Howard H. Aiken and the Harvard Mark I

Mark I Computer - Left Segment

Aiken’s Harvard Mark I computer – Left Segment

On March 9, 1900, computer pioneer Howard Hathaway Aiken was born. He was the original conceptual designer behind IBM’s Harvard Mark I computer, forerunner of the modern electronic digital computer.

Howard H. Aiken studied at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He earned his PhD in physics at Harvard University in 1939. During his studies, Aiken is supposed to have encountered differential equations only to be solved numerically. It is assumed that he envisioned an electro-mechanical computing device that could help him with his work.

Aiken was supported by Harvard University for his ideas. He also discussed his ideas with several manufacturers, eventually finding interest at IBM, a company that specialized in calculating machines and punch card systems. The Mark I  project was led by Aiken and built by IBM engineers in Endicott, N.Y. When Mark I was delivered to Harvard in 1944, it was operated by the U.S. Navy Bureau of Ships for military purposes, solving mathematical problems that until then required large teams of human “computers.” Also in 1944, Grace Hopper joined the team.

Between 1944 and 1959Mark I was in operation. The Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (ASCC) consisted of relays, rotating shafts, and clutches. Mark I weighed about 4.500kg and also included an electric motor to synchronize the basic calculating units. Mark I used 800km of wire with several million connections and was held by a steel frame of 16m length.

For his achievements, Howard Aiken was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1947. He received the University of Wisconsin–Madison College of Engineering Engineers Day Award in 1958, the Harry H. Goode Memorial Award in 1964, the John Price Wetherill Medal in 1964, and the IEEE Edison Medal in 1970. In 1947, Howard Aiken introduced a master’s program for computer science at Harvard.

At yovisto you may be interested in a video lecture on ‘The Birth of the Computer‘ by George Dyson.

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