It is just 1.8 miles from the Harvard Science Center in Cambridge and the New Allston Science and Technology Complex. The journey from the Oxford Street building through Harvard Square and North Harvard Street should take around 10 minutes by car – around half an hour if you walk.
So taking a year is bad, even considering Boston area traffic. But there is a legitimate excuse for why it took so long to bring the Harvard IBM Mark I automatic calculator – a computer milestone described in 1950 by Time magazine as “a progenitor, a kind of mechanical Eve” – into its own. new home: the COVID -19 pandemic.
Among the world’s first programmable computers, the Mark I – originally the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator – was a milestone in the global digital evolution. Before starting to operate in 1944, computer machines (some of them faster than the Mark I) each had to be designed to solve a specific problem. The Mark I, however, could use punch cards and punched paper tape to store data and instructions that could solve a range of problems.
“It was a first for the time,” said Sara Schechner, David P. Wheatland Curator of Harvard’s Historical Scientific Instrument Collection, which counts the machine among her most valuable collections. “We have a lot of really important items, but that ranks up there as a special thing.”
It is also the largest object in the collection. The original Mark I weighed five tons and was 50 feet long. It was the idea of Harvard graduate student Howard Aiken who conceived it in 1937, drawing on decades of inspiration from British engineer and inventor Charles Babbage. Aiken circulated the idea until IBM took an interest in it. The machine itself, developed in collaboration with company scientists, was delivered to Harvard’s Cruft Lab in 1944, in time to support the country’s efforts during World War II, including the development of the atomic bomb, missile trajectories and radar design. facilities.
Scientific Instrument Collection Director Sara Frankel removes years of dust from the inner mechanism of the Mark 1.
Designed by Harvard physics professor Howard Aiken, and designed and built by IBM, the Harvard Mark 1 is a coin-sized relay calculator.
OB Hill Trucking and Rigging Foreman Mike Smith works on site. There are 750,000 components in the Mark 1.
Constant registers are key components of IBM’s Automated Controlled Sequence Calculator (ASCC), called Harvard Mark 1.
Constant registers are key components of IBM’s automatic sequence controlled calculator, which was dubbed Mark 1 after its introduction at Harvard.
Foreman Mike Smith (left), Don Knight and Larry Hall use pallet trucks to push the Mark 1 into its new space at SEC.
The project was led by the US Navy and overseen by a crew led by Aiken, who enlisted and served as the project commander. Among those who played key roles was Lieutenant Grace Hopper, a mathematician. Hopper, who would rise to the rank of Rear Admiral, played a key role as Mark I’s first programmer, making her one of the first in the world. She compiled a book on how to program the machine, which became the world’s first computer manual, Schechner said.
Hopper’s Notes provide important documentation of these days, echoes of which can be heard today in now-familiar terms commonly used when talking about computers, Schechner said. A repeated “loop” for the Mark I was a true loop of instructions on perforated paper that fed the machine continuously. A software “patch” for the Mark I referred to paper patches applied to mistakenly punched holes on a tape or program card. Once patched it could be re-punched with the correct instructions. The Mark I “library” was where all the punched paper tapes and cards containing the Mark I programming instructions were stored. And, while the term “bug” is already used for hard-to-find mechanical issues, the brand I saw applied to computers, Schechner said. Hopper’s notebook contains an ironic reference to the term, a real moth that was causing the next-gen machine, the Mark II, to malfunction. Hopper taped the dead bug to the page, noting that the mythical “bug” had finally been observed.
With a computational speed of 3 hertz – today’s machines spin at a breakneck rate of billions of hertz – the electromechanical Mark I was driven by a physical driveshaft connected to its clicking mechanical relays and was in fact more slow (in some cases much slower) than other computer machines of its day, some of which used less reliable but faster vacuum tubes. But the Mark I was built using proven commercial off-the-shelf components from IBM where possible and was more accurate and reliable. These qualities were appreciated and the machine would continue to produce responses until 1959 despite the development of newer and faster versions, notably the Mark II, III and IV, also developed by Aiken at Harvard. After his retirement, the machine was dismantled, with about half remaining at Harvard and two other pieces going to IBM and the Smithsonian Institution.
The machine’s new home, the Science and Engineering Complex, will house the laboratories and classrooms of the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), where Harvard’s computer programs reside. The long-awaited move of the offices and laboratories of around half of the School’s faculty to the new building was about to shift into high gear when the pandemic struck, halting both the move and the end. work on the building. Move-in resumed last fall, and school officials expect the SEC to be fully operational in September when students return to campus. The relocation of Mark I was planned and carried out by teams from the Historical Scientific Instruments Collection and SEAS, led by SEAS Deputy Dean for Campus Planning Pamela Choi Redfern and organized by Senior Project Director Michael Noll, said Schechner.
“It is gratifying to have this revolutionary machine that dates back to the dawn of the computer age installed in Harvard’s burgeoning new home of computer programs,” said SEAS Dean Francis J. Doyle III. “Surrounded by cutting-edge research – from artificial intelligence and machine learning to quantum devices and networks – the Mark I will be on display to the public to educate and inspire future generations of engineers and scientists.”
Even at half its original size, Schechner said the Mark I is not only the largest item in the collection of historic scientific instruments, it is also the largest thing she has ever overseen the movement. The Mark I had been at the Harvard Science Center since the 1990s, when its home in what was then Aiken’s Computing Lab was demolished to make way for the Maxwell-Dworkin Lab. In preparation for the ongoing operation, Schechner said he looked at photographs from that previous move, looking for clues as to how best to dismantle and transport the massive machine. The move to Allston and the SEC was long overdue – Schechner said she spoke to architects during the design phase of the SEC about the need to accommodate the considerable weight of the Mark I in her new home in the building atrium. A quieter teardown and reassembly had been planned for summer 2020, with more time for cleanup and documentation, but COVID stepped in. This time around, the desire to set up the new exhibit and the student-ready building led to a tight two-week deadline for the move, which was completed in early July.
To accomplish the chore, the Harvard team brought in five professional riggers to augment the collection staff. The machine was carefully dismantled in stages and packed for the truck ride to the SEC.
Schechner said she was hovering over the dismantling “like a nervous parent,” photographing and documenting the operation. “There is a kind of beauty in there. There is so much wiring and soldering, so many bundled and almost knitted connections.
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