The Vice President of the United States, Albert Gore, Jr., flew into Philadelphia on February 14 to deliver a speech on information technology. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the ENIAC (pronounced E-knee-ac), or Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer, the world's first high-speed general-purpose, electronic digital computer. The 30-ton, 100-foot-long mammoth was built at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, developed under contract of the U.S. government to calculate ballistic tables for World War II. The creators didn't know that they were about to change the way the world operated.
Gore as Technology Advocate
Vice President Gore has long been known as an advocate for what came to be called the information superhighway. It seemed fitting, then, that he preside over the ceremonies that commemorated what the University of Pennsylvania touted as "The Birth of the Information Age." In Gore's address, "The Technology Challenge: Can America Spark Private Innovation?" he asked the crowd gathered at Penn's Irvine Auditorium, "How do we spark the innovation that creates jobs, builds businesses, and improves lives?" His answer was two-fold. First, he said, there are a lot of smart, creative people in this country who team up with manufacturers and marketers to produce products that make a difference in people's lives. Second, he cited lyrics from the song "Dancing in the Dark" by rock star Bruce Springsteen: "You can't start a fire without a spark," And the federal government, Gore explained, has long provided the spark to young creators in the form of money for research projects.
So it was with ENIAC. "In the early days of the computer, no one knew where it would all lead," Gore said. Then he likened the birth of the computer 50 years ago with the birth of the Internet more recently. Networks were first built as a way for scientists to share information; no one knew that the money invested would lead to the creation of World Wide Web pages on everything from smashing atoms to the Smashing Pumpkins, the Vice President quipped.
Gore's main point, and the one that made all the soundbites on Philadelphia's evening news broadcasts, was that the government must continue to fund these sorts of research projects to provide the sparks that lead to the fires of progress. He disagrees with the Republican-dominated Congress' attempts to cut by one third the funding for civilian computer research and development.
After a hearty round of applause for that statement, Gore promised that he wasn't just saying that to "pander to the all-important scientist swing vote." Rather, he said, "I think it's wrong to turn back to the past and away from the future," adding that the government must continue to "fund adequately" science and information technology.
The next order of business was a "reenactment of a defining moment in America's history," according to Penn's public relations literature. The Vice President joined other dignitaries in the nearby Moore Building, home of ENIAC, to switch on a still-existing piece of the giant computer. This whole ceremony was simulcast to several sites on campus, since space in the room housing ENIAC was limited.
First there was a welcome by Penn's president, Dr. Judith Rodin, who then introduced James Unruh, chairman and CEO of Unisys Corporation, and Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, who share her duties as heads of the official ENIAC celebration committee. After each made brief remarks, Congressman Bob Walker, chair of the House Science Committee, offered a short rhyme that summed up the forward-looking philosophy of the computer revolution: "After ENIAC, there's no turning back."
Finally, in front of distinguished scholars, scientists, countless media representatives, and the surviving creators of the great machine, Gore flipped the switch that turned the antiquated computer …