Friday, September 7, 2012

Oswald Veblen's Role in Early Computing

Recent publications describe one of Oswald Veblen's contributions that I had not been aware of: his crucial role in the development of the first computers at Princeton back in the 1940s. One of those publications, Jon Edwards' article on The History of Early Computing at Princeton, grew out of Edwards' work in organizing the Turing Centennial Celebration at Princeton University back in May. 

This link to that Centennial includes a video interview of Andrew Appel, Princeton computer science professor, giving a brief history of early work on computers at the university. He describes how the mathematics department at Princeton in the 1930s had been built by Veblen, who "recruited some of the best mathematicians and logicians in the world." The department was housed at old Fine Hall (later renamed Jones Hall), which Veblen designed. Appel also mentions the afternoon teas where Turing, Church, Von Neumann "and even Einstein" would have discussed early concepts for computers. Oswald Veblen's wife, Elizabeth, was from England and instituted the tradition of tea at the math department and later at the Institute for Advanced Study, where the tradition continues. 

Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, by George Dyson, (available locally here) provides some wonderful information on Veblen's background, personality and many contributions on so many levels. Interestingly, Dyson's second chapter, "Olden Farm", begins with a discussion of the Lenape Indians, and its third chapter is entitled "Veblen's Circle".

Dyson and Edwards provide tremendous insights into Veblen's contributions to society--locally, nationally and internationally--some of which I list here:

Veblen convinced Abraham Flexner, founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study, to acquire hundreds of acres for what is now the Institute Woods, so that it would be "kept free from objectionable intruders." Meanwhile, Veblen was acquiring open space parcels on the other side of town, which he and his wife would later donate to the county in 1957 as Herrontown Woods Preserve. These two preserves speak to Veblen's legacy as an early advocate for open space preservation in Princeton.  

As chair of the Rockefeller Foundation's Emergency Committee for Displaced German Scholars, Veblen helped get German math and physics scholars out of Germany before World War II, "undoubtedly delaying the development of Hitler's bomb." 

In his work on ballistics for the military beginning in WWI and continuing through WWII, Veblen "undertook the creation of trajectory tables", the complex calculations that increased the accuracy of Allied artillery and stirred early interest in developing machines that could expedite the computations.

Oswald Veblen, according to Jon Edwards' research, "arguably had a more lasting impact" than his uncle, the more widely known economist and sociologist, Thorstein Veblen, who famously coined the phrase "conspicuous consumption" in his Theory of the Leisure Class. 

Below is a quote from another recent book, Andrew Appel's  Alan Turing's Systems of Logic: the Princeton Thesis.

"OSWALD VEBLEN, chairman of the Princeton University Mathematics Department and first professor at the Institute for Advanced Study. His students include Alonzo Church (PhD 1927), and his PhD descendants through Philip Franklin (Princeton PhD 1921) via Alan Perlis (Turing Award 1966) include David Parnas, Zohar Manna, Kai Li, Jeannette Wing, and 500 other computer scientists. Veblen has more than 8000 PhD descendants overall. He helped oversee the development of the pioneering ENIAC digital computer in the 1940s."

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