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The IBM Naval Ordnance Research Calculator

IBM NORC at Columbia U
Faith Lillibridge at the NORC console: fifth floor, Columbia University Watson Lab, 612 West 115th Street NYC, 1954.

[ Dedication ] [ Gallery ] [ References ]

IBM's Naval Ordnance Research Calculator (NORC) was the first supercomputer (1) and the most powerful computer on earth from 1954 to about 1963, and remained in service until 1968. Built between 1950 and 1954 at Columbia University's Watson Scientific Computing Laboratory 612 West 115th Street location, NORC's specifications included [4,9]:

The CRT memory was converted to a 20,000-word 8-µsec ferrite core memory in a project contracted to Daystrom Instrument in 1958 for delivery in mid-1959, and actually delivered in March 1960. According to the reports at the time, NORC has 2000 words of Williams tube memory, not 3600, in which case the upgrade represented a tenfold increase in capacity and "the reduction in maintenance and error stops brought about by the new memory ... netted about one extra hour of useful time out of each 24" [115,116].

"Reliability was an extremely important objective of the NORC team, beginning with initial design and construction of the machine and continuing throughout its operational life span. The NORC's longevity (14 years), attests to the success of this effort" [61]. A now-vanished University of Manchester NORC page said, "Despite [its] high degree of complexity, 92% of [NORC's] time was spent running productively at 15,000 operations per second — a reliability the envy of many subsequent machines."

"A staff of nearly 60 people was required to assemble [NORC] from parts manufactured by IBM and by various small subcontractors in the New York area, including one in Paterson, N.J., who employed housewives, part time, to do hand wiring" [40]. Meanwhile "Mike the Expediter" (M.J. Plum) would make daily forays to Cortland and Canal Streets for parts [59]. Watson Lab NORC crew management included [9,61]:

Engineer in Charge: Byron Havens
Assistant Project Leader: W.J. Deerhake (CU Adj Asst Prof EE)
Logic and Control Design:   Ken Schreiner
Circuit Design: C.R. Borders
Mechanical Design: Robert Schubert
Programming: Joachim Jeenel

"Although the NORC was a cost-no-object, one-of-a-kind machine, and outside the mainstream of computer development, its influence on other computers was felt for many years. While it was under construction, engineers building the 701 not only made use of the microsecond delay circuit but also benefitted from Deerhake's work in overcoming difficulties encountered in electrostatic storage -- which the 701 also used." [9] The NORC also included the first input-output channel, which synchronized the flow of data into and out of the computer while computation was in progress, relieving the central processor of that task, a concept that was quickly adopted across the industry.

Here's another view. This photo was published in IBM Business Machines, 23 December 1954 [58]; Byron Havens is on the right. The copy shown here (like the image at the top) is scanned from an original 8x10 glossy from IBM's press kit, contributed by Ken Schreiner, chief logic and control design engineer on the NORC project.

IBM NORC at Columbia U
Faith Lillibridge at the NORC console; Byron Havens at right, Columbia University, 1954.

From J.A.N. Lee's column in the 50th anniversary issue of IEEE Computer:

The Naval Surface Weapons Center at Dahlgren, Virginia, was the primary site of US naval computing, beginning with the 1948 installation of Howard Aiken's Mark II, followed by the Mark III in 1951. The center's next machine, the Naval Ordnance Research Calculator (NORC), was built at the Watson Scientific Computing Laboratory under the direction of Wallace Eckert. Initially, NORC had been scheduled for delivery to the White Oak Naval Facility near Washington, D.C., but the Navy redirected it to the experienced crew at Dahlgren. Physicist Edward Teller had been trying to have it diverted to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, arguing that the lab's nuclear calculations were more important than Dahlgren's ballistic calculations. The Navy won, and NORC was dedicated at Dahlgren on December 2, 1954. John von Neumann, who had just completed work on the IAS machine, was the keynote speaker.

(In fact the dedication was held at Watson Lab; NORC was not moved to Dahlgren until summer 1955 [4].)

NORC DEDICATION

NORC dedication
NORC Dedication, Watson Lab, Columbia University, 2 December 1954. Photo contributed by Herb Grosch.

At the NORC dedication in Watson Lab, 2 December 1954: IBM Chairman Thomas J. Watson, Rear Admiral E.A. Solomons (Executive Office, Secretary of the Navy), Jeannette Watson (Mrs. Watson Senior), Columbia Professor Wallace Eckert, John von Neumann, Captain C.K. Bergin (Director, R&D, Bureau of Ordnance, Dept of the Navy), Rear Admiral C.G. Warfield (Executive Office, Secretary of the Navy) [9,59,61]:

Admiral Solomons had been captain of the destroyer USS Morris, that was in the battles of Coral Sea and Midway and was eventually crippled by a Kamikaze attack off Okinawa. Not shown, but also present: future IBM chairman Thomas J. Watson Junior, Vice-Admiral L.T. Du Bose (who had commanded the heavy cruiser USS Portland at the battle of Midway), Columbia president Grayson Kirk, some other university presidents, Columbia's Ben Wood and Hilleth Thomas, numerous IBM officials, Watson Lab's NORC engineers, 200 other "scientific, business, and military leaders." NORC itself, which calculated π to 3000 digits for the occasion [9,58], is in the background.

NORC was a three-address machine ("multiply A times B and store the result in C"). It was programmed directly in machine language; assemblers came later. Ken King (then a Watson Fellow, i.e. Columbia PhD student at Watson Lab) programmed the demo and corrects the record as follows: "I computed π and e (the base of the natural logarithms) to 1,000,000 places at the dedication of the Norc because John von Neumann wanted to confirm that the digits were random." [65]

Ken Schreiner [61] recalls, "The major honored guests arrived in the morning, and that is when the photos of the 'VIPs' were taken within the confines of the NORC installation. Others (the remainder of the 200 people) came first to the Luncheon at the Men's Faculty Club [on West 117th Street, on the far side of campus]... John von Neumann was the featured speaker. During the hours that followed the luncheon, guests filtered in and out of the NORC room, viewing the machine, receiving demonstrations, and getting answers to questions. Because the whole thing was stretched out in time, I don't believe there were any traffic jams." (In 1954, Columbia had separate Men's and Women's Faculty Clubs; now there is only a Faculty Club.)

NORC Guest Book Signing
Wallace Eckert, Frank Diehl Fackenthal, Robert J. Oppenheimer, Thomas J. Watson, Sr., Columbia Vice President George Pegram (signing guest book), John von Neumann, and I.I. Rabi at the NORC reception at the Men's Faculty Club, December 2, 1954. Photo courtesy Herb Grosch (click for full-size higher-resolution image).

Ken King recalls [65] that in the six months between NORC's completion and its delivery to Navy, "Dan Tycho and I, as thesis students of LH Thomas, computed the wave functions of the Helium atom on the Norc (Dan Tycho's Ph.D dissertation). This was done under the rubric of testing the machine." Of course Professor Eckert also had access to the machine, and used it to work on the problem of the position of the moon by computing the ephemerides directly from Brown's equations. The task was immense involving some 1,650 trigonometric terms, many of them with variable coefficients, yet the accuracy of the results was so good that in 1965 he was able to correctly show that there was a concentration of mass near the lunar surface (source: O'Connor and Robertson).

In 1958, Eckert said of NORC, "A calculation involving a billion arithmetical operations on large numbers can be completed on the Norc in approximately one day, yet more powerful calculators are foreseen to to meet the ever-increasing demands of science and technology where the solution of a large problem generates even larger problems." [81].

Six photos from IBM's December 1954 NORC press kit, plus newspaper clippings and a program, contributed by Ken Schreiner, plus several other images. According to Prof. Eckert, "most of the photographs were taken by Mr. A.W. Hummers" [64]. It is worth noting IBM's use of the word "computer" in its photo captions; this might be the first time IBM used this term (rather than "automatic calculator" or "data processing machine") to denote a stored-program computing device. Click on an image to magnify. Full-size images occupy 100% of the width of your browser, so if you maximize your browser window, you'll get a full-screen image.

Notes:

  1. The first supercomputer in the sense that it was the first whose declared purpose was to surpass all other computers and that there was a significant number of other computers to surpass (thus one would not call ENIAC or ASCC a supercomputer); in Eckert's words, "The aim has been to incorporate in this 'one-of-a-kind' calculator the most advanced developments to produce a calculator particularly suited to the solution of the large complex problems. To this end no effort has been spared to secure extremely high speed, great reliability, and simplicity of operation". Von Neumann named it "the most advanced machine which is possible in the present state of the art." It was not outpaced until the appearance of Seymour Cray's CDC 6600 in 1964, which is also sometimes cited as the "first supercomputer", but 10 years after NORC. It is true, however, that the term "supercomputer" was not coined until some years after NORC, most likely for the Ferranti Atlas or CDC 6600. Nevertheless, various histories list NORC as the first supercomputer (e.g. [57]). Another [40] calls SSEC (also designed at Watson Lab) the first supercomputer.

According to the IBM historical archive, "NORC's fame was extended literally out of this world when astronomer Dr. Paul Herget, Director of the Cincinnati Observatory, arranged to name an asteroid discovered in 1953 for the computer. (The asteroid Norc revolves around the Sun once every 5.6 years in an orbit between Mars and Jupiter.) Under Dr. Herget's direction, and the sponsorship of the Office of Naval Research and the National Science Foundation, the earthbound NORC was used to compute the orbits of celestial bodies, including the most precise orbit of the Earth for the 1920-2000 period. In discussing one of NORC's accomplishments in May 1956, Dr. Herget said: 'We used nine hours of running time and completed more computations than had ever before been done at one time in the history of astronomy.'"

REFERENCES

  1. Eckert, Wallace J, and Rebecca Jones (PHOTO), Faster, Faster: a simple description of a giant electronic calculator and the problems it solves, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1955 (TITLE PAGE); 160 p. illus. 24 cm. Rebecca (Becky) Jones, an Associate in Astronomy, was Dr. Eckert's Watson Lab assistant and (among other things) Friden calculator wizard, thus a "computer" in her own right [57].
  2. von Neumann, John, "The NORC and Problems in High-Speed Computing", IEEE Annals of the History of Computing Vol.3 No.3 (July-September 1981), pp.274-279.
  3. NORC, International Business Machines Corporation, 590 Madison Avenue, New York 22, NY (1954): Form 52-64444-0-20-12-54.
  4. The Bashe [4] and Pugh [40] books.
  5. The Grosch book [57].
  6. US Naval Proving Ground, NORC Programming and Coding Manual (1955), 58pp.
  7. US Naval Proving Ground, Computation and Analysis Laboratory, Dahlgren, Virginia, approx. 1957.
  8. Digital Computer Newsletter, Office of Naval Research, Mathematical Sciences Division, Vol.10, No.4, October 1958 [115].
  9. Explanatory Supplement to the Astronomical Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac, prepared jointly by the Nautical Almanac Offices of the United Kingdom and the United States of America: H.M. Nautical Almanac Office by Order of the Lords Commission of the Admiralty, London, Her Majesty's Stationey Office (1961).

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Created: 2004; Last Updated: 17 May 2019


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