Jeffrey Sturchio, undergraduate student, 1970-73, currently vice president, corporate responsibility, Merck & Co., Inc.

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.

Ann Blair, graduate student 1985-90, currently Professor of History at Harvard University

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.

Charles Stenard, *67, Bell Labs (Retired) – Remembrances of Mike from an old friend and sometime interlocutor

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.

William Aspray, graduate student 1975-76, currently Bill and Lewis Suit Professor of Information Technologies, School of Information, University of Texas at Austin

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.

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

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

Theodore Arabatzis, graduate student 1988-1995, currently Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy and History of Science, University of Athens, Greece

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.

Jon Edwards, Coordinator, Institutional Communications and Outreach, Office of Information Technology, Princeton University

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

Anthony Grafton, Henry Putnam University Professor of History, Princeton University

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)

Tania Munz, graduate student 2000-07, currently Research Scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin

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.

Angela Creager, Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, Program in History of Science, Princeton University

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.

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