Arthur Burks

For the American writer, see Arthur J. Burks.
Arthur Burks in 2001

Arthur Walter Burks (October 13, 1915 – May 14, 2008) was an American mathematician who worked in the 1940s as a senior engineer on the project that contributed to the design of the ENIAC, the first general-purpose electronic digital computer. Decades later, Burks and his wife Alice Burks outlined their case for the subject matter of the ENIAC having been derived from John Vincent Atanasoff. Burks was also for several decades a faculty member at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Early life and education

Burks was born in Duluth, Minnesota. He earned his B.A. in mathematics and physics from DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana in 1936 and his M.A. and Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1937 and 1941, respectively.

The Moore School

The summer after obtaining his Ph.D., the young Dr. Burks moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and enrolled in the national defense electronics course offered by the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School of Electrical Engineering; his laboratory teaching assistant was J. Presper Eckert, a graduate student at the Moore School; a fellow student was John Mauchly, the chairman of the physics department at Ursinus College in nearby Collegeville, Pennsylvania. Both Burks and Mauchly sought and obtained teaching positions at the Moore School the following fall, and roomed together throughout the academic year.


When Mauchly and Eckert's proposed concept for an electronic digital computer was funded by the U.S. Army's Ballistics Research Laboratory in June 1943, Burks was added to the design team. Among his principal contributions to the project was the design of the high-speed multiplier unit. (Also during this time, Burks met and married Alice Rowe, a human computer employed at the Moore School.)

In April 1945, with John Grist Brainerd, Burks was charged with writing the technical reports on the ENIAC for publication. Also during 1945 Burks assisted with the preliminary logical design of the EDVAC in meetings attended by Mauchly, Eckert, John von Neumann, and others.

Burks also took a part-time position as a philosophy instructor at Swarthmore College during 1945-1946.


On March 8, 1946 Burks accepted an offer by von Neumann to join the computer project at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, and joined full-time the following summer. (Already on the project was another member of the ENIAC team, Herman Goldstine. Together, Goldstine and Burks gave nine of the Moore School Lectures in Summer 1946.) During his time at the IAS, Burks worked to expand von Neumann's theory of automata.

The University of Michigan

After working on this project, Burks relocated to Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1946 to join the faculty of the University of Michigan, first as an assistant professor of philosophy, and as a full professor by 1954. He helped found the university's computer science department, first as the Logic of Computers group in 1956, of which he was the director, then as a graduate program in 1957, and then as an undergraduate program within the new Department of Computer and Communication in 1967, which he chaired until 1971. He declined a position heading up a different university's computing center, citing his primary interest as the purely theoretical aspects of computing machines. He was awarded the Louis E. Levi Medal in 1956.

Burks' doctoral students include John Holland, who in 1959 was the first student to receive a Ph.D. in computer science from Michigan, and possibly the first in the world.[1]

Burks served as president of the Charles S. Peirce Society in 1954-1955.[2] He edited the final two volumes (VII-VIII), published 1958, of the Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce and, over the years, wrote published articles on Peirce.

Restoration of parts of the ENIAC

In the 1960s he was presented with the opportunity to acquire four units of the original ENIAC, which had been rusting in a storage Quonset hut in Aberdeen, Maryland. He ran the units through a car wash before restoring them and donating them to the University of Michigan. They are currently on display in the entryway of the Computer Science Building.

Patent dispute

In 1964 Burks was approached by attorney Sy Yuter and asked to join T. Kite Sharpless and Robert F. Shaw in litigation that would add their names as inventors to the ENIAC patent, which would allow them to profit from the sale of licenses to the premiere electronic digital computer apart from Sperry Rand, the company that owned the Eckert-Mauchly interest in the patent and was at that time seeking royalties from other computer manufacturers. This endeavor was never successful; in the 1973 decision to Honeywell v. Sperry Rand, U.S. District Judge Earl R. Larson ruled—even as he invalidated the patent—that only Mauchly and Eckert had invented the ENIAC, and that Burks, Sharpless, and Shaw could not be added as inventors.

The BACH Group

In the 1970s Burks began meeting with Bob Axelrod, Michael Cohen, and John Holland, researchers with interests in interdisciplinary approaches to studying complex adaptive systems. Known as the BACH group (an acronym of their surnames), it came to include, among others, Pulitzer Prize winner Douglas Hofstadter, evolutionary biologist William Hamilton, microbiologist Michael Savageau, mathematician Carl Simon and computer scientists Reiko Tanese, Melanie Mitchell and Rick Riolo. The BACH group continues to meet irregularly as part of the University of Michigan's Center for the Study of Complex Systems (CSCS).

In the 1970s and 1980s Burks, working with his wife Alice, authored a number of articles on the ENIAC, and a book on the Atanasoff–Berry Computer.

As professor emeritus

In 1990, Burks donated a portion of his papers to the university's Bentley Historical Library, where they are accessible to researchers.

Burks died May 14, 2008 in an Ann Arbor, Michigan nursing home from Alzheimer's disease.[3][4][5]

See also


A number of articles by Arthur W. Burks are listed on page 599 in index of Studies in the Logic of Charles Sanders Peirce by Nathan Houser, Don D. Roberts, James Van Evraof, Google Book Search Beta page 599.


  1. Booker, Lashon B. (August 2008), "An interview with John H. Holland", SIGEVOlution, 3 (3): 2–4, doi:10.1145/1562108.1562109.
  2. See "Presidents of the Charles S. Peirce Society" at the Charles S. Peirce Society Website. Eprint.
  3. "Burks obituary at the University of Michigan". Archived from the original on 20 May 2008. Retrieved 2008-05-17.
  4. Oppat, Susan (2008-05-17). "Arthur Burks, early computer pioneer, dead at 92". Ann Arbor News. Retrieved 2008-05-18.
  5. Steve Lohr (2008-05-19). "Arthur W. Burks, 92, Dies; Early Computer Theorist". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-05-21.

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