Famous Alumni, Howard Aiken
Arsenal Technical High Class of 1925

Howard  Aiken's Profile Personal Info

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Howard Aiken
Graduation Year:
1925

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[Actually graduated in 1918 but the Grad Year drop-down only goes to 1925] A father of the modern-day computer - On March 8, 1900, Howard Aiken was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, although he was raised in Indianapolis, Indiana. After the eighth grade, he began work as a switchboard operator while attending Arsenal Technical High School during the day. Upon completion of high school in 1918, he attended University of Wisconsin and received his bachelor of science degree in 1923. He became a professor at the University of Miami, but in 1935, decided to obtain his Ph.D. He received his masters in physics from Harvard in 1937. However, it was Aiken's graduate work in 1936, improving the vacuum tube design (which required long hours of tedious mathematical calculations) that sparked his discovery.

Aiken's need to complete the complex, non-linear mathematical problems lead him back in time to Charles Babbage and his Analytical Engine. Aiken saw part of Babbage's calculating machine in the attic of a physics lab at Harvard and was amazed. He would use Babbage's 100-year-old idea to serve as the foundation of Aiken's Mark I. Aiken's idea was to use "electromagnetic components controlled by coded sequences of instructions, and one that would operate automatically after a particular process had been developed". What he envisioned was a machine that would use electro-mechanical power to solve differential equations.

Aiken was heavily criticized for using electro-mechanical power especially since he was doing frontier work with vacuum tubes, but it was inexpensive, and that was one of his needs at the time. To also save on cost and time, he wanted to build a machine that used parts that had already been invented. Supported by IBM, the results were astounding.

His Mark I was a 51 foot wide by 2 feet deep machine with a 50 foot mechanical shaft and a 5 horse power electric motor. It contained 3/4 million parts and could store 72 numbers. It could do 3 addition or subtraction problems per second, one multiplication problems in six seconds, and logarithmic or trigonometric problems in one minute or more. It was slow, even by standards of the day, but it was the first machine to complete these tasks. Phenomenally, Mark I ran 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 15 years and was free from errors for that entire time. Once Mark I was completed, Aiken was made an officer in charge of the U.S. Navy Computing Project. The U.S. Navy saw great potential for this computer machine, for quickly and accurately calculating gun trajectories. The Mark I was the "first fully automatic computer to come into operation" and paved the way for other calculating machines. It proved that "a complex calculating engine could function automatically, performing operations in sequence and following a predetermined program from the entry of data to the production of the final results". However, Aiken was not the only one pushing the boundaries of computing. Mauchly and Eckert were also working on their creation, the ENIAC. Mark I certainly lead to great things in the evolution of computers. Mark I was John von Neumann's first encounter with the personal computer. His work in the area of computer programming and combined with Freddy Williams's of advanced memory, would create an increasingly more powerful and complex computer.

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.

Howard Hathaway Aiken (March 8, 1900 March 14, 1973) was a pioneer in computing, being the original conceptual designer behind IBM's Harvard Mark I computer.
ATHS Class of January 1919

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