RIP Harry Huskey

On April 9, 2017, Harry Huskey died at the age of 101. Many of you will most likely be scratching your heads whilst reading this on your screen—either your phone or tablet, or maybe even your desktop device—and you will most likely be asking, “Who, and why should I care, other than knowing somebody’s loved one has passed?”

Computer Pioneer Harry Huskey and his baby SWAC
Computer Pioneer Harry Huskey and his baby SWAC

Well, Harry was one of the world’s pioneer computer engineers. Now, I expect you will all have heard of Alan Turing. Harry was one of the last surviving members of the team that built Turing’s ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), which first ran in 1946. The ENIAC is considered one of the first general-purpose programmable computers: i.e., a machine that could be reprogrammed to do different tasks. Admittedly, it was not programming as we are used to today—to get the machine to do something different meant manually rewiring various valves and relays in the machine—but it was the start of computational machines.

After the Second World War, Dr. Huskey moved to the UK for a year to work with Turing to refine Turing’s design and also to aid in the building of the ACE (Automatic Computing Engine). On his return to the US, he became involved with the design and building of the SWAC (Standards Western Automatic Computer), a machine that was used by the National Bureau of Statistics for many years before being sold to UCLA, where it continued in service until 1969. It is an indicator of its raw computational power that it was used to discover five Mersenne primes, the largest prime numbers known at the time, with 157, 183, 386, 664, and 687 digits. At the time of its completion, it held the record as the world’s fastest computer.

Harry also held the rather dubious honor of having designed one of the world’s first PCs. Despite weighing almost a ton (imperial, not metric), the G-15 could be called a PC, as it was designed to be operated by a single person.

Harry spent his entire academic career involved with computing teaching at the University of California at Berkeley and was a founder of the computer science faculty at UC Santa Cruz. He retired from academia at the age of seventy, and in 1994 he was inducted as a Fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery.

RIP, Harry.

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