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Howard Aiken: Portrait of a Computer Pioneer [Hardcover]

I. Bernard Cohen

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Book Description

June 8 1999 History of Computing

Howard Hathaway Aiken (1900-1973) was a major figure of the early digital era. He is best known for his first machine, the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator or Harvard Mark I, conceived in 1937 and put into operation in 1944. But he also made significant contributions to the development of applications for the new machines and to the creation of a university curriculum for computer science.This biography of Aiken, by a major historian of science who was also a colleague of Aiken's at Harvard, offers a clear and often entertaining introduction to Aiken and his times. Aiken's Mark I was the most intensely used of the early large-scale, general-purpose automatic digital computers, and it had a significant impact on the machines that followed. Aiken also proselytized for the computer among scientists, scholars, and businesspeople and explored novel applications in data processing, automatic billing, and production control. But his most lasting contribution may have been the students who received degrees under him and then took prominent positions in academia and industry. I. Bernard Cohen argues convincingly for Aiken's significance as a shaper of the computer world in which we now live.

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Great controversies never die. The brouhaha surrounding the unveiling of the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (or Harvard Mark I), the first general-purpose automatic computer, is a perfect example: Who invented it, IBM engineers or Harvard applied mathematician Howard Aiken? Science historian I. Bernard Cohen knew Aiken and tells the whole story in Howard Aiken: Portrait of a Computer Pioneer, both an engaging life story of a unique man and a tale of the rancorous struggle for recognition between strong personalities.

Through Cohen's painstaking research, including exhaustive looks into the archives of Harvard and IBM, interviews with Aiken and other principals, and his own reminiscences, the reader gets a glimpse into the partnership between business, academia, and the military, which, like it or not, propelled us headfirst into the Information Age. We catch a glimpse of how Aiken's self-described "laziness" in graduate school led him to dream of a machine that would ease the burden of complex calculations. From this passivity the development of the Mark I followed between 1937 and 1944, and the never-completely-resolved conflict over inventor's credit.

Cohen is a mild partisan on Aiken's behalf but argues convincingly that subsequent developments in our understanding of computer design moot or at least temper the problem--acknowledging that crucial contributions were made on both sides, he suggests that the problem never would have arisen today. --Rob Lightner


"Cohen's close relationship with Aiken endows his history with rich details but never clouds his vision of Aiken's dark side. Much more than a history of computing, this book is an engaging story of a titanic personality at the dawn of the informationage." Lawrence Hunter, New York Times Book Review

"The Aiken Portrait is on a par with Hodge's Turingbiography. I found the book thoroughly absorbing—a realpage-turner. Not only is it a story of computers, but it is a realslice of American life. It is affectionate and atmospheric, and itcarries terrific authority because of Professor Cohen's intimatepersonal knowledge of Aiken." Martin Campbell-Kelly , University of Warwick, UK

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