As some of you will know already I am spending the week at OSCON in Portland, OR. This is the 20th anniversary of this event and I have enjoyed the information-packed sessions, the crowded expo halls, and the insightful keynotes. I suppose this has pushed open source to the forefront of my mind with some additional emphasis this week and I feel it should only be fitting to let that influence my reading and research for the week as well (let’s be clear I pretty much eat, sleep, and breathe open source so for many of you the emphasis may seem fairly minor, potentially bordering on inconsequential!). Regardless, I’d like to focus on a Thursday Thinker who epitomizes the characteristics and traits of open source. And as I am prone to do, I am focusing on someone from the earliest days of software.
In previous weeks we have highlighted those individuals who may or may not receive great public recognition for their contributions to society or the incredible “thoughts” they had about modern life. This week is no different. Even if you are heavily steeped in an open source life and history this individual may not be someone you immediately recognize or consider a great thought leader. He was, however, incredibly influential in his day and many from the time period would have instantly known his name and the things for which he was responsible.
John Mauchly (1907-1980)
Our Thursday Thinker for this week was full of big ideas and was not afraid to stand up for what he believed in. Possibly most importantly he held to his beliefs about the nature of software and its freedom of availability and usage. John Mauchly was in this regards one of the earliest open source advocates and proponents in the age of computer software (though not directly in a way you would suspect). But before we look at his greatest contribution let’s focus for a second on his background and influences.
John was interested in science from his earliest days and excelled in his high school classes, particularly those dealing with math and science. He was known for being willing to tackle hard problems and you could always find him tearing things apart to understand how they worked before re-assembling them fully functioning. He was particularly good at electrical systems and would often help others in the neighborhood when an electrical problem would arise.
Education and research was always something considered important in the Mauchly family and the pursuit of sciences was a part of his life from the earliest days when his father accepted a position with the Carnegie Institution in Washington D.C. Upon high school graduation he successfully applied for and received a scholarship to attend John Hopkins to study engineering. Once there however his interest in the study of applied sciences caused him to switch to a Physics course of study and in a rather untraditional fashion he bypassed his undergraduate degree and successfully completed his Ph.D. instead.
John’s First Big Idea
After several years of teaching in a variety of positions John met an individual by the name J. Presper Eckert. This encounter would prove to be significant in his life as this influence and relationship quickly grew into a partnership as Eckert framed a particularly difficult problem surrounding the use of vacuum tubes.
It was less than a year later when John wrote a memo outlining the the potential to create what he called a “general purpose computer”. Remember at this time the computers which existed were mainly tape-driven programmatic functional machines capable of single purpose problem solving. John’s ideas around a general purpose computer were relatively new at this time and yet based on his outline could be understood and developed. There were several “big ideas” which came from this memo including the concept of digital electronics without the moving mechanical parts of other historical computing devices. In addition he theorized that the speed could be increased significantly. (Yes, for those of you who know me or have read about my borderline obsession with speed this was particularly compelling to me.)
As a simple example of the computer’s speed, eventually John’s creation would be put to use in military applications for the understanding and prediction about missile trajectories where it could calculate results in 30 seconds. It would take a person over 20 hours to solve the same set of equations and reach the same conclusion.
John ended up partnering with Eckert and together they took the idea and made it a reality. His great idea was successfully built and the course of computing was changed forever. This computer would later be named the ENIAC and is today recognized as the first true general purpose computer.
But as with many of our Thursday Thinkers we find that John didn’t stop with that single great idea or that one single invention. He held strongly to his beliefs as well and his background in research and the sciences informed his thinking on the nature of computing and how the knowledge surrounding these new machines should be shared and made available to others for the sake of progress and knowledge. John believed in the value of sharing information. He understood this combined mentality of an “open” nature to discovery and learning would only serve to better all of mankind. In this sense John (and Eckert) were believers in the concept of open source before the term was ever officially coined.
This belief was tested when the Moore School (where John and Eckert both were employed) changed their opinions on patents in an effort to maintain commercial rights to the development of future computer systems. John and Eckert both vehemently disagreed and resigned from the school.
There’s a very important side note here as well which speaks to John’s character and sense of honor. Even though he resigned he continued to fulfill his obligations to the school which included a lecture series on the topic of computer design. This series was incredibly well-attended and many of the leading minds of the day were in attendance. Among the crowd sat the creators of the next computer system which would eventually replace the ENIAC.
John’s work didn’t end with his time at Moore School but rather this only accelerated his thinking on a variety of subjects and topics. And he continued to push the boundaries of the new technology he helped to create. Eventually he moved from the hardware side of computing to the software side. Here he is credited with being the first to use the idea and word “programming” for the verb associated with computers.
His focus on the software of computers eventually led him to theorize about and eventually create the first programming language ever used on a computer. (Yes, a second “big idea”!)
But there is one aspect of John’s life which should gain even more recognition than this incredibly long list of accomplishments. John never lost his desire to teach and encourage others to grow in their knowledge and understanding. He believed deeply in the value of sharing information and was the person responsible for hiring an individual who now stands as the more recognizable first-ever computer programmer, Grace Hopper.
This long and prolific list of accomplishments clearly demonstrates John’s validity to the title of Thursday Thinker. I was consistently struck with defining moment after defining moment while studying John’s life and I realize I can’t do justice in a simple blog post to the many ways his work and his life have influenced our world. I hope you’ll consider looking more into John Mauchly on your own and recognize the incredible ways we continue to benefit from his work.