Aiken, Howard Hathaway (1900-1973) American Computer Engineer (Scientist)

Howard Aiken helped usher in the computer age by inventing the Harvard Mark I and Mark II, the precursors to modern digital computers. The New York Times hailed the significance of his invention: "At the dictation of a mathematician, it will solve in a matter of hours equations never before solved because of their intricacy and the enormous time and personnel which would be required to work them out on ordinary office calculators." Aiken himself did not fully comprehend the potential of his invention, estimating in 1947 that only "six electronic digital computers would be required to satisfy the computing needs of the entire United States."

Howard Hathaway Aiken was born on March 9, 1900, in Hoboken, New Jersey. Soon after his birth, though, his family moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, where he attended Arsenal Technical High School. While studying electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin, he worked for the Madison Gas and Electric Company. After earning his bachelor’s degree in 1923, the company promoted him to chief engineer.

In 1927, Aiken moved to Chicago to work for Westinghouse Electric Manufacturing Company. Four years later, he took up a research position in the physics department at the University of Chicago. He conducted doctoral study there and at Harvard University, focusing his dissertation on a theory of space-charge conduction in vacuum tubes. This topic required calculations that would have taken him a lifetime to complete, so in 1937 he proposed the design and construction of a calculating machine. "The desire to economize time and mental effort in arithmetical computations, and to eliminate human liability to error is probably as old as the science of arithmetic itself," he wrote, jovially adding that the computer was "only a lazy man’s idea."

Harvard physics department chair Frederick Saunders pointed out that lab technician Carmelo Lanza had already worked on such a machine, stored in the Science Center attic: a set of brass wheels from charles babbage’s analytical engine. The prospect of completing Babbage’s unfinished task (the existing nineteenth-century technology could not actualize his design) inspired Aiken, who kept the wheels in his office thereafter: "There’s my education in computers, right there," he would say of them.

Aiken sought to build a machine that answered the multiple demands of scientists and mathematicians: ". . .whereas accounting machines handle only positive numbers, scientific machines must be able to handle negative ones as well; that scientific machines must be able to handle such functions as logarithms, sines, cosines and a whole lot of other functions; the computer would be most useful for scientists if, once it was set in motion, it would work through the problem frequently for numerous numerical values without intervention until the calculation was finished; and that the machine should compute lines instead of columns, which is more in keeping with the sequence of mathematical events."

Harvard granted Aiken his Ph.D. in 1939, appointing him an instructor in physics and communication engineering. That year, the Navy Board of Ordnance contracted Harvard to conduct research in preparation for World War II. At the same time, Aiken was searching for financial support from the private sector—he first appealed to the Monroe Calculating Machine Company, which declined but referred him to International Business Machines (IBM) president Thomas J. Watson, who promised support of $200,000.

IBM engineer Robert V. D. Campbell supervised construction of the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (ASCC), as the computer was first called, at the Endicott, New York, IBM plant. Measuring 51 feet long, two feet wide, and eight feet high, it weighed more than 30 tons, with its 530 miles of wires and 760,000 moving parts—including 2,200 counter wheels and 3,300 relay components. Operators fed information in by tape or punch card, with output returning on punch cards or by electronic typewriter. It sounded like a "roomful of ladies knitting" when running.

The computer could manipulate positive and negative numbers to 23 decimal places, adding them in three-tenths of a second and multiplying in four seconds; it could also subtract, divide, and store tabulations in its 72 storage registers. grace murray hopper, who collaborated with Aiken to develop these library functions and later invented the COBOL computer language, discovered the first computer "bug"—a moth squished by a relay switch.

The computer went into operation in May 1944. In accordance with the original agreement, IBM donated the computer to Harvard, which dedicated it on August 14, 1944, earning it its lasting name—the Harvard Mark I, which remained functional for the next 14 years and now resides (in sections) in the Harvard Science Center lobby, at the Smithsonian’s

National Museum of History and Technology, and in the IBM historical collection. After finishing the Mark I, Aiken continued to advance his design; the Navy posted him at the Naval Proving Ground at Dahlgren, Virginia, where he finished the Mark II in 1947. Whereas the Mark I combined electronic with mechanical workings, the Mark II was fully electronic. Run by 13,000 electronic relays, the Mark II could add in two-tenths of a second and multiply in seven-tenths of a second, storing up to 100 ten-digit figures and signs.

By 1952, Aiken had designed and built Marks III and IV. In recognition of his work, the U.S. Navy promoted him to the rank of commander in its research department, and Harvard promoted him to a full professorship in applied mathematics. He also founded Harvard’s computer science program, one of the first of its kind. He retired from Harvard in 1961, moving to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to take up a professorship in information technology at the University of Miami.

In 1964, Aiken received the Harry M. Goode Memorial Award from the Computer Society. He died on March 14, 1973, in St. Louis, Missouri, before the personal computer revolution brought the digital computers that he invented into households worldwide.

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