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Early Computing and Numerical Analysis at the National Bureau of Standards

IP.com Disclosure Number: IPCOM000129579D
Original Publication Date: 1989-Dec-31
Included in the Prior Art Database: 2005-Oct-06
Document File: 13 page(s) / 53K

Publishing Venue

Software Patent Institute

Related People

WILLIAM ASPRAY: AUTHOR [+3]

Abstract

Categories and Subject Descriptors: K2 [Computing Milieux]: History of Computing -- hardware, people, software, systems. G. 1 [Mathematics of Computing]: Numerical Analysis. General Terms: Management, Standardization. Additional Terms: National Bureau of Standards, Census Bureau, UNIVAC, INA, NAML, John Curtiss, SEAC, SWAC.

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THIS DOCUMENT IS AN APPROXIMATE REPRESENTATION OF THE ORIGINAL.

Copyright ©; 1989 by the American Federation of Information Processing Societies, Inc. Used with permission.

Early Computing and Numerical Analysis at the National Bureau of Standards

WILLIAM ASPRAY

MICHAEL GUNDERLOY

(Image Omitted: Author's Address: Charles Babbage Institute, 103 Walter Library, University of Minnesota, MN 55455,U.S.A.)

Categories and Subject Descriptors: K2 [Computing Milieux]: History of Computing -- hardware, people, software, systems. G. 1 [Mathematics of Computing]: Numerical Analysis. General Terms: Management, Standardization. Additional Terms: National Bureau of Standards, Census Bureau, UNIVAC, INA, NAML, John Curtiss, SEAC, SWAC.

At the end of the second world war there were no computers, if we mean by that word what we mean today: a general purpose, stored program, electronic calculating device. By the mid-1950s an active computer industry was manufacturing reliable computers for science, government, and business. In the intervening years, the basic principles of computer design were established, those designs being first realized in steel and in vacuum tubes; the enormous range of business and scientific applications were first appreciated; and many of those close ties among American government, industry, and academe that have made computing largely an American success story were first established. Computing became a radically new, highly complex, capital- intensive technology -- one which required resources that the universities were unable and the companies were unwilling to provide. This article tells the story of one government agency, the National Bureau of Standards, whose efforts in those early years helped to bridge this gap and to initiate modern computing.

The Bureau11 established its first program in computing in 1938, after the director, Lyman Briggs, attended a Works Progress Administration (WPA) conference on aid for unemployed scientists. Responding to the WPA's call, the Bureau created the Mathematical Tables Project in New York City, under the direction of Arnold Lowan. Employing seven Ph.D. mathematicians and some 120 high school graduates, the project prepared basic tables of exponential and circular functions. The staff worked by hand, using desk calculators and punched-card tabulating equipment to produce highly accurate mathematical tables (Lowan 1949; Cochrane 1966; Blanch and Rhodes 1974). They also provided a computation service, solving scientifically worthy numerical problems for government and industry (Lowan 1949, p. 41). Even before the United States entered the second world war, the project had developed a long list of military clients, including the Army Corps of Engineers, the Navy Bureau of Ordnance, and the National Defense Research Committee -- thus continuing a tradition of cooperation between the Bureau and the military services that dated back to the first world war (Weber 1925, pp. 60-69; Cochrane...