Printer Friendly

Howard Aiken: Portrait of a Computer Pioneer.

Howard Aiken: Portrait of a Computer Pioneer. By I. Bernard Cohen. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999. xx + 329 pp. Cloth, $34.95. ISBN 0262032627.

Makin' Numbers: Howard Aiken and the Computer. By I. Bernard Cohen, Gregory W. Welch, and Robert V. D. Campbell, eds. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999. xvii + 279 pp. Appendices, figures, index, and tables. Cloth, $40.00. ISBN 0262032635.

In the fall of 1937, a young instructor at Harvard University presented the senior engineer of the International Business Machines Corporation with an extraordinary request: he wanted IBM to assist him in (and pay for) the construction of an automatic calculating machine that would fulfill the pressing need "for more powerful calculating methods in the mathematical and physical sciences." The young instructor's name was Howard Hathaway Aiken; the machine he built was the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (ASCC), more commonly known as the Harvard Mark I. The development of the Mark I has been widely recognized as one of the seminal events in the history of computing, and Aiken has been rightly hailed as a pioneer of early computer science. But because the Mark I was an electromechanical device orders of magnitude slower than its younger electronic cousins the ENIAC and EDVAC, and because Aiken himself was often perceived as being out of touch with later developments in computing, his legacy is ofte n misunderstood and underrepresented. In these two companion volumes, the venerable historian of science I. Bernard Cohen provides a richly detailed portrait of both the man and his machine, and argues compellingly that Aiken should be remembered not only for his pioneering work on the Mark I, but perhaps even more importantly for his role as an educator, advocate, mentor, and visionary.

Cohen's Portrait of a Computer Pioneer is in part a biography of Aiken, and in part a history of the development of the Mark I. Howard Aiken was a strong-willed and controversial figure, remembered by some as being narrow-minded, domineering, and acerbic but by many others as "patient," "humane," and "extraordinarily generous." Cohen goes to great lengths to provide a balanced view of a fascinating individual too often represented only in caricature. He describes Aiken's resolute struggle to support himself and his mother in the face of childhood deprivation, his early experience as an electrical engineer, and his mid-life return to graduate school in physics at Harvard. It was while working on tedious nonlinear differential equations that it first became apparent to Aiken that the labor of calculating "could be mechanized and programmed," that "an individual didn't have to do this." After drawing up a careful memorandum outlining his thinking and a preliminary design for his automatic calculator, Aiken went searching for industry support. His proposal was rejected by the Monroe Calculating Company but met with interest at IBM, due in large part to Chairman Thomas J. Watson Sr.'s desire to establish "a mutually beneficial relationship" with the scientific community at Harvard. By 1938 IBM and Harvard had agreed to work together on Aiken's "calculating plant," with the machine going to Harvard and all the patent rights to IBM.

In his original proposal, Aiken had suggested that his calculating machine could be constructed largely out of standard, off-the-shelf IBM components. This optimistic but erroneous assumption, along with Aiken's subsequent failure to adequately recognize the contributions of the IBM engineers who actually built his machine, has caused some historians to underestimate the truly innovative character of the ASCC design. Cohen is very careful to make clear that IBM had to develop from scratch a number of key components of the ASCC, and that the credit for many of its most original design features should be given to IBM engineers such as Clair Lake, Francis Hamilton, and Benjamin Dufree. He provides a detailed and dispassionate examination of the tumultuous relationship that existed between Aiken and Watson, and presents convincing evidence of Aiken's early and prescient interest in data processing and the business use of computers.

Although the construction of the Mark I was perhaps Howard Aiken's most dramatic achievement, Cohen suggests that his most lasting and significant was the establishment of the first full-degree program in academic computer science. Wallace Eckert and Herbert Grosch offered computing courses at Columbia as early as 1946, but Aiken was able to put together a complete masters program by the 1947-1948 academic year. By 1954 Aiken had graduated nineteen M.S. and eight Ph.D. students. Although Harvard's program declined in later years and was known as being provincial while under Aiken's strict and protective control, Aiken was widely considered to be a masterful and generous instructor. Under his tenure the Harvard program produced many of the leaders of the post-war generation of computer scientists.

The numerous appendices of Portrait of a Computer Pioneer provide additional resources well worth perusal. An abbreviated version of the controversial Harvard News Release that celebrated Aiken to the detriment of IBM is included, as is the text of Aiken's more gracious remarks at the Mark I dedication ceremony. Particularly welcome is a brief but rigorous discussion in which Cohen demonstrates to be mere legend the oft repeated but never documented prediction--variously attributed to both Aiken and Thomas J. Watson-that in the future "the total requirements for computing power in the U.S. would be [only] five machines."

The title of the "Makin' Numbers" collection derives from Aiken's affectionate description of the primary function of the Mark I computer. Edited by Cohen and his former student Gregory W Welch, it contains articles by many of those individuals who knew Aiken and the

Harvard machines best: Robert Campbell, the Harvard graduate student who managed the Mark I project while Aiken was called away by the Navy; Richard Bloch and Grace Hopper, its principal programmers; fellow pioneer and contemporary Maurice Wilkes; and a series of his most successful and influential students, including Frederick Brooks Jr. and Anthony Oettinger. Taken together, they help flesh out the portrait of Aiken so ably sketched out for us by Cohen's biography, and provide insight into an important phase of the early development of the science and practice of computing.

Nathan Eusmenger is a graduate student in the Department of History and the Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Business History Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Review
Author:Ensmenger, Nathan L.
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1999
Previous Article:Capital Moves: RCA'S 70-Year Quest for Cheap Labor.
Next Article:Manufacturing the Future: A History of Western Electric.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters