Computer age had clumsy start Electronic era: Born 50 years ago, the ancestor of today's PCs and calculators was slow, unreliable and weighed 30 tons.

Sun Journal

February 12, 1996|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Fifty years ago this week, Army Maj. Gen. Gladeon Barnes pushed a button in Philadelphia and turned on an incredibly bulky, maddeningly slow and absurdly unreliable machine that would change the world.

It was called ENIAC. It was the world's first electronic computer.

While there are challengers for the title of "first computer," the dedication of ENIAC on Feb. 15, 1946, is widely accepted as the day the Information Age began. And like the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia 170 years before, it declared a revolution.

ENIAC was the direct ancestor of every PC and every electronic calculator. Its descendants operate the power plants that warm you, the factories that built your car, the telephone systems that let you communicate and the machines that print this newspaper. If you wear a state-of-the-art pacemaker, a little bit of ENIAC lives on in your heart.

Gore to give speech

The birthday party is, appropriately, in Philadelphia. Vice President Al Gore will be on hand to give a keynote speech. World Chess Federation champion Gary Kasparov will be in the midst of his match against IBM's "Deep Blue" computer. And on hand will be Herman Goldstine, the sole surviving member of the trio that led the project that built ENIAC.

Dr. Goldstine's machine was a war baby, conceived at Maryland's Aberdeen Proving Ground and born at the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School of Electrical Engineering. Had it not been for World War II, there is little doubt that the development of electronic computing would have taken many more years.

Dr. Goldstine -- now 82 and executive officer of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia -- recalls arriving at Aberdeen in 1942 as a newly commissioned lieutenant in the Army Air Corps. He had just been pulled out of his squadron when the Army realized that it had better uses for a Ph.D. mathematician from the University of Chicago.

At Aberdeen, Lieutenant Goldstine was given the mission of speeding up the calculation of firing tables needed for accurate artillery and the charts needed for bombing runs. At the time, the necessary math was done by a group of young women using mechanical desk calculators. The system wasn't working.

Complicated calculations

"The amount of work had gone up exponentially since World War I," he recalls. Airplanes and aerial bombs required more complicated calculations. Even the "differential analyzer," a mechanical precursor of the computer supplied by the University of Pennsylvania couldn't keep up.

In the process of consulting with university experts, Lieutenant Goldstine met a 32-year-old physicist named John W. Mauchly, who outlined his idea for an all-electronic digital computer that could perform computations 1,000 times faster than a human.

Lieutenant Goldstine was intrigued, so he took the idea back to his boss, Lt. Col. Paul Gillon. He gave the project both his approval and its name -- Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer.

In June 1943, the Army awarded an initial contract to the ENIAC team at the Moore School for $61,700. The final tab would be $486,800.

ENIAC was designed and built at the Moore School by a team led by Dr. Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert, an engineer in his early 20s. The newly promoted Captain Goldstine ran interference with the Army brass and contributed his own considerable expertise, says Paul Deitz, a civilian official at Aberdeen who is an unofficial historian of the ENIAC project.

Chance meeting

In 1944, soon after the first part of ENIAC was completed, Dr. Goldstein had a chance meeting at the Aberdeen train station with John L. von Neumann, one of the leading mathematicians of his day and an adviser to the Ballistic Research Laboratory at the proving ground.

Dr. Goldstein recalls that when he told Dr. von Neumann about the ENIAC project, "he suddenly became galvanized." It turned out that Dr. von Neumann had been working on a project in Los Alamos, N.M., that required high-power computing.

So, as a result of that meeting, the first test of ENIAC involved design of the atomic bomb. Dr. von Neumann would go on to become an adviser to the ENIAC project and a co-developer of the next-generation EDVAC.

Compared with the computers of today, ENIAC is a clumsy monster. It filled a 30-foot by 50-foot room and weighed 30 tons. It used 17,468 temperamental vacuum tubes, all of which had to be working if ENIAC's calculations were to be accurate.

"It was like fighting the Battle of the Bulge to get it going," Dr.

Goldstein says.

Keeping it going was no picnic, either. According to Mr. Deitz, ENIAC's average running time between breakdowns was 5.6 hours. It required six technicians to operate it on each shift. And for all its size, ENIAC was a computational weakling that would be unable to hold its own with a modern pocket calculator. ENIAC could process 1,000 instructions per second; a modern desktop computer is at least 50,000 times faster.

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