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Leslie Comrie

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Leslie John Comrie (15 August 189311 December 1950) was an astronomer and a pioneer in mechanical computation.

He was born in Pukekohe (south of Auckland), New Zealand, in 1893. During World War I he saw action in France with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force and lost a leg in fighting. While convalescing he started using a mechanical calculator and went on to modifying commercial calculators for specific projects.

He was the first director (1920-1922) of the Computing Section of the British Astronomical Association, resigning to go to teach at Swarthmore College and Northwestern University in the USA where he pioneered the teaching of numerical analysis. He returned to England to join HM Nautical Almanac Office at the Royal Greenwich Observatory in 1926.

In April 1928 his article On the Construction of Tables by Interpolation described the use of punch card equipment for interpolating tables of data, comparing this with the less efficient and more error-prone methods using mechanical calculators. Also in 1928, he was the first to use punch card equipment for scientific calculations, using Fourier synthesis to compute the principal terms in the motion of the Moon for 1935 to 2000.

He was Superintendent of HM Nautical Almanac Office from 1930 to 1936.

He founded the world's first computer bureau in 1938. During World War II he headed a team of 30 scientists to computerise war work, (e.g., bombing tables for the USAF). Later he computerised British football pools.

Comrie was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London shortly before his death. A lunar crater (23.3N 112.7W) and an asteroid bear his name, as does the computer lab at his alma mater, the University of Auckland.

He is also remembered for his work in astronomy. He died aged 57 in 1950 after a series of strokes.

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