ENIAC’s 60th Anniversary

Yesterday was the 60th anniversary of the creation of ENIAC, the world’s first all-electronic computer, here at U Penn. An interview with Presper Eckert, one of its co-inventor’s, was recently published on the ComputerWorld site. I was fascinated by his description of the Harvard Mark 1, ENIAC’s mechanical predecessor:

It could solve linear differential equations, but only linear equations. It had a long framework divided into sections with a couple dozen shafts buried through it. You could put different gears on the shafts using screwdrivers and hammers and it had “integrators,” that gave [the] product of two shafts coming in on a third shaft coming out. By picking the right gear ratio you should get the right constants in the equation. We used published tables to pick the gear ratios to get whatever number you wanted. The limit on accuracy of this machine was the slippage of the mechanical wheels on the integrator.

And about ENIAC itself:

The ENIAC was the first electronic digital computer and could add those two 10-digit numbers in .00002 seconds — that’s 50,000 times faster than a human, 20,000 times faster than a calculator and 1,500 times faster than the Mark 1. For specialized scientific calculations it was even faster… ENIAC could do three-dimensional, second-order differential equations. We were calculating trajectory tables for the war effort. In those days the trajectory tables were calculated by hundreds of people operating desk calculators — people who were called computers. So the machine that does that work was called a computer… ENIAC had 18,000 vacuum tubes… The radio has only five or six tubes, and television sets have up to 30.

He also mentioned that back then Philadelphia was “Vacuum Tube Valley.” My neighbor, a man in his 70s, told me he use to work on re-entry systems in an office on Walnut St. I asked if he meant programs for people re-entering the work force. “No,” he said “I worked for GE, designing re-entry systems for astronauts in spaceships.” It seems that little of this technological legacy remains here. Penn’s school of engineering isn’t what it used to be (Penn’s schools of business, architecture, communications, medicine, nursing and veterinary medicine are all top 5 schools, but engineering ranks 27th). And while there are Lockheed-Martin offices and pharmeceutical companies scattered around the tri-state area, and Drexel is a good engineering school, I don’t get any sense that the city of Philadelphia does anything to capitalize on its remaining engineering and technology assets.

Leave a Reply