The legendary Whirlwind computer, MIT’s six room-size machines devoted to mathematical research, hooked Charles W. Johnson, BE ‘55, on programming. An all-state high-school football player in Wisconsin, Johnson studied engineering and played ball at his state university in Madison. Then he began graduate studies at MIT, along with his brother Millard Johnson, PhD ‘57. While studying building engineering, Johnson became fascinated by programming. “My whole career has been in computing, and it started with the Whirlwind,” he says. “MIT really changed my direction.”
After working at IBM for 12 years, Johnson started a numerical-analysis business in 1970 with his wife, Jennifer, and a friend. Each day, Jennifer Johnson wrote 125 letters to potential clients; their six children stuffed envelopes with sales materials after school. Johnson mailed those letters and developed software that established him as a pioneer of computerized numerical analysis. His company, Visual Numerics, Inc. (VNI), was the first to deliver mathematical libraries of formulas and routines for multiple computing platforms, the first to combine graphics with computational libraries, and the first to develop a commercial library in pure Java. Today, customers including Priceline.com, Humana, Sandia National Laboratories, and Boeing rely on VNI’s software to do such things as forecast financial trends.
“Numerical analysis is increasingly used to make management decisions because it allows you to allocate resources,” Johnson says. “It helps companies decide which products should be emphasized–for example, should an oil refinery make gasoline, diesel fuel, or kerosene?”
As chairman of the VNI board, Johnson heads long-range planning; his daughter Clare has joined him on the board. Johnson finds satisfaction in his company’s growth. “We were able to start something from scratch, and it evolved into a worldwide company,” he says. “And when I look at our customer base, I see worthwhile organizations doing worthwhile things, like cancer research, with our products.”
Based in his hometown of Racine, Johnson has stayed connected to MIT, serving as an educational counselor for more than 30 years. He and his wife established a chair in EECS and fellowships in management and math. He’s active on the MIT Corporation Development Committee and the Alumni Fund Board as well.
Johnson also serves on local civic boards, helps run his wife’s family businesses (including orchards and a gas and oil company), and makes time for hobbies. “I’m still pretty active with weight lifting,” he says, “but mathematics is my real hobby–recreational games like numerical crossword puzzles and serious reading like the Millennium Problems.”