Obituary of John Kemeny >=> obituary

John G. Kemeny, born May 31, 1926, president of Dartmouth College from 1971 to 1980, was a mathematician and an assistant to Albert Einstein.

Kemeny, who served as president of Dartmouth from 1970 to 1981, was a Hungarian by birth, a Princetonian by education and an esteemed mathematician. Reversing a 203-year tradition of single-sex education, he presided over the coeducation of Dartmouth in 1972. He also instituted the "Dartmouth Plan" of year-round operations, thereby allowing a significant increase in the size of the student body without a corresponding increase in the college's physical facilities. During his administration Dartmouth became more active in recruiting and retaining minority students and revived its founding commitment to providing education for Native Americans.

In addition to his contributions to Dartmouth, Kemeny worked in the theoretical division of the Los Alamos Project, was a research assistant to Albert Einstein and chaired the 12-person commission organized by President Carter to investigate the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident.

The co-inventor, with Thomas Kurtz, of the BASIC computer language, Kemeny made Dartmouth a pioneer in student use of computers, equating computer literacy with reading literacy. Starting in 1959 with a Royal McBee LGP-30, Kemeny and Kurtz searched for a way to bring computing to undergraduates at Dartmouth College. With Fernando Corbató's development of time-sharing in 1961, they saw a way to reach their goal and conceived a system that would not only serve students' educational needs but also permit implementation by students. With Thomas Kurtz he invented the programming language Basic and the Dartmouth Time Sharing System (DTSS).

Choosing a GE system, they completed their work on DTSS and Basic in fall 1964; GE reprogrammed the system and created a time-sharing service-bureau operation that was the most successful portion of their short excursion into the computer business.

During what was, for most American colleges and universities, a tumultuous period of student protest, Dartmouth enjoyed a period of relative calm due in large part to Kemeny's appeal to students and his practice of seeking consensus on vital college issues. Kemeny and Kurtz received Computer Pioneer Awards in 1985 and 1991, respectively.

.from Dartmouth Alumni Magazine

A sketch of John Kemeny

for the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine

Nardi Reeder Campion
Date: May 11, 1999

The newspaper said John G. Kemeny, 13th president of Dartmouth College, died of heart failure. Clearly this was a mistake. John Kemeny's heart never failed anyone.

It was altogether fitting that at St. Thomas Episcopal Church we prayed for "the eternal rest of President Kemeny's immortal soul." Although he was a Jew, in John Kemeny there was no east nor west, no north nor south. He was an ecumenical man in the truest sense of the word: "of or from the whole world."

During that service Gil Tanis '38, who served President Kemeny as an executive officer, rose to speak. The laudatory obits in the Times and the Globe, Tanis said, "ignored an important fact about Kemeny: his love of teaching. No matter how crowded his schedule, John Kemeny found time to teach. Teaching was his joy."

In fact, John Kemeny agreed to become president of Dartmouth in 1970 on one condition: that he be allowed to continue teaching. When the chairman of the Board of Trustees objected-the presidency was too demanding-Kemeny asked what the Trustees would say if he wanted two hours off each week to play golf. That did it.

Throughout his presidency he taught two classes a year, from far-out computer science to freshman math. Having lamented that "math is the only subject you can study for l4 years and not learn a single thing that has been done since 1800," he and his math colleague, Laurie Snell, strung logic, probability, and matrix algebra into a course so fresh that it merited a new name: Finite Math. Professor Kemeny was "remarkable in his ability to understand what a student didn't understand and re-explain it," recalls former student Rob Salzman '76.

I once experienced John's brilliant teaching. In 1978, my husband and I attended a Dartmouth Alumni College session on "Where Have All The Heroes Gone?" The director, Professor Jim Epperson, had invited President Kemeny to speak on his hero, Albert Einstein. John began by saying that Einstein, a shy, humble man who never performed an experiment, had, by just sitting in a room and thinking, changed the entire universe. Then Kemeny went to the blackboard and with breathtaking clarity taught 300 older people the genaral theory of relativity, using an example of two elevators. He finished with a flourish, writing on the board E=MC2. We jumped to our feet and gave him an ovation. Effortlessly, John Kemeny had carried us beyond our depth into the elegant world of pure mathematics.

Perhaps because he was excruciatingly shy himself, John was ever mindful of the needs of others. Before Jim Freedman became president of Dartmouth, Kemeny asked to see Sheba Freedman alone. He talked with her about the difficulties she would face as Dartmouth's first first lady to be on the faculty. "John realized," Sheba says, "that if I was ambitious enough to get my Ph.D. in psychology, teaching was important to me. How smart he was-and how understanding."

That was evident from the start. Lu Martin, special assistant to President Kemeny, recalls how he handled the first crisis of his administration. Two months after he took office, the bombings in Cambodia and the killings at Kent State ignited rage and fear on campuses across the nation. Kemeny rose to the challenge. By canceling classes and leading the college in a week of soul-searching and mourning, he averted a student strike.

The Manchester Union Leader denounced him in a front-page editorial headlined: "Dartmouth Has Bought Another Lemon." Lemon T-shirts instantly blossomed on campus; students delivered bushels of lemons to the Union Leader; and faculty presented John with a live lemon tree. At the end of the week, John was to address a rally in the field house. His wife, Jean, advised him, "If you're handed a lemon, make lemonade," and she gave him a lot of lemons. President Kemeny concluded his talk by tossing lemons to an enthusiastic crowd. Afterward, lemons autographed by the president became collectors' items.

Like everyone, John Kemeny had a few shortcomings. He did not suffer fools gladly. He did not moderate his strong opinions or his explosive temper. He did not hide his light under a bushel. He was good and he knew it. To a colleague who suggested that another administrator may have done some things better than John did, Kemeny snapped, "Name one."

But Kemeny could listen. "I had the sense that when I was with him he was paying attention and cared very much about what the students had to say," says ltob Salzman of his days as a student intern in the president's office. "Students were surprised by that. When they had that kind of personal contact they really had the sense he was viewing what you said as very important."

Kemeny was not programmed for a college president's hours. He never arrived on campus before late morning. A night person, he functioned best between midday and midnight. If concentrating on a problem, he never stopped just because the hours grew small. Once Provost Leonard Rieser '44 ran into him at 9 a.m. "John!" he exclaimed. "What are you doing on campus at this hour?" "Going home," John replied.

Nor was John a Big Green outdoorsman. "My idea of roughing it," he said, "is a hotel room with only a shower." A fellow mathematician told meJohn once played second base on the math department softball team: "He was as inept at base running as he was ept at everything else."

Still, he loved Dartmouth sports. He and his math colleagues always sat together at football games, Kemeny in the middle. They made all manner of bets based on probabilities of obscure game occurrences, such as the odds on three flags being thrown twice in a quarter.

Kemeny knew so much about so many things. He began life in Hungary, a prodigy whose boyhood was uprooted by the Nazis. In 1940 his father saw what was coming for European Jews and took the family to America; Kemeny's grandfather refused to leave and perished in the Holocaust, as did an aunt and uncle. Although John had never heard a word of English before he was 13, he graduated from Princeton in three years with enough credits to major in philosophy as well as math. When he took a year off to work on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, his boss was the Nobel Prize-winnerer Richard Feynman. At age 22, a year before he earned his Ph.D., Kemeny became Albert Einstein's mathematical assistant. I once asked him why Dr. Einstein, of all people, needed a mathematician. With that gentle, mustached smile, John said, "Einstein wasn't very good at math."

According to his colleagues, Kemeny's keen analytical ability to assess needs and uncover potentialities was a prime element in his value to the College. He built the Dartmouth math department into a national model. He wrote or co-authored 13 books on math and philosophy. He and fellow Dartmouth mathematician Tom Kurtz revolutionized computing with the world's first time-sharing system. Then they co-authored BASIC, the internationally used computer language that opened computing to a much wider public. And Kemeny presided over the most profound changes at Dartmouth in modern times: co-education, year-round scheduling, the renewal of Native American education, and active recruitment of minority students.

No problem seemed unsolvable. President Carter in 1979 selected John Kemelly to head the Three Mile Island investigation. Kemeny was horrified by the conditions he found there. But as his friend Laurie Snell puts it, "John was a born optimist. He was always sure things could be improved."

Even the most brilliant thinkers can be absent-minded at times. Leonard Rieser says John's extraordinary intensity of concentration was the cause of his apparent absentmindedness. "One time John and I were driving to Yale, where he was to speak at a luncheon. His topic was the new doctor of arts program in math, and he was giving that his full attention. Finally I said, 'John, I think we just passed Greenwich.'

"He wheeled around, and we raced north toward New Haven. John was proud of his red car with a souped-up engine, but it did require gas. He was still expounding on his topic when the tank went dry. After we got gas, the car overheated. Of course we missed the luncheon. As we walked into the room, Kingman Brewster was saying, 'Our next speaker will be John Kemeny."' Kemeny strolled to the podium and picked up without missing a beat.

Sometimes John's playfulness caught people off guard. One of his vice presidents, Rod Morgan, returned from a Caribbean vacation to find this letter on his desk:

       DEAR ROD:

       It was very nice of you to send that lovely post card to tell us 
       about the sunshine and your hammocle. The campus is covered
       by sleet, it is unattractive, it is horrible. The weather bureau 
       is predicting the worst blizzard we have had in years for 
       tomorrow. You're fired!

       Yours truly,


       PS. On second thought, I forgive you. We're just jealous! Welcome home.

John Kemeny's mind retained most everything but not names. That was Jean's department; his dependency on his wife was total. They met when she was a freshman at Smith and he, with his new Ph.D., an assistant professor of philosophy at Princeton. He was 23, she l 9. Jean did not return for her sophomore year. They were married in November 1950. Their 42-year marriage was a model of devotion. "His loyalty is something I can absolutely depend on," Jean wrote in her book, It's Different at Dartmouth. And in a way, the marriage was a model for Kemeny's relationship to Dartmouth. "My commitment to this College is the same as my commitment to my wife: 'til death do us part," he remarked on the tenth anniversary of his presidency. That his daughter Jennifer '76 and son Robert '77 chose to attend Dartmouth says something about the bonds that tied the Kemenys to one another and to the College.

After John's sudden death, Jean wanted to talk about him. "People didn't know he was a real softy. Every Christmas we watched Tile Miracle On 34th Street, and every Christmas he cried. Because we loved a movie called The Bear, our daughter gave us a bear that John kept on the bedside table. Each night he said, 'Good night, Bear.' Bear would appear regularly on my pillow wearing glasses, or a hat, or smoking a pipe.

"John was a funny and very touching person who communicated better with animals than with people. Our fluffy black cat, Who, followed him like a dog. For 15 years, John has been feeding our raccoons. [The Kemenys' house is on a remote hill in Etna.] Now 35 raccoons come every day to the feeding station on our deck, 16 feet above the ground, to eat and nurse their babies. John would greet each, one by one.

"He liked science fiction, football games, shrimp, all kinds of puzzles, Agatha Christie, and solitude (for two). He did not enjoy socializing. Before he retired, John recognized only two flowers, the tulip and the rose, and two pieces of music, the 1812 Overture and Poor Little Buttercup. These last years he had time to enjoy Mozart, wildflowers, pileated woodpeckers, eclipses. Sometimes he liked just to sit still and think. John wasn't a cook, but when I yearned for a Grand Marnier souffle, he collated all our cookbooks and created a perfect souffle with creme anglaise sauce, just to please me.

"The night before he died we listened to Frederika Von Staade and Kathleen Battle's Christmas concert. He died the day after Christmas. It all happened so fast. The nausea, the awful pain-and then he just fell. I called 911 and a policeman came.

"When we got him to the hospital, he had no blood pressure. He was only 66. Jim Strickler, former dean of the Vartnzouth Medical School, told me that John's coronary artery was calcified, but in spite of all the smoking, his lungs were clear. John and I were two cultures, two countries-a Yankee from Maine and a Jew from Budapest-but," Jean's voice broke slightly, "it worked."

John G. Kemeny possessed the inner calm that comes from having decided what is important and what is not. When he presided at his last commencement, he presented a diploma to a Dartmouth Review editor and that young man handed him a piece of paper. On it he had written: "F*** you." President Kemeny did not turn a hair.

He signaled the dean to raise the senior class. Then, in his soft Hungarian voice, John Kemeny gave his charge to the graduates: "The most dangerous voice you will ever hear is the evil voice of prejudice that divides black from white, man from woman, Jew from gentile. Listen to the voice that says man can live in harmony. Use your very considerable talents to make the world better."

President John Kemeny, the ecumenical man, ended his last commencement exercises with the words he used to conclude every conmmencement, words that came from his heart: "Women and men of Dartmouth, all mankind is your brother-and you are your brother's keeper."


John G. Kemeny: BASIC and DTSS: Everyone a Programmer

By: Jay Hauben ‹› - Postal: R. Hauben, PO Box 250101, NYC, NY 10025-1531, USA

"A while back I was working on a biography of John Kemeny. I posted on some Usenet newsgroups a request for anecdotes and sources for my biography. In response, I received by email some wonderful stories about Kemeny and some references where he was mentioned. These very much improved the biography I was writing. Recently it was reprinted in the compilation Computer Pioneers edited by J.A.N. Lee and published by the IEEE Computer Society Press."

Sadly, an important pioneer of the computer revolution has died. John G. Kemeny, co-inventor of the computer language BASIC and of the Dartmouth Time Sharing System (DTSS) and advocate of universal education in programming died unexpectedly on December 26, 1992. He was 66 years old.

John Kemeny was born in Budapest on May 31, 1926. His education and intellectual development in Hungary must have been very impressive, but in 1940, to escape the Nazi tide, his family emigrated to New York City. Kemeny entered high school knowing virtually no English. He graduated three years later, first in his class and accepted at Princeton University to study mathematics.

By the time Kemeny turned 18, he had finished his first year at Princeton. He was immediately drafted and sent to Los Alamos to be a "computer", one of 20 operators who used 17 IBM book keeping calculators to get numerical solutions to differential equations connected with the design of the atom bomb. It took two or three weeks, working three 8 hour shifts six days per week to get one result. The calculators were feed punched cards, which were moved manually from machine to machine. Between calculations, their plug boards had to be rewired by hand. At the end of a cycle the calculation was summarized on a printout which had to be checked by eye for "catastrophes". If any were found, the cycle had to be repeated. Years later, Kemeny was to note that one undergraduate working one afternoon, using a 1970 time sharing computer could solve as many differential equations as the whole Los Alamos team did in a whole year and there could be 100 other users on the computer at the same time.

While at Los Alamos, Kemeny heard a lecture by fellow Hungarian born John von Neumann who was a consultant to the computer operation. Von Neumann proposed a fully electronic computer based on a binary number system, with internal memory for both data and a stored program. To Kemeny and the other "computers", von Neumann's machine sounded like a dream. Kemeny wondered if he would live long enough to ever use one.

After the war, Kemeny returned to Princeton. In 1948-49, while finishing his dissertation, Kemeny served as Albert Einstein's research assistant at the Institute for Advanced Study. Von Neumann was at the Institute also, working on the machine he had described in his lecture two years earlier. Einstein and Kemeny crossed paths with von Neumann occasionally and had some long conversations concerning symbol handling as opposed to number handling computers.

Kemeny finished his Ph.D and stayed at Princeton teaching math and philosophy until 1953. During his time at Princeton, his contact with von Neumann and his computer had a deep effect on Kemeny. Here was the brilliant mathematician playing around with the nuts and bolts of a computing machine and raising profound philosophic questions about the relation between humans and machines. In a Scientific American article, "Man Viewed as a Machine" (vol. 192, April, 1955, pages 58-67) Kemeny summarized lectures von Neumann had given just before Kemeny left Princeton. Kemeny framed the question of these lectures, "What could a machine do as well or better than a man?" The conclusion in 1955 was that computers calculate faster than the human brain, may eventually match the human brain in memory capacity but have a long way to go to exceed the compactness of the human brain or the complexity the human brain is capable of dealing with. Next, based on the work of the English logician Alan Turing, Kemeny argued that a universal machine can be designed. That universal machine would need a simple code designed for it that would describe any simple machine humans could devise. Then the universal machine could do anything every simple machine could do by converting the descriptions of the simple machines into programs for its own operation. It occurred to Kemeny that "a normal human being is like the universal machine. Given enough time he can learn to do anything." (ibid, p. 63) Kemeny carried this understanding with him throughout his career of encouraging universal teaching of computer programming.

In the summer of 1953, while a consultant at the Rand Corporation, Kemeny had a chance to use the JONIAC, a copy of von Neumann's Princeton computer. He had great fun, he wrote, "learning to program a computer, even though the language used at that time was designed for machines and not for human beings." (Man and The Computer, New York, 1972, p. 7)

Kemeny joined the faculty of Dartmouth College in 1953 to teach math and philosophy. For six years after he got there, Dartmouth had no computer. Kemeny could however commute 135 miles each way to use the computer at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He did and, therefore, witnessed the coming in 1957 of the FORTRAN programming language. Kemeny welcomed FORTRAN because it made much more sense to him to teach a machine a language that is easier for human beings to learn than to force every human to learn the machine's own language. "All of a sudden access to computers by thousands of users became not only possible but reasonable." (Ibid, p. 8)

Dartmouth acquired its first computer in 1959, a very small computer called the LGP-30. Kemeny facilitated the use of the LGP-30 by undergraduate students. The ingenuity and creativeness of some of the students who had been given hands-on experience amazed the Dartmouth faculty. Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz, also of the Dartmouth math department, were thus encouraged to "set in motion the then revolutionary concept of making computers as freely available to college students as library books." (Portraits in Silicon, Robert Slater, Cambridge, 1987, p.22) The aim was to make accessible to all students the wonderful research environment that computers could provide.

The work of Kemeny and Kurtz in the early 1960's took two directions. Influenced by the work of J.C.R. Licklider and John McCarthy at MIT, Kemeny understood that a time sharing system would make possible the universal access they aimed for. A team of the two faculty members and a group of undergraduate research assistants developed a prototype system. It allowed multiple users short spurts of access to the central computer from remote terminals in such a way that each user enjoyed the illusion that he was the sole user. This Dartmouth Time Sharing System (DTSS) became operational in the Fall of 1964. The value of a time sharing system is that it ended the hardship of batch processing which often required hours or even days of waiting between runs of a program while it was being developed and debugged. Time sharing utilizes the great speed of computers compared to humans to greatly enhance the efficiency of computing from the point of view of the human users.

Today's packet switching networks (e.g, the Internet) owe a great deal to the development of this time sharing system conceptually and technically. But earlier, DTSS almost got derailed. Kemeny had worked closely with General Electric during the time DTSS was being worked on. In 1966, GE and Dartmouth agreed to work on a joint development of the time sharing operating system. However GE's commercial purposes conflicted with Dartmouth's educational purposes. The story is told that GE tried to "stop the Dartmouth experiment" and the development of the time sharing system called Phase I. (See e.g., Computer Lib, Ted Nelson, South Bend, 1974, p. 45). But Kemeny and Kurtz, determined not to let DTSS disappear, encouraged the development of DTSS Phase II by 1969.

In addition to time sharing, Kemeny and Kurtz realized that a new computer language was needed that could be easily learned and accessible to typical college students. Kemeny noted, "We at Dartmouth envisaged the possibility of millions of people writing their own computer programs." (Man and the Computer, p. 30) They designed their language with plain English and high school algebra like commands and so that the lay user could learn a very few commands and then be able to write interesting programs. Kemeny started to work on a draft version in September, 1963. The result was BASIC, Beginners All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code. The first BASIC program ran on May 1, 1964 at 4:00 am. Kemeny and Kurtz made an effort to get as many students as possible using BASIC and they were available to hear about problems and bugs and to come up with bug fixes. Kemeny and Kurtz wanted BASIC to be in the public domain. Dartmouth copyrighted BASIC but made it available without charge.

The careful work of Kemeny and Kurtz to make an easy to learn but powerful computer language bore tremendous fruit. After its introduction at Dartmouth in 1964, BASIC spread as did DTSS to other campuses and government and military situations. And BASIC made personal computers possible. Beginning in 1975 with the success of Bill Gates and Paul Allen to write an interpreter for a subset of BASIC commands for the Altair computer, one form or another of BASIC spread to and accelerated the personal computer revolution. (See Amateur Computerist, vol 2 no 4, p. 9-12)

For awhile the great appeal of personal computers and their falling costs and general availability eclipsed Kemeny and Kurtz's seminal work on DTSS and the original BASIC. By the late 1980's, 10 to 12 million school children had learned BASIC, more people than speak, e.g., Norwegian. The personal computer helped "distribute" computing, which Kemeny thought was crucial to the progress of society. But it also diminished in importance the centralized computing power and the interconnectivity of users that time sharing made possible. Only recently, with the spread of computer networks is the value of both developments being realized. Now the power of personal computer work stations instead of dumb terminals coupled with the connectivity and remote resource availability is making possible the human-computer and human-human interfacing that Kemeny predicted.

From 1971 to 1980, Kemeny was the thirteenth President of Dartmouth College presiding for example over the transition there to coeducation. He continued his efforts to support a crucial role for computers in education but was unable to be a major contributor to developments like the personal computer and the various versions of BASIC. In 1979, Kemeny served as the chairman of President Carter's Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island. Kemeny "very much regretted" that the Commission did not recommend a temporary halt on construction permits for nuclear reactors. The investigation had found that the government regulators were too lax in their regulation. The Commission concluded, "the evidence suggests that the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) has sometimes erred on the side of the industry's convenience rather than carrying out its primary mission of insuring safety" and that the industry took inadequate safety precautions and failed to respond to known unsafe conditions. (The Report of The President's Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island, pp. 43, 51 and 188)

After Kemeny stopped being President of Dartmouth and Chairman of the Three Mile Island Accident Commission, he took stock of the use of computers especially in education. He was furious and frustrated by the slow progress of education in computer programming, although it is not clear whether he was aware of the forces like Ford Motor Company which opposed that progress. Between 1983 and 1985, Kemeny and Kurtz went back to work and produced a more powerful version of their original BASIC. They called it TRUE BASIC and it is still marketed today with the intention of introducing "students to the very important art of computer programming and analytic thinking."

Kemeny had a very broad vision of the role computers would play in society. He foresaw a man-machine symbiosis that would help both to evolve rapidly. In the early 1970's he predicted that within 20 years there would be a national computer network with terminals in millions of homes, so every home would be a mini university. He also predicted there would be a National Automated Reference Library, a national personalized computer delivered news service, and, especially, greatly enhanced education via time sharing and simple programming languages. Kemeny worked hard to implement his visions and felt by the late 1980's great disappointment in the slow progress. He died just as the great computer networking structures that have developed in some large measure because of his pioneering work and vision have begun to fulfill more of his expectations but also just as a fight is being waged by those who want to commercialize theses networking structures and those who want to keep them in the public domain.

Kemeny recognized that the social problems that have yet to be solved are immense. He wrote, "while computers alone cannot solve the problems of society, these problems are too complex to be solved without highly sophisticated use of computers." (Ibid, p.80) and that it is imperative that computers be freely available. "Only if we manage to bring up a computer-educated generation will society have modern computers fully available to solve its serious problems." (Ibid) He saw the computer revolution as a possible asset for society but felt "it is a major mistake to make plans for the solution of social problems on the assumption that society will in the future will be organized in exactly the same way as today. For the first time in human history we have an opportunity for significant social planning. We cannot afford to waste it." (Ibid, p.143)

John Kemeny was part of many of the seminal events of the computer revolution. He made major contributed to its foundation and he thought deeply into this revolution. His death was untimely but he has left the value of his work to help us take on the challenges that confront the progress that he contributed to.