Newman [formerly Neumann], Maxwell Herman Alexander

(1897-1984), mathematician

by Shaun Wylie, rev. I. J. Good

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Newman [formerly Neumann], Maxwell Herman Alexander (1897-1984), mathematician, was born in Chelsea, London, on 7 February 1897. He was the only child of Herman Alexander Neumann, a German working as secretary in a small company, and his wife, Sarah Ann Pike, who was of farming stock and an elementary schoolteacher. In 1908 he went to the City of London School, and in 1915 he gained a scholarship to St John's College, Cambridge. He gained a first class in part one of the mathematical tripos in 1916, the year in which he changed his name to Newman by deed poll. Much of the next three years he spent in the army, returning to Cambridge in 1919. In 1921 he was a wrangler in part two of the mathematical tripos, with a distinction in Schedule B. He was elected to a fellowship at St John's in 1923 and appointed a university lecturer in 1927. He studied in Vienna in 1922-3, and spent the year 1928-9 on a Rockefeller research fellowship at Princeton University in fruitful collaboration with J. W. Alexander.

Newman was among the pioneers of combinatory (or geometric) topology and wrote important papers on it in the late 1920s. Earlier definitions of combinatory equivalence, based on subdivision, had hit snags. Newman had the bold idea of using only three elementary 'moves' for defining equivalence, none resembling subdivision. He developed all the desirable definitions and theorems for combinatorial manifolds, and also showed that his definition of equivalence encompassed earlier definitions and resolved their difficulties. In the 1930s, apart from continued work on combinatory topology, he wrote a seminal paper on periodic transformations in Abelian topological groups and an admirable book, Elements of the Topology of Plane Sets of Points (1939). In the early 1940s he wrote on logic and Boolean algebras.

During the Second World War, in 1942, he joined the government code and cypher school at Bletchley Park. There he became familiar with an important, German army cipher system, the Lorenz Schlüsselzusatz 40 (the SZ40, dubbed 'Tunny' by the Bletchley codebreakers); it was a non-Morse teleprinter system of higher grade than the Enigma. Following an error by a German cipher clerk, the SZ40 had been 'broken', sight unseen, mainly by Colonel John Tiltman and W. T. Tutte. Under Major Tester, a section called the Testery was started for routinely applying, by hand, methods similar to those used by Tiltman and Tutte. This was possible because the kind of error mentioned above often occurred. Newman joined the Testery but felt he was not good at the work and disliked it. He realized that it should be possible to perform the statistical aspects with the help of rapid, special-purpose electronic machinery employing paper tape and photoelectric cells, and with A. M. Turing proposed the logical requirements for such machinery. These requirements formed the basis of actual machines, culminating with the Colossus, for which the head engineer was Tom Flowers of the Post Office Research Station, which devoted about half of its total effort to the project. The section at Bletchley that used the machinery was headed by Newman and was called the Newmanry. The flexibility of the Colossi was such that they could be used for purposes additional to those for which they were originally intended, especially when no longer relying on mistakes made by German cipher clerks. (The German air force was covered well enough by reading the Enigma.) The Colossus Mark II had about 2500 tubes (valves). Apart from important new engineering concepts, it incorporated some ideas of Donald Michie and Jack Good, Max's first two cryptanalytic assistants.

Colossus was the world's first large-scale electronic, as distinct from electromagnetic, computer, but was not intended to be for general purposes. At first each Colossus was operated by a cryptanalyst working with a 'Wren' (a member of the Women's Royal Naval Service). The staff of the Newmanry consisted of about twenty cryptanalysts (including some distinguished mathematicians), about six engineers, and 273 Wrens. Newman ran this large section with the natural authority of a father figure, but in a democratic spirit. He took pleasure in the achievements of his staff, and originality flourished.

From 1945 to 1964 Newman was the Fielden professor of mathematics at Manchester University. He went there convinced that general-purpose computers were on the horizon, and he was active in persuading the authorities to build one at Manchester. The main engineer was Tom Kilburn. Newman ran the mathematics department effortlessly, attracting a formidable succession of fine mathematicians and getting the best out of them. After he retired from Manchester in 1964 he spent the next three years abroad, at the Australian National University (ANU), Rice University, Texas, and again at ANU. This period saw a second burst of mathematical research in geometric topology, culminating in an engulfing theorem for topological manifolds, published in 1966. This extended to topological manifolds what was already known of combinatorial manifolds, namely that the Poincaré conjecture is true for manifolds of dimension greater than four. His essentially Hilbertian interpretation of the nature of mathematics and science was described in his presidential address to the Mathematical Association (1959), where he said, among other things, that 'the pleasure and enlightenment to be obtained [from modern mathematics] is all the greater if we are thoroughly at home on one floor before starting to move to the next' (Mathematical Gazette, 43, 1959, 171).

Newman was a very gifted pianist and a good chess player. His technique for solving chess problems was to consider the function of a seemingly irrelevant piece. He enjoyed reading, claiming once to have read everything--among Russian novelists he preferred Pushkin to Dostoyevsky. At first contact perhaps austere, he was in fact a splendid companion. Typical of his quiet wit, in the face of wartime delays, was his topological comment 'It's wonderful how many different shapes the neck of a bottle can take'. He was elected FRS in 1939. In 1959 he was awarded the Sylvester medal of the Royal Society and in 1962 the De Morgan medal of the London Mathematical Society. He was given an honorary DSc by the University of Hull in 1968, and in 1973 St John's made him an honorary fellow.

In 1934 Newman married Lyn Lloyd, daughter of John Archibald Irvine, a Presbyterian minister; she was a writer. They had two sons. After her death in 1973 he married in the same year Dr Margaret Penrose (d. 1989), daughter of the physiologist John Beresford Leathes, and widow of Professor Lionel Sharples Penrose. Newman died in Cambridge on 22 February 1984.


J. F. Adams, Memoirs FRS, 31 (1985), 437-52
personal knowledge (1995, 2004)
private information (1990)
P. J. Hilton, Bulletin of the London Mathematical Society, 18 (1986), 67-72
F. H. Hinsley and A. Stripp, eds., Codebreakers: the inside story of Bletchley Park, pbk edn (1994)
N. Metropolis, J. Howlett, and G.-C. Rota, eds., A history of computing in the twentieth century (1980)

King's AC Cam., corresp. and papers, mostly relating to A. M. Turing

W. Stoneman, photograph, 1939, NPG [see illus.]
photograph, repro. in Hilton, Bulletin of the London Mathematical Society
photograph, repro. in Adams, Memoirs FRS, opposite p. 437

Wealth at death  
£127,126: probate, 27 June 1984, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved


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