Iris Runge: A Pioneer in applied mathematics and electronics
By Else Hoyrup, Danish mathematician and historian of science
This image of Runge appears on the Humboldt University Site.
Iris Runge (1888-1966) was a German applied mathematician, physicist, and inventor. In her family there were many scientists. Her father was the famous professor in applied mathematics at Göttingen University, Carl Runge (1856-1927). He was a specialist in numerical analysis and one of his results was “Runge-Kutta’s approximation formula”, which is used to solve differential equations numerically. Iris Runge also came to work with numerical analysis later, when she became one of the first “industrial mathematicians.” So she followed in her father’s footsteps, but nevertheless she had a very independent mind through all her life. This independence was very appreciated, both in her family, and at her work.
Iris R. was employed as a mathematical problem-solver at the German corporations, Osram and Telefunken. At first she worked at Osram with research and calculations on incandescent light bulbs. Later she was transferred from Osram to Telefunken, where she worked with radio tubes (electron tubes). Iris R. just loved to calculate and solve problems, and the more complicated problems, the better! This we know from her letters to her family. She was so proficient at her work that, although she was a woman in a man’s world, she became highly respected as a specialist.
Iris Runge was a pioneer, both as an industrial mathematician and as a woman. At her time, it was still hard for women to get a chance to work professionally.
Among the special fields, with which Iris R. worked at Osram and Telefunken, we can mention:
- Numerical analysis (mathematics) – before the computers
- Applied statistics. She co-authored one of the first textbooks on statistical quality control in mass production. The book was only published in German, so although it was an important and pioneering work, it did not receive the international attention, it ought to have got
- Material science (physics)
- Besides all this, Iris Runge also made some inventions in physics, electronics, and technology.
An intellectual family in wartimes and before and after
Iris Runge’s family was very culturally interested and they had many English-speaking contacts, because they mastered English. It was really an internationally-oriented family.
But already in the 1930s, there came much political turmoil in Germany because of Hitler and the Nazis. Iris Runge and her family were very conscious and active socially and politically.
During World War II, Iris Runge was forced to stay at Osram and Telefunken. She was not happy with her work anymore, because some of the electronics she worked with could be used in the war. She was not a Nazi. She contemplated emigration to the United States, like her sister and brother-in-law, the great mathematician, Richard Courant (1888-1972), who was a Jew. She had hoped to be able to get an assistantship with the famous Belgian-American historian of science, George Sarton (1884-1956). But this job did not materialize, because he could not get the money for it. So she was forced to stay on at Osram and Telefunken in order to earn a living.
Iris Runge’s brother, Wilhelm Runge (1895-1987), was a pioneer in radar technology, and because radar was very important in the war, he had to work directly under a military contract – and to be a member of the Nazi party. But no sources mention that he was a confirmed Nazi. As a matter of fact, the whole Runge family was a cosmopolitan non-Nazi family.
We can contrast Wilhelm Runge with another German military engineer, the rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun (1912-1977). He was definitely a confirmed Nazi, and he used concentration camp prisoners as slave workers. This has been shown in a TV documentary about Wernher von Braun and the Russian rocket pioneer, Sergei Korolev (1907-1966). After the war, Wernher von Braun was headhunted to the United States, where he became the leader of NASA’s space program. He became very popular in America.
To return to our heroine, Iris Runge, she worked at the crossroads of mathematics, physics, technology, and industry.
After the war, it became difficult for German scientists in military-related jobs to continue their work in Germany in private businesses, because the allied occupation authorities had misgivings about this. Some of the scientists emigrated to the United States (as Wernher von Braun), or to the Soviet Union. Many of those, who chose to remain in Germany, continued their work at the universities. Iris Runge herself also had a university career after the war. She ended as a professor of physics at Humboldt University in Berlin. After the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, this university was situated in Eastern Berlin.
Although some of Iris Runge’s work with radio tubes (electron tubes) could be used by the military, the civilian possibilities for applications were even greater. Just think of the radio, television and all other electronics. The electronics of Iris Runge and many others heralded our modern IT-society.
Iris Runge was indeed a pioneer, both professionally, and as a woman scientist in a man’s world.
Renate Tobies: Iris Runge: A life at the Crossroads of Mathematics, Science, and Industry. / Translated by Valentine A. Pakis. Birkhäuser/Springer, 2012. 442 pp. ISBN: 978-3-0348-0229-1. Originally published in German under the title “Morgen möchte ich wieder 100 herrliche Sachen ausrechnen”: Iris Runge bei Osram und Telefunken. 2010.
Else Hoyrup: Iris Runge: A Pioneer in Industrial Mathematics. [Review essay of Renate Tobies’ book]. Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) Newsletter, Vol. 46, No. 3, May-June 2016, pp. 14-17.