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Howard Aiken

AKA Howard Hathaway Aiken

Born: 8-Mar-1900
Birthplace: Hoboken, NJ
Died: 14-Mar-1973
Location of death: St. Louis, MO
Cause of death: Natural Causes

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Physicist, Inventor, Computer Programmer

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Designer of early computers

Military service: US Navy (1942-46); US Navy Reserve (to Commander)

Computer pioneer Howard Aiken was trained as an electrical engineer at the University of Wisconsin, and as a young man he spent several years in the power generation and transmission industry. He eventually returned to school at the University of Chicago, which he later described as "a lousy institution", and after just two semesters at Chicago he transferred to Harvard. There, working toward his PhD in Physics, he grew weary of the required mathematical calculations — advanced differential equations which could only be solved with virtually endless hours of headache-inducing slide-rule work. In 1937, inspired by the century-old writings of Charles Babbage, he wrote a 22-page paper proposing that such purely numerical exercises could be mechanized.

Aiken met with executives at the Monroe Calculator Company, a leading maker of "noiseless" mechanical calculating machines, but his pitch was politely rebuffed. He then made a similar proposal to a rival firm, International Business Machines, a maker of punch cards, card sorters, and other industrial accounting devices. Aiken's plan was personally approved for funding by IBM's CEO, Thomas J. Watson, with the cost-saving stipulation that the project primarily use mechanical parts that the firm already made.

Working with IBM's technicians at its Endicott, New York laboratory, Aiken spent seven years designing and constructing the Mark I computer, which was successfully tested in 1943. Known formally as the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (ASCC), it was never mass-produced, but it was an important breakthrough in mechanical and electrical technology. More than fifty feet wide, with some 700,000 mechanical parts, 1,200 ball bearings, and 530 miles of wiring, the Mark I weighed 35 tons, could store six dozen numbers, and it had cost IBM upwards of half a million dollars. It was the world’s first program-controlled calculator, and arguably the first modern computer.

With no industrial market for such a machine, the Mark I was used as publicity for IBM, and when the media grew disinterested it was shipped to Harvard and installed there in 1944. At Harvard the machine was used virtually 24 hours every day for the next fifteen years, for some of the most advanced scientific projects of the era.

Aiken's next project, the Mark II computer, was funded by the US Navy, completed in 1947, employed an electrical memory, and was capable of making calculations several times faster than the Mark I. His Mark III or Aiken Dahlgren Electronic Calculator (ADEC), completed in 1949 at the Navy's Dahlgren Proving Ground in Virginia, was the first large-scale practical computer to use magnetic drums for data storage, allowing internal data storage and retrieval from an address stored in the computer's register. Aiken's almost-all-electronic Mark IV was completed in 1952 with funding from the US Air Force, and was the first computer to segregate the storage of software and data, a concept now known in computer parlance as the Harvard architecture. In addition to his contributions to early computer technology, Aiken established the first collegiate-level computer science classes when he taught at Harvard and the University of Miami.

Father: Daniel Aiken
Mother: Margaret Emily Mierisch Aiken
Wife: Louise (m. 1939, div. 1942)
Daughter: Rachael
Wife: Agnes Montgomery (Latin teacher, "Monty", m. 1942)

    High School: Arsenal Technical High School, Indianapolis, IN (1919)
    University: BS Electrical Engineering, University of Wisconsin at Madison (1923)
    University: University of Chicago (attended, 1932-33)
    University: MS Physics, Harvard University (1936)
    University: PhD Physics, Harvard University (1939)
    Teacher: Physics and Communication Engineering, Harvard University (1939-42)
    Professor: Applied Mathematics, Harvard University (1946-61)
    Administrator: Harvard Computation Laboratory, Harvard University (1947-61)
    Professor: Information, University of Miami Florida (1961-73)

    IBM Computer Engineer (1937-43)
    Line Material Co. District Manager (1931-32)
    Westinghouse Engineer (1927-31)
    Madison Gas & Electric Chief Engineer (1923-27)
    Madison Gas & Electric Engineer (1919-23)
    Indianapolis Power & Light Electrician's Helper (1914-19)
    Lockheed Consultant
    Monsanto Consultant
    ACM Harry Goode Memorial Award 1964
    John Price Wetherill Medal 1964
    IEEE Edison Medal 1970
    American Association for the Advancement of Science
    IEEE
    Institute of Radio Engineers
    National Research Council
    Sigma Xi Scientific Research Society
    German Ancestry

Author of books:
Description of A Magnetic Drum Calculator (1952)


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