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When Computers Were Born

Technology: They began humbly enough--the War Department needed to be able to calculate numbers quickly. Who knew the impact of the revolution?

February 07, 1996|ROBERT STRAUSS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PHILADELPHIA — The World War I planes that the Red Baron and his flyboy friends and foes used changed artillery warfare for good. Instead of shooting at slowly moving targets on the ground, they had to be trained on speedy objects at every possible altitude.

What does all this have to do with my quad-speed CD-ROM and my 14.4 fax-modem? you might ask.

Well, the U.S. War Department wanted to make sure its artillery would hit those enemy targets square on. After years of intense investigation, researchers finally concocted a thing called ENIAC--the first electronic computer and the granddaddy of the Macs and PCs, which was unveiled 50 years ago on Feb. 14. While we who try our best to be wired and online today may debate the usefulness of the computer revolution, even those who were there at the inception disagree about the ultimate impact of their beloved counting machine.

A member of that start-up team was Kay Antonelli, who as Kay McNulty, a recent math graduate from Chestnut Hill College, came with other young women to Philadelphia to do their thing for the war effort, making the calculations for the various trajectories the bullets and bombs might take.

"We did have desk calculators at that time, mechanical and driven with electric motors, that could do simple arithmetic," Antonelli recalled. "You'd do a multiplication and when the answer appeared, you had to write it down to reenter it into the machine to do the next calculation. We were preparing a firing table for each gun, with maybe 1,800 simple trajectories. To hand-compute just one of these trajectories took 30 or 40 hours of sitting at a desk with paper and a calculator. As you can imagine, they were soon running out of young women to do the calculations."

Into the breech in 1942 rode two white knights: John Mauchly, a young University of Pennsylvania professor interested in the mathematics of weather prediction, and his graduate assistant, J. Presper Eckert, an aspiring electronics engineer. Mauchly and Eckert decided that they could make a faster calculating machine by using a series of vacuum tubes.

Herman H. Goldstine was an Army captain working at the Ballistic Research Laboratory in Aberdeen, Md., when he read one of Mauchly's academic papers. Goldstine convinced his Army superiors that these guys at Penn might be onto something useful. Mauchly was amenable to putting off his weather research for the war effort, and a contract was signed between the university and the Army for something called the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (the ENIAC).

By the time the contraption was presented to the public, World War II was over--but people marveled nonetheless. At 100 feet long, 10 feet high and 3 feet deep, it took up the greater part of a floor of Penn's Moore College of Engineering. It had 17,468 vacuum tubes, 70,000 resistors and 6,000 switches. It weighed 30 tons, but like a good defensive lineman, it was heavy and quick. The machine could perform 14 10-digit multiplications per second. Those trajectories that took 40 hours to do by hand could now be done in 30 seconds.

The Computer Age had been born.

"Actually, my title working for the ballistics project was 'computer.' The idea was that I not only did arithmetic but also made the decision on what to do next," Antonelli said. "ENIAC made me, one of the first 'computers,' obsolete."

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Several folks who worked together in those early years will be gathering next week at the University of Pennsylvania for a symposium to celebrate ENIAC's 50th anniversary. Vice President Al Gore will give a keynote speech and attempt to restart a section of the computer that still remains at Penn. And the Postal Service will issue a commemorative stamp of "The Birth of Computing."

Some of the pioneers seem as awed as most of the rest of us at the power and pull of computers today.

"The current computers are wonderful," said W. Barclay Fritz, who worked on ENIAC in Maryland until the Army retired it in the mid-'50s. He is a retired engineer, but still teaches the history of computing at the University of Delaware. "They increase productivity. A person who knows how to use the tools of his age is more effective at his job."

"Yes, I have a little laptop," said Antonelli, who married inventor Mauchly. He died in 1980 and she has since remarried and lives outside Philadelphia. "I'm amazed at what it does. I sometimes wonder why we couldn't have had it 40 years ago, though."

The reason may be the old story that inventors are not the best businessmen. Mauchly and Eckert continued their efforts at tweaking their offspring and started their own company, which eventually created the UNIVAC computer that became a staple for Remington Rand, which bought out Mauchly and Eckert in 1950. At the same time, Goldstine and John von Neumann, a renowned mathematician, started working on their own computers at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University.

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