Princeton IAS computer: The first Open Source Hardware computer?

The name John von Neumann is probably familiar. Most of our computers are of the “von Neumann” architecture, named after him. He led the project at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies to build one of the earliest stored program computers: the IAS machine.
One thing that is very unique about that computer is that, even though the work was done under contract to the US Army, von Neumann insisted that the design be “open source.” All of the details were published openly. That made the machine very popular and very influential. There were quite a few copies and derivatives made.
So, before Richard Stallman was even born, and long before the phrases “open source” and “open source hardware” came about, one of the Unites States’ most prolific top secret researchers was pushing openness of advanced military computer hardware design.

EDIT: Here is a link to a paper about the IAS project.


This is actually a bit controversial, even today. I really don’t want to start an arguement, but rather just report on the controversy. In a nutshell, it’s about von Neumann pushing the concepts into the public domain to the contrary of previous agreements (allegedly to gain a position to consult IBM on those ideas). One of the more pronounced proponents of this was J. P. Eckert (ENIAC, UNIVAC, etc) – as may be seen in the below excerpts of an oral history interview conducted by Nancy Stern. However, it’s mostly for this that the principles of computing are in the public domain (apparently, in the case of ENIAC a process for collecting applicable inventions for patent filing had already started and there were several lawsuits about this.)

So here’s the controversy according to J.P. Eckert (referring multiple times to Julian Bigelow as a witness):

An Interview with J. PRESPER ECKERT
Conducted by Nancy Stern on 28 October 1977 Sperry Univac (Blue Bell, PA)
Charles Babbage Institute, Center for the History of Information Processing University of Minnesota, Minneapolis

[J.P. Eckert on the IAS machine (where the University of Pennsylvania was initially meant to be involved in the project), engineers granted inventor positions, on patents and what happened then]

We had a deal with the University of Pennsylvania…the patents go to the individual inventors, except for the rights to the Moore School, institutions in government, and other universities, where we saw reasons for them having to pay. The same deal was to be made at the Institute for Advanced Study. I was to be in charge of the project there as well as the one at Penn. Then when I didn’t go there because of the fight with Dr. Pender, Goldstine, I remember, called and gave me a long tirade over the phone that I should be working for our own company rather than the University. It was the worst thing in the world anyone could ever do and he would never work for a company. After the incident, von Neumann followed through on the proposal that I had originally made–that all the employees that he hired be given this same right there. That we had at Penn.
But if you worked for von Neumann on the MANIAC,* then if you invented something it belonged to you. Well, on some relatively short notice, like it might have been a week, or a month, or something, a short time before the 46 deadlines hit, von Neumann went down and published all that stuff. All the reports of the engineers went to the Library of Congress which put a bar on any patents being obtained by any of his employees. And when they complained about it to him, he just said, “Well, that’s tough; that’s the way I think; that stuff should be in the public domain.” Now there is a perfectly obvious reason for this. He was consulting with people like IBM. If the things weren’t patented that would be a problem for IBM. The idea was he was selling ideas to other people…if it wasn’t covered by patents, he would have been selling something they couldn’t use. They would have come back and said, now, “what kind of a consultant are you, coming up with new ideas which are already patented by others and we can’t use them.” But if these ideas could come under the public domain, then he could go around and sell them to people. That was his game. Now this can be verified by you by going up and talking with Dr. Bigelow, who will tell you perhaps in different words and he certainly has a better memory for the circumstances. He can tell you more precisely what was involved because he went through it and I didn’t. This is what happened to him and to other people. It happened to one of my classmates, Willis Ware, at the Rand Corporation. He was there and I had tried to get Willis to work for me and I didn’t know that he went there even though I tried to get him there. There were a number of people that I was encouraging to go there.

*) MANIAC was actually another machine built after the IAS blueprint. This may be an error by Eckert, who was, immediately before this, talking about MANIAC as a nick name used for ENIAC during construction when it didn’t behave as expected and this then being used for a real machine. Apparently, he is meaning to address the circumstances of the construction of the IAS machine.

[J.P. Eckert on von Neumann’s character and alleged motives]

Look, he sold all our ideas through the back door to IBM as a consultant for them.
Well, there were very different estimates as to how much money he made but some people claim that he made as much as half a million dollars by consulting with them. Julian Bigelow who was close to him said it was less than that, but that it was substantial.


You know, we finally regarded von Neumann as a huckster of other people’s ideas with Goldstine as his principle mission salesman. Now, if you don’t believe this, talk to Julian Bigelow at the Institute for Advanced Study who holds a position that Einstein held during his life.


I think what happened to von Neumann was that he got scooped by somebody…He became cynical and I think probably in a very honest way, he decided he’s not going to let any grass grow under his feet and that he’ll get ahead before anybody else gets ahead of him the next time around. I think that’s what motivated him by the time we met him. Otherwise it’s hard to explain because of his background being a middle class background with no hardships or anything. No other way to explain why he behaved the way he did.


That said, whatever the actual historical events, it’s mostly for von Neumann that the principles of electronic computers are in the public domain.

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Yes, there IS a lot of controversy over those events as well as other things von Neumann did or is held responsible for. I certainly don’t know what happened with any of it and really don’t hold strong opinions on any of it. But I will make a few points that I think should be considered when looking at the accusations against him.
First, the original spilling of ideas was earlier, concerning EDVAC, was a “paper” he wrote for a select group that someone else distributed more widely. From Wikipedia:
" While consulting for the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania on the EDVAC project, von Neumann wrote an incomplete First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC . The paper, whose premature distribution nullified the patent claims of EDVAC designers J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly, described a computer architecture in which the data and the program are both stored in the computer’s memory in the same address space"
To my knowledge he never claimed to have invented the ideas in that paper, even though they got attributed to him (von Neumann architecture.) According to this page and others I’ve read, the draft was intended to name all the group who worked on the ideas, but was published in draft form rather than after completion.
The events that nullified the patents happened around 1946. von Neumann didn’t consult for IBM until the 50s.
The interview you quote happened shortly (2 years?) after Eckert and Mauchly lost an ugly court battle over “inventorship.” He was bitter, in case you cant detect that from his statements. He had just been stripped of the title “inventor of the computer” as well as potentially a lot of money.
In the interview he admits several times that his memory isn’t clear and pushes the details off to others (especially Bigelow) who aren’t then quoted.

I’m sure there are more things that should be considered. I doubt anyone today will ever know what really happened. I think there was a lot of anger from a lot of different directions for a very long time. Anger clouds facts and judgement.
As I said, I don’t really have a strong opinion one way or the other.

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Thanks for the links! I admit I find something a little fishy about the release of the Draft Report - it’s a personal opinion but it seems like the act of someone who is self-promoting. Of course I’m from the UK and he was from Hungary, and I know that cultures differ. (“A child prodigy from a banking family…”)

But your original point stands: these ideas did get out into the public, and von Neumann had a hand in getting them out.

From a historical point of view it might be interesting to know what von Neumann thought of patents and intellectual property. These are ideas which come from commerce. The idea of open exchange of ideas comes from science. I think he had a foot in both camps.

Hmmmm, maybe I’m slow but that gave me a thought. von Neumann was adamant that computers were an important scientific tool. I wonder if maybe he was more like Stallman than I originally thought and intentionally headed off the patents to make sure computing remained open rather than for financial gain?

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I admit, I’m biased against von Neumann myself, however, for completely unrelated reasons. Namely, him having (reportedly quite intensively and seriously) promoted a “preemptive” nuclear first strike against the USSR before the USSR could deploy hydrogen weapons – as in “as long as we can still do this”. (Also compare this with the drama, when he was eventually facing his own mortality. Maybe this also sheds some light on his esteem of the concerns of others as compared to his own concerns.) It’s more for this that – at least in my opinion – he doesn’t qualify for a hero.

I am not putting him up as a hero. The original post wasn’t about him, but about the project. He was the leader of the project, so an integral part of the story. He was also the person who pushed to make it open, which was the main subject.
I will claim he was a “great” scientist in the sense that he made a huge number of scientific contributions. Unfortunately, a lot of great scientists aren’t necessarily good people.
As a rule, I hate the word “hero” because it is much overused for a lot of wrong reasons. As an example, here in the US it has become common to refer to anyone who serves in the military as a hero. No matter how crappy that individual may be. But that’s just my take on it. The IAS computer project was still hugely influential for a number of reasons. So was von Neumann, no matter what flaws he may have had.

I didn’t mean you by any means! However, he is treated as a universal hero, at times.
Also, this doesn’t say anything about his achievements, and, whatever the facts and alleged motives, it’s a fact that we owe to him that the principles of electronic digital computers are in the public domain.

J. P. Eckert himself provides a striking example to the contrary, ENIAC’s “local control”, which was patented and (if I’m parsing this correctly, since it’s a bit ambiguous) subsequently never used again:

“So, the ENIAC is a peculiar machine and it’s the only machine that we ever built that didn’t have centralized programming. It had what I would call a distributed programming system–which I would have later called local control (which has later been called local control and many of the original patents are written for this principle of local control and nobody could use it much in later machines).”
(Oral history interview conducted by Nancy Stern, p. 28)

I wasn’t upset at all, just clarifying my position.
If you looked into the lawsuit that I linked at all it shows that one of the companies (I forget which) was trying to monopolize the market with patents. I can only imagine how it would have stunted the growth of computers if they had succeeded. It was right at the time when microprocessors were coming out. Could MOS Technology have afforded to pay the royalties from the profits off their $25 6502 chips? I doubt it.
Fortunately, they did not succeed and we got the 6502 (and lots of other cool toys.) I don’t know how much credit for that can go to von Neumann, but I’m sure some should.

Suggested book title: “World’s Greatest Pirate”. :slight_smile:

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