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Interview of Paul Herget by David DeVorkin on 1977 April 20, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4664-2
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Traces origins of Paul Herget's family in Germany; early schooling in Cincinnati through graduation from the University; work at Cincinnati Observatory; Morrison Fellowship at Lick Observatory, 1935; work and study at University of California at Berkeley; contacts at Yerkes Observatory; return to the University of Cincinnati in 1936; work during World War II; removal of Rechen Institute from Germany to Cincinnati after World War II; Nautical Almanac Office; Minor Planet Center; research through 1950s; family and future.
This is a continuation of an interview with Dr. Paul Herget at Cincinnati Observatory April 20, 1977. We are talking about G.W.H. (momentarily).
He never was a professor of mathematics. As I told you he refused promotion, so that they got their bronze plaque wrong. I pointed it out to them once. I supposed once was enough. I didn’t want to be offensive about it. They didn’t change it.
That’s quite interesting. This is a plaque at the Naval Observatory or was it in his house at Nyack?
No, no, this is at the Observatory. About 10 or 15 years ago they had someone who undertook a movement to name everything after somebody, and they got a Gilles Avenue after Captain Gilles and things like that.
When we finished off yesterday afternoon, you mentioned that there was another interesting experience that you had with Leuschner.
Yes. When he came back the second half of the year and he was teaching the orbit course, there was a young colored fellow who had come there as a graduate student. He had been promised, according to conversations I heard, that if he got the Ph.D., he would be the professor of astronomy at Howard. He had been there a year or two before I got there. Somehow they had decided against him for one reason or another.
No, at Berkeley as a graduate student. So Leuschner assigned him the responsibility in this orbit class to give a presentation of Gibbs’ vector method for deriving the sector-triangle ratios, and the fellow had prepared so that he could make a presentation in front of the class. He knew he was on the spot and he got a little bit nervous and he got mixed up in what he was doing. I was sitting in the back of the room, Leuschner was sitting up in front. I made a comment to put the fellow back on the track and the line of thought that he was supposed to be on where he got mixed up, and Leuschner turned around to shush me up. Well, I thought it was quite unbecoming for him to continue to browbeat this young fellow in front of the class when it wasn’t helping him to get along with his presentation. I thought it was quite unbecoming for anybody like Leuschner to do that. This was back in 1935, and I’m not sure to what extent the racial aspect of it entered in. It certainly didn’t enter into me — he was just another student, you know. But the poor kid was making a try and if he got off base, I tried to help him a little bit; and Leuschner shushed me up. So after-wards I walked out of the class with Leuschner and I told him I didn’t think very much of that, and I guess he didn’t like me because I told him that. Well, then a funny experience happened.
Do you recall the name of the black fellow?
Yes, his last name was White. That’s all I remember. Later on I met him once and he had I think some kind of a position as a physicist in the government somewhere, but I can’t remember where. On another occasion there was a young smart aleck came around, who was the kind of a guy who was such a great genius that he couldn’t be bothered to go to organized classes. He was above all of that in his own estimation. And Leuschner did another thing which I thought was very unbecoming. He assigned this fellow to give a colloquium presentation at which they had an audience of about 40 people. The math department people would come over and they had all their graduate students, and Leuschner’s whole purpose was to berate the kid. So he lets the kid start off with the presentation and he put down three points and started to write the equations of motion in an inertial system, and Leuschner is sitting up in the front row, and he’s exceedingly deaf. He was very old by this time, in fact, he was within a few years of his retirement. So he interrupts the fellow and says, “Where are the indirect terms?” Well, I was sitting about halfway back in the room and I wasn’t paying too close attention because this was elementary, and I didn’t like the whole idea anyway.
So the kid stumbles and fumbles and he looked aghast because he didn’t realize he’d make any mistake, but Leuschner said, “Where are the indirect terms?” and he didn’t know quite what he should be doing. Shane was sitting I guess right in front of me, and he called out and he said, “Those are Barycentric coordinates, so then there aren’t any indirect terms.” But Leuschner didn’t hear that. Everybody else in the room did. So he continues to berate the kid when Leuschner himself was in the wrong, and it was just I thought a shameful situation. I never could quite see why so many people had such a high opinion of Leuschner when I saw what I thought were really very unbecoming things done to a person. He had been the dean of the graduate school at one time. He was head of the astronomy department in Berkeley, and they had a good department. They were associated with the Lick Observatory, and I thought these were very unbecoming to him. The last thing that irked me very much: when I was ready to leave, he called me in and had sort of a farewell. He said something to the effect that I was too opinionated and I acted as though my name was “Herr Gott”. I didn’t think that was very nice either because I was in a defenseless position. I really didn’t have a good job. It was the middle of the Depression. I wasn’t starving, but I just didn’t like that. I never could reach the same high opinion of Leuschner that other people seemed to do. Well, so much for him, rest his soul now.
Well, that’s an important sidelight on Leuschner. Did you have any experiences with how other people felt about Leuschner, primarily Shane and others?
Actually I only made my own inferences. I think Shane recognized Leuschner’s deficiencies. He was too young; he just put up with them and let well enough alone. As I say, the time that T.J.J. See came down Shane said to me, “No, just let him alone, don’t stir up a ruckus.” And, of course, Shane had his hands full. He represented all of astrophysics in the Berkeley department. The rest of the people were oldtimers.
What were some of the names of the people?
Sturla Emerson. You know, he passed away only about a year or so ago. He reached the age of 92 or something like that. And W.F. Meyer was there. And Trumpler was there, Crawford, and I guess that was the whole of the department, as I remember.
I asked you about Trumpler already, and you did give me some recollections of him. Did you ever have any experiences with him in colloquia?
No, I just listened. Anything he said was new to me and I was learning something, so I just listened.
How did he treat his students?
Well, I didn’t register for the course. I just audited it as a kind of a visitor. As far as I know, I never heard of any resentment; and as I observed it, he had a very strong attitude of being helpful to every student that was willing to do the work and that was interested in the subject that he loved. As far as I know, he was a very good teacher. He was patient. And I think he had done a great deal of work himself and expected his students to do likewise. He didn’t stand for any goofing off. He made assignments which were not trivial, but what little I know about it, I think the students really liked Trumpler. I don’t know any reason to the contrary.
Did you know Harold Weaver?
Yes, I knew Weaver. That’s his son-in-law. I think he was not married when I was there. Yes, Weaver and I are good friends.
I’m not too sure about dates, but there was a period of time when Weaver helped Trumpler build a little summer cottage way in the back woods behind Lick, and it still survives today. It’s called Trumpler’s Gardens. Did you know anything about this?
No. I never went down the back hill except one time when they were going to have a picnic, and I don’t remember much about that. But I do think that Trumpler suffered in part from a kind of prejudice against the Germans that was left over from the First World War. But I’m not sure that he was a German. He was a Swiss, I thought. But anyway because he spoke with such a strong accent, I think some people in California who were all native sons, you know, had that kind of attitude. I think they had a kind of a prejudice against Trumpler. I made a remark one time in the presence of Mrs. Aitken to the effect that wasn’t Trumpler in the apostolic succession to succeed to the directorship of the Lick Observatory, and she threw up her hands and said, “Heavens, no!” That was the reason. But her opinion didn’t count for much.
Did you see any other instances?
But the interest that I have regarding Trumpler would be partially involved with the prejudices that might have been against him. Did he ever talk about his feelings about Germany and the War?
Not to me.
Okay. Well, we’ve reviewed very nicely your experiences as a Morrison Fellow and the various options that you looked to, including the Griffith Observatory, for employment after that. Were there any suggestions by the Lick staff or the Berkeley staff that you stay after your fellowship?
No, I didn’t give them any opportunity to do that, either. They knew that I was going back to Cincinnati.
That was partly your own feeling and possibly your wife’s. How did your wife feel about it?
Well, I think also they had plenty of graduate students that they felt responsible for, and I wasn’t one of their students. They didn’t feel responsible for me. So I don’t deplore that at all. I wouldn’t have expected it.
Well, let’s move on back to Cincinnati then. You had been given a substantial raise. This was partly due to Yowell’s efforts? And he was very happy to have you back?
He made good representations to the president in my behalf. You also have to figure he didn’t have too many other choices. He already knew what he had in me, and he didn’t know what he would have in someone else. But furthermore it wasn’t a question of what they offered me, because I had a leave of absence. I didn’t lose my position. We hadn’t burned any bridges.
Yes, I’d forgotten that for the moment. Well, when you came back, you came back as both the assistant director of the Observatory and an instructor?
No, I was still just an instructor. One of the things: I never was an associate professor at the University. I was an instructor until 1940. And when Yowell retired and left a vacancy, I got promoted to assistant professor. And after three years, Dr. Smith died, and I was made the director, and I never have been an associate professor in the University, which if you want to use it for anything, is a sad commentary on the University.
Why is that?
Well, because I never got a reasonable promotion when I deserved one when I was young. But it was the Depression, you see, and so you had to live with it.
Did they have tenure policies or anything like that at that time?
No, I don’t think so. I don’t know as the question ever came up. We did have one thing in the University that I always appreciated. In 1932 when they had to make very substantial cuts, they never fired anybody outright. They instituted a plan in the University that everybody got cut a flat 15%. Not a cut in salary. They just didn’t pay you your full paycheck. As far as I can remember, there was only one person, a fellow in chemistry who was kind of an odd ball, who left the employ of the University. In other words, they didn’t boot some people out 100% so that they were bereft, everybody shared. Well, after this first year there was a little bit of complaint about the way it was handled, and they instituted a plan whereby everybody got a 10% cut on the first $2000 of their salary, 15% of the next $1000, 20% of the next $1000 and 25% on anything above that. And there was practically nobody making $5000 in the University. So that was a graduated scale, and since I was young and appreciated the benefit of the smaller cut, I told myself: “Just remember that when you’re at the other end of the scale…”. And I actually proposed in writing that the University should institute such a plan again. But they wouldn’t listen to it, and they now have got the AAUP and collective bargaining and that kind of business, you know, and they act like a union. Well, my feeling about the matter is that if everybody was in the same boat with the graduated scale of cuts, then everybody would be more attentive to the possible savings in the University and everybody would be ahead. The way it is now it’s everybody against everybody else instead of everybody together in the same boat for the same cause. I put this in writing to the vice-president, but they didn’t pay an iota of attention to it, so that’s that.
The AAUP is more worried about tenure for individuals than it is worried about the mechanism of removal of programs.
Not at our university.
The AAUP has very little to say when a university wants to remove an entire program.
No, not at our university.
Is it the other way around?
Not the other way around. They’re pretty well balanced. AAUP has written a white paper on the principles whereby the University may declare a financial exigency. And that’s a strong point in their position. They have spelled out all the steps that have to be gone through before the university is permitted to make a decision to discontinue anything.
Anyone or any program?
Are you involved in this?
No. The vote was about 550 to 650, and I was in the minority. I disapprove of the whole thing. It’s not my perception of what the faculty’s attitude should be. I think they could have gained their point in other ways than to form a union. They’re the collective bargaining agents in our university. They have a regular labor union. They hire a labor union attorney to help them run their stuff. And I disapprove of all that so I take no part in it. However, they are the collective bargaining agent operationally, you see, and I get all the printed blurbs that get sent out and I see what’s going on. I’ve seen this 10-page document that outlined the principles and procedures that had to be followed if they were going to declare any financial exigency. And they have a hot issue at the moment, because they have refused the appointment of quite a number of persons who are up in a position where they either get a tenured appointment or they are out. And my own feeling about the matter is that I think the faculty has to relax this “whole hog or none” attitude in the face of more dire circumstances that we now have, but they’re inflexible.
Yes. And I don’t know what’s going to come of this, but I made recommendations in behalf of a young fellow in physics. I think it’s a shame if he is completely out on his ear when he didn’t do anything wrong. But according to the AAUP, he’s up for a tenured appointment, and if he doesn’t get it, why then he loses everything; and I really don’t like to see a thing like that. But anyway that’s the way times are now. I’m ready to retire. They don’t care what I think anyway.
What will happen to your position?
I don’t know. Let’s not go into that. That rather irks me, and I don’t want to make a public issue of it. I’m still fighting within the University, and they can’t say that I washed their dirty linen in public. Let’s go on to something else.
This certainly is not a public document.
Well, it’s outside the University.
Okay. Well, let’s go back then to your return to Cincinnati after the Morrison Fellowship. How were working conditions here in the various research programs that were developing?
Well, I was very free because what little work needed to be done on Meridian Circle Observing Program I could do with dispatch in a relatively small amount of time. So I had the rest of my time free for whatever I chose to do. Now, while I was in Berkeley, there was one planet left over from what were called the Watson Planets. James Craig Watson — I don’t know whether you know much about his career — died rather young; I think he was 42 when he died. But he discovered I think about 15 or more minor planets in the days when it was done visually. He wrote the American textbook on theoretical astronomy. It’s a thick volume, back in 1870 or something like that. And he left his wealth, such as it was, to the National Academy so that they should take care of his minor planets. His wife challenged the will, and they arranged somehow to buy her off. I only heard the story in scuttlebutt. But at any rate there is a Watson Fund in the National Academy, and Leuschner had over the years previous to 1935 been granted some of those funds for the purpose of working up the orbits of those minor planets that had been discovered by Watson. And there was only one left, and that was the most difficult one. It had the largest eccentricity. He wanted me to work on that when I was out there. So I took it as a challenge, and when I came back to Cincinnati, I did eventually work up that orbit as best as I possibly could. If I remember correctly, it was discovered around 1879 or 1875 and it was never again observed until 1922.
That’s quite a gap.
Yes. And the next year after its discovery it was in the Milky Way, and so visually you couldn’t find it, you see. Furthermore, with this large eccentricity, it had a very great variation in brightness. So anyway I undertook to work on that orbit, and eventually there is a paper in the ASTRONOMICAL JOURNAL when I cleaned the problem up as best I could at that time. Oh, another thing I undertook to do because of the freedom that I had was the return of the Pons-Brooks Comet. This was a comet very much like Halley’s Comet, and I was very familiar with the work that had been done by Cowell and Crommelin to predict the return of Halley’s Comet. So this was a similar comet, and I did this in the days when you did everything with a desk calculator and a lead pencil, and I went back and I improved all the star positions I possibly could because in 1883 and ‘84 they made micrometer observations, and I prepared a prediction for its return in 1954. The whole situation was very similar to the experience of Cowell and Crommelin in that they missed their prediction by 2.7 days in perihelion time, and I missed mine by 4.5 days, and the orbit in size and everything is similar to Halley’s Comet. The only difference was I would have been the same as Kahoutek except that the comet came back either a half a year too early or a half a year too late, whichever way you want to look at it. You see, what made Halley’s Comet so spectacular in 1910 was the fact that the comet passed just inside the earth’s orbit just as the earth came by. Well, this time the earth was on the opposite side of its orbit, and the comet was never of visual magnitude.
Yes, in 1954. It was observed photographically, and it was recovered. There wasn’t anything wrong with that. But seeing as how the earth was on the wrong side of its orbit by almost 180 degrees, it never had any popular appeal.
That was what you meant when you meant six months.
Because there wasn’t a six month error in your orbit?
Oh, no. You see, that’s going to happen to Halley’s Comet next time. It’s not going to be anything, and everybody’s going to throw up their hands against the astronomers: “Why don’t you give us one like 1910?” But the earth is going to get there a half a year too early or a half a year too late, you see, and I don’t know whether I’ll be around yet in 1986, but I can tell you what the public clamor is going to be.
They’re going to be very upset.
Even if we launch a campaign now, they’ll still be upset. Well, was the minor planet you were referring to with the highly eccentric orbit — was that Aethra (132) published in AJ of ‘47?
That’s right. See, in those days I would do the orbits one a time, because one of them would fully occupy you. So I would write to Stracke, and find out which one he would like me to work on, and some of them turned out well enough and others didn’t turn out so well. There wasn’t enough material to get a good grip on it or something. But I did them one at a time by hand. I was more or less what the Germans call a Mitarbiter, a “with worker”.
I’m interested in Stracke’s work. Was he at Heidelberg?
No, they were in Berlin-Dahlem — a suburb of Berlin. I’ve never been there, but I heard that they had a residential house that the Rechen Institute was in.
What contacts did you have with the Rechen Institute?
Well, just in the mail.
Particularly with Stracke?
Yes, because he ran the minor planet work.
Did they have observational support, or were they simply a clearing house?
They were a clearing house and a computing center, and Stracke had taken the classical methods of the variation of elements and watered it down to something that you could do in three significant figures with a lead pencil, and it wasn’t real good. But it was better than nothing; it was appropriate to the time. And he carried on a great deal of that kind of approximate work there. And then I’d see the publications in the NACHRICHTEN. For example, about every half a year or a year apart he would publish a collection of all of the newly numbered minor planets and their elements. So that gave me a chance to get my oar into the game a little bit by being a “Mitarbiter” with Stracke. They also had the responsibility for the FK3 and the BERLINER JAHRBUCH at that time and that place. You see, at Heidelberg there was the Konigstuhl Observatory, which is up on top of the mountain; and there probably was the astronomy department, but the Rechen Institute which is there now is the one which, fled from Berlin during the war. They were bombed out of Berlin, and when the war was over, the personnel were half in the Russian zone and half in the western zone; and they sort of got split. Kahrstedt never did come back to the western zone. He was one of Stracke’s good workers in Berlin.
I’m interested in how you and other workers in minor planet research felt the Rechen Institute was acting. How adequate was their work for international cooperation? Was everyone basically happy before the war?
I think so. You see, when you say international, there was almost no one in this country who gave a hoot about the minor planets except van Biesbroeck. For instance, during the time that I was at Berkeley — in fact, it was within the first week or two that I got to Berkeley — they got four observations of a minor planet from Hubble. They were so surprised. The only reason Hubble had done this was that the minor planet was discovered in declination plus 64 degrees, so he figured there must be something unusual about this — “I’ll do it for them”, you see. But some time later when I went to visit E. Hubble down at Pasadena and we were in his office and he had his plate file there very much like some people have a letter file in their office. He said, “Look”, and we stood by the drawers as he was pulling them out, and the paper cover on the plate was marked, “1 asteroid, 4 asteroids, 6 asteroids, 1 asteroid, 2 asteroids.” He never paid a bit of attention to them. They came off the 100-inch telescope. And W. Baade at one time took this plate material and these counts and estimated that there were 44,000 minor planets to be observed in the sky if you observed the whole sky with a 10-inch telescope. And that was 30 years ago, I guess, he did that. And that’s a very accurate estimate.
Baade was interested in such things?
Yes, Baade had discovered the minor planet with the smallest perihelion distance, and he had also discovered the minor planet with the largest aphelion distance that was known in all of the minor planets, and that record I think still stands today. He discovered Hidalgo, which goes out beyond the orbit of Saturn, when he was at Bergedorf; and he discovered Icarus in 1955 when he was at Mt. Wilson.
He discovered Icarus?
Why do you think he claims this distinction for these two records?
Well, it isn’t a question of claiming it. It just happens to be that that’s the way it is.
He wasn’t actively looking for minor planets?
No, I don’t think so. They tell a story, and I don’t know exactly how much credence to put in it. While he was at Bergedorf there were various times when he would climb in the window where one of the young ladies was occupied. This was looked upon slightly askance by the Prussians, and he on one occasion wanted to name a minor planet “Muschi”, which was his pet name for his girl. And because of the somewhat besmirched reputation that this relationship had (they weren’t married, at least not by a minister) Stracke refused the name. And so Baade said he would never again in his life observe a minor planet. So Stracke relented and he said the minor planets had been named after so many different things, they could also include one of these, a lady of less than unstained character. Now, I don’t know how much to put in that. There was something to it, but I’m not sure, you know, who embroiders the story as it goes along. Anyway when he observed minor planets, he did what he thought was necessary. He didn’t generate the expression that the minor planets were the vermin of the sky.
Who said that?
Well, I don’t know — somebody did — some of these other observers who didn’t want to be bothered with them. They were only in the way of galactic observers. I’m not sure who the author of that expression was, but it’s been used.
How did you feel about that expression when you first heard it?
Oh, each to his own, you know. I can see how that could be an attitude. They might not like my attitudes either, but each to his own.
But when Baade inadvertently ran across a minor planet would he report it carefully?
I wouldn’t say that he did it every time, but he certainly did do it sometimes.
Whereas Rubble did it rarely, only in some instances.
Well, there’s only one I know of. Then I asked Rubble, since he was the discoverer, what name did he want to give it. He said well, he’d have to ask his wife and see if she had any favorite Pullman car she wanted to name it after. (laughs) He didn’t care very much about the whole business.
When was that?
Well, he discovered that in August of 1935, and I’m not sure exactly when it was that I was in his office. It could have been within the same year or it could have been four years later when I went to a meeting in California. It was before the war because I never saw Rubble after the war.
Row did your contacts with the Berlin Rechin Institute continue as the war developed?
Well, I realized that things were going to get worse, and of course the war was on long before we got into it, although anybody with good sense could see we were going to. And I remember on one occasion I sent some ephemerides to Stracke which I had computed, and I put a note with it which said, “To the British censors, This is astronomical information, it is not secret coded data, and you may verify it with the astronomers at His Majesty’s Nautical Almanac Office.” I don’t know whether the Germans ever got it or not. But, you know, eventually things got worse and worse. One thing which has nothing to do with astronomy, but while I was at the Naval Observatory (this is ‘42 to ‘46) there were at least a half a dozen captains in the Navy who were assigned to the Naval Observatory, and I always referred to this as a combat fatigue assignment. And the one fellow had a little gold “A” on his fruit salad about the size of a battle cluster, but it was definitely an “A”. And so I asked him one time: “Captain, what’s that little “A” you’ve got there?” and he said, “Oh, that’s a long story — I can’t tell you now”. Well, eventually I cornered him when he could tell me. He had been in command of a destroyer squadron in the North Atlantic, and he said it was the strangest experience you ever saw. He said, “We were going along at nearly full speed and all of a sudden, would you believe it? There was a German submarine right on our bow, and we couldn’t help it. We just cut the thing in half, and there was no report of this.” He was telling this story with tongue in cheek, you see. Roosevelt had the Navy out there ramming German submarines a whole year before we ever got in the war. And that’s where this guy got his “A” for “Atlantic Mission”. Now, a lot of people don’t know that, you see. But that’s the way it was.
That’s very interesting. When you learned that, was this after war was declared?
Well, we could move to your work during the war years. It’s interesting but you seem to have become director at Cincinnati while you were at the Naval Observatory.
Well, that was when Smith passed away. The University also had a good policy during the war because (I don’t know the legal details) there was a law that if you got drafted, no matter where you worked, they had to give you your job back when you came back. How this worked out after the war, I don’t know. But the University announced this policy that any faculty member, irrespective of his draft status, who engaged in any kind of war service would have his position retained for when he returned on exactly the same basis as the principle of the law. Well, as I say, I had attempted to prepare myself to follow in F.R. Moulton’s footsteps and I never got very far. When I attempted to make contact with Aberdeen, because I knew that was the right place for the Army Ordnance, I didn’t get very far. It turned out later that several other people did go to Aberdeen: Ted Stern from Harvard and Cunningham and a fellow by the name of Zug and another fellow whose name I don’t recall but I can still picture him. He was one of the young astronomers, a little older than I was.
Hubble was running ballistics?
He probably did, yes.
And then I believe R. Atkinson was there a little while.
Well, you see, Atkinson was a British citizen, and I’m not sure whether L.H. Thomas might also have been there. I never asked Thomas about that kind of thing. But at any rate I made an attempt to go down to Dahlgren, which was the Naval Proving Grounds. And I didn’t get very far there either.
Why was that?
Well, I don’t know why. I had correspondence with a man whose name was David I. Heddrick and he never signed his letters with any title. We had two or three letters back and forth, and I told him what I thought I could do if they had good use for that.
What were you interested in doing?
Their computing, their ballistics computing. One thing I was sure of: I could run a desk calculator as well as anybody else they could find and maybe I could even do a little more than that. He never signed any title, and I didn’t know who he was. One time I had occasion to go to New York. So on the way back I stopped in Washington, and this was about in April of ‘42, about four or five months after Pearl Harbor. And I went down to the Naval Proving Grounds and all I had was one of these letters. I thought this guy was a civilian department head or something or other. And when I get there, there were two Marine guards at the gate where I got off the Greyhound bus, and I said I wanted to see this man. These two marines, a corporal and a private, started to read this letter and the one guy says to the other one: “That’s the skipper.” Well, then I knew who he was, see, and they tried to tell me that I wanted to go and see somebody else. I said, “No, I’m sorry”, and I picked up my letter and started to wave it at them. I said, “This is the only man I know here and I want to see him.” So finally they told me where his office was in the administration building. It was a very fine colonial brick building. You went in a front door and right up the steps to the second floor. Well, I had never known anything about the Navy except that the boats were in the ocean. I’d never been near the ocean very much. But I got up there and there’s this guy — now this is April — and he’s got on a fine blue uniform and he’s got solid gold from his wrist to his elbow, with a gold eagle on top. I said, “Are you Captain Heddrick?” Well, he wasn’t Captain Heddrick, he was the chief petty officer with seven hash marks and good conduct. That’s why he had all that gold on his blue uniform. The eagle was for chief petty officer, not for a captain. But I didn’t know that much about the Navy. But he deserved the good conduct. He never cracked a smile. He said, “Now, if you’ll just be seated, he’ll be ready in a few minutes.” So after that I knew who were the captains and who were the chief petty officers.
And what was your conversation?
Well, the funny thing is that this captain talked to me a while, and I also talked with a Captain Schuyler up in Washington. Captain Schuyler was reputed to have computed in the First World War that the Big Bertha’s were actually 75 miles away by observing the cannon shot through two walls of a building. Now, that’s not impossible, but I wouldn’t have expected it of a naval officer. But at any rate he was the big chief of ordnance for the Navy, and he was in Washington. He asked me about a lot of things and he asked me about the Milling Machine Company.
That was here in Cincinnati.
Yes, this big machine tool company. And I knew those engineers and I had had some contact with them and when he found out that I was not one of their engineers, then he wasn’t interested in me anymore.
This was Schuyler.
Yes. Well, Captain Heddrick brought in a Commander Parsons, and after about 20 minutes or half an hour of conversation among the three of us, he instructed Parsons to take me around and show me around the base. And by this time it was about noontime. I remember he took me into a building, we went up on the second floor and there was a very large office room. It must have been, as I visualize it, about 80 by 100 feet, with about 60 desks in there, and every one of them had a Friden desk calculator. But everyone was out to lunch; there wasn’t a person there. So I asked Commander Parsons if they considered using punchcards because I had been to Columbia when I went to New York and saw W.J. Eckert’s installations. And he said, “Oh no, they have them on the payroll but they ain’t no good”. So I figured, “Boy, if you think they ain’t no good, I’m not going to work for you.” So it turned out he eventually became Admiral Parsons, who rode the first atomic bomb plane as the Navy representative. But anyway that’s when I went back to Washington. I sort of made it plain to Eckert that I would be willing to go the Nautical Almanac Office.
You made a very interesting comment about redoing or being in a position similar to what Moulton was in in World War I. Could you clarify that?
Simply the process of using numerical integration to integrate complicated differential equations, because all the perturbation computations that I did were done by numerical integration even though it was done by hand. That was the only way I knew to do it. That’s what Cowell and Crommelin had done for Halley’s Comet, and I had done a great deal of that. I knew enough about differential equations to know that the trouble with ballistics computations is that the atmosphere provides such complicated representations that you can’t integrate these equations analytically. You have to do it by numerical integration. I was competent to do that if I just knew what they wanted integrated or what their experiments were. You see, they tried to fit the data that they get from the firing range at the proving ground. I figured I could do that as well or better than the next guy if that’s what they wanted done. But I wasn’t prepared to say I could walk in and do it on my own because I never had any contact with it. But I understood the process and I could tell whether it was being done right or not. But nothing really ever came of it.
That’s very interesting. In trying to come to an appreciation of G.W. Hill and various techniques that he used in numerical analysis, how would you rate his importance in this regard, in making gravitational theory amenable to numerical analysis?
Well, I’m sure that Hill understood this because he wrote a very fine, concise paper on the derivation of all of the formulas of numerical integration by means of symbolic operators. And I tried to emulate that in my book. However, I’m not sure that he did very much of it, because when he did the orbit of Jupiter and Saturn, he used numerical general perturbations, and the problem was amenable to that with the exception of the small divisor that you get because of the commensurability of Jupiter and Saturn. But he understood all of that. I don’t know whether you know that Hill spent seven years of his life computing the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn, and this Volume III (of Hill’s Collected Works) represents the final results of that. At one stage around 1937 or ‘38 I looked into this work which he had done, and damned if I didn’t find a mistake right in the first number that he’d gotten.
The first number? The first order term?
The constant term — it’s a big long number. I don’t know whether it’s a typographical error or a numerical error, but it was wrong, and I determined that. I thought, “How can he have the orbit of Jupiter and Saturn if that’s wrong?” Well, it turns out that the series always gets differentiated and the constant drops out. (laughs) But he also had a check computer in this seven-year project, and if I remember correctly, the check computer’s name was McKnight Ritter. After Hill left academic life and maybe after he passed away — I don’t know exactly — Ritter wrote a book on the subject except that he didn’t understand all these fine points of the business as he should have. He was a good computer, but he wasn’t a good mathematician. And so the thing is replete with little mistakes that should not be there. We don’t have a copy of the book here, but I saw one when I was out in Berkeley, and various people have put snide comments in the margin. The other thing that Hill did, rather than use direct numerical integration, he used numerical harmonic analysis, even in two dimensions. So he was exceedingly competent, exceedingly brilliant. It’s unfortunate that in his theory of Jupiter and Saturn he carried this work to third order terms in Taylor Series expansion and there are mistakes in it. Innis found some mistakes.
I read about some of that in the Tropp Interview.  Well, what do you think the origins of the mistakes were?
I don’t know. This was algebra which he would have had to do himself, and this other guy I’m sure wasn’t a good check on that part of the work. And, well, it was possible to make a mistake. (laughs)
It’s very interesting to try to evaluate Hill’s importance for the following reason: Up until the ‘30’s, the British remained quite analytical in their techniques and attitudes toward everything that had to be described and discussed mathematically, whereas the Americans paid much more respect to numerical techniques; and I’m trying to ascertain the source of that difference in philosophy, and I seem to think it had something to do with Hill. The great value here was in studies in stellar structure, and Hill did actually calculate polytropes, which were the very early techniques.
Well, but at that time were they something that actually had an astrophysical application, or was this just a mathematical exercise like conic sections?
It very well might have been for Hill just an exercise. Anyway I’m looking into that sort of thing, and I was wondering if you had any comments on that.
No, I really don’t know anything about it. But I would point out that while there may have been a segment of British physicists who remained analytical, as you say, the British had been leaders in navigation, and that was entirely computational; maybe the British physicists were compartmentalized from the navigators, too.
That’s a very interesting overview that I did not have. Could you expand upon it?
Well, after all, the basis of establishing the position of the Astronomer Royal was not for astronomy, it was for navigation. And you must have heard the whole story of what fabulous amounts of money they offered if you could make a chronometer that would work at sea. Harrison won that prize or award or something. There were others who tried, but he got $20,000 for that at that time.
That was the late 18th century?
Yes. It was a really fabulous amount of money. And then you also have in British history Charles Babbage and you ought to read Babbage’s little book.  He understood the whole principle of programming, and he was going to try to make a mechanical machine respond in the same way that we have branch points in our programs in electronic computers. Decision making operations. If it’s zero, you go here; if it’s not zero, you go to the other place; that kind of thing.
Yes, that’s right.
He had a mechanical analogue for that?
He intended to build a mechanical machine that had that capability, yes.
Coming back into the ‘30s and ‘20s, the very early calculating machines that were being developed that Eckert was involved in, did they build upon any of Babbage’s mechanical analogues at all?
I don’t think so, no. It was mechanical with electromagnets-solenoids. There was no electronics in the sense of circuitry. It was just that they had solenoids and relay points. And eventually they actually built a relay calculator; several different places did. The Bell Laboratories got into computers on a relay calculator, and the IBM company built some relay calculators for Aberdeen at one time — in the late 1930s, I guess. The first electronics in this country that I know of was at the Moore school of electrical engineering, where they built an ENIAC and eventually the UNIVAC. ENIAC was the Electronical Numerical Integrator and Calculator. And the UNIVAC was Universal Automatic Computer.
You saw these calculating machines in growth, and by the time you went to work with Eckert, what was the state of the computational devices that they had at the Nautical Almanac Office?
Eckert went there in 1939, and prior to that they had done everything by hand on paper. And they had typesetting to print the AMERICAN EMPHEMERIS. There was no AIR ALMANAC. They had typesetting to print the NAUTICAL ALMANAC, which was a watered down version that went to navigators at sea. And when Eckert came, the first thing he did was to get in a tabulator and summary punch and a sorter, and with those he could prepare the AIR ALMANAC. At first that was the only function of the punch card machine in the Nautical Almanac office. The rest of these were old people who had done this stuff in their old-fashioned way, and he let them carry on. Well, then even when I got there, they didn’t have the multiplying machine yet, although IBM built a multiplying machine. And I wasn’t there too long before I began to complain a little bit, and he said, “That’s all right, just be calm — we’ll get one.” And so he got one pretty soon, and we had a multiplier. But these were all standard IBM punch card machines.
How was Eckert successful in getting these machines, whereas Aberdeen was not? Was it a philosophy of the military or of the civilian segment?
Well, I really don’t know anything about Aberdeen, and I don’t know when they began to get any computers. But the ENIAC was supposed to be built for the Ordnance and for Aberdeen. It never got built in time to do much good in the war, plus the fact it had a very small memory. I never did use the ENIAC. I used the UNIVAC, the very first model that they got out; and it had about 2000 words, and the word was 11 digits. It was a decimal machine. You see, the UNIVAC was really built with the principal thought in the back of their mind that they would sell one to the census bureau. The UNIVAC was more like an IBM machine than the IBM machine was. All the instructions were alphabetical. “A” was “add”. “C” was “clear”. “D” was “divide”. “M” was “multiply”. “B” was “bring”, which means “clear and add”. And “U” was an “unconditional jump”. You see, I used that machine 25 years ago, and I can still tell you that much about it. It really was built very simply, and the people who designed it knew what they were doing fairly well. And I berated the IBM people at one time. I says, “UNIVAC builds a better machine than you do. You make yours too darned complicated to use it.” I said, “These are human beings who are going to use this machine.”
Who did you tell this at IBM? Was it Eckert or someone else?
Well, Eckert was sitting there, yes. I was chiding B. Havens about it at the time.
Did they listen to you? They must have eventually.
Well, no, not really. They’ve got a more complicated machine now than ever. It’s Hexadecimal and all that, you know. But to get back to what we did in the Almanac office, I had a certain responsibility for a certain part of the EPHEMERIS. As I could see one thing after another, that we could make the best choice to pick out something simple to convert to punch cards which would improve the operation’s efficiency, then the more things you did, the more experience you got and the more complicated things you could do. And one of the really very complicated processes which they had, which they carried out by hand, was to compute the occultations of the Zodiacal stars by the moon, and also within this problem was the question of giving the maximum northern and southern limits of latitudes within which it was observable. Now, it didn’t mean that it was observable everywhere within these latitudes, but everywhere where it was observable was within these latitudes.
A simple time factor?
Well, it’s not simple at all, because if the occultation is up far enough, the northern limit would be the North Pole, because you can’t get any higher than that. Or it could be the South Pole, depending on the declination of the moon and the stars. Or if you had a high declination and it wasn’t really over the North Pole, then it would be some kind of a small circle of latitude up there that would be the northern limit, you know. Well, as I remember it, I worked all this out for a formal, straightforward punch card operation, and there were eight different possible cases that needed to be tested to make sure that this thing worked in every possible case. And I spent some time figuring out exactly how I could be sure to get every one of these cases represented in the trials that I made, and then after that you just wrote down the rules of what the operations needed to be, and you had a wiring diagram — you had a piece of paper that was printed like the plug board and you drew the wiring diagram — and after that I didn’t have to do anything anymore; somebody was supposed to run it. And mainly what I did after I got my feet on the ground in that place was to take one job after another that was the most reasonable one next and convert them to a punch card machine, so that the things we could do on machines didn’t have to be done by people making mistakes. Then they would be on punch cards so that you couldn’t lose them. But Eckert’s first objective was the AIR ALMANAC, and by the time I got there, that was running on its own four wheels.
That was very important, and there was a time problem there, to get the AIR ALMANAC available quickly for the pilots, wasn’t there?
Well, they put out the book in four months to the book, so you’d get three books a year. You had to be far enough ahead in order that you’d get through the Government Printing Office. I was never directly connected with that part of the operation, so I don’t know what the figures were. But the AIR ALMANAC was made with a plastic spiral binding, and every day you’d tear out the page from yesterday so that the front page was today.
I didn’t know that.
Yes, that was the idea. If you were a real pilot and you were using the AIR ALMANAC, you kept tearing the pages out every day and throwing them away, because they were no good anymore after the time passed.
An astronomer would never do that.
Well, if he was navigating, he might. If he wanted to keep it, he’d buy another book. But anyway, for them, today was always the front page, and the principal tables were printed on very heavy cloth — you could see the weave in the cloth — and then they folded out and you had what you needed there. Eckert was very insistent that there should not be a mistake in the AIR ALMANAC, because so many lives depended on it. I’m sure he achieved that. No one ever found a mistake in the AIR ALMANAC. At that time that was an amazing thing to do.
While you were at the office during the ‘40s during the war, was this when you came to know G. Clemence?
And others at New York also.
In 1940 Eckert offered me a job which I didn’t take. I decided to stay at Cincinnati.
Was that with the ALMANAC OFFICE?
Yes. And he knew that the fellow who was the assistant director, who was an old civil service codger, would be forced to retire in two years, and there would be a vacancy, and he told me I would get the job. But I chose not to go, so then Clemence took the position which I didn’t take. So two years hence Clemence was the assistant director, and I got the job that Clemence left vacant by moving up.
Was there a title to that job that Clemence had?
No, “scientist P-4”, something like that, you know. They didn’t care about titles.
It would be interesting to have your recollections of Clemence and of Eckert, especially at these parties you mentioned on the Tropp interview that Eckert used to give. Were these totally nonscientific parties?
Oh, no, they weren’t totally nonscientific. It was confined, as far as I know, to Eckert’s scientific friends. The only time I was there — and I was there more than a half a dozen times over the years — the only persons who were present were D. Brouwer and G. Clemence and J. Schildt and on some occasions L.H. Thomas and on one occasion Sadler, who was the director of the British Nautical Almanac Office, and I can’t think of anyone else who was included. But they had one leading characteristic: you got away from it all. They’d load the car up on Friday shortly after noon, and we’d drive out there. It would take you a couple hours to get there. We began to clean the place up about 3:30 on Sunday afternoon and then would drive back home.
This was up in New Jersey.
Yes, the extreme northwest tip of New Jersey. It had been a farm at one time, because they had cleared the ground for farming. It was not really very good farm land. It wasn’t even level. But there were stone walls around from stones they’d cleared out. What Eckert used for the house really must have been an oversized barn. On half of it it had a second-floor level and the rest of the barn was all open with a great big fireplace on one end, and under the part that had a second-story floor, he had arranged a kitchen and bottled gas, and that was the only modern convenience. Then there was a bedroom and upstairs there was a partition and essentially two bedrooms up there. And downstairs it was all just rough and old furniture for lounging around. You didn’t have to be careful whether you dirtied anything or scuffed it with your shoes, and sometimes we’d go out and cut logs. There was another smaller barn, which wasn’t much more than an oversized garage and a lean— to, and all the cut trees were under the lean—to; and he kept the jeep in there. I guess he had some kind of a grass mower, but we never used that when we were there. But he would go up there with his family every week. The few times I was there were scattered over the years. Once the happy hour started, why it was just an occasion for telling stories or what-not. But sometimes, like on Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning, they would get real involved in some problem and how it was coming along. You see, some of us came together there who weren’t working together — Brouwer came down from Yale — and so they would talk over the things that needed to be planned for the work that was going on. There were various ongoing projects — the Yale Star Catalogue because Eckert was involved in that with his measuring engine — and then Clemence and Brouwer and Eckert would argue about what Eckert should be doing on the moon. I don’t know whether you appreciate what G.B. Airy’s method amounts to in lunar theory. What happened in fact was that E.W. Brown had finished his lunar theory, and it was used beginning in 1923. Well, when Eckert came along, and after he had the power of real electronic computers, which is after the war, he began to redo Brown in the following way: To every numerical coefficient which Brown had computed, you attach a literal unknown with a subscript that will identify where it belongs.
There were some 1500 of these.
Yes. But Eckert put in 3500, because if there had been any shortcut in the Fourier Series, you see, they had zero coefficients. In other words, they weren’t present. And so he put in all the terms that you could tack on wherever the series were approaching convergence. You’d stick in some more and give them a zero numerical coefficient plus this identified unknown. So he had 3500 unknowns.
This is virtually impossible without the computer.
Certainly. Airy proposed this method 150 years ago, but nobody could do it, you know, at least not like Eckert did. Well, what you do when you take this as an answer now: you differentiate it analytically with the numerical coefficients, and you substitute it into the differential equations. Now, ordinarily a mathematician says, “We have to start with the answer, you differentiate it and substitute it into the differential equation, and then you should have all identities. And that’s how you solve for the unknowns. And so that’s what he did. Now in the event that Brown had had any real mistakes in any of his numbers, the corrections in the number would have been bigger than just the end figures. And he showed that Brown’s work didn’t have any mistakes in it, no serious mistakes anyway.
Concerning the times that Brouwer, Clemence and you and Eckert were together, were there any particular instances where they were talking about Eckert’s application of these Fourier Series coefficient unknowns? And were the arguments over how he was to apply Brown’s lunar theory?
Well, it wasn’t so much as to how you would apply Brown’s lunar theory. It was more as to how he was going to determine the motion of the node and things like that. In fact, it wasn’t a question of how Eckert was going to run his machine. It was more the crucial question of when you get down to the arbitrary constants of integration: how are you going to define them and how are you going to determine the values which you settle on?
What was Clemence’s contribution to these discussions?
Well, as far as the moon was concerned, he didn’t enter into it too much. But during all of this time, you see, Clemence was interested in the orbit of Mars, which is a slightly different problem, because the lunar theory and the planetary theory are really two different kind of cousins. So he only had a passing interest in the lunar theory, but he was always pushing away on his theory of Mars. This was the planetary theory. He modeled this after what Hill had done with Jupiter and Saturn to a large extent. He used Hansen’s method.
What do you think came out of their discussions during these weekends?
Well, if they hadn’t had them there, they probably would have had them in the office somewhere sometime.
Was there philosophizing, though? Things must have been unclear.
Oh, yes. There was a lot of that. That never appealed to me very much. I figured each has his own, you know.
Do you recall any of the conversations: Did anything come up?
No, not really. I’d be hard put to think of something.
Well, you certainly had a very unique group there in interest and also in the application of the computer at the time. Did you realize that you had a revolutionary new technique that no one was exploiting and wasn’t being used?
No, you see, the first time I ever went to that farm was in 1951, and by that time other people had computers. We weren’t the only ones anymore. After all, you see, who was this guy at Harvard that had a computer. He was a commander in the Navy during the war. Do you know about him? (It was Aiken).
Could you tell me about the consequences of World War II and how the Minor Planet Center came to the observatory.
The work had all been done before the war at Berlin-Dahlem under the leadership of Gustav Stracke, but during the war they were bombed out of Berlin, and after the war they were in a defunct condition. Their personnel were split about half and half between the Russians and the western zone, and they were not in a position to carry on the work they had done before. Even before any of these considerations came to the Cincinnati Observatory, I had made overtures through Wallace Eckert and President Walters of the University to get IBM punch card machines here so that we might carry out astronomical work that would be appropriately done on these computing machines. Well, at the same time Brouwer, who was the president of Commission 20 of the International Astronomical Union at that time, had the responsibility to get that area of work organized again, and he arranged or had discussions with the Astronomer Royal who was the president of the IAU.
That was H. Spencer Jones?
Yes. And he sent a formal request: “Would I be willing to operate the Minor planet Center?” So I said “Yes”.
This was a request to you from Jones.
Right. And I was aware from my relations with Stracke before the war what the functions of the Minor Planet Center were. They prepared the annual Ephemeris volume; they took care of all the observations, the numbering of planets; improving the orbits and everything. So I knew what needed to be done, and after we agreed that we would do it, I also arranged for Dr. Rabe, who was one of the younger Rechen Institute members who was in the western zone and who was in Heidelberg then, to come to this country. He received an appointment at the Observatory, and a year later we got P. Musen, who was not a German. I guess he was a native of Yugoslavia, but they were sort of captive civilians in Germany. He wasn’t a prisoner of war, but he worked without the usual status of a civilian in Rechen Institute, and so he was glad to get out of the country, and he came over here in 1949 under the Displaced Persons Act. So the three of us began to carry on the work that was appropriate to the Minor Planet Center. We started publishing the MINOR PLANET CIRCULARS. When we began to collect observations, I arranged to have each one of them put on a punch card. We organized the format, and so we were going to keep a punch card record of all the observations. We decided we would take every one we could get plus all that would go back as far as where the Rechen Institute work left off, which was about 1939. And anything before that was not our province, but everything after that was.
How did the people in Germany react to this?
Well, there wasn’t any uniform reaction, but I know that in one case Kopff refused to send us any information or records which they had at their disposal. He said this would weaken their bargaining position. Well, as a scientist I resented that, and eventually we got the Army to microfilm a bunch of this stuff.
They had, of course, complete control over German institutions.
Yes, that’s right. But it didn’t make all that much difference except I didn’t like the idea that they were not willing to be cooperative.
Anyone else in Britain or the United States express opinions?
About our work?
About the move of the Rechen responsibilities.
Oh, no. They had no choice. I mean the Rechen Institute was defunct, and they couldn’t have operated anyway. The only kind of criticism we got, and I can well understand it: Stracke operated in a small regional area when you consider a world-wide basis, because he would send his communications to Finland and to Brussels and to the Konigstuhl and to various places in a very short range. But we were at a disadvantage because if we mailed anything to Europe, in those days you still didn’t have trans-Atlantic air mail the way we do now, and it took so long that they complained about the delay. And that problem really never was solved. But we did provide Ephemerides in advance, and we had our own computing machines until 1951. We had the IBM tabulator and multiplier and sorter and reproducer. And after that I used various machines that I could scrounge at the local Proctor & Gamble Company and General Electric Company and Gas and Electric Company.
How did you arrange for these?
In the first instance, as far as Proctor & Gamble was concerned, the chairman of the board of directors of the University was the vice-president of Proctor & Gamble and in his earlier days had been a chemistry professor. When President Walters made presentations in my behalf, he was willing to support anything he could. So I went down to his office one day and said, “Look, Mr. Brodie, I’d like to go out there to Ivorydale and use their machines when I wouldn’t be in their way”. I said, “Should I just go and tell them I’m the director of the Observatory or should I tell them you sent me?” And he thought this over a little bit and says, “Well, you just go out and tell them you’re the director of the Observatory, and if it doesn’t work, you come back.” But the people at Proctor & Gamble were very nice, and they gave me a pass, and so I’d go down there about 4:30 about a half hour before they went home to make sure that I could overlap without ruining anything, and then I’d work until 10, 11, 12 o’clock running their computer, and when I’d leave, I’d turn the light out and go home.
Did they give you any other support?
No, they didn’t, except to let me use their computer when I wasn’t in their way. Later on they got a small electronic computer, which actually ran electronically.
Which model was that?
IBM 603. They didn’t make very many of them. It was an in-between kind of machine, but it would multiply as fast as you could run your cards through the punch. So they used this to compute the salesmen’s quotas, and as soon as they got them computed, they didn’t need it until the next month. So there was about a two-week interval in there when it was only standing there and they were perfectly happy to let me come and use it, which I did.
Every time you used a different machine, was it a major overhaul for the type of processing?
Well, it depends on what you mean by major. You had to completely overhaul things.
The cards were different?
No, the cards weren’t necessarily different. If you had a plug board diagram, it would be different. But then also you did have an overhaul in the sense that when I used the 604 and computed perturbations by the thousands the way Stracke had done with a lead pencil, it would take me a total of 20 runs with the 604. But when the General Electric Company got a 607, it had a much bigger panel for program steps and I could do it all in six passes. So there was an overhaul, yes, but I never worried about that because I could run the machines, and so that was that. It didn’t hurt to have to overload.
You found, at least it seems from your narrative, that you had as much fun in the doing with the machine in acquainting yourself with each new machine that came out, than you had interest in the ultimate goal of the production.
Yes, I had both. I enjoyed all of it. And people were nice to me, plus the fact that a lot of them got benefits back. The first time I got my foot in the Gas and Electric Company, I met a fellow, a researcher over in the Kettering Laboratories, who had completed a large experiment on rats. He had 27 variables and didn’t quite know what to do with all his information. He hadn’t thought about that beforehand. So at this stage he simply was plotting each variable separately against each other one, and he would eyeball them and look for patterns or just a heterogeneous mess he didn’t pay any attention to. And he was having medical students do this at about the rate of one or two per hour. And I said, “Well, look, are you willing to reduce all this data to two significant figures?” and he said yes. So I got it on to punch cards, and we had quite a batch of cards — I don’t know, 3000 or 4000, let’s say — and I was able to make his plots on a tabulator at the rate of 42 plots per hour. Well, where would I get a tabulator? So I went down to the Gas Company and told them this was for cancer research and would they let me do it some Saturday morning? And they said yes, and so I had my foot in the door, and I ran them off, and everybody came around looking, you know, because that kind of thing didn’t happen every day.
When was that approximately?
Well, that must have been about 1953 or ‘4. And then by 1956, the Gas and Electric Company got a 650, so I went back and got my foot in the door again, and I told them that if they would let me use the machine, I would give lectures to their engineers, because they were only using it for billing the customers. They would get somebody to set up their billing program, and I offered to give lectures to the engineers and show them what could be done because nobody else would be able to show them. One of the fellows in the gas division became quite expert in computing gas networks for their actual system around town.
What was his name?
Oh, golly, I don’t remember now. Puffy was his last name; I forget his first name. We always called him Puffy. They came to me one day and said, “Look, we’ve got the drum on the 650 so filled up with programming but we have to be able to compute the interval between calendar dates. Can you make us a program that will be real small and will work that will compute the difference between two calendar dates?” I said, “What do you want that for? Well, if you get billed for two months or three months because you weren’t home when they came to read your meter, if your bill is more than twice or less than half of what they estimate for normal, they kick it out so somebody can see what went wrong.” And so they had to know the — difference these oddball differences of time. So I said, “Well, where do you decide which day it gets done on.” And this depended on when the meter reader goes around and when he turns in his cards at the end of the day. So I said, “Well, don’t use the calendar at all. Do what the astronomers do,” and I introduced the Julian Day system for them. So if you go down to the Gas and Electric Company today, you’ll see on the blackboard what the Julian Day number is and what yesterday was. It is one guy’s responsibility for changing that — nobody else — and they don’t need any program. They just difference two numbers, because what the meter reader brings in gets gang punched. So they gang punch the Julian Day. So it was always a two-sided coin. I never did them any harm, you know, and sometimes I did them some good, and I only worked when I wasn’t in their way. So they were perfectly willing to let me do it. And they knew that it was the University, you know, which is a nonprofit organization, so they didn’t care.
That’s a very interesting cooperation.
Over an interval of ten years I figured that I got more free calculator time by scrounging than what the University paid me a salary.
Let’s move back in time to the visits of some of the professors from Indiana — Marshall Wrubel…
Yes, that was when we had the machines between ‘47 and ‘51.
What instigated these visits?
Well, when the whole situation of the minor planet problem was presented, F. Edmondson was willing to participate in trying to obtain observations of those minor planets that were more or less lost or weren’t securely nailed down by previous observations. A lot of times Stracke would number a planet when there really weren’t too many observations known, so that when something like a 10-year hiatus with the war came along, you couldn’t tell where the minor planet was. So Edmondson was willing to cooperate, and that’s when we gave him our 10-inch Cooke triplet. They had graduate students who would get experience by doing photographing, and they had to take about one-hour exposures usually for most of the objects we were interested in. They had a good wide field, and the scale is 120 seconds of arc to the millimeter. They built a Blink and got a measuring engine. Those are details that I can’t tell you exactly. But we were essentially partners in the cooperative plan. We told them which ones we’d like to try and recover, and where and when, and they took the observations. And so among other things, the fact that we had this computing center at the University was almost unique in the whole country. They were only 140 miles away, so they arranged to come over. Furthermore, the attitude ties in somewhat with our Ohio Neighbors meetings, you see. So they just arranged to bring a couple of carloads of graduate students over, and this included Wrubel and I’m not sure who exactly the rest of them were. Edmondson was there in the group. And so I was able to show them the way in which we’d proceed from step to step to do the numerical integration and what the capabilities of the machines were. And when Wrubel saw that, he thought himself of how that could be applied to astrophysics, and from then on he was on his own.
Did you talk to him at all during that one particular visit?
Yes, I was explaining to him the whole business, and he could ask questions the same as anybody else. I can’t remember exactly that he did or what he asked. But at any rate it was that one exposure which inoculated him for life.
Was he particularly surprised?
Yes, surprised in the sense that he had never seen anything like that before. They never had anything like that at Yerkes, and that’s where he was a student. He was a fully trained and accomplished and leading astrophysicist, but those people weren’t in that game yet. But he saw the possibility, and he and Merritt at Indiana were the ones that started their computing center. He’s still there; he’s kind of the dean now. He was in chemistry.
Maybe I should talk to him.
Well, he’ll tell you about Wrubel and the early days of the computing center, because he’s the only one that really knows it now.
Did Edmondson involve himself much in these interests?
I don’t know that he involved himself in the computing center except so far as he had a little more prestige in Indiana than Wrubel did and I’m sure would support Wrubel if the occasion called for it.
He must have because the center did get established. He had an interest in minor planet work, or did he see this as an important duty?
He saw this as a required duty, yes. It needed to be done, and it provided their graduate students with observing experience. They invested I think about $10,000 in order to mount the instrument, because all we gave them was the cell.
But there was no interest here at the University of Cincinnati to actually engage in the observing program?
No, we didn’t want to observe here. This was a bad site.
Just a 140-mile difference makes that much difference?
Well, they’re away from any city. They’re southwest of Indianapolis and there isn’t another city until you get to St. Louis. Of course, that was 30 years ago. I don’t know how bad it is now. But, at any rate, they were out at a much better observing site than we had. It’s about 35 miles from Bloomington.
The Goethe Link Observatory.
Yes. No, Edmondson didn’t do it because of any personal interest in the whole business. He did it as a matter of a problem that needed to be done. And it did provide their graduate students with experience, and it was obviously a good lens. So he was willing to do it, and they carried on all those years.
Did you approach him, or was this something you mutually came to?
No, it was mutual in the sense that it was a problem that was open for discussion in the Astronomical Society meetings.
Well, we can move on through the ‘50s and talk about how the conditions for research here continued on through that decade. By the end of the ‘50s and the Sputnik era, of course the Institute was established.
The Institute for Space Sciences?
Were you the director of that?
Yes. Well, there was really a kind of another preliminary step there. I got myself attached to the Atlas Missile Project starting in 1951. I forget exactly how that came about except that one of the fellows who had been a graduate student in physics when I was a graduate student had a brother who was also a member of the mathematics faculty. He was visiting in town during this period and he called up on the telephone and he came out to see me. We had computing machines, and so he was interested in seeing something like that in the University, but he was working for Convair — in those days it was Consolidated Vultee. So he said that they would be interested in having me work for, them because they had the guidance problem for the Atlas Missile, how to hit Moscow from Kansas. And when he saw that I was doing orbit work, he figured there would be some connection there.
Who was this again?
His name was H. Dunholter. So I got involved in working with Convair on the guidance problems of the Atlas Missile, and I spent one whole summer there in 1953 — I must have spent two months in San Diego. Prior to that we had had some correspondence, and one of the problems that they had not touched yet was the effect on a ballistic trajectory of the oblateness of the earth. If you fire down the Atlantic missile range, for example, by the time you get as far as Ascension Island, which was what they intended to test the ballistic missiles on, the equatorial protuberance of the earth will throw you off by a couple of miles. What you get is the same as you had with an artificial satellite. You get the regression of the node of the orbital plane. It’s only a fraction of a revolution, but nonetheless it’s in an orbit whose plane is regressing in the meantime. And so that was a problem. And then they had the problem of how were they really going to control the guidance while the missile was firing. And so the plan that they used essentially amounted to having a kind of cylindrical field and at whatever velocity you went through at a given position, there would be a corresponding correction to the velocity vector in order to hit the target. And the thing was to determine what was the respondant in this field for a given position in velocity. That was going to be their guidance control mechanism device. And so I worked on those things. Well, in the summer of ‘55 when Eisenhower announced that there would be an American space program, there was also the International Astronomical Union Meeting in Dublin, and it was the first time I ever had the opportunity to go to Europe. And I remember I was in Idlewild Airport waiting for the airplane to get ready to go when much to my surprise I got paged on the airport paging system, and here was a fellow from UNIVAC who wanted to know if I would be on their team if their proposal to operate the satellite computing program won. So would I be on their team? I knew the guy. This was Mauchly from UNIVAC, and he had been anxious from 1950 for me to use the UNIVAC for minor planet computations — just in order to raise the prestige of the UNIVAC. And I did that. So I knew him. So I said yes I would do it. But when I get over to Europe one of the fellows from the Army Map Service says, “We’re going to put in a proposal — will you be on our team? Can we put you in?” And I figured, “Well, only one of them is going to win”, so I told everybody yes. And before the meeting was over, John Hagen came around and wanted to talk to me, and he was sure that the Naval Research Laboratory was going to get the Vanguard Project, and he wanted to know if I’d be on their team. And so I said yes. And so I was sure to be in it. So that’s how I got started in the space program.
Everybody was asking you.
So in the fall of ‘55 and in the early spring of ‘56, I was a part of the team that was obliged to go around and make bidder’s presentations. In other words, the Naval Research Laboratory would go to IBM and make a presentation on what the project was and what the requirements were so that they could bid. And then we would go to UNIVAC and make a presentation, and then they could bid. So we went around to several places making these presentations. Finally they settled on IBM, and then we had to write the program. And so officially within the Vanguard Project, I had the title of the head of the Vanguard Computing Center, and I had an arrangement with the Navy — what they called “when actually employed”, WAE — and so if they were going to have a week or two of work to do on planning the computing program, why then I would go there for two weeks. Well, now, at this same time I was already using the NORC down at Dahlgren, and so I fit all these things together. When I went down to Dahlgren for two weeks, I’d get a whole year’s work done on that machine. It was just amazing what that machine could do. I tried to get the Vanguard Project to get NORC but of course there was only one of them, and they insisted on having a machine which was duplicatible. In other words, when IBM finally got the contract, they had that 704 in Washington, which we used, but if anything went wrong, we immediately could cut into New York where they had another one. They had all the programs there and that kind of stuff. So my ideas on bringing in the NORC didn’t get very far. Then another thing that happened: Sputnik was on October 4, 1957, and in the following March we had a meeting at Columbia University of about 20 people, all of whom were interested in celestial mechanics, and the main problem of the meeting was to discuss what should be done in University education, particularly in Dynamical Astronomy, which we all were interested in, as a response to the Sputnik. When I came home, I put through the necessary paperwork that we would institute a graduate program in Dynamical Astronomy, which we hadn’t had before. I wasn’t a thousand per cent enamored with this idea, because it was only myself and Rabe and Musen, and you could hope for a better faculty overall to give a Ph.D. program, but we didn’t have any more, so we had no choice but either do it this way or not at all. So we got this graduate program approved in the graduate school. And then the dean came along and said we should organize the Institute of Space Sciences.
What dean was this?
His name was Greene. Their main idea was that this would be a vehicle for getting government contracts to get more of the faculty involved so that they could use that kind of overhead money to pay their salary.
That seems to be a very common way of getting funds.
Yes, but, I had plenty to do without worrying about that, but if they wanted to do it, I told them, “Why don’t you get somebody else to do it?” “No,” he says, “we have to use your name.” So I said, “Okay.” But it never really did pan out because there weren’t enough fellows who were interested in doing a little more than the ordinary call of duty.
Students or teachers?
No, faculty members. One of the fellows I picked out as being a guy I thought would be likely to be able to contribute and would be interested told me plain “No.” He says, “I can’t do that.” He says, “I got two night school classes. I make extra money on them, and I’m not going to give them up. I wouldn’t get them back when I wanted them.”
He was only interested in money and not the advancement of the discipline?
Well, he certainly wasn’t interested in changing his mode of activity and joining in the group.
He was a mathematician?
Yes. And so I just figured I had enough to do and that I don’t have to worry about not being able to do that. So after about two or three years I got them to give the job to somebody else, because it just didn’t amount to very much. Then another funny thing happened. I shouldn’t say “funny”. It was sad. There was a fairly young fellow, and I didn’t know him too well, but I knew that he was head of the aeronautical engineering department. He was at a meeting, and he just plain dropped over dead; and so they had a vacancy there. Seeing that vacancy in 1959 or ‘60 I wrote a long memorandum to the president of the University and pointed out that my recommendation was that they take the opportunity to establish within the engineering college a department of engineering science, which would be an elite engineering course that would be anticipating the prospect that the graduates could go on to do graduate work in science and technology. There were several places they could look to for patterns: There was the engineering-physics program at Cornell and MIT. Caltech had programs that they could look at; so that they would get away from the routine of having only civil engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and chemical engineering. Furthermore, I had the statistics from Convair which showed that out of their 1500 professional personnel, there were only 10% who had graduated in aeronautical engineering. You didn’t need it all that much anymore. The world was moving on, you see. And they had 20% who graduated in electrical engineering and 20% who graduated in mechanical engineering. They had 10% who graduated in math and 10% in physics and 10% somewhere else, and only 10% out of their entire professional personnel in Convair astronautics had graduated in aeronautical engineering. You could live without that.
Well, specialization had already taken over.
But they should have gone into propulsion or something. But I saw the opportunity to establish a slightly higher echelon engineering course that would be tougher but would also have more prospects for advanced work when the students got out, because nearly everyone in the engineering college was without an earned doctor’s degree because when they were at the level when they got appointed to the faculty, it wasn’t expected in engineering. You didn’t need a doctor’s degree to be a professor of civil engineering.
And this was around 1960?
Well no, I mean when these fellows were young and got appointed, you see. But now you had to look forward to the fact that even in engineering a lot of the real opportunities would require graduate work and an earned doctorate. And this question came up when Neil Armstrong got appointed to be a university professor in the engineering college, and the newspaper people asked the dean: “How come you make him a special professor like that and he doesn’t have any doctor’s degree?” and the dean replied, “Well, you know, we have a lot of fellows on our faculty who have a doctor’s degree, but they haven’t been on the moon either.” But anyway I had plenty of things to do. Then I can remember: it was early in 1959, I guess it was, one of the IBM people came here to visit me at my home, and he wanted me to help them write the proposal for the Mercury Project when the first astronauts would fly, and so I spent the entire week of Decoration Day in May of 1959, and we worked almost 12 hours a day drafting the proposal of IBM for getting the Mercury Computer Program Project. And when they won the project, which was considerably on the portion of the plans which I had drawn up for the computer program, they said, “Well, now you got us into it and now you’ve got to help us get out of it.” So I was involved along the way with IBM when they were in the debugging stage. One of the things that amused me was that I would set up test problems which I would work out on the desk calculator, which was a ten-place machine. The 704 which they used in those days was a binary machine which was the equivalent of about eight places. So whenever there were any answers, I always had the answer to ten places and they only had eight with their big computer; and they didn’t like to be upstaged like that. But anyway we carried through the whole debugging process and then they turned it over to NASA, and that’s about the last thing I ever did. I decided I had enough fun out of that, and NASA was a big government organization. I could have been in it if I was willing to leave Cincinnati, but I wasn’t interested in that, so I just got out of the whole space game after that. We still had plenty to do with the Minor Planet Center, and at that time the University began to get better computing machines, and so I made bigger and better programs for minor planet work — perturbation computation and plate reductions and things like that, differential corrections.
How did your family feel about all of your work, which inevitably involved traveling around?
Well, I don’t know how they felt except I guess they were satisfied. I only had one daughter, and she graduated from college in ‘58, so she was gone from home after that. In fact, she was gone from home since ‘54. She went two years to Ohio Wesleyan and two years to Indiana, and then she went to Cleveland to nursing college for three years, and by that time it was 1961. Whenever these trips were long enough, I’d take my wife along; and so I almost never had gone anyplace on a vacation. I had enough trips going everyplace on all this different kind of work so there was no reason why she should object; she got trips out of it.
How long did your wife Anne work here at the Observatory?
Well, this is my second wife. My wife died of cancer in 1972. She was stricken in 1965, and the hospital I thought was excellent. They gave her another seven years of life, and so we’ve only been married four and a half years.
What was your first wife’s name?
She was from the Cincinnati area?
Yes. Her father was Dr. Smith.
And when did you marry your second wife?
Well, it’ll be five years in September, I guess. She had been working here for ten years before that. She lived right down the hill all of her life and just beyond the intersection of that stop light. Her parents both passed away in ‘57 and ‘61, so then she was left all alone. She’s got a brother who was at Eastman Kodak, and she’s been working at the Observatory since ‘61.
Well, when you decided to return to the work of the Minor Planet Center…
Well, mind you, it was going on in parallel all the time.
Sure. Who kept on the work primarily as you were working in the space program?
Well, I wasn’t gone all that long. I could keep it going. The only time there was an interruption was the semester that I went to Columbia in the fall of 1951 when I actually was away for four or five months. And then there was still only lead pencil work mostly in those days, and Rabe and Musen carried on by themselves. The rest of the time I still had my finger in everything that was going on, because these other people never learned to run the computing machines. I did all of that myself. They just didn’t have what it takes to get into the game.
When did you start hiring people that could?
I never have. Well, no, I shouldn’t say that. We had the possibility with various grants that we got that we could hire graduate student level people. Some of them were quite good at computing and other ones were a little bit lazy, so you never knew whether they were good at it or not. And so during the last half of the 1960s, we had one or two fellows here somewhat in the same position as Bardwell who would help with the work, and some of them were real good and some of them just were not very ambitious, you know.
Did you have any contacts with Herrick and the development of the astrodynamics programs?
No. My contact with Herrick was the year that I was at Berkeley, because he was there as a graduate student, and I think it was March 14 when we got the observations of Adonis that he was taking his Ph.D. exams. We worked together on orbit computing then, mainly this Hansen theory and how it should be carried out. There were no computers in those days. But then he went to UCLA, and I very seldom saw him. And he was a curious kind of fellow. It always aggravated me how much time he would argue about whether we should round the nth digit up or down. I didn’t think it was all that important; I wanted to get on to something better. But he had his own way and it was the only one that was right, and so I was glad to let him alone. And then this whole business of ASTRODYNAMICS being referred to in the literature when it wasn’t even printed yet sort of rubbed me the wrong way.
You mean he was using the word?
Other people would refer to Chapter 7 in Herrick’s book and the book wasn’t printed yet.
Did he coin the word “astrodynamics”?
I don’t know — maybe he did. I don’t know how to settle a question like that.
You mentioned last night that he did not voluntarily leave the astronomy department at UCLA to form the astrodynamics group in engineering. Could you tell me a little about that?
Well really, you ought to get D. Popper to tell you. I think the basis of it — but I really don’t have any solid information — was the fact that they took the view in their astronomy department that anybody who earned a doctor’s degree had to have a minimum qualification in astrophysics and various other branches of astronomy and not just in Herrick’s orbit computing class. They weren’t about to graduate Ph.D.’s that were limited to Herrick’s orbit computing class. Now, I think they were entirely entitled to that position, to take that point of view if they wish to. We didn’t do it here because we didn’t have any astrophysics, you see. And I always was somewhat apprehensive that we were shortchanging our graduate students by limiting the program to dynamical astronomy. But, on the other hand, the few that we had have come out okay, so some people say, “Why don’t you have more?” Well, I’m not sure that more would have been good. But I think that what I’ve told you is the basis of the problem that they had there, and I’m sure that Popper can verify this.
Was it Popper or Frederic Leonard at that time? Did you know Frederic Leonard?
Yes, but it wasn’t Leonard. I don’t think Leonard was living anymore then.
How early did Herrick get interested in computing machines? Do you know?
I had no knowledge of whether or not Herrick really knew how to run a computing machine, because he always had other people working with him, and some of them turned out to be pretty good at running a computing machine — Mary Francis, for example. I’m not prepared to say that I’ve ever seen Herrick run a computing machine, and therefore I can’t verify that he was able to run one.
There are two other names that were associated with him: Maud Makemson and Robert Baker.
Well, I don’t know them. I don’t believe I ever laid eyes on Maud Makemson, but she was the astronomy professor at Vassar all of her life. And then when she retired, she must have gone to California, and I don’t know anything about that except that her name turned up out there. Baker I only met occasionally, but he was Herrick’s prize student and I’m not sure what he’s doing now. He wasn’t in the University the last I heard. He was out in industry.
What continuing contact did you have with minor planet work that was done at Yale? When I first came to Yale, the projects there were still in operation. Dave Pierce was running some minor planet projects.
Well, the one that Pierce was on was a problem that Brouwer had proposed in about 1930, and it was for the purpose of using the minor planets to determine systematic errors in star catalogues. Now, if Pierce was engaged in anything el-se, I don’t know about it unless you can refresh my memory.
No, that’s all I knew.
But I never had anything to do with that. Morris Davis probably was the one that had the most to do with it when he was there, but he’s been gone for I don’t know how many years now, more than ten.
Clemence certainly was involved to some extent. What was his extent of involvement with these kinds of interest, in minor planet work?
Well, I really don’t know, because by the time Clemence went to Yale, I didn’t have much occasion to go there anymore except for the Summer Institutes. We were so busy with all the students in the short, compressed times of the Summer Institutes that we never got around to any of these other things. And each year that they had the Institute, I usually lectured for two weeks, and that would keep you pretty busy, you see. And the last time that I had anything to do with that I think it was in 1970 and ‘69, those two summers. I went to MIT. But Brouwer was already dead by then, and Szebehely was running the show, at least during the time that I was there.
We were talking about the Summer Institutes at Yale, and you were talking about Szebehely. Did you have contacts with Danby and Garfinkle?
Well, not too much, just during those times. Those Summer Institutes were another one of the outgrowths of that meeting that we had at Columbia in March of 1958. The summer of ‘59 is when Brouwer started them, and the first one was at Yale, and we had about a hundred students. And then later on they joined the Mathematical Society. One year we went to Cornell because it was co-sponsored by the American Mathematical Society. And then one year they went somewhere in the West. I didn’t go that year. I forget what the circumstances were. In ‘64 we intended to have one in Europe, but it didn’t pan out. We figured we’d be there anyway for the IAU meeting in Hamburg, but it didn’t pan out.
How would you describe Yale’s influence and role in dynamics, dynamical astronomy? What were their strengths and weaknesses?
Well, at Yale it started with Brown, who was Sterling Professor of Mathematics. And most people forget that Brown really did his lunar theory work at Haverford before he went to Yale. As far as Dynamical Astronomy was concerned, he was there alone. And in 1929 Brouwer came to this country on a one-year fellowship, and he spent a half a year at Yale and a half a year out on the West Coast, and then he went back to Yale and never left.
Was that because of Brown?
Yes, I think so; and he carried on Brown’s work, and people also think that de Sitter was his teacher just because he published his posthumous papers, completing the work that de Sitter had started. But Brouwer told me himself that Woltjer was his teacher and not de Sitter.
Was that the father of Ludwick?
Right. He got a new job somewhere lately. I think it’s in the European Southern Observatory, but I’m not dead sure. Well, the other side of the coin is that this was a subject in which not too many people took an interest and you couldn’t afford to have too many of them. But Brouwer essentially carried the ball. And then after Sputnik, they attempted to expand for several reasons. It put much more work on Brouwer when he started to develop the satellite theory, and the atmospheric part of that problem made it almost an endless problem, you know. So he tried to get more people, including Danby and Szebehely. I was never around there enough to know what were the causes of the problems that they had.
What problems did they have?
Oh, they had personality problems between two factions on the faculty. Well, I don’t know enough details to say anything, but I’m not even sure who was on each side. You get people who don’t like each other and they have two cliques, and that’s just too bad.
Was Clemence involved in this?
No. Even if it existed when he was there, he wasn’t the kind of guy who would get in on anything like that. I’m not sure what Deprit’s position was when he was there, whether he really had a faculty appointment or not.
This is within the dynamical group alone?
Yes. Not as opposed to astrophysics, for example. No, it was among themselves. So I just didn’t have enough occasion to go there in those years to know what was going on. I had plenty of other things to do. As a matter of fact, I really had only widely separated contacts in the sense that the only time I really lived in the East was that half a year that I went to Columbia, and the other times it would be a question of seeing people occasionally. I did go to Washington quite a bit during the years from say ‘56 to ‘63 or ‘4 on account of the NORC at Dahlgren, because I always went through Washington.
Did you have contacts at the Naval Observatory?
Yes. You see, I knew all those people because I worked there four years, and Clemence and I cooperated together on a lot of different things, and he was very helpful when I published those solar coordinates that spanned two centuries on the uniform system. We did that on some of our punch card machines, and when I got the NORC at my disposal, I prepared a program which would enable me to compute minor planet orbits, but it was made in such a way that the first minor planet that I computed was Mars.
That was Clemence’s interest.
Yes. And so I provided a kind of double-check on his work. And so we collaborated in that respect. I mean it wasn’t an official collaboration. We just were good friends. So I put this double check on his work for him, and I would have other occasions to go to Washington. I still cooperate with the Nautical Almanac Office. They’re going to start publishing predictions of occultations of minor planets by the moon, and I agreed to provide them with quite a number of accurate elements that they could use.
There are two questions I would like to ask you, both involving to some extent the Naval Observatory. The first would be the obvious question: how do you think their future survival will be as a military-run organization? And second, I wanted to ask you about their occultation observations and their relative value to the grazing occultation work that David Dunham has been doing. Which question do you want to take?
Well, the first one: I’m not any kind of a predictor on anything. I don’t see any reason why it should be any worse in the future that it has been in the past. There are certain drawbacks to having a civil service organization which tries to act like a university research organization. They have been victimized by the governmental circumstances in several respects. One of them is that they get an operations budget and separately they must get a research budget from the Office of Naval Research so that they are not completely at liberty. They have to keep two accounts, keep things separate in each pocket, so to speak. And that’s not a good thing if you can get along without it. But I think the personnel as I see them now is no worse than it has been in the past, and I don’t see any reason why this shouldn’t continue to go on as they have been. A lot depends on which captain they happen to get.
Well, if they were to go under the Office of Naval Research completely?
Well, they’re not going under them, because that’s not an organization in the Navy that operates anything. They just oversee the research that’s going on and see what ought to be going on that isn’t and funding it.
But there was some research arm of the Navy that was totally under the Office of Naval Research. 
I don’t know; it may be. I never delved into it very much. ONR gave out grant money. I guess a couple of times I got some, but I really don’t know too much about it. I think the other part is two separate problems entirely. If the occultations of minor planets by the moon are observed photoelectrically, it is possible to get information concerning the diameters of these planets. There are certain problems that are involved because you don’t know that you’re getting specular reflection everywhere over the whole diameter and therefore you may get a smaller diameter than the real one when you have only the light curve to go by. However, I think it is a very good adjunct to the infrared work that has been done by Clark Chapman and those fellows, and I have done a great deal of ephemeris computing to support their work in the last three or four years. The grazing occultation business, as far as I can see, primarily contributes to the observations of the moon in latitude, and it’s true that if you get situated in the right place, you can see the moon going up in between the mountains and valleys and all that. But I think that’s more of passing curious interest than would be of any scientific value. Nobody’s going to be able to make a contour map of the moon by waiting for grazing occultations. But it does have a bearing on the latitude observations of the moon. So I think each has its own place, and I am all in favor of their getting these minor planet occultations providing they get observed with good photoelectrical equipment and get the timing tied in accurately, not that it’s just a sport for someone.
Yes, I can appreciate that.
It should be able to contribute good information supplementing and supporting the other kind of physical information we have. I’m very surprised at the very low albedos that Chapman seems to get, and if this is substantiated, why so much the better.
How did you feel when you saw some of the first pictures of Phobos and Deimos, which very well could be captured astroids?
Well, I figured that’s about what was to be expected, and the fact that they had such relatively large craters, relative to their diameter. I tell you what really has impressed me the most recently; is the discovery that these two minor planets, one of which just about has the period of the earth, and the other one has even a shorter period. Neither of them is named yet. One of them was 1976 AA, and it is in an orbit which is nearly the same as the earth’s orbit, and the period is also nearly the same, so that after it gets observed for the next couple of months when it’s still visible yet, after that it won’t be observable for 20 years, because it has to gain a whole revolution on the earth, and it does that so very slowly, it will take 20 years before it comes around to opposition again, always moving right ahead of the earth, you see, where you can’t see it. And the other one has an even shorter period, and it just impressed on me that there really is a higher probability of something hitting the earth than what I had intuitively thought over all these years, because most of them are out there two or three astronomical units, and who worries? I remember when I started giving lectures on the space program, someone in the audience when we were all finished would say, “Well, now, what is the danger of being hit by one of these things we send up?” So I’d look at them and a long pause and I’d say, “You drove here tonight, didn’t you?” And that was the answer.
Did you know about PROJECT ICARUS I believe it was at MIT?
No. Oh, you mean those students who wrote that? I didn’t know it until it was over, and I didn’t really read it from cover to cover, but I thought it was very good, what little I know of it, yes.
It’s an interesting problem. But you had no contact with the development of it.
No. I didn’t know they were doing it, if that’s what you mean.
What about Tom van Flanderm’s revival I guess of what has been an idea for quite some time about the origin of the asteroids? He seems to have extrapolated many minor planet and comet orbits back to some point in time where they seem to converge.
Well, this was Hirayama’s idea and the Hirayama family’s.  Brouwer worked on that somewhat, but the more you refined it, the less certain it became. I really can’t say too much about that because I never got enthused about having a theory of the origin of anything. I just take it the way it is and let it go at that. We had some meeting — I forget where it was now; there are proceedings I guess of it — and the opening statement was by F. Whipple, that since they recognized magnetohydrodynamic forces, you cannot just run the solar system backwards and tell what the early history of the solar system was. It’s not reproducible. And therefore I think many of these things are just exercises in batting the wind. I never took any great interest in them. Each to his own, as I say. Let them have it if they want it.
Did you work coincide with Whipple’s interests at any point?
Not too much. Back in the 1930s, while it’s true that he computed comet orbits, he was mainly interested in meteors. Or at least I think the most valuable work that he did in that period was in meteors. And when it came time for the space ships, he knew more about the atmosphere than anybody — the density of the atmosphere at high altitudes.
By studying the meteor trails.
Yes. So that we never had any projects in common or anything.
If we can go way way back to some historical questions, there’s one in particular that I’d be interested to know if you have any information about. Schlesinger studied I guess under H. Jacobi at Columbia, and in the late 1890s people began preparing, after Eros was discovered, for the Eros campaign — the determination of the astronomical unit — but at the time there seemed to be some sort of a rift between different people who worked on the Eros campaign. Did you ever talk to anyone who had any contact with the Columbia project or anybody with the Eros campaign?
No, I never had any experience with the 1901 campaign at all except to read the casual things that were told about it. However, the one thing that comes to my mind as you say this is that there were some people who didn’t realize they were making a bad mistake, and they didn’t time their observations with sufficient accuracy so that they knew where Eros was but they didn’t know when. This turned out to be a deficiency in the observing program. And over the years, especially shortly after 1931, I heard a number of people comment on that.
Do you know who they were?
No. Actually, Trumpler was one of those who mentioned that. He had taken an interest in it, and I’m not sure who it was that were the observers who were at fault. But anyway… that is a very important point. When we have gotten some bum observations, we would try to turn them around backwards and establish when was an observation made. Unless you have an orbit which is so good that you don’t need those observations, you can’t turn the problem around and tell when they were made; so you just forget about them.
Yes, I can see that. Well, now that we’re in space and certainly require the utmost precision for planetary masses in the distribution of mass in the solar system, how do you view your own role in the last 30 years in this field which is now of obvious and recognized importance? Did you have this kind of application in mind? Did you ever think about it or did you ever talk to other people about it in the ‘30s and ‘40s before space programs were really off the ground?
Yes, I can’t say that I ever talked to anybody about it, but I did have this in mind. And I always had in mind to do what was within my competence and to develop what competence I could. I wrote an article clear back in 1946 which was copied by a number of newspapers based on the V2’s. All I tried to do was to put into understandable language the diagram that Newton has in his book where the projectile is getting fired off of the top of the mountain. And I think the title was: “Whatever Goes Up Comes Down, or Does It?” — something to that effect. And I tried to make it clear to people that the way a rocket works, you don’t have to keep putting your foot on the gas all the time. Well, people just don’t understand ballistic trajectories intuitively because they’re used to automobiles and friction. And so I figured there would come a day, and we did have the experience of the V2s, you know — we had come that far — and so I was really anxious to get into the game or at least keep my ear to the ground, and it all happened sooner than I expected, but that’s all the better for me.
Did you have these feelings in the ‘30s before the V2?
No. There was a fellow named Pendray from the Interplanetary Society. And we used to get some of their mimeographed blurbs every once in a while. I never took them seriously at that time. But by the time the V2’s were over, you know, you could see that it really was going to come. We had a professor of aeronautical engineering here, and he proudly pooh-poohed the idea that anybody could think that you could ever get above the atmosphere and out into space in the same way that Newcomb said an airplane wouldn’t fly.
Who was that fellow here?
They called him Major Jones.
About what time was that?
I just heard people quote this afterward. It must have been in the ‘30s before the war.
Okay. Had you heard of Goddard and Goddard’s work?
I heard of him, but I didn’t know too much about him. I read what I could when I saw it, and I knew that he worked out in the West somewhere, and I figured there was plenty of desert there for him. I passed by Roswell one time when I was driving west.
What about Lyman Spitzer? He was one of the early proponents of space research and space work at Princeton. Did you ever talk with him?
No, and while I know Spitzer, I just know him casually from the Astronomical Society, and we never had any occasion to work together on anything.
So it really was World War II and the V2 that made you more aware of the possibilities of being in space.
Yes, that’s right.
Did you foresee the tremendous degree of accuracy that was required for interplanetary space probes in ballistics-type calculations?
Yes, because through the work that I did trying to correct the orbits of minor planets and comets, you learn to appreciate the degradation that’s put on the problem by poor observation. And in particular I guess this was highlighted by the orbit of Pluto and the fact that they worried about the accuracy of the prediscovery observations which they got. And then you had the problem of the oldest observations of Neptune, and they don’t want to fit in. P.K. Seidelmann at Naval Observatory is still working on that and seeing if the trouble is due to the star catalogue. But I remember way back in the late 1930s that the mass of Pluto depended in large part on the errors of the latitude observations of Neptune; so that the effect of errors of observation was impressed on me all the time, much more than most other people. And when you have only a very short arc, if you think to yourself, “Now, look, you’re using this as a mathematical point — it really is a circle of some unknown diameter that includes that guy’s observational errors,” you see, “so don’t put your whole faith in God on that one set of numbers.” We have that problem to this day. You publish some elements and people believe that they’re accurate out to the last place. Well, I have a good feeling for what the effect of observational errors is and what the requirements of accuracy is. So I was always interested in it. Actually, at the present time I really don’t have a clear picture of what their computer programs are like. I know what it was in Mercury Project because I wrote it myself. And once they (NASA) took it over, they began to soup it up as they got more and more requirements and more and more capability. But from all this differential correction work, I always had a pretty good idea of the importance of accuracy and don’t be fooled just by numbers because they look real good.
That’s a very important view. As you look back on your career what do you feel is your most important contribution? Or really was it just the sum total of all your work?
Well, if you ask me what I think I get the most satisfaction out of?
Yes, that’s very good.
It was the Submarine book and the Mercury Program. These are two different things, but the Submarine book was the only good thing I did for the war, and a lot of people’s lives have been saved by it. And the Mercury Project was the first American in space, and I did my part.
We didn’t talk about the Submarine book.
Well, this was during the war, and if you go back and look at the figures in the summer of 1943, the casualties of allied convoys was about 30%. In other words, three out of ten ships that they sent to Europe went to the bottom. And the Navy came along to Eckert and me with the proposal that they would set up a lot of direction finding antennae, and they would listen to the radio signals of the German submarines, because the German wolf packs, as they were called, when they had fired the torpedoes, didn’t go back home to get some more. They were short of fuel oil, and so they lay in the shipping lane and simply radioed home the message of who was going by — let somebody else catch him. In that way, by listening on the direction finding antennae, you don’t get a real accurate reading, because you are trying to determine a small angle from the cosine instead of from the sine, but at least they had 108 listening posts around the world; and if you could get intersections, you could spot the submarines. So they were able to locate quite a number of them within about five miles or so. And the range of sonar equipped destroyers was just about equal to what they needed to close in on them. And so they would then send the destroyers in and try to pick them up with sonar and then they would depth charge them. And the casualties went down to about six per cent as soon as we finished this job. Well, now, our part — they came to Eckert and I did all the work, because we already had an Almanac Office full of work for the machines we had. So this had to be done on the night shift, and I did it on the night shift over a period of three months. It involved the solution of about a quarter of a million spherical triangles. The way it worked: as far as the Navy was concerned, they had a chart as big as this table, which was the North Atlantic, and so they had from zero to 250 to 500 to 750 and back to 1000 along the four edges.
So that table is about four by four feet.
A little bit bigger than that, five by five. They had this linear scale all around the edges. Now, suppose this is the North Atlantic and one of those listening posts here is Boston. Then every degree of azimuth — you lay down a straight line because that’s a great circle and that straight line intersects the border at two numbers. So if you open the book to the two pages for that observing station down the column — they were legal-sized paper — they had 90 degrees of azimuth and over here the other 90 degrees. Now, you can’t tell the hemisphere. You only have 180 degrees, you don’t have 360 degrees. You put up a plane antenna, and all you can do is turn to maximum intensity. You can’t tell whether it’s coming this way or that way. There were 180 readings in azimuth, and there were five charts like this — the North and South Atlantic, the North and South Pacific, and the Indian Ocean. So there were five pairs of columns down the page — one for each of the charts — and the pair of columns contained the two numbers that you joined to get the course for a given station and a given azimuth. Now, if the station were off of the chart, then there would be some azimuths that would have readings and others that wouldn’t, and that would be blank. Well, when we got done with this, they manned these listening posts all around the world wherever they could, and then the operator would send in what reading he got — if he heard a German submarine message — and they would plot these and intersect them and find the submarine. And they actually cut down the casualties very perceptibly.
That must have been very gratifying to you.
Well, it was. Now, in astronomy I enjoyed what I did. I did the best I could, and whatever came of it, I passed the torch of orbit computing from one generation to another. I had enough students that can carry on that I don’t have to have any regrets. I’m sorry to see the Observatory if it goes down the drain, but that’s a different problem — it’s not my control.
I’d be very interested in your comments about that if we could want to take them now.
No, I don’t really know what’s going to happen, you see. They’re so nebulous about everything.
Well, basically what has happened? Could I change the tape and talk about that shortly?
When the president leaves, I’m not sure what that’s going to force to happen, but he will leave. And in another year I shall leave, and then something will have to happen. At the moment there is one ball in the air. I made a written protest to my colleagues, who are Fellows of the Graduate School, so they will do something, and I don’t know what will come of it or what they will do. But I’d rather not say anything, because all I have to say is that I’m very bitter about the whole business and they’re so nebulous, you can’t nail them down to anything.
Well, what seems to be the trend? Are they actively trying to absorb astronomy into one of the other departments, or they just don’t know how to deal with the Observatory as an institution within the University? Do they fail to see the value of the Observatory?
I think it’s some of all of those things. The main fact of the matter is that up until the coming first of July, the Observatory has been supported by a mandatory tax levy from the city. And by the president taking the University so that it goes completely State on the first of July, just like Ohio State, they relinquish the city tax, and they have put nothing in its place. So you see there are the sins of omission; you can’t point to any sins of commission.
This tax levy has supported the Observatory through its entire existence?
No, because for 33 years it was privately owned, for about 30 years.
Yes, privately owned.
But during your tenure here, it’s been tax-supported.
Yes, it’s been tax-supported since 1870, and there is a written and legal and presumably binding contract, but nobody’s paying any attention to it. Now, if I were a lawyer, I could bring a taxpayer’s suit, but I’m not a lawyer; and the one fellow I had that was a friend of mine who would gladly have done it passed away about two years ago.
That’s too bad. Is there anyone else? Is there a Friends’ Committee?
No. Nobody has any friends anymore. I think this is one of the sad things about the University, that it has become a dog—eat—dog place in which everybody feels that if you get something, it’s at my expense. Nobody has any friends anymore.
What about in the astronomical community?
Well, they would like to. You see, they had the problem at Allegheny,  and we may be forced to do this. The only trouble is, as I say, there’s nothing you can point your finger to, because they act so nebulously that nothing happens.
Would a simple statement justifying the continued existence of the Observatory and the projects be useful?
It wouldn’t impress anybody. We don’t even know who to try to impress, because the president is going to leave and they don’t know who’s going to be president. It’s really a very bad situation, and I don’t see any way to correct it.
You see this, though, as an institutional move. It doesn’t affect your own self-feeling about your life work.
Well, it affects all the future of my life. I expected the Observatory to be here when I retire. And if it isn’t, I shall be bereft of all that I look forward to. I consider it a great personal loss in addition to a loss to the academic community. But there’s nothing I can do about it that I can think of. I’ve done what I thought I could. Well, we shall see.
Okay, thank you very much for this interview. It’s been very pleasant.
Well, are we still on this?
Now, I would like to put this on the tape. We will be transcribing the tape, editing it and then we will be sending you the edited version, which will have the remarks written in by me rather than retyped, so you will see what the editing has been like. We’ll also be sending you a permission form, and you’re free to modify that permission form as you see fit in concert with the Center for History of Physics. And under no circumstances would this material be seen or used by anyone without your written permission, during your lifetime. And what happens after that is purely up to you, determined by the nature of the permission form. Is this acceptable?
Fine. Thank you very much.
ref. p. 116.
Interview with P. Herget. Smithsonian Institution.
CHARLES BABBAGE, P. Morrison, ed. (Dover, 1961).
Naval Ordnance Research Calculator.
Department of Terrestrial Magnetism.
MIT Report #13 (1968).
family of asteroids.
G. Edward Pendray, editor of ASTRONAUTICS in mid-thirties.
Goddard's experimental station in New Mexico.
ref(?) (It was secret and had a restricted distribution. Recently I presented my souvenir copy to the U.S. Nautical Almanac Office).
University of Pittsburg threatened to close Observatory in mid-sixties but was convinced not to do so by AAS and NSF grant supports.