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Richard W. Hamming: Curiosity And Collaboration Define A Coding Career

Dec. 2, 2011
Hamming (2011)

It seems so logical when it’s spelled out for us. But Hamming, inventor of error detecting and correcting computer codes that carry his name, found it critical to frequently remind his coworkers, students, and other scientists.

“Hamming encouraged people to stand back from minutiae and think about the larger problems,” said Cynthia Irvine, professor of computer science and chair of the cyber academic group at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey, Calif. She also worked part of the same time at the NPS in California where Hamming taught from 1976 until his death in 1998.

“He believed it’s really important to think about the right problem to solve,” she said. “If you pick the right problem you can do something more important than making incremental contributions.”

“Big ideas” really excited Hamming. Noted Bruce MacLennan, who was also a professor at NPS when Hamming was there, “He was very interested in the broader aspect of everything.”

Friday Afternoons

“He was a great one for walking and thinking,” said MacLennan. The two of them often could be found walking in the gardens surrounding NPS or heading to a restaurant on the lake. “He believed it was really important to always reserve Friday afternoons for thinking great thoughts. He’d discuss or think about lofty science or broader scientific issues.”

In Hamming’s oft-given “You and Your Research” speech, he recalled how over time at Bell Labs he moved from one lunch table group to another, continually seeking intellectual challenges and simultaneously challenging his coworkers.

Finally, among a group of chemists, he asked what the important chemistry issues were. The next week he asked the chemists if they were working on those issues, and they told him no.

Lastly, he asked, “If what you are doing is not important, and if you don’t think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?” He had to find a different lunch table group after that!

Hamming also studied what made people great so he and others could also be great. “Learn from the masters,” was one of his philosophies. He also liked, said MacLennan, to quote Socrates, saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Open Doors

Entranced with why people of apparently equal intelligence had very different degrees of success, he set about to study their behavior. He concluded it was from both focusing on big ideas and whether they worked with an office door open or closed!

“If you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most,” said Hamming in an 1986 address at Bellcore.

“But 10 years later, somehow you don’t know quite what problems are worth working on,” he continued. “All the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important.”

Thus, Hamming believed exchanging ideas with others was vital to one’s success. He made it a habit to drop into other offices and share ideas.

“I always remember, he would come into my office and try to solve a problem,” said MacLennan. “I had a very big blackboard, and he’d start on one side, write down some integral, say, ‘I ain’t afraid of nothin’,’ and start working on it. So, now, when I start a big problem, I say, ‘I ain’t afraid of nothin’,’ and dive into it.”

Irvine said that during several of Hamming’s frequent visits to her office, he’d sit in an orange chair, eventually called “Hamming’s chair,” and raise the topic of “unthinkable thoughts”—not thoughts of some tragedy, but wondering if humans were incapable of thinking certain ways.

“He liked to ponder things about the physical universe that, because of our physical nature, we could not think about. Of course he couldn’t think the unthinkable thoughts, but he liked to think there were such possibilities. He had a very philosophical perspective on the limitations of humans and our understanding of the universe,” Irvine said.

“Or, he would have some topic, maybe calculus, or an aspect of information technology, and he would be on the topic a couple of weeks, as it gestates, and he would try it out with various people,” remembered Irvine.

Computing’s Growing Role

Hamming was born on Feb. 11, 1915, in Chicago, Ill. He received his BS from the University of Chicago in 1937, followed by an MS at the University of Nebraska and his PhD in mathematics in 1942 from the University of Illinois.

cc. A year later he was at Bell Labs, where he stayed until his 1976 move to the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. He worked there mentoring and teaching until his death in January 1998, a month shy of 83.


As a member of the Manhattan project during World War II at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Hamming worked on calculations to determine if the explosion of the atomic bomb would ignite the nitrogen in the atmosphere. It led him to deeply value correct computations.

“He really stressed the importance of mathematics and computing based on this experience at Los Alamos. He wanted scientists to understand that the computations we do have consequences. It was important that they be correct,” said MacLennan.

Hamming was at Bell Labs when he authored the Hamming error correcting codes and the Hamming Distance, which is central to coding theory. They solved many of the maintenance problems with telephone switching equipment and are critical in cell phones, disk drives, flash drives, and the Internet.

It was the start of the storm of coding theory and applications. It was also a time when the scientific world was moving from desktop calculators to computers (see the figure). Hamming saw it coming and warned Bell Labs that soon the ratio of non-computer users to computer users would flip flop, explaining that more experiments would be performed on computers than in the laboratory.

Hamming and fellow Bell Labs researchers were continually seeking additional computing power. At that time, computer tests were run multiple times to ensure accuracy. The practice consumed time and computing power.

He said to himself, “Hamming, you think machines can do practically everything. Why can’t you make them write programs? What appears to be a fault, often, by a change of viewpoint, turns out to be one of the greatest assets you can have.” That’s what forced him into automatic programming and his error correcting codes.

Ballet, Books, Plums

Despite Hamming’s focus on big ideas and ways to be successful, he did take recreational time. He and his wife Wanda often went to the ballet in San Francisco. He enjoyed the visual arts, dance, and literature, including books in French.

Both Irvine and MacLennan noted that Hamming was widely read, often surprising them with the subject matter. “One day he said, ‘Here. Take and read this.’ It was about the early days of Australia as a penal colony,” said Irvine.

“He read Pride and Prejudice every year. He said anyone who writes should try to do what Jane Austen had done,” said Irvine.

He also wrote some poetry, said Irvine, and Hamming and his wife annually made plum jam and shared it as Christmas gifts. “They had a giant plum tree in their yard which overwhelmed them with plums,” Irvine said.

Another Hamming couple ritual was putting on an annual party on Bastille Day because that was the day, said Irvine, they moved into their house. His wife’s talents as a good cook undoubtedly helped its popularity.

MacLennan added, “He was willing to argue almost anything, but he was also very open. You were able to disagree with him and sometimes he even changed his mind. He was very pleasant to be around and a very good example to follow. I never saw him angry or unhappy.”

What did displease him was seeing a good scientist waste time, said MacLennan. “In department meetings he always brought a book and paper, if they got talking in circles, started to waste time, he would obviously pull out a sheet of paper and do mathematics on it.”

He was also frustrated when he saw someone with talent not using it, noted Irvine. “Sometimes people didn’t want to put in the extra effort, and I think that bothered him,” she said.

“He liked people who were not just going along with standard doctrine,” she continued. “He liked to question the foundation of our thought processes. If he liked an idea, he was willing to stick his neck out.”

As he saw computers crunching out more and more information, Hamming was concerned with the vast accumulation of data. “He was talking about it doubling and our inability to deal with it. I think he wanted us to make use of useful data and not be overwhelmed by minutia, or the desire to collect it for collection’s sake,” said Irvine.

Perhaps that’s why Hamming, who continually ran calculations through his computers, said in his book, Numerical Methods for Scientists and Engineers, “the purpose of computing is insight, not numbers.” They were to help provide answers to the big questions he was always examining.



Richard W. Hamming received many awards and honors. Among them are:

  • Turing Award (1968) from the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)
  • Emanuel R. Piore Award (1979) from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE)
  • Harold Pender Award from the University of Pennsylvania (1981)
  • IEEE Richard W. Hamming Medal, named after him, for exceptional contributions to information sciences and systems (1988)
  • $130,000 Eduard Rhein Award for Achievement in Technology for his work on error correcting codes (1966)
  • President of the ACM (1958-60)
  • Member of the National Academy of Engineering
  • Fellow of the IEEE

He also founded the Association for Computing Machinery in 1947, the world’s first scientific and educational computing society.

Published Works

Richard W. Hamming published more than 75 technical articles, held three patents, and wrote nine books, including:

  • Numerical Methods for Scientists and Engineers, McGraw-Hill, 1962
  • Computers and Society, McGraw-Hill, 1972
  • Digital Filters, Prentice-Hall, 1977
  • The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn, Gordon and Breach, 1997

Hamming’s writings reflected his “voice,” noted Cynthia Irvine, professor of computer science and chair of the cyber academic group at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, Calif.

“A person who knew him could hear the cadences of his speech in his writing. It was quite remarkable,” she said. “His method for writing books was to be persistent. He suggested that if you write one page per day, then by the end of the year you’d have a book. I’m sure there was much more to it than that, but his approach was akin to the Chinese proverb: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. You’ll never have anything if you don’t start.”

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