Columbia University Computing History   
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The US Naval Observatory 1940-45

USNO machine room
USNO Punched-Card Machine Room, 1941: Helen Smith and Rubye Burns. Photo: USNO.

From the United States Government Manual, Division of Public Inquiries, Office of War Information, 1945:

Naval Observatory.--The Naval Observatory at Washington, D.C. broadcasts time signals daily. In addition to establishing standard time for the country and for the navigator at sea to determine his chronometer error and position, these signals are used by surveyors, engineers, scientific workers, and mining and petroleum engineers for the determination of position, measurement of gravity and radio frequencies, and other purposes requiring exact time. in order to meet the needs of all who may have use for them, a number of different frequencies are used in broadcasting the signals via the naval radio station at Annapolis, Md. Daily signals are also transmitted by the station at Mare Island, Calif., and the noon signals are distributed by telegraph. Naval Radio stations at Honolulu and in the Canal Zone transmit time signals which are based on Naval Observatory time.

The administration for the upkeep, repair, inspection, supply, and distribution of designated navigational, aeronautical, and aerological instruments and their spare parts for the ships and aircraft of the Navy is performed at the Naval Observatory.

The Naval Observatory maintains continuous observations for absolute positions of the fundamental stars, and the independent determination, by observations of the sun, of the position of the ecliptic and of the Equator among the stars, and of the positions of the stars, moon, and planets, with reference to the Equator and equinoxes, in order to furnish data to assist in preparing the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac and improving the tables of the planets, moon, and stars. Information is also furnished to foreign countries in accordance with international agreement.

The Nautical Almanac Office of the Naval Observatory computes and prepares for publication the American Ephemeris and its supplements, the American Air Almanac and the Nautical Almanac. In addition, there is carried on the essential research work of deriving improved values of the fundamental astronomical elements and embodying them in new tables of the celestial motions.

One of the many scientific duties of the Naval Observatory is the determination and promulgation of information in connection with all solar and lunar eclipses. For many years it has been the practice to distribute pamphlets containing all of the astronomical data in connection with coming total solar eclipses.

Wallace Eckert
Wallace J Eckert, circa 1940. Photo: [90].
Columbia University Astronomy professor Wallace Eckert was appointed USNO Head Astronomer and Director of the USNO Nautical Almanac Office in 1940, and remained in that position until 1945 when he returned to Columbia to found the Watson Scientific Computing Laboratory.

The war had already started in Europe, and there was an urgent need for rapid production of accurate and readable almanacs for sea and especially air navigation. When Eckert arrived at USNO in early 1940 "they had no automatic equipment. Every digit was written by hand and read and written repeatedly … They didn't have a machine that would print figures automatically. They had desk calculators." [9].

The Nautical Almanac was produced only once a year and the existing staff was capable of keeping up the pace using their timeworn methods. Air almanacs were another question. Although several had been produced in the 1930s in the USA, Britain, and elsewhere, there was now a need for regular issues, three times a year, independent of data from other countries, and suitable for use in combat: compact, readable, "user friendly", with no mistakes. Eckert's background in celestial mechanics and automated scientific calculation -- combined with his well-known ingenuity -- suited him perfectly to the task.

Eckert quickly equipped the Nautical Almanac office with IBM punched-card equipment (a 405 Tabulator, a 601 Multiplying Punch, plus various sorters, summary punches, etc) and hired people who could take advantage of it. Within months, he had automated the table-building process, calculating all figures on the machines rather than by hand, and published the 1941 Air and Nautical Almanacs before the end of 1940. The next year, he began to print the tables directly, rather than having them hand set, thus eliminating the final source of transcription error, and he also instituted an ingenious and rigorous verification procedure. Eckert was responsible for all the wartime almanacs; some editions ran to 200,000 copies and not a single error was ever reported.

Eckert's machine methods were adapted by Paul Herget, a University of Cincinnati astronomer on his staff, to production of the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac beginning in 1940. Herget also put Eckert's machines to good use on the night shift building tables used for locating lurking German U-boats by triangulation of radio signals, which when published in 1943 reduced Allied shipping losses in the Atlantic from 30% to 6%. [101].   The USNO's almanacs and other machine productions were critical factors to the Allied victory in World War II.

  1. Dick, Steven, "History of the American Nautical Almanac Office", The Eckert and Clemence Years, 1940-1958, in Fiala, Alan D., and Steven J. Dick (editors), Proceedings, Nautical Almanac Office Sesquicentennial Symposium, U.S. Naval Observatory, Washington DC, March 3-4, 1999 [90], pp.35-46.
  2. Gutzwiller, M.C., "Wallace Eckert, Computers, and the Nautical Almanac Office", ibid., pp.147-163.
  3. Dick, Steven J., Sky and Ocean Joined: The U.S. Naval Observatory 1830-2000, Cambridge University Press (2002), ISBN 0-521-81599-1, 609pp [101] (Ch.12, pp.519-523).
  4. Eckert, W.J., "The Construction of the Air Almanac", 68th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society, New Haven CT, 12-14 June 1942 (I don't know if this is published).
  5. Eckert, Wallace J., Transcript, Systems Service Class No. 591 (Aerial Navigation) for the US Army Air Corps; Department of Education, International Business Machines, Endicott NY 8 Sep 1944) [84].
  6. Eckert, W.J., "Air Almanacs", Sky and Telescope, Vol.4, No.37 (Oct 1944).
  7. W.J.E. (Wallace J. Eckert) and Ralph F. Haupt, "The Printing of Mathematical Tables", Mathematical Tables and Other Aids to Computation, Vol.2, No.17 (Jan 1947), pp.197-202 [77].
  8. Grosch, Herbert R.J., Computer: Bit Slices from a Life, Third Edition, 2003 (in manuscript), Chapters 02 and 07. First edition published by Third Millenium Books, Novato CA (1991), ISBN 0-88733-085 [57].
  9. Hollander, Frederick H., "Punched Card Calculating and Printing Methods in the Nautical Almanac Office", Proceedings, Scientific Computation Forum, IBM, New York (1948).
  10. Mixter, George, W. "American Almanacs", in NAVIGATION, Journal of the Institute of Navigation, Vol.1, No.3 (September 1946).
  11. Seidelmann, P.K., P.M. Janiczek, and R.F. Haupt, "The Almanacs - Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow", in NAVIGATION, Journal of the Institute of Navigation, Vol.24 No.4, Winter 1976-77, pp.303-312.
  12. The American Air Almanac (for) 1941 May-August, United States Naval Observatory, Nautical Almanac Office, Washington DC (December 1940), 260pp (and all other issues 1940-1946).
  13. United States Navy Nautical Almanac Office, "Tables of Sunrise, Sunset and Twilight", Supplement to the American Ephemeris, 1946, US Government Printing Office, Washington DC (1945), 196pp.

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Columbia University Computing History Frank da Cruz / This page created: January 2001 Last update: 14 September 2023