[SIGCIS-Members] Handwritten "First Draft" in Dyson's book?

Mark Priestley m.priestley at gmail.com
Tue Sep 1 09:52:02 PDT 2015

Dear Mai and list -

Do you think that the illustration in Dyson's book actually is part of the
manuscript? It looks rather like a page of notes to me, with a summary of
the "von Neumann architecture" and some diagrams copied from various places
in the report. Can anyone identify the handwriting?

A year or two ago, David Grier gave a nice talk at the Science Museum in
London during which he mentioned having come across a manuscript of the
First Draft in the Library of Congress. He didn't have a detailed reference
for it, however. I contacted the Library of Congress, but they were unable
to locate such a manuscript.

If I remember correctly, Grier said the manuscript was in Herman
Goldstine's handwriting and that Goldstine had, later in life, repeatedly
claimed credit for drafting the document. This is slightly at odds with
Goldstine's letter of 15 May 1945 to von Neumann, where he says

I forwarded under separate cover the MSS and a copy of your report on the
EDVAC, also the original typescript was sent to Bergmann. Inasmuch as
several dumb typists combined their talents in typing the script there are
a lot of errors, which I got discouraged over.

It's rather unclear how many separate documents are being referred to here.
Tom Haigh, Crispin Rope and I discuss this briefly in our forthcoming ENIAC
book. Tom uncovered a typescript of the First Draft in Arthur Burks'
archive, which Burks describes thus

This is a preliminary draft of the report issued June 30, 1945. It contains
pages and figures not in the June 30 report.

We believe that this version of the report is the one that Goldstine is
referring to in his letter, and that it was retyped, with a couple of
sections being omitted, for the mimeographed version that was circulated in
June, 1945.

Also relevant to this discussion is von Neumann's letter of May 8, 1945 to
Goldstine, in which von Neumann says:

[This letter] contains some minor changes and comments concerning the code
for the EDVAC, which I gave at the end of the manuscript - part [sic -
there are spaces round the hyphen in the letter, but it would make more
sense if von Neumann had intended to write "manuscript-part"] which you
have, and a rather detailed discussion of the way to express this code ...

The contents of this letter belong, of course, in the manuscript and i will
continue the manuscript and incorporate these things also after I get it
back from you ...

There's no evidence I know of that this happened. Burks bound a copy of
this letter together with his copy of the first typescript, but none of the
new material from this letter got included in the widely circulated June 30

To me, the two letters suggest quite strongly that von Neumann had written
a manuscript, sent it to Goldstine to get comments from the other members
of the EDVAC team (especially Burks, Eckert and Mauchly) and that after
getting it typed up, Goldstine returned it to him (or at least was planning
to do so). But where this manuscript might now be remains a bit of a

Best wishes,


On 1 September 2015 at 15:56, Mai Sugimoto <nix.pura at gmail.com> wrote:

> Dear SIGCIS members:
> I found George Dyson's book, Turing's Cathedral (2012), seems to show
> the original hand-written version of the "First Draft" (probably?) in
> a picture page, which is on 13 pages after p.136. Since the caption
> says the picture is from Princeton University Libraries, I contacted
> archivists of the Libraries to access the manuscript. But the
> archivists answered they cannot find any material like the picture
> within the collection or elsewhere in related collection. I also asked
> to the IAS Library, but they cannot find anything, either. Then, as
> the archivists suggested, I contacted the publisher to send a message
> to Mr. Dyson. They told me just a forwarding address, so I sent a
> regular mail to Mr. Dyson in last February to make sure of the
> location of the manuscript.
> I have not received the reply yet. I am stranded. Does anyone know
> contact information of Dyson, or have any idea about the picture on
> the book or the original hand-written version of the draft? My
> colleagues and I have been working of a Japanese translation of von
> Neumann's original paper. Dyson's book is very interesting, but it
> seems to have a lot of unreferenced information, so my collaborators
> and I think that we should be careful to handle this book in the
> bibliographical comments.
> Best,
> Mai Sugimoto
> Associate Professor
> Faculty of Sociology, Kansai University
> 3-3-35, Yamate-cho, Suita-shi
> Osaka, Japan 564-8680
> msgmt at kansai-u.ac.jp
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