For the love of computers... Science

Meet the first electronic digital computer

Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, in short, Eniac   | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when I mention the word “computer”? You are probably thinking of the various systems that you have worked with, be it desktop computers or laptops. But I am pretty certain that you wouldn’t have considered computer to refer to one who computes, or calculates. And yet, the word derived its meaning centuries ago from what I just mentioned (computer as one who calculates) and has evolved to acquire the meaning that we now associate it with.

If we trace back to when computer was first used to correspond to its modern use, we’ll get to the 1940s. Like the Allende meteorite we discussed last week that dates back to the birth of the solar system, Eniac, often considered the first electronic computer, marks the beginning of an era of digital computing.

What is Eniac?

So what is Eniac, you seem to be wondering. Eniac, which stands for Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, like many other technological advances, was a by-product of the war. The dawn of the digital age was just around the corner when the world went to battle in World War II.

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Government funding in the United States went to a project led by John Mauchly, John Presper Eckert Jr. and their colleagues at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. The Army’s Ordnance Ballistic Research Laboratory approved it as the project involved building a device that could compute values for artillery range tables, which would benefit the war effort.

The war, however, was over by the time Eniac was completed. With 40 cabinets packed with close to 18,000 vacuum tubes, 10,000 capacitors, 6,000 switches and 1,500 relays, the U-shaped Eniac filled in a 1,500 square-foot room. What took humans hours and days to calculate, the Eniac could achieve in a matter of seconds to minutes.

Could be re-programmed

What distinguished Eniac from existing devices of the age was that despite running at electronic speeds, it could also be programmed to address different instructions. Even though it often took days to rewire the machine with new instructions (Six women were recruited specifically for this purpose) there was no denying that Eniac was the world’s first electronic general-purpose computer.

On February 14, 1946, Eniac was announced to the public by the U.S. War Department. Even though World War II was over, one of the first uses Eniac was put to was to do calculations for the construction of a hydrogen bomb. Even though Eniac was in operation for just a decade, it would forever remain the world’s first computer.

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Printable version | Aug 6, 2021 1:27:10 AM |

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