Writings and observations

The importance of Harry Huskey


Last week Harry Huskey died. He was 101. A death largely unheralded in Idaho, but worthy of a half page obituary in the New York Times.

In my mind, he is the most influential person ever to graduate from the University of Idaho. But if he was so influential, why have you never heard of him? Probably because you never tried to find out who was the father of personal computing.

Huskey came to Idaho with his parents when he was 18 months old. They settled on a ranch in Little Lost River, north of Arco. Harry’s father herded sheep and in his youth Harry did as well. The family next moved to Salmon and finally in the midst of the Depression, they moved to Pocatello to give Harry better access to a good education. His parents both had eighth grade educations and they were determined to make him the first in their family to attend college.

After graduating from high school, Harry moved to Moscow to attend the University of Idaho, where he majored in math. He lived in Lindley and Willis Sweet dormitories and graduated with highest honors in 1937. Following graduation from the UI, he received both masters and doctoral degrees from Ohio State University.

In 1946, he was one of the key members of the team that designed and built the ENIAC computer for the Army. The ENIAC was an 18,000 vacuum tube 27 ton behemoth that could perform calculation in 30 seconds that would require 20 hours to do manually.

The next year he moved to Britain where to joined the team led by British mathematician Alan Turing at the National Physical Laboratory. Turing had been the team leader of the top secret project that developed the techniques used to break the German Enigma machines codes and was the subject of the 2014 film, “The Imitation Game.”

At the laboratory, they designed the Automated Computing Engine, better known as ACE. It was one of the first stored-program computers.

Back in the states, Huskey was becoming increasingly recognized for his work in designing computers. At the item, the word computer wasn’t yet in wide use. Huskey used the term “large scale electronic computing machine” to describe his work.

In 1950 he was a guest and contestant on Groucho Marx’ radio quiz program “You Bet Your Life.” A recording of the show is available on You Tube. Listening to Huskey attempt to explain his work to Marx shows the small degree of public awareness of computers at that time. Although Marx makes wonderful use of his wicked sense of humor on the show, he also indicates that he recognizes that Huskey is involved in work that will ultimately have great benefits for mankind.

In 1956, Huskey rose to the zenith of his career. Working for Bendix Aviation, he designed and built the G15 computer. The G15 weighed 950 pounds and was the first computer that could be operated by a single individual. Because it could be operated by a single individual, it is generally recognized as the world’s first personal computer. It sold for $60,000 or could be rented for $1,485 a month.

At a time when the state of Idaho is giving a high priority to trying to figure out how to get more Idaho high school graduates to go on to some level of post-secondary education, they would use Harry Huskey as their poster child. From a childhood of herding sheep to attending the University of Idaho and eventually playing the leading role in the development of the personal computer. And all because his poorly educated parents were determined that he receive something they hadn’t.

There are lessons to be learned in Idaho from Harry Huskey’s experiences in the 1930s.

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