The Dawn of the Computer Age.
From this small beginning, the entire computer industry followed
The Dawn of the Computer Age: The Historical Document from The Raab Collection on Vimeo.
Today we live in world powered by computers and an ever evolving technological environment powered by them. This began with the university work of two men and...
From this small beginning, the entire computer industry followed
Today we live in world powered by computers and an ever evolving technological environment powered by them. This began with the university work of two men and the creation of one machine: the ENIAC, or rather a government supported project under contract number W670-ORD-4926. What began as a research endeavor expanded over the course of a generation into the computer revolution, and that process began with this very document.
The ENIAC was the first electronic general-purpose computer. As we read on the website of the institution at which it was invented, the University of Pennsylvania, “There are two epochs in the history of computing, before the completion of the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (known as the ENIAC), and after…The ENIAC was the watershed project which convinced the world that electronic computing was not merely possible, but practicable.” The two men responsible for its conceptual and technical success were John Mauchly and John P. Eckert, both affiliated with Penn’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering.
After the U.S. entry into World War II, Mauchly, a physicist, accepted a teaching position at the Moore School, which was then a center for wartime research efforts. He had previously created several calculating machines, some with small electric motors inside. In 1942, at Moore, he wrote a memo proposing the building of a general-purpose electronic computer, based on his concept that the best way to improve computer devices was to make them primarily electronic rather than mechanical. Mauchly emphasized the enormous speed advantage that could be gained by using digital electronics with no moving parts. Eckert was a graduate student studying at Moore who met Mauchly there, and working together they developed the theory that vacuum tubes could be used to accelerate calculations and to increase accuracy. This was a crucial insight.
One critical problem the Army had at that time was developing reliable settings to be used for artillery-firings for the large number of new guns it was developing for the war effort. As things stood then, too many people and too much time were required to prepare these tables of these. Well aware that machines had been successfully used to break enemy codes (such as the British were using at Bletchley Park to crack the German codes), the Ballistics Research Laboratory, the branch of the Army responsible for calculating these firing tables, was seeking a solution to this problem. The liaison officer between the U.S. Army and Penn picked up on Mauchly’s idea and asked him to write a formal proposal. He did so, and on April 9, 1943, the Army granted Penn a contract to build an electronic computing device that could quickly calculate and output tables. On May 31, 1943, the military’s commission began, with Mauchly the chief consultant and Eckert the chief engineer. Mauch and Eckert: their names would thereafter be forever linked.
It took Mauchly and Eckert about one year to design the ENIAC and 18 months and $500,000 dollars to build it. The ENIAC was unique in that it was computationally universal, digital, and capable of being reprogrammed to solve a large class of numerical problems. ENIAC contained 17,468 vacuum tubes, along with 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors, 1,500 relays, 6,000 manual switches and 5 million soldered joints. It covered 1800 square feet of floor space, weighed 30 tons, and consumed 160 kilowatts of electrical power. In one second, the ENIAC (1,000 times faster than any other calculating machine to that date) could perform 5,000 additions, 357 multiplications or 38 divisions. The use of vacuum tubes instead of switches and relays created the increase in speed.
Mauchly and Eckert realized right away that their work was ground-breaking, and that it would have significant application to business and industry in addition to the military. They wanted, after the war, to be able to exploit the commercial marketplace for this invention. But ownership of the patent was key, as without that they would have nothing. So they sought the University of Pennsylvania’s permission to file for the patent in their own right. Penn did not have a formalized patent policy in the 1940’s, but its general policy barred faculty members from obtaining private patents based on university research. Since the ENIAC was not strictly a university project, however, having been funded by the United States Army, Dean Harold Pender of the Moore School, in a letter written in 1944, rather surprisingly granted Eckert and Mauchly permission to file independently for the ENIAC patent. However, Mauchly and Eckert soon realized that Pender did not have authority in the matter, and his letter could not be relied on. There are many schools within the University of Pennsylvania, and Moore is just one of them; it would be the president of the University, who was then George McClelland, who would have to make the operative determination. So Mauchly and Eckert wrote to McClelland, asking his permission.
In February 1945 McClelland indicated to Mauchly and Eckert that he would likely act favorably on their request. Then, on March 15, 1945, in a letter written to Eckert, McClelland provided the men with the final authorization that would need to commercially market the computer. In it, he waived the University’s right to a patent assignment for this work, provided only that Mauchly and Eckert grant the United States government a nonexclusive royalty-free license, and that the University might sublicense the patent to non-commercial and non-profit institutions.
This is that very letter. Typed letter signed, on his University of Pennsylvania letterhead, March 15, 1945 to Eckert. “With the approval of the other administrative officers, I am writing to grant permission on behalf of the University for you and Dr. Mauchly to apply for a patent or patents on the following terms recommended by the Committee on Non-Medical Patents: (1) That permission be granted o Messrs. J. Presper Eckert, Jr., and John W. Mauchly to apply for a patent or patents on the inventions and discoveries developed by them under Contract No. W670-ORD-4926. (2) That the University should waive its right to an assignment of the patent or patents that may be granted with the understanding, (3) That an irrevocable, non-exclusive, royalty-free license be granted to the United States government and that the University be granted an irrevocable, non-exclusive, royalty-free license to build, or have built, and to use the devices covered by such patents and at its discretion to grant a free sub-license to any established eleemosynary institution to build (but not to have built by others at a profit) and to use such devices for essentially non-commercial and non-profit purposes. I judge from your joint letter requesting permission to apply for the patents that you are quite willing to subscribe to the conditions, but in order that our records may be perfectly clear, I shall appreciate it if you and Dr. Mauchly will send me jointly – or separately – a statement to that effect.” The University’s generous action was, however, opposed by many within the Penn community, and tensions arose between Mauchly and Eckert on the one hand and Penn administrators on the other.
The war was soon over, but the controversy engendered by this letter was just getting up a head of steam. The University’s lenient attitude toward the patent issue changed: the military was now requiring that all academic institutions seeking research contracts have uniform patent policies (i.e., no special dispensations), and the University was becoming increasingly unhappy with Eckert and Mauchly’s desire to profit from the work they had done while at the University. After a delay caused by waiting for Mauchly and Eckert’s attorneys to put together a patent application, the completed ENIAC was announced to the public the evening of February 14, 1946 and formally dedicated the next day. Just a month later, on March 22, 1946 Dean Pender asked Eckert and Mauchly to sign an agreement giving the University the patent rights to all work done on the stored-program EDVAC then under development and on any future machines as a condition of remaining at the Moore School. Unwilling to agree to this demand, Eckert and Mauchly left Penn’s employ on March 31, 1946.
Eckert and Mauchly were convinced that a postwar market existed for the new digital electronic computing technology, believing that the future of computing, in Eckert’s words, would be “more furthered by manufacturers who make [computers] quickly and cheaply as possible so that a lot of people can get their hands on them than it would be to perfect them somewhere in more detail for a long while in universities”. They accordingly decided to found their own computer manufacturing company to implement the rights they would have from their patent, and drew up an eight-page business plan outlining the company’s objectives and financial requirements. From this, the Eckert–Mauchly Computer Corporation was founded to market the first commercial computer and incorporated on December 22, 1947. Just prior, on June 26, 1947, the men had applied for their patent, the application noting that, “With the advent of everyday use of elaborate calculations, speed has become paramount to such a high degree that there is no machine on the market today capable of satisfying the full demand of modern computational methods.”
The ENIAC was soon renamed Univac (becoming famous under that name), and in 1948 the company received its first order – one from the U.S. Census Bureau for a computer it could use for the 1950 census. Eckert hired a staff that included a number of the engineers from the Moore School, and the company launched an ambitious program to design and manufacture large-scale computing machines. A major achievement was the use of magnetic tape for high-speed storage. During development the company continued to solicit new customers and started a software department. It developed applications, starting with the world’s first compiler for the language Short Code. However, the company was soon in financial difficulty, and in early 1950 was purchased by Remington Rand. The first UNIVAC was delivered in March 1951, thus making the dream that lay behind this patent authorization – universal computerization – into a reality.
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