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Electrical engineer, physicist, and computing pioneer Howard
Hathaway Aiken was born in 1900 in Hoboken, New Jersey. He
spent most of his childhood in Indianapolis, Indiana and obtained
a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from the University
of Wisconsin, Madison. While he studied, he also worked for
the Madison Gas Company. After he graduated, the company promoted
him to chief engineer.
In 1935, Aiken returned to school and received a Ph.D. from
Harvard University in 1939. He became very interested in computers
while working on his doctoral thesis in physics. He had ideas
for a machine that could help with difficult calculations.
He convinced IBM to fund a project to develop such a machine.
A constructing team at Harvard was to use machine components
that IBM already had in existence.
The inventor, Grace Murray Hopper, worked with Aiken on the
computer, which was a priority undertaking in the Bureau of
Ordinance's Computation Project at Harvard University to which
Hopper had been assigned. It took seven years before Aiken
and his team completed the computer, which they called the
Mark I. The machine was very large at 51 feet long and 8 feet
high, with 26 foot panels stretching out of the back. Its
glass encasement exposed thousands of switches, relays, shafts,
wheels and wires. It had the ability to carry out five operations,
addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and reference
to previous results. In 1944, the system, officially named
the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, was demonstrated
with uneventful response. But it was an important start.
Meanwhile, in 1942, the Navy had asked Aiken for a system
for their Naval Proving Ground. That's when he began work
on the Harvard Mark II. This system, which employed an electrical
memory, was finished in 1947. One important advance in the
second system was the concept of 'constants' - fixed values
which are referenced by the program the machine is running.
This was a new concept in programming at the time, but it
is taken for granted in today's programming languages.
Aiken's third computer version, the Harvard Mark III, was
finished in 1949. This was the first of Aiken's machines to
run from a stored program. This version had a more comprehensive
control system, which incorporated address registers and indirect
addressing, which allows a program to get its data from an
address stored in a register. This concept is virtually universal
in computers today. Though the Harvard Mark III had greater
storage capacity, it was extremely unreliable when it was
turned on and off, as the components were very susceptible
to heat changes.
The Harvard Mark IV, finished in 1952, was much the same
as the Mark III, but had the addition of a magnetic core memory
storing 200 registers. This advance made the computer much
Aiken continued to teach at Harvard, working on computers
and publishing numerous articles on electronics and switching
theory, until his retirement in 1961. His early designs and
research made an inestimable impact on today's powerful and
indispensable machines. His 1944 founding of the Harvard Computation
Laboratory was also the first establishment of an academic
center for computer research.
In 1964, Aiken received the Harry M. Goode Memorial Award,
a medal and $2,000 awarded by the Computer Society. He died
in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1973.