Columbia University Computing History

Rebecca Jones and Wallace Eckert at the Star Measuring Machine

Columbia Star Machine
Rebecca Jones and Wallace Eckert at the Star Machine
Rebecca (Becky) Jones, an Associate in Astronomy at Columbia, was Wallace Eckert's assistant for many years. She was co-author (with Eckert) of the book Faster Faster [64], and (also with Eckert) specified the first program for the SSEC (the moon orbit calculations that would be used later in the Apollo missions; the actual programming was done by Ken Clark).

The Star Measuring Engine was built by Heber D. Curtis in 1927 for Swarthmore College's Sproul Observatory, and came to Watson Lab courtesy of Swarthmore director Piet van de Kamp. The automation features were added by Watson Lab's John Lentz and Richard L. Bennett; these included electrical indicator lights, sensors, and driving motors plus interfaces to output and control devices including keyboards and an IBM gang punch. Wallace Eckert describes its as follows [105]:

Having eliminated a great deal of the labor of measurement by making it possible with a few minutes use of the telescope to get a problem that will last a week, the new machine has been designed to eliminate even that labor. The plate containing a couple of thousand stars is placed in a measuring engine. In the old days the operator would turn cranks in two directions to find the star, then set on the image, and read the circle. In the new machine we will not only place the photographic plate, but also a stack of a thousand cards, one for each star. Each card will contain the approximate position from the old catalog made 75 years ago. The machine will read the card, find the star, measure its position and punch the measured position on the same card. The new program will then be simply a matter of traffic control, so to speak, through the machinery.

After the machines have automatically performed the measurement and computation, certain data must be selected and displayed for inspection so that the astronomer can see what is going on; here again the machines come into use. We look upon this equipment as purely a slave which does the work and exhibits the material in such a way that the astronomer can exercise the judgment which formerly came only after he had exhausted himself on a lifetime of routine work.

Allan Olley writes on 31 July 2009:

I'm writing a bit about Rebecca Jones and I was trying to figure out when, why and how she left the lab. The Brennan history and the Eckert-Smith final publication on Airy, both mention her as deceased and I had wondered if her untimely death was to blame. Brennan tells us she left in 1958. However I could not find an Obit for her in the New York Times.

Just this afternoon I did another internet search (including her middle initial) and this led me to an article co-authored with Harlow Shapley at the Harvard Observatory. I had a vague suggestion she was married so I searched her name plus marriage and found out her married name was Karpov. There are apparently two notice of her death:

I am not on campus so I have not gotten to Sky and Telescope yet, but the Publications are available through the ADS. The death notice is the final paragraph of the Notes:

"Mrs. Boris Karpov died suddenly on November 27, 1966 in Tryon, North Carolina, to which she and her husband had retired a couple of years ago. The former Rebecca Jones was appointed assistant at the Lick Observatory in 1927 following her graduation from Mount Holyoke. Later she worked for many years with Harlow Shapley at Harvard. She was an officer in the WAVES during World War II. After the war she worked at the Watson Scientific Laboratory in New York City and was married in 1958."

I also learned she had been the Pickering Fellow (a one year research position for female students) at the Harvard Observatory (she took classes but received no degree if I understand correctly), 1934-1935. From the reports on that fellowship. I learned she had graduated with an A.B. from Mt. Holyoke College in 1927, spent 4 years as a researcher at the Lick Observatory and 3 years teaching Astronomy at Wheaton College. I found various papers by her apparently she mostly did analysis of photographs, spectra and the like.

Rebecca Jones has a planetary nebula — Jones-Emerson 1 in the constellation Lynx — named after her, as well as as another, Jones 1 in Pegasus[6].


  1. Eckert, Wallace J., and Rebecca Jones, "Problems in Astronomy: Automatic Measurement of Photographic Star Positions", Astronomical Journal, Vol.59, No.2 (March 1954).
  2. Eckert, Wallace J., and Rebecca Jones, Faster, Faster: a simple description of a giant electronic calculator and the problems it solves, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1955. The final chapter, "What is There to Calculate", was written by L.H. Thomas [90].
  3. Eckert, Wallace J., and Rebecca Jones, Schneller, Schneller, International Büro-Maschinen GmbH (1956) (German edition of Faster, Faster).
  4. Eckert, W.J., and Rebecca Jones, "Measuring Engines", in Hiltner, W.A., Astronomical Techniques, Vol II: "Stars and Stellar Systems", U of Chicago Press (1962).
  5. Allan Olley, Number versus value, 25 December 2019.
  6. Stewart Moore, Planetary nebula Jones-Emberson 1, British Astronomical Association (website accessed 26 December 2019).

Frank da Cruz / / Columbia University Computing History / 2001 / Updated: 26 December 2019