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Neil Gorchow, Sperry executive who took part in early computer programming, dies at 95

Mr. Gorchow was in on some of the earliest computer projects in the nation. He realized, though, that the industry needed more women and more user-friendly software.

Neil Gorchow
Neil GorchowRead moreCourtesy of the Gorchow Family (Custom credit)

Neil Gorchow, 95, formerly of Rydal, a Sperry Univac executive who participated in programming some of the nation’s earliest computers and later helped create software used on the Gemini and Apollo space missions, died Saturday, Dec. 26, of heart failure at his home in Sarasota, Fla.

Born in Sioux City, Iowa, to Joe and Doris Shapiro Gorchow, he served in the Navy during World War II. In 1943, he was one of the first entrants in the Navy’s V-12 Program, a college course to train commissioned officers for the war.

He served as a lieutenant, junior grade aboard the destroyer USS Eugene A. Greene. Soon after being honorably discharged in July 1946, he received a congratulatory letter from Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal.

“You have served in the greatest Navy in the world,” Forrestal wrote. “It crushed two enemy fleets at once. For your part in these achievements, you deserve to be proud as long as you live. The Nation which you served at a time of crisis will remember you with gratitude.”

After the war, he earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Iowa. He returned to Sioux City to join his family’s coal distribution business. While there, he was chairman of the United Jewish Appeal and commander of the Jewish War Veterans of the United States.

In 1955, Mr. Gorchow married Roslyn Wein. They moved to St. Paul, Minn., where he began a 30-year career at Sperry Univac, joining as a software systems analyst in 1956 and advancing to director of software systems. He was based in Dayton, Ohio, and then Washington.

Early in his career, he helped to develop software for the U.S. Census. He and his colleagues created the 418 and 1100 series of mainframe computers and software programs for UNIVAC, the world’s first commercially produced electronic digital computer.

In July 1965, he became vice president of product strategy, working from Sperry Univac headquarters in Blue Bell. He lived with his family in Rydal.

Mr. Gorchow partnered with NASA once Sperry was chosen to develop the software used on the Gemini and Apollo programs. He met with Wernher von Braun, a leading figure in rocket and space technology, and knew the astronauts on both missions.

“He was invited to attend several launches, including the first night launch at Kennedy Space Center,” his family said in a statement.

During his career, J. Presper Eckert, of Gladwyne, codeveloper of the ENIAC, the first electronic digital computer, and software pioneer Grace Hopper reported to him.

He was a champion of women in the computer industry, known to recruit coders from the corporate secretarial pool. He also spoke at national conferences emphasizing the need for computer software to become more user-friendly.

In other applications of his skills, he took part in developing Disneyland and Disney World animation systems, based in tunnels beneath the featured attractions. He also created early software for the French National Railway Systems and Lufthansa Airlines.

Outside his profession, he was a member and president of Beth Shalom Congregation in Elkins Park. He had leadership roles with the affiliated Solomon Schechter Day School.

“One of his pleasures was attending the daily morning Minyan,” or prayer session, his family said.

Mr. Gorchow was a founding board member of the Hebrew Free Loan Society and often helped with granting loans. He also served on the advisory board of Temple University’s Graduate School of Business.

The Gorchows moved to Sarasota in 2008. They traveled widely.

He enjoyed golf through February 2020. “His greatest pleasure was playing with family members and his golfing buddies in Philadelphia and Sarasota,” the family said.

Besides his wife, he is survived by children Julie Beth Levine, Bruce David Gorchow, Jonathan Ross Gorchow, and Sheryl Lynn Gorchow-Stuart; and 14 grandchildren. A sister died earlier.

Funeral services were private.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Hebrew Free Loan Society of Greater Philadelphia, P.O. Box 298, Wynnewood, Pa. 19096, or Beth Shalom Congregation, 8231 Old York Rd., Elkins Park, Pa. 19027.