Harry Huskey, Pioneering Computer Scientist, Is Dead at 101

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.

Dag Spicer, senior curator at the museum, described Dr. Huskey in an email as “a Zelig-like character, present at some of computing’s greatest moments.”

“Most of these attainments were accomplished before he was 50, only halfway through his remarkable life,” Mr. Spicer said. “Harry basically lived through and participated in the entire span of the history of electronic computing.”

Harry Douglas Huskey was born in a farmhouse in Whittier, N.C., in the Great Smoky Mountains, on Jan. 19, 1916, just 30 years after the invention of the first commercially successful manual adding machine.

His father, Cornelius, ran an ice cream store and a lumber mill before he uprooted the family when Harry was 2 and moved to a sheep ranch in Idaho. His mother, the former Myrtle Cunningham, was also a rancher.

Photo
Dr. Huskey in his barn in 1988 with the G-15 — which he designed in 1954 and was billed as the first personal computer — before it was shipped to the Smithsonian Institution. Credit Dan Coyro/Santa Cruz Sentinel

Harry was inclined to mathematics from an early age. But his first working encounter with electronics, during a high school play, was inauspicious.

“We produced ‘Death Takes a Holiday,’ and I was the electrician,” he recalled in the oral history. “I hung the lights and manned the switchboard during performances. The switchboard had a long handle that stuck out, and it would turn everything off. In the middle of the play, I sat down in the chair and also on that switch handle, turning the lights out!”

The first in his family to attend college, Mr. Huskey graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics from the University of Idaho in 1937. At Ohio University, where he studied briefly, he designed an automatic computer using relays; he eventually abandoned the project.

“I didn’t complete it because I decided it was much too expensive and that there wasn’t any use for it,” he said.

He earned a master’s and doctorate in math at Ohio State, where he was a teaching assistant in geometry. His best student was Velma Roeth, and they later married. She wrote about computers and assisted her husband in creating computing centers in India and other developing countries. She died in 1991. His second wife, the former Nancy Whitney, died in 2015.

In addition to his son, Dr. Huskey is survived by three daughters, Carolyn Dickinson, Roxanne Dwyer and Linda Retterath; five grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.

During World War II he tried to enlist but was rejected, he said, because of poor eyesight.

While teaching math to Navy students at the University of Pennsylvania, and in need of extra money to raise his daughters, he signed on part time with a pair of classified government projects at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering there. One was the Eniac (for Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer); the other, the Edvac (Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer).

It was his first formal exposure to computers and the beginning of a 50-year career at the forefront of the digital information era.

Dr. Huskey worked with Mr. Turing at the British National Physical Laboratory and was chief of machine development at the Institute for Numerical Analysis, part of the United States Bureau of Standards.

He taught from 1954 to 1967 at the University of California, Berkeley, where he led research into computer language.

In 1967 he joined the founding faculty of the computer and information science program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He directed its computer center for a decade and became professor emeritus in 1986.

Dr. Huskey and his first wife were researching a biography of Ada Lovelace, the 19th-century British mathematician who is considered the first computer programmer, when she died. The book was never finished.

In his interview for the Computer History Museum, Dr. Huskey said that the computer revolution he had helped create posed profound questions for society that it had never had to grapple with before.

“What is the effect of almost instantaneous communication on society — the fact that we can look at what’s going on in Burma today and other places? The Constitution was written when you had to go from New York to Boston by horse, and it took you three days, or something. And if you look at it purely as a dynamic system, the stimuli can arrive much faster than you can respond to it.”

“And what do you do about it?” he continued. “I don’t know.”

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Updated: April 20, 2017 — 7:39 pm

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