The First Computer at Penn: ENIAC

Earlier this year, the Philadelphia City Council officially declared Feb. 15 as “ENIAC Day” in recognition of the 65th anniversary of the revolutionary computer’s dedication at the University of Pennsylvania.

Speaking at City Hall, Councilman Bill Green, who proposed the designation, celebrated the importance of ENIAC to the history of Philadelphia as well as the digital age that it helped to usher in. Joe Bordogna, professor of electrical engineering and former dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, added that the computer represented Penn’s commitment to advancing knowledge.

The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC, was created under the direction of John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert of Penn’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering (now the School of Engineering and Applied Science).

Construction of the 27-ton, 680-square-foot computer began in July 1943 and was announced to the public on Feb. 14, 1946. It was built to calculate ballistic trajectories for the Army during World War II, a time- and labor-intensive process that had previously been performed by teams of mathematicians working with mechanical calculators.

ENIAC stored information in the form of electrons trapped in vacuum tubes, making it the first all-electronic, general-purpose digital computer. The long string of adjectives distinguishes it from earlier mechanical computers, which were essentially gear-driven abacuses that could aid in complex math but could only calculate a small subset of equations.

Though the process was unthinkably laborious by today’s standards, ENIAC’s operators could program the computer by physically connecting its various arithmetic modules in a precise sequence.

“They solved equations they thought would take two years in two hours,” Bordogna says, “so the world changed.”

Text by Evan Lerner
Video by Kurtis Sensenig