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Forgotten history

by Daniel Schildt

English ~3 min reading time

Klára Dán von Neumann

Early history of new inventions is often full of mystery when looked decades later. Linda Liukas writes in her newsletter:

“My prediction: there is going to be a Netflix-series on the life of Klára Dán von Neumann. Her life was an exclamation mark that lacked neither drama nor historic events.

— Liukas, Linda. No. 34 — Next up: Klári. Blog post. Substack. 2022-01-18.

She tells a quote from the old times:

“The older machines could only play one tune … like a music box. In contrast, the ‘all purpose’ machine is like a musical instrument.”

— Klára Dán von Neumann

Klára Dán’s life was full of change. While she was one of the pioneers of computer programming, her work was hidden by strict NDA’s (non-disclosure agreements), and mostly forgotten until over a half century later. It is an example of how skilled people are often left in shadows, while someone else take the credit for their inventions. Even while her work was instrumental to many of the core technologies of modern world, almost all of the credit was given to other people.

“She was a key figure in the experiment that launched modern weather prediction, despite having no formal mathematical training”

“The team's results proved that computer-based forecasting, the cornerstone of modern weather prediction, was possible.” “For this difficult, highly technical work … resulted in a merely a small “thanks” at the bottom of the team’s paper.”

— Witman, Sarah. Meet the Computer Scientist You Should Thank For Your Smartphone’s Weather App. Article. Smithsonian Magazine. 2017-06-16.

Twitter thread about the history:

“… Klári Dan von Neumann, writer of the first truly useful, complex programs ever to have been executed on a modern computer and to my mind, the most overlooked person in the history of computing …”

— Bhattachary, Ananyo. @Ananyo. Message thread. Twitter. 2021-10-12.

There is an upcoming book written by Crystal Bennes (to be published via The Eriskay Connection during 2022) about the early history of computers. Technology industry was made for war, and out of war, repurposed to the needs of large corporations.

“Klara’s story highlights the extent to which women were involved both computing and nuclear weapons development.”

— Bennes, Crystal. Klara and the Bomb. Crowdfunding campaing. Kickstarter. 2021.

Wikipedia has a short introduction about her, but lacks most details:

“Klára … was a Hungarian-American self-taught computer scientist, noted as one of the first computer programmers.”

— Wikipedia. Klára Dán von Neumann. Wiki article. The Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 2021-10-29.

Geni archive has additional details about her life & work:

“Unfortunately, she features significantly mainly as von Neumann's wife, even though she also was "a pioneer computer programmer," […] She was also one of the primary programmers working on the ENIAC, and Dyson's book names her as one of the first three programmers, along with her husband, programming ENIAC. (p. 104). Her work, however, is described as "help," one of the ways that women's activities are diminished in importance (men "do", women "help"): "'With the help of Klari von Neumann,' says Metropolis, 'plans were revised and completed and we undertook to implement them on the ENIAC...'" p. 194 Yet she obviously provided more than "help." In fact, she invented.

— Feldmájer, Sándor. Klára Dán. Genealogy profile. Geni. 2020-04-26.

May there be more documented history about future of computing, as a lot of people are still getting forgotten. Often people are disallowed (by work contracts) to write about how world’s technology is planned, built, maintained, and used. As much as history has to tell, there are lot more to learn from people who are now making future more interesting.