[SIGCIS-Members] Request for biographies (von Neumann)

Barbara B Walker bbwalker at unr.edu
Mon Sep 7 07:17:27 PDT 2020

The “great man” approach to biography is indeed a pernicious one, even as the biography format is so useful as a learning tool for all of us, especially students (as I argued in previous posts to this thread). It is a problem I tackle in an article I recently submitted for publication called “Creation Myths: How John von Neumann helped to create a new capitalist community for computing through mathematical story-telling.” In it I try to take apart the “legend” of von Neumann a little bit. Regarding the IAS project, by going over the lists of visitors to and communications with the project, I show how it served as a locus for creating commercial interest around the electronic computer when it was still very hard for most people to understand what a computer even was. This too might help to explain why the project took so long – its purpose was less to complete the computer quickly than to attract “buzz.” I argue that Goldstone’s role as team leader in that project was very important for creating that buzz because of his particular facility in effective story-telling and myth-making – phenomena that (not co-incidentally) pervade his later book “From Pascal to von Neumann.”

Sorry, I did not mean to burden this thread by posting yet again, but I think the problem of how to write valuable life-stories, keeping the “great man” phenomenon at bay while still exploiting the remarkable power of biography, is very important in the history of science and tech.

From: Members <members-bounces at lists.sigcis.org> on behalf of Richard Vahrenkamp <vahrenkamp2 at gmx.de>
Date: Monday, September 7, 2020 at 1:54 AM
To: "members at sigcis.org" <members at sigcis.org>
Subject: Re: [SIGCIS-Members] Request for biographies

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 Technology,
vol. 24, 2019, pp. 127–149. Available at ResearchGate.
On 03.09.2020 13:31, Troy Astarte wrote:


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.


Troy Astarte

School of Computing

Newcastle University


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