Franz Alt: A Late Token of Appreciation

Die Gemeinde (06/2007)

Peter Weinberger

“When I studied mathematics in Vienna, the emphasis was on quite abstract subjects: on foundations of mathematics and mathematical logic; on fields like graph theory and combinatorial typology, and things like that. That was the atmosphere at that time, and these were the interesting subjects. Schlick was there in logic and philosophy, and Carnap was there. Goedel, whom we now call the foremost logician, was a student in Vienna, and he was a few years older than I. ”

Franz Alt is the last member of the Vienna Mathematical Colloquium, a group of scientists including Kurt Gödel, Oskar Morgenstern, Karl Menger and Abraham Wald, who, along with the Vienna Circle (and in close association to), did pioneer work during the 1930s in various areas of logic, topology and economics.

Franz, as he is fondly called by everyone, was born in Vienna on November 30, 1910. His father was a reputable lawyer, but Franz didn’t want to take over his father’s law firm “I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I rebelled  ” and studied mathematics at the University of Vienna, where he received his PhD in 1932: “I, instead, decided to study something else. Somewhere in high school, we had a very inspiring teacher of mathematics, and that inspired me to get into mathematics.”

Like many others, he found no regular employment in Vienna and had to eke out a living on part-time jobs, such as offering private tutoring along with Oskar Morgenstern at the Austrian Institute for Economic Research where, for the cost of 50 pennies, one could learn mathematics geared for national economists.

Upon arrival of the Anschluß, Franz had to leave Austria on the spur of the moment with his newly wedded wife. I’m not a practicing Jew, just ethnically by German definitions, by Nazi definitions. Becoming newly wedded happened something like this: Vienna was now under control of the Nazis,…nobody knew who was in charge, who could even issue a marriage certificate…One day, my future wife called me at the office on the phone and said, “I have just heard from Rabbi Schwartz….He’s still permitted to perform marriage, and it would be recognized. So if you want to, we could get married this afternoon.” I said, “All right.” I hadn’t given it any thought before then. “I’ll meet you at three o’clock after your office hours are over at such-and-such corner in Vienna,” and we walked over to see him at his synagogue.  

After a short stay in Switzerland, they left directly for the USA, where his wife had relatives. When we arrived by boat in New York, one of my wife’s cousins was on the pier to receive us. We waved “hello” to him.

Only some time later was he offered employment: For three months, I was unemployed. I think I had 60 letters of introduction. I wrote letters to all of these people, and I got 58 refusals. Then, however, he did find work - with the Econometric Institute in New York – which was shortly interrupted by his two-year military service with the U.S. Army. I volunteered for the American Army early ’42 and was turned down because I was an enemy alien, theoretically. They didn’t do any harm to me. They didn’t intern me as they did the Japanese, but they didn’t allow me to enter the Army until I was drafted the following year. In ’43, I was drafted. Then while I was in the Army, I got my American citizenship, a little early being a soldier. …As soon as I was drafted, I volunteered for the ski troops because I felt that me, coming from Austria – Austria, if you don’t know, is a country in the high mountains, and we were all skiers. I wasn’t even a terribly good skier, but by American standards, I thought I would be able to do a good job.  

During his military service, he familiarized himself with the first computer, working on development and programming before it was finished being built. After 1946 he continued to be involved with computers beginning in 1948 at the National Bureau of Standards (NBS). I was dumped into computing. I knew nothing about it. The subject had never occurred to me as something to study. The word had never come up. “I got some reading to do, first of all,” I thought…They were enormously large computers. The ENIAC was a room full of computing devices, just for that one machine. We can’t imagine that today. Nowadays, a computer fits on a table. They were typically a roomful. I remember von Neumann once explaining ENIAC and saying every time you turned it on, you’d blow two tubes. As deputy director of the computing center (1948-52) and then for the department of Applied Mathematics (1952-67), he was responsible for installing the first computer at the NBS as well as other places connected with the U.S. government, involved with research in numeric analysis, statistics, and generally speaking, applied mathematics.

In 1967 he changed over to the American Institute of Physics (AIP) in New York. There he was significantly involved with constructing a digitalized system of information for a journal dealing with physics, which included classification, index and bibliography.

Since his retirement in 1973, he works as a volunteer with peace and human rights organizations. He is honorary member of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM, currently consisting of 80,000 members), which he helped found and for which he served as its third president.

Franz Alt is one of the pioneers of the digital computer involving applied mathematics. Today he lives together with his second wife, Annice, in Manhattan, close to the Cloisters in an apartment stuffed with books, original editions of mathematic seminars and a wonderful view of the Hudson River. He still enjoys his favorite hobby of music. With age 96 he still plays in a quartet. He even has two groups in which he participates. One of his partners is a daughter of Courant, one of the most renowned mathematicians of the last century whose interest in applied mathematics led to the decision to leave Göttingen, Germany, following Hitler’s takeover of power. Franz Alt’s other hobby is hiking, something which has become more and more difficult for him to enjoy during the last few years.

As he tried to assure me, he didn’t believe that he was really entitled to the upcoming tribute which he was about to receive. It is fascinating to listen to his stories – about people who have helped shape the 20th century, their families and children, stories about the beginnings of the computer, of institutions which were once famous or continue to be, or about Kurt Gödel, whose ‘spirits’  he tried lifting in 1938.

In any case, I am happy that Franz Alt - late but nonetheless - will receive the Austrian honorary award for science and art from the Federal Chancellor. I am happy even more that the former high school where he received his degree has established a Franz Alt prize – one for theoretical and natural science and one for human rights. Both mean a great deal to him.