The Hacker's Almanac for Friday March 9, 2007

9 March, 2007

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It's the birthday of Italian explorer and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci, born in Florence, Italy in 1454. He came from a prominent family and went to work for the Medici clan, which ruled the city. The Medicis sent Vesupcci to Seville, Spain to run their merchant operations and he helped supply the Spanish exploration fleets.

After undertaking some earlier voyages as a navigator under Alonso Ojeda, in 1499, Vespucci was ordered by King Ferdinand to take command of an expedition around the southern horn of Africa and into the Indian Ocean, but Vespucci sailed so far west that their first landfall was in Guyana in South America. At that point the fleet split up, with Vespucci leading half of it further south and discovering the mouth of the Amazon river before turning back towards Spain.

Vespucci made another voyage to South America a few years later on commission from Portugal and a letter he wrote to the Medicis on returning to Lisbon was published throughout Europe. In the letter, Vespucci described the lands he visited as a "New World". Unlike Christopher Columbus, Vespucci believed they were not part of Asia, but instead a new fourth continent.

A number of other letters providing colorful versions of Vespucci's voyages were later published in his name. One of these, which described an apocryphal voyage of 1497, predating Columbus's visit to the New World, inspired cartographer Martin Wardseemuller, to label the new continent "America" in Vespucci's honor.

In 1508, Vespucci was named Pilot Major of Spain by King Ferdinand and given the responsibility of training pilots for ocean voyages. He died in Seville in 1512 of malaria.

It's the birthday of computer pioneer Howard Aiken, born in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1900. When he was a teen his family moved to Indianapolis and fell on hard times. His father left home and so Aiken dropped out of high school to go to work to support his mother and grandparents. Eventually, he got a night job at the Indianapolis Light and Heat Company which let him go back to school. Aiken stayed in the utilities business all through college and after graduating, he became chief engineer for the Madison Gas Company.
(The History of Computing Project)

In 1935 he went to Harvard to get a PhD. in physics. His dissertation on space-charge conduction in vacuum tubes required a long string of tedious mathematical calculations. And so, inspired by British mathematician Charles Babbage's unfinished 'analytical engine', which was stored in the attic of Harvard's science center, Aiken came up with a design for a machine to perform the calculations for him, which he later described as "only a lazy man's idea".
(feature in the Harvard Gazette)

Aiken took the idea to IBM, which agreed to fund and build the machine. They officially named it the IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, but everyone ended up calling it the Mark I. With the arrival of World War II, the project ended up taking seven years, much longer than anyone expected. When it was done, the machine was 55 feet long, seven feet high and weighed five tons. You controlled it by inserting pre-punched paper tape and it could carry out long strings of operations including addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, logarithms and trigonometric functions. Data was stored mechanically on wheels and the output was displayed on an electric typewriter. It took three seconds to perform a single multiplication operation. Its construction marked the beginning of the era of the modern computer.

The machine was completed in 1944 and was put into use by the US Navy for gunnery and ballistics calculations. Aiken had a falling out with IBM over credit for the machine and the military became the chief sponsor of his work. He built three more computers at Harvard, the last of which, the Mark IV, was all electronic and was one of the first computers to use magnetic core memory. He went on to found Harvard's computer science program, the first ever in the world.

Howard Aiken died on March 14, 1973 in St. Louis Missouri.

All information courtesy of Wikipedia except where otherwise noted.

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