Howe attended the Boston Latin School, class of 1865, then Harvard College, class of 1869. In 1871, he graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) with a degree of "graduate in the department of geology and mining science", later renamed a Bachelor of Science.
He worked in industry from 1872-1882 in the iron and then the copper industries, in the U.S., Chile, Quebec, New Jersey, and Arizona. From 1883 to 1897, he was a consulting metallurgist in Boston, and simultaneously a lecturer at M.I.T. His first book, Copper Smelting, was published in 1885. His second book, The Metallurgy of Steel, was published in 1891. In 1897, he took a chair in metallurgy at Columbia University. In 1903, he published his Iron, Steel, and Other Alloys. He wrote the "Iron and Steel" article for the Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition (1911). He retired in 1913 and devoted himself to research in his Green Peace Laboratory at his home in Bedford Hills. In 1916, he published The Metallography of Steel and Cast Iron.
Howe was elected president of the American Institute of Mining Engineers in 1893, and chairman of the American Society for Testing Materials in 1900. He became a member of the National Research Council in 1918 and became its chairman in 1919.