[SIGCIS-Members] Criticism of von Neumann historiography

Aristotle Tympas tympas at phs.uoa.gr
Sun Jul 8 00:42:16 PDT 2018

Dear Richard,

The (comparatively) explicit emphasis on the analog side of computing
in California after World War II is indeed well documented (see message by
Tom Haigh). As I understand it, this is supporting rather than weakening
your point. This Californian emphasis actually has a much deeper history
(which prepares for and explains it). A history that goes back to the
interwar period and even earlier. I had the opportunity to argue so in
Aristotle Tympas, ‘A Deep Tradition of Computing Technology: Calculating
Electrification in the American West’, in Where Minds and Matters
Meet: Technology in California and the West, Volker Janssen (editor),
University of California Press, Oakland, CA, 2012, 71-101 (if you are
interested,  I would gladly provide you with an electronic copy). 

The comparison between interwar (and even earlier) state-of-the-art
computing in California and state-of-the-art computing in the East Coast
(available through the GE-MIT partnership, and exemplified by Vannevar
Bush), is, in my opinion, very suggestive. Because it shows that the Von
Neumann approach to computing in the post-World War II context, which
relied on decontextualized comparisons that introduced a version of
computing as supposedly independent of computing analogy, is similar to
the way electrical engineer Bush described computing in comparison to
interwar Californian electrical engineers who challenged the way he (Bush)
had presented his artificial lines (the state-of-the-art computing
artifact at the time). The challenge by Californian engineers to the
rhetoric of universalism advanced by well known masters (Neumann and
before him Bush) suggests that locality is crucial to the history (and
therefore, also, historiography) of computing. Local histories of
computing in use are needed to balance a historiography based on a
rhetoric based on abstract laboratory computing epistemologies. These
local histories seem to offer a direct criticism to what you are referring
to as the "Von Neumann historiography".


Dear SIGCIS researchers,
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
With kind regards from Berlin
Richard Vahrenkamp
******************************************** Prof. Dr. Richard Vahrenkamp
Logistik Consulting Berlin Phone 0177- 628 3325 E-Mail: Vahrenkamp2016 at gmx.de Web: www.vahrenkamp.org Trendelenburgstr. 16 14057 Berlin 

Aristotle Tympas
Associate Professor 
of Philosophy and History of Science
School of Science
National and
Kapodistrian University of

tympas at phs.uoa.gr

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