Paul E. Lego: Building up the Next Generation of Pitt Engineers

Issue Date: 
October 20, 2014

In the late 1950s, as a newly minted electrical engineer with a fresh Pitt degree, Paul E. Lego spent his early years at the Westinghouse Electric Company developing some of the world’s first digital computers. His initial experience involved a computer that was roughly the size of a railway car—about 65 feet long, 20 feet wide, and 15 feet tall. Through its center ran a tunnel, and Lego, on missions to fix or modify the whirring mammoth of a machine, remembers the long walk from one end of the computer to the other, all within its electric belly.

This was long before computers became masters of the modern world, at the break of a new era when complex electrical and computer systems would eventually emerge to run everything in daily life from satellites and medical instruments to automobiles and coffee makers. It was also the beginning of Lego’s work at Westinghouse Electric Company, a career that would extend nearly four decades.

“I practically grew up along with the computer industry,” Lego says about his thriving career at Westinghouse. “Much of the work I did there utilized a great deal of the background that I learned at Pitt.”

The son of a Johnstown, Pa. area steel mill worker, Lego enrolled at Pitt in 1952, marking the first time anyone in his family attended college. At Pitt-Johnstown, he immediately focused on electrical engineering based on his earlier experiences specializing in radio and radar repair while serving the Army overseas. A commanding officer had encouraged him to pursue a college education in engineering.

“To be perfectly honest about it, prior to that point in time, I didn’t even know what an engineer was,” said Lego, laughing. “I thought it was a guy who drove a locomotive on a railroad.”

Lego swiftly excelled in his studies. In 1954, he transferred to the Pittsburgh campus where he received his BS in electrical engineering before pursuing his MS—but not before being hired by Westinghouse during his senior year at Pitt. 

In return for the launching pad that Pitt’s engineering school provided him, Lego is now helping engineering students and faculty to make their own mark on the industry he has watched evolve throughout his career. A recent $1 million donation made to the Swanson School of Engineering will create the Paul E. Lego Professorship in Electrical and Computer Engineering. It will provide competitive funding for a current or future senior faculty member to explore new research, create new teaching initiatives, and engage in other related pursuits. Lego expects the endowment will further strengthen a department close to his heart.

“I received an education at Pitt that was fundamental to my ability to continue my career, and that provided me with many of the tools that I needed,” says Lego. “The School of Engineering has always been my love and, over the years, I’ve wanted to continue to be a part of it and do what I could to help.”

Lego, a University of Pittsburgh emeritus trustee, is a longtime contributor to Pitt, serving on various boards and committees, including the Swanson School of Engineering’s Board of Visitors. An earlier donation to the school created the Paul E. Lego Faculty Fellowship, which provides funding for a junior faculty member in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. The first recipient of the Paul E. Lego Professorship will be announced in 2015. 

Lego’s recent gift, which he allocated with the help of the Swanson School’s Dean Gerald D. Holder, will have a wide-reaching impact. 

“This is just a wonderful example of a way that one of our alumnus’ generosity really helps open the door for some very fortunate faculty member who we either have or will have,” says William Stanchina, professor and chair of the Swanson School’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “Through that, hopefully, it means that we’re providing a better education for our students and helping them to be more competitive when they graduate and go to the marketplace for jobs.”

Lego has witnessed the transformation of an industry. After spending more than 15 years working on various electrical engineering assignments at Westinghouse, most of them associated with the evolving field of computing and computer design, Lego took a managerial position at the company that launched his rise to the position of chairman and CEO—and a distinguished career beyond the company following his retirement in 1993. But he has always remained invested and involved in electrical and computer engineering—and the institution that prepared him for such work. 

As was true throughout the time he spent working beside—and inside—the hum of that huge, original Westinghouse computer, Lego remains pleased to be able to contribute to the future success of his field and of his University.