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Apr.4, 2012

Vol. 112, No. 10

Web Exclusives

An early history of computing at Princeton

By Jon R. Edwards ’75
Published in the April4, 2012, issue


Author’s note: I began to write a history of computing at Princeton a decade ago while working in the University’s Office of Information Technology. That effort caught the attention of Michael Mahoney, professor of the history of science. We were just beginning to transform my lengthy draft into something special when, in 2008, Michael met an untimely death. I wish to dedicate this short essay in his memory.

This is a corrected version of a Web Exclusive article published with the April 4, 2012, issue. The correction appears at the end of the story.

Princeton’s computing story begins not with Alan Turing, Alonzo Church, John von Neumann, or Albert Einstein, but with Oswald Veblen (1880-1960; Ph.D., Chicago 1903), who came to the campus at the request of University president Woodrow Wilson 1879. A specialist in topology and in projective and differential geometries, Veblen taught mathematics at Princeton from 1905 to 1932. In 1926, he became the Henry B. Fine Professor of Mathematics.

His uncle Thorstein, who wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), is better known, but Oswald arguably had a more lasting impact. During World War II, Einstein urged Roosevelt to build the bomb. Years earlier, Princeton’s Veblen had pressed Roosevelt to help him bring mathematics and physics faculty out of Europe before the war, undoubtedly delaying the development of Hitler’s bomb. Veblen was also one of the two original faculty (with Einstein) in the Institute for Advanced Study. And Veblen also is remembered fondly on campus for his key stand in 1925 defending an astrophysics professor interested in doing research in the wake of Einstein’s propositions. His victory helped to reshape the institution away from a focus on teaching toward sabbaticals and primary research.

But Veblen’s most important contribution to the topic at hand stemmed from his work and interest in ballistics. In the wake of World War I and the increased mobility of military equipment, much more accurate and timely methods for firing were needed. Veblen undertook the creation of trajectory tables that would take into consideration variables such as altitude, wind, temperature, shell materials, azimuths, and the like to achieve specific firing distances. Each table of 3,000 entries required many multiplications, by hand taking on average 12 hours of error-prone work. Traveling back and forth between Princeton and the Aberdeen Proving Ground, Veblen often thought about how to speed up the work and make the calculation process more efficient.*

In 1930, Veblen invited perhaps the world’s greatest mathematician, 27-year-old John von Neumann, to Princeton University as a lecturer in quantum statistics. Von Neumann became a full professor just a year later. He had received his doctorate in mathematics at age 22 from the University of Budapest and had already published five papers. Three set out a mathematical framework for quantum theory, a fourth was a pioneering effort in game theory, and the fifth explored the link between formal logic systems and the limits of mathematics.

One of von Neumann’s most remarkable capabilities was his power of instant recall. As far as I could tell, he was able on once reading a book or article to quote it back verbatim; moreover, he could do it years later without hesitation.... on one occasion, I tested his ability by asking him to tell me how A Tale of Two Cities started, whereupon, without any pause, he immediately began to recite the first chapter. We asked him to stop after ten to fifteen minutes.” (Goldstine, p.167)

von Neumann usually chose a square area roughly two feet on a side on an enormous blackboard and seemed to play the game of seeing if he could confine all his writing to this tiny area...” (Goldstine, p.176)

The Institute for Advanced Study

In 1930, Veblen also helped to organize the Institute for Advanced Study [IAS] in Princeton in part as an escape destination for European mathematicians and physicists. In 1932, Veblen resigned his Princeton professorship to become the first professor at the Institute, where he stayed until he was made emeritus in 1950. John von Neumann joined the IAS in 1933. He was the youngest of the original six professors of mathematics in the IAS, a position he retained for the remainder of his life.

A luxurious new building, Fine Hall (now Jones Hall), housed both the University’s mathematics faculty and the IAS and closely linked them all with mathematical physicists in Palmer physics laboratory. This academic community from about 1933-1939 was unlike any other in America before or since that time and had important consequences for scholarship. With such prestigious faculty in the department and at the Institute, Princeton was quickly considered the Groningen of the 20th century.

The IAS was funded in 1930 by Louis Bamberger, the founder of Macy’s and Bamberger's department stores. He had pulled his funds out of the market just before the 1929 financial crash. Although his support for the Institute and the mathematics department was undeniably generous, those who stayed at the Institute recalled that all of the sheets and towels came from Bamberger’s.

* Veblen’s papers are contained at the Library of Congress, but the Institute for Advanced Study has preserved his tax returns, They show that Veblen had a continuing relationship with Aberdeen from 1918 through the end of WWII, with a substantial uptick in the work in 1942-43. A letter from Marston Morse, Chairman, Committee on Mathematics, to Frank D. Jewitt, National Academy of Sciences summed up the effort during the war: “The work of Professor Veblen of this committee in adding a group of young mathematicians to the Ballistic Laboratory of the Aberdeen Proving Ground is bearing fruit which is astonishing all those who did not know of the inherent ability of the mathematicians chosen.” Records of the ECP, Veblen Paper Box 1 of 1, From The Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Center, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ, USA.

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3 Responses to An early history of computing at Princeton

Michael Otten '63 Says:

2012-04-03 09:46:14

Fascinating history. I may have missed it, but I didn't see any allusion to the fact that Benoit Mandelbrot, inventor of fractal Ggometry, worked for von Neumann at the Institute for some while. If you need more details, please contact me and I can put you in touch with his widow. My own modest annotation is my suspicion that the first Ph.D. thesis ever written with a computer text-editor program was my work in 1971-72. If there is a way to verify this, please let me know.

Professor Dana S. Scott *58 Says:

2012-04-03 15:03:49

George Dyson mentions Mandelbrot twice in connection with von Neumann in his new book, "Turing's Cathedral," which contains a very detailed history of the computer project at the IAS.

Dan'l Lewin '76 Says:

2012-04-10 09:18:39

Jon - thank you for this article and the dedication to Michael. Well done.
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