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Chaim Leib Pekeris

Biographical Memoir

Chaim Leib Pekeris 1908 – 1993

Freeman Gilbert
University of California San Diego

Chaim Leib Pekeris was born in Alytus A, Lithuania on June 15, 1908. His father, Samuel, owned and operated a bakery. His mother, Haaya (née Rievel) was an intellectual lady and propelled Pekeris to excel. The family home was located at 4 Murkiness Street, near the corner with Ozapavitz Street. His older brother died at birth, a very sad event that led his parents to select the name Chaim, meaning Life in Hebrew, for their second son. They added Leib, meaning Life in Yiddish, for good measure. He was followed by four siblings, Rashka (Rachael), Jacob, Zavkeh (Arthur) and Typkeh (Toyah). The family name, Pekeris, is derived from the earlier name, Peker. Lithuanian authorities required the suffix, -as or –is, be added to the original name.

At a very early age Chaim exhibited his brilliance. By the age of 16 he was teaching mathematics at his high school and coaching 14-year old boys how to prepare for the Bar Mitzvah. He was strongly encouraged to become a Talmudic scholar and a Rabbi but both he and his parents refused. By great good fortune one of Chaim’s uncles, Max Baker, had emigrated from Lithuania to the United States and had settled in Springfield, Massachusetts. He was successful in the furniture business and was able to help Chaim and his two brothers to come to the United States for their continuing education. In addition, the prominent New England merchant and philanthropist, Edward Max Chase, came to the assistance of the Pekeris brothers. He, too, was an immigrant from Lithuania. He provided the young men with immigration affidavits, helped them find employment and paid some of the tuition expenses.
The two brothers, and Chaim, too, became US citizens. Jacob, the older of the two younger brothers, became a teacher and spent the rest of his life in New England. He died at the young age of 31. Arthur became a specialist in agricultural products and settled in Denver, Colorado. Rachael, the older of the two sisters, became a Zionist and went to Israel (then Palestine) in 1935. Toyah, the younger of the two sisters was murdered by anti-semitic townspeople in Alytus A, as were the parents, during the Holocaust. Furthermore, the family home was destroyed sometime in World War II (WWII).
Pekeris, as he was called by all but his most intimate friends, entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1925. At first he majored in mathematics but changed to meteorology and graduated with the BSc degree in 1929. At that time meteorology was just being established at MIT and was a program administered within the Department of Aeronautical Engineering in the School of Engineering. Pekeris stayed at MIT for his graduate studies and became a student of Carl-Gustav Rossby. He graduated with his doctoral degree in 1933. It was the custom at MIT before WWII that doctoral graduates in the School of Science received the PhD degree and those in the School of Engineering received the ScD degree; thus, Pekeris received his ScD. The title of his ScD thesis is: The Development and Present Status of the Theory of the Heat Balance in the Atmosphere. It was not published but it was circulated in the form of informal class notes (MIT Meteorology Course No. 5, 1932).  Read more (Pdf version)

Bibliography of C. L. Pekeris

The First Chaim Leib Pekeris Memorial Lecture:

Sir James Lighthill, Ocean Tides from Newton to Pekeris, Jerusalem: The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1995. (c) The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

The Weizac

The history

This is a birth of the State of Israel story, and with it, the birth of the computer, and computer technology. It sounds more like a fairy tale or at the very least, a stretch of the imagination. But when you think about it, this country ­ and this Institute ­ are based on an almost embarrassing wealth of the latter.

It all began just after the War of Independence. The country was literally being built beneath the feet of a country lacking in just about everything. Israel needed housing. It needed roads and an infrastructure. It also needed to absorb a flood of hundreds of thousands of immigrants. What it lacked in the material it made up for in a vision, the Zionist vision.
At the helm was Dr. Chaim Weizmann, the first President of the State and forward-thinking head of the Weizmann Institute. Fortunately, his personal Zionist drive was inclusive of the sciences. While Israel was struggling to establish something as basic as food production, Weizmann had the foresight ­ some would say audacity ­ to engage $50,000, or one-fifth of the Institute's budget, to build a computer. Why the urgency? To unravel the mysteries of theoretical physics, of course.
First imperative: Bring together the world's most brilliant Jewish minds to design the computer. Second: Find the parts to build it. Third: Be patient, because it's going to take a long, long time.
"Today, people talk about a computer for every child in the classroom," says Gerald Estrin, one of those brilliant minds. A former head of the Computer Science Department at UCLA, Estrin (Ph.D., Electrical Engineering, University of Wisconsin), was in Israel for a conference on the subject. "Say 'computer' and people think of Bill Gates. Things were different then." Indeed.

The story begins at Princeton University in the mid-1940s. The Applied Mathematics Department included Albert Einstein and other leading physicists of that era. Among them were two famed professors. One was John von Neumann, considered by many as the inventor and builder of the first electronic computer as we know it today. The other was Chaim Pekeris, a Lithuanian Jew, whose domain was computational methods for solving physical problems, and who was one of the first serious users of computers for scientific calculations.
In case you ever wondered what Einstein thought about computers, the answer is: not much. Einstein raised a skeptical brow; computers were in their experimental stage and very expensive, he argued. In the end, Einstein, who also sat on the advisory committee of the Institute, was finally persuaded to give a seal of approval to Pekeris' bold proposal to build an electronic computer at the Weizmann Institute, akin to the von Neumann machine.

In 1945, Pekeris (Ph.D., Theoretical Geophysics, MIT), was asked by the Weizmann Institute to establish a Department of Applied Mathematics. Pekeris' one condition: the building of a computer at the Institute, similar to the one he'd worked on at Princeton. Pekeris approached two colleagues from Princeton, Estrin and Ephraim Frei, an Israeli physicist. Would they be willing to join the group in Israel?
Estrin and his wife, Thelma, also an electrical engineer, came on board, literally. They arrived on a ship carrying immigrants from North Africa. Their daughter Judy, born at the Institute, is now a famous executive in the computer industry.
Estrin recalls that after meeting with leading Israeli scientists at Weizmann, "My impression was that except for Pekeris, they thought it ridiculous to build a computer in Israel. And we soon learned that I was not to 'help' the project but, rather, to take charge and be its director."
And where do you put the director of an important project that will later revolutionize the world? In three rooms of the basement of the Ziskind Building.

Pekeris was joined by Micha Kedem, an Israeli electrical engineer (who later joined IBM Israel). Together they roamed the streets of Tel Aviv in search of the parts needed to construct a tube tester. Sometimes the duo improvised. When their work required precision machinery, there was always the shop which produced fans and bicycle parts, owned by recent immigrants from Bulgaria.
Next on base was Zvi Riesel, who'd been in charge of the Israel Defense Forces radar workshop. How did he hear about the Weizmann job? "I saw an advertisement in the newspaper saying the Institute is looking for people to build an electronic computer."
A herd of young mathematicians-cum-olim were next. Phillip Rabinowitz, who'd worked on the Whirlwind Computer project, and who went on to the U.S. National Bureau of Standards, began by giving courses on programming at Weizmann. His students would eventually become Israel's first crop of computer experts.
Another new immigrant was Hans Jarosch. Jarosch (Ph.D., Aeronautical Engineering, Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London), had just finished three years in the Israel Air Force. He was assigned the writing of application programs.
As the computer was nearing completion, Estrin and his wife returned to the U.S. Shortly after their departure, WEIZAC performed its first calculation, in October 1955. By early 1958, WEIZAC was put into full operation. In 1963, the Estrins came back for a brief visit to Israel, to attend a retirement and a birth. WEIZAC was being put out to pasture as a new generation of computer, the GOLEM, was about to be launched.
Estrin recalls: "Remarkable changes in Israel were evident. New roads, new buildings, new people, new problems. Before the start of the WEIZAC project there were no digital electronic computers in Israel. No electronic digital engineers. No programmers and no support personnel.
"The WEIZAC people succeeded in creating the technological know-how necessary for Israel to play a strong role in the information revolution."

    (From Interface, Spring/Summer 1998, "The Weizac Days")

Some photographs

Engineering group and leaders of the WEIZAC project at the Institute for Advanced Study (photo)
Members of the WEIZAC engineering group with the completed machine in the background (photo)
Dedication of the Benjamin Abrams Electronic Laboratory (photo)
Plant which made fans and bicycle parts, owned by two Bulgarian immigrants (photo)
Punch which was used to make multilayer power distribution systems and chassis parts (photo)
First chassis tests and discussion of functionality (photo)
3-D view of chassis (photo)
Constructing and checking the WEIZAC (photo)
Testing filament voltages (photo)
Checking the home-made drum (photo)
Installation of the Telemeter Magnetic Ferrite Core Memory (photo)
The console of the WEIZAC (photo)
Central processing unit of the WEIZAC (photo)
Inside the WEIZAC (photo)
2000 heated triodes in the WEIZAC (photo)
Chaim Pekeris and colleagues discussing model of ocean tides (photo)
Left to right: Micha Kedem, Amos De-Shalit, David Ben-Gurion (photo)

WEIZAC as an (IEEE) Milestone in the History of Electrical Engineering and Computing

"We have gathered here today to bring you — the true pioneers of the computing industry in Israel — our appreciation and gratitude for your courage and vision all those years ago, that has led not only Israel, but the whole world, to where we are today."

Prof. Michael R. Lightner, President and Chief Executive Officer of IEEE, 2006

Invitation to the ceremony