Unit History: Admiralty Computing Service
The Admiralty Computing Service
In 1942 John Carroll, Professor of Natural Philosophy at Aberdeen became
Assistant Director of Scientific Research at the Admiralty’s Scientific Research and
Experiment Department (SRE). The role of SRE was to administer naval research
establishments and act as a means of communication and liaison between them. It also
had a role in keeping Admiralty establishments briefed on scientific developments
taking place outside the ministry. Before joining the Admiralty, Carroll had had a
keen interest in mathematical tables and desk machine computation and had consulted
Comrie about the purchase of machines for use by his students.
When Carroll joined the Admiralty SRE Department he soon became aware
that a significant amount of time was being spent by Admiralty experimental staff in
performing calculations. Many calculations were inseparable from their experimental
background and many were brief but Carroll was concerned about scientific effort
being wasted by staff performing long, repetitive calculations – particularly in cases
were specialized knowledge or machinery could achieve the same, or better, results
much more quickly.
Later the same year, 1942, John Todd, a pure mathematician but later to
become a well known Numerical Analyst at the US National Bureau of Standards and
at the California Institute of Technology, joined Carroll at the Admiralty SRE
Department. At the beginning of the war Todd had been assigned first to a degaussing
range and then to the Mine Department of HMS Vernon where he had been employed
doing minor calculations concerning electrical circuits. He late recalled
“ I realized that pure mathematicians, such as I, could be more useful in
dealing with computational matters and relieve those with applied training and
interests from what they considered as chores”15
As a result of Carroll and Todd’s feelings they asked Sadler to prepare a report
on the possibility of centralizing computing within the Admiralty16. The main points
given in Sadler’s report were
a) Some computation with Admiralty establishments could, with
advantage, be centralized.
b) Research and experiment work give rise to a proportion of work
unsuitable for centralization and there will always be a need for
some local computing facilities.
c) Centralization would speed up large calculations and make possible
complex calculations for theoretical research which were not
possible at the local level.
As a result in early 1943 the Admiralty Computing Service was created. It was
administered by John Todd in Whitehall through which all requests for computing
were to be fed. Todd would then decide whether to pass the investigation on to one of
a number of senior mathematicians that the Admiralty Computing Service employed
on a consultancy basis (such as N. Aronszajn, W.G. Bickley, L.J. Comrie, A. Erdelyi,
P.P. Ewald, J.C.P. Miller, E.H. Neville and S. Vajda) or send it to Sadler at the
Nautical Almanac Office which was to be main computing facility of the Service.
This official recognition that the Nautical Almanac Office was acting as a computing
centre meant that Sadler got extra computing staff, many of them university trained
mathematicians, to ease the computational burden. Those whom Sadler managed to
recruit to Admiralty Computing Service included Goodwin who had been a member
of the External Ballistics Department group at the Cambridge Mathematical
Laboratory, Leslie Fox who had been a student of Southwell’s at Oxford, and many
others including F. Olver, K. Blunt, and H.H. Robertson.
From 1943 to 1945 the Admiralty Computing Service performed a wide range
of jobs including an investigation into the theory of supersonic flow, some trajectory
work, work on stresses in turbines, and a statistical investigation into the night vision
capabilities of naval personnel. They also produced reports on many of the jobs they