ENIAC – The history of the first computer

Hyperaxion Mar 11, 2020

Check out the characteristics, the historical background, the people responsible for it and the fundamental role of women in the history of ENIAC and computing.

The first electronic computer was the ENIAC (Electrical Numerical Integrator and Computer), launched in February 1946. Today, we can say that the technology of this computer corresponds to that of a simple calculator, however, for the time, it was a revolutionary invention that resulted in the creation of new and more efficient computers.

ENIAC.

Characteristics of the first computer

ENIAC was a gigantic machine and very fast for the time. Among the main characteristics, we highlight:

  • Total weight of 30 tons. About the weight of 5 or 6 elephants together;
  • A capacity of 500 multiplications per second. Calculations that could take 8 hours or more if done manually;
  • Consumption of 140 kW;
  • 5.5 meters (18 ft) high and 25 meters (82 ft) long;
  • 180 square meters. Yes, this is very big. A house would fit in the place! Look at your notebook or cell phone and think about how much technology has evolved;
  • No storage capacity! A memory of up to ten decimal digits, can you imagine?
  • The operating system worked through punched cards.

The history of the creation of computers is the result of human evolution in the creation and operationalization of technology. We can say that the first computers were characterized as calculating and classifying machines, strongly linked to mathematics.

Read more: Can machines overpower humans?

Despite the association of ENIAC with a calculator, it is interesting to note that it was considered an electronic computer because it was programmable, which differs from the mechanical calculators that existed at the time.

The historical background

The first computer is directly related to the Second World War, having been ordered by the American army. It was developed by John Eckert and John Mauchly of the University of Pennsylvania.

Designed to calculate ballistic trajectories, it came to be used, after World War II, for calculations in the development of the nuclear hydrogen bomb.

The American scientists who developed ENIAC

 John Eckert and John Mauchly.
John Eckert and John Mauchly.

John Eckert (physicist) and John Mauchly (electrical engineer) were the scientists who received the greatest notoriety for the creation of ENIAC.

Both were associated with the Moore School at the University of Pennsylvania, when John Mauchly suggested the development of this new computer, which was approved by the US military. John Eckert then served as chief engineer.

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Eckert and Mauchly worked in the computer business for years with a company they founded, having contributed to the evolution of computers, with other innovative creations, such as UNIVAC, which had a magnetic tape with great storage capacity. The two were awarded several times throughout their careers.

The women who programmed the first computer

The ENIAC programmers.

This part of the ENIAC story is quite controversial, since over the years women programmers have not received as much recognition as the scientists who developed the computer.

Despite the lack of recognition, their work was fundamental, since they were responsible for calculating the differential equations necessary for the ballistic trajectories. In fact, in the beginning, about 80 women who worked as programmers were called “the computers”.

ENIAC - The history of the first computer
Computer operators program ENIAC, the first electronic digital computer, by plugging and unplugging cables and adjusting switches. (Credit: CORBIS).

After the creation of ENIAC, six women were called in to test and program the first computer: Frances Spence, “Betty” Holberton, Jean Bartik, “Kay” McNulty, Marlyn Wescoff and Ruth Lichterman.

If you are curious to know more about it, a documentary tells the story of “the computers” and is available at:

“They learned to program without programming languages or tools (since none existed) – just logical diagrams. When they finished, ENIAC made a ballistic trajectory – a differential calculation equation – in seconds! However, when ENIAC was introduced to the press and the public in 1946, the women were never mentioned; they remained invisible”.

Curiosities about ENIAC

Until the end of World War II, it was considered a secret. After its official launch in 1946, it was used only for ten years. After it, came the EDVAC (Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator), the first computer with storage capacity. Consequently, after a short time, ENIAC was considered outdated.

It is estimated that ENIAC had a construction cost of $500,000 (approximately $6,300,000 today).

Today, ENIAC is dismantled, some of its parts are at the Moore School at the University of Pennsylvania, where it was developed, others at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C and also at the Computer History Museum in California.

How was the evolution of computers after ENIAC

Apple Macintosh.
Macintosh from Apple.

The evolution of computers was extremely fast and, in the ’80s, computers for personal use started to appear. It was at this time that Microsoft was founded and the Macintosh (computer with the built-in mouse and keyboard) from Apple was launched.

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