HomeArticlesComputers in World War II - Leland Cunningham

Computers in World War II – Leland Cunningham


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The past can quickly be forgotten…

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It was 82 years ago, in the year 1940, that Leland Cunningham discovered Comet Cunningham. This comet is one of 4584 known comets, and is officially known as c/1940 R2. 


At first glance it does not appear a very important comet. However, this was the first comet to be studied in the infra-red band; and it was this study by Leland Cunningham that first proved the presence of Hydrogen in the gas emitted from a comet.


This new result dramatically changed our understanding of the solar system, because prior to this study it was only known that carbon monoxide, oxygen, nitrogen and sodium were present inside comets, and the presence of water was considered unlikely. In fact, though hydrogen had been noted in the vicinity of comets, prior to 1940 it was thought this hydrogen was not part of the comet.


In his eventful career Cunningham began his career as an assistant to Fred Lawrence Whipple, who alongside Leland developed the dirty snowball model for comets. Fred Whipple, while still a student became known for helping to plot the orbit of Pluto. It is therefore no major surprise that it was through his meetings with Whipple that Cunningham became interested in calculating the orbit of celestial orbits.


But because the calculations were tedious, he quickly decided that it would be easier to automate the process, and to employ computers to do the number crunching.


And this now takes us to the mystery. With this being the year 1940, the question we have to ask is what computers could Leland Cunningham have used? At this time commercial computers were a thing of science fiction.


 Looking through the literature for answers, it is known that the Z1, a binary mechanical computer, which used Boolean logic and punch cards, was developed just 4 years earlier, around the year 1936; but this computer was in Germany, and its existence was not widely known.


So it is intriguing that this Z1 computer was quickly followed by an American counterpart, the Harvard Mark 1, which first appeared in the mid 1940s. So, how do these two stories overlap.


When we dig just a little bit more deeper, we find that Howard Aiken the person in charge of the US computer was working at Harvard University, at the exact same time that Leland Cunningham was at Harvard, which is when he was trying to automate his calculation for the orbit of comets.


It is also recorded that, at Harvard University, Howard Aiken began working in the year 1937 on digital computation: apparently in direct response to the development of the Z1 computer. It is thus likely that Leland Cunningham, a competent mathematician, would have known about Aiken’s work, and was well aware of the most recent advances in computation science; and it thus appears to be no coincidence that Leland started to work on the automation of orbital analysis in 1940, the year after Aiken developed his first fully functional test computer; and in another overlap, just like Aiken, Leland Cunningham was also drafted into the US war effort. In the case of Leland he became part of the US computational team that studied the science of ballistics.


Unfortunately, with most of this era hidden by wartime activities, it is not known, or to be more accurate, it is not recorded if Cunningham directly helped Aiken in his development of the first Harvard computers.


The  reason why I think there is questions over Leland’s contribution, to the development of the first US computer, can be found in the book “Harmonies of Disorder” by Leone Montagnini, where the author mentions that there was a wartime 1942 meeting at Princeton, which was organized by Howard Aiken and Norbert Wiener on the theory of  “Cybernetics on a Large Scale”; a theory that included both digital and analog computing. Then, hidden quietly amongst the short list of participants (which included Walter H. Pitts, Warren S. McCuuloch, Rafael Lorente de No, Samuel S. Wilks, Earnest H Vestine, and W. Edward Deming) is our astronomer, Leland Cunningham, a person who should not have been there, unless he had played a major role in the development of the Harvard computer, prior to Howard working at IBM.

As mentioned previously Leland was employed by the US military to study ballistics, and intriguingly Norbert Wiener, many years prior to Leland Cunningham being called-up, had also once studied the science of ballistics. Norbert Wiener also previously worked at Harvard University.


The confusion surrounding who helped develop America’s first electronic computers is shrouded in wartime secrecy, and many gloss over Howard Aiken’s University years and go directly to his employment at IBM, perhaps assuming in error that Howard made no working prototypes while employed at Harvard.


For this reason, the history books assign the first programmers for the Harvard Mark I to Richard Miltion Bloch, Robert Campbell, and Grace Hopper, whose ideas in programming ultimately resulted in the COBOL computer language.


This, historical construct would, however, generate no possible pathway for Cunningham to become interested in computer science, and it would not explain Leland’s presence at a wartime meeting on computers.


The fact is, Howard Aiken began work on digital computers just one year after Konrad Zuse developed the Z1 computer in Germany; and as can be seen Norbert Wiener (a Harvard employee) was the only member in this small group who was fluent in speaking and reading German, and could easily translate the work of Konrad Zuse for the others to read. As a note, the original name of the Z1 computer was the V1, but after the war its name was changed, to avoid confusion with the more famous German rocket.


There is also the role Norbert Wiener played in his role as a member of the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars, which aided scientists fleeing Nazi Germany.


This would have given Norbert access to many sources of information, which would have been difficult to access for anyone based in a US research lab.


Unfortunately, no prior historian has looked at this story in more depth, and the possible role that Leland may have made in developing the world’s second digital computer may never be recovered.


Today all Leland is known for is his work in astronomy, and his role during World War II, where Leland joined the Ballistics Research Laboratory (BRL) at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Aberdeen, in Maryland, where he helped compile artillery firing tables and aircraft bombing tables using analog, and digital computers.


Leland Cunningham also attended the 1943 meeting that came together to lay the foundations for construction of ENIAC, one of the world’s first electronic programmable computers. Apparently, according to Wikipedia, the Initial plans for the machine “called for it to have a precision of 5 decimal digits, but Cunningham’s input compelled the inventors to design it with a precision of 10 decimal digits.”


Leland Cunningham also was present at IBM, where he was involved in calculating ballistic trajectories.


In the field of astronomy Leland Cunningham discovered four “minor planets” and, in 1976, in recognition of his contributions, a minor planet was named after him. The minor planet that bears is name is about 80 km in diameter, and was first discovered in 1935 by the Belgium astronomer Eugene Delporte.

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