A Tribute to John W. Mauchly
“A Tribute to John William Mauchly”
by Tay Hayashi
For many years I had planned to write a piece which might be called “The Most Unforgettable Man I Ever Knew”. But I never did, and now, with the passage of time and the death of the central figure of the piece, I write this as a tribute to that man, John W. Mauchly.
In a long life spent in science, I have had the privilege of knowing many remarkable men, including Nobel Prize winners and others very near to being Nobel laureates, men who through their efforts made major contributions to knowledge and to the society that such knowledge serves. John Mauchly stood tall even among these eminent men, for his genius and his contribution will have affected the lives of everyone on earth, now and years to come, with his invention and the development of the electronic computer. He launched the world into the Space Age, yet he is not always recognized for his genius, nor for having been a great and warm human being.
My story begins in 1936, at the end of my sophomore year at Ursinus College, when I changed my major course of study from Biology to Physics and came under the tutelage of John Mauchly, who was the sole member of the Physics department of that small liberal arts college. Around the campus he was often referred to as “Crazy John” because of his habit of spending many evening hours in his modest laboratory in the Science Building carrying on research, a highly unusual activity for a small college faculty member. With the beginning of my junior year, therefore, I began to spend more and more time with my new professor, and to learn of the research that was taking so much of his time.
We in science often speak about “pure” science as contrasted to “applied” science, even though these are not always distinguishable. The purest form of “pure” science may be thought of as knowledge for its own sake, i.e. study (or research) simply for the knowing and understanding. John was a pure scientist because in 1936 his great desire was to achieve an understanding of the interplay of factors that determined the weather and weather patterns of the entire earth. To this end, he collected information from weather stations at many distant locations, information such as temperature, barometric pressure, wind direction and velocity, humidity, etc. which he then tried to formulate into some coherent scheme. Trying to correlate this varied information, he began to realize that the science of statistics as developed at the time ( 1936-37 ) was not adequate for his needs, and so he began his own studies which eventually resulted in a “new statistics” which was considerably in advance of the “old statistics” of that day.
He now had the mathematical (statistical) tools for analyzing his weather data, but John realized very soon he had another difficulty to overcome if he hoped to understand the weather data. This was simply that if he had 10 assistants, each one punching 4 keys per second on the electro-mechanical calculators ( Monroe, Marchant ) available at the time, they would require 10 years to solve some of his equations. It was about this time, therefore, that John began to study calculators and computers.
By the middle of my junior year at Ursinus, I was spending considerable time with John, in the classes he taught, in his laboratory in the evenings, in conferences, and even at his home on the outskirts of Collegeville with his family. This association became more intense in my senior year as I moved toward graduation with a major in Physics. More on this later — it was in the latter part of my junior year that John began to talk to me about computers and calculators — their history, the basic mechanism underlying mechanical calculators, magazine articles featuring old and new machines — none of which made much of an impression on me — I must confess — I was much more interested in sports, girls, and other concerns of the undergraduate.
In my last year at Ursinus I began to work on a Senior Honors project, and since John as my adviser knew that I was still interested in Biology, and also that the first electron microscope was being developed, he set me to building magnetic lens for the electron beam. This project meant many hours of work in the evenings in the laboratory, with John also working in the laboratory with his own projects. It was during this period that I became aware of a small device in the laboratory that John had fashioned, a device whose central components were 21 neon tubes mounted on a board, and which he explained to me was the first model of a computer based on electronics. It amazes me now to think that I was so involved in the winding and testing of the magnetic lenses that I never appreciated the importance and significance of that primitive device in that laboratory.
This close association with John also provided opportunities to talk with him about many things. One of the things we discussed was the question of my future after graduation, and it was from him that I learned the path to scholarly science, of graduate studies and the academic program for an advanced degree in science. John felt that I should study atomic physics since I had evinced an interest in the subject during his classes. I, on the other hand, was still interested in biology. We decided as a compromise that I should go into Biophysics, although neither of us knew exactly what that entailed; typically, he determined to learn about this new field by visiting laboratories of biophysics.
That spring of 1938 was an eventful time, and in retrospect I realize that the course of my life was shaped and determined by what transpired that spring because of the affection and interest that a professor had for one of his students. For at Johns urging, and at his expense since I had very little money, we spent many weekends driving in his car to Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, and New York to visit laboratories of biophysics. Of particular note were the visits to Johns Hopkins University to visit the laboratory of Dr. Robert W. Wood, who showed us how to make, for 25 cents, a grating of high quality for the spectroscope by peeling off a film of gelatin from a ruled grating to make a precise replica, and the visit to Columbia University where we met Dr. John Dunning, the co-discoverer of the neutron, and the early cyclotron. On that visit, I also met and spoke with Dr. Selig Hecht, the Director of the Laboratory of Biophysics on the 13th floor of Pupin Hall, who urged me to continue to graduate school. I had noway of knowing that I was taking the first steps on an academic career which would bring me, 8 years later, to become a faculty member in the same department with Dr. Hecht and in the same building with Dr. Dunning, who later became the Dean of the Columbia School of Engineering.
This close and wonderful teacher-student relationship; ended with my graduation in 1938, when I left Ursinus, began graduate studies in Cell Physiology at the University of Pennsylvania and finished at the University of Missouri. My contacts with John Mauchly were few and sporadic during these years which included the war years, but through those few contacts and through mutual friends I knew that he was continuing his weather studies, until that fateful time when he went to the Moore School to build the ENIAC, the first full-scale electronic computer and natural offspring of that 21 neon-tube precursor. The rest of the story, as they say, is history — and the world today is thoroughly launched on a new Computer Age, the final picture of which can only be dimly seen today.
From my vantage point, the story of and the accomplishments of John Mauchly may be summarized in a way perhaps not visualized by others. I saw this man of genius and kindness and warmth deeply interested in achieving a complete understanding of the weather and weather data, a “pure” scientist seeking basic knowledge for its own sake. Along the way he conceived of and developed the tools necessary to the achievements of this understanding; a new statistics and mathematics, and finally a computer that would work rapidly enough to make the computations in the new mathematics possible. The electronic computer and all that it means today was a spin-off from the research in weather of a professor of Physics at an obscure college in Pennsylvania. ———— Tay Hayashi
December 18, 2003
Dr. Teru Hayashi of Woods Hole, known by his many friends as Tay, died December 18 at the Royal Nursing Center in Falmouth from the effects of esophageal cancer. He was just eight weeks shy of his 90th birthday.
Tay was a popular and stimulating teacher of biology at the graduate and undergraduate level as well as adult education. Many of his students later became academicians and professors at universities such as Yale, Dartmouth, Berkeley, SUNY at Stony Brook, and Albert Einstein.
Born in 1914, Tay grew up in Atlantic City, where after graduating from high school, he worked variously as croupier in gambling houses and for a circus act on the Steel Pier. He graduated in 1938 in physics at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, receiving his Ph.D. in biology from the University of Missouri in 1943. In 1945 he joined the biology department at Columbia University, rising to full professor and chairman of the department. Tay moved on to the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1967 to found and chair its biology department. He retired in 1979 as Senior Research Scientist at the Papanicolaou Research Institute, and subsequently Professor Emeritus in 1982. Tay’s research focused on the molecular basis of muscle contraction.
He was a member of the Society of General Physiologists, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Biophysical Society and Physiological Society. In 1954-1955 he was a Guggenheim Fellow and Fulbright Scholar in Denmark, and in 1974-1975 a Humboldt Fellow and Fulbright Scholar in Germany, and a Japan Society Visiting Professor in Japan.
Tay’s summertime association with the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole dates from 1939, first as a student and from 1948 on as an independent investigator. He was later elected an MBL Corporation Member and Trustee and was Trustee Emeritus at the time of his death. The MBL established the Tay Hayashi Lecture in Cell Physiology in 2002 to celebrate and honor Tay’s lifelong achievement, precious freedom, and indomitable spirit. The third annual Hayashi Lecture will he held this summer.
Until recently, Tay lived an active life, winning local tournaments in tennis and table tennis. He was an avid sport fisherman, singer, guitar player and billiard enthusiast. Tay had an enormous sense of humor, an ability to laugh at himself, and a way as a storyteller. His poker games continued into last summer.