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Information Connection: Eniac, the first computer

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This article brought to you by: Dr. Dale Rummer, an officer in IEEE's Computer Society at the time he wrote this.
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by Dr. Dale Rummer

If you believe the story in many digital computer books, the answer is John von Neumann, because of references to the "von Neuman architecture." The von Neumann architecture refers to a digital system that executes a series of instructions extracted from a digital memory. This architecture describes essentially all digital computers from the beginning of time to the present.

The digital computer literature from the late 1940s describes a series of electronic digital computers beginning with the ENIAC developed at the University of Pennsylvania under contract with the US Army Ballistics Research Laboratory at Aberdeen, MD. A major bottleneck had developed in the deployment of new field artillery weapons because of the need to calculate firing tables by hand. In an effort to speed up this process, the US Army had given a contract to Penn’s Moore School of Engineering to make these calculations using the school’s mechanical differential analyzer. A Captain Hermann Goldstine was in charge of this project for the US Army. A graduate student acquainted with the firing table project in early 1943 introduced Capt. Goldstine to Prof. John Mauchly, who had an idea for an electronic differential analyzer that would solve problems much faster than the mechanical differential analyzer. Out of this encounter grew the project to build the ENIAC, Electronic Numerical Integrator And Calculator.

The book by Scott McCartney, ENIAC-The Triumphs and Tragedies of the World’s First (electronic digital) Computer, provides a most readable and interesting account of this project together with subsequent important events in the history of electronic digital computers. After 200,000 man-hours and an expenditure of approximately $500,000 the project was completed in the fall of 1945 in less than thirty months. The ENIAC contained approximately 18,000 vacuum tubes and consumed 174 kW of electric power.

The filaments operated at reduced voltage dc and were never turned off because when the machine was turned on, the heaters of some tubes were certain to fail. The ENIAC was able to calculate an artillery trajectory in 30 seconds compared to 15 minutes on the mechanical differential analyzer and twenty man-hours on a desk calculator. After a public demonstration at the Moore School, the ENIAC was moved to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds where it operated successfully for eight years. The three key players in the development of the ENIAC were John Mauchly, Presper Eckert and Hermann Goldstine.

Thus the definitive answer to the question above is: John Mauchly and Presper Eckert invented the first electronic digital computer.



Before the ENIAC was completed, in January 1944, Eckert and Mauchly were planning for the next electronic digital computer. The Army signed a contract in late 1945 for initial work on the design of the Electronic Discrete Variable Calculator, the EDVAC. The University of Pennsylvania had agreed at the beginning of the ENIAC project that Eckert and Mauchly owned any and all patent rights to the ENIAC. After the ENIAC project was successful however, they had second thoughts and strongly refused to grant Eckert and Mauchly the patent rights on the EDVAC.

Because of this disagreement, Eckert and Mauchly resigned and formed the first company organized to design and build electronic digital computers. Later they applied for and were granted a broad ranging patent on the ENIAC technology. Eckert and Mauchly were better engineers than businessmen and eventually their company, EMCC, Eckert Mauchly Computer Company was bought up and survived as a component of what became Sperry Rand UNIVAC. This company inherited their ENIAC patent.

By the early 1970s, the electronic digital computer business was dominated by International Business Machines, IBM, who "shared" this market with the "seven dwarfs." Sperry Rand UNIVAC and Honeywell were two of the dwarfs. Sperry Rand UNIVAC signed a secret cross licensing agreement on patents with IBM and then sought to collect royalties from the other six dwarfs. Honeywell balked and sued Sperry alleging that the Eckert-Mauchly patent was invalid. In an effort to invalidate the ENIAC patent, Honeywell attorneys tracked down John Atanasoff--who had worked on a special purpose electronic computer at Iowa State University before World War II.

John Mauchly had visited Atanasoff once and had seen a demonstration of the Atanasoff-Berry computer as it has become known in later times. Judge Earl Larson ruled that Eckert and Mauchly were indeed the inventors of the ENIAC, but that their patent was invalid because information about the ENIAC was public knowledge more than one year before they filed their patent application.

In closing, the answer to the question "what was the first company in business to design and manufacture electronic digital computers" is not IBM, but rather EMCC, Eckert Mauchly Computer Company.

Dale Rummer


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