Wallace Eckert
He created new machines to support science and explore unknown territory
Wallace Eckert, black and white portrait

Wallace Eckert showed the world a way to the moon by pushing machines beyond their limits. A pioneer in the use of tabulating and computing equipment for scientific calculations, he designed powerful systems to help map celestial motion and charted the lunar orbit that later guided the Apollo missions. Meanwhile, he ushered IBM into a new era of machine-supported “pure science” research.

An astronomer first and foremost, Eckert developed machine techniques and hardware to support his work on the movement of masses (such as planets) in space. Eckert would spend much of his career expounding and improving on the lunar theory that had been developed by Ernest William Brown, the preeminent authority on the topic in the early 20th century and his professor at Yale University. 

Brown had spent more than 20 years compiling his lunar orbit tables, published in 1919, by hand. Eckert found that machines could help him do it better and faster. He helped other branches of science enter the machine age too.

A ‘hacker’ for science

Eckert attended undergrad at Oberlin College and received his master of arts from Amherst College in 1926. He joined Columbia University as an assistant that same year and started PhD studies, later earning his degree at Yale University under Brown.

While an instructor in Columbia’s Astronomy Department in 1929, he was drawn to the school’s new Statistical Bureau, which featured IBM punched card machines that Eckert imagined using to perform celestial calculations. He put the machines through their paces. As early as 1930, he began using a first-of-its kind IBM statistical calculator, which became known as the “Columbia machine,” for verifying astronomy tables. He adapted tabulators, capable only of adding positive and negative numbers, to perform complex calculations using tables of squares, logarithms and other numbers on punched cards. He was one of the few scientists at the time developing innovative punched card methods for research.

In 1933, Columbia installed a full IBM punched card assembly, dubbed the Astronomical Calculator, in the Astronomy Department, based on Eckert’s request and specifications. From there Eckert rigged various IBM calculators and tabulators together with control circuits to formulate differential equations to help chart planetary orbit paths. He used the setup — the first ever to perform scientific calculations automatically — to chart the orbits of the five outer planets in Earth’s solar system from the year 1653 to 2060. It was an important step toward modern programmed computing.

Formal collaboration with IBM

In 1937, Eckert’s astronomy computing lab became the Thomas J. Watson Astronomical Computing Bureau, a collaboration among Columbia University, IBM and the American Astronomical Society. At the first center for scientific computation, one of the primary goals was to make lab facilities and data more widely available to astronomers. The Computing Bureau was typical of the partnerships that IBM had been forging with academia and the scientific community for years, lending its machines and computational muscle to big scientific pursuits.

For Thomas Watson Sr., it was part of an explicit strategy to strengthen the company’s ties to Columbia and the broader community. For Eckert, it was another opportunity to harness machines for scientific research.

In 1940, Eckert joined the US Nautical Almanac Office as its chief astronomer and director. There he used the punched card methods he’d invented at Columbia to completely automate the publishing of the first Air Almanac, yielding an error-free, 20,000-page tome.

Science and the SSEC

Around 1944, Watson Sr. began exploring the idea of building his own version of the Computing Bureau in house. He envisioned a team devoted to scientific inquiry, supportive of academia but independent — and unencumbered by corporate profit demands. He hired Eckert to lead it in 1945.

The new Watson Scientific Computing Laboratory would also serve as an incubator for IBM’s machines and a test bed for their application in scientific problem-solving. It was Eckert’s mission to perform the stress tests. “Standard IBM machines will be used where they are the best for the purpose. Questions of what machines would be more suitable than present IBM machines will be examined,” he said.

For an astronomer like Eckert, the sky was the limit. He’d soon be presented with a grand opportunity to design a purpose-built computational workhorse for his ambitions in astronomy. Fresh off its collaboration with Harvard University on the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, or Mark I, IBM was planning to build something even bigger and better. The mission with this machine would be to support science.

What emerged was the Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator, an amped-up version of the Mark I with advancements that would strip out thousands of man-hours from all kinds of calculations. Eckert cared, in particular, about the orbit of the moon and plotting its position through time and space.

The lunar ephemeris

The SSEC was capable of calculating the millions of data points required to build new lunar orbit tables, or a lunar ephemeris, in a fraction of the time it would have taken Eckert’s mentor Ernest W. Brown to do the work by hand decades earlier. At the dedication of the SSEC in New York City in January, chief project engineer Frank Hamilton outlined the machine’s first big goal, calculating Eckert’s lunar ephemeris. It would take a few years to complete.

That same year, Eckert received the James Craig Watson Medal from the National Academy of Sciences for outstanding work in astronomical research. In 1965, Eckert completed a refinement of the ephemeris that could predict, for centuries into the future, the position of the moon within a few feet.

Eckert’s lunar ephemeris was the basis for orbital calculations in NASA’s moon programs, including the historic Apollo landing. When the technology was available, radar confirmed the accuracy of Eckert’s figures.

A shift to solid-state physics

In 1952, four years after the development of the transistor and just as Thomas Watson Jr. was re-aligning the company for a future in computers, Eckert was given permission to establish a solid-state physics program with the Columbia Physics Department. He began recruiting promising PhD candidates he could turn loose on the emerging discipline.

Even as the Watson Lab shifted its focus toward computers and electronics research, the spirit of open exploration lived on, cultivated by Eckert. One recruit said of the opportunity: “[Eckert] communicated the idea that we would be more or less expected to work in areas that IBM would appreciate, but we were to use our own judgment as to what these specifically should be.”

Eckert was in charge of design and construction of the Naval Ordnance Research Calculator, completed in 1954. For years it was the world’s most powerful computer. He continued to serve as director of the Watson Lab through 1962, when Columbia opened its own computing center on campus and the lab was absorbed into the newly formed Research division of IBM. He was named an IBM Fellow in 1967 and retired from the company the same year. In 1970 he retired as a professor from Columbia. Eckert died in 1971.

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