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Harry Huskey, Pioneering Computer Scientist, Is Dead at 101


Harry Huskey, circa 1950, with an early computer prototype.

Harry Huskey, a pioneering computer scientist who worked on early computing systems and later helped universities around the world establish computer centers and computer science programs, died on April 9 at his home in Santa Cruz, CA, at the age of 101.

Credit: Computer History Museum

Harry Huskey, one of the last surviving scientists in the vanguard of the computer revolution, who helped develop what was once billed as the first personal computer because it took only one person to operate, though it was the size of two refrigerators, died on April 9 at his home in Santa Cruz, Calif. He was 101.

His death was confirmed by his son, Doug.

Dr. Huskey, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz, began his digital career in the mid-1940s with the Eniac, a behemoth that was considered the country's first general-purpose programmable electronic computer. A top-secret federal government project at the University of Pennsylvania, it measured 100 feet long, weighed 30 tons and contained 18,000 vacuum tubes.

He later worked with the pioneering British mathematician Alan M. Turing on a prototype of another early computer, the Automatic Computing Engine; oversaw development of yet another, the SWAC (Standards Western Automatic Computer); and in 1954 designed the G-15, a 950-pound predecessor to today's laptops.

The G-15, a problem-solving computer that could be operated by one person, was sold to the Bendix Aviation Corporation, which sold it to scientific researchers and corporate customers for the retail price of $50,000.

The very word "computer" was so novel that Dr. Huskey described the SWAC as "a large-scale electronic computing machine" when he appeared on the radio quiz show "You Bet Your Life" in 1950 and tried to explain it to the host, Groucho Marx.

"Now, doctor, what is this machine for, this robot?" Groucho asked.

"It's to carry out sequences of computations, to compare figures," Dr. Huskey patiently explained.

To which Groucho replied, in his signature manner of gigabit-paced repartee: "If you're going to compare figures, I don't need an electric brain for that. It's called an automatic reflex in my case."

Dr. Huskey's teammate on the show, a junkman (they were disqualified after they guessed wrong on which state is north of Missouri), estimated the computer's worth, by weight, at $100. But Groucho presciently described Dr. Huskey's research as "worthwhile work which will make life easier and better for all of us."

Not even Dr. Huskey, though, quite envisioned the seismic changes his work heralded. "I never dreamed they would happen," he told the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., in 2006, as part of an oral-history project.

 

From The New York Times
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