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LANL unable to release history report

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By Roger Snodgrass

A Los Alamos National Laboratory librarian was unable to release a 30-year-old report on the early history of computing, Steven Aftergood, who directs the Project on Government Secrecy, reported Monday.

“I got an inquiry from a graduate student who was trying to locate a copy of the report for academic purposes,” Aftergood said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “The subject matter seemed intrinsically interesting. It wasn’t some isolated detail in nuclear physics, but rather a broad sweep of technological history.”

He said he found references to the report, “Computing at LASL (Los Alamos Science Laboratory) in the 1940s and 1950s,” but the document itself was not readily available.

“So I naturally turned to the Los Alamos research library,” he said, where he found “a polite but disappointing response.”

The library was unable to provide a copy of the document.

He was, however, able to obtain a copy independently, which was added to the project’s collection of Los Alamos documents.

A spokesperson for LANL said Tuesday that the document could not be released at the time of the request because it did not have a Los Alamos Unclassified Report number (LAUR). A formal clearance is required to indicate the document has been approved for release, said James Rickman of the LANL communications office.

“If the document had not been approved,” he said, “guidance was to tell the requester to seek the document under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which assures a uniform process and that the document receives a proper review.”

The paper was developed from four talks given publicly June 13-16, 1977, at the National Computer Conference in Dallas.

One of the talks was given by Mark B. Wells, a retired laboratory employee who worked in the computer group at the time that later became the Computer Division at the laboratory.

Contacted at home in Los Alamos, Wells said, “The work was never classified.”

In fact, he said, “It was published in a free and open way. It was part of a computer conference, open to anybody.”

Wells’ essay reminisces about the MANIAC computer, especially the MANIAC I, which was located at LASL from 1952-57.

MANIAC was the acronym for “mathematical analyzer, numerical integrator and computer, Wells notes, but he also relates an anecdote about an alternative interpretation expressed by the astronomer and physicist George Gamow, who said it stood for “Metropolis and Neumann invent awful contraption.”

Nicholas Metropolis was the genius behind the early computer research in Los Alamos – “the instigator,” Wells calls him in the paper, for the MANIAC computers.

The laboratory’s computer facility that will soon house the Roadrunner, now rated the fastest supercomputer in the world, is named after Metropolis.

John Von Neumann was also a Manhattan project member and another of the great computer pioneers.

Among the interesting tidbits in Wells article are stories about a chess-playing program on MANIAC. MANIAC’s limited memory restricted a play to board that was six squares by six squares and no bishops or pawns.

“Even then,” he wrote, “moves averaged about 10 minutes for a two-move, look-ahead strategy.”

“That quickly became three moves, four moves, five moves ahead,” Wells said Tuesday, adding the current capability was at least 12 moves ahead.

His essay also includes an anecdote about a moment when the computer seemed to have a mind of its own.

When Princeton physicist Martin Kruskel checkmated the MANIAC on the 38th move of a game, the machine responded with an illegal move.

“We were dumbfounded for a while, until we traced the trouble and realized that the program had never been taught to resign,” Wells wrote.

Facing no moves, the machine was stuck in a loop and the loop changed the program.

“You might call that a learning program,” he recalled.

Rickman said the review policies originated at the National Nuclear Security Administration after the 9/11 attacks, requesting that the lab review its documents to make sure that nothing might be able to aid terrorists.

“We hope to have that task completed soon,” Rickman said, “perhaps by the end of the summer.”