Anniversary – 75 years of ENIAC: The world’s first universal computer was top secret
The February 15, 1946 report in the New York Times sounded like a sensation: A “Top World War II Secret” was revealed, “an amazing machine that for the first time applied electronic speeds to mathematical tasks that were previously too difficult and too cumbersome to solve “. 24 weeks after Germany surrendered, the article announced the existence of the world’s first freely programmable electronic computer.
TR Kennedy jr., The newspaper’s technology reporter, had learned from the two scientists John von Neumann and Vladimir Zworykin about the almost unlimited possibilities of the “Electrical Numerical Integrator And Calculator” (ENIAC), which had been kept top secret until then. However, two other US scientists can claim intellectual paternity for ENIAC: the physicist John William Mauchly and the engineer John Presper Eckert.
They wanted to use the calculator – as the name “Numerical Integrator” already suggests – to accelerate “numerical integration”, that is, the calculation of an area under a curve in the coordinate system. It was not about an abstract mathematical finger exercise. Rather, the soldiers of the US Army in World War II should be given specific help in quickly calculating the trajectories of the artillery shells.
$ 487,000 for arithmetic
Before the invention of the ENIAC, these so-called shot boards were laboriously determined with desktop calculators or a little faster with analog computers. Mauchly proposed a digital electronic instrument to the Army that could be used for this task in 1942, and construction began a year later at the University of Pennsylvania. The project was top secret and cost $ 487,000.
However, the US Army was no longer able to benefit from the ENIAC during World War II, because the machine was only completed after the end of the war. With the approaching Cold War, the purpose of the computing monster changed: The ENIAC was used by US scientists in Los Alamos to calculate the destructive power of the first hydrogen bomb.
The first version, the ENIAC I, consisted of 40 wired electronic racks, three roller cabinets with rotary switches and devices for reading and issuing IBM punch cards. The computing giant contained around 17,500 tubes, 7,200 diodes and 1,500 relays. Together they weighed 27 tons. Compared to its mechanical predecessors, ENIAC processed its calculation steps significantly faster. The giant machine was able to cope with around 5,000 arithmetic operations per second, around 1,000 times faster than mechanical computers.
Computer science is female
The history of ENIAC I is also an example of the important role women played in the early days of computer science. Even before large computers were used, mathematicians were often doing the arithmetic in the military with pen and paper. At ENIAC I, the complicated program changes were made by six women scientists. For a long time they had to defend themselves against the cliché of “refrigerator ladies”. This is how the young women were referred to in advertising photos who posed in front of refrigerators to make the machine look good. In the meantime nobody questions the historical achievement of the ENIAC women anymore.
Technology historians are still debating whether the ENIAC I was really the “first computer”. In Germany this title is often awarded to the Z3 by Konrad Zuse (1941), the world’s first functional digital computer. The Z3, however, worked with electromagnetic relay technology, not with tubes. Other experts see the Atanasoff-Berry computer (1937-1941) in front in the historic race. However, the “ABC” was not a computer in the modern sense, as it was not freely programmable.
“Who invented it? In the case of the computer, this question is not easy to answer,” says Jochen Viehoff, managing director of the Heinz Nixdorf Museum Forum (HNF) in Paderborn. What is certain, however, is that in 1946, the ENIAC, the world’s first programmable mainframe computer that worked exclusively with fast electron tubes, was presented.
The ENIAC I also worked fairly reliably for important scientific and military computing tasks in tough continuous use, says Viehoff. “It is not uncommon for ENIAC to calculate for hours or days on a problem.” However, there was no program memory as we know it from today’s computers.
The ENIAC I was in operation until 1955. Then it was taken apart and the individual parts (“racks”) distributed to different institutions. Several ENIAC racks can be found in Washington in the American History Museum of the Smithsonian Institute. But you don’t have to fly to this USA to admire parts of the ENIAC I. “We are very happy to be able to show a total of three original panels from this important milestone in computer history on loan from the USA in the permanent exhibition of the Heinz Nixdorf Museum Forum,” says Managing Director Viehoff. With an interactive ENIAC accumulator, visitors can carry out simple mathematical calculations themselves – almost like in 1946. (apa / dpa)