Eric Wolf, 85, an electrical engineer whose pioneering work with computers helped usher in the Internet, died April 18 of complications from brain cancer at the Washington Hebrew Home in Rockville. The longtime Falls Church resident was also a widely recognized authority on the history of cartography.
Mr. Wolf's initial work with computers, beginning in the early 1950s, involved tracking military airplanes; his technical challenge was to develop the coordinate system used to locate their position. The program he helped design, called Semi-Automatic Ground Environment, was meant to defend against attacks by manned bombers from the Soviet Union.
As Mr. Wolf explained in a family memoir, he had to determine how to coordinate several radar reports separated by many miles, which involved factoring in the curvature of the earth and its irregular surface.
"To convert this takes mathematical formulas that are very long," he recalled in the memoir. "We had to figure this out on a computer. Today this problem would be absolutely trivial. Back then it was not."
He was manager of Washington operations for the computer engineering firm Bolt Beranek and Newman Inc. when he helped develop the predecessor to the Internet. Known as the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, or ARPANET, its initial purpose was to allow defense researchers at four academic institutions across the country to communicate with each other quickly at a time when computers weren't linked up. The first ARPANET link was established Oct. 29, 1969.
Having worked for the Navy, Mr. Wolf was charged with presenting the engineering firm's findings to the Pentagon and detailing how ARPANET could help the military.
Mr. Wolf told family members in later years that he did not anticipate how ARPANET would evolve into the Internet. "We thought we would be trading databases between research institutions," he said.
Eric Walter Wolf was born Feb. 20, 1922, in Frankfurt, Germany, where his parents owned two dry goods stores and where he attended Philanthropin, a noted Jewish school. He also attended schools in Switzerland, Italy and France.
As a youngster, he saw Hitler campaigning by car and often heard him on the radio. The Wolf family managed to survive among the Nazis for a little while, perhaps because they were considered "foreign Jews," citizens of Yugoslavia. (Mr. Wolf's paternal grandfather had been born near Belgrade.) Although German police on at least one occasion protected the family businesses from rampaging National Socialist Party thugs, the Wolfs were acutely aware that they were in grave danger. They managed to escape in 1937. Mr. Wolf's mother died of cancer two months after arriving in the United States.
The family settled in New York, first in Manhattan and later in Brooklyn, near Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. (Mr. Wolf became a Dodgers fan.)
It wasn't long before the young Mr. Wolf was back in Germany, this time with the Army Signal Corps, attached to an armored unit. He served briefly as Gen. George Patton's interpreter and was in one of the early units to enter Buchenwald.
After the war, he used the GI Bill to get an undergraduate degree from City College of New York in 1949 and a master's degree from Ohio State University in 1952, both in electrical engineering.
Shy and modest to a fault, he met his wife-to-be during a visit to the Bronx Zoo. The young woman realized there was more to this introverted scientist and engineer than she initially thought when he happened to comment, "Elephants have kind eyes."
She told herself, "I'm going to marry this guy." She did, in 1949.
After a job working on aircraft systems at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, he joined Lincoln Laboratory, a federally funded research facility managed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He worked on the Whirlwind, the first computer capable of displaying real-time text and graphics on a video terminal.
He moved to the Washington area in 1965 to become technical director of the Naval Command Systems Support Activity. He also worked for the MITRE Corp.
As a consultant for the Navy, he was in Saigon in 1968 for a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new computer facility operated by the Pacific Command. The Tet Offensive erupted that day.
Mr. Wolf's work with math and maps over the years nurtured a lifelong interest in antiquarian maps and books. A founding member and former president of the Washington Map Society, he compiled an extensive collection of more than 6,000 items, the oldest dating from 1482. An exhibition of his collection, "From Plantagenet to Saxe-Coburg: Maps from the Fiat Lux Library," was shown at George Washington University's Gelman Library in 1995.
He also served as president of the Society for the History of Discoveries, was a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and published a number of articles and reviews on cartography.
A world traveler, he visited every continent, including Antarctica. He also was a passionate patron of classical music, opera and productions of Shakespeare.
Survivors include his wife of 57 years, Elicia "Lee" Wolf, formerly of Falls Church and now of Rockville; two sons, Lloyd Wolf of Arlington and Dean Wolf of Fairfax; and three granddaughters.
Griff Harrison sent 20 Apr 07
Not everyone will remember Eric Wolf as he was the NACOSSACT TD during the early days of the NAVCOMPARS - maybe even pre-NAVCOMPARS. Karl Calo replaced Eric as TD, as I remember.
Bruce Arnold and Bill Bryson probably know for sure.
When I joined BBN in 1984, Eric was one of the managers who had helped set-up the BBN Arlington office some years previously.
Tully Liddell sent 22 Apr 07
I'm so sorry to hear about Eric Wolf and I guess we will be hearing more of the same sad news in the coming years as we all get older.
While Eric, as TD of NAVCOSSACT, struck a good bit of fear in the top managers of our contractors and in-house personnel, I credit him with single-handedly raising the quality of our products for and in support of our customers because he really cared about our image (and demanded more).
He was an inpiration for others (including myself) to follow-up on two of his important concerns: organizing administrative correspondence (which led to that directive and others) and project documentation (which helped lead to documentation standards and examples).
He is also to be commended for his push for using higher (than assembly) level computer programming languages. But as determined as he was in that endeavor, he was fair about allowing exceptions. (We simply didn't have powerful enough computers and enough memory for things like numerical mapping functions in those days.)
In short, he was the strong leader we needed in the early days of our organization.
May these words help in some small way to bring comfort to his family.
Robert Wieder sent 22 Apr 07
Eric was the second TD at NAVCOSSACT following Bob Marshal.
I first knew him as director at the International Electric Corporation a subsidiary of IT&T where he was managing the development of Project 465L a major Air Force communications system.
I particularly remember him reading all written deliverables and editing them with a green pencil. For him grammar and punctuation was not less important than technical matters. I remember him with fondness.