Length: 51 feet. Height: eight feet. Weight: nearly five tons. An SUV on steroids? No, those dimensions actually describe the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (ASCC) -- also known as the Harvard Mark I -- the largest electromechanical calculator ever built and the first automatic digital calculator in the United States.
Conceived in the 1930s by Howard H. Aiken, a graduate student in theoretical physics at Harvard University, the ASCC was developed and built by IBM during World War II. Aiken had initially proposed a large-scale digital calculator to the faculty of Harvard's physics department and later took his idea to the Monroe Calculating Machine Company and then to IBM.
James Bryce, dean of IBM's inventors and scientists, liked the concept, and IBM President Thomas J. Watson agreed to back the project in 1939. Bryce assigned Clair D. Lake, a prolific IBM inventor, to serve as chief engineer and Aiken's chief contact. Lake was ably assisted by Benjamin M. Durfee and Frank E. Hamilton.
Shown in 1944 are (from left to right) Frank E. Hamilton, Clair D. Lake, Howard H. Aiken and Benjamin M. Durfee.
Progress on the ASCC at IBM's North Street Laboratory in Endicott, N.Y., was slowed by other wartime demands, but the machine eventually was shipped to Harvard in February 1944, assembled and formally presented to the university on August 7 of that year. By then, IBM had spent approximately $200,000 on the project and donated an additional $100,000 to Harvard to cover the ASCC's operating expenses.