The Weather Man
Mauchly's favorite pastime was predicting the weather. He used atmospheric data in experiments, trying to determine if weather patterns could be predicted mathematically. With the help of a desk calculator (purchased for a discounted price of $75.00), Mauchly conjectured that there was evidence that rainfall in the U.S. was periodic. He realized that if his foray into meteorology was going to produce meaningful results he would need a better, faster calculating machine. He enlisted the students whom he taught at Ursinus to help him develop and assemble various gadgets, and he began taking courses in electronics. He also began ordering parts from corporations across the country, asking about switches and fuses and offering the statement, "I am intending to construct an electrical calculating machine," by way of explanation (qtd in McCartney 36).
Mauchly's tinkering eventually brought him to Iowa State University to visit a young professor named John V. Atanasoff. Atanasoff had attended one of Mauchly's lectures on weather forecasting and knew of his work with electronic calculating machines. Atanasoff, too, had been working with electronic circuits in an attempt to devise an electronic calculating machine. Mauchly went to Iowa to study Atanasoff's prototype, which still did not quite work. Years later, in 1944, Mauchly's path crossed Atanasoff's once more in the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in DC. Atanasoff was in charge of running the lab, and Mauchly did statistical consulting for him once a week in order to bring in extra income. In 1944 he gave up other duties at the Moore School to work on ENIAC full-time, at which point the school's administration cut his salary from $5,800 a year to $3,900.
Even today, exactly which parties should be credited with the development of the computer is a subject of controversy. Many calculating devices were devised prior to the advent of ENIAC, and Mauchly and Eckert followed in the footsteps of numerous other scientists and engineers in their pursuit of faster, more accurate methods of performing calculations. The thumbnails at right link to a Scientific American article which speaks to this point: published in 1988, it argues that Atanasoff was the first to invent the electronic digital computer.
Letter from James J. Eberl to "Charlie," References an enclosed copy of a Scientific American article (below). (456k). 12/7/1988
Article. "Dr. Atanasoff's Computer," Scientific American. (1.18 MB). 8/1/1988