PROFESSOR AT WEBB INSTITUTE
Two events occurred in April which influenced our next place to live. During the spring break at Harvard, we had Will and
Mary Francis visit us from the Bakers. One day Will came upstairs and told his mother that he had left his "caht" down in
the "yahd." He had to repeat it three times before she finally understood what he said. That evening she said the children
could not go back to the Bakers, and that we had to leave Boston the day after I got my degree. The second event was an
offer of a teaching position at the Webb Institute of Naval Architecture in Glen Cove, Long Island (N. Y.). This is a
small private school (80 students), with the sole curriculum of naval architecture and marine engineering, endowed in the
1880’s by William H. Webb, who made a fortune building wooden sailing vessels at the time of the Civil War. The school
had just secured retired four-star Admiral Samuel Robinson, former chief of all the Navy’s bureaus, as administrator.
Admiral Robinson was in the process of modernizing the school, and sought a teacher able to handle physics, electrical
engineering, and mechanical engineering. He offered living accommodation in a new apartment to be built on the grounds
of the school, a millionaire’s former estate on the north shore of Long Island. We went down there during the spring
break at Harvard in a war surplus pickup truck I had bought at an auction, and liked everything about it — beautiful
grounds, brand-new home, very smart students, small faculty (I would be the third full-time professor), and a super-qualified
administrator. The only negative was that it had nothing to do with my new field of computers, in which I
was to receive what was possibly the world’s first PhD. Admiral Robinson wanted me to start as soon as possible, which
turned out to be June 1st, and I had the uninteresting first assignment of teaching elementary physics to the whole
student body. The course had been scheduled in the fourth year, due to pressure for other subjects earlier, but Admiral
Robinson felt it should be a freshman subject, and was determined to make it such. I had to arrange for equipment for
most experiments, and plan for the necessary lessons. Among other changes, Admiral Robinson had reversed the normal
vacation periods, making the 3-month one in the winter (so that the students would not have to compete for scarce summer
jobs) and a 1-month one in summer (August). Thus I had to cram a full year’s class and lab program into eight weeks for
each of the four groups of students. I really had my fill of elementary physics during that time.
I believe that Mrs. Chapman, Mother, Marion, and Dad decided to stop by Webb Institute on their return home from my
graduation, because here is a picture (see left) of the four of them standing outside the building in which
our apartment was to be. It was not ready until September, so I had to commute from Boston to Long Island, getting home
on week-ends. During the summer break at Webb, we drove to Hyattsville and Newport News to see the respective grandparents,
who went gaga over the kids. We had invited Mrs. Chapman to come live with us, and with the promise of a place September
1st, she put her house on the market, and had no trouble selling it. In fact she had to go to her relatives in Tennessee
to live for several weeks until our apartment was ready. We also sold our house right away, and moved our few belongings
in the pickup truck. The refrigerator was very difficult to get down the stairs of our Brighton house, as there was a
turn at the bottom, and I almost broke my back and that of a friend accomplishing it. To top it off, when I arrived at
Webb and made a U-turn in the driveway, the refrigerator toppled over and landed on its top. It did run after that — in
fact it ran all the time, as the door wouldn’t quite close. The painters had not quite finished when we moved in. Mary
Charlotte asked one of the men why he was so slow. He said, "Madam, I have two speeds, slow and stop." He meant it, too,
but he did finish the job.
The pay for my new job was not much as I recall it, $4800 a year. After pension and tax deductions it came to about what
I had been earning in Boston. And I now had to pay rent. My title was professor of engineering, and I had to develop
courses in electrical engineering and electronics, which had not been taught before, as well as take over the several
general courses usually included in ME and CE curricula. I remember preparing the EE lab in the loft of a former "carriage"
barn. The floor was tile — six inches thick — and we had to drill through that with hammer and chisel to fasten the
motors and generators to the floor. The admiral had procured some first-class equipment from GE (at huge discounts), so
we eventually had a really good EE lab. I arranged for the purchase of electronic gear for the experiments needed in
that field, which were quite elementary. There was a model basin in the building in which our apartment had its second-
floor location. Here the students tested models of various shapes and sizes to learn the dynamics of water-borne craft.
Will was now nearly five and Mary Francis nearly four. They had a ball in the hundred or so acres of the estate, fully
fenced, and with a 1,000-foot shore line on Long Island Sound. Mrs. Chapman was comfortable, and the children provided
her with company. Mary Charlotte occupied her time with the usual duties of housewife and mother, as well as working
in her garden and making cakes for the sophomores.
Dr. Aiken called me one day and asked if I would like to do some consulting for him. He wanted me to write a chapter on
round-off error for the manual of instruction he was preparing for Mark I. This resulted in my returning to Boston four
or five times during the autumn months, and the money came in handy to beef up our meager furniture. I can’t say my
contribution was earth-shaking — in fact, I found the subject very difficult to rationalize. It was simply a fact of
life in the computer world that one had to live with, and there were few remedies for its evils.
The New York Times
To maintain my standing in the printers’ union, I had a choice of working "at the trade" at least one day every calendar
month and paying the dues on that, or paying "not-at-the-trade" dues on all I made. That choice was easy — I worked at
the trade one day a month. To do that I hung up my name slug at the New York Times time-board when I wanted to work. That
took two trips into the city, as there was a 24-hour delay in getting "hired." That first Christmas I was lucky enough
to be put on for Christmas night, getting double pay for the holiday. On top of that, we got off several hours early,
as there was no more work. But a heavy snowstorm had dumped over a foot of snow on the city while we were working. When
I went to find my car parked at the end of the IND subway to Queens, all that I could see was a string of white mounds.
It was after two in the morning, hut I was able to borrow a shovel and dig out the rear of the car to check the license
plate, and then dig out the whole car. I managed to get out into the street, but bogged down on the wet snow that piled
up under the car. Off I went on foot to the main street, where I flagged down a jeep with chains, who was looking for
people to tow. He towed me to the plowed street for $10, I think it was — 10 minutes work. I managed to drive to Glen
Cove, but the road to the school had not been plowed, and I had to park the car and walk through the drifts over a mile
to the school. It took me over an hour, and snow worked its way up my trouser legs clear to the hips. Several times I was
tempted to call it quits, but I managed to keep going and finally reached the school.
Command and General Staff College
At one of the Reserve meetings I attended in New York City I learned that there was soon to be a special course for
Reserve and National Guard officers at the Army’s Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. I put in
my application rather late, but it crossed the desk of Col. Larry Linderer, one of my fellow officers
in my old National
Guard regiment. He called me on the phone, and said he would like to renew acquaintances, so we invited him and his
German-born wife to dinner the next week. It turned out that Larry was the special staff officer at First Army
Headquarters for National Guard and Reserve Affairs, the man who approved applications like mine. With his help, I got
through the red tape quickly and was on orders to leave December 31st for Fort Leavenworth. We had bought an old Packard
while at Webb, and managed to get to the city of Leavenworth in it. But the bitter winter weather was too much for it
there, and we were glad to have Larry take me back and forth to classes in his new Cadillac. I had wanted the operations
course, but there were no more vacancies when I applied, so I had to take the quartermaster course. Our studies involved
the supply for the Tenth Army for its invasion of the Japanese Ryukyus. I managed to finish in the top quarter of my
class, for whatever that was worth. To keep up my union card, I worked a few nights for the local newspaper. It was quite
a change to be composing the local gossip of essentially a rural America after my work on the New York Times! Our
graduation in Fort Leavenworth was at 11am the Saturday before the beginning of my classes at Webb two days later.
Mary Charlotte made lots of sandwiches, and we set out to drive continuously the 1,100 miles to Glen Cove, arriving there
about 8:30 Sunday night.
Very shortly after returning to Webb from Fort Leavenworth, I was invited to join the 102d AAA Brigade, New York National
Guard, as Operations Officer (S-3), and took office on April 11, 1949. This was to have greater significance for the
future than I then realized. We had our drill and administrative nights in an armory in Brooklyn. Brig. Gen. Hamilton,
the commanding general, was a vice president in a local steel company.
Consulting for Eckert-Mauchly
While at Harvard, I had the opportunity to learn what was going on in the computer field elsewhere, both in the USA and
in England, as most of the pioneers involved would appear at Harvard for some reason or other. This was particularly true
for the assembly of computer pioneers that led to the formation of the first computer technical society, the Association
for Computing Machinery, popularly known as the ACM. In particular, I had the opportunity to learn what was going on in
Philadelphia, where the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator) had been built, going into operation 13
months after the Mark I at Harvard. The men who developed ENIAC were John Mauchly and Presper Eckert. John was an
assistant professor of electrical engineering at the Moore School of the University of Pennsylvania, and Pres was one of
his graduate students. John had attended Tech High School at the time Margaret went there, had been a math student of
Dad’s, and Margaret had actually had a date or two with him. ENIAC was truly electronic, whereas Mark I operated with
number wheels, and Mark II used relays. All three machines were alike in that their instructions were external to the
computing circuits and thus could not be modified. The ENIAC could do 1,000 operations per second, whereas Mark II’s
instruction execution speed was only 30, and Mark I one-tenth that.
John and Pres left the Moore School shortly after the ENIAC went into operation, and formed their own company,
Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation. They had developed many innovations in the computer field, and had designed a
computer suitable for business data processing, which they called the UNIVAC (UNIVersal Automatic Computer).
gotten six contracts for this machine at about $50,000 each, which turned out to be ridiculously low prices — four from
agencies of the US Government (Census, Army Air Controller, Army Map Service, and the Navy’s David Taylor Model Basin),
and two from private industry (A. C. Nielson and Prudential Insurance companies). Originally financed by the American
Totalizer Company (race track tote boards), John and Pres were hard pressed for cash when five of the top men in that
company were killed in a company plane crash, and the survivors withdrew their support. John and Pres had to slow down
the Univac work in order to design and build a much smaller special-purpose computer called the BINAC, to be used in a
classified Air Force contract held by Northrup Aircraft. Northrup had already developed its own electronic computer
(the MADDIDA) for the contract, so BINAC was not wanted even before it was finished, but the contract had to be fulfilled.
Part of the BINAC contract was to train seven Northrup engineers in its programming, and that was where I came into the
picture. Grace Hopper had left Harvard to be the senior programmer at Eckert-Mauchly, and she persuaded John Mauchly to
offer me the consulting job of teaching these engineers. This worked out beautifully, as they were ready for me just
when I had the month’s break at Webb in August 1949.
BINAC was an altogether different kind of computer from any I had used, so I had a real learning job to do. But I was
ready for the men when they arrived from California. I learned a valuable lesson from that task — no matter how little
you might know of the other fellow’s business, if you knew more about yours than he did, you could stay on top of any
situation. The month in Philadelphia also gave me the opportunity to get better acquainted with John, Pres, and their
leading engineers and programmers, thus paving the way, I am sure, for their offer for me to join them the coming December.
John had me continue my consulting work on return to Webb, developing a Univac program to do matrix operations. This also
prepared me for the job offer to come — heading the programming staff at Eckert-Mauchly. Besides, the challenge of the
difficult assignment at Webb had pretty well worn off, and I was hankering to get into the field for which I had been
This 1-1/2 year interlude at Webb Institute illustrates another facet of the Lord’s working in one’s life, as only He
knows when the time is right for certain events to take place. The little programming staff at Eckert-Mauchly was not
ready for me in June 1948, and Webb was a productive way to utilize the wait until my job was ready. Also I needed the
consulting work of the summer and autumn months before I would have been qualified to take over the programming
responsibilities of the Univac.
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