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Issue No.03 - July-September (1998 vol.20)
pp: 27-32
<p>According to a remark by Howard Aiken, one that is often quoted, only a very small number of computers would be needed to serve the needs of the whole world, perhaps a dozen, with eight or 10 for the United States. Sometimes the number is given as six or even two or three. As we shall see, documentary evidence confirms that Aiken did, indeed, once say that one or two "computers" would suffice, but he was referring to a special kind of use and not to all possible needs for computer power in every aspect of activity in the whole of the United States. The context shows that his remark did not have the general context that may be supposed and that it was not, therefore, as incorrect as might at first appear.</p>
I. Bernard Cohen, "Howard Aiken on the Number of Computers Needed for the Nation", IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, vol.20, no. 3, pp. 27-32, July-September 1998, doi:10.1109/85.707572
1. Proc. Symp. Large-Scale Digital Calculating Machinery, jointly sponsored by Navy Dept. Bureau of Ordnance and Harvard Univ. Computation Laboratory, 7-10 Jan. 1947,Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1948, vol. 16, Annals Computation Laboratory of Harvard Univ. (Reprinted, with a new Introduction by W. Aspray. Cambridge, Mass., and London: The MIT Press; Los Angeles and San Francisco: Tomash Publishers, 1985. Charles Babbage Institute Reprint Series in the History of Computing, vol. 7.)
2. University Mathematics Laboratory, Cambridge: Report on High Speed Automatic Calculating-Machines, 22-25 June 1949 (Issued by the laboratory with the Co-operation of the Ministry of Supply, January 1950); this volume was reprinted, along with others, in M.R. Williams and M. Campbell-Kelly, eds., The Early British Computer Conferences.Cambridge, Mass., and London: The MIT Press; Los Angeles and San Francisco: Tomash Publishers, 1989. Charles Babbage Institute Reprint Series for the History of Computing, vol. 14, p. 152.
3. W. Aspray, John von Neumann and the Origins of Modern Computing.Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991, pp. 86-91.
4. Information concerning the Bureau of the Census and the National Bureau of Standards in relation to the background of this subcommittee's activities is drawn from the books of Stern and Aspray, cited above.
5. Stern, op cit.,
6. Ibid.
7. The following account of the meeting of the subcommittee is based largely on a draft report (of which a copy may be found in the Aiken files in the Harvard University Archives) of the Cambridge meeting. There may have been other meetings as well.
8. Interview conducted by B. Brummer; a transcript is available in the Charles Babbage Institute.
9. Stern, op cit.
10. I.B. Cohen, Howard Aiken, Computer Pioneer.Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991.
11. See note 9 supra.
12. As I have indicated, I know of no way to determine whether Aiken's remark was made after the Cambridge meeting or after another meeting of the subcommittee, perhaps in Washington, D.C.
13. It is not clear whether Aiken's remark was made to Cannon and Curtiss or to Canon and Samuel Alexander.
14. These transcripts were made available to me through the generosity of Paul Ceruzzi. The originals are to found in the Eleutherium Mills/Hagley Museum in Wilmington, Del.
15. See W.J. Aspray and A. Burks, eds., Papers of John von Neumann on Computing and Computer Theory.Cambridge, Mass., and London: The MIT Press; Los Angeles and San Francisco: Tomash Publishers, 1987, Charles Babbage Institute Reprint Series in the History of Computing, vol. 12.
16. In the course of an oral-history interview with Aiken, conducted by Henry Tropp and me in the autumn of 1973, just weeks before he died, we asked Aiken directly about the statement of the need for only a limited number of computers. He began to answer, referring to von Neumann's ideas, and then—as so often happens in interviews—the subject shifted, and we never got back to this topic.
17. Partly edited transcripts of both of these talks are available in the Aiken files of the Harvard University Archives. These texts are, for the most part, published in I.B. Cohen, G. Welch, and R.V.D. Campbell, eds., Making Numbers—Howard Aiken and the Computer.Cambridge, Mass., and London: The MIT Press, 1998.
18. This sentence occurs in the Fairleigh Dickinson transcript, but not in the Harvard Business School version.
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