Herman Goldstine

Co-inventor of the modern computer and historian of its development
05 July 2004

Herman Heine Goldstine, mathematician, computer scientist and scientific administrator: born Chicago 13 September 1913; Instructor, University of Michigan 1939-42, Assistant Professor 1942-50; Associate Project Director, Electronic Computer Project, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University 1946-55, Project Director 1954-57; research administrator, IBM 1958-73; Executive Director, American Philosophical Society 1984-97; married 1941 Adele Katz (died 1964; one son, one daughter), 1966 Ellen Watson; died Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania 16 June 2004.

Herman Goldstine, one of the five co-inventors of the modern computer, was also a fine historian with a gift for a compelling narrative.

As he explained it, the invention of the computer owed a great deal to his chance encounter with the mathematical genius John von Neumann on a railway platform in Aberdeen, Maryland, in the summer of 1944.

When Goldstine told von Neumann about the computing project he was working on at the University of Pennsylvania, "the whole atmosphere of our conversation changed from one of relaxed good humour to one more like the oral examination for the doctor's degree in mathematics". Afterwards von Neumann started to work with members of the computer project and in June 1945 he wrote the "Edvac Report", the blueprint on which almost all computers have been based up to the present day.

Herman Heine Goldstine was born in Chicago in 1913, the son of a lawyer. He graduated in Mathematics from the University of Chicago in 1933, and obtained a doctorate in 1936. For the next three years he worked as a research assistant under Gilbert Bliss, an authority on the mathematical theory of exterior ballistics. Exterior ballistics, the science of projectile flight, had become important during the First World War and was to become even more important in the second. In 1939 Goldstine began a teaching career at the University of Michigan, until the United States' entry into the war brought his ballistics expertise into demand.

In July 1942 he was enlisted and posted to the Ballistics Research Laboratory (BRL) at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, with the rank of lieutenant. Aberdeen was responsible for ensuring the effective deployment of new weapons and old weapons in new theatres of war. Artillery typically had a range of up to several miles and therefore needed to be directed with pinpoint precision.

This was achieved using a set of firing tables which enabled a gunner to determine the correct elevation and azimuth for a given target range and the prevailing environmental conditions. These tables were computed by the BRL using the best available mechanical equipment and a team of about a hundred female "computers" who operated desk calculating machines. The human computing team was supervised by a mathematician, Adele Katz, whom Goldstine married in 1941.

The BRL also commandeered the computing facilities of the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, and Goldstine served as liaison between the two organisations throughout the war. The combined resources were still not sufficient for the computing load.

An instructor at the Moore School, John W. Mauchly, had proposed the construction of an electronic computer that would be a thousand times faster than the existing mechanical devices. Although many considered this to be a hare-brained scheme with little chance of success, Goldstine was instrumental in getting funding from the army. The machine that was eventually produced in late 1945, the Eniac (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator), was the world's first electronic mathematical computer.

However, long before the Eniac was running it was obvious it had several major design defects. The gargantuan machine, weighing 30 tons and containing 18,000 electronic tubes, took several days to program and could store just 20 numbers. A study group for an improved machine, to be called the Edvac (Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer), was established, consisting of Goldstine, Mauchly, J. Presper Eckert (Eniac's principal engineer) and Arthur Burks (a mathematical logician). The group was shortly joined by John von Neumann.

In June 1945, von Neumann wrote the seminal Edvac Report, whose wide circulation established the new computing paradigm and ultimately the worldwide computer industry. Von Neumann's sole authorship of the report, and his towering reputation as America's leading mathematician, completely overshadowed the contributions of the others in the group, causing deep resentment in Eckert and Mauchly.

At the end of the war the group broke up because of these tensions. Eckert and Mauchly formed the computer company that eventually became today's Unisys Corporation, while von Neumann, Goldstine and Burks went to the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), Princeton University, to build a computer in an academic setting. Goldstine was appointed assistant director of the computer project, and director from 1954. In addition he co-wrote with von Neumann a set of reports, Planning and Coding of Problems for an Electronic Computing Instrument (1947) that established many early ideas in computer programming.

The IAS computer was an important design influence on the early computers of IBM, for whom von Neumann was a consultant. In 1958, following von Neumann's death and the termination of the IAS computer project, Goldstine became the founding director of the Mathematical Sciences Department at IBM's Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York.

One of his roles, for which he was particularly well suited, was to foster relations between IBM's researchers and the academic community. In 1969 he was made a consultant to the director of research, and appointed an IBM Fellow, the company's most prestigious technical honour.

The fellowship gave Goldstine the opportunity to develop an interest in the history of computing and the mathematical sciences. His most important book was a personal account of the events that led to the invention of the computer at the Moore School, The Computer: from Pascal to von Neumann (1972) - a subtitle that left no doubt as to Goldstine's belief in von Neumann's critical role in the development of the computer.

Well into retirement, in 1984 he became executive director of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, the United States' oldest learned society, a position he held until 1997. His scholarly reputation attracted prestigious visitors and speakers, and he himself continued to produce a steady output of articles and books. He received numerous medals and honours, including the National Medal of Science in 1985, America's highest scientific honour.

UP to Mike's Home Page.
WAY UP to the Lab's Home Page.