February 14, 1996
50 Years Ago Today,
The Computer Age Was Born
By ROBERT E. CALEMor today's school-age children, computers have always existed, like the telephone or the automobile. Many of their baby-boomer parents, though, can remember a time when college term papers were researched in libraries with books and were written on manual typewriters. For many of them, the computer represents a wondrous new technology that they are just now learning to use, whether by choice or by force.
But history tells a different story. The computer is actually as old as the baby boomers themselves. Today is its 50th birthday, and those who witnessed the evolution of computing technology marvel at its staggering pace.
On Feb. 14, 1946, the age of bits of bytes was born when the first all-electronic digital computer -- known by the acronym ENIAC for Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer - was introduced to the world at a special ceremony at the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School of Electrical Engineering.
ENIAC, developed for the United States Army during World War II under the code name Project PX, was a U-shaped black metal behemoth that weighed 30 tons, used nearly 18,000 vacuum tubes, 6,000 switches, 10,000 capacitors, 70,000 resistors and 1,500 relays, stood 10 feet tall and occupied 1,800 square feet in a room by itself. (Data File: ENIAC Versus the Pentium)
And it was fast. ENIAC could reckon a ballistic trajectory -- the reason it was developed -- in 30 seconds, even accounting for wind speed and ambient temperature in addition to the angle at which the weapon was fired. By comparison, using the most powerful mechanical device available at the time, such a calculation would take an hour.
Kay Mauchly Antonelli, now 75 years old, was one of a team of eight people, all women, who programmed the ENIAC by manipulating its thousands of cables and switches. Before she worked on ENIAC, Antonelli, then known as Kathleen McNulty, was one of 200 women who would spend 40 hours, in eight-hour shifts, to calculate one trajectory with a crude mechanical desk calculator. A total of 1,800 trajectory calculations were needed to produce a single "firing table" used by an Army gunnery officer to "know what angle to put the gun so it would hit the target," Antonelli said in a recent interview. (Related article: The Worst-Case Design That Conquered the World)
On Wednesday at the Moore school, another ceremony will kick off a yearlong traveling birthday celebration. And ENIAC, which was shut down, dismantled and distributed around the country in 1956, will be there, reassembled, and switched on for the first time in 40 years. Turning the computer on again after all these years will be Vice President Al Gore, whose speech, titled "The Technology Challenge: Can America Spark Private Innovation?" is expected to address the future of the Government's technology policy.
In the audience will be Antonelli and other surviving members of the ENIAC design team who in the ensuing decades have witnessed the development of computers that are close to 100,000 times more powerful and can fit on a piece of silicon slightly larger than a fingertip. In recent interviews with CyberTimes they offered their perspectives on the present and past of computing, tracing an evolution from rooms full of vacuum tubes to palm-sized microprocessors at a far faster and more ambitious pace than any of them had ever imagined.
"I'm constantly and completely amazed," said Antonelli, "My granddaughter can use a computer without knowing how it works any more than we have to know how a watch works -- a real watch."
Dr. Herman H. Goldstine, 82, who as a supervisor of the Army's ballistic research lab at the Moore School, secured Government financing for the ENIAC project, called the genesis of the computer "a great revolution, and as far as I know there hasn't been one like it before."
"Now you can't drive your car without one of three or four computers being on the bum," Goldstine said. "But seriously, the whole economy would disappear if it weren't for computers. It's worked in some ways to cause tremendous good and in some ways, hardship -- the need for people to be retrained or better trained."
Dr. Jeffrey Chuan Chu, 76, who engineered the ENIAC's ability to divide numbers and calculate square-roots, insisted, "We should honor the early users rather than the early designers."
As an analogy, he suggested that air travel and airlines have evolved because of Charles Lindbergh's first trans-Atlantic solo flight, not because the Wright brothers invented the airplane. Similarly, he said, the modern PC emerged because insurance companies like Franklin Life and Metropolitan Life gambled on the computers that succeeded ENIAC.
"The focus was computing the firing tables," Chu recalled of ENIAC's inception, "but the implication was obvious to everyone. If a machine can calculate fast, we can solve many, many problems."
Even so, Chu said, the group never realized how much hard work would follow, building a computer industry from a laboratory tool. He said that the companies that he and his ENIAC colleagues later founded or joined -- Burroughs, General Electric, Honeywell, International Business Machines, National Cash Register, RCA and Univac -- had great knowledge of how to build hardware, but lacked experience creating software to make the machines useful to all the different industries that would want them. It was the development of true systems by these companies, he said, that actually created the industry.
And with the exception of IBM, which had experience selling punchcards and mechanical calculators, he said, "For the first 10 years, everyone lost money."
"Honeywell, GE, RCA -- all are not in the computer business anymore," Chu noted. "But they all contributed to the establishment and proliferation of the computer industry."
Following are links to the external Web sites that complement this article.
John W. Mauchly and the Development of the ENIAC Computer, an exhibition in the Department of Special Collections of the University of Pennsylvania's Van Pelt Library, by Asaf Goldschmidt and Atsushi Akera of the university's Department of History and Sociology of Science. This on-line exhibit is a biography of Mauchly (1907-1980), who along with J. Presper Eckert (1919-1995), is credited with inventing the ENIAC.
The Birth of the Information Age, the University of Pennsylvania's official home page for an 18-month celebration of "the invention and enduring impact" of ENIAC. This site offers a complete list of events and exhibitions.
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company