Joseph Chapline died last month (Aug 2011) at the ripe age of 91. He was charming and brilliant character. I would get to talk to him when he visited my parents in the 1970’s. I was delighted by his funny stories and his vast knowledge of pipe organs and a thousand other subjects. (In particular he knew more about musical tuning and scales than anyone I had ever met.) Joe loved to talk and had a gift for words. He was one of those guests who would still be standing at the front door after a half hour of trying to leave. And you liked it. He was famous for his anecdotes.
Joe Chapline has a special place in computer history. Joe made an introduction that led to something big. He is the one who said to Herman Goldstine “You should talk to John Mauchly.” Goldstine, of course, was desperate to find a way to speed computations, even if it cost money. Mauchly was desperate to find a way to move forward in building a high-speed electronic computing machine. A match made in heaven – well, actually, made in the basement of the Moore School, where Joe Chapline worked keeping the Differential Analyzer running.
Besides that piece of serendipity, Joe was a pioneer in his own right. Eckert and Mauchly plucked him away from the Moore School and made him the technical writer for their new company. One of Joe’s stories is about how the writing of the BINAC manual came to him in a flash – fully formed. The story is recounted in this tribute to his work from the IEEE: Joseph D. Chapline: Technical Communication’s Mozart.
Here’s one of Joe’s stories, told at the dedication of EMCC building on Ridge Ave.
“When I worked for Eckert, I wrote his scientific papers that he later delivered typically to the Institute of Radio Engineers (IRE), later renamed the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE). One such paper was on some aspect of memory systems. He told me one October that he was to give the paper the next March in New York. My habit was to write a draft reasonably promptly after he first mentioned the paper. In this instance I prepared a text and left it in his office. He passed me in the hallway at one point and said he would like to the talk over what I had written. Being procrastinators–both of us, we passed each other many times with good intentions of getting together. But that meeting didn’t occur until Sunday night before his trip toNew York with the delivery on Monday morning. So we met at the lab about 8 PM Sunday night. He picked this one part he didn’t like and explained it to me again. I went and rewrote and handed him the new copy. He was unsatisfied, so we repeated the process several more times. It got to be 4 AM and Pres felt he should start for New York. As he left he thanked for all my patience and effort, and then asked, “You know why we had so much trouble, don’t you?” I said no, why? “Well,” said Eckert, “I didn’t know how the damned thing worked myself, but I was hoping I could get you to write something that would sound as if I did.”