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When Did That Happen?

A Holiday Fable

by Dan Wohlbruck

Generic image illustrating the article
  Three giants in the history of computing meet for lunch during World War II.  

During the first or second week of December 1942—it’s impossible to be more precise—three men met for lunch at the Hay-Adams House in Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. All of the men were geniuses and each of the three made separate, landmark contributions to the creation of electronic computers in the twentieth century.

Two of the men arrived together. One of them, Alan Turing, had been sent to the United States by the British government to review the work being done in the US to break the codes used by the Nazis to communicate with their U-boat fleet. Turing had volunteered for service on the day that Britain declared war on Germany, and he had designed a machine that deciphered messages sent by German commanders during the Battle of Britain. While Turing was in the US, he also worked on a project to encrypt the voice communications used by Churchill and Roosevelt. Since the telephone cables connecting the two countries ran under the Atlantic, the Allies feared that Germany would splice into the cables and intercept the conversations between the Allied leaders.

Turing worked on the encryption problem with Claude Shannon from AT&T. While a postgraduate student, Shannon had created a way to apply Boolean logic to the design of digital circuits. Subsequently he had become a recognized expert on electronic communications. And, although at different times, both Turing and Shannon had studied at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies, both tutored there by one John von Neumann.

After hearing about Turing’s visit, von Neumann arranged for a lunch with his two former students.

Neither Turing nor Shannon had previously dined at the Hay-Adams and as they got out of the taxi cab they shared, they paused. Turing turned to look at the White House just across Lafayette Square. Shannon, a true American from the Midwest, had seen the White House but had never enjoyed the luxury of a restaurant like the Lafayette Room. A bit intimidated, Shannon waited for Turing to lead the way. The men were seated at the table von Neumann had reserved and waited for their host to arrive.

The two men could hardly have been more different. Turing was small of stature and well-dressed. Shannon was tall, rangy, and uncomfortable. Other than being former students of von Neumann, the only thing that the two men shared was their common project, and that did them no good because they were not permitted to talk about it in public. Left with no other subject, they traded stories about Johnny.

John von Neumann was well known and well liked in Washington. His intelligence was obvious without being showy. He dispensed his expertise and wisdom without desire for favor. When he testified before Congressional committees, senators and representatives hung on every phrase. He was believed and trusted and he knew everyone.

Suddenly, the room grew quiet, as all eyes turned to the man making his way, table by table, from one end of the restaurant to the other. Johnny von Neumann had arrived. He stopped here to greet Senator Truman and there to say a word to a White House staffer. Without conscious thought, both Turing and Shannon rose and waited by their chairs as a show of respect. Von Neumann finally got to their table and the three men shook hands with warm affection, then sat and ordered lunch.

Over coffee when the lunch dishes were cleared, von Neumann led his former pupils to a discussion of a problem he was facing.

What followed was something rare and possibly unique. These three shared a different type of genius. Turing’s mind knew no limits. He was without prejudice or inhibition and could frame a solution without concern for conventional wisdom. Shannon, for his part, was able to connect two dissimilar fields of study by finding how they interacted. John von Neumann was an assimilator. Where Turing and Shannon could explain what could be done, von Neumann could describe how to bring it about.

“Alan,” he said, “I need a machine that can reason. I want something that I can feed with information, and to which I can then pose a question, and wait for an answer.”

Turing considered the challenge. After a moment of thought, he suggested an approach. Shannon had an inspiration and added his insight. As the two men grew more excited, von Neumann made notes and diagrams on a linen napkin. Forty minutes later, it was done.

With a final flourish, Turing said, “And thus a machine can think.”

“What, I wonder, would such a machine think about?” von Neumann mused.

In the midst of a world war, it wasn’t surprising that Turing replied, “Peace on earth.”

Nodding his agreement, Johnny added, “And goodwill.”

Ever the democrat, Shannon finshed for them all, “To all of mankind.”

Author’s note: The three men did meet, as indicated, during December 1942. Their actions and attributes are reconstructed from reliable sources. The product of their meeting is historical, holiday fiction.

Dan Wohlbruck has over 30 years of experience with computers, with over 25 years of business and project management experience in the life and health insurance industry. He has written articles for a variety of trade magazines and websites. He is currently hard at work on a book on the history of data processing.

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