Web Techniques Magazine
March 1998
Volume 3, Issue 3

Achieving Greatness

Richard Hamming once wrote that "If you are to do important work then you must work on the right problem at the right time and in the right way. Without any one of the three, you may do good work but you will almost certainly miss real greatness." Hamming lived just miles from my home and over the past 20 or so years, served as an adjunct professor imparting such ideals on the students at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. Sadly, Hamming passed away this January at the age of 82.

Hamming was no stranger to greatness. He is the namesake of the error correcting codes, Hamming codes, that were used in early computing and telephone-switching systems. As the story goes, while Hamming was working at Bell Labs in 1947, he was frustrated by the fact that computers of the time were subject to random errors caused by the Earth's surface radiation. He focused on the computers' binary representations and discovered that extra bits could be added to binary numbers to redundantly encode numerical quantities. Once encoded, any single bit could be verified against a redundant bit and, if need be, corrected. Hamming codes also detect the condition where two adjacent bits are corrupted, although the corrupted bit cannot be corrected.

In 1950, Hamming published the results of his work in "Error Detecting and Error Correcting Codes," which appeared in the Bell System Technical Journal. This work was to become the basis for a new subject within information theory. Many modern computers still use Hamming's (or similar) techniques to correct errors in main memory and Hamming codes are still used in various applications, including critical control-applications associated with aerospace and compact discs.

Hamming's accomplishments were many. His B.S., M.A. and Ph.D., all in mathematics, led him to Los Alamos, where he worked on the Manhattan project during World War II. His later work in numerical analysis led to the Hamming window, which is used to smooth data before Fourier analysis. Hamming also developed a programming language on the IBM 650. And over the span of his lifetime, Hamming published a dozen books and 175 articles ranging from calculus and probability theory to digital filters. (Several of his books are still available through Amazon.com.)

His research has also led to several awards, including the prestigious Turing Prize from the Association for Computing Machinery, which he received in 1968. In 1979, Hamming was handed the Emanuel R. Piore Award from the IEEE, and in 1988 the IEEE established the R.W. Hamming Medal and bestowed the first medal to him for his contributions to information sciences and systems. That same year, he earned the Harold Pender Prize from the University of Pennsylvania, and was later given the Certificate Of Merit by the Franklin Institute. Hamming was also awarded the 1996 Eduard Rhein Award for Basic Research for "his basic contributions in the field of information theory, particularly for the first concept of constructing error correcting codes and establishing their limits (Hamming distance/Hamming codes)."

To say that Richard Wesley Hamming was large in measure is to understate the obvious. To acknowledge that the Web, indeed computing, would not be where it is today without such brilliance is important. But to understand that computers are a means, not an end, is critical. As Hamming once said, "The purpose of computation is insight, not numbers."

You can honor Richard Hamming with a contribution to the Hospice Foundation for the Central Coast, P.O. Box 1798, Monterey, CA 93942.

Michael Floyd

Michael Floyd
editor in chief

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Last modified: 2/19/98