J. Halcombe Laning


1920 –


Who is J. Halcombe Laning?

Dr. J. Halcombe "Hal" Laning, Jr. was a Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer pioneer who in 1952 invented an algebraic compiler called George that ran on the MIT Whirlwind, the first real-time computer. Laning designed George to be an easier to use alternative to assembly language for entering mathematical equations into a computer. The concepts he introduced with George were later incorporated into FORTRAN. He later became a key contributor to the 1960s race to the moon, with pioneering work on space-based guidance systems for the Apollo moon missions. From 1955 to 1980, he was deputy associate director of the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory.

In 1956 he published the book Random Processes in Automatic Control, with Richard Battin as a coauthor.

In collaboration with Phil Hankins and Charlie Werner of MIT, he initiated work on MAC, an algebraic programming language for the IBM 650, which was completed by early spring of 1958.

He later worked in the MIT Draper Lab, with Richard H. Battin, to develop a scheme for doing onboard navigation on the Apollo program's command/service module guidance system. He designed the Executive and Waitlist operating system for the LGC in the mid 1960s; he made it up from whole cloth with no examples to guide him, and the design is still valid today. The allocation of functions among a sensible number of asynchronous processes, under control of a rate and priority-driven preemptive executive, still represents the state of the art in real-time GN&C computers for spacecraft. His design saved the Apollo 11 landing mission when the rendezvous radar interface program began using more register core sets and "Vector Accumulator" areas than were physically available in memory, causing the infamous 1201 and 1202 errors. Had it not been for Laning's design the landing would have been aborted for lack of a stable guidance computer.

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Feb 14, 1920
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology

on July 23, 2013


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