Retireless

Retireless

An interview with search guru Steve Morse.

Don’t tell Steve Morse he should be hanging out on golf courses and in genealogy libraries. Since “retiring” in 2002 from his technology career, he’s turned his programming prowess to tools that help researchers wring hard-to-find ancestral names from online databases. In the process, this quick-talking Brooklyn native has become a genealogical folk hero. We asked him why he does it.

FAMILY TREE MAGAZINE (FTM): Do you consider yourself retired?
STEVE MORSE (SM): Yes. I’ve already made my fortune. Now I’m making my fame. I telecommuted from home since 1985, and I go to my same office every day. I’m just playing around for myself instead of playing around for my company.
 
FTM: So you prepared for your genealogy career by working on the ancestor of the Pentium processor?
SM: Intel wanted the 8086 as a stopgap; they had a new computer coming out but it wasn’t ready. So in 1976, they asked me to do the architecture for the 8086. The new processor came out years later. They had teams of people working on it, and it was a flop in the marketplace, whereas the 8086, I was the only person. The first PC was built around its descendant, the 8088.

FTM: What sparked your interest in genealogy?
SPM: When I was a teenager, my mom helped me put together a family tree for her family and for my father’s. He had passed away by that time, but she knew the family pretty well. I had those papers for years, and hadn’t done anything with them until relatively recently. I found those old trees and started filling them in again.

FTM: You’ve traveled through Eastern Europe, where your and your wife’s families are from. Did you visit your ancestral towns?
SPM: My wife Anita’s family came from Hungary, and she wrote home to get the name of the town from her father. We got that and we drove through that town. Then we went to Russia, where my family’s from. I knew the name of the town but I had no idea where it was. My wife said don’t you want to find out, and I said this is a big country, there’s no way we’re near it. So we didn’t bother looking. This was 1970. Years later I discovered the road we were driving down, the town was on that very road. In 1990 I was working in Europe, and we took two weeks at the end and drove back.

FTM: What surprised you about it?
SPM: We found what we thought was the the old, walled-in part of the city. Of course, the wall was in ruins, but you could tell where it was, and we thought this must be the old synagogue—this is where they worked and prayed. Years later, I was doing more work on the town and discovered there was a Cartusian monastery, and those were the ruins we found.

FTM: Have you found a Yizkor book for the town?
SPM: Yes. In fact, several of us who are interested in this town have an online discussion group. We had the Yizkor book in Hebrew, and I scanned the whole thing and I put it online hoping to get somebody to translate it.

One day, a new member joins the group and she says, “Oh I’m so excited you have a group for this town; this is where my family came from. Did you know there’s a Yizkor book?” And I figured she’s a newcomer, and I said yes, we have the whole thing online, we’re trying to to get it translated. She writes back, “Oh, this is very exciting. My father was the editor of the book. I’m the publisher.” To get it online, this is exciting to them! We did get somebody to do the translation and we have it up on my Web site

FTM: What inspired your first search form, for the Ellis Island database?
SM: I came by all my grandparents and my wife Anita’s grandparents the old-fashioned way, by going to the library. I found everybody but this one grandfather of Anita’s. I got excited when the Ellis Island Web site came online in 2001, because I thought OK, I’ll have another chance of finding him. You couldn’t get into the site in those days; it was very slow and everybody was trying to use it. So I set my alarm and got up at 3 in the morning. I got in, but it was hard to use and you had to enter one field at a time. The second night I went back, and I said, “I can spend my two hours more fruitfully putting up a search form that has all the fields and do one search.” By 5, I had that done, and I found this one grandfather. I went upstairs to tell my wife, but she wasn’t too excited at 5 in the morning.
 
FTM: When your search form became popular, Ellis Island wasn’t happy about it.
SM: No, and I had to pull down the Web site. But the backlash that ensued caused them to reconsider, and we reached a mutually agreeable settlement.
 
FTM: Your forms do something called “deep linking.” What is that?
SM: It’s just going into a Web site on a page other than the home page. If you go to www.microsoft.com/something, you’re deep linking. The whole World Wide Web is based on deep linking. It’s got a bad reputation, but it’s perfectly legal. When people say “you’re stealing my data,” that’s nonsense. I’m not pretending it’s my own data, but these forms can get to the data better.
 
FTM: Have any sites blocked your searches?
SM: Some sites will block the IP address, the specific code that comes from my server. One did that, and I got a phone call months later, and they said, “If you promise you won’t crash our site, we’ll take off the block. It turns out we need you more than you need us.” Another site was blocking me, and I went to two friends’ servers and one was blocked. I figured out this site was blocking anyone who used a public hosting service.
 
FTM: Your site’s interface is no-frills. Do you ever think about making it fancier?
SM: The comments I’ve gotten are “This is great, we can see exactly what we’ve got here and go right to work.”
 
FTM: Why do you keep creating the tools?
SM: In some cases I need them, and I’m not being altruistic or anything. In the beginning with the census stuff, they were tools I myself needed. But since then, you know, it’s fun and I’m seeing how people are enjoying it and so I keep doing it.
 
FTM: Did you see that Family Tree Magazine named your site one of the 101 Best Undiscovered Web Sites for 2005?
SM: I saw that list and said, “Undiscovered?” I get about 80,000 hits a day, so I think that’s pretty much discovered.
 
From the February 2007 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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