Comrie, Leslie John

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Comrie, Leslie John

(b. Pukekohe, New Zealand, 15 August 1893; d. London, England, 11 December 1950),

astronomy, computation.

A second-generation New Zealander, Comrie had a distinguished academic career in Pukekohe and Auckland, where he specialized in chemistry. After serving with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in France, where he lost a leg, he revived an early interest in astronomy and entered St. John’s College, Cambridge, as a research student. There, and later, he successfully applied new computing techniques to the problems of spherical and positional astronomy. His main contribution was made in the years 1925–1936, when, after teaching astronomy for three years in the United States, at Swarthmore College and Northwestern University, he was deputy and, in 1930, superintendent of the Nautical Almanac. He completely revised the Almanac, which had been almost unchanged since 1834, and introduced into astronomy the concept of the standard equinox.

After a disagreement with the Admiralty, Comrie left astronomy to found the Scientific Computing Service. There he was free to develop further the techniques of and machines for computation and the calculation and presentation of mathematical tables. He laid a solid foundation for the computational revolution that was to follow the introduction of the electronic computer: he showed how to “program” commercial machines for scientific computation; developed impeccable interpolation techniques; produced mathematical tables of the highest standards of accuracy and presentation; and, in effect, created computational science. For this work he was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1950, only a few months before his death.

Comrie, with no claim to be a mathematician, had the clarity of mind, tenacity of purpose, scientific courage, and immense energy that enabled him, by using essentially simple and direct methods, to obtain practical solutions to many problems that defied theoretical analysis. But he was inclined to impatience with those who did not share his devotion to perfectionism, and this led to some difficult personal relationships.


I. Original Works. Among Comrie’s writings are “The Use of a Standard Equinox in Astronomy,” in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 86 (1926), 618–631; “Explanation,” in The Nautical Almanac and Astronomical Ephemeris for 1931 (London, 1929); “Interpolation and Allied Tables,” in The Nautical Almanac and Astronomical Ephemeris for 1937 (London, 1936); Barlow’s Tables of Squares, etc., of Integral Numbers up to 12,500 (London, 1947); and Chambers’s Six-figure Mathematical Tables (London, 1950).

II. Secondary Literature. Obituaries are W. M. H. Greaves, in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 113 (1953), 294–304; and H. S. W. Massey, in Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, 8 (1952), 97–107.

D. H. Sadler