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In Memoriam Harry D. Huskey 1916-2017

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Huskey helped to create early computers and programming languages.

Harry Huskey with his G-15 "personal computer," which now resides at the Smithsonian Institutions.

Credit: Gio Wiederhold

On April 9, 2017, the computing world lost one of its pioneers: Harry Douglas Huskey, who passed away at the age of 101. His work spanned all that an academic, an engineer, and a scientist can aspire to: building innovative hardware and novel software, and educating computer scientists worldwide to continue his legacy. 

In 1952, the Institute of Radio Engineers (IRE) asked Huskey to organize a computer group, which was called the Professional Group on Electronic Computers (PGEC); this group became what is now known as the IEEE Computer Society.

Huskey served as vice president of ACM during 1958-1960, and as the organization's president during 1960-1962. He also initiated the All Indian Computer Users Group that helped serve as the basis for the launch of the Computer Society of India (CSI) in 1965. 

Harry Huskey was born on Jan. 19, 1916, in the Smoky Mountains region of North Carolina; his family moved to Idaho soon after. As a high school student, Huskey found mathematics came easily for him. He obtained a B.S. degree from the University of Idaho in 1937. At Ohio University in Athens, he built a storage and readout device using electromechanical relays. He received his Masters and Ph.D. degrees from Ohio State University.

In 1943, he joined the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught mathematics and worked on the ENIAC, an early computer intended to compute firing tables for the military. Storage in the ENIAC was achieved through the use of about 11,000 of its 18,000 vacuum tubes. In 1946, Huskey joined the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in Teddington, U.K., where British code-breaking projects came together as the basis for initiating the construction of the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE); a prototype version initiated by Huskey became operational in 1950.

A group at the University of Manchester built the Small-Scale Experimental Machine, weighing about 1,000 kilograms; its major innovation was the use of the Williams tube for storage. It became operational in June 1948. Huskey also worked on the Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer (EDVAC), which became operational in 1949, using that same storage technology.

In the fall of 1947, the U.S. National Bureau of Standards (NBS) announced plans for an Institute for Numerical Analysis (INA), to be located at the University of California, Los Angeles. Huskey, appointed to head that Institute, decided to use its budget and his experience to build a computer, which was named the Standard Western Automatic Computer (SWAC). It used 2,500 vacuum tubes and 4,000 diodes for its logic and 40 Williams tubes, each storing 256 bits, providing parallel access to 256 words of 37 bits each for data and program storage. SWAC became operational in July 1950 and was then the fastest computer in the world; it remained in use there until 1962.

Huskey started to refine his designs, replacing storage tubes with a rotating magnetic drum and downsizing the computer so it could be run by a single person in a regular office, an early conception of the "personal computer." It was implemented and built by Bendix Corp. as the G-15 in 1954.

Also in 1954, Huskey joined the University of California, Berkeley's faculty of mathematics and electrical engineering. Bendix provided a G-15 for development in Huskey's Berkeley home. Huskey and Joe Weizenbaum, later at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, developed and added a package for floating point arithmetic.

Programming languages became a crucial aspect for computer use. Under a U.S. Navy contract, Huskey developed the Navy Electronics Laboratory International ALGOL Compiler (NELIAC) for control applications. That experience provided an environment for his students like Niklaus Wirth to develop versions of Algol, PL360, and Pascal. Some other languages like the HH, an interpreter for online use, and Conversion Algebraic Language (CAL) developed by Butler Lampson, were research efforts under his guidance during the early 1960s. To enable on-line computer access, Huskey obtained funding from the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, renamed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency/DARPA in 1972) in 1963 for Project Genie, incorporating paging hardware for the first time in a multi-user timesharing system.

In 1963, Huskey went to the Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur, supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). He brought an IBM 1620 "scientific computer" and recruited faculty from leading U.S. Universities. He also brought 10 leading computer scientists for a week to Kanpur for an advisory conference sponsored by Ford Foundation. Many Indian computer scientists and the information technology (IT) business in India trace their lineage to these efforts.

In 1967, Huskey joined the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), where he developed a computer science curriculum that evolved into the Jack Baskin School of Engineering. After his retirement from the University of California in 1986, Huskey accepted invitations from institutions for decades, allowing him to spread his insights and inspiring computer professionals worldwide.

In 1939, Huskey married Velma Roeth, who died 1991. Years later, he married Nancy Whitney-Grindstaff, who died in 2015. He is survived by three daughters, one son, and several grandchildren.

A more extensive technical obituary is available at

Gio Wiederhold is professor emeritus of computer science, medicine, and electrical engineering at Stanford University. Bijoy Chatterjee is an emerging technology consultant in Los Gatos, CA. H. Douglas Huskey, Harry Huskey's son, is an independent IT consultant in Santa Cruz, CA.


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