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  • ENIAC Anniversary

    Posted by David Foster on February 15th, 2017 (All posts by )

    With all the current discussion about robotics and artificial intelligence, this seems like an anniversary worth noting:  the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator) was formally announced on February 15, 1946.  (Or maybe it was February 14.)  Originally developed to compute artillery trajectories, it was sufficiently general in its design that it could be programmed to address other kinds of problems as well.  The programming was originally done with patch cords, but soon a sort of stored-programming approach was developed wherein the patch cord layout remained the same and the program was entered via an array of rotary switches.

    See also Robot Mathematician Knows All The Answers, about the Harvard Mark I, a slightly earlier computer that was electromechanical rather than purely electronic in its operation, and a post about the Naval Ordnance Research Calculator, a ‘supercomputer’ of 1954.

    I wonder if these early computers would have made such a strong popular impression if they had not been so physically large.


    5 Responses to “ENIAC Anniversary”

    1. Bill Brandt Says:

      If they hadn’t been so large – they would probably be nearly forgotten. And lights. They have to have flashing lights. And spinning tape reels.

      Never will forget a definition of a computer- that it is the only machine devised by man that doesn’t have an end purpose – it is designed so that the user can define its ultimate purpose.

      Another memorable moment of mine was having dinner with Grace Hopper in San Diego – listening to her talk about the early days.

    2. Steve Korn Says:

      To paraphrase a Niels Bohr quote, predicting the consequences of the computer is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future:

      “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”—Ken Olsen, 1926-2011, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp, 1977

    3. Anonymous Says:

      Prediction in 1970: Someday, every household will have a computer.

      In 1980: Someday, everybody in a household will each have a computer.

      In 1990: Someday, everybody each will have a household computer and many will have another computerized device, or PDA, they carry with them.

      In 2000: Someday, everybody will have a pocket computer they carry around like a cell phone, and many will have another individual computer at home.

      In 2010: Someday individual phone-tablets will indulge nearly every user’s computing needs, though most households will continue to have a home computer.

      2016: Someday, sales of home computers will turn around and nearly every household will, again, have a computer.

    4. David Foster Says:

      Bill…”If they hadn’t been so large – they would probably be nearly forgotten.”

      Not sure. The size certainly contributed to the mystique, but if you read the stuff written at the time there was also a sense of awe in a device that could do (what was then thought to be) the quintessentially human task of doing long chains of calculations automatically.

    5. Bill Brandt Says:

      I am seeing The Imitation Game on Netflix – saw it in the theater when it was first released.

      When all of these assembled mathematicians determined that the odds of breaking the code was 1:150 million million, Alan Turing before designing his primitive computer that it would “take a machine to break another machine” – or something to that effect.

      It is entertaining to read predictions of even 20 years ago as to where computers would take us. Look at SpaceX – I read that what they have done – enabling a rocket to land after it has launched its payload – to be reused – it is equivalent to launching a pencil over the Empire Stare Building and having it land in a shoebox.

      All calculated by computers.

      Something I had forgotten David – and reminded in the excellent movie Hidden Figure – is that the term “computer” used to be a job title for human math whizzes who would calculate mundane things like artillery arcs at various angles and winds.

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