Programming Pioneer

(1926 - 1992)


John G. Kemeny was a past president of Dartmouth College (1971-1980) and co-author (with Thomas Kurtz) of BASIC (Beginners All Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) programming. He also chaired President Carter's the investigating commission on the Three Mile Island accident, afterwards bearing his name.

Once an mathematics assistant for Albert Einstein, he held twenty honorary degrees that could be put on the wall with his 1984 New York Academy of Sciences Award, 1986's Institute of Electrical Engineers Computer Medal, and in 1990 received the Louis Robinson Award. He also specialized in improving math instruction.


Hungarian Rhapsody

John George Kemeny was born in Budapest, Hungary on May 31st, 1926 to Jewish parents. His mother and father left the turmoil of Europe in 1940 to come to the United States, but his grandparents and his aunt and uncle stayed behind to perish in the Holocaust.

School Daze

It was a good thing that his primary education in Europe was substantial, (lots of people became teachers) because the young Kemeny had to enter the New York City high school without any practical knowledge of English. However, he graduated with enough acumen to matriculate into Princeton University in February of 1943 as a 17 year-old.

By the Numbers

He jumped right into calculus as an undergraduate. His analytic geometry teacher (a prerequisite course he admittedly reconsidered from his intial skipping) was so thrilled with John's aptitude for math he basically ignored the other students. In another academic anecdote, he was professor Weddingburn's differential-geometry classes only student. The teacher wanted to know if Kemeny's decision to drop out (because he thought they would not allow a solo forum) was because he had no desire --that was denied, of course. He was taught Algebra of Logic that was later known as Boolean Algebra. He studied under Lefschetz and Bohnenblust.

Uncle Sam Needs You

When he finished his first two semesters of his major, mathematics, he was eligible for the draft at the end of World War II, and he was put to work in March, 1945 on the Manhatten Project under Richard Feynman developing the Atomic bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico. It was here that he met another Hungarian expatriate, John von Neumann who got him interested in computer operations, especially the binary numbering system for internal memory. John von Neumann brought the idea of storage in his paper on EDVAC. Some other concepts were being worked on by others. Alan M. Turing's "universal machine" of 1937 led to his and Tommy Flowers' Nazi code breaker, Colossus. In this computer division of this operation, he worked with another from the Motherland, Leo Szilard, and he also met former Austrian Kurt Gðdel1. The Project used seventeen adapted IBM bookeeping calculators employing twenty operators feeding punchcards that were moved around by hand and subsequently re-wired and double-checked similarly.

Is There a Doctorate in the House?

After 18 months of his military assignment he returned to finish his interrupted academic pursuits and had good instruction under Chevalley and Artin. After earning his Bachelor of Arts in 1947, he went on to study for his doctorate under Alonzo Church, and succeeded in that goal in 1949. His dissertation, Type-Theory versus Set-Theory showed he had the right stuff to become Albert Einstein's mathematical assistant. He explained:

Einstein did not need help in physics. But contrary to popular belief, Einstein did need help in mathematics. By which I do not mean that he wasn't good at mathematics. He was very good at it, but he was not an up to date research level mathematician


Ivy-League Branching Out

Though he was becoming comfortable in the role in the professorship in 1951 at Princeton in his other discipline, philosophy, and was about to add mathematics to his curriculum when he was asked to develop Dartmouth College's new Mathematics Department in 1953. Two years later he was chairing that department, and he did for a dozen years. Their program under his leadership went from zero to hero, and especially in the use of computers.

Interestingly, Kemeny almost left his campus job to spend more time with his other interest, the World Federalist Movement, but was persuaded by Einstein to stay and help it from the sidelines in a more respected position.


It was while he was a consultant for the Rand Corporation in the summer of 1953 that he was reunited with von Neuman, and more importantly with his machine, the JONIAC. He learned programming, and wished they were more human oriented than machine oriented. He had to dodge Rand's budget cuts by being their paid consultant for mathematics and computers. So, in 1956 he use their facilities to seriously study this subject. Once he was at Dartmouth, the only way he could continue his new infatuation with computers was to travel 135 miles to the one at Cambridge, Massachussetts' MIT campus. Here, he was happier with the more 'reasonable' FORTRAN language. Though Neuman acquainted him with his view of the power of computers, Kemeny's dream was to put that in everyone's hands.

He wrote his first book, The Philosopher Looks at Science to good reviews in 1959. This was the providential year Dartmouth finally obtained their own primitive electronic brain, the Royal McBee LGP-30.

Back to Basics

The real goal of more widespread literally the mega-use of computers was actually started in 1963 with Kurtz when the first draft of instructions that combined common English with Algebra. These were to be simple enough that novices could interact with machines.

In 1964, with Thomas Kurtz the first BASIC program was run on May 4 putting their school on the map as one foremost in propigating practical computer sciences. He always preferred working with the optimistic, some might call naive, rather than the 'experts' who tended to be on the cynical side. The program BASIC, though copyrighted by Dartmouth Universty, was available to anyone for free. This language made the feasiblity of personal computers worth pursuing, and Altair was the first in 1975 with the help of Bill Gates2 and Paul Allen's programming a subset interpreter.

Gee, We Got the Dee-Tees

In 1961 Fernando Corbato made the breakthrough in time-sharing, and this was what Kemeny and his partner, Thomas Kurtz (also a Computer Pioneer Award winner in 1991) needed to develop better student's education with computers. His collaboration in 1966 with General Electric, saving an almost scrapped project, helped him work on the Dartmouth Time Sharing System (DTSS). This program, a forerunner to internet packet switching -- first ran in 1964 -- utilized the machines capablities and now eliminated the human chrono-robbing 'batch processing.' This was considered GE's best computer exploits. Conflicts between Academia and Business ensued, however, but with Kemeny's guidance, they went ahead on their own with DTSS Phase II in I969. He was motivated to develop this time sharing when at Rand he saw highly paid mathematicians waiting hours to run a seconds duration program, and saw the need for an interrupt of the system.

Hail to the Chief

John G. Kemeny became the 13th president of Dartmouth, just as the trustees were adopting the school to their new co-ed status. He ingeniously introduced women students in a summer term to help with enrollment balance with the male population to please the tradition-loving (and potential philanthropic) alumni. He also increased the institution's committment to diversity by strengthening the Native American program. He wrote his prophetic book, Man and the Computer at this time, and it contains these visionary statements:

Building a Network

How difficult would it be to build a computer network in the United States. Here I discuss this in terms of computers; ...I will also consider it in relation to a national automated library.

It would be desirable to design the network in such a way that most users could reach it through a local telephone call. A good initial target would be the eighty cites which had populations of 150,000 or more in the 1960 census. Computer centers could be placed in strategic locations all over the country and relay stations added in each of these cities. These cities in themselves represent only about a quarter of the population of the nation, but if all their suburbs are included, plus smaller cities that can be picked up "on the way," the United States would be blanketed fairly thoroughly.

...Finally each center could control its load by regulating the number of telephone lines it makes available to its customers.


What I have just been describing is the predictable evolution of the computer species. We expect to see individual computers that are somewhat faster, have much greater memories, and are more compact. But the muli-computer systems and the computer systems and the computer networks are likely to be the most important evolutionary developments.

I am reminded of those science fiction stories in which man meets a strange species that has communal consciousness. The creatures share memories, can monitor one another's thought processes and work on problems as a community. It is my contention that such fiction is about to become a reality.

He supported the school's continued computer developments, and promoted logic as part of the math program. He always thought the incorporation of computers in the nation's educational system needed a boost, but had no more 'hands on' involvement, though in his admin contract he insisted that he could continue to teach --which he called his hobby instead of golf. He held this position until 1981, and continued teaching afterwards until his retirement. He teamed back up with Kurtz for a couple of years starting in 1983 to introduce a better TRUE BASIC sold today to continue to jog minds and initiate interest in programming. It touts istelf:

True BASIC allows you to write and run structured code as well as line-numbered legacy code.

No More Nukes

In 1979 in the wake of the near disaster because of a core meltdown at the nuclear power plant, Three Mile Island, President Jimmy Carter appointed Kemeny to chair a committee investigation the incident. Kemeny basically reamed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Industry in general. He nailed the fudged reporting of the events that gave wrong numbers, but in spite of the gloom and doom, had hope for society with technology to find answers.

End Program

After finally giving up Academia, a world where he did not even know the specifics of music or flowers, he spent his time with his wife at home in Hanover, New Hampshire exploring more than just the 1812 Overture and roses, but all the classics and wildflowers they could enjoy until he died suddenly the day after Christmas of 1992.

The Annual John G. Kemeny Computing Prize for Dartmouth Undergraduates

Fittingly, in his honor, this competition is open to Dartmouth undergraduate students, individual or grouped. It accepts orignial creative entries with varying scales, and judges on relevance and quality as well as innovation. A maximum of 600 USD is one of the awards.

Sources: (eulogy by J. Laurie Snell
as reprinted in the Guardian)
Kemeny, John G., Man and the Computer, Scribners: NY, 1972.
note: I bought this book for a dime at a Christian-ran thrift store. As significant as his contribution, upon reading more about him, I was aamazed to see that I could introduce his tale to the nodegel.

1 In an interview a few years back Kemeny told of an interesting encounter with Godel at his house for dinner. His beeper went off, and this prominent scientist excused himself early to go home to watch some "cheesy" television program.

2 This obviously was way before Bill Gates became Richest Man in the World.