Bui,/Fernandez,/Tran pp 190: The History of Computing



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Bui,/Fernandez,/Tran

PP 190: The History of Computing



Amanda Bui

Nicole Fernandez

Stephanie Tran

The ENIAC, War, and Women

The development of the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC, was one of the largest breakthroughs in modern computer technology. Although earlier devices existed before its conception in 1943, ENIAC was the world’s first true large-scale, programmable electronic general-purpose computer, combining the functions of the adding machine and the digital storage unit. It was this machine, weighing at a spectacular thirty tons and consisting of thirty separate units (including 19,000 vacuum tubes, 1,500 relays, and hundreds of thousands of resistors, capacitors, and inductors) that paved the way for today’s digital age, changing how humans problem-solve, communicate – and indeed, perceive – forever.1 The ENIAC is significant not only because it revolutionized the culture of science, business, and technology, but it also enhanced the role of women in the field of computer science and created a legacy for the digital age.

Part A. Historical Background

The computer was firmly envisioned in the mind of academics long before its commercial research and development. Philosophers around the world discussed the implications on human intellect if a machine was developed which could mechanize the logic of mental processes, and even perform mental work beyond the capacity of the human brain.2 Mathematicians such as the highly regarded mathematician, Jon von Neumann, foresaw a general purpose logic machine that could shift readily from one task to another; a device with an almost built-in intelligence, able to operate on internal instructions3. This invention, he argued, was the mathematician’s Mount Everest – as at the heart of this invention lay the need to establish explicit definitions of math.

By 1812, Charles Babbage had already designed the first computer, building on the previous accomplishments of Blaise Pascal and G. Lieniz’s adding machine and Joseph Jacquard’s concept of punched holes to control a loom to design the first mechanical calculator. His idea of the “difference engine” and, later, the “analytical engine” were strikingly similar to the modern digital computer, extending the capabilities of existing devices to not only add and print, but also multiply, divide, and call for new data from its human operator by expressing instructions to the machine in the form of stereotyped commands.4 With the exception of having to feed the “analytical engine” values from mathematic tables, this engine was logically parallel to the modern automatic computer. However, the technology of Babbage’s time did not allow the easy realization of such an instrument and there was little demand for the complex computing it could achieve.

Although by the early twentieth century, technology was experiencing a major shift from the mechanical to the electronic (enabled by the invention of the vacuum tube), it was not until the 1930s that the first computer, the ENIAC, began to receive serious funding for research and development. This was almost entirely due to the advent of World War II. According to technology historian James Cortada, “The role played by the U.S. government in creating the initial demand for computing equipment for both military and administrative use was central to the development of the computer industry.5” While there was some interest in the development of a computer prior to World War II, these pursuits were largely restricted due to lack of funds and market demand. Iowa State University professors John Atanasoff and Clifford Berry, for instance, received only a very modest $5,000 grant from the Agronomy department for the development of the Atanasoff-Berry Computer, while only five years later, in the midst of the war, ENIAC was given an initial contract of $61,700 in U.S. Army Ordnance funds, increasing to $486,804.22 by 1946.6


Part B. WWII – Military Demand

Ironically, the ENIAC, the computer that would revolutionize the culture of science, business, and technology, was never intended for such widespread purposes, but instead a very specialized time-saving device to compute ballistic tables for military purposes. Although the desire for a mechanical means of computation existed long before ENIAC, prompting the invention of devices ranging from the abacus to Charles Babbage’s difference engine, Herman Hollerith’s punch-card tabulators and later, the differential analyzer, it was the acute need for a more advanced computing instrument during World War I and II that truly provided the impetus for its development.

From the onset of WWI, it was clear that technology would play a critical role on the outcome. As British Admiral Jacky Fisher so eloquently said of World War I, “This war is going to be won by inventions.7” This war marked the beginning of global communications, both because it involved (nearly) the whole world and also utilized for the first time such technology as radio and electrical power. As such, it required new and unique ways of communicating, comprehending, coding, decoding, and otherwise manipulating information – and quickly.

Government Funding

It was during these inter-war years, with the U.S. strategy of technological escalation, that ENIAC began development. Prior to its creation, the Bush differential analyzer was the conventional technology used to compute firing and bombing tables, reducing hours of calculations to fifteen minutes per problem.8 But the device was sorely limited: not only did many of its mechanical parts have to be refitted by hand, it often failed toward the end of a long trajectory run, resulting in the loss of the preceding computation and appreciable delay for its repair.9 It was these repeated malfunctions that provided the stimulus for a new – electronic – device which could overcome these limitations. In the 1961 historical monograph of the U.S. army, the justification for military funds into ENIAC was simply that “the army could not wait until normal economic laws brought about the supply of systems through commercial demand.10

Thus, in June 1942, the Ordnance Department of the Ballistic Research Laboratory contracted the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania to improve the differential analyzer. The team put in charge of this daunting task included a host of talented scientists and engineers such as Dr. John W. Mauchly, Dr. J. Presper Eckert, and Assistant Professor Weygand.

This team first improved the Bush differential analyzer by replacing its mechanical torque amplifier with an electronic one, which made it faster and more reliable. However, it soon became clear that even these improvements were not enough, and Mauchly and Eckert began to draft a design for a new automatic electronic computer, one which could reduce each ballistic table from fifteen minutes of calculations with the differential analyzer to thirty seconds.11 This design was soon presented to Colonial P. N. Gillon of the Ordnance Department and within a year, on June 5, 1943, a new contract was made with the Moore School of Electrical Engineering to research, design, and build this electronic numerical integrator and computer – the ENIAC.



Part C: Research and Development

ENIAC was designed by John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert of the University of Pennsylvania. The University of Pennsylvania laid all the groundwork for the ENIAC project, as the first general purpose electronic digital computer to be designed, built, and successfully used. Initially both men and women were employed as computers, people who did computing, developing the firing and bombing tables needed during World War II. This specific application led to the contract by the Army Ordnance Department to the Moore School of Electrical Engineering of the University of Pennsylvania to design and build ENIAC12. It is important to understand that women played a pivotal role during World War II, not only in factories but in the technological world as well.

The Army was looking for women with mathematical degrees to help in government and in the design of hardware. Both men and women were employed as computers, extremely important to the war effort, yet it was stated that “women were capable of doing the work more rapidly and accurately than men.” This led to almost all computers and their direct supervisors being women by 1943. The woman’s role became extremely important in World War II, and we shall call the original 6 women ENIAC programmers the ‘Rosie the Riveters’ of the Computing World.

The role of these women were especially important—they represented a new era for women—as they took a step away from non-traditional careers to take part in the technological field. They constructed the ENIAC and their responsibilities as programmers included computing ballistics trajectories used for artillery firing tables, by mostly using mechanical desk calculators and extremely large sheets of columned paper. Tabular data was needed for the accurate computation of ballistic data—representations of atmospheric effects, like the influence of air density and temperature, on the path of the shell or bomb, were required. This technology of scientific problem solving was before the introduction and use of high-speed scientific electronic computers and so the ENIAC was designed with hardware called function tables, which made it able to store this tabular data for use in firing table generation.


Few were chosen to work on the ENIAC. And in any case, although the programmers received training for ballistics computation at the Moore school, they did not come into contact nor were members of the Women’s Army Corps. The original 6 women chosen are the following:

Kay McNulty graduated with a math major. During this time, and after the Depression, it was hard for a woman to find a job. McNulty’s original plan was to take business training because, at the time, women weren’t guaranteed actuary positions and she didn’t want to teach. She saw an ad in a daily paper posted by the U.S. Civil Service which introduced her to projects leading to the ENIAC at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering, University of Pennsylvania. The office in which she worked in housed about 12 women and 4 men, in which they all worked with desk calculators and large sheets of columned paper. She then was transferred to the basement of the Moore School, where she was introduced to the differential analyzer—which was loaned to the University for the duration of the war. McNulty played a pivotal role having devoted her time to the knowledge of numerical integration as an original programmer for the ENIAC.

Betty Snyder invented the mnemonic instruction set (called C-10) for the BINAC—the movement away from switch assemblies and towards keyboards as the primary input device for computers. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in journalism, one of the few colleges there that were open to women. She joined the Computing Unit at the Moore School in 1942 and developed the trajectory program used to control the operation of the ENIAC during the public demonstration in 1946. She also went to work as a logic design engineer for the Eckert-Mauchly “Electronic Control Company.” Snyder’s career spanned four decades, in which she was a logic design engineer, a programmer, a member for the Applied Mathematics Laboratory, and a staff member for the National Bureau of Standards.


Betty Jennings was hired by the University of Pennsylvania to work for Army Ordnance at Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1945 and was selected to be one of ENIAC’s first programmers. She went on to work on the BINAC and UNIVAC I computers. In her words, she states, “Betty [Snyder] and I were the workhorses, finishers, tying up all the loose ends. Kay was often more creative, suggesting clever ways to reuse and reduce the total size of the program. Marlyn and Ruth agreed to generate a test trajectory, calculating it exactly the way the ENIAC was to do it so we could check the detailed steps once it was on the ENIAC. We spent a lot of time working on programming notation so we could keep track of the timing of program pulses and digital operations. The ENIAC was a parallel machine, so the programmer had to keep track of everything, whether interdependent or independent.13

Marlyn Wescoff graduated from Temple University in June 1942 with a major in Social Studies and English with a minor in Business. She was hired in 1942 by the University to perform weather calculations. Along with the other women, she worked on this project nonstop. She states, “No explanation was ever given as to what kind of calculations we were doing. We accepted that because it was wartime.”

Fran Bilas had majored in Mathematics with a minor in Physics from Chestnut Hill College with the intention of becoming a math teacher. She responded to an ad as well, to work for the Army at the University of Philadelphia, at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering.

Ruth Lichterman traveled with ENIAC to the Ballistics Research Laboratory at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds. There she remained for two years to train the next group of ENIAC programmers. As a programmer, it was her job to know how ENIAC worked by talking with the original design engineers, studying their logic programs, and sharing ideas amongst the other programmers. This was extremely difficult, because in the beginning, it was hard to get hands-on experience with the ENIAC. She performed her job well and helped in the launch of the Age of Computing.

Each of these women helped in the launch of the Age of Computing. They overcame obstacles and tradition and paved the way for women to take on unconventional jobs. It is because of the work of these 6 women, and the many women that came after, that the ENIAC was the success that it was. They played a huge role in the impact on Women’s Movement: becoming the first women in the Technology International Hall of Fame. It is stated, “ENIAC would never have been the success it was had it continued in operation in its initial “direct programming” mode. Even with the vastly improved “converter code” method available in 1947, the ENIAC programmers’ new need was to use decimal number coded instructions without an assembler or a compiler to assist in entering each program. It was still relatively difficult to change from one program to the next, making ENIAC a challenge to all but the most dedicated. If the women of ENIAC hadn’t performed their job well, a half decade of important scientific computing would have waited for another day.14


Advantages of ENIAC

The advantage of ENIAC over previous technology was that it was much faster than any other technology. For example, a skilled person with a desk calculator could compute a 60- second trajectory in about 20 hours. The analog differential analyzer produced the same result in 15 minutes. ENIAC required 30 seconds--just half the time of the projectile's flight. Indeed, “ENIAC calculated the trajectory faster than it took the bullet to travel.”

Another advantage of learning the ENIAC from the diagrams was that the 6 women began to understand what it could and what it could not do; therefore, they were able to diagnose troubles almost down to the individual vacuum tube. The 6 programmers knew both the application and the machine, so learned to diagnose troubles as well, if not better than the engineers.

Shortcomings and limitations of ENIAC

Initially there was an inability to store programs; however, in 1947, ENIAC became a stored-program computer. ENIAC had become converted into an internally stored fixed-program computer when the late Dr. John von Neumann suggested that code selection be made by means of switches. This would enable cable connections to remain fixed for most standard trajectory problems. Indeed, the 6 women were pushed to make ENIAC a versatile, general-purpose computer, to program routines other than the trajectory. But this was difficult to maintain, requiring thousands of components to operate simultaneously. In the end, considerable time was saved when problems were addressed and changed.

There were also heat removal problems due to the circuits overheating from processing too much information. This required huge amounts of power – made impossible to run on transformer mains alone. Additionally, obtaining large quantities of improved, reliable tubes became a difficult problem. Thus, down times were long and error-free running periods were short15.


Part D: Applications

The ENIAC’s initial use was meant for the Manhattan Project in 1945. Professionals had come to the Moore School to run the Los Alamos nuclear program on the ENIAC. This was a time of intense military tactics being put into play. Men were being drafted into the war, waiting to be called into military service. All the while, the ENIAC was being created in secrecy, and its primary area of application was ballistics, with a focus on differential equations of motion.

The ENIAC was designed as a general-purpose computer with logical changes provided by plug-and-socket connections between accumulators, function tables, and input-output units. Although the ENIAC’s main purpose was to calculate trajectories, it was also capable of being applied to different areas as well. It was commercialized and used for weather prediction, atomic-energy calculations, cosmic-ray studies, thermal ignition, random-number studies, and wind-tunnel design—what no electronic computers were able to do until 1951.

The important thing to realize is that ENIAC was, honestly, before its time. There was no way for people to be able to grasp what ENIAC would be the start of and it is impossible for most to realize what exactly ENIAC has done for our daily lives—they wouldn’t think of ENIAC being the start of, say, desktop productivity or even entertainment that early on.


Part E: Legacy

Though the ENIAC was the first electronic digital computer, it was by no means the first or the only machine in calculation and computational processes of its time. Similar to the ENIAC, the Binary Automatic computer was developed by Eckert and Mauchly. The Binac was originally created for the Northrop Aircraft Corporation and was intended to be used in a classified airborne application but was never used for its original purpose16. Instead it was used as a computational device for solving complex mathematical equations quickly. It was designed as a bit-serial binary computer with two independent central processing units each with its own 512 word acoustic mercury delay line memory17. It used about 700 vacuum tubes. BINAC was significant for being able to perform high-speed arithmetic on binary numbers, an 800 microsecond addition time and a 1200second multiplication time, with no provisions to store characters or decimal digits. The program running capabilities and problem-solving processes on the BINAC, however, were fairly lengthy. In order to run a problem it first had to be keyed into the BINAC memory from the keypad. After that it could be debugged, corrected in memory, saved on wire, and finally run. Most programs proceeded by modifying their own instructions so that a restart would not work unless a complete reset was built into the code so the wire recording was very important as a debugging aid18

The ABC was the product of collaborated efforts between Dr. John V. Atanasoff, who was given a grant to pursue his vision of mechanizing the process of calculation and Clifford Berry, a graduate student who had developed the first working prototype electronic digital computer. With Atanasoff and Berry’s combined expertise, they were able to develop the Atanasoff-Berry computer or the ABC computer which was the first electronic digital computer that used a rotating drum memory. The ABC computer had a metal frame which served as the base for the computer’s console which contained a series of buttons, meters, lights, and controls. The Atanasoff contained about 270 vacuum tubes19. Two hundred and ten tubes controlled the arithmetic unit, thirty tubes controlled the card reader and card punch, and the remaining tubes helped maintain charges in the condensers. These tubes helped in the main function of the Atanasoff machine which was to solve linear equations. The downfalls of the ABC computer were that it was slow, required constant monitoring, and it was not programmable.

Konrad Zuse’s Z3 was the first functional fully program-controlled computer based on electromechanical relays, a design the ENIAC was to follow. His Z3 computer used binary numbers and floating point arithmetic and utilized a punched film for program input. It also had the ability to convert decimal to binary and back again. The Z3 is credited as being the first reliable, freely programmable, working computer in the world based on a binary floating-point number and switching system. Other than the fact that the Z3 did not have the ability to store programs into its memory, it was exceptionally advanced for its time and had almost all the features of a modern computer including its block-like structure20. The Z3 had a 64-word memory Zuse’s purpose of using the memory only to store values of numbers so that he could calculate thousands of instructions. The Z3 consisted of separate units, such as a punch tape reader, control unit, floating-point arithmetic unit, and input/output devices.

The Colossus computer was a code-breaking computer which reduced the time of deciphering messages from weeks to hours. It contained between 1,500 and 2,400 valves which can be compared to the ENIAC’s 17,468. 21The state of the art vacuum tubes, thyratrons, and photomultipliers enabled it to read a paper tape then apply a programmable logical function to the character which counted how many times the function was true. The Colossus was the first of the electronic digital machines to feature limited programmability, However, but it was not a fully general purpose computer. Colossus was made up of ten components which included an optical reader system which scanned the text at about 5000 characters per second, a master control panel, the thyratron rings and their driver circuits, the optical data staticisors and delta calculators, the shift registers, the logic gates, the counters and their control circuits, the span counters, the relay buffer store and printer logic22. The Colossus like the ENIAC computer was used in World War II, and played an important role in deciphering Lorenz messages from the Lorenz machine used by the Germans to encrypt high-level teleprinter communications and relaying important information to Eisenhower and Montgomery prior to D-Day23.

The EDVAC was developed and operational before the ENIAC but the EDVAC, Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer, is generally considered the descendant of the ENIAC. It was intended to resolve many of the problems created by the ENIAC's design The EDVAC was built for the U.S. Army’s Ballistics Research laboratory by the University of Pennsylvania. The Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Calculator was originally contracted to be built with a budget of $100,000 but the final cost of EDVAC was just under $500,000. The EDVAC was computer was built to be a binary with automatic addition, subtraction, multiplication, programmed division and automatic checking. It had a memory capacity of 1,024 44-bit words or 5.5 kilobytes. It took a staff of about thirty-eight people to run the EDVAC which spanned about 490 ft²of floor space and weighed 17,300 lb24. With almost 6,000 vacuum tubes and 12,000 diodes and the consumption of about 56kW of power, the EDVAC had the power to solve addition problems in 864 microseconds and multiplication in 2900 microseconds25. The component parts of the EDVAC were a magnetic tape reader-recorder, a control unit with an oscilloscope, a dispatcher unit to receive instructions from the control and memory and direct them to other units, a computational unit to perform arithmetic operations on a pair of numbers at a time and send the result to memory after checking on a duplicate unit, a timer, a dual memory unit consisting of two sets of 64 mercury acoustic delay lines of eight words capacity on each line, and three temporary tanks each holding a single word26. The EDVAC proved reliable and productive during its lifetime and was replaced in the early 1960s.

After the EDVAC came the EDSAC, the Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator constructed by Professor by Sir Maurice Wilkes and his team in England at the University of Cambridge Mathematic Laboratory. The EDSAC was the world's first practical stored program electronic computer. EDSAC contained 3,000 vacuum tubes and used mercury delay lines for memory. Programs were input using paper tape and output results were passed to a teleprinter27. Additionally, EDSAC is credited as using one of the first assemblers called "Initial Orders," which allowed it to be programmed symbolically instead of using machine code. The operating system or "initial orders" consisted of 31 instructions which were hard-wired on uniselectors, a mechanical read-only memory28. These instructions assembled programs in symbolic form from paper tape into the main memory and ran them. The EDSAC was the world's first stored-program computer to operate a regular computing service. The instructions available for the EDSAC were add, subtract, multiply, collate, shift left, shift right, load multiplier register, store (and optionally clear) accumulator, conditional skip, read input tape, print character, round accumulator, no-op and stop. There was no division instruction and no way to directly load a number into the accumulator. The EDSAC had many accomplishments including discovering a 79-digit prime number, the largest of its time, the development possibly the first computer video game in a version of tic-tac-toe with graphical output to a cathode ray tube, and its use to gather numerical evidence about solutions to elliptic curves.29

The Standards Electronic/Eastern Automatic Computer or SEAC was based on the EDVAC computer and built by The National Bureau of Standards in 1950 and was originally built as an interim computer until a better one arrived. The SEAC was important in its time for government agencies because it was the only computer available to them. The computer utilized sixty-four mercury filled glass tubes with a quartz crystal at each end. One crystal was used as a transmitter and one as a receiver in this acoustic delay line memory storage unit30. The acoustic delay line had a capacity of eight words. Information traveled in the form of sound waves through the mercury in the tubes. It was in operation 24 hours a day, 7 days per week. In a given month, the SEAC would be used to solve more than 50 different unrelated scientific problems for a variety of users. The SEAC was sometimes operated by remote teletype making it one of the first computers to be used remotely. NBS staff as well as the staff from other government agencies, private universities and laboratories used the SEAC's computing ability. The SEAC ran programs that dealt with and helped solve problems dealing with meteorology, linear programming, statistical sampling plans, wave functions of a helium atom, programs for different national institutions such as the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and designing a proton synchrotron31. The SEAC used 757 vacuum tubes which were used only for amplification. It did not use transistors because all of the logic was done by diodes. It was the first computer to complete all of its logic with solid- state devices32. The SEAC had the ability to store 512 words of memory each of which was 45 bits in size. Computers since the ENIAC have improved upon its design in aspects ranging from materials, hardware, and storage systems and capabilities to size and appearance.

The ENIAC was able to stir the scientific and hi-tech communities into ushering in a new area of technological advances. The ENIAC was mainly built to calculate ballistic firing tables and as a computational device but its effects were wide-reaching and shaped technology for years to come. Besides the improvements in technology, computers of today have also improved in size and portability. The technology of the ENIAC was far beyond its years but it was far from technology today. In fact, the ENIAC was only 1/100th as powerful as our current cellular phone. The ENIAC and its successors encouraged efforts to develop machines and computers and also fostered a trust in the technology because computational errors become less and accuracy increased as technology continued to mature. These early machines and computers laid the groundwork for the laptops, mp3 players, and cell phones of today.

Who would have thought that a computer built by the U.S. Army during World War II to for calculations such as ballistic missiles would have enough power and resonance to revolutionize the world? The effects of the ENIAC are far-reaching. Computers have affected industry and business, the way we shop: we can now shop online for virtually anything, banking: online accounting, online lectures, music and video sharing, animation in cartoons, and video game consoles such as the Play Station 3 or the Wii to name a few. Everything from the wireless capabilities of computers, laptops, cell phones, and PDAs to the special effects in movies such as James Bond or Jurassic Park would not be possible if it were not for the ENIAC. It is no wonder why CNN called the invention of the ENIAC “The birth of the Information Age.”



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