Scientists in Uniform: The Harvard Computation Laboratory in World War II

By Williams, Kathleen Broome | Naval War College Review, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Scientists in Uniform: The Harvard Computation Laboratory in World War II


Williams, Kathleen Broome, Naval War College Review


IN SPRING 1998, CONSTRUCTION of the new Maxwell Dworkin computer sciences building began at the northeast corner of Harvard University's Holmes Field. The site had once housed the Aiken Computation Laboratory, scathingly described in the previous fall's Harvard Magazine as a "cobbled together structure unloved by those who toiled there."1

Two years before, Harvard dropout Bill Gates and his Microsoft associate and Harvard classmate Steven Ballmer together had given twenty-five million dollars to Harvard to endow a faculty chair and to build a new computer science facility. But instead of continuing to honor the name of Howard Hathaway Aiken-founder of Harvard's trailblazing computing program and a naval reserve officer who directed the Navy's original research and applications of computers-the new center is to be named for the mothers of the two recent benefactors.2

Today's Navy might learn much from the latitude Aiken was given during World War II to fuse academic and scientific activities with operational naval needs in a pragmatic arrangement benefiting all. In the process, Howard Aiken launched the Navy on its first stumbling steps towards today's vastly different conceptions of naval operations and modern warfare. Aiken and his coworkers, such as Lieutenant Grace Hopper, began what was arguably the most important development in naval technology in the twentieth century, affecting the nature and use of virtually all other technologies. Their accomplishments deserve greater recognition.

Although the rapidly expanding data management needs of World War II accelerated the development of modern digital computers, especially in Britain and the United States, few were operational until after the conflict ended. A notable exception in America was the brainchild of Howard Aiken, the culmination of a project he began in 1937 as a graduate student at Harvard.

Frustrated by the tedious and time-consuming mathematical calculations required for his doctoral dissertation on the theory of space charge conduction, Aiken designed a mechanism to perform such calculations automatically. Engineers at Thomas Watson's International Business Machines-IBM-built Aiken's machine under his guidance but using many of their own patented parts. What emerged from this collaboration, the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (ASCC) or Harvard Mark I, was the first functional, large-scale, automatically sequenced, general-purpose digital computer to be produced in America.3 The press called it a "Robot Brain," but Aiken, by then a professor of physics and applied mathematics, called it "just a lazy man's dream," intended for use in scientific numerical computation.4

When the Mark I was finally completed at the IBM facilities in Endicott, New York, in 1944, Watson of IBM gave it to Harvard as a gift. That spring it was installed at the university but was immediately leased for the duration of the war by the U.S. Navy, desperate for gunnery and ballistics calculations.5 Aiken, a naval reserve officer, was put in charge of the Mark I for the Bureau of Ships (BuShips) Computation Project at the Harvard Computation Laboratory.6

The Navy's role in running the Computation Laboratory has received scant attention, even in books on World War II naval technology, nor is Harvard's role as reluctant host of the lab widely known.7 This neglect suggests how difficult was the alliance of academic, business, and military interests that Howard Aiken pulled together in the development and early use of the Mark I. For a time, Aiken and patriotism were able to hold together competing professional agendas. The Mark I successfully carried out a strenuous schedule of important calculations for the Navy and for other military projects. After the war, however, the centrifugal interests of each group reasserted themselves, obscuring Aiken's wartime achievements.

In two articles in November 1996, the Wall Street Journal-reflecting a widespread view-asserted that the U. …

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