Legacies should not be limited to what a person attempts and accomplishes in their lifetime but should also include what is tried and achieved by succeeding generations.
This biographical book is part of my tribute to an extraordinary individual, Richard Wesley Hamming (1915–1998). Hamming was not only my teacher, not only my doctoral advisor but also my mentor. Simply put, in his role as my Ph.D. dissertation advisor, Hamming saved me by stepping in at a critical time and supporting my research, empowering my experimentation, and mentoring me toward a career and life path with achievements and fulfillment.
Hamming taught me that scientists are responsible for documenting their findings in both papers and books, the latter being the preferable and longer-lasting in Hamming’s mind. The scientist’s responsibility also includes continuing to research and teaching, and I promised Hamming I would do both when he asked. I hope that the legacy project, of which this biography serves as the core, similarly inspires generations to come as they learn both how and why they wish to continue to learn and how and why they want to teach. In this way, we humans better honor our teachers, official and unofficial, for, without outstanding mentors, many of us would not only wander but also be lost. In Einstein’s words, “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge[MM1] ”. Therefore, teachers’ life works naturally touch on the success—and tribulations—of their students.
Hamming was a world-renowned American mathematician most famous for his work in Mathematics and Computer Science as he helped form the foundation of modern computing science. While employed at the American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T) Bell Telephone Laboratories (Bell Labs), he spent 30 years as a Research Mathematician primarily involved in computing, numerical analysis, and management of computer centers. During those three decades, he received wide recognition and awards for developing Coding Theory, especially for inventing Error Correcting Codes (ECC), which enable the error-free digital communications and computing on which we all rely. ECC allows us, still today, to send a message around the globe and have the message received exactly as we sent it. ECC also enables reliable storage, transmission, and processing of data by providing a way to detect and rectify the errors caused by intervening noise and also allows for higher reliability with less reliable parts.
Hamming was primarily a numerical analyst, known best for integrating differential equations and the Hamming spectral window used for smoothing data before Fourier analysis [ ]. In his lectures and textbooks, he propounded aphorisms like The purpose of computing is insight, not numbers, and It is better to solve the right problem the wrong way than the wrong problem the right way. He was a[MM2] founder of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and a proponent of open-shop computing.
Hamming received several substantial ECC awards, including the 1968 ACM Turing Award, the 1986 IEEE Hamming Award, and the 1996 Eduard Rhein Foundation Award. Besides these significant awards and other forms of acknowledgment, many of his accomplishments over decades of work remain generally unknown to the generations of mathematicians, physicists, and engineers who follow.
For example, starting in 1944, before he reached his 30th birthday, Hamming was actively being recruited to work on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico. When he accepted, his responsibilities included helping figure out how to use a room full of early IBM digital relay computers to perform crucial design calculations to enable the first atomic bombs.
Few of the ideas examined in developing those atomic bombs served only that purpose. Instead, much of what happened in those years set the stage for the world of science on which we currently depend, including the transition from analog to digital computing and the development of the computer simulation fields, applied mathematics, and computer science. Hamming’s work at Los Alamos produced significant advances and drove him to work on the most critical problems of the time. Without his efforts on essential issues, today’s world would likely function quite differently.
Another of Hamming’s significant contributions, possibly his most crucial, had yet to be described when I began this project: Hamming was a mentor in the truest sense of the word. He encouraged and enabled many individuals throughout his life, yet no formal biography of him existed when I began this effort in 2017. So that others may also learn about Hamming’s work, experience, and teaching, this book presents Hamming as the man, mathematician, and mentor that he was.
It starts with the story of his family. His father, Richard James Hamming, was a Dutch immigrant who came to America in the 1890s and married into a family with ancestral roots back to the American Revolution. Richard James and his wife Mable Redfield worked through the Great Depression to help build this country and make a better life for their children, ideals that remain genuinely relevant today.
“Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.” ¾Franklin D. Roosevelt [3[MM3] ]
What drove Hamming to outstanding achievements and traits worthy of tribute? Financial need, positive role models, a supporting family, and a progressive education system—helped drive his ambition. His underlying intelligence and persistence propelled his pursuit of knowledge, his development of insight and vision of the future, and his innovation application. The insights I found while researching Hamming’s life and work renewed my own belief in the opportunities and responsibilities inherent within the American Dream.
Determination and focused effort—coupled with the beneficial assistance and friendship of others—made this country’s exceptional growth possible. Immigrant families formed the United States' foundations, mentoring an idea into a reality for generations to come. As a second-generation American myself, with grandparents coming to the United States from both Austria around 1889 and Ukraine in 1905, I also benefited from the American Dream. In researching, writing, teaching, and taking the time to mentor, I hope that others find inspiration in Hamming’s story to work on important problems.
I wish that I had started this project when Hamming and his wife Wanda were still alive to answer my many questions. Since that was not possible, I began with recollections from the nearly four years that I worked with him and then researched his life by reading all of his written work that I could locate. I identified and assembled a significant collection of previously unpublished material concerning his family genealogy, role models, education, friends, co-workers, Manhattan Project involvement, 30-year career at Bell Labs, honors, and teaching - including several discoveries to published elsewhere. I also collected detailed information about his publications, presentations, and lectures from the period he was a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS). Persistence and fortune prevailed, and I was able to conduct illuminating interviews with over a dozen of his contemporaries, former students, and relatives.
As appropriate and as permitted by these information sources rightful owners, all of the material that I collected will be made available in an online open-access archive hosted at the NPS Dudley Knox Library in Monterey with initial availability scheduled for the summer of 2019. The Legacy Project web page, http://www.richardwesleyhamming.com, will also continue to be a resource for Hamming researchers and enthusiasts. My goals are to see that this project and book are well written and to ensure that I have done justice in claiming, establishing, and perpetuating the legacy of Richard Wesley Hamming.
I welcome others who may help further describe Hamming’s legacy by sharing their own stories and thoughts for subsequent editions and web page entries. Throughout this book, I have cited sources, including previously unpublished works, to the best of my ability. Any errors or misinterpretations are my responsibility alone.
Please send comments, suggestions, and corrections to me via email at Martin.Mandelberg@RichardWesleyHamming.com.
 [MM1]Einstein, Albert, and Alice Calaprice. The Ultimate Quotable Einstein. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2011, pages 99-101
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“If you don’t work on important problems, it’s not likely that you’ll do important work.”
“The Purpose of Computing is insight, not numbers.”
“It is better to do the right problem the wrong way, than the wrong problem the right way.”
- Richard Wesley Hamming
“A person’s legacy should not be limited to just what they attempt and accomplish in their lifetime; it should include what is attempted and accomplished by succeeding generations of individuals that they helped enable.” - Martin Mandelberg