[SIGCIS-Members] Request for biographies

Richard Vahrenkamp vahrenkamp2 at gmx.de
Mon Sep 7 01:54:00 PDT 2020

Dear all,

I would also like to refer to the memoirs "Los Alamos from below" of the
physicist (and later Nobel Prize winner) Richard Feynman, how he became
head of a computing group. According to his statements, in 1944 the
group of female computers equipped with tabletop calculators was about
as fast in completing a large calculation task as a group that had been
equipped with Hollerith machines since 1944. However, as Feynman notes,
the Hollerith machines never tired.

I would like to make the following comments about the thread on books on
monographs and biographies of scientists and mathematicians. Until 1990
the history of science and technology was an uncritical history of
"Great Men" (heroic history). Since then, historiography has changed by
seeing science embedded in society (Science in context: Readings in the
sociology of science, edited by Barry Barnes and David Edge, MIT Press
1982, also the book by Edwards: The closed World). Therefore, it is also
important in biography projects to critically examine the portrayals of
the respective men and women with their justifications and to examine
which topics they left out. For example, the need for fire tables as
legitimation for ENIAC was a good argument for raising funds for the
project. However, fire tables were rarely or never needed in war, as
Mitchell and Akera have shown (Marcus Mitchell and Atsushi Akera:
Exploring the Architecture of an Early Machine: The Historical Relevance
of the ENIAC Machine Architecture, IEEE Annals of the History of
Computing, 18 (1996), no.1, 17-24). Therefore, one should be careful
about adopting the view of Goldstine's book (The Computer from Pascal to
von Neumann 1972) when talking about the importance of fire tables.

Using the Aspray biography of John von Neumann as an example, one could
also refer to his chapter on the meteorology project at the Institute
for Advanced Study (William Aspray, John von Neumann and the Origins of
Modern Computing, Cambridge, Mass., 1990). This project was started in
1945 and was strangely unsuccessful for a long time. In the literature
it is sometimes suspected whether this project was not meant to hide the
fact that computer development at the Institute for Advanced Study was
actually intended for Los Alamos. The meteorology project can also be
linked to the question why only the digital computer, the IAS computer
(which was not available until 1952), was used there, but not the
electronic analog computer available since 1945 for the integration of
the meteorological differential equations. Electronic analog computers
had been common in the laboratories of the USA since 1945. After all,
the models and data in meteorology were still very coarse until 1955.
Therefore, the accusation of computational inaccuracy made against the
analog computer is not really convincing. Moreover, in the neighborhood
of the institute, in the laboratory of RCA in Princeton, large projects
for the electronic analog computer were developed on behalf of the
Office of Naval Research. None of this happens at all at Aspray, so one
has to be careful when adopting Aspray's view.

Greetings from Berlin

Richard Vahrenkamp

Author of /The Computing Boom in the US Aeronautical Industry, 1945–1965/

in: ICON – The Journal of the International Committee for the History of

vol. 24, 2019, pp. 127–149. Available at ResearchGate.

On 03.09.2020 13:31, Troy Astarte wrote:
> Dear SIG-CIS,
> What is your favourite biography of a scientist or mathematician? I’m particularly interested in modern subjects and those who worked in computing/computer science. Ideally the book would cover the subject’s work in a reasonable level of technical detail as well as their life and the broader context in which they lived and worked.
> I ask because I am considering applying for funding for an essentially biographical project on a computer scientist and I would like to read some (more) biographies first.
> Best,
> Troy Astarte
> School of Computing
> Newcastle University
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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


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