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A look back at ENIAC, the first electronic general-purpose computer

On the 96th birth anniversary of American engineer, computer pioneer J. Presper Eckert, we take a look at his co-creation the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer (ENIAC), one of the first steps towards modern computing...

>> The ENIAC, which is an abbreviation of the title, Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer, was conceived and designed by John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert of the University of Pennsylvania. The team of design engineers assisting the development included Robert F. Shaw (function tables), Jeffrey Chuan Chu (divider/square-rooter), Thomas Kite Sharpless (master programmer), Arthur Burks (multiplier), Harry Huskey (reader/printer) and Jack Davis (accumulators).

Programmers, Betty Jean Jennings (left) and Fran Bilas (right) operate ENIAC's main control panel at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering. Pic/YouTube
Programmers, Betty Jean Jennings (left) and Fran Bilas (right) operate ENIAC's main control panel at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering. Pic/YouTube

>> When John von Neumann, a mathematician working on the hydrogen bomb at Los Alamos, became aware of the ENIAC, he became so involved with it that the first test problem ran consisted of computations for the hydrogen bomb, not artillery tables. The input/output for this test was one million cards.

>> Although the ENIAC could be programmed to perform complex sequences of operations, including loops, branches, and subroutines, the process could take several weeks. After the program was figured out on paper, the process of getting the program into ENIAC by manipulating its switches and cables could take days. This was followed by a period of verification and debugging, aided by the ability to execute the program step by step.

>> Six women namely, Kay McNulty, Betty Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Fran Bilas and Ruth Lichterman, who did most of the programming of ENIAC were inducted into the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame in 1997. Their role is covered in the documentaries 'Top Secret Rosies: The Female "Computers" of WWII' (2010) and The Computers (2014).

>> To honor of the 65th anniversary of the ENIAC's unveiling in 2011, the city of Philadelphia declared February 15 as The ENIAC Day.

>> The ENIAC was designed and primarily used to calculate artillery firing tables for the United States Army's Ballistic Research Laboratory.

>> The ENIAC entered the public domain after the 1964 patent was voided by the 1973 decision of the landmark federal court case Honeywell v. Sperry Rand. The case also provided legal recognition to Atanasoff as the inventor of the first electronic digital computer, the Atanasoff–Berry computer (ABC).

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