Eloge for MIchael S. Mahoney


The following Eloge for Michael Mahoney was published in the September 2009 issue of Isis and was written by D. Graham Burnett of Princeton University and Jed Buchwald of Caltech, both former students of Michael Mahoney.

Click here for PDF version of article.


Conference to Honor Historical Career of Michael Sean Mahoney



The Historical Career of Michael Sean Mahoney

Sponsored by the Department of History and Program in History of Science

Friday, May 15, 2009                      9:15AM - 5:30PM
Saturday, May 16, 2009                 9:30AM - 3:30PM

The Department of History and Program in the History of Science at Princeton University present a two-day conference in memory of Professor Michael Sean Mahoney. The conference will attempt to cover the breadth and depth of Professor Mahoney's interests in the history of science and technology from early modernity to the present day. Papers will address topics including the history of mathematics, the history of engineering, and the historiography and pedagogy of science.

All sessions will be held in 211 Dickinson Hall

RSVP to mfanfair@princeton.edu
or by phone: 609-258-6705. For RSVPs, kindly specify the date(s) you will be attending.

Memorial Resolution


On November 3, 2008, a Memorial Resolution for Michael Mahoney, conceived by a committee of colleagues from the Department of History and authored by Charles Gillispie, was read aloud at a University faculty meeting. The signed PDF version of this resolution is available via the link below.

Memorial Resolution.pdf

On July 23, 2008, Princeton lost a cherished teacher and scholar, Michael S. Mahoney. This page contains remembrances and tributes to our friend, colleague, and professor. Mike was a mainstay of Princeton's Program in History of Science since its earliest years, first as a graduate student then as a faculty member for four decades. He possessed an uncommon breadth of knowledge, active in both the history of early modern science and the history of twentieth-century computing. Those of us knew him are grateful for his friendship and his wide-range contributions to our field. These entries honor his life and legacy.

Entries submitted here using the submit-entry link at right will be forwarded to the Program in History of Science for posting.

To: Humanist Discussion Group

Dear colleagues,

The great historian of science, mathematics, technology and computing, Michael S. Mahoney, Professor of History at Princeton, died last night after a severe heart-attack while swimming.

Mike, as everyone knew him, was one of those very few for whom I would have relinquished many of my years and the life that has come with them in order to be his student. I first met him through his writings while I was trying to figure out what relation humanities computing might have to the experimental sciences. I could see that both kinds of practice shared the epistemic use of equipment, so I figured there must be some relation worth knowing about. Characteristically Mike put versions of most of what he wrote online, so familiarity came easily, and some understanding followed. Then I buckled down and worked my way through papers such as the wonderful "Software as Science -- Science as Software" (2002), which I must have read 5 or 6 times at the first go. Then another historian of science, Jed Buchwald, an old friend and a former student of Mike's and Thomas Kuhn's at Princeton, invited me to give a paper at the Dibner Institute (MIT), at a conference on the history of recent science. This gave me a chance to try out the ideas I had formed, based largely on Mike's work, on the subject of humanities computing and the sciences. Subsequently, as the paper was working its way into print, Mike served as a reviewer, anonymous of course but immediately recognizable. Put as simply as I can, his commentary on that paper taught me how to do it right. Or, rather, as right as I am able.

When I was asked to organize a year-long lecture series at King's London, which I entitled 'Digital Scholarship, Digital Culture', Mike was one of those I invited. His lecture, "The histories of computing(s)", along with the rest were later published in Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 30.2 (2005). Required reading for everyone in humanities computing, I'd say, and I would extend the invitation to all historians of any stripe. Faced with a hugely intractable subject for the intellectual historian's craft, Mike had the wit and wisdom to understand and the honesty to express what we cannot say about computing. "The major problem", he wrote in 'Issues in the history of computing', "is that we have lots of answers but very few questions, lots of stories but no history, lots of things to do but no sense of how to do them or in what order. Simply put, we don't yet know what the history of computing is really about." This from someone who knew the mathematical and technological bases of computing, how to trace the many strands of computing's development and (as Siegfried Zielinski has said) to look for the new in the old rather than the old in the new. "Hype hides history", he remarked in his King's lecture. He knew that questions were the scholar's gold and that they were being obscured by the promoter's (and the promoter's academic helper's) shameless blather. He did more than anyone else I know to show us how we might find that wealth.

I cannot claim a long personal relationship. I wish I had been of the right age at the right time and place for that to happen. But I can hear the voice and see the face. I know more from him of what our kind can do. Thank you, Mike. Farewell.


I just heard from a History of Computing List of the distressing news of Mike Mahoney's death. I did not know him well, so did not know his family beyond brief acquaintance; but I hope you can pass to them my sincere condolences. He was a warm and generous man who taught me a very great deal when I was young and eager at Princeton in 1970-72. I have a vivid image of him dressed up as Copernicus, delivering a lecture to the undergraduates - a nicely turned piece of theatre that worked perfectly and which he performed with grace and humour. I was surprised - and from then on had a much clearer sense of his considerable range of skills and personal gifts. After all, he didn't appear to be a showy man - I had valued him for his understatedness, if anything - but he revealed he was an unshowy man who put on a very good show!

One of the longest lasting impressions was of his wit and humorous view of life and scholarship - a permanent undercurrent of the comic, often ready to emerge, ranging from the arch to the absurd. In later years, I would often turn to his work on the history of computing as the best guide to a field I was no expert in, quite the contrary, but found really interesting. It gave me a curious but considerable pleasure to realize he had helped open up this important new field, an enterprising and adventurous thing to do, and that he was helping lead that field by example. That example - finally, that was an important thing about Mike: his scholarship was impeccable and had strands of brilliance running through it. And that went hand in hand with my sense of the man: rigorous, honest, reliable - and sometimes very, very funny. Without thinking much about it, I realized how much I admired him. A very sad loss.

Very best wishes,


I was so sad to hear that Mike Mahoney died. He was not just a brilliant, razor-sharp mind, he was also a lovely, well-rounded human being. He was an inspired teacher and kept up with an impressive body of literature in widely disparate fields. But he would get a real twinkle in his eye when he talked about his wife, children, and grandchildren. He didn't shield that aspect of his life from his graduate students, and I always admired and appreciated that about him. My heartfelt condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues. He will be dearly missed.

Remembering Mike
Published: Monday, September 15th, 2008
Daily Princetonian

On July 23, Michael Mahoney GS '67 died, a few days after he suffered cardiac arrest while swimming in Dillon pool. The death of a colleague always comes as a shock. But Mike, as he was called by everyone from undergraduates to his fellow scholars around the world, was an extraordinarily vital man. It's still very hard for those of us who knew him for many years to believe that he is gone. (continued)

Mike ate lunch almost every day at the student center... I made a habit of joining him whenever I was there. It's a tough place now to enter.

Although we had known each other well since 1986, I got to know Mike very well this past year. We hoped to write a history of Princeton computing together and, towards that end, we shared wonderful stories.

Many of you may not know or recall that Mike was a Faculty Fellow at Forbes College during the mid 1980s. He was excited by a $6M grant that the University got in 1984 from IBM. Of course, Mike recognized before most of us that the students would use the machines almost exclusively for word processing. The papers looked fantastic, Mike recalled... they just didn't read that way.

Mike was a finalist for the position of VP for Computing here at Princeton, the job that Ira Fuchs took in 1986. It's hard not to imagine how different life might have been here had Mike gotten the job. He wasn't in love with technology for its own sake, far more for the promise of how it could help us.

The fact is that he knew the history, and knew the institution. An irreplaceable combination. As a friend, a colleague, a lunch companion, I miss him profoundly.

Jon Edwards

I first met Mike Mahoney in the fall of 1988, when I was a beginning graduate student. I had the good fortune to take a reading course with him on the scientific revolution and to attend his undergraduate lectures on the same topic. His brilliant performances in the class vividly brought to life the alien world and intellectual struggles of Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes and Newton. I was also impressed by how Mike conducted our weekly meetings, where I was supposed to come in with questions on the reading assignments. His encouraging pedagogic style still resonates in me. He pretended not to notice my abysmal ignorance and treated my naïve questions with a respect they hardly deserved. When I turned in my final writing assignment Mike responded with great generosity. He wrote me a dense, two-page commentary, which offered much needed, constructive criticism of my over-ambitious attempt to attribute Newton's achievement to his philosophical outlook.

For the rest of my graduate career, I had ample opportunity to witness Mike's sharp intellect and the amazing breadth and depth of his knowledge. In the program meetings and colloquia, one could not fail to notice his amazing ability to discuss with ease a bewildering variety of topics.

Towards the end of my graduate studies, I had the privilege to become Mike's teaching assistant in his course on the history of technology, which ranged from medieval mills to 20th century computers. I then realized that Mike was equally at home in the world of texts and in the world of machines. He taught students (and their fortunate preceptor) how to treat machines as texts and extract from them the intentions of their makers. Mike was no deconstructionist! The various teaching tips he gave me, during our weekly discussions over lunch, proved invaluable in my subsequent career as a teacher.

A few years after my return to Greece, Mike was invited to lecture at my new academic home, the University of Athens. He gave two engaging talks on computational science in the 17th and the 20th centuries, which made a striking impression on faculty and students. Besides his memorable lectures, I recall with nostalgia the pleasant conversations I had with Mike and Jean about their family and travels.

The news of Mike's untimely passing came as a shock and brought back these and many other memories. It is hard to picture the Princeton program in history of science without him. As a Greek saying goes, may the earth that covers him be light.

Since 1997 Mike Mahoney, and I had lunch every other Friday. At our first meeting we recognized our extensively overlapping scholarly interests, and all our subsequent discussions were exemplars of effective intellectual exchange and collaboration. Mike's expertise in, as he liked to call it, the histories of computing made invaluable contributions to my own scholarly work examining social change as induced by information and communication technologies. Over the years, I sat in on many of Mike's courses and seminars, and he was a regular visitor in my seminars. Mike helped me to understand and apply the perspectives of a social historian in my research; and he frequently commented, often complained, about the infiltration of my sociological perspectives in his work. It was truly a mutually productive and rewarding dialogue that took place over a decade. I will always be indebted to him for enriching my sociological perspectives.

In addition to our scholarly work, Mike and I shared a great many common interests, including the joys of grand parenting, the rewards of teaching, the thrills of outdoor bicycling, the love of Italian cuisine, and the challenges confronting us both as we made the transition to old curmudgeons. We discussed politics on a national and international scale, as well as the more intense local politics of academia. We shared a disdain for the corporatization of higher education. We disagreed strongly on many issues, but our discourse was always civil, and we always learned from one another.

Mike's death has left a huge vacuum in all our personal and intellectual lives, especially his family and colleagues. From now on, Fridays at noon are a lonely time for me.

As Shakespeare said of Brutus, "The elements were so well mixed in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world that this was a man."

Hugh F (Tony) Cline
Adjunct Professor of Sociology and Education
Teachers College, Columbia University

I transferred to Princeton as a graduate student in 1975 with the express purpose of studying the history of mathematics with Mike. I never had a chance to take a course with Mike on this topic, but I was fortunate enough to take a course with him in another of his specialty areas, the history of early modern science and technology. Those were my wander years, and I left Princeton after only a year. But a few years later, and for the next twenty years, Mike was my closest professional colleague, not in either of those areas, but instead in yet a third area in which he was expert - the history of computing.

It was wonderful and terrifying to have Mike as a colleague. Wonderful in the sense that there was someone who was deeply familiar with my subject area, who had extraordinary analytical skills, and who was always generous with his time to read a draft paper or talk through an idea. It was terrifying to see how much further and clearer Mike was able to see.

Although I was never worked at Princeton after my graduate days, I had the fortune of serving on several committees with Mike, and we were often invited to the same conferences - so in recent years, I spent time with him in Jerusalem and a small mountain village outside Grenoble, as well as in more customary American academic settings. Mike was always ready with the gentle question or the telling anecdote that led the group back on track.

I remember quite clearly my last conversation with Mike only a couple of weeks before his death - his excitement about the Model T and the history of car buyers, a conversation on the history of software that we continued where we had left off at a previous meeting, and the latest news of his grandkids. It is still hard to comprehend that Mike won't be here to lead us.

Remembering my friend, Mike Mahoney - By Charles Stenard, September 23, 2008

I remember Mike from as far back as our overlapping undergraduate years at Harvard (1956-58), and subsequently at Princeton, a few years later, as we completed graduate studies - Mike in history of science, I in mathematics (1967). Our wives met at the Wyman Club for graduate student spouses and have been friends since.

Mike was always interested in mathematics, and would pose questions to me that I had no clue how to answer - questions that were profoundly interesting, typically about the possible origins of a seminal mathematical idea that came to pervade our culture today. (One such discussion, taking place at a holiday dance for graduate student couples, pertained to the early development of symbolic reasoning that became the intellectual seeds for algebra, logic, and computers. I quickly realized the depth of his question, and from his clarifications, I knew that he was already way beyond my utter lack of any notion of the topic.)

Many years later, circa 1987-1988, as a member of Bell Labs, I invited Mike to work with me to address a challenging problem of re-hosting a huge number of diverse computer programs for the U.S. National Weather Service. There were perhaps 100 million lines of software to be converted, controlled, and made available to meteorologists for experimentation with new forecasting techniques. I enlisted Mike, knowing that he was an expert on the software productivity crisis of the 1960's and 70's. He joined me at Bell Labs, and we enjoyed a very productive summer and several months beyond. My technical colleagues could not at first understand the role of an historian, but I called Mike my "secret weapon" and he soon proved my point. We had a wonderfully stimulating time. Mike got to know the minds of the software and computer researchers at Bell Labs, which he absorbed in his analysis of the modern software revolution.

Mike always had superb taste for penetrating topics of sweeping historical and scientific perspective. At a seminar at the Institute for Advanced Study on the role of sketches in creativity (circa 2003), Mike brilliantly showed Huygens' sketches of the cycloidal patterns guiding a flexible pendulum suspension as used in the first isochronous pendulum clock, enabling accurate longitude measurement crucial to navigation. Mike's explanation of the sketches made it evident how it works. Another example is a public lecture Mike delivered about why the West has led the technology revolution, dating from circa 1600 to now. He gave a compelling analysis that technology was "mathematicized" early and uniquely in the West. He demonstrated an enormous breadth of understanding of the historical unfolding of mathematical invention, and the role of a very few super-geniuses concentrated in the West making huge leaps that were elaborated upon by the mathematical and scientific communities around them. These examples illustrate his marvelous gift to choose pivotal topics for research, draw often-surprising conclusions, and make his research crystal clear to others.

I value our conversations and collaborations over the years. I was privileged to be a good friend.

I took Mike Mahoney's lecture course and graduate seminar on the Scientific Revolution in my first semester at Princeton and these courses have remained models for me in how to approach these topics and teaching more generally. Mike embodied the Princeton program's motto of "living beyond" the distinction between internalist and externalist. He included the latest works without neglecting older ones, and encouraged students to build their own syntheses with nuance, open-mindedness and sound judgment. I will always feel grateful for his generous teaching. With belated thanks to Mike and heartfelt condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.

I was stunned and dismayed to learn the news of Mike Mahoney's death, as I'm sure all of his former students and colleagues were.

Mike was my undergraduate advisor at Princeton. I had the good fortune to take his scientific revolution course during my first semester at Princeton in 1970. I was still planning to major in chemistry and was firmly set on a scientific career. Mike's lectures were models of clarity and opened a window on a world of scholarship that fascinated and intrigued me. When I learned that Mike would be teaching a course on ancient and medieval science the following semester, I signed up. I had no idea what was in store, but his enthusiasm for the history of science was infectious. I was hooked -- and eventually switched my major to history of science and wrote my senior thesis under Mike's supervision. I still recall the wise and encouraging advice he gave an eager, but still undisciplined, student all those years ago. When I decided to pursue graduate studies in the history of science, he took the time to share some of his own experiences.

Over the coming years, while I was in graduate school at Penn and after, as I built first an academic career and then moved to the business world, I stayed in touch with Mike. He always had time for a quiet conversation, was always interested in what I was doing and always shared useful insights about my work or his. Like so many others, I always enjoyed seeing Mike, who helped me to understand what the life of the mind could be. I was pleased to be able to help him gain access to key individuals and sources on the history of UNIX some years later, while I was working at AT&T. And I was delighted that my son, Jeremy, who graduated from Princeton in 2002, also had the opportunity to study with Mike.

I'm proud to be able to count myself among Mike Mahoney's students. He is sorely missed.

From Chikara SASAKI, Graduate Student of the Program of History and Philosophy of Science and the Department of History, 1976-1980; Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and Professor of History of Mathematics at the Graduate School of Mathematical Sciences of the University of Tokyo, Japan, & Visiting Professor of Northeastern University in Shenyang, People's Republic of China; Obtained Ph. D. degree for the thesis on "Descartes's Mathematical Thought" under the Guidance of Prof. Michael S. Mahoney.

I express my deep sentiment of sadness of the sudden death of Prof.
Michael S. Mahoney, my teacher of history of mathematics at Princeton. I remember old good days studying very hard with Profs. Charles C. Gillispie, Thomas S. Kuhn, Michael S. Mahoney during the late 1970s. Please convey this message to all the participants of the mourning ceremony at the Princeton University Chapel on October 18, especially to Jean, Mrs. Mahoney.

Historians of mathematics in Japan remember Prof. Mahoney first of all through my Japanese translation of a collection of his excellent essays entitled "Mathematics in History" of which the first edition was published in 1982 and the enlarged second edition in 2007, and secondly through his recent brilliant papers on the history of computation. Some of them listened to his insightful lectures on the history of computer science and were impressed by his warm personality when he and Jean visited Japan in the fall of 1999. I, all of my students, and readers of his book not simply in Japan but also in China will succeed the great intellectual legacy of the late Prof. Michael S. Mahoney and remember him forever and ever.

As a former student of Mike's and someone who had the great opportunity to work as a preceptor for his wonderful course on the history of technology, I would be hard pressed to overemphasize the magnitude of my debt to him. I remember with great nostalgy the late afternoon seminars on the scientific revolution in his cramped office on the top floor of Dickinson overfilled with great books and funny little machines. The Monday lunch he shared with his preceptors in the cafeteria of the Robertson Hall were also highly instructive. I am also thankful for the eery experience he made me partake in when he asked me to be a preceptor for a course on the History of Cold War Science for alumni of the Class of '46.

A great teacher, Mike also influenced me very deeply as a scholar. Indeed, he was one of those whose published work, no matter how impressive it is, seems so much smaller than the extent of his deep command over the history of science and his inspirational insights in some of its greatest questions. I was especially struck by his panoramic views on the history of mathematization. For as long as I will have to deal with the subject, his voice wil be resounding very vividly in my mind.

I was fortunate to take two directed study courses with Mike and to have him on my dissertation committee. His insights into the history of engineering and technology revealed to me a new world that I had never considered. His depth of knowledge and friendly prodding during our many sessions together in his office made me a better student, teacher, and scholar. Plus, I just enjoyed being with him. During these meetings our discussions would inevitably touch on our families. It was obvious from the start how much he loved Jean, his kids, and his grandkids. He was a wonderful human being and I miss him.

Posted to the Brainstorm blog of the Chronicle Review, October 19, 2008.

It was a beautiful day in Princeton yesterday. The sky was blue and cloudless, and the air was crisp. The Brown Bears were in town to play football with the Princeton Tigers. But several hundred friends of the historian of science Michael S. Mahoney were not walking across our beautiful campus. We were gathered in the university chapel for Mike's memorial service. It was an occasion as sad as usual when we are memorializing a beloved and admired colleague. But it was also an uplifting occasion, as is so frequently the case when remembering a wholly admirable person.

Mike earned his Ph.D. in history of science at Princeton, working with one of the giants of the field, Charles Gillispie -- who was seated in the pew immediately ahead of me yesterday morning. Mike's original specialty was the early history of European mathematics, and his dissertation described the career of the great mathematician Pierre de Fermat. He later also wrote about Descartes, Barrow, Huygens, and Isaac Newton. Mike several times tried to explain to me Fermat's famous problem, with absolutely no success, but when our colleague Andrew Wiles solved the problem a decade ago, Mike's work on Fermat was rediscovered and (once again) admired. Later in his career, Mike turned his attention to the history of technology, and especially to the development of computers, computer science, and software -- he made the move from the 17th to the 20th century effortlessly, and emerged as one of the most important historians of computing. He and I shared an interest in the application of computing to humanities research and teaching, and he was a crucial guide to me in my work, for he understood both the theory and the technology in a way that I could not approach.

The speakers yesterday acknowledged Mike's scholarship, but to a person they focused on Mike's commitment to teaching. His daughter and son were eloquent in describing the dinner table "seminars" that Mike conducted at 6 p.m. every evening, and the chapel was full of former undergraduate and graduate students testifying to his passion for teaching and commitment to his students. He could explain the Scientific Revolution and the development of the ENIAC computer with the same ease and clarity. Both his children and his students avowed that Mike was always there for them.

Less remarked yesterday was Mike's passion for working with school teachers. To be sure, a couple of speakers mentioned that Mike had been a member of the local school board. But he was also a stalwart of Princeton's Teacher Preparation program, and a member of our committee to select New Jersey's prize teachers every spring. For me, however, most important was his leadership of the board of the late and lamented National Faculty, an organization for many years devoted to facilitating the work of college faculty with high school teachers in several different subject matters. Mike was especially committed to working with teachers of mathematics and history, and he was both tireless and inspired in organizing the work of the National Faculty (to whose board he recruited me).

More than anything else, Mike was a quietly solidifying force in our history department. He never took sides in partisan conflicts, he kept in touch with everyone, and he exuded a passionate serenity that we all admired. He was, in short, the sort of person who holds departments and universities together without ever asking thanks. He was a swimmer and runner (whom I saw at 6 a.m. most mornings when I went out for a walk or bike ride), so it was shocking when his heart stopped while swimming in the college pool on July 23. It seemed too big a heart to stop, and all of us who gathered to remember Mike Mahoney yesterday are still puzzled by our loss. Sometimes we do not realize whom the most important people are until we lose them.

Robert Segal, University of Aberdeen


(Originally posted to http://www.chronicle.com/review/brainstorm/katz)

I was a grad student at Princeton several decades ago. While my degree was in religious studies, I audited one of Professor Mahoney's undergraduate courses on the history of science and became friends with him. He was always willing to meet with me to discuss issues from the course. He was as kind as he was knowledgeable. I learned more from him than from any of my teachers in religion. I stayed in touch with him intermittently and was very sad to learn of his death. He was a decent, unassuming, and generous person.

(Originally posted on http://www.chronicle.com/review/brainstorm/katz)

I knew Mike for many years while I was working at Princeton University Press, which published his book on Fermat in 1973. I was not his editor, but we often talked about books and publishing, which meant a lot to him. But we talked even more about swimming as it was one of his passions, as Stan notes, along with running. I served as Secretary of the Friends of Princeton Swimming for over 15 years, and Mike was one of the two stalwart faculty advisers to the men's and women's swim teams (Politics professor Jim Doig being the other), a role much appreciated by the undergraduate swimmers. And he was an avid masters swimmer, favoring the long freestyle distances (though he could also swim a good butterfly), until he switched over to running as his primary activity. I remember being shocked at seeing him, after some months' interval after that switch, changed physically in such a dramatic way: from having had a physique characterized by broad shoulders and something of a paunch, he had come to have a much slimmer upper-body profile while losing the beer belly entirely! I have never witnessed such an amazing physical transformation in anyone due to change in exercise priorities; Mike himself admitted that he had to get rid of all his old wardrobe and buy a new one to fit his changed body shape. I guess the damage running can do over time must have forced him back into the pool, and it is tragic that he met his end there. But as one who shares a passion for that sport, I figure that Mike himself, like the cowboy who wants to die with his boots on, would have preferred this ending to one occurring in a hospital bed. There are many of us who will have fond memories of Mike to cherish over our years to come and keep his spirit alive among us.

David Hochman, undergraduate student, class of 1978


Lured in by the course guide, just as Tony Grafton describes elsewhere on this page, I found myself entranced by Mike's survey course on the scientific world view of the middle ages and antiquity, and I ended up one of three undergraduate students of my year in the history track of the old HPS program. It was an intimate and electrifying experience. As I found myself reminiscing a few years ago for my class's 25th-reunion book, "a clear high point was studying the history of early modern mathematics side-by-side with the program's exceptionally talented graduate students, in a 500-level course taught by Prof. Mike Mahoney." I'm now really glad I sent that tribute to Mike at the time. His response was gracious, of course. So many of us are saddened that future undergraduates who ought to have known him will never do so except indirectly through our own histories.