The Watson Laboratory Three-Week Course on Computing

Photo: Courtesy of Eric Hankam (Click to enlarge).

Eric Hankam teaching the Watson Laboratory Three-Week Course on Computing, in Watson Laboratory, Columbia University, 612 West 116th Street, New York City, about 1950.

The caption for a similar photo in the Brennan book [9] reads: "Eric Hankam, of the Watson Laboratory staff, conducted many classes in computing. A total of 1600 people from 20 countries came for instruction." Pictured: Eric draws wire connections on a blackboard embossed with an IBM plugboard template.

From the Brennan text: "By the end of November, 1945, the initial staff and equipment of the Watson Lab had moved into the renovated town house on 116th Street -- a relatively small building with space for about two dozen people and a computer room. Through its portals, nevertheless, there flowed a steady stream of scientists and students from all over the world, technical people from other industries and from government agencies, IBM sales representatives and their customers, users of the Lab's comprehensive technical library and various other visitors. A prime attraction was the provision of free time on the Laboratory's machines to any scientist or scholar engaged in research, subject to the approval of a Laboratory consulting committee. The great majority of these researchers, working in physics, economics, crystallography, engineering, optics, astronomy and many other fields, had little or no experience with IBM machines or with the application of computational techniques to the solution of problems. As a result, staff members in the early years of the Lab spent much of their time teaching people how to manipulate punch cards and get them through the machines. This effort was soon organized into group tutoring sessions -- such as one in which a group of research geophysicists from [Columbia's] Lamont Geological Observatory at Palisades, New York, were intensively "prepped" for a week. In 1947, the famous "Watson Laboratory Three-Week Course on Computing", taught by Eric Hankam of the Laboratory staff, was started. It was subsequently attended by about 1,600 people from over 20 countries. The course was also offered to high school mathematics and science teachers and to high school students in the New York metropolitan area.

"So great was the demand for admittance to Hankam's course that IBM eventually created computer instruction centers at various locations throughout the country, relieving Watson Lab of the task in 1957. To acquaint scientists around the world with advanced, large-scale computing methods, the IBM Department of Education had previously begun the practice of holding annual Scientific Computation Forums [such as the one in 1948]. Through the technical papers which they contributed to these forums, Watson Lab staff members reached a large audience of scientists who were interested in computing." [9]. (For some examples, see the Eckert bibliography.)

Here are some closer views, showing different plugboard templates with wiring connections in chalk. Since plugboards for different machines had different layouts and configurations, a different template was needed for each machine; hence the easel.

Click to magnify

Photos: Courtesy of Eric Hankam (Click to magnify)

The blackboard in the left picture is labeled "TYPE 604 ELECTRONIC CALCULATOR CONTROL PANEL DIAGRAM" (a Friden electromechanical calculator is on the table at right). The blackboard in the right-hand photo is labeled "CALCULATING PUNCH - TYPE 602-A - CONTROL PANEL".

Eric Hankam at 612 West 116th Street, 4 November 2003.
Photo: Frank da Cruz (click to magnify).
  Eric Hankam started work the day that Watson Lab first opened in the 116th Street building, 9 November 1945. He was just out of the Army and answered a want-ad in the newspaper. His job was to educate scientists from Columbia Univeristy or anywhere else in the use of computing machines for unclassified research. At first this was done in one-on-one sessions on the 601, 405, and associated repoducers, sorters, collators, etc. Then as new machines started to arrive -- the 602 and 602A, 603, 604, 607, CPC, and finally the 650 -- demand grew to the point where individual instruction was impossible. Eric decided to conduct a class (described above) -- the first of its kind anywhere. It was open to scientific researchers from all countries, free of charge. Eric also taught academic courses at Columbia, including Astronomy 111-112 and EE 287, in which students were introduced to scientific computing techniques on wire-programmed as well as card-programmed and stored-program computers [66].

Some of the early academic computing courses taught by Eckert, Thomas, and Grosch also included hands-on lab sessions with Eric and others [57], using the IBM 60x calculating machines.

Also see: Last updated: Sun Dec 14 12:33:06 2003

Frank da Cruz / / Columbia University Computing History / Jul - Nov 2003