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  5. Howard Aiken receives posthumous honors for computing breakthrough

Howard Aiken receives posthumous honor for computing breakthrough

Howard Aiken

It’s hard to describe Howard Aiken’s contributions without using terms that seem rudimentary in the world of 2014: “calculation,” “automated computing,” “rotary switches,” “electromechanical.” But the Mark 1, Aiken’s best-known achievement, played a huge role in bridging computers’ bulky early days and their increasingly sophisticated present. 

Aiken earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from UW-Madison in 1923, and worked as an engineer at Madison Gas and Electric Company until 1928. He went on to have a distinguished career in engineering and teaching, in settings including the United States military, IBM, and Harvard University. 

Aiken, who died in 1973, is being honored in 2014 for his work on the Mark 1 as a posthumous inductee into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, along with co-inventors Clair Lake, Frank Hamilton and Benjamin Durfee. 

In 1944, the installation of the Mark 1 at Harvard University realized Aiken's longtime ambition to create a computer capable of performing complex mathematical calculations at high speeds. Like other computers in those days, the Mark 1 was a huge machine, but it boasted an unusual construction, using a complex system of mechanical parts, punch cards, and telephone relays. While it and its successors represented many innovations and advances in computing, the National Inventors Hall of Fame sums it up simply: It was “the first large-scale digital calculator.”

In a 2009 article, On Wisconsin magazine recounted great and memorable quotes from UW-Madison alumni. Among them was this quote from Aiken’s 1937 paper, “Proposed automated calculating machine”: “At the present time there exist problems beyond our ability to solve, not because of theoretical difficulties, but because of insufficient means of mechanical computation.”

Today, it may seem strange to think about computing power in terms of such obstacles—but only because inventors like Aiken made them a thing of the past. 

Scott Gordon
3/4/2014