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Wallace Eckert
Wallace Eckert

Wallace Eckert (1902–71)
Faculty 1926–70

A Columbia University astronomy professor from 1926 to 1970, Eckert is best known for the calculations that guided the Apollo missions to the Moon; indeed, a Moon crater bears his name. He was, however, also a true pioneer of computing. His work in celestial mechanics, particularly the construction of voluminous and precise tables showing the positions of celestial objects over long spans of time, required massive amounts of computation, more than could be handled by the desktop calculators and tabulating machines of the prewar decades.

In the 1930s, Eckert established a special relationship with IBM, in which he was able to send specifications for revolutionary custom-built punch-card machines to speed his work. Perhaps his greatest achievement was his insight, in 1934, that a number of single-purpose IBM machines (this one could add, that one could multiply, another one could copy) might be interconnected and "programmed" to perform complex scientific calculations without human intervention, given a mechanism to coordinate their actions and communicate results among them. He designed such a mechanism, IBM built it for him, and the setup was so successful that Eckert's Pupin Hall laboratory became an international center for scientific computation. It was here that in 1940 he wrote Punched Card Methods in Scientific Computation, widely considered the first computer book.

In the Second World War, Eckert served as the U.S. Naval Observatory's chief astronomer and director of its Nautical Almanac Office, where he turned IBM machines and the methods he perfected at Columbia to production of the Air and Nautical Almanacs used by Allied forces for navigation. Every air and sea mission of the U.S. forces during the war—as well as civil aviation and commercial shipping—was guided by Eckert's almanacs. Eckert's USNO machines were also responsible for a dramatic reduction in the loss of Allied shipping to German U-boats.

After the war, Eckert founded IBM Watson Scientific Computing Laboratory at Columbia University, which produced—among many other marvels—the giant SSEC (1948) and NORC (1954) computers, each the most powerful of its day, as well as the first "personal computer," the IBM 610 (1948–56). On the SSEC, in 1949, Eckert performed the lunar orbit calculations used by NASA to send the Apollo missions to the Moon. And in 1946–47 he organized the first Computer Science curriculum, taught by himself and other Watson lab scientists, long before the term Computer Science (or even computer in its modern sense) had entered the lexicon.

In 1971, just before his death, Eckert attended the Apollo 14 launch at NASA's invitation. In 1973, the Smithsonian Institution commemorated his life's work with a special exhibit.

Eckert—first, foremost, and always an astronomer—claimed little credit for his innovations in computing which, to him, were only detours required to get his real work done: detours in which he brought computing to Columbia University and, in many ways, the world.

Submitted by Frank da Cruz, School of General Studies 1970, School of Engineering and Applied Science 1977, who is solely responsible for the content.

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