NAME: Hans Peter Luhn
DATES: 1896-1964
OTHER INFORMATION: His SDI and KWIC/KWOC indexes and many inventions at IBM, while not always 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.

AWARDS: 1974 Award of Merit(ASIS)

IBM Archives, 400 Columbus Avenue, Valhalla, NY 10595
PAPERS DATES: 1950s-1960s
INCLUDES: Only a very brief file on him is mentioned by the IBM Archives. No specific office files on his work have been identified by the Archives. A letter in his file possibly indicates that he turned his personal files over to the Mohansic (sp?) Lake Library in 1972. (Efforts to locate this library have not been successful).
SOURCE: IBM Archives staff, Phone conversation, 9/96.


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 joined IBM 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 idea for an SDI system and 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. A second significant achievement in the area of information science was the KWIC indexing method, which was adopted by the TOP OF PAGE

Page updated 14 January 1998