• Exploring American History

ENIAC – the elephant in the computer room

In this day of hand-held computers (cell phones) and laptops, let's take a look back at how computers got their start.



The first electronic general-purpose computer, Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) was digital, Turing complete (a system of data-manipulation rules) and fully adept at reprogramming in an effort to solve "a large class of numerical problems". ENIAC was originally designed to and primarily used for the calculation of artillery firing tables used by the United States Army's Ballistic Research Laboratory. ENIAC was also equipped with an “alter ego”, with the first programs also including a study of the feasibility of the hydrogen bomb.


Built over a timeframe of 30 months and requiring 200,000 man-hours, ENIAC was huge. It weighed in at 30 tons and measured 30’ x 60’. Contained within it were 18,000 vacuum tubes. ENIAC was capable of storing only 20 numbers and required several days to program. It was born through the mathematical and computer geniuses of Herman Heine Goldstine and his wife Adele.


Herman Goldstine was born on September 13, 1913, to Jewish parents in Chicago. When he graduated from the University of Chicago, Goldstine was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He received a Bachelors's degree in Mathematics in 1933. Over the next three years, he acquired his Masters and Ph.D. as well. During these years, he served as a research assistant to Gilbert Ames Bliss, a mathematical authority regarding external ballistics.


In 1939, Goldstine embarked upon a teaching career at the University of Michigan. The time he spent at the university was short, due to the fact he joined the US Army at the outbreak of WWII. Love soon found Goldstine when he met Adele Katz, an ENIAC programmer who had written the technical description for the system. The couple married in 1941.


Adele Katz was born on December 21, 1920, also to Jewish parents. After graduating from Hunter College High School, she attended Hunter College and earned her Bachelor’s degree. Transferring to the University of Michigan, she later acquired her Masters's in mathematics. It was here she met Herman.


During her years as an instructor at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering, Adele taught math to the women ‘computers’, six of which became the original programmers of ENIAC, and was capable of performing hand calculations for the Army’s firing table trajectory. She also wrote an operator’s manual for the ENIAC.


In 1946, Adele worked with a select group of individuals who implemented a program modification to the ENIAC to resolve a system flaw. Originally, each time the system ran a program; it would have to be unplugged and replugged with patch cables so a different program could be run. With her help, a program was entered into the three function tables which had originally only stored information for a trajectory’s drag function.


Following the war, Adele transferred to the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Here she created a variety of problems for ENIAC to resolve.


Though ENIAC’s development was not rapid enough to provide a significant contribution to America’s war effort during World War II; it proved to be a springboard that launched the Army’s interest in the development of an electronic computer. ENIAC’s offspring was named EDVAC (Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer). Unlike its parent, EDVAC was binary (0 / 1) rather than decimal and was a stored-program computer.

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