His SDI and KWIC/KWOC indexes and many inventions at IBM, while not always commercially adopted, served as catalysts for inventors to develop solutions that reached production. He was a pioneer of IR systems, establishing a new approach to intellectual organization of knowledge. Lilley-Trice cite the SDI and KWIC/KWOC indexes as his principal contribution. Bellardo and Bourne comment that “SDI and the utility of this type of computer-based current awareness service received its initial public attention from Luhn in 1959.”

He was also a pioneer in the development and application of automatic measuring and controlling devices, binary arithmetic systems, switching devises, serial binary computers, electronic information scanning, and storage and retrieval devices. Luhn invented special tabulating and sorting machines including the Luhn scanner. “By the 1950’s, Luhn became known as an information expert” (Burke). He wanted to bring librarians and others involved with information retrieval together. He was instrumental in creating ARIST. See details given in Claire Schultz’s book H. P. Luhn: Pioneer of Information Science, Selected Works.

Luhn’s page in Wikipedia contains substantial information about his contributions to IBM and to information science: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Peter_Luhn ; in addition, Luhn is the inventor or the “Luhn algorithm,” a checksum formula used to validate a variety of different identification numbers: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luhn_algorithm

Additional biographical information about Luhn may be found in the following article: Robert V. Williams (2010), Hans Peter Luhn and Herbert M. Ohlman: Their Roles in the Origins of Keyword-in-Context/Permutation Automatic Indexing. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 61(4), 835-849.

Hans Peter Luhn (1896-1964)

Hans Peter Luhn was born in Barmen, Germany on July 1, 1896. After he completed secondary school, Luhn moved to Switzerland to learn the printing trade so he could join the family business. His career in printing was halted by his service as a communications officer in the German Army during World War I. After the war Luhn entered the textile field, which eventually led him to the United States, where he invented a threadcounting machine (the Lunometer) that was still being marketed in the 1980’s.

From the late twenties to the early forties, during which time he obtained patents for a broad range of inventions, Luhn worked in textiles and as an independent engineering consultant. He joinedIBM as a senior research engineer in 1941, and soon became manager of the information retrieval research division.

His introduction to the field of documentation/information science came in 1947 when he was asked to work on a problem brought to IBM by James Perry and Malcolm Dyson that involved searching for chemical compounds recorded in coded form. He came up with a solution for that and other problems using punched cards, but often had to overcome the limitations of the available machines by coming up with new ways of using them. By the dawn of the computer age in the 1950’s, software became the means to surmount the limitations inherent in the punched card machines of the past.

Luhn spent greater and greater amounts of time on the problems of information retrieval and storage faced by libraries and documentation centers, and pioneered the use of data processing equipment in resolving these problems. “Luhn was the first, or among the first, to work out many of the basic techniques now commonplace in information science.” These techniques included full-text processing; Key Word in Context indexing (KWIC); auto-indexing; automatic abstracting and the concept of selective dissemination of information (SDI).

Two of Luhn’s greatest achievements are the ideas for an SDI system and the co-invention of the KWIC method of indexing. Today’s SDI systems owe a great deal to a 1958 paper by Luhn (“A Business Intelligence System”) which described an “automatic method to provide current awareness services to scientists and engineers” who needed help to cope with the rapid post-war growth of scientific and technical literature. The KWIC indexing method was adopted by the American Chemical Society in 1960 for the publication of its journal Chemical Titles.

Luhn has been referred to as the father of information retrieval, a tribute to his pioneering ideas and inventions.  In 1964, he was among the top ten most frequently cited authors in the field.

Luhn retired from IBM in 1961 and spent the remaining years of his life traveling, lecturing internationally and inventing.  He died on August 19, 1964.


Offices held:

ADI/ASIS&T: President (1964)

Awards received:

ASIS&T: Award of Merit (1974)

Hans Luhn Papers:

IBM Archives, Valhalla, NY (Brief file from the 1950s-1960s)