SIAM News Blog

SIAM: The Early Years

By James Crowley

History can reveal a lot about ourselves and our organization — what we stand for and how we reached this point. Two recent coincidences caused me to look back at SIAM’s early years and explore how SIAM came to be about mathematics, computing, and their applications. This story is a result of my investigation.

A Chance Occurrence

Not long ago, I met a minister who served a community in which my father lived. When we were introduced, Reverend George Patterson announced something puzzling. “You know, my father was one of the founders of SIAM,” he said. At first I was a bit perplexed. I was well aware of Ed Block’s notable role in SIAM’s founding, but unfortunately my familiarity with the society’s early history beyond that point was a bit fuzzy. Patterson and I chatted some more, and when I returned home I did a little homework. Block’s “SIAM – Its First Three Years,” which published in SIAM Review [2], was a natural place to start. The article noted that “The first organizing meeting for the proposed society took place in December 1951 at Drexel Institute of Technology [now Drexel University]. Members of the organizing committee were I.E. Block, Donald B. Houghton, Samuel S. McNeary, Cletus O. Oakley, George W. Patterson III, and George Sonneman.”

I. Edward Block (left) mingles with attendees at an early SIAM conference. SIAM photo.
According to Block, the nascent organization sponsored Mina Rees of the Office of Naval Research as its first speaker. Rees delivered a talk entitled “The Role of Mathematics in Government Research.” Shortly thereafter, on April 30, 1952, SIAM was incorporated.

The strong integration of mathematicians in industry and government (and industrial mathematics) into SIAM from its outset is certainly interesting. William E. Bradley of Philco was elected as the first president. SIAM had two vice presidents in its initial years: Grace Hopper of the Eckert-Mauchly Division of Remington Rand and George W. Patterson III of the Burroughs Adding Machine Company. Emil Amelotti of Villanova University was the first treasurer, and Block (then at Philco) was the first secretary. The influence of the then-newly emerging computer industry is also apparent within this group. Members of the Board of Trustees included John W. Mauchly, co-founder of the Eckert-Mauchly Division of Remington Rand (with J. Presper Eckert). Mauchly helped create the ENIAC computer and would later become the fourth president of SIAM.

Development of the ENIAC at the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School had a profound impact on both mathematics and the greater Philadelphia area. Organizations raced to embrace this new technology, and companies like Philco and the Burroughs Adding Machine Company—inspired by the region’s talent pool—created divisions devoted to the novel computer and hired people with ENIAC development experience.

The newfound focus on computing services—both for military and commercial applications—required the development of new algorithms, and organizations hired mathematicians to accomplish this objective. This provided the basis for a new scholarly society in applied mathematics.

The tradition of appointing and electing officers from industry and/or national laboratories continued over the next five decades. Of SIAM’s first 39 presidents, 11 were affiliated with a company or national lab. These organizations included Philco (Bradley), Remington Rand (Mauchly), IBM (Donald Thomsen and Hirsh Cohen), Bell Labs (Brockway McMillan and Margaret Wright), Oak Ridge National Laboratory (Alston Householder), Argonne National Laboratory (Wallace Givens), the Boeing Company and the National Bureau of Standards, now the National Institute of Standards and Technology (Burt Colvin), Los Alamos National Laboratory (Mac Hyman), and MathWorks (Cleve Moler).

Harold Kuhn is credited with expanding SIAM’s conference program [4] by eliciting an invitation from the American Mathematical Society to join it—along with the Mathematical Association of America and the Association for Symbolic Logic—for their joint meeting in Pittsburgh, Penn., in December 1954; we now know this conference as the Joint Mathematics Meetings. This was SIAM’s first national meeting.

By 1960, SIAM had 2,000 members and counting; today that number exceeds 14,000. By 1976, SIAM had expanded to the point of needing a managing director for its small but growing staff, and the Board of Trustees appointed Block to this position. It was around this time that SIAM really began to take off as a professional society.

A Second Coincidence

Upon return from a trip to Ireland, my wife and I happened to chat with someone who asked me about my work. I responded that I worked with the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics. “Oh, SIAM!” he exclaimed. “My father was the treasurer of SIAM many years ago.” SIAM records indeed confirmed this statement: Richard “Dick” Lamb was SIAM Treasurer from 1965 until 1983.

This discovery inspired yet another journey into SIAM’s history, which reinforced my earlier conclusions. My research revealed that Lamb was employed at the Auerbach Corporation’s Digital Computing Service for a time, where he probably met Block, who also spent time with Isaac Auerbach. This led me down another fascinating trail of history concerning Auerbach himself, and hints at why SIAM was established in Philadelphia.

In the 1950s, Philadelphia was the Silicon Valley of its time. This was in part due to the ENIAC’s development at the University of Pennsylvania, which created a core of experts in the region who left the university after World War II for commercial pursuits in industry. These enterprising individuals helped found both large organizations and smaller technology companies. For example, Eckert and Mauchly’s departure inspired the creation of the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, which became Remington Rand and later gave rise to Unisys. And Isaac Auerbach left the Burroughs Corporation to form his own company, which bore his name. It was at the Auerbach Corporation where Block found Lamb and brought him to SIAM as treasurer.

Block spent most of his career in industry. After earning his doctorate in mathematics at Harvard University, he accepted a position at Philco. He then moved to the Burroughs Corporation, where he eventually became a manager at the UNIVAC Engineering Computer Center of the Sperry-Rand Corporation’s Remington Rand Division in Philadelphia and served as supervisor of the UNIVAC Division of Sperry Rand’s Applied Mathematics Unit. From there, Block joined Auerbach Corporation as technical advisor to the director of the Information Sciences Division. 

During this entire period, Block served in various capacities as a volunteer with SIAM: as founding secretary (1952-1955), vice president (1963-1974), Board member (1970-1976), and chairman of SIAM’s Publications Committee. At Auerbach, he became vice president of Auerbach Publishers, thus merging his full-time job with his interests in scientific publishing at SIAM [1].

Block was clearly a driving force in SIAM’s creation and development. Former SIAM President Bob O’Malley aptly noted that SIAM had been founded “mostly through the efforts of Ed” [3].

The lessons I came away with as a result of my historical expedition were not only an explanation of SIAM’s emphases in the early days (which continue to some degree today) to embrace applied and industrial mathematics as well as computing. SIAM offered a place not only for industrial mathematics, but also for mathematicians working in industry and government laboratories. It has always included a strong computing component. 

Most of all, we can be thankful for Ed Block, who personified many of these things.

[1] Bartik, J.J. (2013). Pioneer programmer: Jean Jennings Bartik and the computer that changed the world. Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press.
[2] Block, I.E. (1973). SIAM – its first three years. SIAM Rev., 15(2), v-ix.
[3] O’Malley, B. (2008, November 16). Obituaries: George Handelman. SIAM News, 41(9).
[4] Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (2002). Looking back, looking ahead: A SIAM history. Philadelphia, PA: SIAM.

  James Crowley is the executive director of SIAM. 
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