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History of our department

In Spring of 2011 Prof. Carlos F. Borges gave a seminar on the long history of the department. You can view it here.

The Department of Applied Mathematics has the longest history of any department at the Naval Postgraduate School and traces its origins to the appointment of Ensign Guy K. Calhoun as Professor of Mathematics in 1910. He would later become the first faculty member assigned to the Postgraduate Department that was created at Annapolis in 1912 to function as a preparatory school whose students would complete their graduate studies at a civilian institution after a year of study at Annapolis. The department was headed by a single officer with a small office staff and the assistance of a single civilian engineer. At its inception, the department had no regular faculty but relied on the cooperation of civilian institutions as well as regular faculty from the academic departments at USNA. Prof. Ralph E. Root, who had originally joined the faculty in the Mathematics Department at Annapolis in 1913, quickly became involved in the fledgling Postgraduate Department, and in 1914 he became the first civilian faculty member of the new department when he was appointed as its Professor of Mathematics and Mechanics. He had earned his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1911 under the direction of the illustrious Prof. E.H. Moore whose list of doctoral students includes such notables as George Birkhoff, Leonard Dickson, Theophil Hildebrandt, R.L. Moore, and Oswald Veblen. Indeed, Root’s dissertation work was so fundamental to the early development of the concept of ‘neighborhood’ that it encompasses an entire section in Aull and Lowen’s Handbook of the History of General Topology.

By 1931 the Postgraduate Department had evolved into a Postgraduate School that had sixteen faculty – five in Mathematics and Mechanics (C.C. Bramble, W.R. Church, W.M. Coates, C.H. Rawlins, and R.E. Root), three in Mechanical Engineering, three in Electrical Engineering, two in Metallurgy and Chemistry, one in Physics, one in Radio, and one in Modern Languages.

In 1946 Captain Herman A. Spanagel (appointed Head of the Postgraduate School in April, 1944) instituted a major reorganization of the school that created, for the first time, traditional academic departments. The Department of Mathematics and Mechanics was one of the seven original academic departments created in this reorganization, and Prof. W.R. Church was appointed as chairman. Professor Church, who had spent the war years on active duty in the Navy, was a keen student of new developments in applied mathematics.  The applications of statistics to strategy in anti-submarine warfare had led to many other applications in the analysis of naval operations.  As this new area of science continued to grow after the end of the war, Professor Church and the Department of Mathematics and Mechanics were leaders in the development of the new curriculum in operations analysis, which began in 1951-52.  Professors Torrance from Mathematics and Cunningham from Physics taught the initial courses in this discipline.  They were soon assisted by Professor Tom Oberbeck, who joined the Mathematics faculty in 1951.  After a period of growth and development, during which several statisticians were added to the faculty to handle the gradual shift in emphasis from physical science to statistical analysis as the curriculum adjusted to the needs of the Navy, the School created the Department of Operations Research with Oberbeck as Chairman in 1962. He was succeeded, three years later, by Jack Borsting, who was also from the Department of Mathematics and Mechanics.

In 1966, the separation of Operations Research from Mathematics was completed with the transfer of statistics to the Department of Operations Research along with five of the professors who covered this subject.  At this time the offspring to which Mathematics had given birth had nineteen professors and was still growing. This is the same year that the Department of Mathematics and Mechanics changed its name to the Department of Mathematics and R.E. Gaskell took over as chairman following twenty years of impeccable leadership by W.R. Church.

Professor Church was also keenly interested in the development of the computer world, started in the war years by the Harvard Mark I and by the University of Pennsylvania Moore School Computer. Indeed, the Department of Mathematics and Mechanics had already played a pivotal role in the history of computing by that point, as it was our own Prof. C.C. Bramble who had recommended the development of the Harvard Mark II for the Naval Proving Ground at Dahlgren. Howard Aiken, computer pioneer and developer of the Mark II, recalls it this way in an interview in February, 1973:

“Mark II was built for the Naval Proving Ground at Dahlgren on the recommendation of Professor Clinton Bramble of the United States Naval Academy, who was a mathematician and who was on duty as a Naval Officer. And Bramble was able to foresee that they had to quit this hand stuff in the making of range tables. That's why we built the computer. And Albert Worthheimer found the money for it and signed the contract.

In November of 1944, the Bureau of Ordnance requested the Computation Laboratory, then operating as a naval activity, undertake the design and construction of an automatic digital calculator for installation at the Naval Proving Ground."

It is interesting to note the Prof. Bramble’s first contacts with Dahlgren were in 1924. He notes in a January 1977 interview that:

“In those days, there was no bridge across the Potomac. I used to call up, and they'd send a boat over to Morgantown, Maryland, for me. When I came down, it was just for general interest in ordnance problems while I was teaching ordnance courses at the Naval Postgraduate School. The courses included ballistics and gun design, both exterior and interior ballistics.

Naturally I was interested in the current problems in those areas, so periodically I would get in touch with Dr. Thompson, who was at that time the Senior Scientist at Dahlgren. It was a very informal contact, but that was my way of maintaining a live interest in current ordnance problems and the research that was going on. I also did the same sort of thing with the Army Proving Ground at Aberdeen.

When the national emergency [World War II] came on and the decision was made to move the ballistics work out of Washington from the Bureau of Ordnance to Dahlgren, the Postgraduate School was requested to transfer me to Dahlgren, but the Head of the Postgraduate School wouldn't agree, so they compromised by sending me to Dahlgren 4 days a week. That was the beginning of the ballistic work and the beginning of the Computation Laboratory because, at that time, there were only two mathematicians employed at Dahlgren. They were at about a GS-7 or GS-9 level. That was back about 1942, and there were also a couple of women at the GS-5 level.”

Although he split his time between the Postgraduate School and Dahlgren for several years at that point, Prof. Bramble eventually moved to Dahlgren full-time in 1947 when he was appointed Head of the Computation and Ballistics Department. In 1951 he was selected as Dahlgren’s first Director of Research, a position he held until his retirement in January 1954.

Although Professor W. E. Bleick, 1946, and B. J. Lockhart, 1948, had also been involved with these computer developments before coming to the Department of Mathematics, it was Professor Church who led the movement to obtain the first electronic automatic digital computer. And so it was that in 1953, an NCR 102A, was hoisted by a crane through a second floor window in Root Hall and installed in the Mathematics Department. This precursor machine, as well as the development of its use in instruction and research, resulted in the acquisition in 1960 of the world’s first all solid-state computer – the CDC 1604 Model 1, Serial No. 1 – which was designed, built, and personally certified in the lobby of Spanagel Hall by the legendary Seymour Cray. This was the first of ten such machines, ordered by the Navy’s Bureau of Ships for its Operational Control Centers. The installation of the CDC 1604 coincided with the formation of the School’s Computer Center, now named in honor of Professor Church.

Computer courses quickly became standard in almost every curriculum in the School, and the use of the computer in research work increased rapidly at the School.  However, it was not until 1967 that the school established the Computer Science courses and began adding faculty in this area to the Department of Mathematics.  Two years later, Gary Kildall joined the department as an instructor of mathematics to fulfill his draft obligation to the US Navy. His pioneering work during his years as part of the department fundamentally changed the nature of computing, particularly his creation of PL/M (the first high-level language developed for microprocessors) and CP/M (the first operating system for microcomputers).

Eventually, the existence of a group of computing specialists within the Department of Mathematics and their interaction with faculty in other departments (chiefly electrical engineering) who worked with computers led to formation of the Computer Science Group in 1973; however, the professors involved maintained their status in the Department of Mathematics until 1976 when the Department of Computer Science was formed.  At that time, five faculty members moved from Mathematics to the new department.

Thus, in about thirty years, the Department of Mathematics had seen two sub-disciplines emerge and develop into thriving departments, each with its own cadre of graduate students, student thesis effort, and sponsored research.

Following the separation of Computer Science from Mathematics, the department saw a ten year period where it was functioning once again almost exclusively as a service department.  The Mathematics curriculum (380), which had been established in 1956, was officially disestablished in 1976. The department maintained its degree granting authority, but without an official curriculum, only a handful of students received the MS in Mathematics between 1976 and 1987; most of these were dual majors with Operations Research.

The 380 curriculum was reestablished in 1987, and this initiated a period of growth in the department. More than half of the current faculty were recruited in the seven year period following the reestablishment of the curriculum. Throughout the 1990s, the department graduated an average of roughly six students per year with a steady mix of inputs from the Navy, Army, and Marine Corps.

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