Friday, June 19, 2009

June 19: Wallace John Eckert

Wallace John Eckert
June 19, 1902 – August 24, 1971

Wallace John Eckert was an astronomer, and Director of the Thomas J. Watson Astronomical Computing Bureau at Columbia University. 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.

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he earned his PhD from Yale in 1931 in astronomy.

The Astronomical Computing Bureau was supported by Dr. Thomas J. Watson, President of IBM, including customer service and hardware circuit modifications needed to tabulate numbers, create mathematical tables, add, subtract, multiply, reproduce, verify, crossfoot, create tables of differences, create tables of logarithms and perform Lagrangian interpolation, all to solve differential equations for astronomical applications.

When Dana Mitchell saw these operations in action, and later served in the Manhattan Project (the wartime project to develop the first nuclear weapons), he mentioned this technique to the T-6 section of the Theoretical Division of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the Manhattan Project; they were using the electromechanical calculators of that time to perform the mathematical computations for mathematical expressions by hand, using human computers, one person to perform the cube, one to add a number, etc. Nicholas Metropolis and Richard Feynman immediately set about organizing a punched card solution for a crucial mathematical expression, utilizing the techniques pioneered by Eckert and his IBM methods, such as the use of colored punched cards to signal the end of a series of cards, etc.

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 won the James Craig Watson Medal in 1966. The Lunar crater Eckert is named in his honor.

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