Harrington was born in New York City on May 9, 1919. He graduated from The Cooper Union in 1940 with a degree in electrical engineering, received a master's degree in electrical engineering from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn in 1948, and his doctorate from MIT in 1958.
Harrington enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War II, receiving his commission as a lieutenant in 1942. He served as an electronics officer aboard several Navy destroyers in the Pacific theater, principally responsible for shipboard radar defense systems, the first wartime use of that nascent technology. At the war's conclusion, Harrington was part of a U.S. Navy team responsible for the release and transport of U.S. prisoners of war from prison camps several hundred miles inland in Manchuria.
After his return to civilian life in 1946, Harrington joined the U.S. Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory, where he pursued his interest in the development of radar technology, space research, and communications technology. During his tenure, he oversaw the development of radar data processing and transmission equipment, including the earliest data transmission modems, which would later become one of the foundations for the emergence of modern information technology. He subsequently served as head of Lincoln Laboratory's Radio Physics Division from 1958-1963.
After receiving his doctorate, he joined the faculty of MIT in 1963 as a professor in both the aeronautics and astronautics and electrical engineering departments. At the same time, Harrington was named the first director of the MIT Center for Space Research. In the early 1970s, he joined the Communications Satellite Corporation, where he served as senior vice president of research and development, as well as Director of Comsat Laboratories, until his retirement in 1984.
During his professional career, Dr. Harrington received numerous awards, including the U.S. Air Force award for exceptional civilian service in 1952, The Cooper Union President's Citation for exceptional professional achievement in 1965, and The Cooper Union Gano Dunn award for outstanding professional achievement in 1983. Harrington was widely published in numerous professional and technical journals on topics including radar detection theory, digital computer development, digital communications, magnetic and electrostatic storage systems, theory of magnetism and magnetic domains, radio physics, and astronomy. He holds several patents on data transmission methods and bandwidth compression systems for the transmission of radar data. He was a fellow of several honorary professional societies in his fields of interest, including the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Harrington is survived by his wife, their five married children and their spouses: John F. and Maureen of Queenstown, Md.; Nancy and Jack Higgins of Natick, Mass.; Jeffrey and Karen of Acton, Mass.; Richard and Betsy of Accokeek, Md.; and Brian (SB ’77) and Kathleen of Westford, Mass., as well as 14 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.