The slow spread of a fast algorithm

In 1963, during a meeting of President Kennedy’s scientific advisors, John Tukey, a mathematician from Princeton, explained to IBM’s Dick Garwin a fast method for computing Fourier transforms. Garwin listened carefully, because he was at the time working on ways to detect nuclear explosions from seismographic data, and Fourier transforms were the bottleneck of his method. When he went back to IBM, he asked John Cooley to implement Tukey’s algorithm; they decided that a paper should be published so that the idea could not be patented.

Tukey was not very keen to write a paper on the subject, so Cooley took the initiative. And this is how one of the most famous and most cited scientific papers was published in 1965, co-authored by Cooley and Tukey. The reason Tukey was reluctant to publish the FFT was not secretiveness or pursuit of profit via patents. He just felt that this was a simple observation that was probably already known. This was typical of the period: back then (and for some time later) algorithms were considered second-class mathematical objects, devoid of depth and elegance, and unworthy of serious attention.

But Tukey was right about one thing: it was later discovered that British engineers had used the FFT for hand calculations during the late 1930s. And – to end this chapter with the same great mathematician who started it – paper by Gauss in the early 1800s on (what else?) interpolation contained essentially the same idea in it! Gauss’s paper had remained a secret for so long because it was protected by an old-fashioned cryptographic technique: like most scientific papers of its era, it was written in Latin.

Yes, my friends, Latin beat them.

From Algorithms by S. Dasgupta, C.H. Papadimitriou, and U.V. Vazirani


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