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<p>Mark Aiken and Harvard Mark I</p>

Mark Aiken and Harvard Mark I

my father and mr. aiken

Posted by Peter Selgin on 11 Apr 2016

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During that first year at Harvard, my father met a man who, had circumstances been ever-so-slightly different, would have altered the course of his professional life. That someone was an older graduate student named Howard Aiken.


Tall and handsome, with piercing, owl-like eyes, Aiken would become the force behind the world’s first fully operational general purpose computer, the so-called Harvard Mark I, a room-sized, fifty-foot colossus of camshaft and relays built by IBM to Aiken’s specifications at his urging, and that would be the centerpiece of a brand new degree program called “computer science.”


That Aiken and my father knew each other is doubtless. Most probably they met in a class on vacuum tube theory taught by E. L. Chaffee, an affable professor and formidable expert in electromagnetism and especially vacuum tubes. For the first half of the twentieth century, tubes were the prime component of all electronic devices. Until the 1950s, when much smaller transistors and other kinds of semiconductors started supplanting them, vacuum tubes were state-of-the-art, having themselves supplanted the equally reliable but much slower mechanical switches controlled by magnets called relays (“tick-tick things”).


By the time he and Aiken met, my father was already an expert in vacuum tube theory, so much so that, before the end of that first spring term at Harvard, the Radio Corporation of America—RCA—would hire him away. As students of Professor Chaffee’s “Principles of Vacuum Tubes” class, Aiken and my father each had to work out complex theories of vacuum tube design. Since Aiken’s thesis involved the solutions of an enormous set of nonlinear differential equations, tedious calculations that had to be repeated many times over using various sets of closely-spaced numbers, he fantasized about linking up an array of commercial calculators and somehow configuring a system that would perform the endless sequences on them automatically, obviating his input. A computer.


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