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Wallace John Eckert (June 19, 1902 – August 24, 1971) was an astronomer, who directed the Thomas J. Watson Astronomical Computing Bureau at Columbia University which evolved into the research division of IBM.


Wallace John Eckert was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on June 19, 1902. He was not related to another computer pioneer of the time, J. Presper Eckert (1919–1995). He graduated from Oberlin College in 1925, and earned an MA from Amherst College in 1931.[1] He started teaching at Columbia University in 1926, and earned his PhD from Yale in 1931 in astronomy under Professor Ernest William Brown (1866-1938).[2]

Solution of differential equations for astronomy

Around 1933 Eckert proposed interconnecting punched card tabulating machines from IBM located in Columbia's Rutherford Laboratory to perform more than simple statisitcal calculations. Eckert arranged with IBM president Thomas J. Watson for a donation of newly developed IBM 601 calculating punch, which could multiply instead of just adding and subtracting.[3] In 1937 the facility was named the Thomas J. Watson Astronomical Computing Bureau. IBM support included customer service and hardware circuit modifications needed to tabulate numbers, create mathematical tables, add, subtract, multiply, reproduce, verify, create tables of differences, create tables of logarithms and perform Lagrangian interpolation, all to solve differential equations for astronomical applications. In January 1940, Eckert published Punched Card Methods in Scientific Computation, which solved the problem of predicting the orbits of the planets, using the IBM electric tabulating machines, based on the punched card. This slim book is only 136 pages, including the index.

Naval service

In 1940, World War II had broken out in Europe (but the US was not officially involved). He became director of the United States Naval Observatory in Washington, DC. The increasd demand for navigation tables prompted him to automate the process, using punched card equipment. The 1941 almanac was the first to be produced using automated equipment, down to the final typesetting.[4][5] Martin Schwarzschild became directory of the Columbia laboratory while Eckert was at USNO.

Manhattan Project

Columbia Physics professor Dana P. Mitchell served in the Manhattan Project (developing the first nuclear weapons) at Los Alamos National Laboratory. By 1943 the laborious simulation calculations used electromechanical calculators of that time operated by human "computers," mostly wives of the scientists. Mitchell suggested using IBM machines like his colleague Eckert. Nicholas Metropolis and Richard Feynman organizing a punched card solution, proving its effectiveness for physics research and prompting the use of more powerful computers.[6]

Significance of the computing laboratory

After the war he moved back to Columbia, and his laboratory was named Watson Scientific Computing Laboratory. Eckert understood the significance of his laboratory, keenly aware of the advantage of scientific calculations performed without human interventions for long stretches of computation. He was also an employee of IBM, directing one of the first industrial research laboratores in the country. In 1945 he hired Herb Grosch[7] and Llewellyn Thomas[8] as the next two IBM research scientists, who both made significant contributions. When Cuthbert Hurd became the next PhD to be hired by IBM in 1949, he was offered a position with Eckert, but instead founded the Applied Science Department, and later directed the development of IBM's first commercial stored program computer (the IBM 701) based on the demand demonstrated by Eckert's applications.[9]

In 1957 the center moved to Yorktown Heights, New York (with a new building completed in 1961) where it is known as the Thomas J. Watson Research Center.[10] He won the James Craig Watson Medal in 1966 from the US National Academy of Sciences.[11] He attended the launch of Apollo 14 just before his death August 24, 1971 in New jersey.[2] His wife was was Penelope Applegate and he had two children.[12]


1. ^ John A. N. Lee (1995). "Wallace J. Eckert". International biographical dictionary of computer pioneers. Taylor & Francis for IEEE Computer Society Press. pp. 276–277. ISBN 9781884964473.
2. ^ a b Frank da Cruz. "Professor Wallace J. Eckert". A Chronology of Computing at Columbia University web site. Columbia University. Retrieved June 4, 2010.
3. ^ "Endicott chronology — 1931-1939". IBM archives web site. Retrieved June 4, 2010.
4. ^ Frank da Cruz. "The US Naval Observatory 1940-45". A Chronology of Computing at Columbia University web site. Columbia University. Retrieved June 4, 2010.
5. ^ "History of the Astronomical Applications Department". US Naval Observatory web site. Retrieved June 4, 2010.
6. ^ Francis H. Harlow; Nicholas Metropolis (Winter/Spring 1983). "Computing & Computers: Weapons Simulation Leads to the Computer Era". Los Alamos Science: pp. 133–134. Retrieved June 4, 2010.
7. ^ Frank da Cruz. "Herb Grosch September 13, 1918 – January 25, 2010". A Chronology of Computing at Columbia University web site. Columbia University. Retrieved June 4, 2010.
8. ^ Frank da Cruz. "L.H. Thomas and Wallace Eckert in Watson Lab, Columbia University". A Chronology of Computing at Columbia University web site. Columbia University. Retrieved June 4, 2010.
9. ^ Nancy Stern (January 20, 1981). "An Interview with Cuthbert C. Hurd". Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota. Retrieved June 4, 2010.
10. ^ "Watson Research Center ,Yorktown Heights, NY". IBM Research web site. Retrieved June 4, 2010.
11. ^ "James Craig Watson Medal". United States National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved June 4, 2010.
12. ^ William M. Freeman (August 25, 1971). "Dr. Wallace Eckert Dies at 69; Tracked Moon with Computer". New York Times. Retrieved June 4, 2010.

See also

* Leslie Comrie
* IBM Electromatic Table Printing Machine
* List of IBM products

External links

* Frank da Cruz. "Columbia University Computing History". Retrieved June 4, 2010.
* Oral history interview with Martin Schwarzschild. Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Schwarzschild was Eckert's immediate successor as director of the Watson Scientific Computation Laboratory at Columbia University.
* Wallace J. Eckert Papers, 1931-1975. Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.


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