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First electronic computer turns 50

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Gore re-boots ENIAC

February 14, 1996
Web posted at: 2:50 p.m. EST

From Correspondent Al Hinman

PHILADELPHIA (CNN) -- Fifty years ago, engineers hit a switch and powered up the world's first electronic, general purpose computer. Vice President Al Gore did the same Wednesday to honor the legacy of the massive machine known as ENIAC.

In a speech at the University of Pennsylvania, where ENIAC was developed, Gore urged Congress to continue funding for science and technology. He noted that ENIAC initially was funded with a small government grant.

The technological wonder was as big as a small house, and it took days to program and process small amounts of information. But it worked. Most of the old machine is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution.

The Birth of the Information Age

Two men and ENIAC

In 1941, a small band of electrical engineers set out to turn a room full of wires and vacuum tubes into the world's first functioning computer. The technology pioneers succeeded on February 14, 1946, at the University of Pennsylvania.

The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer known as ENIAC was 100 feet long, 10 feet high and weighed 30 tons. Its designers wanted to be able process huge amounts of information faster than anyone had done ever before.


"The desire from the very beginning was to eliminate reams of data ... and find facts"

-- ENIAC programmer Rocco Martino
(102K AIFF sound or 102K WAV sound)

"The desire from the very beginning was to eliminate reams of data, eliminate data overload and find facts -- and find it whenever you wanted," said ENIAC programmer Rocco Martino. He joined the ENIAC team as a programmer after the computer had been moved from Philadelphia to the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

A war machine


The world was at war when ENIAC was designed, and the Army could not calculate fast enough the firing tables needed to predict trajectories of weapons used against German forces. ENIAC engineers said the computer could do in minutes what it took a person 40 hours to do. So the army funded the project.

But the fighting was over by the time the computer began its first calculations. (A Short History of the Second American Revolution)

Still, the military had the money and Cold War problems that would keep ENIAC busy. The computer helped crunch some of the numbers needed to build the first hydrogen bomb. The world's first successful digital computer could produce the same numbers in thirty seconds that it took a person twelve hours to figure with a calculator.

But ENIAC was anything but fast or easy to program. The machine used 18,000 vacuum tubes to handle the calculations that are now performed by tiny microchips. The tubes, though, were unreliable. They would "blow" at any time, Martino recalled. (119K AIFF sound or 119K WAV sound)

Rows of switches and scores of cables and plugs handled all of ENIAC's programming functions. Every one of the switches had to turned on by hand.

Martino got into the ENIAC program because, "I wanted to go to the moon." He looked at the computer as a way of getting the calculations needed to get people to the moon and back. So while ENIAC's creators wanted to use their new computer to help predict the weather or the stock market, it wound up helping America's fledgling space program get off the ground.


By the time ENIAC was turned off for the last time, in the fall of 1955, its creators had a new, faster, and far more flexible computer, UNIVAC, up and running. ENIAC became the first computer dinosaur.

Back to the future

Now, students at the University of Pennsylvania are bringing it back to life with the help of today's technology.

"I really don't care about vacuum tubes because you really don't use vacuum tubes anymore," said senior Tim Rauenbusch. "I was just wondering how the thing worked."

So Rauenbusch came up with a program that simulates every ENIAC function on modern computers.

"All the mathematical things you can do on a spreadsheet you can run on ENIAC," he said.


Some of his fellow students have shrunk ENIAC's 18,000 tubes, 70,000 resistors, and rack after rack of hardware to a tiny microchip.

"You will be able to run the same programs as ENIAC was used for fifty years ago," said Jan van der Spiegel, University of Pennsylvania professor. "What we have in mind is to really bring ENIAC back to life in its full glory."

Today's computer experts are discovering ENIAC was far more advanced in its design than even its designers suspected.

"The manner in which the circuits operate, the speed with which they perform are better than what we have today," Martino said. But ENIAC had no real memory and couldn't handle most of the computing functions expected of today's personal computers.

The room in which ENIAC got its start now houses a state-of-the-art computer graphics lab where a computer-generated look at ENIAC is another reminder of the legacy left by the world's first electronic, general purpose computer.

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