Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Mother of All Things

It’s 10:30 on a Tuesday morning, and I’m sitting at a computer. And the thought then occurs: How many others are doing the same thing in this country right now? Well, that answer is difficult to get, but those who’re guessing are putting the number upward of 160 million; I bet they’re way short of the total. But this in turn made me wonder about the first one. That of course was ENIAC for Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, born in 1946, in Pennsylvania, more precisely at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering of the University of Pennsylvania. It’s father was the U.S. Army—and its mother War, the mother of all things. It was intended to calculate artillery firing tables.

Now this baby was a large one. It weighed 30 tons and occupied 1,800 square feet, thus the footprint of a house. IBM was present at this event in a kind of godfatherly role. It made accounting machines that used punch cards. ENIAC was made to feed on such cards and also to spit them out again as its great output. And IBM’s accounting machines, operating off-line, could then translate what the baby was saying into human speech.

Artillery firing tables. Well and good. But it turns out that, as ENIAC was being nursed into its functional being, John von Neumann, the famed mathematician, heard about this thing and got very interested. Neumann then was working at Los Alamos on the hydrogen bomb project. That project needed lots and lots of calculation—so many, in fact, that he persuaded ENIAC’s nurses that the new-born computer’s first ever calculation would take place on behalf of the H-bomb. And so it happened. Now we’re quite accustomed to think of computers as superfast and dealing with very large numbers. ENIAC was fast. It operated a thousand times faster than electro-mechanical computers of that time could manage; ENIAC was purely electronic; it didn’t have to throw mechanical switches to mark its calculations. And as for big numbers, that first test run required, for its input and its output, one million punched cards.

Pic Credit: U.S. Army, from Wikipedia (link).

2 comments:

  1. Reading this post, my mind immediately brought up two other technological developments: the APRANET and the Enigma Machine, both created by Defense Agencies, ergo War needs.

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  2. BTW, the phrase "the Mother of all things..." in this instance these war-related or -caused inventions, should be referred to as "the Father of all things..." IMHV!
    One of Goethe's song lyrics (Lila) cites among other behaviors or acts by women to bemoan: "womanish crying... and sighing" (in German Weibisches Zagen).
    Does that sound like the "Mother of all things..."? With exception of Mother Nature, I can think of very few other mothers as formidable and lasting.

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