Richard Hamming

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Richard Hamming
Richard Hamming.jpg
Born(1915-02-11)February 11, 1915
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Died January 7, 1998(1998-01-07) (aged 82)
Monterey, California, U.S.
Alma mater University of Chicago (B.S. 1937)
University of Nebraska (M.A. 1939)
University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (Ph.D. 1942)
Known for
Awards Turing Award (1968)
IEEE Emanuel R. Piore Award (1979)
Harold Pender Award (1981)
IEEE Hamming Medal (1988)
Scientific career
Fields Mathematics
Thesis Some Problems in the Boundary Value Theory of Linear Differential Equations (1942)
Doctoral advisor Waldemar Trjitzinsky
Influenced David J. Farber

Richard Wesley Hamming (Chicago, Illinois, February 11, 1915 – Monterey, California, January 7, 1998) was an American mathematician whose work had many implications for computer engineering and telecommunications. His contributions include the Hamming code (which makes use of a Hamming matrix), the Hamming window, Hamming numbers, sphere-packing (or Hamming bound), and the Hamming distance.

Monterey, California City in California, United States

Founded on June 3, 1770, Monterey was the capital of Alta California under both Spain and Mexico until 1850. Monterey hosted California's first theater, public building, public library, publicly funded school, printing press, and newspaper. Monterey was the only port of entry for taxable goods in California. In 1846, the U.S. flag was raised over the Customs House, and California became part of the United States after the Mexican–American War.

Mathematician person with an extensive knowledge of mathematics

A mathematician is someone who uses an extensive knowledge of mathematics in his or her work, typically to solve mathematical problems.

Computer engineering discipline integrating computer science and electrical engineering to develop computer hardware and software

Computer engineering is a branch of engineering that integrates several fields of computer science and electronics engineering required to develop computer hardware and software. Computer engineers usually have training in electronic engineering, software design, and hardware–software integration instead of only software engineering or electronic engineering. Computer engineers are involved in many hardware and software aspects of computing, from the design of individual microcontrollers, microprocessors, personal computers, and supercomputers, to circuit design. This field of engineering not only focuses on how computer systems themselves work, but also how they integrate into the larger picture.


Born in Chicago, Hamming attended University of Chicago, University of Nebraska and the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, where he wrote his doctoral thesis in mathematics under the supervision of Waldemar Trjitzinsky (1901–1973). In April 1945 he joined the Manhattan Project at the Los Alamos Laboratory, where he programmed the IBM calculating machines that computed the solution to equations provided by the project's physicists. He left to join the Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1946. Over the next fifteen years he was involved in nearly all of the Laboratories' most prominent achievements.

University of Chicago Private research university in Chicago, Illinois, United States

The University of Chicago is a private, non-profit research university in Chicago, Illinois. The university is composed of an undergraduate college, various graduate programs and interdisciplinary committees organized into five academic research divisions and seven professional schools. Beyond the arts and sciences, Chicago is also well known for its professional schools, which include the Pritzker School of Medicine, the Booth School of Business, the Law School, the School of Social Service Administration, the Harris School of Public Policy Studies, the Divinity School and the Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies. The university holds top-ten positions in various national and international rankings.

University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign public research university in Urbana and Champaign, Illinois, United States

The University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign is a public research university in Illinois and the flagship institution of the University of Illinois System. Founded in 1867 as a land-grant institution, its campus is located in the twin cities of Champaign and Urbana.

Manhattan Project research and development project that produced the first atomic bombs

The Manhattan Project was a research and development undertaking during World War II that produced the first nuclear weapons. It was led by the United States with the support of the United Kingdom and Canada. From 1942 to 1946, the project was under the direction of Major General Leslie Groves of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer was the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory that designed the actual bombs. The Army component of the project was designated the Manhattan District; Manhattan gradually superseded the official codename, Development of Substitute Materials, for the entire project. Along the way, the project absorbed its earlier British counterpart, Tube Alloys. The Manhattan Project began modestly in 1939, but grew to employ more than 130,000 people and cost nearly US$2 billion. Over 90% of the cost was for building factories and to produce fissile material, with less than 10% for development and production of the weapons. Research and production took place at more than 30 sites across the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada.

After retiring from the Bell Labs in 1976, Hamming took a position at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, where he worked as an Adjunct Professor and senior lecturer in computer science, and devoted himself to teaching and writing books. He delivered his last lecture in December 1997, just a few weeks before he died from a heart attack on January 7, 1998.

Naval Postgraduate School

The Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) is a public graduate school operated by the United States Navy and located in Monterey, California. It grants master's degrees, doctoral degrees, and certificates. Established in 1909, the school also offers research fellowship opportunities at the postdoctoral level through the National Academies' National Research Council research associateship program.

Adjunct professor is a type of academic appointment in higher education.

Senior lecturer is an academic rank. In the United Kingdom, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, and Switzerland, lecturer is a faculty position at a university or similar institution. The position is tenured and is roughly equivalent to an associate professor in the North American system.

Early life

Richard Wesley Hamming was born in Chicago, Illinois, on February 11, 1915, [1] the son of Richard J. Hamming, a credit manager, and Mabel G. Redfield. [2] He grew up in Chicago, where he attended Crane Technical High School and Crane Junior College. [2]

Richard T. Crane Medical Prep High School is a public 4–year medical prep high school located in the Near West Side neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois, United States. The school is operated by the Chicago Public Schools district. Crane is named for businessman Richard T. Crane. For the 2012–13 school year, the school became a medical preparatory high school; Partnering with Rush Hospital, City Colleges Of Chicago, and University of Illinois at Chicago.

Malcolm X College one of the City Colleges of Chicago

Malcolm X College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago, is a two-year college located on the West Side of Chicago, Illinois. It was founded as Crane Junior College in 1911 and was the first of the City Colleges. From 1934 to 1969, it was called Theodore Herzl Junior College, and located in the North Lawndale neighborhood on Chicago's West Side. In 1969, the school was renamed in honor of civil rights advocate and orator Malcolm X.

Hamming initially wanted to study engineering, but money was scarce during the Great Depression, and the only scholarship offer he received came from the University of Chicago, which had no engineering school. Instead, he became a science student, majoring in mathematics, [3] and received his Bachelor of Science degree in 1937. [1] He later considered this a fortunate turn of events. "As an engineer," he said, "I would have been the guy going down manholes instead of having the excitement of frontier research work." [1]

Great Depression 20th-century worldwide economic depression

The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression that took place mostly during the 1930s, beginning in the United States. The timing of the Great Depression varied across nations; in most countries it started in 1929 and lasted until the late-1930s. It was the longest, deepest, and most widespread depression of the 20th century. In the 21st century, the Great Depression is commonly used as an example of how intensely the world's economy can decline.

A Bachelor of Science is an undergraduate academic degree awarded for completed courses that generally last three to five years, or a person holding such a degree.

He went on to earn a Master of Arts degree from the University of Nebraska in 1939, and then entered the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, where he wrote his doctoral thesis on Some Problems in the Boundary Value Theory of Linear Differential Equations under the supervision of Waldemar Trjitzinsky. [3] His thesis was an extension of Trjitzinsky's work in that area. He looked at Green's function and further developed Jacob Tamarkin's methods for obtaining characteristic solutions. [4] While he was a graduate student, he discovered and read George Boole's The Laws of Thought . [5]

A Master of Arts is a person who was admitted to a type of master's degree awarded by universities in many countries, and the degree is also named Master of Arts in colloquial speech. The degree is usually contrasted with the Master of Science. Those admitted to the degree typically study linguistics, history, communication studies, diplomacy, public administration, political science, or other subjects within the scope of the humanities and social sciences; however, different universities have different conventions and may also offer the degree for fields typically considered within the natural sciences and mathematics. The degree can be conferred in respect of completing courses and passing examinations, research, or a combination of the two.

In mathematics, a Green's function is the impulse response of an inhomogeneous linear differential equation defined on a domain, with specified initial conditions or boundary conditions.

Jacob Tamarkin Russian mathematician

Jacob David Tamarkin was a Russian-American mathematician best known for his work in mathematical analysis.

The University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign awarded Hamming his Doctor of Philosophy in 1942, and he became an Instructor in Mathematics there. He married Wanda Little, a fellow student, on September 5, 1942, [3] immediately after she was awarded her own Master of Arts in English literature. They would remain married until his death, but had no children. [2] In 1944, he became an Assistant Professor at the J.B. Speed Scientific School at the University of Louisville in Louisville, Kentucky. [3]

Manhattan Project

With World War II still ongoing, Hamming left Louisville in April 1945 to work on the Manhattan Project at the Los Alamos Laboratory, in Hans Bethe's division, programming the IBM calculating machines that computed the solution to equations provided by the project's physicists. His wife Wanda soon followed, taking a job at Los Alamos as a human computer, working for Bethe and Edward Teller. [3] Hamming later recalled that:

Shortly before the first field test (you realize that no small scale experiment can be done—either you have a critical mass or you do not), a man asked me to check some arithmetic he had done, and I agreed, thinking to fob it off on some subordinate. When I asked what it was, he said, "It is the probability that the test bomb will ignite the whole atmosphere." I decided I would check it myself! The next day when he came for the answers I remarked to him, "The arithmetic was apparently correct but I do not know about the formulas for the capture cross sections for oxygen and nitrogen—after all, there could be no experiments at the needed energy levels." He replied, like a physicist talking to a mathematician, that he wanted me to check the arithmetic not the physics, and left. I said to myself, "What have you done, Hamming, you are involved in risking all of life that is known in the Universe, and you do not know much of an essential part?" I was pacing up and down the corridor when a friend asked me what was bothering me. I told him. His reply was, "Never mind, Hamming, no one will ever blame you." [5]

Hamming remained at Los Alamos until 1946, when he accepted a post at the Bell Telephone Laboratories (BTL). For the trip to New Jersey, he bought Klaus Fuchs's old car. When he later sold it just weeks before Fuchs was unmasked as a spy, the FBI regarded the timing as suspicious enough to interrogate Hamming. [2] Although Hamming described his role at Los Alamos as being that of a "computer janitor", [6] he saw computer simulations of experiments that would have been impossible to perform in a laboratory. "And when I had time to think about it," he later recalled, "I realized that it meant that science was going to be changed". [1]

Bell Laboratories

A two-dimensional visualisation of the Hamming distance. The color of each pixel indicates the Hamming distance between the binary representations of its x and y coordinates, modulo 16, in the 16-color system. Hamming.jpg
A two-dimensional visualisation of the Hamming distance. The color of each pixel indicates the Hamming distance between the binary representations of its x and y coordinates, modulo 16, in the 16-color system.

At the Bell Labs Hamming shared an office for a time with Claude Shannon. The Mathematical Research Department also included John Tukey and Los Alamos veterans Donald Ling and Brockway McMillan. Shannon, Ling, McMillan and Hamming came to call themselves the Young Turks. [3] "We were first-class troublemakers," Hamming later recalled. "We did unconventional things in unconventional ways and still got valuable results. Thus management had to tolerate us and let us alone a lot of the time." [1]

Although Hamming had been hired to work on elasticity theory, he still spent much of his time with the calculating machines. [6] Before he went home on one Friday in 1947, he set the machines to perform a long and complex series of calculations over the weekend, only to find when he arrived on Monday morning that an error had occurred early in the process and the calculation had errored off. [7] Digital machines manipulated information as sequences of zeroes and ones, units of information that Tukey would christen "bits". [8] If a single bit in a sequence was wrong, then the whole sequence would be. To detect this, a parity bit was used to verify the correctness of each sequence. "If the computer can tell when an error has occurred," Hamming reasoned, "surely there is a way of telling where the error is so that the computer can correct the error itself." [7]

Hamming set himself the task of solving this problem, [2] which he realised would have an enormous range of applications. Each bit can only be a zero or a one, so if you know which bit is wrong, then it can be corrected. In a landmark paper published in 1950, he introduced a concept of the number of positions in which two code words differ, and therefore how many changes are required to transform one code word into another, which is today known as the Hamming distance. [9] Hamming thereby created a family of mathematical error-correcting code, which are called Hamming codes. This not only solved an important problem in telecommunications and computer science, it opened up a whole new field of study. [9] [10]

The Hamming bound, also known as the sphere-packing or volume bound is a limit on the parameters of an arbitrary block code. It is from an interpretation in terms of sphere packing in the Hamming distance into the space of all possible words. It gives an important limitation on the efficiency with which any error-correcting code can utilize the space in which its code words are embedded. A code which attains the Hamming bound is said to be a perfect code. Hamming codes are perfect codes. [11] [12]

Returning to differential equations, Hamming studied means of numerically integrating them. A popular approach at the time was Milne's Method, attributed to Arthur Milne. [13] This had the drawback of being unstable, so that under certain conditions the result could be swamped by roundoff noise. Hamming developed an improved version, the Hamming predictor-corrector. This was in use for many years, but has since been superseded by the Adams method. [14] He did extensive research into digital filters, devising a new filter, the Hamming window, and eventually writing an entire book on the subject, Digital Filters (1977). [15]

During the 1950s, he programmed one of the earliest computers, the IBM 650, and with Ruth A. Weiss developed the L2 programming language, one of the earliest computer languages, in 1956. It was widely used within the Bell Labs, and also by external users, who knew it as Bell 2. It was superseded by Fortran when the Bell Labs' IBM 650 were replaced by the IBM 704 in 1957. [16]

In A Discipline of Programming (1967), Edsger Dijkstra attributed to Hamming the problem of efficiently finding regular numbers. [17] The problem became known as "Hamming's problem", and the regular numbers are often referred to as Hamming numbers in Computer Science, although he did not discover them. [18]

Throughout his time at Bell Labs, Hamming avoided management responsibilities. He was promoted to management positions several times, but always managed to make these only temporary. "I knew in a sense that by avoiding management," he later recalled, "I was not doing my duty by the organization. That is one of my biggest failures." [1]

Later life

Hamming served as president of the Association for Computing Machinery from 1958 to 1960. [6] In 1960, he predicted that one day half of the Bell Lab's budget would be spent on computing. None of his colleagues thought that it would ever be so high, but his forecast actually proved to be too low. [19] His philosophy on scientific computing appeared as the motto of his Numerical Methods for Scientists and Engineers (1962):

The purpose of computing is insight, not numbers. [20]

In later life, Hamming became interested in teaching. Between 1960 and 1976, when he left the Bell labs, he held visiting or adjunct professorships at Stanford University, Stevens Institute of Technology, the City College of New York, the University of California at Irvine and Princeton University. [21] As a Young Turk, Hamming had resented older scientists who had used up space and resources that would have been put to much better use by the young Turks. Looking at a commemorative poster of the Bell Labs' valued achievements, he noted that he had worked on or been associated with nearly all of those listed in the first half of his career at Bell Labs, but none in the second. He therefore resolved to retire in 1976, after thirty years. [1]

In 1976 he moved to the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, where he worked as an Adjunct Professor and senior lecturer in computer science. [2] He gave up research, and concentrated on teaching and writing books. [3] He noted that:

The way mathematics is currently taught it is exceedingly dull. In the calculus book we are currently using on my campus, I found no single problem whose answer I felt the student would care about! The problems in the text have the dignity of solving a crossword puzzle – hard to be sure, but the result is of no significance in life. [3]

Hamming attempted to rectify the situation with a new text, Methods of Mathematics Applied to Calculus, Probability, and Statistics (1985). [3] In 1993, he remarked that "when I left BTL, I knew that that was the end of my scientific career. When I retire from here, in another sense, it's really the end." [1] And so it proved. He became Professor Emeritus in June 1997, [22] and delivered his last lecture in December 1997, just a few weeks before his death from a heart attack on January 7, 1998. [6] He was survived by his wife Wanda. [22]


Awards and professional recognition

The IEEE Richard W. Hamming Medal, named after him, is an award given annually by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), for "exceptional contributions to information sciences, systems and technology", and he was the first recipient of this medal. [31] The reverse side of the medal depicts a Hamming parity check matrix for a Hamming error-correcting code. [6]



  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 "Computer Pioneers – Richard Wesley Hamming". IEEE Computer Society . Retrieved August 30, 2014.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Carnes 2005, pp. 220–221.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 "Richard W. Hamming – A.M. Turing Award Winner". Association for Computing Machinery . Retrieved August 30, 2014.
  4. "Hamming biography". University of St Andrews . Retrieved August 30, 2014.
  5. 1 2 Hamming 1998, p. 643.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 Morgan 1998, p. 972.
  7. 1 2 "Richard W. Hamming Additional Materials". Association for Computing Machinery . Retrieved August 30, 2014.
  8. Shannon 1948, p. 379.
  9. 1 2 Morgan 1998, pp. 973–975.
  10. Hamming 1950, pp. 147–160.
  11. Ling & Xing 2004, pp. 82–88.
  12. Pless 1982, pp. 21–24.
  13. Weisstein, Eric W. "Milne's Method". MathWorld. Retrieved September 2, 2014.
  14. Morgan 1998, p. 975.
  15. Morgan 1998, p. 976–977.
  16. Holbrook, Bernard D.; Brown, W. Stanley. "Computing Science Technical Report No. 99 – A History of Computing Research at Bell Laboratories (1937–1975)". Bell Labs. Archived from the original on September 2, 2014. Retrieved September 2, 2014.
  17. Dijkstra 1976, pp. 129–134.
  18. "Hamming Problem". Cunningham & Cunningham, Inc. Retrieved September 2, 2014.
  19. Morgan 1998, p. 977.
  20. Hamming 1962, pp. vii, 276, 395.
  21. Carnes 2005, p. 220–221; Tveito, Bruaset, and Lysne 2009, p. 59.
  22. 1 2 Fisher, Lawrence (January 11, 1998). "Richard Hamming, 82, Dies; Pioneer in Digital Technology". New York Times . Retrieved August 30, 2014.
  23. . 196301.pdf. "readers' and editor's forum: New Computer TV Series". Computers and Automation. XII (1): 46–47. Jan 1963.
    • "Internet Archive Search: "Computer and the Mind of Man"".
  24. "A. M. Turing Award". Association for Computing Machinery. Archived from the original on December 12, 2009. Retrieved February 5, 2011.
  25. "IEEE Emanuel R. Piore Award Recipients" (PDF). IEEE . Retrieved February 5, 2011.
  26. "NAE Members Directory – Dr. Richard W. Hamming". National Academy of Engineering . Retrieved February 5, 2011.
  27. "The Harold Pender Award". School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Pennsylvania . Retrieved February 5, 2011.
  28. "IEEE Richard W. Hamming Medal Recipients" (PDF). IEEE . Retrieved February 5, 2011.
  29. "ACM Fellows – H". Association for Computing Machinery. Archived from the original on January 24, 2011. Retrieved February 5, 2011.
  30. "Award Winners (chronological)". Eduard Rhein Foundation. Archived from the original on July 18, 2011. Retrieved February 5, 2011.
  31. "IEEE Richard W. Hamming Medal". IEEE . Retrieved February 5, 2011.

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