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Pioneers in Tech: Nicholas Metropolis & and the MANIAC

Pioneers in Tech: Nicholas Metropolis & and the MANIAC
Pioneers in Tech

Pioneers in Tech

While not the namesake of an Academy Award-winning film, “Nicholas Metropolis” is a name you’re not likely to forget once you’ve read this edition of Pioneers in Tech.

Born on June 11, 1915, in Chicago, Nicholas Constantine Metropolis was recruited by J. Robert Oppenheimer in 1943 to work on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. Metropolis had recently completed his doctorate in experimental physics at the University of Chicago. He was also a lab assistant to Enrico Fermi.

At Los Alamos, Metropolis continued working for Fermi as well as Edward Teller, as well as learning more about computers. Fermi and others at Los Alamos used Marchant calculators, and Metropolis and others would take them apart to fix them. Los Alamos also received IBM punch card computers. Metropolis was skeptical of the IBM machines—until he conducted a race between the analog Marchant and the IBM. The IBM out calculated the Marchant, and Metropolis was sold.

Creator and pioneer

Metropolis briefly left Los Alamos after World War II ended but returned in 1948 to work on the projects for which he is most known. He co-developed the Monte Carlo statistical modeling method and the Metropolis-Hastings algorithm, both of which changed the course of statistical computing.

He also directed the construction of the MANIAC, the first digital computer at Los Alamos. The lab had been borrowing time on computers such as the ENIAC, and it was time for Los Alamos to have a computer of its own. MANIAC stands for “Mathematical Analyzer, Numerical Integrator, and Computer.” The MANIAC, which began official operations in March 1952, was based on the Princeton work of John van Neumann and weighed about 1,000 pounds. It was capable of 10,000 calculations per second.

Metropolis’ sense of humor was on full display with the MANIAC. He hung a horseshoe next to it for good luck against “gremlins,” as well as an abacus in a glass case bearing a sign that read “In case of emergency, break glass.”

Metropolis passed away on Oct. 17, 1999, at Los Alamos.

Did you enjoy this installation of SmarterMSP’s Pioneers in Tech? Check out others here.

Photo: TierneyMJ / Shutterstock

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