IBM Inventors Join Hall of Fame for Pioneering Programmable Computing

Pictured (from left) Francis Hamilton (IBM engineer), Clair Lake (IBM engineer) Howard Aiken (Harvard professor) and Benjamin Durfee (IBM engineer) — 2014 National Inventors Hall of Fame inductees for their invention of the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (ASCC)

Later this evening the National Inventors Hall of Fame will induct three IBM (NYSE: IBM) engineers for their invention of the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (ASCC), which was developed more than 70 years ago to rapidly and accurately perform complex mathematical calculations. The ASCC was a precursor to today’s cognitive computing systems like IBM Watson, which rapidly analyze data and learn and interact naturally with people. The ASCC ushered in the programmable computing era, which would ultimately provide the ability to put a man on the moon and to make the Internet a reality.

IBM inventors Benjamin Durfee, Francis Hamilton and Clair Lake, as well as Harvard professor and co-inventor Howard Aiken, will be posthumously honored by the Hall of Fame in a ceremony at the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the home of the National Inventors Hall of Fame. The National Inventors Hall of Fame, Inc. is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to recognizing and honoring invention and creativity, as well as honoring the men and women responsible for the great technological advances that make human, social and economic progress possible.

Durfee, Hamilton, Lake and Aiken will be inducted for their invention disclosed in U.S. Patent No. 2,616,626, which is simply titled Calculator. The patent application was filed on February 8, 1945, but did not issue until November 4, 1952. The invention described in the ‘626 patent was the first automatic digital calculator able to retain mathematical rules in its memory and not require reprogramming to solve a new set of problems. It represented a significant advance. Because reprogramming was not necessary, the invention was a powerful improvement, offering far greater speed in performing a host of complex mathematical calculations.

The Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (ASCC) at Harvard University.


The Story of the Programmable Calculator

The story of the ASCC starts with Lake, Hamilton and Aiken who originally worked on the research projected called the Mark I project. Durfee joined the team in 1939 and was heavily involved in the testing and refinement of the machine.Ultimately, through a series of important breakthroughs, the Mark I calculator was conceived and designed in the late 1930s through early 1940s. As the first large-scale digital calculator the Mark I became the foundation for more advanced computer machines to come. Ultimately, in 1944, the Mark I would later be officially named the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, and provided the ability to perform addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and reference previous results. We will call it the ASCC from here.


The massive calculator consisted of 78 adding machines and calculators linked together, and featured 765,000 parts, 3,300 relays, over 500 miles of wire and more than 175,000 connections. The caclulator, which was 51 feet long and 8 feet high, with 26 foot panels stretching out of its back, and represented an important first step toward the more advanced computing machines we have today.

IBM President Thomas J. Watson discusses the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (ASCC) with Navy personnel.

The ASCC was electromechanical with mechanical parts that were electrically controlled and used ordinary telephone relays that enabled electrical currents to be switched on or off. Unlike modern computers, the ASCC had no keyboard, but was operated with approximately 1,400 rotary switches that had to be adjusted to set up a run. Instructions and data input were entered into the computer on continuous strips of punch-card paper. The ASCC could perform arithmetic operations on numbers up to 23 digits in length. It was used by the United States Navy during World War II to run repetitive calculations for the production of mathematical tables that aided in aiming artillery bombs and shells.

From a broader perspective, ASSC forsehadowed the programmable computing era, a time when scientists began designing and building the first electronic programmable computers to enable adventures such as putting a man on the moon and ultimately powering the Internet. Today, programmable computers are giving way the era of cognitive systems that learn and interact naturally with people, but without programmable computers it stretches the imagination that today we would be taking the steps we are into the cognitive computer era.

“The invention of the ASCC was a precursor to today’s cognitive computing era, which is transforming business and society by helping people quickly and accurately make sense of massive volumes of data using analytics,” said IBM Fellow and Vice President of Innovation, Bernie Meyerson. “IBM inventors around the world are building upon the accomplishments of Benjamin Durfee, Francis Hamilton, Clair Lake and fundamentally changing the way people interact with computing systems in more natural ways.”


Patent Eligibility of Computer Systems

Once upon a time in patent and innovation history the ability to do things better, faster and more accurate was something that was admired. Today, sadly, a system being capable of doing something faster than a human could leads to questions about whether the resulting innovation is patent eligible.

Tonight the National Inventors Hall of Fame will be celebrating the substantial achievement of these four remarkable innovators who working together ushered in the programmable computer era. Simultaneously, just across the river, the United States Supreme Court will continue to consider whether computer implemented methods and systems are patent eligible. This should be an easy question, but 50% of the Judges on the Federal Circuit are on record opining that software cannot be patent eligible if it only does something a human could do but faster.

There is no doubt that programming computers has come a long way since deployment of the Mark I in 1944, but so many continue to believe there to be nothing particularly innovative in making a machine do something, which really boggles the mind if you ask me. If software is so trivia and not the least bit innovative then why doesn’t it ever seem to work as designed? Bug after bug requiring patch after patch, many deemed critical, suggest that getting a machine to do something complex isn’t nearly as straight forward as the critics would have you believe. The fact that they have even been able to convince anyone is striking though given that virtually everyone in the business world uses a computer, and smart phones are practically ubiquitous. It seems we are updating defective software on a weekly, if not daily basis, yet critics will with a straight face tell you that software isn’t worthy of a patent.


The short answer is this: If anyone thinks innovating is easy it is because they have never innovated. The four inventors who brought us the ASCC nearly 70 years ago are appropriately honored and will take their place in the Hall of Fame because their innovation changed the world precisely because it enabled faster, more reliable calculations. It was a tool that allowed for many things to be accomplished. It opened up possibilities and enabled others to achieve. To think for a minute that such a system, whether described in hardware or in software, is patent ineligible is the height of absurdity.

Indeed, a statement questioning the patent eligibility of an invention that accomplished a task faster than a human would have seemed comically ridiculous when the ASCC was invented. Likewise, it is comically ridiculous today, particularly after it is pointed out that cognitive computing done by IBM’s Watson performs 80 trillion operations a second. No human could ever in a single lifetime perform 80 trillion operations, nor could a human in any relevant time frame provide the solutions to so many calculations enabled by computers.

Will the modern computer systems we have today be patent eligible in the future? The Supreme Court will soon decide that issue, and it seems extremely unlikely that they will say that all software system and methods are patent ineligible, but the fact that this question even needs to be decided in 2014, some 70 years after deployment of the first programmable computer, is shocking in and of itself.


Other IBM Inventors in the Hall of Fame

With Durfee, Hamilton and Lake’s induction, there will now be 18 IBMers in the Hall of Fame, recognized for a variety of seminal inventions, such as DRAM, LASIK Eye Surgery, and the Scanning Tunneling Microscope. Other IBM National Inventors Hall of Fame inductees include:

  • Dr. Lubomyr Romankiw: magnetic thin-film storage heads, inducted 2012
  • Dr. David Thompson: magnetic thin-film storage heads, inducted 2012
  • Norman Joseph Woodland: Optically Scanned Barcode (UPC code), inducted 2011
  • Louis Stevens: Data Storage Machine, inducted 2008
  • William Goddard: Magnetic Disk Drive, inducted 2007
  • John Lynott: Magnetic Disk Drive, inducted 2007
  • Samuel Blum: Excimer Laser Surgery (foundation for LASIK Eye Surgery), inducted 2002
  • Rangaswamy Srinivasan: Excimer Laser Surgery (foundation for LASIK Eye Surgery), inducted 2002
  • Jim Wynne: Excimer Laser Surgery (foundation for LASIK Eye Surgery), inducted 2002
  • Mark Dean: Microcomputer System with Bus Control Means for Peripheral Processing Devices, inducted 1997
  • Dennis Moeller: Microcomputer System with Bus Control Means for Peripheral Processing Devices, inducted 1997
  • Robert Heath Dennard: Field-Effect Transistor Memory DRAM, inducted 1997
  • Gerd Karl Binnig: Scanning Tunneling Microscope, inducted 1994
  • Heinrich Rohrer: Scanning Tunneling Microscope, inducted 1994
  • Herman Hollerith: Punched Card Tabulator, inducted 1990


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