This biography of Richard Wesley Hamming was developed by his doctoral student, Martin Mandelberg, as part of his Richard Wesley Hamming Legacy Project. Martin first contacted me in June 2017 when he conceived this project and requested my help. Dick and his wife Wanda were very good friends of my wife Shirley and I, between 1981 and 1998 when both he and I were professors at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey, California. I was pleased to be asked to write a foreword to this book and to contribute my fond recollections of Dick.
Richard Hamming’s work first impacted me as a junior faculty member at the University of California, Davis, when I was teaching a freshman introductory electrical engineering course. I used his seminal 1950 paper on error correcting codes as an example of an important discovery that was readable and understandable by bright young engineers without requiring much technical background.
Fast forward to 1981, when I was a visiting professor at the NPS and discovered that I was now a colleague of this legendary man. He practiced and preached an open-door policy. He believed that those who worked behind a closed office door often got more accomplished but were not usually working on important ideas because they were not talking to their colleagues. If you had your door open, he would drop in for a brief chat. In this way, we came to be good friends and on a first-name basis.
One day Dick was making his rounds of his open-door colleagues, bothered by a question – I don’t remember what it was. Usually he had well-formulated thoughts and the discussions that transpired helped him refine these thoughts. This time, however, I contributed some different thoughts and ideas of my own, and Dick jumped up, saying something like, “that’s a better way of looking at it,” and continued his rounds, mulling over the fresh insight I was proud to be able to help him develop.
We lunched together on occasion; when we did, food was not the purpose, it was conversation and spirited discussion. Another faculty member or a graduate student would occasionally be included, and topics were wide ranging since Dick really wanted to hear about other people’s big ideas and share his own. We often would get together for social events.; Dick and Wanda were excellent hosts and Wanda promoted social interaction at their frequent dinner parties because she wanted to keep Dick “human.” Both Wanda and Dick were fond of bawdy limericks, of which they had a huge repertoire, and they enjoyed reciting them at their dinner parties.
Dick read a wide range of topics including mathematics, engineering, computer science, history, and philosophy. When he talked, he was typically confident in his knowledge in many subjects and would share the same on many occasions. Dick was also a good listener and would provide his wisdom and insight when he thought it would be received well. He wrote almost all his papers, lectures and books on a typewriter until he was finally converted to a PC.
Martin Mandelberg has done an admirable job in the writing of this important biography of Richard Wesley Hamming, and in the undertaking of the entire Legacy Project. I knew Dick personally for 17 years, and this book provides more details of his life than I knew, especially of his early life, involvement in the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, 30 years at AT&T Bell Labs, and his research, teaching, and mentoring after he arrived at NPS in 1976.
The research reported in this book is extensive, the organization is effective, and the narrative is enjoyable to read. Very few researchers or professors have such a complete biography, and it is a fitting tribute to this distinguished scholar.
- Herschel Loomis
- Distinguished Professor Emeritus,
Electrical and Computer Engineering & Space Systems,
Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California, December 2018
 R. W. Hamming, “Error Detecting and Correcting Codes,” Bell System Technical Journal, Vol. 29, pp. 147-160, April 1950.
Lecture and book signing at NPS, Monterey CA during the week of 18 - 22 April 2019. Check back for details.
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