Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Herman Heine Goldstine

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Herman Heine Goldstine

Article excerpt

13 SEPTEMBER 1913 * 16 JUNE 2004


I FIRST got to know Herman at the Lamb Estate. It was 1959 and the rapidly expanding IBM Corporation was building its research division. While permanent buildings were under construction, the entities that were to become IBM Research were scattered among temporary locations up and down the Hudson Valley.

Herman Goldstine headed the group located at the Lamb Estate up on a hill near the village of Croton-on-Hudson, near the Hudson River, and about fifty miles north of New York City. The Lamb Estate was mostly a complex of small buildings. At the Lamb Estate we were all mathematicians or programmers or logicians or statisticians. We did nothing requiring labs because we worked in old home-sized stone or wood houses. The whole setting was very old-fashioned and picturesque and not at all suggestive of the type of problems that we were in fact attacking there in the first flush of the computer age.

At the Lamb Estate we thought of ourselves as princes of the earth because of our computing support. Every day a station wagon left the Lamb Estate and went up to Poughkeepsie. It carried our programs and returned the next day with results. More than a thousand people up and down the Hudson Valley shared that Poughkeepsie computer, which had less power than the humblest of today's PCs. But by the standard of the day we were princes.

Herman, who had brought me from teaching at Princeton into IBM, was responsible for the site and all its activities, so we had many meetings of a purely business sort: what was I doing, what was my group doing, et cetera, et cetera. But gradually, as was natural in the informal and relaxed atmosphere of the Lamb Estate, our conversations drifted off into a great variety of other things, and despite our differences in age and position we became friends.

It was easy for me as a Princeton mathematics Ph.D. (1954) who had spent time in the navy to relate to Herman's background both in academia and in a technical military environment. When Herman talked about his own history it was peopled with names that were familiar to me. Herman obtained his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1936 and continued there as a research assistant. For much of that time he worked with Gilbert A. Bliss on the calculus of variations. Significantly, in light of what lay ahead, Bliss had been one of a group, organized by the Princeton mathematician Oswald Veblen, that had worked on ordnance problems for the army during World War I. Bliss had made significant contributions to the theory of ballistics. When Herman was called into the army in July of 1942, Bliss wrote to Veblen. Veblen had returned to the army as the chief scientist of the Army Ballistics Research Laboratory in Aberdeen, Maryland. Bliss suggested to Veblen that he should get Herman assigned to the Ballistics Research Laboratory. This initiative succeeded-barely-as Herman recounted years later in an interview.1

Herman was in the army at Stockton, California, when he received not one but two sets of orders at the same time. One set ordered him to leave for a destination in the Far East and the other one ordered him to proceed to the Ballistics Laboratory at Aberdeen. As Herman remembered it, "I called the commanding general, and he (the General) said, 'Which do you want to do?' I said, ? want to take the Aberdeen post.' And he said, 'Well, the orders from the Adjutant General in Washington obviously take precedence over the orders from a post adjutant in some fort in Stockton, California.' 'Son,' he said, 'if I were you, I would get out of the camp. If you've got an auto, I'd get in the auto, and start driving. Let the paper work catch up later on, because otherwise you'll just have an impossible time.' So I got in the car and drove east."2

It was of course a decision with momentous consequences for the early history of the computer. I do not propose to recount that history here in any systematic way. …

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