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Robert Campbell, at 86; computer pioneer

A memorial service will be held Saturday for Robert V. D. Campbell, 86, one of the first programmers and developers of the groundbreaking Mark I and Mark II computers in the 1940s. Mr. Campbell died July 1 of pneumonia at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston.

Conceived by legendary Harvard physicist Howard Aiken and developed through a remarkable collaboration between the university and International Business Machines, the Mark I is considered by many historians to be the first digital computer and the ignitor of the information age.

Mr. Campbell, then a researcher at Harvard, wrote some of the experimental computer programs for it. At that time, programmers converted mathematical equations into a code that was transcribed through holes on a paper roll. Data was entered through punch cards, and the machine used the programs to compute the problems. Mr. Campbell also helped a young Grace Hopper write more sophisticated programs for the machine. Hopper would become one of the top programmers of the computer age and the creator of the Cobol language.

Mr. Campbell also supervised the final assembly of the machine in an IBM plant in Endicott, N.Y.

When the Mark I was unveiled on Aug. 14, 1944, it was heralded as a technological wonder. Its speed of three calculations a second was considered lightning fast. Its size was staggering: 8 feet high by 51 feet long, with 765,299 parts, including 530 miles of wire. It weighed 5 tons.

It was first used to calculate integrals and then was put to work by the military on a variety of functions, including calculations by scientists building the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, N.M.

The Mark I computed through electrical and mechanical processes, a technique overtaken a few years later by the development of the all-electronic ENIAC.

Born in Newark, Mr. Campbell earned a bachelor's degree in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a master's degree in physics from Columbia University.

He served in the US Navy from 1944 to 1946 before returning to Harvard to contribute to the design and operation of the Mark II computer. It was under Mr. Campbell's direction that the Mark II computer used the now standard approach for calculating numbers with decimals, a surprisingly difficult process for computers.

After leaving Harvard, Mr. Campbell worked at Raytheon Co. from 1947 to 1949, where he was one of eight founders of the Association for Computing Machinery and served as its first treasurer. Mr. Campbell moved to Philadelphia in 1949, working at the Burroughs Corp. He returned to the Boston area in 1966, where he was a systems analyst at MITRE Corp. until he retired in 1985.

In his spare time, Mr. Campbell was an amateur astronomer and had an interest in science, history, music, and world events.

Passionate about issues of social and economic justice, Mr. Campbell served as trustee and treasurer of the Greeley Foundation in Concord, a public charity for peace and justice.

He was a deacon of the First Parish Church in Concord. In 1995, Mr. Campbell and his wife, Winifred, moved to Newbury Court in Concord.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Campbell leaves two daughters, Constance Scribner of Boston and Kathleen Bean of Sudbury; a son, Arthur Campbell of Seattle; and three grandchildren.

The memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m Saturday in First Parish Church in Concord.

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