As of next September, I will have been communicating with other people online for 37 years. Bet I have some people beat on that score.
John G. Kemeny (born János György Kemény in Budapest in 1926), mathematician and former research assistent to Albert Einstein, co-developer (with Thomas E. Kurtz) of the computer language BASIC, "the elementary algebraic language designed for use with the Dartmouth Time-Sharing System," was President of Dartmouth College from 1970 to 1981. He implemented universal access to the college's mainframes for all students—all you needed was a student ID number and a seat at one of the Teletype Model 32 or 33 terminals that were strategically sprinkled around campus or clustered in the Kiewit Computing Center (built 1960, obsolete by 2000). Using a protocol called Xtalk, a precursor of Unix talk, you could converse with students at other terminals as well as at other schools, such as Mount Holyoke and the United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA).
My handle back then was "King Leer." Don't know why—it didn't fit; I've never been the "leering" sort, and I had never read the play. But I spent* way too much time on Xtalk.
People would ask—did you know enough physics to help Einstein? My standard line was: Einstein did not need help in physics. But contrary to popular belief, Einstein did need help in mathematics. By which I do not mean that he wasn't good at mathematics. He was very good at it; but he was not an up-to-date, research-level mathematician. His assistants were mathematicians for two reasons. First of all, in just ordinary calculations, anybody makes mistakes. There were many long calculations, deriving one formula from another to solve a differential equation. They go on forever. Any number of times we got the wrong answer. Sometimes one of us got the wrong answer, sometimes the other. The calculations were long enough that if you got the same answer at the end, you were confident. So he needed an assistant for that, and, frankly, I was more up-to-date in mathematics than he was.
It is for his visionary contributions to the computer age, however, that he is mainly remembered. Kemeny was a remarkable man, and a forward thinker. I think I was one of his student "moles," or sources, as I enjoyed several long private discussions with him in his office about campus life and possible reforms; but he was then at the end of his stint as an administrator. He returned shortly thereafter to teaching, his first calling as an educator. Such a pity he didn't live to see the flourishing of the online world. He died in 1992. R.I.P.
(Thanks to Brice Buchanan '79, who jogged my memory about some of this recently)
* "Wasted" might once have seemed a better term, but little did I know I was in fact preparing for my future career!
"Open Mike," a catchall rubric for off-topic squiblets by Yr. Hmbl. Ed., appears only, but not always, on Sundays.
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Featured Comments from:
Del Kimbler: "Never met him, but certainly knew of him. Outside his work within his institution as an educator, users of personal computers of all brands and sizes were able to do things to amaze themselves due to his work with BASIC. A pioneer of computing."
Tom Judd: "I think I can match your 37 years online. I was at Bell Labs in the early '70s where email usage was the norm. Before that, I was a student at Dartmouth in the late '50s. I was privileged to have then Professor Kemeny for an honors probability class. Among his many marks of genius was his ability to make complicated subjects seem perfectly simple. He and his wife were also wonderful hosts to groups of students in their home. Great memories of a great man."