Arnold Spielberg, Computer Designer and Father of Steven Spielberg, Dies at 103

Arnold Spielberg OBIT - Getty - H 2018
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He helped out his son, then 17, on 'Firelight' in 1964, and his exploits during World War II inspired 'Saving Private Ryan.'

Arnold Spielberg, a pioneering computer designer who encouraged his only son, Steven Spielberg, to become a filmmaker, has died. He was 103.

Spielberg died Tuesday of natural causes in Los Angeles, his family announced.

In 1960, Arnold Spielberg helped design the GE-225 mainframe computer that enabled researchers at Dartmouth College to develop the coding tool known as BASIC, which ushered in the era of personal computers.

"I remember visiting the plant when dad was working on the GE-225," Steven said in 2015. "I walked through rooms that were so bright, I recall it hurting my eyes. Dad explained how his computer was expected to perform, but the language of computer science in those days was like Greek to me.

"It all seemed very exciting, but it was very much out of my reach until the 1980s, when I realized what pioneers like my dad had created were now the things I could not live without."

Arnold assisted his son in the making of Firelight, a 135-minute movie that Steven, then 17, wrote, directed, shot, edited and composed the music for. It played in one movie theater in Phoenix in 1964.

"The story was a forerunner to Steven's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with aliens landing on Earth, and I built the special effects," Arnold told the Jewish Journal in 2012. "But while Steven would ask for my advice, the ideas were always his own."

The son of Ukrainian immigrants, Arnold Meyer Spielberg was born in Cincinnati on Feb. 6, 1917. He got his first crystal radio set when he was 9, was a fan of science fiction and worked as a stock boy in a cousin's department store in Kentucky.

He enlisted in the U.S. Army a month after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, served with the 490th "Skull & Wings" Bomb Squadron — known as the Burma Bridge Busters — and became communications chief. He was awarded a Bronze Star, and he inspired his son years later to direct Saving Private Ryan (1998).

He married concert pianist and fellow Cincinnati native Leah Posner in early 1945, and they had four children — Steven (born Dec. 18, 1946), Anne, Sue and Nancy.

Arnold graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a degree in electrical engineering in 1949, landed a job designing electronic circuits for missile systems at RCA and joined General Electric's computer department in Schenectady, New York, in 1955.

As he explained in a 2016 interview, "The first computers I built were data-acquisition systems. Their job was to monitor defects. … Another computer called GE-312 monitored a turbine for Southern California Edison." He also designed the first electronic cash register.

In 1957, he and his family relocated to Phoenix when he was asked to set up G.E.'s Industrial Computer Department.

Asked if his friends or family understood what he was doing at the time, he replied, "It was like a big mystery to them. Steven came to visit once, and I showed him the factory and the engineering floor. I tried to get him interested in engineering, but his heart was in movies.

"At first I was disappointed, but then I saw how good he was in moviemaking."

Arnold exited G.E. in 1963 and a year later moved the family to Los Gatos, California. After he and his wife divorced in 1965, Steven lived with him for a time in Saratoga, California.

In the mid-1990s, Arnold conceived a system that enabled the USC Shoah Foundation Institute — founded by his son to collect and preserve the testimonies of survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust — catalog some 52,000 interviews and 105,000 hours of visual history.

For that, he received the organization's inaugural Inspiration Award in 2012.

Following a brief second marriage, he married Bernice Colner in 1997 in Beverly Hills. She died in 2016.

Survivors include his children 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); four stepchildren; 11 grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

In a collective statement, his children said that their father "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.'"

Due to circumstances and safety precautions around the pandemic, a celebration of life is tentatively set for fall 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.