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Happy Belated 65th Birthday ENIAC

April 5, 2011

How embarrassing, I wrote about IBM’s Watson computer winning at Jeopardy in our Feb. 17 post asking “Can Machines Think?” and never mentioned Watson’s progenitor’s significant birthday.

ENIAC was first introduced to the world on February 14, 1946, as the first general-purpose electronic computer. It was constructed and operated at the University of Pennsylvania, Moore School of Electrical Engineering. Bits of the original machine are enjoying a graceful retirement in the ENIAC Museum.

ENIAC is short for Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer. It was a Turing-complete digital computer capable of being reprogrammed to solve a full range of computing problems.

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Here’s the first 3 of “12 Things You Didn’t Know About ENIAC” from a recent article by George Jones in Maximum PC.

1. Upon being completed, ENIAC contained 17,458 vacuum tubes, 7,200 crystal diodes, 1,500 relays, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors, and 5 million hand-soldered joints. The total power consumption was a whopping 160 kilowatts. In one second, the ENIAC could perform 5,000 additions, 357 multiplications, or 38 divisions.

2. The total cost of ENIAC, which weighed over 25 tons and took up approximately 680 square feet, was $500,000. That’s about $6 million today, adjusted for inflation.

3. ENIAC was conceived and designed by John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert. It took Mauchly and Eckert one year to design and 18 months to build it. While the original intention behind ENIAC was to calculate artillery firing tables for the Army, the war was over by the time it was put into service. Instead, the military used the computer for calculations in designing the hydrogen bomb, weather prediction, and a multitude of studies including cosmic-rays, thermal ignition, random numbers, and wind-tunnel design. See full article…

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History: Preceding Technologies

Computation devices themselves are as ancient as the human race, and their story has also been rehearsed all the way back to the earliest digital devices – the fingers – by way of piles of stones to “Napier’s Bones,” an analogue device invented by the father of logarithms. The abacus is still in use after 5,000 years, while the slide rule, invented in 1621, was only superseded by the modern computer. Read on to learn about the inventions which contributed to the development of ENIAC and eventually, the computers we use today.

Mechanical Brains – These allowed humans to calculate larger mathematical operations faster than could be done “in the head” alone. Examples of these are:

The Abacus: Decks of beads and rods used to calculate addition, subtraction, division and multiplication, along with being able to extract square and cube roots.

The Slide Rule: Ruler-shaped device used to calculate multiplication and division, along with more advanced functions such as logarithms and trigonometry.

The Difference Engine: Developed by Charles Babbage, this machine was an automatic calculator used to calculate polynomial functions.

Mechanical Calculators: Various calculating machines, from desk-top size to hand-held, that allowed users to perform advanced mathematical functions.

The Differential Analyser: At Penn Engineering, the Differential Analyser was in use and operated by secret human “computors,” women during World War II who were employed at The Moore School doing ballistics calculations for the war effort. The Differential Analyser is considered by many to be ENIAC’s closest relative.

See more at the ENIAC Museum

ENIAC history

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Excerpt from Dilys Winegrad and Atsushi Akera article on ENIAC’s 50th’s anniversary

ENIAC was completed too late to be used for its original purpose of calculating firing tables for artillery weapons. Instead, the first real task assigned to ENIAC during its test runs in 1945 involved millions of discrete calculations associated with top-secret studies of thermonuclear chain reactions–the hydrogen bomb. Nicholas Metropolis and Stan Frankel, both from the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, were sent to Philadelphia to set up and supervise the first set of nuclear physics calculations to be run on an all-electronic computer. The first set of calculations was executed on ENIAC in November of 1945, and subsequent calculations continued up through the time of ENIAC’s formal dedication in February 1946.

While many military projects were terminated at the end of the war, ENIAC was not among them. The military’s interest in high-speed computing and its use in the nuclear weapons development program ensured the Federal government’s continued support of the nascent technology. At the same time, the computer’s value for applications far different from problems associated with military weapons and national security came to be recognized by the military and others. A press release issued by the War Department on the occasion of ENIAC’s dedication described “The Uses of Computers in Industry,” with the computer seen as a means of accelerating economic growth and establishing civilian industries after a devastating war. Commercial uses for computing started to be introduced within a decade of ENIAC’s development. Computer technology soon matured into a civilian industry whose growth has been astounding.

Today it is impossible to think of a world without computers or to imagine that the ideas from which these developed and that we take for granted might have been strenuously resisted in the past. The fact is that scientists and administrators involved were skeptical–and with good reason. Running through much that appears in the written record, and explaining some of the discrepancies in the recollections of the many people involved are large doubts as to whether computation by electronic machines would ever be a practical reality. If it seems barely credible today that scientists, engineers, and businessmen five scant decades ago might not at first have grasped the implication of the new technology this has been the case more often than not throughout history, throughout the course of human endeavor. Variations on the theme of “Who needs it?” are followed by the reasons why it can’t be done. Examples of early responses to innovations that went on to change the modern world range from Lord Kelvin’s observation that radio had no future to Harry M. Warner’s skepticism about the market for talking movies. John Logie Baird was considered a lunatic, possibly dangerous, for claiming to have “a machine for seeing by radio.” Even in the 1950s, Britain’s Astronomer Royal dismissed the notion of space travel as “utter bilge.”

During the 1950s, the demands of advanced weapons programs, scientific research and engineering development, and an expanding awareness of data processing applications laid the foundations for a civilian computer industry. The early leaders were the Univac division of Remington Rand Corporation and IBM. Remington Rand (later the Sperry Rand Corporation and now Unisys) acquired the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation in 1950, and was the initial leader in the field. IBM, which introduced the IBM 701 in 1952, gained a predominant position in the computer industry by the mid-1950s, largely through sound product strategies and the efforts of their sales and marketing organizations. Other early manufacturers included Engineering Research Associates (ERA). In 1951, the ERA 1103 computer was actually the first computer system available on the open market. ERA was acquired by Remington Rand in 1951.

See full article

Before we power down ENIAC’s birthday celebration let me leave you with a couple of amazing stories influenced by the birth of the first Giant Electronic Brain…

Before Asimov there was Eando* Binder’s 1939 I, Robot

“Answer,” from Angels and Spaceships, by Fredric Brown (Dutton, 1954)

Dwan Ev ceremoniously soldered the final connection with gold. The eyes of a dozen television cameras watched him and the subether bore throughout the universe a dozen pictures of what he was doing.

He straightened and nodded to Dwar Reyn, then moved to a position beside the switch that would complete the contact when he threw it. The switch that would connect, all at once, all of the monster computing machines of all the populated planets in the universe — ninety-six billion planets — into the supercircuit that would connect them all into one supercalculator, one cybernetics machine that would combine all the knowledge of all the galaxies.

Dwar Reyn spoke briefly to the watching and listening trillions. Then after a moment’s silence he said, “Now, Dwar Ev.”
Dwar Ev threw the switch. There was a mighty hum, the surge of power from ninety-six billion planets. Lights flashed and quieted along the miles-long panel.
Dwar Ev stepped back and drew a deep breath. “The honor of asking the first question is yours, Dwar Reyn.”
“Thank you,” said Dwar Reyn. “It shall be a question which no single cybernetics machine has been able to answer.”
He turned to face the machine. “Is there a God?”

The mighty voice answered without hesitation, without the clicking of a single relay.
“Yes, now there is a God.”
Sudden fear flashed on the face of Dwar Ev. He leaped to grab the switch.
A bolt of lightning from the cloudless sky struck him down and fused the switch shut.

As much as I enjoy Brown’s short-short science fiction and mystery stories I was a bigger fan of Isaac Asimov, who I got to interview in 1982 for my “Pioneers of Robotics” series. His story about giant computers is similar to Brown’s and was one of Asimov’s favorites.

Asimov’s, 1956 story “The Last Question” excerpt from Wikipedia…

“The last question was asked for the first time, half in jest, on May 21, 2061, at a time when humanity first stepped into the light. The question came about as a result of a five dollar bet over highballs, and it happened this way…”

The story deals with the development of computers called Multivacs and their relationships with humanity through the courses of seven historic settings, beginning in 2061. In each of the first six scenes a different character presents the computer with the same question; namely, how the threat to human existence posed by the heat death of the universe can be averted.

The question was: “How can the net amount of entropy of the universe be massively decreased?” This is equivalent to asking: “Can the workings of the second law of thermodynamics (used in the story as the increase of the entropy of the universe), be reversed?” Multivac’s only response after much “thinking” is: “THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.” Full story

I hope ENIAC, Watson, HAL 9000 and computers everywhere will pardon my oversight, no slight was intended. I will remember Feb. 14th in the future. Candy for Fran and props for the granddaddy of electronic computers.

*Eando Binder is a pen-name used by two mid-20th-century science fiction authors, Earl Andrew Binder (1904-1965) and his brother Otto Binder (1911-1974). The name is derived from their first initials (“E and O Binder”). I first leaned of this neat abbreviation device in the 80’s when working with colleagues at RAND Corporation (no relation to Ayn) which was short for R&D. RAND played an important role in early military AI studies and was known for development of the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine.

When I wanted to change my consulting firm Saveriano & Associates (S&A), founded in 1982, into a full marketing and advertising agency in 1998, I borrowed the trick and named the agency Sanda Communications, Inc. Little did I know that the naming device had ties to the original “I, Robot” guys.

For a treasure trove of great stories and videos about computing people and their machines there’s no better place than the Computer History Museum.

Also see the ENIAC website

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 7, 2011 5:28 pm

    Great article; what perspective! We’ve come a long way, baby. 1946 was a good year 🙂

  2. April 7, 2011 6:37 pm

    True, true: 1939 too…

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