COMRIE LECTURE 2000

by Garry Tee

Members of the TIME 2000 Conference are invited to attend the Comrie Lecture 2000 at 4pm on Monday December 11, the 50th anniversary of the death of Leslie John Comrie. That lecture will be given in Science Lecture Theatre 1 (SLT1) by Garry Tee (University of Auckland) as part of the conference on Algebraic and Topological Methods in Graph Theory, In Memory of Dr Margaret Morton (1944-2000), which also starts on December 11. Following that lecture, with some relatives of Comrie attending, a bronze plaque will be unveiled in the Department of Mathematics Computing Laboratory, naming it as the Comrie Computing Laboratory.

Leslie John Comrie, one of the most distinguished graduates of Auckland University College and one of New Zealand's major mathematicians, was born at Pukekohe on 1893 August 15, and he died in London on 1950 December 11. Throughout the second quarter of this century, scientists worldwide acknowledged Comrie as the leader in scientific computing.

Comrie studied at Pukekohe High School and Auckland Grammar School, and from 1912 to 1916 he studied at Auckland University College, graduating as M.A. (University of New Zealand) with Honours in Chemistry. As an undergraduate he founded the Auckland University College Astronomical Society, now called the Comrie Astronomical Society, which sponsors the annual Comrie Lecture. Despite severe deafness he insisted upon joining the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, and he was severely wounded in France. He then studied at University College London and Cambridge University, and from 1923 to 1925 he pioneered the teaching of numerical analysis in the USA, at Swarthmore College and at Northwestern University.

On 1924 December 31 at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington D.C; Comrie gave a detailed survey of mathematical tables and calculating machines used in astronomical computation. He concluded that multiplication and division could then be done with calculating machines more conveniently than with logarithm tables, and he announced his intention to abolish logarithms for calculation. In 1948, on his only return visit to New Zealand, he explained with justifiable pride that he had succeeded, since serious scientific computing no longer used logarithms.

At the Nautical Almanac Office at Greenwich from 1925 to 1936, Comrie invented the first computing laboratory, and he revolutioned the computation of the Nautical Almanac by calculating machines. In 1938 he founded in London the Scientific Computing Sevice. That was the first computing consultancy firm, and it had immense influence upon the development of computing. He employed many women as professional computers, teaching them how to use a wide range of calculating machines to perform various types of scientific computation. The many mathematical tables published by Comrie were acclaimed as the finest tables ever produced.

In 1946, Harvard University Press published a book about their large calculating machine (the Harvard Mark 1). Comrie's review, entitled "Babbage's Dream Comes True", revived the fame of Charles Babbage (1791-1871) as inventor of the computer.

Leslie John Comrie was elected F.R.S. in March 1950, and he died in his sleep at the age of 57 on 1950 December 11.