Howard Aiken

An abrasive genius

Like Steve Jobs, Howard Aiken had a reputation as a brilliant jerk.

“Where the hell have you been?” were his first words to colleague Grace Hopper when she reported for duty at Harvard’s Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project for the Navy in 1944. Aiken was a lieutenant who oversaw research using one of the world’s first computers, his invention.

“There’s the machine,” he told her. “Compute the coefficients of the arc tangent series by next Thursday.”

His childhood may excuse some of his gruffness. Aiken was born in 1900 in Hoboken, New Jersey, as the only child of a German mother and Indianapolis-bred father who turned abusive with alcohol. At the age of 12, after seeing his mother beat up one time too many, Aiken ran his father out of the house with a fireplace poker, and the senior Aiken never returned. By the ninth grade the young Aiken was working night shifts as a telephone operator to support his mom and grandparents while still going to school.

He first envisioned a “computing machine” as a graduate student at Harvard. Tired of the longhand calculations needed for his doctoral dissertation, he saw how fields like mathematics and even sociology were hampered by their ability to crunch numbers—not unlike today’s push for taming Big Data. Why not devise an electromechanical tool that could do the arithmetic for him?

With a 23-page proposal articulating his idea, Aiken convinced IBM to build the thing. It took seven years and a team of IBM employees to complete it. In the end it measured 51 feet long and 8 feet high, all linked together with 500 miles of wires and enclosed in glass. Thousands of switches, relays, shafts, and wheels gave the beast of a computer the ability to carry out five operations at a speed of three per second: addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and reference to previous results.

(This was record speed compared to the days it took a human being to do the arithmetic. But soon the first fully electronic computer, ENIAC, built at the University of Pennsylvania in 1946, could execute five thousand commands in the same amount of time.)

Officially named the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, the machine came to be better known as the Mark I computer. For the next 15 years, the Mark I and its successors (Mark II, Mark III, and Mark IV) ran calculations for scientific research as well as the U.S. military from the Harvard campus.

With his rigid concept of computers being, essentially, oversized calculators, Aiken eventually lost the leading edge of the technology. Unlike Steve Jobs, the hawk-eyed Aiken failed to capture the grand vision for where computers were headed. Other innovators carried forward the next wave of computers.

But in many ways the Digital Age has Aiken to thank. As a professor of applied mathematics, he introduced a master’s program for computer science to Harvard in 1947, nearly a decade before other universities did the same. A colleague described him as “forceful, self-assured, and formidable,” but “a marvelous teacher.”