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Harry D. Huskey
In Memoriam

Harry D. Huskey

Professor of Mathematics and Electrical Engineering, Emeritus UC Berkeley, and
Professor of Computer and Information Sciences, Emeritus

UC Santa Cruz

Harry Douglas Huskey, a computer science faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley, for 12 years, and at UC Santa Cruz for 22, died on April 9, 2017, at the age of 101. He was a pioneer designer of the electronic computer, having worked on the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) at the University of Pennsylvania during 1944-46, as well as on a pilot model of Alan Turing’s Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) in England immediately after World War II.

Huskey, an only child, was born on a farm in North Carolina on January 19, 1916. His early childhood was spent on a remote, high-altitude sheep ranch in Idaho. In high school, he developed an interest in mathematics, and became the first in his family to attend college.  After receiving his B.S. in mathematics and physics from the University of Idaho in 1937, he pursued graduate studies in mathematics first at Ohio University and soon after at Ohio State University. While at Ohio University, he tinkered with the design for an automatic computer using relays, but he abandoned the idea midway through the project. Looking back, he said that he “didn’t complete it because I decided it was much too expensive and that there wasn’t any use for it.”   At Ohio University, Harry was a teaching assistant and the brightest student in his geometry class was Velma Roeth. The couple was married in 1939. 

Huskey completed his M.A. (1940) and Ph.D. (1943) at Ohio State University under the direction of the Hungarian-born mathematician Tibor Radó. His dissertation solved a problem on surface area employing the modern viewpoint of the Lebesgue integral.

Huskey attempted to enlist in the U.S. Navy, but was not accepted because of needing to wear glasses. However, he was offered a position to teach mathematics to Navy officer candidates at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was accompanied by his wife and baby daughter.  It was there in 1944 that he fortuitously became involved with the ENIAC, a massive electronic computer designed to calculate firing tables for the U.S. Army much faster than had ever been done before. This was a secret wartime project and Huskey had applied for part-time work to supplement his teaching stipend without knowing what was involved. Among other activities, he coauthored the operating manual for the ENIAC (1946). Huskey also worked on the designs of a second computer, the EDVAC (Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer), which incorporated novel architecture. But, he resigned from the University of Pennsylvania after a botched offer of an assistant professorship and directorship of the EDVAC project.

Armed with strong mathematical skills and a knowledge of computer circuitry, Huskey was invited to travel to England with his young family in late 1946 to work at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington. The winter of 1946-1947 was bitterly cold and there was still food rationing after the war. At the laboratory, Huskey belonged to the Mathematics Division, where designs were being developed for Alan Turing’s ACE. The focus of the work was to write the instructions and arrange the location of data in such a way that a program could be executed rapidly. Huskey abbreviated Turing’s list of instructions and proposed a pilot version of ACE. Although Turing was more interested in a full-sized ACE, he was cooperative and helped solve difficult problems. 

Apart from work, Huskey once agreed to race the Olympic class runner Turing in a marathon, with Huskey taking circuituous train connections and Turing running the direct route. Turing lost by less than five minutes!

After the year abroad, Huskey joined the National Bureau of Standards, first in Washington, D.C., and then as head of the Bureau’s Institute for Numerical Analysis at UC Los Angeles. He decided to use his tight budget to build a computer, the Standards Western Automatic Computer (SWAC). This small-scale machine, completed in 1950, was the fastest computer of its time and continued to be used for research in numerical mathematics for many years.

In 1950, Dr. Huskey was featured on Groucho Marx’s radio show “You Bet Your Life,” paired up with a junk dealer. Groucho makes much fun of Huskey’s machine, asking the other guest how much it would fetch as scrap metal. In between the barrage of Groucho’s one-liners, the unperturbed Huskey calmly tries to explain his computer’s arithmetical capabilities. As history would have it, the joke is perhaps on Groucho after all.

During a period of leave (1952-53) at Wayne University in Detroit, Huskey began work on a new computer, which was to become the commercial Bendix G-15. This was the first computer designed to be operated by a single person. It was a general purpose model, intended for use in research and industry. It weighed 950 pounds and cost $50,000 (or could be rented for $1,500 per month).

In July 1954, Huskey was appointed associate professor in the departments of mathematics and electrical engineering at UC Berkeley. His unique combination of creative talents for computer  logic and electronics were much appreciated. He was promoted to full professor in 1958. Huskey had a Bendix G-15 in his home office in Berkeley; it was eventually donated to the Smithsonian Institution. At UC Berkeley, Huskey enjoyed teaching classes on logic design, programming, and computers. He also did research on new computer languages. A graduate student of his, Niklaus Wirth, went on to design several programming languages, including Pascal. Huskey served on the Academic Senate/Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on the Computer Center and became acting director of the computer center.

Professor Emeritus William Kahan of UC Berkeley’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, an A.M. Turing Award winner, said that he “met Harry Huskey at most twice in the 1960s before I came to Berkeley from Toronto...He was quiet to the point of self-effacement and, like so many of us then, somewhat ahead of our time.” Also, Dag Spicer, senior curator of the Computer History Museum, has commented: “Most of his attainments were accomplished before he was 50, only halfway through his remarkable life. Harry basically lived through and participated in the entire span of the history of electronic computing.”

In 1963, Huskey spent time in India to help establish the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) at Kanpur, with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, and assistance from other computer science faculty members he had recruited. They began to offer 10-day courses to students from India and neighboring countries. Late in 1964, he held a conference with other leading computer science faculty at IIT Kanpur, sponsored by the Ford Foundation, and started the Computer Users Group of India. Many information technology professionals in India trace their beginnings to these efforts.

In 1967, Professor Huskey moved to UC Santa Cruz as one of the founding faculty members of the Computer and Information Science Program. Later, he helped create, and then directed, the UCSC computer center. He retired in 1986.

In 1952, Huskey worked to establish the Professional Group on Electric Computers (PGEC), which later became the (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) IEEE Computer Society.  He was  the editor for IEEE computer publications from 1965 to 1970.  He also served as vice president (1958-1960) and president (1960-1962) of the Association for Computing Machinery. 

Huskey received the IEEE Computer Society Pioneer Award in 1980 and the IEEE Centennial Award in 1984, was named a Fellow of the Association of Computing Machinery in 1994, and a Fellow of the Computer History Museum in 2013 “for his seminal work on early and important computing systems and a lifetime of service to computer education.” In 2015, UC Santa Cruz presented him with a Founding Faculty Award for establishing (together with David Huffman) the Department of Computer Science, which became the seed department for the Jack Baskin School of Engineering at UC Santa Cruz. Patrick Mantey, Baskin Professor of Computer Engineering and founding dean of the Baskin School of Engineering, said: “I’m glad we got Harry here to see what has grown from the seeds he helped plant and nurture. He was already a legend in computing when I was early in my career.”

Velma Roeth Huskey had earned a B.A. in English from Ohio State University in 1939. Throughout her life, she assisted her husband in his endeavors. She helped him set up computing centers in developing countries. She and Harry coauthored a paper on Lady Lovelace and Charles Babbage (Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, mathematically gifted daughter of the poet Lord Byron, is considered to have been the first computer programmer, in connection with her algorithm for Babbage’s Analytical Engine). At the time of Velma’s death in 1991, the couple was doing research for a book on Ada Lovelace.

In 1994, Harry Huskey married Nancy Grindstaff  Whitney; she died in 2015.

Huskey retained an active interest in computers up to the time of his death, including playing with a toy drone with his grandchildren.

Harry Huskey is survived by three daughters, Carolyn Dickinson, Roxanne Dwyer, and Linda Retterath, one son, Doug, five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. He is buried in the family plot at Santa Cruz Memorial.

Heather Levien
Manfred Warmuth
James Demmel