Living History: Computing Pioneer Harry Huskey Is Honored at 97

The Computer History Museum honors a distinguished scientist who worked on the first computer, and just kept going.

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Michael B. Johnson

Computer History Museum President John Hollar presents Harry Huskey with the Mountain View, Califorinia museum's Fellow Award on April 27, 2013

On Saturday evening, I was a very happy attendee of the Computer History Museum’s Fellow Awards, an inspiring annual event which celebrates the contributions of individuals whose work has changed the course of computing history. Three people were honored this year: Ed Catmull, Harry Huskey and Bob Taylor.

Ed Catmull, as I knew, started out as a computer graphics scientist, became one of the founders of Pixar and is now the president of both that extraordinary company and Walt Disney Feature Animation. I was also well aware that Bob Taylor headed up the research efforts at ARPA and Xerox PARC which produced the Internet, the modern graphical user interface, Ethernet, the laser printer and other utterly essential technologies.

But Harry Huskey? I’d never heard of the man. Turns out that he did an awful lot — and, having been born in 1916, he did much of it in the very early days of the computing industry, even before the word “computer” came into use.

[image] Harry Huskey With Swac

Computer History Museum

Harry Huskey with SWAC in the 1950s

During World War II, Huskey worked on ENIAC, the first general-purpose electronic computer. He also collaborated with Alan Turing (1914-1952), still perhaps the most influential computer scientist of all time. In the 1950s, he designed a machine called SWAC which was the fastest computer in the world for a while and the Bendix G15, which was, in a sense, the first personal computer. (It was the first one designed to be operated by one individual.) Then he spent more than 30 years teaching; numerous important computer scientists were among his students.

Oh, and in 1950, Huskey was a guest on Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life radio quiz. (A losing one — during the Computer History Museum ceremony, he gave a gracious speech in which he joked that he still didn’t know the answer to the question which he and his game-playing partner, a junk dealer, fumbled in the category “Adjacent States.”)

63 years later, Groucho’s dismantling of the very idea of an “electronic brain” is still entertaining. Press the play button below, and you can hear for yourself.

Groucho being Groucho, he didn’t take computers very seriously. But he did describe Huskey’s efforts as “worthwhile work which will make life easier and better for all of us.” Boy, was he right — and it was great to see a ballroom full of Silicon Valley’s best and brightest honor that work last week with a standing ovation.