Culture

The Amazing Life of Harry Huskey, One of the World’s First Computer Designers

30 Apr 2017 9:00am, by

ENIAC

This month saw the technology press marveling at the career of Harry Huskey, one of the world’s first computer designers, who died April 9th at the age of 101. “Harry basically lived through and participated in the entire span of the history of electronic computing,” a curator at the Computer History Museum told the New York Times. Born in 1916, Huskey lived for over a century — and had an impact on the world that’s still being felt today. He worked on ENIAC as well as Alan Turing’s Automatic Computing Engine — though like any good success story, it starts with humble beginnings.

The Times remembers that his father had run an ice cream store and a lumber mill in North Carolina before moving the entire family to a sheep ranch in Idaho, and Harry was the first person in his family to attend college. As a math student he’d actually tried designing a computer in 1940s during a brief stint studying at the University of Ohio, but “I didn’t complete it because I decided it was much too expensive and that there wasn’t any use for it.” But he did marry one of his students — Velma Roeth, who later “wrote about computers and assisted her husband in creating computing centers in India and other developing countries…”

“Dr. Huskey and his first wife were researching a biography of Ada Lovelace, the 19th-century British mathematician who is considered the first computer programmer when she died. The book was never finished.”

This month back in Silicon Valley, the San Jose Mercury News remembered Huskey as “One of the last surviving members of the team that created the pioneering ENIAC computer in the 1940s.” In the middle of World War II, Huskey had been working as a math teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, and joined the army-funded project to earn extra money for his family, according to the New York Times. “It was his first formal exposure to computers and the beginning of a 50-year career at the forefront of the digital information era.”

It took years to build the 30-ton, 100-foot-long computer. (Wikipedia collects together its impressive specs — 17,468 vacuum tubes, 70,000 resistors, and approximately 5,000,000 hand-soldered joints.) Its output was stored on punch cards — it didn’t get its own memory until 1953 — and Huskey’s job “was to make the punched card reader for the machine work,” remembers the BBC.

Classic shot of ENIAC

Huskey also had the critical job of writing the operator’s manual for the giant machine. (Once Popular Science shared a rumor that the lights dimmed in Philadelphia every time ENIAC was turned on, though in fact the massive computer even had its own power generator.) Encyclopedia Britannica reports that the computer’s first calculations were for the construction of the hydrogen bomb. But the New York Times remembers it as “the country’s first general-purpose programmable electronic computer” (as well as “a top-secret federal government project”), reporting that after the war this work led Huskey to work on Alan Turing’s Automatic Computing Engine for a year in Teddington in 1947.

Pilot ACE

It was London’s first electronic computer, remembers the Turing Archive site, and “with a clock speed of 1 MHz it remained for some time the fastest computer in the world.” By 1950, Huskey was back in America, designing the SWAC computer for the U.S. National Bureau of Standards.

SWAC's high speed results from its rapid cathod-ray-tube type of memory (center background). Input mechanism is at left; output mechanism at right.

But there was more to come…

The San Jose Mercury News remembered another milestone, reprinting a 1988 article which quipped “Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, beware: Your place in computer history is in danger… It seems that Harry D. Huskey developed a personal computer in 1954 for the Bendix Corp., which sold 400 of them.” The article notes that this computer, the Bendix G-15, was the size of two refrigerators — one just for holding the massive tape drive — and it used 350 vacuum tubes (plus a teletype instead of a screen). “This was the best you could do at the time,” Huskey told the newspaper, in a profile that remembers that while teaching computer science at U.C. Berkeley, Huskey had “designed a computer that didn’t need to live in a special, air-conditioned room surrounded by men in white coats.”

BendixG15

The G stood for General Purpose, according to the article, “and Bendix tacked on the 15 to make customers think there were a lot more of them around, Huskey said.” A historian from the Smithsonian Institution called the device “ahead of its time in many ways,” while their curator for a 1990 exhibit about computers called it “a landmark device in moving from large mainframe computers to the microcomputers of today.”

Using a smaller personal computer in the 1980s, Huskey told the newspaper “I never realized how big the market would be. It’s surprising.”

At the time computers were still an exotic novelty, which led Huskey to an appearance on Groucho Marx’s radio show, You Bet Your Life back in 1950. (“You have an electronic brain?” Groucho asks mischievously…) When asked what it computes, Huskey replies, “Well, it’s just being put together. We still have some parts to put into it. It doesn’t compute anything yet.” Groucho calls it “a giant Mix Master,” then quips it’ll be appealing to the show’s other contestant — a junk man. Later Groucho even asks the junk man for an appraisal, to which the junk man asks “How much does it weigh?” before offering $100.

Huskey patiently explains how the device works, describing how it would add two and two. “You must tell the machine where the twos are in its memory, and that you want the numbers added, and where the result is to be placed in the machine’s memory.”

Groucho interjects, “Wouldn’t it be just simpler to take off your shoes and count on your toes?” But he ultimately concedes Huskey’s computer was “a worthwhile work that will make life easier and better for all of us.”

After teaching for 12 years at U.C. Berkeley, Huskey moved to U.C. Santa Cruz, where he continued teaching for another 22 years — until 1986 — and remained a professor emeritus at U.C. Santa Cruz.

In 2013, at the age of 97, he was honored at the Computer History Museum as a man “who worked on the first computer, and just kept going.” He was made a fellow of the museum, along with Bob Taylor (another pioneer who died just last month) and graphics pioneer Ed Catmull (the current president of Pixar).

Harry Huskey

When he was 99 years old, U.C. Santa Cruz brought him down for a ceremony remembering how he’d been a founding faculty member of the school’s computer science department — 48 years earlier. “I’m glad we got Harry here to see what has grown from the seeds he helped plant and nurture,” said Patrick Mantey, the Baskin Professor of Computer Engineering.

And now his family and friends have established the Harry Huskey Endowment for International Engineering Education at U.C. Santa Cruz.


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