The Giant Brain: ENIAC and the Birth of Computer History

If you’re anything like me, you probably don’t take much time out of your day to consider calculating the trajectory of artillery shells. It almost never comes up. There are some people who have to do it; people whose lives are immeasurably different and more difficult than mine, I would imagine. But we do have something in common: we’re both constantly using the direct descendants of ENIAC, the first fully non-mechanical, electronic computing machine, and the precursor to all of our modern computers.

It was April 10th, 1943, when a couple of geniuses at the University of Pennsylvania began work on the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer. Don’t let the “and” fool you – it was a computer. We just hadn’t shorthanded the verb into a noun yet. In fact, there was a lot of computer stuff we hadn’t done yet, and that day, 72 years ago today, is what started a lot of it. And it was all thanks to bombs.

ENIAC
A classic photo of ENIAC, a computer built for war that changed the trajectory of peace. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Computers Join the War Effort

If you’ve ever read a World War One history book, one thing they always talk about is how unreliable and difficult to work with the artillery shells were. In their remembrances, many soldiers describe what was basically trial and error, launching shell after shell to try to get closer to the enemy (or hearing the shells get closer as those launching them from across the killing fields figured it out). Things hadn’t much improved by WWII.

Early in the war years, though, a physicist named John Mauchly proposed an idea for an all-electronic calculating machine. There were earlier computing machines which used mechanical counting devices that were truly a marvel, unquestionably, but they were still slow and couldn’t handle calculations that were too complex. In 1943, the Army realized that they needed a faster computer so that they could calculate the trajectory of their artillery shells.

Sometimes, an invention gets lucky. Mauchly got the best patron since the Medicis: an army willing to spend unlimited money to defeat the forces of fascism. It may have been for a grim task, but it was scientifically important and morally unassailable.

Post-War Success and Failure

Here’s where the story gets a little less heroic: the war was over by the time Mauchly and his assistant, the 24-year-old prodigy John Presper Ekert Jr, finished ENIAC. Things sometimes take longer than anticipated. On the other hand, we can be happy the war ended quickly. Part of the reason the war ended quickly, of course, was also because of the Colossus, the English codebreaking computer. The difference between the ENIAC and Colossus was that the ENIAC could be reprogrammed to do different tasks.

The history after this is a little shadowy, which makes sense, given its military nature. You might remember WWII ending thanks to the atomic bomb. Well, humans being humans, we immediately said: what if we make an even bigger bomb? Designed to launch artillery shells, ENIAC was repurposed to help perform the calculations needed to make the hydrogen bomb, whose awesome destructive power would make atomic bombs seem weak by comparison.

Mauchly and Ekert didn’t fare much better. They lost the patent right to Honeywell, who won a court case claiming that an inventor of theirs had the original idea, which may have been true, though neither he nor Honeywell ever completed a computer. Eventually, the ENIAC was struck by lightning and retired after a decade of service. In its time though, some people estimate it performed more calculations that all of human history combined up until that point.

After ENIAC

The project was a secret until after the war, when a New York Times article revealed its incredible existence. By then, we were entering a lot of new things: we were moving into the Baby Boom, into the nuclear age, and into the heart of the American century.

The computing revolution that ENIAC helped to create ultimately played a huge role in all of that. Boomers fully embraced technology as they got older, with many helping to create the next generation of tech (Jobs, Gates, and Wozniak were all born within a decade of ENIAC). We were rushing headlong into a new age. Technology wasn’t just a shadowy thing for the military. It was spreading incredibly into every facet of our lives. People were tinkering and imagining a world where computers could change how we did nearly everything. It was called the space age, but that was just another outgrowth of computing power.

Nothing shows that better than a 1995 project by some Pennsylvania students to condense all of ENIACs computing power onto a chip. Barely 50 years after its birth, ENIAC was an impossible relic. 20 years after that, the ENIAC chip seems incredibly big. It couldn’t fit into your phone.

Your phone has millions of times more calculating power than ENIAC. In 20 years, whatever comes next will make our smartphones seem just as redundant and clunky. That’s how technology moves. Any predictions about the future are a mug’s game. Few would have predicted that artillery shells – a symbol of anarchic and archaic brutality, man’s worst impulses – could have inadvertently started us on this path. It’s important to keep that progress moving by taking care of our technology to make the world a better place.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *