The great ENIAC

Submitted by Bryan Ruby on Sat, 10/18/2014 - 16:19

The great ENIAC

Image
ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Glen Beck (background) and Betty Snyder (foreground) program the ENIAC in BRL building 328

After spending most of my years years in grade school working hard on experimental science fair projects and not receiving a ribbon, I finally gave up and wrote a "non-experimental" paper on the history of computers in the eighth grade. Despite the paper being weak even for eighth grade standards, I finally won a ribbon (third place) in the school science fair. Remember, this was the early 1980's and everyone was still fascinated with the then new concept of computers entering "everyday" life. Why am I going down memory lane? Well I came across an article on the 60th anniversary of ENIAC  [via news.com, broken link] the "first" computer built which of course was mentioned in that paper of mine some 25 years ago.

Though, only to find out after reading the article, ENIAC wasn't the first computer and it really didn't do a whole lot. They just had a good public relations department that explained well to the American audience what role the computer would play in the future. If you read the article you'll find (not included in my excerpt) that the PR people went so far to include the placing of flashing light bulbs on the computer console so that people had something to look at besides vacuum tubes and switches. Still, you have to admit it was an amazing engineering achievement despite needing a good marketing campaign to go along with it.

Compared with other computers that performed such practical functions, ENIAC was an odd bird in technical terms. It relied on a 10-digit decimal system, rather than the binary systems of ones and zeros used by virtually all subsequent computers, even those developed by Eckert and Mauchly. Programs could not be stored on ENIAC. It didn't really employ conditional branching--the if/then statements that form the cornerstone of modern programming.

And only one ENIAC, in fact, was ever built.

"It was a monstrosity. It was rapidly overtaken by general purpose machines," thundered Jay Forrester, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and one of the leading computer architects of the last century. "There wasn't anything in it that survived into modern machines, except maybe electricity."

But supporters respond with an indisputable fact: It worked. Until it was immobilized by lightning in 1955, ENIAC performed computational problems relating to the development of the hydrogen bomb and other military projects. Penn professor Irving Brainerd once even speculated that during the 80,223 hours ENIAC operated, it crunched more calculations than had been performed by all humanity since time began.

Blog originally posted at bryansplace.com on March 23, 2006, Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army via Wikipedia