The first modern-style code ever executed on a computer was written in the 1940s by a woman named Klára Dán von Neumann—or Klári to her family and friends. And the historic program she wrote was used to develop thermonuclear weapons. In this season, we peer into a fascinating moment in the postwar U.S. through the prism of von Neumann’s work. We explore the evolution of early computers, the vital role women played in early programming, and the inextricable connection between computing and war.
After John von Neumann’s death, Klári becomes the keeper of his legacy. It’s an exhausting, full-time commitment that takes her out of the computing world for good. She marries her fourth husband, a physicist, and moves to a southern California beach town. She resolves to settle down and starts writing a memoir. We discuss Klári’s legacy in computing and beyond and the current state of gender and programming.
This podcast is distributed by PRX and published in partnership with Scientific American.
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KATIE HAFNER: Before we get into it, just a note—this episode includes content that could be upsetting. We’ll be talking about depression and self-harm.
KLARA VON NEUMANN: I have settled down to my fifth incarnation under the sunny skies of La Jolla. I swim and loaf and for the first time in my life I have relaxed and stopped chasing rainbows.
KATIE HAFNER: I’m Katie Hafner and this is Lost Women of Science, where we unearth stories of scientists who haven’t gotten the recognition they deserve.
That line you heard about chasing rainbows comes from a chapter in Klara Dan von Neumann’s memoir. In this, our last episode of the season, we explore that “newest incarnation” of Klari’s life: her final years in sunny California that were filled with the promise of peace and quiet.
KATIE HAFNER: We left off last episode in 1957. Klari’s husband John von Neumann had died at the age of 53 after an agonizing year and a half with cancer. Many of his colleagues in Princeton and Los Alamos were shaken by the loss.
CAITLIN RIZZO: Even when there are differences, they feel that really, um, really deeply when one of their own passes.What we see in the record is an outpouring of, of the community feeling sorry, and expressing their concern for Klara.
KATIE HAFNER: That’s Caitlin Rizzo, the archivist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. After Johnny died, Klari received many letters from the important people in her life. In one, Camilla Dan, Klari’s mother, wrote: “You had a lot of… stress and sorrow…You’ve had enough of it for the next 100 years.”
Klari was heart broken. She was also exhausted. Because on top of her grief, she had to deal with everything Johnny left behind.
CAITLIN RIZZO: The administrative aftermath of what happens to publications and how do we handle his papers? What can we do for you to ease this?
KLARA VON NEUMANN: After Johnny died, I set myself the task of collecting his published and unpublished papers and getting them together in one set of volumes.
KATIE HAFNER: That’s Eva Szabo reading from Klari’s unpublished memoir again. And though the work may have had the unintended benefit of keeping Johnny close to her, it consumed much of her time.
KLARA VON NEUMANN: It was an overwhelming job particularly since he was very prolific, and in so many different fields.
KATIE HAFNER: Klari couldn’t do this all by herself. She needed help. And somewhere along the line, in search of said help, she called Carl Eckart. Carl was a physicist whom Johnny had really respected as one of the most knowledgeable people in the scientific community. In 1957, Carl was working as a geophysicist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla. Klari asked Carl to edit a volume of John von Neumann’s collected works. They spent a little time together on the phone and then a little more time on the east coast… and in the end…
KLARA VON NEUMANN: Although he never took on the job, we did get married.
KATIE HAFNER: So while Carl said no to editing the collected works of Klari’s late husband, she said yes to marriage. In April of 1958, just a year after Johnny died, Klari became Mrs. Carl Eckart. She was 46.
GEORGE DYSON: Johnny, she married for brains. And then, then when she married Carl Eckart, uh, I think it was for La Jolla.
KATIE HAFNER: That’s George Dyson. He’s the historian of technology from previous episodes, who wrote Turing’s Cathedral about the birth of the digital universe. His comment about why Klari married Carl is just one explanation, of course, but George does have a personal connection to this story: He grew up in Klari’s world. She was even a witness at his father’s second wedding.
GEORGE DYSON: She moved with him to La Jolla and she just decided to, to try and be happy.
KATIE HAFNER: La Jolla, California is an affluent seaside enclave at the northern tip of San Diego. Klari seemed truly excited to finally move out west.
KLARA VON NEUMANN: But this is really what I want, sit at the edge of the pool and twiddle my toes -- no more drama or excitement just to be at peace with the world, my husband and myself.
KATIE HAFNER: Yeah, go here, go right here. La Jolla is kind of nestled into a cove. And so the water wraps around La Jolla, if that makes sense.
KATIE HAFNER: That’s me. I’m in a car with our senior editor, Nora Mathison.
NORA MATHISON: Seems like it’s right off the road.
KATIE HAFNER: We just arrived in La Jolla, to check out Klari’s home. It’s sunny, of course, in the low 70s.
NORA MATHISON: This is it. So yeah, it’s walled, you can’t see inside the property. Looks cute, though.
KATIE HAFNER: Nora and I pull up to Klari and Carl’s old house. It’s classic California style: single-story, mid-century, just a couple of blocks from the ocean.
KATIE HAFNER: And I can just imagine that Klari was just so taken with this.
KATIE HAFNER: It must have seemed like paradise. And when she got there, she continued caretaking Johnny’s legacy.
As for her programming work, there’s very little evidence that she continued with it.
In 1957, after Johnny died, the RAND Corporation, a southern California think tank that was keen on computing, offered her a job. We do know that much. But we never found her response, or any evidence that she accepted that job. We later found a memo from 1959 where Keith Brueckner, a physicist at the University of California San Diego, wrote to Klari about a computing layout for an IBM project that she was apparently working on. But again, we couldn’t get our hands on anything else about that.
What is clear is that by 1962, 49-year-old Klari was done with computers for good. In a letter she wrote in April of that year, she asked to be removed from a computing seminar’s mailing list because…
KLARA VON NEUMANN: I am not working any more in the field.
KATIE HAFNER: The coding chapter of her life had ended, but around this time, Klari started a new project. A more personal one: She began writing a memoir.
She called it “Grasshopper in Very Tall Grass.”
And this brings us all the way back to someone we met at the very beginning of the season: Klari’s stepdaughter, Marina von Neumann Whitman.
MARINA VON NEUMANN WHITMAN: And I have here, which I really need to get to the Library of Congress, a few files of her attempts to write an autobiography.
KATIE HAFNER: When Carl died in 1973, he left the manuscript to Marina in his will, and she’s had the drafts ever since.
Marina grew up around Klari, and after reading the memoir, she started seeing her stepmother differently.
MARINA VON NEUMANN WHITMAN: I was astounded at how well she wrote in English, which after all was her second language or fifth, or God knows what, anyway.
And what a sense of humor she had, which definitely shows up in her manuscript.
KATIE HAFNER: Without the memoir, Klari’s life would have looked really different to us, too. In reading it, we get Klari’s life as she wanted to tell it, and we meet Klari the narrator. Someone witty and blunt and open.
GEORGE DYSON: She was such a good writer. She just radiated interesting stuff. So, you know, she maybe needed a little push here and there, but I would love to be her editor.
KATIE HAFNER: And Klari wanted an editor too. Publishing the memoir was a big deal for her.
KATIE HAFNER: Okay. So I'm looking through these things and I got to the part of the file where the whole question of publishing the memoir is, is raised.
KATIE HAFNER: In one of my long interviews with George Dyson, I told him the story of going through the letters I found at Marina’s. A whole stack of them are about Klari’s memoir. The lengthy and careful feedback she gets from friends. Correspondence with publishers. Updates from her agent. At first everyone seems excited–her friends are encouraging, publishers write back to her….but then… in spring of 1963…
KATIE HAFNER: The Harper and row people say, you know, we don't want it after all. And then the agent dumps her. And what I then see is that the envelope in which that, where the agent says, you know, we just aren't seeing any hope for this book. And she, she rips that one open and you can see kind of she's, it's, there's almost violence done to the envelope.
GEORGE DYSON: I think if, if, if she had signed a contract for her autobiography, it would've completely changed her life.
KATIE HAFNER: What does it mean to have spent the past six years preserving your famous late husband’s story, getting his life down on paper, answering the many calls for translations of his books, posthumous awards, the von Neumann fellowship in this and that....
And then when you turn to something of your own, and finally put your story down on paper–and it’s a remarkable story at that–you’re told that it’s not marketable.
We don’t know how much this rejection affected Klari, but we do know that we probably wouldn’t be telling her story on Lost Women of Science if the book had been published and her work recognized.
In any case, Klari would never finish that memoir.
Here’s George Dyson.
GEORGE DYSON: La Jolla was this paradise place. But somehow in my view, it, it just, this dark cloud of depression came back. And so I just think she couldn't just sit in La Jolla and be happy.
KATIE HAFNER: On November 9th, 1963, Klari and Carl had friends over. They drank a good amount and stayed up late. According to Carl, the guests left at 1:30 in the morning. Carl eventually went to bed at 3. Klari stayed up.
GEORGE DYSON: She had taken her jewelry off and left it at home and she'd drunk a lot of alcohol.
KATIE HAFNER: Her car was found by the Windansea beach, a few blocks from her house. It seems Klari drove to the beach, then walked into the surf.
GEORGE DYSON: She had sand in her lungs, which means she was breathing when she went in the water.
KATIE HAFNER: Klari’s body was found washed up on the beach at 6:45 am on November 10, 1963. A neighbor identified the body. The death was written up in a 6-page report. It says that Klari’s dress had been weighed down with 15 pounds of wet sand. Her blood alcohol level was 0.18%. Cause of death, according to the autopsy: Asphyxia by drowning. It was ruled a suicide.
NORA MATHISON: You think this is fine if we leave the car here?
KATIE HAFNER: Yeah, I think so. It's loud.
NORA MATHISON: It is loud.
KATIE HAFNER: Nora and I pull up to the beach where Klari died. It’s full of people. Surfers. Kids with kites. Families with babies and dogs…
KATIE HAFNER: It just kind of makes you very, very sad that a person who had so much to give to the world and did give to the world just couldn't live in it.
And what a violent way to die.
KATIE HAFNER: Here’s Klari’s stepdaughter, Marina von Neumann Whitman again.
MARINA VON NEUMANN WHITMAN: I guess I was aware that she was fragile.
As I say there's this gap between her writing, that, you know, she was enjoying the calm and peaceful life and then committing suicide and, you know, something must've gone on in her head in between. Um, but I don't know.
GEORGE DYSON: My father saw her a couple of days before and said she was in great spirits how could she have committed suicide, but people often say that.
And that's this tragic end where you, you read the last page in her journal. She says, I think the exact words are I, I do not need to travel anymore because I am there already.
KATIE HAFNER: When someone dies by suicide, it’s difficult to resist looking for an explanation. We humans want to pin the pieces of a life on a bulletin board, arranging them to show that this led to that and to that.
But life isn’t as linear or logical as we’d like it to be. And we’ll never have all the pieces to explain a life in full.
We’ll never know the why of Klari’s death and frankly that’s beside the point. What is the point is Klari the person…Klari alive…Klari beyond a single night, a single decision.
We had the memoir, which served as our anchor, as we navigated Klari’s life. But that was all reflection–Klari looking back. I wanted to see her in action.
So I turned to the scores of letters she had written and received over the years. And many of those letters were in Hungarian. There was no throwing these things into Google translate because they were handwritten, and Klari’s handwriting was as complicated as the woman herself. We needed just the right translator, one who could decipher that impenetrable Hungarian script.
KATIE HAFNER: Hi Agi.
AGI ANTAL: Hi Katie, how are you?
KATIE HAFNER: How are you, I’m good how are you.
AGI ANTAL: I’m always fine.
KATIE HAFNER: Oh good.
KATIE HAFNER: That’s Agi Antal. She’s one of the Hungarian translators you’ve heard throughout this season. Agi and I came up with a system.
AGI ANTAL: So is the sound good?
KATIE HAFNER: Yeah, the sound is good. Um, and then if you need a sip of water or tea or anything, just let me know.
KATIE HAFNER: I would set my alarm for very early Pacific time and Agi would call me after work in Budapest and we’d have these sessions, with her reading the English aloud to me.
KATIE HAFNER: I see it, February the 17th. Oh, her handwriting is really crazy.
AGI ANTAL: My God. Don't tell me.
KATIE HAFNER: So while I was staring at this incomprehensible scrawl, listening to the English, it felt like something magical was happening and this person, Klári, through her letters and her diary, she came alive.
AGI ANTAL: So I think I found some really important phrases in her diary that express, even though these phrases were written when she was really young, but they expressed her attitude to life.
KATIE HAFNER: Here’s Agi reading from Klari’s diary--an entry from January of 1931. Klari was nineteen.
AGI ANTAL: There must be other meaning of the life besides love because I have to live if not for myself, then for the peace of the people around me.
KATIE HAFNER: Even when she was young, Klari was introspective, a keen observer of the world.
AGI ANTAL: I don't know what is written in the book of my destiny, but I don't believe that I will ever have a normal life. Do I feel this way just because I'm young?
KATIE HAFNER: And she was prescient. She never did have a “normal life.” And as much as she wanted peace, she was never quite able to accept her life as it was.
Coming up, we do what Klari did for Johnny: protect a legacy. I’m Katie Hafner, and this is Lost Women of Science.
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
GEORGE DYSON: It was this perseverance against the darkness of fate or something, I mean, she just, she just had such a spirit and obviously intelligence.
KATIE HAFNER: That’s George Dyson, again, reflecting on Klari’s life.
GEORGE DYSON: Klari’s role, so, she was sort of there, at the moment of creation. If you look at this as a sort of cradle in a manger sort of thing, she, she was holding the cradle.
KATIE HAFNER: George is talking about Klari’s work writing code.
Her Monte Carlo simulations were the first programs executed using the modern code paradigm. She was right there– at the birth of our modern digital universe.
NATHAN ENSMENGER: So what exactly is Klara von Neumann's contribution? She is part of figuring that out.
KATIE HAFNER: That’s Nathan Ensmenger, a historian of technology at Indiana University Bloomington.
NATHAN ENSMENGER: This separation between what is the machine and what is, what we will come to know to be software and software is not, software is not a word that will be even invented until 1958.
KATIE HAFNER: As she was working, Klari was helping to define the terms and shape the landscape. Today, those things have settled into place. And they look very different from how they looked at the start…
NATHAN ENSMENGER: I think it is interesting in computing about how the, the folklore and the mythology comes to shape itself around a particular kind of acceptable narrative. That's usually a kind of white male adolescent. When there were these other possible, uh, mythological figures to kind of construct that around.
KATIE HAFNER: Today, computing is oriented around the male individual, the disruptor, a new iteration of the “great man theory of history” we see so often. It’s easy to forget it hasn’t always been that way.
NATHAN ENSMENGER: I argue throughout my work that women are kind of omnipresent in the early history of computing.
KATIE HAFNER: And not just the lone woman…women working in teams.
Klari was pretty much done with computing work by 1955. For a while, women were still the go-to coders–suited to this quote-unquote “menial” task. But this quickly started to change.
As technology improved, the perception of software and its importance shifted dramatically. The machinery of computers, physically building them, that became the easy part. The hard part now was programming their software.
So, in the late 1950s and through the 1960s…
NATHAN ENSMENGER: Just as computers start to become inexpensive and available, it's increasingly hard to make them do good work.
And so software just keeps getting more and more difficult and expensive. And there's this kind of language that emerges that, um, there's some kind of crisis happening in software or as I would say, a kind of labor crisis.
KATIE HAFNER: Companies couldn’t find enough skilled programmers. The perceived labor crisis became significant enough that in 1968, NATO held a conference to address the problem.
NATHAN ENSMENGER: And so they begin saying, well, what happens if we think about software development as a kind of engineering, not as a kind of science, not as a kind of business activity, but as a kind of engineering.
KATIE HAFNER: The NATO conference was where the idea of “software engineering” took off. The thinking was that if you could somehow formalize or codify what programmers did, you could identify and train better programmers, creating a reliable work force.
And while the NATO conference alone didn’t drive women out of coding, it was representative of a shift in the industry.
Programming was changing from something seen as secretarial work into a respectable career...and in the process, it was rebranded as male.
NATHAN ENSMENGER: And by the early 1980s, women have almost disappeared from at least public representations of computing. It's a really remarkable reversal that happens in a relatively short period.
KATIE HAFNER: This completely transformed the opportunities for women.
NATHAN ENSMENGER: Could Klara von Neumann have become a professional programmer following the 1940s and into the fifties and sixties? Absolutely. Could Klara have become a programmer in the 1980s? I would say almost certainly not.
KATIE HAFNER: After the 80s,we get to the part of the story we know pretty well. Bill Gates, the two Steves–Jobs and Wozniak. Mark Zuckerberg. Ivy League dropouts…Great men.
The archetype persists, and it’s self-perpetuating.
CARLA BRODLEY: So one of the key things that has become increasingly important in the last 10 years is the fact that people come to university with different levels of prior experience in computer science and that is not uniformly distributed with respect to race, ethnicity, and gender.
KATIE HAFNER: Carla Brodley is a professor of computer science. She’s also the executive director of the Center for Inclusive Computing at Northeastern University.
CARLA BRODLEY: I think that until we make computer science required in high school and taught well in high school that probably girls in high school aren't going to naturally choose it because of the perception that they have.
KATIE HAFNER: A big part of the problem today is access, and this feeling that programming is an insider thing. That it’s only for a certain kind of person. Klari’s right-place-at-the-right-time thing–that was rare then, and is now. It’s not so easy to stumble upon programming.
CARLA BRODLEY: I think everyone can learn to program. And I think that the majority of people like programming, it's just that the majority of people don't try it.
KATIE HAFNER: And Carla, like Klari decades before her, loves programming.
CARLA BRODLEY: It's, it’s using the same part of your brain that you use, like, when you do art or when you write a story, it's like, how am I going to construct this?
It's putting together abstract thoughts, but then it's very concrete. Because when you write the code, it either works or it doesn't work.
KATIE HAFNER: And programming as we understand it today,, as this abstract and concrete challenge where you can create simulated realities, this all started right around the time Klari was coding.
THOMAS HAIGH: What I've heard and read suggests to me that there's a, there's a definite direct legacy of this code.
KATIE HAFNER: That’s Thomas Haigh, the history professor and co-author of the book ENIAC in Action. Klari’s most important and lasting contribution to the computing world was her work on Monte Carlo simulations.
THOMAS HAIGH: The, the code has evolved beyond recognition, but apparently it does have its recognizable origins and a direct line of descent from what Klara von Neumann was doing.
KATIE HAFNER: As George Dyson points out in Turing’s Cathedral, today’s search engine algorithms draw on the Monte Carlo method that Klari first executed. They don’t use a straight-line path from question to answer. Instead, they follow random search paths to find increasingly accurate results. They rely less on the end points and more on the intervening paths. And these paths hold meaning.
So, once again, Monte Carlo provides us with a framework for looking at Klari’s own life. The end points of Klari's life are her childhood in Budapest and her death by suicide. Her life was bookended by drama and tragedy, but these bookends aren’t where all the meaning resides. They shouldn’t cast a shadow on everything else–her many varied intervening paths: her code, her writing, her relationships.
It is through these paths that Klari comes alive.
At the end of our interview with Marina von Neumann Whitman, we asked her a question central to this series: how should Klara Dan von Neumann be remembered?
MARINA VON NEUMANN WHITMAN: Well, partly as a woman who sort of created herself. I mean, she turned out to have talents that had never been really discovered. She, as I say, became expert in a lot of things that maybe nobody would've predicted she'd become expert in.
KATIE HAFNER: As Klari herself said, she lived many lives, with random detours and unlikely pit stops. Along the way, she ventured into a world still unmapped: the digital landscape we live in today. She took hold of what chance handed her and did the unexpected.
And that’s our story, “A Grasshopper in Very Tall Grass.”
I’m Katie Hafner. Thanks for listening.
This has been Lost Women of Science. Thanks to everyone who made this initiative happen, including my co-executive producer Amy Scharf, producer Sophie McNulty, associate producer Ashraya Gupta, senior editor Nora Mathison, composer Elizabeth Younan, and the engineers at Studio D Podcast Production.
Thanks also to our voice actors Eva Szabo and Nandor Tary, as well as our many Hungarian translators: Agi Antal, Rick Esbenshade, Charles Hebbert, Laszlo Marcus, Alina Bessenyey Williams, and Lehel Molnar.
We’re grateful to Mike Fung, Cathie Bennett Warner, Dominique Guilford, Jeff DelViscio, Meredith White, Bob Wachter, Maria Klawe, Susan Kare, Jeannie Stivers, Linda Grais, Rabbi Michael Paley, Marina von Neumann Whitman, George Dyson, Thomas Haigh, and our interns, Hilda Gitchell, Kylie Tangonan, Leeza Kopaeva, and Giuliana Russo.
Thanks also to the Computer History Museum, to Paula Goodwin, Nicole Searing and the rest of the legal team at Perkins Coie, and to the Institute for Advanced Study, the Library of Congress, and the UCSD Special Collections for helping us with our search.
Many thanks to Barnard College, a leader in empowering young women to pursue their passion in STEM, for support during the Barnard Year of Science.
A special shout out to Celia Bolgatz at the Women’s Audio Mission in San Francisco, where this podcast was recorded.
Lost Women of Science is funded in part by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Schmidt Futures and the John Templeton Foundation, which catalyzes conversations about living purposeful and meaningful lives.
This podcast is distributed by PRX and published in partnership with Scientific American.
You can learn more about our initiative at lost women of science dot org or follow us on Twitter and Instagram. Find us @lostwomenofsci.
Thank you so much for listening. I’m Katie Hafner.
Listen to Past Episodes
Episode 1: The Grasshopper
Episode 2: Women Needed
Episode 3: The Experimental Rabbit
Episode 4: Netherworld