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February 19, 1996

The Face of Computing
50 Years and 18,000 Tubes Ago

  • A Brief History of Computers.


    PHILADELPHIA -- The electric light bulb, we all know, was invented by Thomas Edison. The telephone was the work of Alexander Graham Bell. And the computer ...

    "If you took a hundred people off the street and asked them who invented the computer, ninety-nine would have no idea, and one would say Von Neumann," observed Joel Shurkin, author of "Engines of the Mind," a history of computing.

    It is true that John von Neumann, the eminent mathematician and pioneer of game theory, became involved in computing and even did some programming himself -- but in the late 1940's he was a relative latecomer to the field.

    The strongest claim to invention of the computer -- though the matter remains a subject of some debate -- rests with two researchers, John Presper Eckert and John W. Mauchly, who worked at the University of Pennsylvania during World War II. They first demonstrated their general-purpose electronic computer 50 years ago, on Feb. 14, 1946. It was given an ungainly name, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer. But no matter, it would be known forever after by its catchy acronym, ENIAC.

    Last week, Vice President Al Gore joined scientists, politicians and university officials here to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the ENIAC as the birth of the information age.

    Back in the 1940's, no one could have foreseen the transforming nature of the technology. The ENIAC pioneers were awarded a military contract in 1943 to accomplish a specific task -- quickly calculate firing trajectories for artillery shells. To the Army, the ENIAC was simply a promising tool.

    The machine itself was a 30-ton, black behemoth housing 18,000 vacuum tubes and miles of wire -- 100 times faster than the calculating machines of its time, but merely an amusing artifact by modern standards. A desktop personal computer today has 1,000 times the ENIAC's processing power, and several million times the capacity to store data.

    Yet the story of the ENIAC, and its aftermath, shares much with today's computer technology, its development and commercialization. The ENIAC was a case of sharing -- or "open," in modern jargon -- technology standards. The machine employed a primitive type of parallel processing, an approach now used in advanced supercomputers.

    The ENIAC team succeeded as much because of organization and discipline as technological prowess. They actually made a working machine, unlike some who later claimed to have invented the computer. And establishing a tradition in the industry, they shipped the product late.

    Herman H. Goldstine is the highest-ranking member of the ENIAC team still alive. (Eckert died last year, and Mauchly died in 1980.) As a young lieutenant, Goldstine was sent to Philadelphia as the officer in charge of the ENIAC project, making sure the Army got its money's worth.

    Goldstine understood both the technology and the escalating set of requests he could expect from his Army overseers. That led to a crucial decision to make sure the ENIAC could tackle all manner of calculating chores, which helped ensure its place in computer history.

    "I certainly wasn't going to build a special-purpose machine," Goldstine recalled, "because I knew the Army's demands would be greater than single purpose. And Mauchly totally agreed."

    The ENIAC was a versatile, general-purpose machine, and that was central to its claim to being the first modern computer. Its rivals were also electronic machines that operated according to the on-off signals of electrical impulses -- the 1's and 0's of the digital language.

    But the pretender with the greatest claim as the first computer -- the Colossus, developed by the British mathematician Alan Turing -- was designed for the single purpose of cracking Germany's coded military messages. John V. Atanasoff, a professor at Iowa State University, did early work with another computer using vacuum tubes, but it could only solve one kind of mathematical equations. In Germany, Konrad Zuse, an engineer, was also building computers, but all his machines were bombed in 1944.

    In a sense, the accomplishment of Eckert and Mauchly was much like that of Wilbur and Orville Wright. In the early days of computing, as with airplanes, many people were making contributions to the field. But the ENIAC team got the real thing up and running first.

    "The stored program computer would have been developed without the ENIAC," said Gwen Bell, director of collections for The Computer Museum in Boston. "But the ENIAC was the catalyst for a lot of things. It certainly has a legitimate claim for being the starting point for the computer age."

    The design of the ENIAC, and its immediate successor the EDVAC (Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer), which added stored memory, became widespread after a Philadelphia conference in the summer of 1946. "It was an example of sharing the technology standards," Ms. Bell said. "They were pioneers of open systems."

    Goldstine, now 82, recalls those pioneering days vividly. Mauchly, a physicist, had thought about computers for years, and he conceived the idea for the ENIAC. Eckert, the younger of the pair, an engineer, was the one who then took over and made the machine.

    "Early on, it became Eckert's project," Goldstine said. "This is not to run down Mauchly, but he was not the kind of person to get the machine finished and built. And getting the machine built was what the ENIAC project was about."

    Eckert and Mauchly declined an offer from Thomas J. Watson Sr. to join IBM. Instead, they founded their own company, sold out to Sperry Rand and developed the Univac computer. For years, the Univac technology was considered superior to any of IBM's offerings. But IBM won the battle in the marketplace. Neither Eckert nor Mauchly got rich from their pioneering work.

    For his part, Goldstine did join IBM, helped set up its famed Watson laboratory and became an IBM Fellow, a title that bestows recipients wide freedom in research and funding. Asked if he ever imagined what might come in the ENIAC's wake, Goldstine replied: "Oh no. It's just amazing. But I'm also amazed that I made it to 82. I never thought I'd live that long."

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