History of Numerical Analysis

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Oral Histories

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Alston Scott Householder

Link:  http://invention.smithsonian.org/downloads/fa_cohc_tr_hous700720.pdf

Alston Householder begins with a description of early experience of discovering mathematics by accident. He was well along his way toward finishing a Masters degree in philosophy at Cornell, when he got an instructorship in mathematics at Northwestern. During the Depression he took a job at Washburn College in Topeka, Kansas, eventually going to the University of Chicago during a fall semester to complete his thesis in 1937. Although his original interests were in algebra and number theory, his PhD work was in analysis. He returned to algebraic interests with his work in numerical analysis, although this did not happen until he came to Oak Ridge National Laboratory later in his career. While at Chicago, he worked with Nicola Rashevsky and Herbert Landahl on mathematical problems in the biophysics of the central nervous system and also with Gale Young on problems in factor analysis. From 1944 through the end of the war, he worked in Washington DC at the Naval Research Laboratory on problems in applied psychology. He met Herman Goldstine an acquaintance from Chicago who at the time was working with John von Neumann. In 1946, he met Alvin Weinberg in Washington and learned about opportunities at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He joined Oak Ridge, in the Physics Division, and began work on differential equations and matrix problems. In 1947-48, he became convinced that Oak Ridge needed an electronic computer while attending a symposium at Harvard on the Mark I, run by Howard Aiken. He heard about the ENIAC and visited Aberdeen. He also visited General Electric, Raytheon, Reeves Instrument, Harvard, and the Institute for Advanced Study to discuss various machine designs, and wrote reports for Oak Ridge on the available machines. In 1950, Oak Ridge arranged with Argonne National Laboratory for an improved version of the von Neumann machine (the ORACLE). About this time, Householder met John von Neumann when von Neumann was a keynote speaker at a symposium arranged by Oak Ridge. By 1953, the ORACLE was completed and the first program used to test it was a (Wallace) Givens eigenvalue program. By early 1954, the ORACLE was in operation. Householder discusses the growth in the usage of the machine, the development of a subroutine library, and the composition and evolution of the group of programmers, who were for the most part mathematicians. Finally, he comments on the development of computing at Oak Ridge. Alston Householder retired from Oak Ridge in 1969.

Key words: biophysics, central nervous system, reactor criticality, Mark I, ENIAC, ORACLE, Givens eigenvalue program
 
Funding agency: U.S. Navy, U.S. Department of Energy

Time frame: 1940's, 1950's, 1960's

People: Nicola Rashevsky, Herbert Landahl, Gale Young, Robert Paige, Alvin Weinberg,, Herman Goldstine, Howard Aiken, John von Neumann, Wallace Givens

Locations: Northwestern University, University of Chicago, Naval Research Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Harvard, Aberdeen, General Electric, Raytheon, Reeves Instrument, Institute for Advanced Study, Argonne National Laboratory

Copyright: Computer Oral History Center, Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, Smithsonian National Museum of American History

 

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