Who Was Maxwell Newman?

Originally called Hermann Alexander Neumann before applying for a change of surname, Maxwell Newman was a British codebreaker and mathematician born on February 7, 1897. Maxwell was particularly popular because of his work during World War II which led to the construction of Colossus. Colossus is the first programmable and operational electronic computer in the world.

Maxwell Newman
Maxwell Newman, British codebreaker and mathematician

Maxwell Newman also established the University of Manchester’s Royal Society Computing Machine Laboratory, which produced the first functional stored-program electronic computer in 1948. This machine was popularly regarded as the Manchester Baby.

Quick Facts

Full Name
Maxwell Hermann Alexander Neumann
Birth
February 7, 1897
Death
February 22, 1984
Net Worth
N/A
Awards
Children
Edward and William
Nationality
British
Place of Birth
Chelsea, London, England
Fields of Expertise
  • Mathematics
Contributions
Construction Of Colossus, Topology.

Early Life

Maxwell Newman was born in Chelsea, London, England, on February 7, 1897, to the family of German Jewish immigrants Hermann Alexander Neumann and Sarah Ann Pike, the daughter of a leather dresser.

Maxwell’s father emigrated to London in 1881 with his family – he was aged 15 years at the time of emigration. Maxwell was the only child of his parent.

Maxwell Newman and his parent moved to the London suburb of East Dulwich in 1903, where Maxwell Max attended Goodrich Road school, then the City of London School from 1908.

As a schoolboy at the City of London School, Maxwell demonstrated a great aptitude for classics and also mathematics, where he was fortunate enough to come under the influence of a particularly stimulating teacher called F.W. Hill. Hill had formerly been a fellow at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and it was to this college that Maxwell, in turn, gained a scholarship, commencing his studies in 1915.

Newman made a very promising start winning several prizes at the end of his first year and obtaining a First Class in Part 1 of the Mathematical Tripos. The next three years were spent away from Cambridge doing work related to the war. Initially, Newman took up a teaching job at Archbishop Holgate’s School in York.

After the First World War outbreak, this domestic tranquility as it may have existed was shattered by the internment of Maxwell’s father as an enemy alien. His father, Hermann, who had lived in England for 33 of his 48 years, was disgusted at his treatment and returned to Germany immediately upon his release.


Only little detail is known of Maxwell’s relationship with his father, but in 1916, he broke with the past and changed his surname by deed poll and was henceforward called Newman.

Career

Phase 1

For national service, besides teaching at Archbishop Holgate’s Grammar School in York, Maxwell worked in the Royal Army Pay Corps and taught at Chigwell School.

He was called up for military service in February 1918 but claimed conscientious objection due to his beliefs and his father’s country of origin and thereby avoided any direct role in the fighting.

Phase 2

Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939. The part-Jewish ancestry of the Newman family was of particular concern in the face of Nazi Germany, resulting in the evacuation of Maxwell, his wife, Lyn, and their two (2) children, to America in July 1940. Newman remained at Cambridge and first continued research and lecturing.

By spring 1942, he was considering involvement in war work. He made inquiries and was approached to work for the Government Code & Cipher School at Bletchley Park. He was cautious, concerned to ensure that the work would be sufficiently interesting and useful, and there was also the possibility that his father’s German nationality would rule out any involvement in top-secret work.

However, these potential issues were resolved by the summer, and he agreed to arrive at Bletchley Park on August 31, 1942, where he became the main constructor of the English codebreaking machines, Heath Robinson and Colossus.

Phase 3

After World War II, Maxwell Newman was appointed head of the Mathematics Department and the Fielden Chair of Pure Mathematics at the University of Manchester in 1945; interestingly, Maxwell transformed it into a center of international renown.

He obtained the support of the university and from the Royal Society and assembled a first-rate team of mathematicians and engineers. Adopting the same approach as he had used effectively at Bletchley Park, Maxwell set his people loose on the detailed work while concentrating on orchestrating the endeavor.

By the middle of 1948, the Small Scale Electronic Machine (SSEM) was up and running, and although it was little more than a proof of concept, it was still the world’s first working digital electronic stored-program computer.

What Is Maxwell Newman Known For?

Invention 1

Maxwell continued to apply himself to mathematics, setting out to tackle combinatorial topology, an area which, at that time, no one else in Britain had attempted. Characteristically, his approach was to build on the work of the major pioneers in the field, proceeding incrementally in simple steps.

The result was a collection of important papers and multiple theories which continue to be of interest to topologists. Maxwell also published papers on mathematical logic and solved a special case of Hilbert’s fifth problem.

Noteworthily, Maxwell Newman was the reason Alan Turing encountered Hilbert’s so-called Entscheidungsproblem (German for decision problem) around the Spring of 1935 when Turing was a student on Newman’s Part III Foundations of Mathematics course.

In the middle of April 1936, Turing presented Newman with a draft of his breathtakingly original answer to the Entscheidungsproblem. At the heart of Turing’s paper was an idealized description of a person carrying out a numerical computation, which we now call a Turing machine following Alonzo Church.

All modern computers are instantiations of Turing machines in consequence of which Turing’s paper is often claimed to be the single most important in the history of computing.

Immediately Newman saw Turing’s solution, he took him under his wing. Newman canvassed successfully for On Computable Numbers to be published by the London Mathematical Society and, simultaneously, enlisted Alonzo Church’s assistance in arranging for Turing to spend some time studying at Princeton.

Invention 2

However, Maxwell Newman’s direct involvement with computing activity was coming to an end. Maxwell was opposed to the inevitable use of the Manchester computer in developing nuclear weapons. As the government took a closer interest in the Manchester computer, he stepped back gradually, preferring to leave further development to the engineers.

Maxwell was a deeply cultured man with an inquiring mind whose interests ranged over a broad canvas. His influence on the first generation of British computer scientists was incalculable, and his appreciation of the importance of computing long before it was generally apparent was probably matched only by that of Alan Turing.

The vision and leadership he showed at Bletchley Park during the Second World War and his single-minded determination to mechanize the British codebreaking efforts had an appreciable impact on the outcome of the conflict. They created a computing legacy that he was determined to carry into the post-war situation.

Such was the deftness by which he accomplished the transfer of knowledge that some of those who gained most from his understanding was more or less completely unaware of the singular contribution made to their success by this remarkable man.

Newman retired in 1964 to live in Comberton, near Cambridge

Maxwell Newman: Marriage, Divorce, Children, and Personal Life

Marriage

Maxwell Newman seemingly surprised his friends when he announced his intentions to marry in 1934. Maxwell married Lyn Lloyd Irvine, a writer, a friend of some years’ standing, and the daughter of a minister of the Church of Scotland in that same year (1934). He was 37 years old when he married Lyn.

Sadly, Lyn died in1973. Thereafter, he remarried Margaret Penrose.

Children

Maxwell Newman had two sons. Edward was born in 1935, just a year after his marriage to Lyn. William was born four (4) years later, in 1939. Maxwell didn’t have any child with his second wife, Margaret.

Tragedy

Maxwell lost his wife Lyn in 1973. The British mathematician also died on February 22, 1984, in Cambridge.

Maxwell Newman: Awards and Achievements

Maxwell received several honors and awards. This section contains a few of them.

Award 1

The Newman Building at Manchester was named in his honor. The building housed the pure mathematicians from the Victoria University of Manchester between moving out of the Mathematics Tower in 2004 and July 2007 when the School of Mathematics moved into its new Alan Turing Building, where a lecture room is named in Maxwell’s honor.

Award 2

Other awards that Maxwell received before his death includes:

Fellow of the Royal Society, Elected 1939; Royal Society Sylvester Medal, 1958; LMS De Morgan Medal, 1962; D.Sc. University of Hull, 1968.

Maxwell Newman: Published Works and Books

Book 1

Maxwell Newman produced a dissertation in 1923 in support of his fellowship that contains some evidence of a nascent curiosity about the impact mechanized calculation might have on the mathematical sciences.

Universal computing machines were still some way off, but Newman considers using “symbolic machines” to make predictions in physics. He was elected a fellow of St. John’s College in Cambridge in November 1923, and, in 1927, he was appointed as a lecturer in mathematics.

Book 2

Newman wrote Elements of The Topology of Plane Sets of Points, a definitive work on general topology.

Maxwell Newman – Complete Biography, History, and Inventions FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Who was Maxwell Newman?

Originally called Hermann Alexander Neumann before applying for a change of surname, Maxwell Newman was a British codebreaker and mathematician born on February 7, 1897. Maxwell was particularly popular because of his work during World War II which led to the construction of Colossus. Colossus is the first programmable and operational electronic computer in the world.

What did Maxwell Newman invent?

His work during World War II led to the construction of Colossus, the first programmable and operational electronic computer in the world.

How did Maxwell Newman’s work lead to the construction of Colossus?

By spring 1942, Maxwell considered involvement in war work and made inquiries. He was approached to work for the Government Code & Cipher School at Bletchley Park but was cautious, concerned to ensure that the work would be sufficiently interesting and useful, and there was also the possibility that his father’s German nationality would rule out any involvement in top-secret work.
However, these potential issues were resolved by the summer, and he agreed to arrive at Bletchley Park on August 31, 1942, where he became the main constructor of the English codebreaking machines, Heath Robinson and Colossus.

When was Maxwell Newman born?

February 22, 1984

What part did Maxwell Newman play in World Wars I and II?

Maxwell’s work during World War II led to the construction of Colossus, the world’s first programmable and operational electronic computer.

About the Author

More from History-Computer

  • Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Newman#Education_and_early_life
  • Available here: https://history.computer.org/pioneers/newman-mha.html
  • Available here: https://mathshistory.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Newman
  • (1970)