Kemeny, John George

views updated

Kemeny, John George

(b. 31 May 1926 in Budapest, Hungary; d. 26 December 1992 in Lebanon, New Hampshire), mathematician and president of Dartmouth College who was a codeveloper of the Dartmouth computer timesharing system and a cocreator of the BASIC computer programming language.

Kemeny was one of two children of Tibor Kemeny, a commodities export-import broker, and Lucy Fried, a homemaker. For three and a half years, while in gymnasium (secondary school) in Budapest, Kemeny had the good fortune of studying with an excellent mathematics teacher who, he later stated, was qualified to teach at the college level. Since the Kemenys were Jewish, Tibor felt threatened after the Nazis marched into Vienna. He left for the United States in 1938 and sent for his wife and children in 1940. John Kemeny, who had not heard a word of English before 1939, attended George Washington High School in New York City from 1940 to 1943. He graduated first in his class of about 1,000 students but stated that the mathematics instruction in high school was woefully inadequate.

In February 1943, at the age of sixteen and a half, Kemeny entered Princeton University, where he studied both mathematics and philosophy. The United States was deeply involved in World War II at that time, and both the students and the younger faculty were subject to the draft. Consequently, Kemeny’s undergraduate mathematics teachers were senior members of the department and all luminaries in their specialties.

In 1945 Kemeny became a naturalized U.S. citizen. His undergraduate work was interrupted when he was drafted into the U.S. Army. He spent one and one-half years (1945–1946) working under the direction of Richard Feyn-man as an assistant in the Theoretical Division of the Manhattan nuclear project at Los Alamos, New Mexico. There he met a fellow Hungarian, John von Neumann, and had his first contact with the ideas that led to the development of the modern computer. Kemeny was a member of a team of some twenty people whose task was to run seventeen IBM bookkeeping machines in three shifts for twenty-four hours a day, six days a week. They were to solve partial differential equations numerically by feeding about fifty punched cards into a machine, getting a partial result, and manually feeding the new cards into the next machine. It took two to three weeks to get a solution in this manner, but no faster alternative existed.

Kemeny returned to Princeton in 1946 to resume his undergraduate studies and to work as a teaching and research assistant. Elected to Phi Beta Kappa, the national honor society, he received his B.A. summa cum laude in 1947. While continuing his studies in mathematics and philosophy at the graduate level, Kemeny was selected to serve as a research assistant to Albert Einstein at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Kemeny stated that, although Einstein was very good at mathematics, he needed an assistant because he was not up to date on current mathematical research. In addition, the computations that Einstein was working on were extremely long, and if he and his assistant came up with the same answer, Einstein could be fairly sure it was correct.

Kemeny received his Ph.D. in 1949 at the age of twenty-three. His supervisor was America’s most eminent logician, Alonzo Church. The title of his thesis was Type-Theory versus Set Theory. Kemeny had enough credits for a master’s degree in philosophy, but because of his work with Einstein he did not have time to study for the general examination. In 1950 Kemeny married Jean Alexander; they had two children.

Kemeny accepted his first full-time teaching position as an assistant professor of philosophy at Princeton in 1951. He taught both philosophy and mathematics at Princeton until 1953, when he was invited to become a full professor in the Mathematics and Philosophy Departments at Dartmouth College. At that time the Mathematics Department at Dartmouth was not considered a center of excellence, since it recently had been decimated by the retirement of most of its senior members. Kemeny was expected to create a new mathematics program, which he did with great enthusiasm.

In 1955, at the age of twenty-nine, Kemeny became the chairman of the Mathematics Department, a position he held until 1967. He proceeded to build the department to prominence. He also served as a consultant to the Rand Corporation starting in 1953. His experience at Rand was the beginning of his serious interest in computers. During the summer of 1956 Kemeny noticed that many wellknown mathematicians at Rand spent hours waiting for their turns at the computers to debug their programs. He sent a memo to the administrators suggesting that someone should devise a way to interrupt the computers to allow other users to test their programs. but no changes were instituted for quite some time.

Kemeny thought that knowledge of computing must be an integral part of a liberal education, but the existing languages were too difficult for the layperson to learn. With Thomas Kurtz, a colleague in the Dartmouth Mathematics Department, Kemeny created a new computer language, Beginners All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code (BASIC). First successfully run in 1964, BASIC was designed to be easy for beginners, to be interactive, to give clear and friendly error messages, to have simple editing procedures, and not to require technical knowledge of computer hardware or the operating system. A simple computer language was not enough, and Kemeny and Kurtz devised the Dartmouth Time-Sharing System, one of the earliest methods for allowing multiple users to share the same mainframe computer. After the success of the time-sharing system in 1964, most Dartmouth undergraduates were required to learn and use BASIC and to have facility with the computer. Kemeny stated that one undergraduate in one afternoon on a 1970 time-sharing computer could solve all the differential equations his group had solved at Los Alamos in a year and still allow 100 other users to access the computer.

Kemeny was disturbed by the fact that mathematics was the only subject a student could study for fourteen years and not learn anything that had been done after 1800. To rectify this situation, Kemeny and J. Laurie Snell created a new undergraduate course called finite mathematics that included such topics as logic, matrix algebra, and probability.

In 1970 Kemeny became the thirteenth president of Dartmouth College. Almost immediately he initiated major reforms, including the admission of women, the recruiting of minorities, and a trimester system to facilitate a more efficient use of the facilities. Kemeny loved teaching and insisted that the board of trustees allow him to teach two courses a year during his presidency.

In 1979 President Jimmy Carter appointed Kemeny chairman of the Presidential Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island, which became known as the Kemeny commission. The commission was to report on the most serious nuclear accident in the history of the United States, which had occurred on 28 March 1979 at the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island in the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Radioactive gas had leaked into the building; fortunately, very little was released into the atmosphere. The final report of the commission was highly critical of federal regulators and the nuclear power industry for lax safety standards.

Kemeny resigned as president of Dartmouth in 1981 to return to full-time teaching and research. He wrote or coauthored twelve books, including A Philosopher Looks at Science (1959); with Kurtz, BASIC Programming (1967); with Snell and Gerald L. Thompson, An Introduction to Finite Mathematics (1957); and Man and the Computer (1972). In addition Kemeny published, often jointly, many technical papers in logic, philosophy, and mathematics and nontechnical articles for the New York Times Magazine, Scientific American, the Nation, and the Encyclopedia Britannica. Kemeny was the recipient of numerous honorary degrees and awards, including the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) Computer Pioneer Medal in 1986.

Kemeny lived most of his life in Etna, New Hampshire. He died suddenly of a heart attack in Lebanon, New Hampshire, and was buried in the Dartmouth Cemetery in Hanover. Kemeny is deservedly remembered for his early recognition of the importance of the computer to society in general and for advocating its accessibility to the layperson.

Kemeny’s presidential papers are in the Dartmouth College Library. Jean Kemeny has his other papers. Kemeny’s Man and the Computer (1972) contains a vivid description of his early work with computers. Nardi Reeder Campion, “True Basic,” Dartmouth Alumni Magazine (May 1993), is an homage to the personal side of Kemeny. Obituaries are in the New York Times (27 Dec. 1992), Boston Globe (27 Dec. 1992), and Manchester Guardian (4 Jan. 1993).

Howard Allen