Harry Huskey, one of the last surviving scientists in the vanguard of the computer revolution, who helped develop what was once billed as the first personal computer because it took only one person to operate, though it was the size of two refrigerators, died April 9 at his home in Santa Cruz, California. He was 101.
His death was confirmed by his son, Doug.
Huskey, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz, began his digital career in the mid-1940s with the ENIAC, a behemoth that was considered the country’s first general-purpose programmable electronic computer. A top-secret federal government project at the University of Pennsylvania, it measured 100 feet long, weighed 30 tons and contained 18,000 vacuum tubes.
He later worked with the pioneering British mathematician Alan Turing on a prototype of another early computer, the Automatic Computing Engine; oversaw development of yet another, the SWAC (Standards Western Automatic Computer); and in 1954 designed the G-15, a 950-pound predecessor to today’s laptops.
The G-15, a problem-solving computer that could be operated by one person, was sold to the Bendix Aviation Corp., which sold it to scientific researchers and corporate customers for the retail price of $50,000.
The very word “computer” was so novel that 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,” 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.”
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 Huskey’s research as “worthwhile work which will make life easier and better for all of us.”
Not even 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, California, in 2006, as part of an oral-history project.
Dag Spicer, senior curator at the museum, described 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,” 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, North Carolina, 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.
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, 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, 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 ENIAC (for Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer); the other, 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.
Huskey worked with Turing at the British National Physical Laboratory and was chief of machine development at the Institute for Numerical Analysis, part of the U.S. 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.