Edward Fredkin

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Edward Fredkin
Born (1934-01-01) 1 January 1934 (age 85)
ResidenceBrookline, Massachusetts
Alma materCalifornia Institute of Technology
Known forFredkin gate, Trie data structure
AwardsDickson Prize in Science 1984
Scientific career
FieldsComputer science, physics, business
InstitutionsMassachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Carnegie Mellon University (CMU)
Capital Technologies, Inc.

Edward Fredkin (born 1934) is a distinguished career professor at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), Pennsylvania, and an early pioneer of Digital physics.[1]

Fredkin's primary contributions include his work on reversible computing and cellular automata. While Konrad Zuse's book, Calculating Space (1969), mentioned the importance of reversible computation, the Fredkin gate represented the essential breakthrough.[2] In recent work, he uses the term Digital philosophy (DP).

During his career, Fredkin served on the faculties of Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Computer Science, was a Fairchild Distinguished Scholar at Caltech, and was Research Professor of Physics at Boston University, Massachusetts.

Early life[edit]

At age 19, Fredkin left California Institute of Technology (Caltech) college after a year to join the United States Air Force (USAF) to become a fighter pilot.[3]

Fredkin has worked with a number of companies in the computer field and has held academic positions at a number of universities. He is a computer programmer, a pilot, an advisor to businesses and governments, and a physicist. His main interests concern digital computer-like models of basic processes in physics.[4]


Fredkin's field was physics; however, he became involved with computers in 1956 when he was sent by the Air Force, where he had trained as a jet pilot, to the MIT Lincoln Laboratory.[5] On completing his service, in 1958, Fredkin was hired by J. C. R. Licklider to work at the research firm, Bolt Beranek & Newman (BBN). After seeing the PDP-1 prototype at the Eastern Joint Computer Conference in Boston, Massachusetts, in December 1959, Fredkin recommended that BBN purchase the very first PDP-1 to support research projects at BBN. The PDP-1 came with no software whatsoever.

Fredkin wrote a PDP-1 assembler called FRAP (Free of Rules Assembly Program); also sometimes called Fredkin's Assembly Program, and the first operating system (OS). He organized and founded a user group called DECUS, and he participated in early projects using the PDP-1. Working with Ben Gurley, the designer of the PDP-1, Fredkin designed significant modifications to the PDP-1. He invented and designed the first modern interrupt system, which Digital called the "Sequence Break". He went on to become a contributor in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI).[6]

In 1968, Fredkin returned to academia, starting at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a full professor. From 1971 to 1974, Fredkin was the Director of Project MAC at MIT.[7] He spent a year at Caltech as a Fairchild Distinguished Scholar, working with Richard Feynman, and was a Professor of Physics at Boston University, Massachusetts, for 6 years.[8]

More recently, Fredkin has been a Distinguished Career Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).[5] and also a Visiting Scientist at MIT Media Laboratory.[9] He is currently associated with CMU.[10]

Fredkin founded Information International Inc. in 1961, and has served as the founder or CEO of a diverse set of companies, including Information International, Three Rivers Computer Corporation, and New England Television Corporation (owner of Boston's then CBS affiliate, WNEV, channel 7), The Reliable Water Company (manufacturer of advanced Sea Water Desalination Plants).[11]

Fredkin has been broadly interested in computation: hardware and software. He is the inventor of the trie data structure, radio transponders for vehicle identification, the concept of computer navigation for automobiles, the Fredkin gate and the Billiard-Ball Computer Model for reversible computing. He has also been involved in computer vision, chess, and other areas of Artificial Intelligence research.[3] Fredkin also works at the intersection of theoretical issues in the physics of computation and computational models of physics. He invented the SALT Cellular Automata family. Dan Miller designed and programmed the Busy Boxes implementation of Salt, with assistance from Suresh Kumar Devanathan. The early SALT models are 2+1 dimensional quasi-physical, reversible, universal cellular automata, that are 2nd order in time and that follow rules that model CPT reversibility.(Miller & Fredkin 2005).[8]

While at MIT, Fredkin served as the Director of the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS), which later merged with the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory to become CSAIL. Fredkin has also had an association with Carnegie Mellon for a number of years. His current academic interests are in the area Digital Mechanics, which is the study of discrete models of fundamental process in Physics.[12]

A profile of Fredkin, along with a readable explanation of some of his theories, can be found in the first part of Three Scientists and Their Gods by Robert Wright (1988). The section of the book covering Fredkin was excerpted in The Atlantic Monthly in April 1988.[13]

On May 19, 2004, only seven months after the start of the PDP-1 Restoration Project, chaired by Edward Fredkin, a team of Computer History Museum volunteers flipped the 'on' switch on a 1963 Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) PDP-1 computer. Nearly 45 years after it was made, the machine jumped to life![14][15]

Fredkin's version of digital philosophy[edit]

Digital philosophy (DP) is one type of digital physics/pancomputationalism. The school of philosophy called pancomputationalism claims that all the physical processes of nature are forms of computation or information processing at the most fundamental level of reality. Pancomputationalism is related to several larger schools of philosophy: atomism, determinism, mechanism, monism, naturalism, philosophical realism, reductionism, and scientific empiricism.

Pancomputationalists believe that biology reduces to chemistry reduces to physics reduces to the computation of information. Fredkin's career and achievements have much of their motivation in digital philosophy, a particular type of pancomputationalism described in Fredkin's papers: Introduction to Digital Philosophy, On the Soul, Finite Nature, A New Cosmogony, and Digital Mechanics.[16]

Fredkin's Digital philosophy contains several fundamental ideas: Everything in physics and physical reality must have a digital informational representation. All changes in physical nature are consequences of digital informational processes. Nature is finite and digital. The traditional Judaeo-Christian concept of the soul has a counterpart in a static/dynamic soul defined in terms of digital philosophy.


According to biographer Robert Wright, the character Stephen Falken in the film, WarGames, was modeled after Fredkin.[17]

Awards and honors[edit]

In 1984, Edward was awarded the 'Dickson Prize in Science', which is awarded annually to the person who has been judged by Carnegie Mellon University to have made the most progress in the scientific field in the United States during that year.[18]

Fredkin Professorship[edit]

In Fredkin's honor, Carnegie Mellon University has established the Fredkin professorship.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ See Fredkin's Digital Philosophy web site.
  2. ^ "Information about Edward Fredkin". Retrieved 15 March 2012.
  3. ^ a b "PDP-1". Computer History Museum. Retrieved 6 March 2012.
  4. ^ "ED FREDKIN Bio". CMU. Retrieved 7 March 2012.
  5. ^ a b "Projects". Retrieved 2 March 2012.
  6. ^ "PDP-1". Computer History Museum. Retrieved 7 March 2012.
  7. ^ "Calteches Library - Robotics PDF" (PDF). Caltech. Retrieved 7 March 2012.
  8. ^ a b "About Edward". Stanford. Retrieved 2 March 2012.
  9. ^ "MIT Visiting Scientist". MIT. Retrieved 2 March 2012.
  10. ^ "Visiting Research Professor". CMU. Retrieved 2 March 2012.
  11. ^ "Channel 7". Boston Radio. Retrieved 11 March 2012.
  12. ^ "Basic Biography". CMU. Retrieved 7 March 2012.
  13. ^ "Three Scientists and Their Gods in The Atlantic Monthly". The Atlantic. Retrieved 16 March 2012.
  14. ^ "PDP-1 Restoration Project". 19 May 2004. Retrieved 29 June 2016.
  15. ^ "The Mouse That Roared: PDP-1 Celebration Event". YouTube.com. 1 August 2012. Retrieved 29 June 2016.
  16. ^ "Fredkin's papers". World News. Retrieved 21 March 2012.
  17. ^ "War Games". Stanford Crimson Article. Retrieved 14 March 2012.
  18. ^ "Dickson Prize Winners". CMU. Retrieved 2 March 2012.
  19. ^ "Computer Science Professor Tom Mitchell Named Carnegie Mellon's Fredkin Professor of AI and Learning". CMU. Retrieved 26 May 2017.

External links[edit]