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Eckert and Mauchly: Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer (ENIAC), 1949

Unlikely Heroes

The world's first computer came in response to a crisis. As World War II raged and U.S. troops headed overseas and into the fray in increasing numbers, military weapons clamored for increased technology. The war-torn years of the 1940s saw major developments in weaponry, notably the German U boats: submarines that stealthily sunk enemy ships. The U.S. military required machines able to calculate differential equations at high speeds and with accuracy in order to improve the efficacy of gun warfare. Specifically, the military was in need of better firing tables. Charts known as firing tables gave the data necessary for properly orienting and firing a gun under standard conditions, as well as data altered to account for special conditions like strong winds or extreme temperatures.

Two unlikely heroes rose to the challenge of creating more accurate firing tables. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly, two young scientists at the time working at the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School of Engineering, developed an "absurd" idea of creating an electronic computer: a computer that would use electricity to "think." The climate of desperation overhanging the country helped gain their idea approval for government funding, and inspired the team of engineers working on the world's first computer to invest long hours and high levels of enthusiasm and loyalty in the project. When Eckert and Mauchly received government funding to support their idea, "Project PX" was underway as a classified military operation. The machine they were developing was formally known as the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, and this ENIAC would have forty nine-foot-tall cabinets filled with nearly 18,000 vacuum tubes and miles of wiring upon completion.

The report on ENIAC compiled by the Franklin Institute's Committee on Science and the Arts explains: "The skillful adapting and coordinating of elementary circuits into an interlocking combination that could perform extensive computations accurately and swiftly was the valuable contribution of Messers. Mauchly and Eckert."

You can read the full text of the CSA report by clicking on the thumbnails at right.