Columbia University Computing History

Professor Wallace J. Eckert

First Automated Scientific Calculations ] [ First Scientifc Computing Lab ] [ First Computer Book ] [ Naval Observatory ] [ Air and Sea Almanacs ] [ Card-Operated Table Printer ] [ IBM/Columbia Watson Scientific Computing Laboratory ] [ Aberdeen Relay Calculator ] [ Card-Programmed Calculator ] [ SSEC ] [ NORC ] [ Apollo Missions ]

I remember Dr. Eckert did say to me, “One day, everybody is going to have a computer right on their desk.” My eyes popped open. That must have been in the early 50s. He foresaw it.
Eleanor Kolchin, Huffington Post invterview, February 2013.

Photo  
Photo: About 1930, Columbiana Archive.
Wallace Eckert, 1902-1971. With graduate study at Columbia, the University of Chicago, and Yale, he received his Ph.D. from Yale in 1931 under Professor Ernest William Brown (1866-1938), who devoted his career to developing a theory of the motions of the moon. Best known for the lunar orbit calculations that guided the Apollo missions to the moon, Eckert was a Columbia University Astronomy Professor from 1926 to 1970, founder and Director of the Thomas J. Watson Astronomical Computing Bureau at Columbia University (1937-40), Director of the US Naval Observatory Nautical Almanac Office (1940-45), and founder and Director of the Watson Scientific Computing Laboratory at Columbia University (1945-1966). First, foremost, and always an astronomer, Eckert drove and often oversaw the construction of increasingly powerful computing machines to solve problems in celestial mechanics, particularly to verifying, extending, and improving Brown's theory. He was one of the first to apply punched-card machines to the solution of complex scientific problems. Perhaps more significantly, he was the first to automate the process when, in 1933-34, he interconnected various IBM calculators and tabulators with control circuits and devices of his design to solve differential equations, methods that were later adapted and extended to IBM's "Aberdeen" Pluggable Sequence Relay Calculator, Electronic Calculating Punch, Card Programmed Calculator, and SSEC. As Director of Watson Lab and IBM's Director of Pure Science, he oversaw construction of the SSEC (arguably the first true computer) and NORC (less arguably the first supercomputer), the most powerful computers of their day, as well as of the IBM 610 – the world's first "personal computer" – and he installed the first computers at Columbia open to research and instruction, meanwhile initiating what might very well be the first computer science curriculum, in 1946, including his own course, Astronomy 111-112: Machine Methods in Scientific Computing, along with other courses that same year taught by Watson Lab scientists Grosch and Thomas.

Eckert's astronomical interests were not limited to the Moon. He also produced an ephemeris of the five outer planets and works on orbital theory and measuring techniques. He capitalized on the arrival of the Watson Lab Aberdeens to plug a post-war gap in the calculation of the annual asteroid ephemeris, the Kleine Planeten, when no national facility could respond in time [59].

While Eckert devoted considerable energy to automating his own calculations, he was not hell-bent on blindly automating everything in sight. In a January 11, 1941, letter to IBM's D.W. Rubidge concerning the WPA Project for the Computation of Mathematical Tables, Eckert wrote, "In discussing a large project of table making one must consider whether the idea is to avoid work or to make it. Your machines are not well suited to the latter, and hence are not recommended as a solution of the unemployment problem during a depression."

In 1948 Eckert received the National Academy of Sciences James Craig Watson Medal for outstanding astronomical research. His Improved Lunar Ephemeris guided the Apollo missions [92]; he attended the Apollo 14 launch just before his death. Eckert is also author of Punched Card Methods in Scientific Computation (1940), considered the first computer book, which influenced other pioneers of computing such as Presper Eckert (no relation!), Howard Aiken, and Vannever Bush [90], and he can also be credited, in a sense, with the first "computer"-driven typesetting (1945). Eckert brought computing to Columbia University and played a key role in bringing it to the rest of the world.

  
Photo:[103]; CLICK to enlarge.


From The Lunar Republic, explaining the origin of the name Eckert Crater (17.3 N Latitude; 58.3 E Longitude):

  
Photo: IBM, about 1970.
Eckert, Wallace John (1902-1971), American astronomer; a pioneer in the use of computers to tabulate astronomical data. Director of the U.S. Nautical Almanac Office during World War II. In this post he introduced machine methods to compute and print tables and began publication of the Air Almanac in 1940. Eckert directed the construction of a number of innovative computers for performing astronomical calculations, including the Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator (SSEC, 1949) and the Naval Ordnance Research Calculator (NORC, 1954), which for many years was the most powerful computer in the world. The accuracy of Eckert's calculations of the Moon's orbit was so good that in 1965 he was able to correctly show that there was a concentration of mass near the lunar surface. In 1967, he produced data which improved on Brown's theory of the Moon.


A prefatory remark (not attributed) in the 1966 Eckert-Smith Nautical Almanac opus concludes, "W.J. Eckert had worked with E.W. Brown in the elaboration of the latter's theory during the 1930's. He returned his attention to the Lunar Theory in the 1950's when automatic computing machines — for whose development he was himself greatly instrumental — made such an undertaking much more manageable. It is melancholic to note that he died shortly after completing the text for the very last section of this manuscript." His work was completed by Martin Gutzwiller (a physicist and Eckert's Watson-Lab colleague) and Dieter S. Schmidt (now on the EE&CS faculty at the University of Cincinnati) and published in the Gutzwiller papers listed below.

Martin Gutzwiller says, "In spite of all [his] marvelous achievements Eckert remained an individual without the slightest trace of pretense. His ideas were clear and his judgement was always well-founded and straightforward." [90]. All who knew him agree he was quiet, pleasant to be with, and modest to a fault.

Of Wallace Eckert, Herb Grosch says, "If he had wanted to abandon astronomy and become a computer man, I'm sure he would have been a much better known figure. His contributions were enormous but they were disguised by the fact that he really did them in order to do better astronomy" (Computer Museum lecture, October 22, 1982). And later, "If there had been a Nobel prize in astronomy [Eckert] and his confreres Dirk Brouwer at Yale and Gerald Clemence at the Naval Observatory would have won it for the tremendous contributions they made to our exact knowledge of the motion of the Moon and the planets, using the SSEC and later IBM equipment." [57,p.118].

In 1973, shortly after his death, Eckert's contributions to astronomy and computing were celebrated in an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington:


Open Questions:


References:
New York Times:

These were reported in July 2010 by Allan Olley; I'll go through these when I have a chance. For now, just raw data.


Computing Publications:


Astronomy Publications:

Other:


Onsite Links:

Offsite Links (all valid as of 28 March 2004):

Last Updated: Sat Nov 9 08:55:58 2013


Frank da Cruz / fdc@columbia.edu / Columbia University Computing History