Computer Pioneers: Howard Hathaway Aiken

by techtiptom


Invented/developed the Mark I


Howard Hathaway Aiken was born March 8, 1900 in Hoboken, New Jersey. However he grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana where he attended the Arsenal Technical High School. {My High School!}   After high school he studied at the University of Wisconsin where he received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. During college Aiken worked for the Madison Gas Company; after graduation he was promoted to chief engineer there.

In 1935 Aiken decided to return to school. In 1939 he received a Ph.D. from Harvard University. It was while working on his doctoral thesis in physics that Aiken began to think about constructing a machine to help with the more tedious tasks of calculations. Aiken began to talk about his idea and did research into what could be done. With help from colleagues at the university, Aiken succeeded in convincing IBM fund his project.

The idea was to build an electromachanic machine that could perform mathematical operations quickly and efficiently and allow a person to spend more time thinking instead of laboring over tedious calculations. IBM was to build the machine with Aiken acting as head of the construction team and donate it to Harvard with the requirement that IBM would get the credit for building it. The constructing team was to use machine components that IBM already had in existence.

It took seven years and a lot of money to finally get the machine operational. Part of the delay was due to the intervention of World War II. Officially the computer was called the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator but most everyone called it the Mark I. After completing the Mark I, Aiken went on to produce three more computers, two of which were electric rather than electromechanical.

More important than the actual computer (whose major purpose was to create tables), was the fact that it proved to the world that such a machine was more than just fancy, it was a practical purpose machine. Perhaps more important than the invention of Mark I was Aiken’s contribution to academia. He started the first computer science academic program in the world.
Aiken retired from teaching at Harvard in 1961 and moved to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. He died March 14, 1973 in St. Louis, Missouri.