Issue No.02 - April-June (2006 vol.28)
Published by the IEEE Computer Society
David Alan Grier , Editor in Chief
DOI Bookmark: http://doi.ieeecomputersociety.org/10.1109/MAHC.2006.29
David Alan Grier reflects on the 60th anniversary of the ENIAC and its connection to writer Henry Adams.
I'm no great fan of anniversaries. Although anniversaries often provide an excuse for a good party, and one should never interfere with a good party, they can easily mislead. They encourage us to think in terms of the years that have passed since some arbitrary date, to consider what happened on that day, and to ask if anyone else had done any similar thing before that time. More than the celebration of dates, I am interested in forces, the grand trends of thought that sweep through history. So, it is with more than a little chagrin that I have found myself promoting the 60th anniversary of the ENIAC.
The ENIAC anniversary is dated to a press conference that was held 16 February 1946 at the University of Pennsylvania. University officials chose the date to correspond with a dinner celebrating the completion of the machine and the end of war-time restrictions. They also gave a preview of the ENIAC story to a reporter from the New York Times and were well rewarded for their pains. The Times trumpeted their scoop on the front page of the paper. "One of the war's top secrets," the story began "was announced here tonight by the War Department." The paper had nothing but praise for the ENIAC. It "virtually eliminates time in doing [computational] jobs" the story claimed. 1
By focusing on the date of the press conference, we lose much from the early history of computing. We obscure the fact that large computing machines were in operation prior to 1946 and that the ENIAC was not quite a modern computer. We also lose sight of the Moore School Lectures, which were held the following summer. These lectures did much to disseminate the basic ideas of electronic computation and helped organize the first generation of computer designers.
Having such misgivings about celebrating the ENIAC anniversary, I nonetheless set out to make the most of the date. I helped plan an anniversary issue of Annals and made sure that my friends in the media knew about the date. When I taught my undergraduate class on the afternoon of 16 February, I decided that I should tell my students about the anniversary of the ENIAC. As they were unpacking their laptops and getting ready for the day's discussion, I launched into the story of the anniversary and was about to describe the ENIAC itself when I was interrupted by one of my students. "Today is also the birthday of Henry Adams," she said, "He was born on February 16, 1838."
Surprised, I asked "How did you know that?" She replied, "I get these pop-up screens when I start my computer. I don't know how to get rid of them." Having made that comment, she returned to her preparations for class. In a brief comment, she had provided one of those moments of innocence, a point that shifted the entire subject of a conversation.
Before I go any further, I need to identify Henry Adams for the readers of this magazine, for he needs to be known for more than the fact that he shares a date with the ENIAC. Adams was a writer of the late 19th century and a member of the famous American political family. His grandfather was President John Quincy Adams and great-grandfather was President John Adams. He was well known for his historical writings and he was an early winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
The writings of Henry Adams have strongly influenced my approach to the history of computing. More than any other writer, Adams taught me the importance of social forces and the way that machines are the expression of the hopes and aspirations of a society. He did not write much about computing machines—although he did get a chance to observe the tabulating machines of Herman Hollerith—but expressed his ideas in descriptions of the electrical generators and power grids of Edison and Westinghouse. "Among the thousand symbols of ultimate energy the dynamo was not so human as some," he wrote, "but it was the most expressive." 2
In pondering the new machinery, Adams concluded that the new devices had somehow changed the very nature of time and motion. Describing the operation of a generator, he wrote that the "planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm's length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring." 2 This observation was shared, 28 years later, by the ENIAC designers. "The old era is going," claimed John Mauchly, "the new one of electronic speed is on the way." 1
Eighty-eight old-fashioned cycles of the planet have passed since the death of Henry Adams. Sixty have passed since the New York Times proclaimed that the electronic computation would "eliminate time." If there is a force to be found in the anniversary of the ENIAC, it is the changing force of time. In the past 60 years, we have been able to do more calculation than all of human kind before 1946. We can compute the vibration of an atom and the motion of a comet with a precision unthinkable in Adams' day. We have processed more statistical information about the world than Adams could have assembled about his neighbors. In celebrating this 60th anniversary of the ENIAC, we are really celebrating how time has changed in the presence of high-speed computation.
In this issue
This issue contains four pieces about the ENIAC. The lead article, by Hans Neukom, describes the modifications that made the ENIAC a programmable machine. A simulator for the original ENIAC is described in an article by Till Zoppke and Raúl Rojas. (Rojas has provided us with an image for the cover from his simulator.)
Finally, two long-time contributors to Annals have written essays describing the machine. Maurice Wilkes, who actually worked with the machine, describes his encounter with the ENIAC. Jim Cortada, who has written extensively on data processing, looks at the influence of the ENIAC on business computing.
Rounding out this issue, we have Lyle Johnson's article, "Coming to Grips with Univac," Simon Lavington's article on Oedipus (a special-purpose rapid analytical machine), and Raymond Miller's memoir about his graduate student days at the University of Illinois. It is an issue that looks back to the roots of our field in recognition of the 60th anniversary of the ENIAC.