ENIAC turns 75: the story of technological success and machismo of the first computer
With its economy turned into World War II, the United States developed, one after another, secret military projects. The dollars watered down any initiative that helped overthrow Nazism and bring Japan down. One of the main problems faced by the army was the slowness in calculating ballistic and artillery trajectories. It could only be done manually. Known as computers, a kind of human calculators, performed thousands of mathematical operations day and night, for weeks and months. Until in 1943, the Government launched a contest – obviously reserved – with the idea of replacing these people with machines. The creation of ENIAC began, the first purely electronic computer in history, as well as the first computer seen by society.
This Sunday marks 75 years since that original computer was presented to the general public. That February 14, 1946, he left the obscurantism of military calculations to open a gap between the civilian world. And not precisely by will, but by necessity. With the conclusion of World War II, the funding free bar fell to almost zero. ENIAC’s creators, John Presper Eckert and John William Mauchly, saw the future of their device drawing to a close. The possible solution was in public relations.
As Javier García, academic director of the engineering and sciences area at the U-tad University Center, explains, the creators of ENIAC produced and exhibited a film about its operation that captivated those who saw it. To give their invention more luster, they incorporated panels with lights and numbers that, while carrying out an operation, lit up. “They were useless. Mere aesthetics. But in the popular imagination it has remained as the image of the first computers. Just look at science fiction films. In fact, to reach more people, these bulbs are defined as an electronic brain. An absolute marketing success ”, he says.
If we stop at the technical part, the ENIAC revolutionized computing in the 1940s. Eckert and Mauchly, engineers at the University of Pennsylvania, developed the first fully electronic machine. The entire computing process, which operated about 500 additions and 300 multiplications per second —in 20 minutes it achieved the same results as a human in three days—, arose in the nearly 18,000 electronic valves that made it up. Compared to the electromechanical calculators of the time, it multiplied the speed of calculation by a thousand. “The electricity consumption was industrial. It was like operating 18,000 incandescent bulbs at the same time. It looked like a giant stove ”, adds García.
It demanded so much from the electrical system that the ENIAC was blamed for the blackouts that Philadelphia suffered in those years, the city where this 170-square-meter monster was installed, weighing 27 tons. Consumption skyrocketed every time it was turned on. The project was underway for almost a decade. On October 2, 1955, at 11:45 p.m., its creators decided to turn it off permanently, putting an end to one of the pioneering devices in the development of computing.
Forgotten female programmers
The history of ENIAC is also a history of machismo. Despite the fact that three quarters of a century have passed, gender discrimination is still present in the sector. Until the end of the 80s, all the credit went to the names of Eckert and Mauchly. Not the slightest mention of the six programmers who ran the computer. A programming for nothing related to writing lines of code. Whenever they wanted to modify operations, these six women — all mathematical and physical — moved a network of cables by hand that reconfigured the device. They knew what to play, what was the proper arrangement to accomplish the new calculations.
Betty Snyder Holberton, Jean Jennings Bartik, Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum and Frances Bilas Spence lived in anonymity. Of them, it was even said that they were models who posed next to the ENIAC and that they were in charge of the refrigeration. However, they laid the groundwork for programming to be simple and accessible to all. They created the first set of routines, the first applications of software and the first classes in programming. His work drastically changed the evolution of this part of computing between the 1940s and 1950s. To some extent, we are talking about the mothers of languages like Java or Python.
Without ENIAC, it is difficult to understand the appearance in the fifties of the first commercial computers, UNIVAC – created by Eckert and Mauchly -, Z3 and Ferranti Mark 1, or the leap made at the same time by John von Neumann with respect to its architecture, inspiring current devices. “Its significance in modern computing is undeniable, both in the technical part and in public relations campaigns,” concludes García. In case someone asks you, the name does not respond to any publicity boast or to a historical reference. It is simply the acronym for Computer and Electronic Numerical Integrator (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer).