas - to carry the shoes to clients, under the eyes of the vicious Soviet police. He organized a pseudo-wedding ceremony to slip an illegal consignment of leather and large sums of money from Tbilisi to Yerevan, under the nose of Soviet customs officers, complete with himself as bridegroom, accompanying the bride, her hope chest, and a musical band with a large singing-dancing group. When police inspectors came to search their house, Harut managed to keep them entertained downstairs with his straight "A" grade sheets and science fiction stories, while the dismantling of all evidence of their underground shoe making business from his study room upstairs was carried out.
Harut 's resilience was put to the test in 1951, when, as a Gold Medalist graduating from High school, a first accorded to a repatriate, he was denied his award rights to attend an institution of higher education of his choice within the Soviet Union. Repatriates were considered untrustworthy, and agents of the capitalist world. In addition, he now carried the stigma of being the son of a "traitor of Motherland." Ironically, as winner of a Free Diploma on his graduation from Yerevan Polytechnic Institute (YPI) in 1956, and on assignment to his first job as a junior engineer at Yerevan Research Institute of Mathematical Machines (YRIMM), Harut was sent for a nine-month training program to the very Baumann Institute that denied him admittance "for administrative reasons" five years earlier. While in Moscow, along with his education in computer science, Harut organized poker games, won on chessboards, indulged in private parties taking advantage of the much sought-after "tan skin, curly haired” southern malee status, and dazzled the elite Moscovites with the perks of “Armenian hospitality.” He also spent considerable time with writers and poets from Armenia studying at the Gorky Institute, in heated literary discussions and passionate songs, at a pitch that kept pace with their alcohol consumption.
On his return to Yerevan in 1957, Barsamian was assigned group leader for the design of the arithmetic processor for the Hraztan Computer. Harut's group succeeded in replacing old vacuum tubes with new semi-conductor technology, a breakthrough innovation to be safeguarded with a patent, a first for the young YRIMM and Barsamian as its inventor. However, a year later, Soviet paranoia intercepted the start of his successful career. During a short vacation in Moscow, to shop for the latest medical discoveries for possible replacement of his ailing right hip, he became the victim of a typically dirty Soviet plot. He was arrested for possession of $100 American currency and sentenced to one year of imprisonment. Barsamian, of fragile physical endurance, could barely survive the rigors of this outrageous accusation. He negotiated his engineering services with Alatir labor camp leadership in Chouvashia, receiving, in return, preferential treatment such as a corner bed, a warmer blanket, a second pillow and a cup of tea after 9.00 pm.
Back in Yerevan, after seven months of jail hopping in Moscow and Chouvashia, Barsamian found YRIMM's iron gates shut at his "criminal" face. Instead, he was assigned to the Institute of Energetics of the Armenian Academy of Sciences, where security clearance was not required, to design a specialized computer for automatic control of the Transcaucasus power distribution system to Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. This innovative design was considered equivalent to a Ph.D. thesis per the review board members, including two most prestigious scientists; the presidents of Academy of Sciences of USSR and the Armenian Academy of Sciences. However, their recommendations did not echo with senior management of the Energetics Institute. Called the "capitalist puppy", Harut was made crudely aware of his undeserving status as a repatriate, for an advanced scientific degree. A dejected Barsamian returned to his alma mater, YPI, late in 1961 as lead engineer in the Reaserch Department, and as lecturer of Computer Sciences and Programming. He also supervised the diploma theses of many graduating students. Yet, despite a widely recognized record of achievements and recommendations by respected specialists, the Soviet "academic administration" in Moscow turned a deaf ear to his aspirations to a Ph.D. At best, not having a security clearance, he could enroll as a "candidate by correspondence."
In the early 1960's, during an Armenian cognac orgy with a "well-connected" high school classmate, Barsamian learned of an unpublicized international agreement, signed by Nikita Khruschev, that allowed "families forcefully separated during WWI and WWII to reunite in the country of their choice." The Barsamian family used this discovery with extreme stealth and diplomacy - like a mix of chess and poker games - to secure emigration visas to the United States, to join their long-lost maternal uncle, Dr. George Elanjian of Dearborn, Michigan. Unfortunately, his father Sahag, who was exonerated in 1955 and back in Yerevan after five years of incarceration at a high security labor camp, succumbed before their emigration.
A few months after arrival in the United States, Barsamian secured his first job at Bryant Computer Products in Walled Lake, Michigan, compensating his smattering of English during the interview with formulae, graphs and diagrams on a chalkboard. Soon, he conceived new design approaches for disc storage systems that were well appreciated by his employer. Barsamian was impressed by the professional and cordial atmosphere at his first attendance of the Association of Computer Machinery (ACM) meetings and accepted their invitation to become a member. He was further dazzled by the open discussions and exhibitions of computer software and hardware at the National Computer Conference in Atlantic City, in sharp contrast with utter Soviet secrecy!
Barsamian's move to Southern California in the spring of 1967 became the springboard for the exponential rise of his professional career. At Raytheon Co. he was one of the project leaders in the design of the first computerized air traffic control system prototype that was later successfully applied in all US airports.
As Director of Advanced Studies at National Cash Register (NCR), he explored the concepts of dynamic microprogramming, associative search algorithms, mathematical modeling and evolving Large Scale Integrated (LSI) technology to enhance computer performance and functionality. In 1969 he presented "Firmware Sort Processor with LSI Components" at the Second Annual Workshop on Microprogramming in Phoenix, Arizona. Notwithstanding his broken English at the time, he won a standing ovation from the audience of computer science and engineering luminaries. As a result Barsamian authored two US patents, and a number of peer-reviewed papers that were published in professional magazines and in conference proceedings. He was elected to NCR's nine-member Product Planning Task Force, to chart the course of the Corporation. Concurrently, during the 1967-70 period, his consulting services for the RAND Corp. further enriched his list of publications. Barsamian was on his way to national recognition.
At Sperry Univac, the integration of their mainframe computer families with the new mini-microcomputer systems turned Barsamian's research department, alias the "doctors club," into a hub of innovation. As the technology spokesman for Sperry Univac, he delivered speeches on evolving trends in distributed processing and computer networks to business and professional audiences across the country, in Europe and in Asia. He was appointed Co-Chairman of the Corporate Task Force on Technology Planning, and was selected as one of the "mighty four" corporate advisors, representing technology , side by side with the marketing, finance and legal advisors, in support of the Chief Executive Officer during the Sperry Univac annual shareholder meetings.
In 1985 Barsamian declined several lucrative offers from the East Coast, in order to remain close to his family and social circles in Southern California. He decided to pursue his career in academia, and do private consulting on the side. At the University of California in Irvine (UCI), as an Adjunct professor, Barsamian brought in a valuable combination of theory, enriched with practical experience and intimate knowledge of ever evolving cutting edge technology - a blend that was well appreciated by faculty and students alike. He was a frequent visiting lecturer in Europe, notably in Cambridge University in England and the Vrije University in Brussels. Concurrently, he established his consulting firm, ARTIN Technologies (Artin being Harut's nickname in Armenian parlance), specializing in Artificial Intelligence, primarily for data mining, development of expert systems and supercomputing. ARTIN Technologies took off faster than expected. Its clientele included large and small corporations, financial and health institutions, and law firms involved in intellectual property protection.
In 1994, after two major surgeries, one of them the fourth on his "mysterious " right hip, the busy professor and consultant was compelled to limit his professional activities and extensive travel to within a medically acceptable comfort zone.
Barsamian 's early membership with ACM was the cornerstone of the other major dimension of his professional life. Invited in 1968 to attend a meeting at MIT for the formation of a Special Interest Group on Microprogramming (SIGMICRO), he became one of its founding fathers and its president in 1975. In subsequent years, as Western Area Chairman of the IEEE Computer Society, he organized annual workshops on various topics of rapidly progressing information technology. He won international recognition with more than thirty published articles and book chapters; by chairing various symposia and National Computer Conferences; and by serving on leading IEEE editorial and review boards.
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Tightly connected to his roots, Barsamian has been no less active in his own Armenian community, adding to his record of "firsts" in a different facet of his life. In 1974 he was among the handful to establish the first and only Armenian Church in San Diego. A few years later he was one of the twelve Cross Bearing Godfathers at the consecration of the church. Also, in the early 1980's he was among the founding parish members of Forty Martyrs Armenian Church, the first in Orange County.
Barsamian was one of the organizers of the First World Congress of Armenian Engineers, Scientists and Industrialists. The three-day conference in Los Angeles, in August 1989, was an unprecedented event in the annals of Armenian history. In 1990, as President of the Armenian Engineers and Scientists of America (AESA), he organized Symposium-91 on the economic restructuring of Armenia, attended by prominent government leaders, scholars and investors - another first in Armenian history. In 1993, he co-chaired The Second World Congress in Paris, France, and personally sponsored the attendance of five guests from Armenia.
In 1992, together with former graduates, Barsamian founded the Yerevan Polytechnic Institute Alumni Association (YPI Alumni), linked with AESA, a first for any Soviet-era institution. This Los Angeles based organization raised sizable funds to support the needy faculty and staff as well as to secure scholarships to the students of State Engineering University of Armenia (renamed SEUA in 1992) in subsequent years. With substantial contributions from US Government agencies, Fund for Armenia Relief (FAR) and the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU), the SEUA infrastructures were restored within a year. Barsamian's donation of American style contemporary classroom facilities, with sixteen modern computer workstations, networking capabilities, support equipment and technical library was inaugurated in his name. Other donors followed his example to modernize the engineering education system in Armenia. Barsamian was elected a foreign member to the SEUA Board of Trustees, in 1998. The Academic Council of SEUA granted Barsamian the title of Honored Professor in 2000 and Alumni of the Year in 2003.
The celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Armenian Academy of Sciences, organized in cooperation with Dr. Mihran Agbabian, a personal friend and the founding president of the American University of Armenia, was another major event that took place in 1994 in Los Angeles. Fedey Sarkissian, the then President of the Armenian Academy of Sciences, was the guest of honor. Barsamian organized meetings in Los Angeles and New York, setting the stage for many funding and collaborative activities between the scientists of Armenia and America.
In 1998, His Eminence Archbishop Khajag Barsamian of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church in New York invited a few notables, including his cousin, Harut Barsamian, to form the Armenian National Science and Education Fund (ANSEF) to support science in Armenia. In the ensuing years ANSEF granted close to one million dollars to scientists and graduate students in Armenia to outfit their laboratories with modern equipment, to attend international conferences, to publish papers and to support their families. ANSEF continues its mission as another integral program of the FAR.
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The computer guru admits he is not all engineering and profession. Entertainment and selective romantic relationships have been essential components of his private life. Concerts, museums and art exhibitions appear on his leisure agenda. His social interactions gravitate toward the jovial aspects of extra-curricular life - banquets and picnics, chess, backgammon and poker games – always in a merry ambiance, fulll of fun. Asked about the secrets of his success in professional and private life Barsamian maintains that self-reliance, perseverance, integrity and intellectual honesty, often mixed with humor, make the ultimate winning combination.
Barsamian continues his academic and philanthropic activities. With his wife, Tamara, herself a YPI graduate, they reside in Mission Viejo, Southern California.
Conceding to numerous pressures, Harut Barsamian has completed soon to be published memoirs of his tumultuous life across three continents. It has been the privilege of this writer to get a sneak peak of the bizarre events, rare coincidences and life-threatening hardships that have turned his ordinary life into an epic.
Will there be any new projects or honors to look forward to? With a man of his stature and creativity nothing would come as a surprise.
*Mary Terzian, (www.maryterzian.com), is a freelance writer residing in Southern California. She is the author of the award-winning "The Immigrants Daughter," a compendium of memoirs from her Egyptian diary, sprinkled with humor, depicting the universal struggles of growing up in an immigrant family.