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Preston C. Hammer

I was cleaning out a file drawer this summer and came across some manuscripts that Preston Hammer thrust at me when I met him in about 1976. I remembered this conversation well; I was happy to encounter someone who cared about programming languages and foundations of mathematics as much as I did, and was impressed with his forceful manner and unorthodox opinions. So when I looked through the papers I thought: Nowadays there’s an Internet! Maybe I can learn a bit more about this odd fellow. I started doing some searches, and collected the fruit of what became an obsession for a day or two on a web page.

He led an interesting life. He did numerical programming at Los Alamos in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, and started the computer science departments at University of Wisconsin and Penn State. I think he was frustrated that his training in (continuous) mathematics didn’t prepare him for the computational tasks he was faced with, and in his research he focused on trying to resolve the differences between discrete and continuous mathematics. He cared strongly about pragmatic education in mathematics and computation, to the extent that he came into conflict with the mathematicians he had to work with.

Anachronistically, somebody created a LinkedIn profile and web site for him, but I can’t tell who.

The amount of detail I easily found on this man, who died six or seven years before the Web started to happen, was remarkable. Dates and places of birth and death, campus newspaper stories from the 1960s, unflattering mentions in oral histories. Nothing very compromising or personal, but this research experience made me think about the information trails we all leave behind and how easy they are to follow. Public information is much more public now than it was when Hammer was alive.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. 2013-01-08 at 17:43

    The interview with Cuthbert Hurd you link to also implies that Ted Codd (of relational data model fame) may have written the first bootstrap program as well? That’s pretty neat…

  2. dorfird
    2013-02-06 at 04:18

    Preston Hammer is my maternal grandfather. I too remember his forceful manner and unorthodox opinions. The family lore is that he created the computer department at Los Alamos. I may be able to find you a better photo than the one you link to.

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