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
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
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. …