Computing at Columbia
Frank da Cruz
Alum, Neighbor, Parent, Staff Member
School of General Studies 1970
School of Engineering and Applied Science 1977
It will come as a surprise to many that some of the most significant events in the history of digital computers took place at Columbia University. While Harvard is famous for the Mark I, Penn for ENIAC, Cambridge for EDSAC, and Bletchley Park for Collosus, Columbia does not readily spring to mind as a hotbed of computer pioneering. But consider the following:
Herman Hollerith, who perfected the first automated computing machines (tabulators driven by punched cards, designed for the 1890 U.S. census), received his undergraduate engineering degree at Columbia in 1879 and his Columbia PhD in 1890. Hollerith founded a company that would eventually become IBM.
Columbia astronomy professor Wallace Eckert (no relation to ENIAC's Presper Eckert) accomplished the first automation of complex scientific calculations in Pupin Laboratory in 1934. He used a device of his own design to orchestrate, or "program," the actions of an assortment of IBM machines to solve differential equations by numerical integration.
In 1937, Professor Eckert established the first academic scientific computing bureau. In 1940, he published "Punched Card Methods in Scientific Calculation," which is widely regarded as the first computer book.
IBM Watson Laboratory was founded at Columbia in 1945 with Professor Eckert as director. The first personal computer was designed and built here between 1948 and 1956. The familiar blinking cursor was invented here, too. From 1963 to 1972, NASA used the lunar tables produced by Professor Eckert, on machines for whose construction he was responsible, to guide its Apollo moon missions.
Read more about Hollerith, Eckert, and the rest of Columbia University's rich and varied computing history at http://www.columbia.edu/acis/history.