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George Robert Stibitz

George Robert Stibitz

1904-1995

American Computer Scientist and Biomedical Researcher

George R. Stibitz is internationally recognized as the father of the digital computer. While working as a research mathematician for Bell Telephone Laboratories during the 1930s, he designed a binary adding machine and later developed a series of increasingly sophisticated digital computers, several of which were used during World War II. In his later years, he turned his attention to the field of biomedicine, in which he was a pioneer.

Born on April 30, 1904, in York, Pennsylvania, Stibitz was one of several children of a minister in the German Reformed Church. He spent most of his youth in Dayton, Ohio, where his father taught ancient languages at Central Theological Seminary. Stibitz attended Moraine Park School, an experimental progressive school in Dayton, and earned a full scholarship to Denison University. He graduated from Denison in 1926 and in the following year earned a master's degree in physics from Union College. Later, he went on to Cornell University, where he earned his doctorate in 1930.

After graduating, Stibitz went to work for Bell Telephone Laboratories as a mathematical consultant and in the following year married Dorothea Lamson, with whom he had two daughters, Mary and Martha. In 1937 he built his first binary adder in his kitchen using dry-cell batteries, metal strips from a tobacco can, and flashlight bulbs that he had soldered to wires from two telephone relays. A replica of this extremely early computer can be found at the Smithsonian Institution.

Together with Samuel Williams, a Bell engineer, Stibitz expanded the adder to create the Model I Complex Calculator, which was introduced in January 1940. The Model I could work faster than 100 humans using desk calculators, and given its connection to Teletypes in other Bell offices, it may also be considered a forerunner of the time-sharing system in computers. In late 1940 Stibitz presented the Model I before a joint meeting of three mathematical societies at Dartmouth. He relayed problems through a Teletype hookup from Dartmouth to a computer at Bell Labs in New York City, receiving his answers within seconds. This event is believed to be the first instance of remote computer operation.

From 1940 to 1945 Stibitz—still employed by Bell—was given on loan to the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development. In this capacity he created a number of more sophisticated binary computers, introducing concepts such as the excess 3 code, floating decimal arithmetic, self-checking circuits, jump program instructions, taped programs, and "table-hunting" subcomputers. With the end of the war, he became an independent consultant in applied mathematics for a number of government agencies and industrial firms. He operated from Burlington, Vermont, where in 1954 he created an inexpensive digital computer, a model for the minicomputers that followed.

Stibitz's career entered a new phase in 1964, when he joined the faculty of the Dartmouth Medical School. There he performed ground-breaking research in the new field of biomedicine, using computer applications to analyze the movement of oxygen through the lungs and to study the anatomy of brain cells. He became a professor in 1966 and a professor emeritus in 1970.

In 1965 the American Federation of Information Processing Societies honored Stibitz with its Harry Goode Award, and in 1976 he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering. He received the Emanuel R. Piore Award in 1977 and the Computer Pioneer Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers in 1982. In 1983 he was elected to the Inventors Hall of Fame. Stibitz published a book in 1993, The Zeroth Generation, its title being a reference to the fact that his computers had preceded the "first generation" of computers. He died on January 31, 1995, at his home in Hanover Center, New Hampshire.

JUDSON KNIGHT

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