We know that bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better—or faster—but 60 years ago, it meant exactly that.
ENIAC, or Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer, developed by Penn physics professor John W. Mauchly and graduate student J. Presper Eckert, Jr., was an engineering and computing marvel. In its time, ENIAC was the largest single electronic apparatus in the world: It filled the entire basement of the Moore School of Electrical Engineering.
Since ENIAC didn’t have a memory to store programs, all programming was done by hand. Six women, including Frances Bilas and Elizabeth Jennings (below), were chosen to physically connect the units by cables and turn switches to the appropriate settings. Their job title? Appropriately enough, these women were known as “computers.”
Originally, ENIAC was created as a response to the need for more computational power during World War II—Army brass hoped to use ENIAC to compute ballistics firing tables—but it was actually capable of much more. Good thing, too, because it wasn’t finished before the end of the war.
Still, the massive computer may have completed an even more important mission: Convincing scientists of the practicality of electronic computation and digital technology. If not for ENIAC, there would be no cell phones, Internet or Blackberries. Of course, ENIAC is a dinosaur by modern standards. For the machine’s 50th anniversary in 1996, a group of Penn electrical engineering students under the guidance of Professor of Electrical and Systems Engineering J. Van der Spiegel integrated the entire ENIAC on one chip.
For more on this and other notable moments in Penn history, visit the University Archives web site at www.archives.upenn.edu. And to learn more about ENIAC—including the technologies that preceeded it and the many others that followed—go to the Engineering School’s ENIAC Museum Online at www.seas.upenn.edu/~museum.
Originally published on March 16, 2006