July 28, 2011, 4:48 PM — Sixty-eight years ago this month, construction began quietly on ENIAC, the first electronic computer that was built for the U.S. Army to speed up the calculation of ordnance trajectories for soldiers in wartime.
Almost three years later, in February 1946, it was finally completed and was announced to the world in a three-page press release from the U.S. War Department, titled "FUTURE."
From the press release: "A new machine that is expected to revolutionize the mathematics of engineering and change many of our industrial design methods was announced today." Called ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), the machine was touted as "the first all-electronic general purpose computer ever developed."
With that news, the birth of modern electronic computing had begun with a huge impetus, eventually evolving into the powerful computers and technologies used in the enterprise today.
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"It really mattered, not because it gave us the architecture that we use today, but because it showed the way and allowed the idea of programming to be discovered," says Mitch Marcus, a professor in the Computer and Information Science Department at the University of Pennsylvania, where ENIAC was built.
Photo of ENIAC Courtesy of University of Pennsylvania ENIAC Museum
What made ENIAC so important is that its co-inventors, John W. Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert, knew they were on to something much bigger than simply building a machine that could quickly figure ordnance trajectories, Marcus says.
"Eckert and Mauchly rapidly understood that computers had a commercial application," he says. "They saw the potential business use for such machines."
So the two men, who worked in the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the college, quickly left Penn when ENIAC was completed and went into business together as The Eckert Mauchly Computer Corp. to market and build similar machines for corporate use. Unfortunately, they quickly ran into a road block with their game-changing invention.
"They were very good engineers but not very good businessmen, so that did not work out financially," Marcus says. They sold the company to Remington Rand, which later became Sperry Rand, and it was brought into the company's UNIVAC division. But the two men didn't give up on their work. Eckert stayed with UNIVAC and Mauchly worked there before heading out on his own later as a consultant.
"They understood the ubiquitous nature of computers in ways that no one else did at the time," Marcus says. "That was Mauchly's vision."
ENIAC was quite an accomplishment back then and continues to inspire new technologies today, Marcus says.