The very word “computer” was so novel that Dr. Huskey described the SWAC as “a large-scale electronic computing machine” when he appeared on the radio quiz show “You Bet Your Life” in 1950 and tried to explain it to the host, Groucho Marx.
“Now, doctor, what is this machine for, this robot?” Groucho asked.
“It’s to carry out sequences of computations, to compare figures,” Dr. Huskey patiently explained.
To which Groucho replied, in his signature manner of gigabit-paced repartee: “If you’re going to compare figures, I don’t need an electric brain for that. It’s called an automatic reflex in my case.”
Dr. Huskey’s teammate on the show, a junkman (they were disqualified after they guessed wrong on which state is north of Missouri), estimated the computer’s worth, by weight, at $100. But Groucho presciently described Dr. Huskey’s research as “worthwhile work which will make life easier and better for all of us.”
Not even Dr. Huskey, though, quite envisioned the seismic changes his work heralded. “I never dreamed they would happen,” he told the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., in 2006, as part of an oral-history project.
Dag Spicer, senior curator at the museum, described Dr. Huskey in an email as “a Zelig-like character, present at some of computing’s greatest moments.”
“Most of these attainments were accomplished before he was 50, only halfway through his remarkable life,” Mr. Spicer said. “Harry basically lived through and participated in the entire span of the history of electronic computing.”
Harry Douglas Huskey was born in a farmhouse in Whittier, N.C., in the Great Smoky Mountains, on Jan. 19, 1916, just 30 years after the invention of the first commercially successful manual adding machine.
His father, Cornelius, ran an ice cream store and a lumber mill before he uprooted the family when Harry was 2 and moved to a sheep ranch in Idaho. His mother, the former Myrtle Cunningham, was also a rancher.
Harry was inclined to mathematics from an early age. But his first working encounter with electronics, during a high school play, was inauspicious.
“We produced ‘Death Takes a Holiday,’ and I was the electrician,” he recalled in the oral history. “I hung the lights and manned the switchboard during performances. The switchboard had a long handle that stuck out, and it would turn everything off. In the middle of the play, I sat down in the chair and also on that switch handle, turning the lights out!”
The first in his family to attend college, Mr. Huskey graduated with a…