It Figures: Pioneer Computer at Penn Celebrates 50th Year

Article excerpt

It had no monitor, could remember only 20 numbers at a time and filled a room with 50 tons of electricity-sucking gear.

But it could crunch numbers with what seemed like blinding speed.

Fifty years ago this week, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer was demonstrated to the world for the first time at the University of Pennsylvania.

ENIAC counted to 5,000 in one-fifth of a second, shocking the world out of the mechanical age and onto the first step of the world of lightning-quick digital processing.

ENIAC's collection of 8-foot-high gray cabinets made up the first general-purpose, large-scale, electronic computer. Until then, "computers" were people using mechanical calculators who needed 12 hours to do what ENIAC did in half a minute. Other electronic machines had been narrower in purpose.

"Without it, we wouldn't have the space program, we wouldn't have modern airplanes," said Michael Williams, editor in chief of the Annals of the History of Computing. "Pilots would still be trying to fly by looking outside the window occasionally."

ENIAC, most of which is on display at the Smithsonian, long ago outgrew its usefulness as a number cruncher - a $40 calculator has more computing power.

But it has not lost its relevance.

The university planned an entire year of events to honor ENIAC's birthday, including turning on part of the original machine. Vice President Al Gore will throw a switch Wednesday, the day of the anniversary, and ENIAC will count from 46 to 96.

The Postal Service will unveil a stamp commemorating "The Birth of Computing."

The original assemblage of wires, vacuum tubes, resistors and switches was constructed in about a year and a half at the university's Moore School of Electrical Engineering.

When it was fully operational, ENIAC filled up a 30-by-50-foot room. Every second it was on, it used enough electricity - 174 kilowatts - to power a typical Philadelphia home for a 1 1/2 weeks.

Costing more than $486,000, ENIAC might never been attempted were it not for World War II.

"A lot of people said we were dreaming," said Herman Goldstine, who served as liaison between the Army and ENIAC team. "The electronics people said there were too many vacuum tubes and it would never run. The mathematics people said there were no problems complex enough that computers were needed."

The Army provided both the complex problems and the money.

John Mauchly, one of two masterminds behind ENIAC, knew the Army was having a terrible time working out the complicated firing tables needed to help gun crews aim the new artillery being used against German forces. …