[SIGCIS-Members] Criticism of von Neumann historiography

Brian Randell brian.randell at newcastle.ac.uk
Fri Jul 6 12:44:49 PDT 2018

Hi Richard:

This thread, and your reference to Saturn V, prompts me to recall that when in 1957 I joined the English Electric Company’s Atomic Power Division, in Whetstone, just outside Leicester, analogue computing was in the ascendant there. There was just one digital computer, a DEUCE, but I and my colleagues were confident of the superior prospects for digital over analogue computing - and were soon proved right. We knew a little of the large efforts at Whetstone on analogue computer construction, culminating in a huge one called SATURN that filled a large two storey building. This project was I understood still in difficulties when I left English Electric in 1964 to join the IBM T J Watson Research Center. So I am surprised to learn now that the analogue efforts at Whetstone were regarded as a big success into the 1970s, at least according to this account, which I’ve just found:

"In 1957 the Consortium, now know as NNC, constructed at Whetstone an analogue computer known as PLUTO having 115 amplifiers. This was followed in 1959 by MARS, having 210 amplifiers. Both machines were phased out in 1959/1960 and replaced by Saturn having six consoles each having 252 amplifiers, 600 potentiometer and 76 non-linear devices. Over the years these consoles were trunked together to yield a 1500 amplifier which was subsequently supplemented in 1972 with an EAI 8812 analogue computer. It is believed that the SATURN was the largest analogue computer ever built. Excellent service was given by this machine until 1978 when it was scrapped."
Advances in Nuclear Science and Technology, Volume 17: Simulators for Nuclear Power (eds. Lewins and Becker) p. 7.

I do recall one of the analogue computers being scrapped, and one of my colleagues being almost in tears because he found out too late that it had been carted away, before he had a chance to plunder it his electronics hobbies.


Brian Randell

On 6 Jul 2018, at 07:54, Richard Vahrenkamp <vahrenkamp2016 at gmx.de<mailto:vahrenkamp2016 at gmx.de>> wrote:

Dear SIGCIS researchers,
In my lecture at the ICOHTEC annual meeting in St. Etienne, I point to the dominance of the subject of the Neumann Computer in the historiography and show on the basis of numerous sources that in the Californian cluster of the aircraft industry, in addition to the IAS in Princeton, a second birthplace of the computing machines (mainly with analog computers) was created after 1944, which was previously considered by the research little.
The aircraft cluster found no use for the digital von Neumann machine.
Since von Neumann's machine was merely academic and was not used in industry, John von Neumann had to invent fields of application in the future as the legitimacy of his project. He opted for meteorology - although it is not clear that analog computers could not offer solutions here as well.
Until 1960, the race between analog and digital computers in aircraft and missile industry was not decided in favor of the latter; in 1961, NASA commissioned a large general-purpose analog computer for the Saturn V project.

My thesis of the aviation industry as the source of computing machines after 1944 can also be applied to other countries with strong aircraft industries, such as England and the Soviet Union. It was also no coincidence that Zuse‘s Z3, the first electric digital computer in Germany, was created in 1941 in the context of the Berlin aircraft industry.

With kind regards from Berlin
Richard Vahrenkamp

Prof. Dr. Richard Vahrenkamp
Logistik Consulting Berlin
Phone 0177- 628 3325
E-Mail: Vahrenkamp2016 at gmx.de<mailto:Vahrenkamp2016 at gmx.de>
Web: www.vahrenkamp.org<http://www.vahrenkamp.org/>
Trendelenburgstr. 16
14057 Berlin


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