Science: Figure-Killer

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When Louis J. Zerbee is not turning out garden and rumpus-room furniture in his Bellefontaine, Ohio factory, his thoughts rise far above such earthly pursuits. They soar to the stars. Seventeen years ago he went off on a vacation to his summer home at Indian Lake, where there was no telephone, and studied astronomy for relaxation. He didn't enjoy all the figuring, and when he lay on his back in the yard at night, and watched the stars sailing over Ohio, he felt sorry for seagoing navigators who must plot their ships' position by means of platoons of figures.

For 17 years, off & on, Mr. Zerbee dreamed about a gadget that would absorb simple observations of the stars and compute a ship's position without any figuring at all. The job was not simple; many men, including the ancient Greeks, had tried it and failed. But six years ago, Zerbee worked out a method that was good enough to impress a retired naval officer whom he met in Florida. Three years later Zerbee had completed a crude model that would find the position of his Estero Island cottage on the map with an error of only seven miles.

Last week Zerbee announced that the Navy had started buying an improved instrument, the Zerbee Celestial Fix Finder. A nightmare of gears and scales and dials, it looks something like the dream sweetheart of a mechanical monster. It has talent, however. When a navigator wants to find the position of his ship at night, he observes with a sextant the position of two stars. By setting dials and fiddling with scales, he feeds this information and a few other figures into the machine. Barring errors in observations, the machine tells him the position of the ship, accurate to one mile.

The Zerbee method, says Mr. Zerbee, is much quicker and simpler than the usual figuring with heavy books of tables. It is almost as fast as determining a ship's position by radio devices such as loran, which may be undependable in wartime with the enemy jamming the air.