• 1897 February 07
    (b.) -
    1984 February 22


A British mathematician and codebreaker, he was born in Chelsea, London, England, he attended Goodrich Road school, then City of London School in 1908. He won a scholarship to study mathematics at St John's College, Cambridge in 1915; and in 1916 gained a first in part I of the Mathematical Tripos. His studies were postponed by World War I when his father was interned as an enemy alien after the start of the war in 1914. Upon his release he returned to Germany and changed the family name to the anglicised "Newman". For national service, Max taught at Archbishop Holgate's Grammar School in York, 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. He resumed his interrupted studies in October 1919, and graduated in 1921 as a wrangler (equivalent to a first) in Part II of the Mathematical Tripos, and gained distinction in Schedule B (the equivalent of Part III). On 5 November 1923 he was elected a Fellow of St John's. He worked on the foundations of combinatorial topology, and proposed that a notion of equivalence be defined using only three elementary "moves". His definition avoided difficulties that had arisen from previous definitions of the concept. He also published papers on mathematical logic, and solved a special case of Hilbert's fifth problem. He was appointed a lecturer in mathematics at Cambridge in 1927, where his 1935 lectures on the Foundations of Mathematics inspired Alan Turing to embark on his pioneering work on computing machines. He wrote Elements of the topology of plane sets of points (1939), a definitive work on general topology, and still highly recommended as an undergraduate text. Because he was Jewish, his wife and children were evacuated to America in July 1940 after Britain declared war on Germany while he remained at Cambridge. He at first continued research and lecturing, but by spring 1942, he was considering involvement in war work. He made enquiries, and was approached to work for the Government Code & Cypher 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. The potential issues were resolved by the summer, and he agreed to arrive at Bletchley Park on 31 August 1942. He was assigned to the Research Section and set to work on a German teleprinter cipher known as "Tunny". He joined the "Testery" in October. He disliked the work and found that it was not suited to his talents. He persuaded his superiors that codebreaking process could be mechanised, and he was assigned to develop a suitable machine in December 1942. Construction started in January 1943, and the first prototype was delivered in June 1943. It was operated in his new section, termed the "Newmanry", was housed initially in Hut 11 and initially staffed by himself, Donald Michie, two engineers, and 16 Wrens. The Wrens nicknamed the machine the "Heath Robinson", after the cartoonist of the same name who drew humorous drawings of absurd mechanical devices. The Robinson machines were limited in speed and reliability. Tommy Flowers of the Post Office Research Station, Dollis Hill had experience of thermionic valves and built an electronic machine, the Colossus computer which was installed in the Newmanry. This was a great success and ten were in use by the end of the war. By September 1945, he was appointed head of the Mathematics Department and to the Fielden Chair of Pure Mathematics at the University of Manchester. He lost no time in establishing the renowned Royal Society Computing Machine Laboratory at the University and recruited the engineers Frederic Calland Williams and Thomas Kilburn where they built the world's first electronic stored-program digital computer based on Turing's ideas. He retired in 1964 to live in Comberton, near Cambridge, but continued to do research on combinatorial topology during a period when England was a major centre of activity notably Cambridge under the leadership of Christopher Zeeman. He made important contributions leading to an invitation to present his work at the 1962 International Congress of Mathematicians in Stockholm at the age of 65, and proved a Generalized Poincar? conjecture for topological manifolds in 1966. He died in Cambridge. Among honors he received: He was elected in 1939 as a Fellow of the Royal Society; awarded the Royal Society Sylvester Medal in 1958; was President of the London Mathematical Society from1949 ? 1951. Also, the Newman Building at Manchester was named in his honour. 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 in to its new Alan Turing Building, where a lecture room is named in his honour. In 1946 he declined the offer of an OBE in protest against the "ludicrous treatment" of Alan Turing, who had received the same award for his vital war work.
  • Date of Birth:

    1897 February 07
  • Date of Death:

    1984 February 22
  • Gender:

  • Noted For:

    Headed the department that built the world's first electronic stored-program digital computer
  • Category of Achievement:

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