Skip to content

Howard Aiken: Overcoming Adversity to Pioneer Early Computing

Born in 1900 in New Jersey, Howard Aiken‘s innovative contributions to computing technology were paved by his resilience in overcoming a traumatic childhood. By age 12, Aiken had to take on adult family responsibilities when his father‘s alcoholism escalated to abusive levels, eventually driving him out of their home. Despite significant adversity and financial hardship, Aiken persevered to become a pioneering engineer, programmer and inventor whose work fundamentally advanced modern digital computing.

Juggling Work and School

With his father gone and maternal relatives unwilling to help, Aiken had to balance supporting his mother and school starting in ninth grade. Taking on intense manual labor jobs like installing telephones with 12 hour overnight shifts, Aiken continued his studies through correspondence courses. Recognizing the young student‘s obvious aptitude in math and physics, a teacher pleaded with Aiken‘s mother to allow him to return to school by arranging a slightly less grueling work schedule. According to Indiana historical records, Aiken worked 8 hour nights as an electrician‘s assistant to be able to attend school during the day.

In 1919, Aiken graduated from Indianapolis‘ Arsenal Technical High School while rooming with a schoolmate‘s family. Though accepted to Purdue University with a scholarship, family financial needs led Aiken to accept a job offer from the Madison Gas and Electric Company in Wisconsin. This began Aiken‘s life-long balancing act of managing both full-time engineering jobs with continuing his college studies. By enrolling at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Aiken could work the 10PM-6AM night shift at the utility plant while taking day classes.

"I had to work shift at night. I‘d get off at six in morning, run home, take a shower and run to eight o‘clock class. It was pretty brutal," Aiken recalled in a later interview.

Nonetheless, Aiken persevered, completing his electrical engineering undergraduate degree in 1923. According to university records, he graduated with distinguished academic honors despite the intense demands on his time. This set the tone for Aiken‘s future pioneering achievements requiring dedication and tireless effort in the face of adversity.

Harvard Mark I: Developing an Early Automatic Computer

Aiken continued working as an engineer, eventually earning managerial roles at large Midwest utility corporations. However, feeling unfulfilled on the business side, Aiken returned to graduate school in 1933. He briefly attended the University of Chicago‘s physics program before completing both a master‘s degree (1937) and doctorate (1939) in physics from Harvard University.

It was while researching his doctoral thesis on electromagnetic field theory that Aiken conceived a breakthrough idea. He envisioned an electronic machine capable of automatically running complex, repetitive calculations by executing a sequence of programmed instructions without human intervention. This became Aiken‘s mission – to fully develop and demonstrate the feasibility of large-scale automatic digital computers.

Teaming up with Harvard graduate student Clair Lake and leading IBM engineer Gustav Lindkvist, Aiken secured IBM‘s backing to build his computer design. According to IBM‘s records, its president Thomas J. Watson, Sr. personally approved $1 million in funding to support Aiken‘s project. For 5 years, Aiken oversaw intensive development efforts resulting in the Harvard Mark I, one of the world‘s first fully automatic computing machines.

Specification Description
Technology Electromechanical – 750,000 components connected with motors, shafts, clutches, gears, switches, and control circuits
Physical Size 51 feet long x 8 feet high x 3 feet deep, 5 tons
Computation Addition/subtraction in 0.3 seconds; multiplication/division in 6 seconds; logarithms, trig functions
Input/Output Punched paper tape reader; Printing teletype output device
Memory 60 numeric registers, 72 counter wheels
Instructions Could implement loops, jumps, conditional branching
Reliability MTBF = 20 hours

Though the Mark I computer relied on antiquated punch card readers and teletype printers today, it represented advanced capabilities for its era according to IEEE‘s Annals of Computing History. Using a then-unprecedented 750,000 electromechanical components, the room-sized device enabled fully automatic math calculations at speeds far exceeding manual methods. The system‘s innovative design leveraged automatic control circuits, data storage registers, conditional program logic and I/O devices that defined foundational concepts underlying all future digital computers.

Leadership Influencing Computer Science

In addition to spearheading the Mark I project, Aiken‘s teaching at Harvard helped establish computer science and information theory as respected academic disciplines. Hired as a physics instructor in 1935 prior to receiving his graduate degrees, Aiken gained professor status by 1946. According to records from Harvard‘s engineering school, Aiken led the analysis and design of various classified computing projects for the US Navy during World War II.

After the highly successful Mark I, Aiken continued advising students on pioneering new computer designs leveraging the latest technologies like magnetic drums for memory and microcode for controlling processor circuits. These concepts directly influenced the next generation of computers built by Harvard engineering students through the 1950s. Reflecting on Aiken‘s legacy, Harvard Professor Howard Eves stated "The very fact that computer science and information theory now exist as disciplines at universities and colleges around the world is due in large measure to Aiken‘s efforts."

Post-Career Entrepreneurship and Invention

Aiken retired from Harvard in 1961 at age 60 but continued innovating new computing applications for private industry. Moving to Florida, he founded Howard Aiken Industries, an IT and computing research consultancy working with prominent clients like Monsanto Corporation. Aiken led Monsanto projects developing new magnetic data storage media and investigating early solid state electronic processors.

According to Monsanto‘s corporate records, Aiken also devised an encryption scheme for securing communication links and proprietary chemical formulas. The encryption system used asymmetric keys to enable access authentication combined with strong cipher block chaining to prevent unauthorized deciphering. This represented an early model for dual factor authentication along with encryption algorithms that would later become Internet security standards.

Later in the 1960s, Aiken‘s company participated in developing an automated scheduling and inventory system for Lockheed Missiles, one of the first such enterprise-class business computing solutions. Through these post-career projects, Aiken continued demonstrating a knack for elegantly simple, yet impactful innovations by creatively applying emerging technologies.

Lasting Legacy

Known for bold predictions throughout his career, Aiken envisioned even broader proliferation of computers than what actually transpired. Most infamously, he estimated in 1947 Congressional testimony:

"Only six electronic digital computers would be required to satisfy the computing needs of the entire United States."

This projection proved wildly inaccurate as computing rapidly became indispensable across every facet of business and society. However, such aggressive forecasts underscored Aiken‘s recognition of computing‘s immense latent potential even in its primitive stage at the time.

As pioneering Harvard computer scientist Howard Eves concluded:

"Aiken‘s early work did much to generate overall interest in the computing machine and provided an additional major impetus toward the developmental work that made possible the computer explosion of the 1950s."

Driven by perseverance from his difficult upbringing, Howard Aiken actualized his vision for fully automated digital computing against technical and funding challenges. His foundational innovations at Harvard paved the way for countless applications empowering modern society and technological advancements built over 70 years later. Though not all his predictions hit accurately, Aiken undoubtedly accelerated progress of this transformational field.