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Technology and Culture 41.4 (2000) 823-825

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Book Review

Howard Aiken: Portrait of a Computer Pioneer

Makin' Numbers: Howard Aiken and the Computer

Howard Aiken: Portrait of a Computer Pioneer. By I. Bernard Cohen. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999. Pp. xx+329; illustrations, tables, appendixes, notes/references, index. $34.95.

Makin' Numbers: Howard Aiken and the Computer. Edited by I. Bernard Cohen and Gregory W. Welch. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999. Pp. xvii+279; illustrations, tables, index. $40.

These two volumes, which have been several years in preparation, were eagerly awaited by the history of computing community. The wait was certainly not in vain. Howard Aiken, and the machines he created at Harvard, are recognized as pioneers in computing, but neither the man nor his machines have been well understood. These two volumes rectify that shortcoming. Both benefit from Bernard Cohen's long and personal knowledge of Aiken and his activities at Harvard. Aiken was famous for having a demanding and often abrasive personality, and Cohen's biographical Portrait clearly elucidates how his upbringing and early experiences helped enhance both his personality traits and his dedication to his field--a real rags-to-riches story accomplished by enormous discipline and hard work.

Besides being a good personal biography of Aiken, this volume is also a fine intellectual biography. Much of the information is based on an extensive series of interviews with Aiken conducted by Cohen and Henry (Hank) Tropp in 1973. During these interviews, which lasted several days, they explored the sources of Aiken's inspiration for his Mark I machine. Cohen has not simply taken Aiken's memory as factual but has attempted to verify every statement by reference to Harvard documents and cross-checking with material known to be Aiken's possession. This attention to detail is evident in, for example, the section Cohen wrote about Aiken's knowledge of Babbage and his difference and analytical engines. He was able to show that Aiken obtained his early (somewhat flawed) knowledge not from Babbage's own writings but from the famous Baxandall catalog of instruments in the possession of the Science Museum in London. As Cohen points out, "this explains the otherwise puzzling fact that, though Aiken continually expressed admiration for his illustrious predecessor, the architecture of the ASCCC/ Mark I was little influenced by Babbage's architecture" (p. 71). Similar careful scholarship is evident throughout the entire volume.

Despite the collaboration of Aiken and IBM on the construction of the Mark I, there was a famous "misunderstanding" between IBM's president, Tom Watson Sr., and Aiken that soured relations for the rest of their lives. Cohen explores the roots of this problem, even down to Watson being miffed that he was not met at the railroad station by Harvard dignitaries [End Page 823] when he arrived for the dedication ceremonies. As is so often the case, personalities get in the way of technical achievements, and Cohen provides a masterly view of both sides of this famous event.

Although Cohen obviously admires Aiken and his accomplishments, he certainly does not deify the man. He painstakingly points out Aiken's shortcomings, personal and professional. For example, in the section on Babbage, Cohen also states that Aiken's lifelong praise of Babbage's accomplishments was likely to remind people that he (Aiken) was also "a radical inventor whose stature was not appreciated by his contemporaries" (p. 72). He also notes that Aiken was always careful to have a photographer around to record each stage in the creation of both his machines and the staff and infrastructure, in order to ensure his own place in the history of the computation.

The second volume, Makin' Numbers, is very much a companion piece to Portrait. The table of contents reads like a list of major figures in the early computing (and computing history) world, with contributions from Aiken himself and others including Robert Campbell, Charles Bashe, Richard Bloch, Fred Brooks, Grace Hopper, Anthony Oettinger, Maurice Wilkes, and Hank Tropp. While Portrait is mainly...


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