Thursday, August 30, 2007

Faster Calculating


Computer pioneer John W. Mauchly was born on this day in 1907 in Cleveland, Ohio.

John Mauchly was an obscure professor of physics --in fact, he was the whole physics department at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania -- who was best known locally for his entertaining "Christmas lectures" on basic physical principles, illustrating Newton's laws with skateboards and bringing spectroscopic principles to bear on finding out the contents of Christmas gifts wrapped in colored cellophane.

His avocation, however, was weather prediction, and when he wasn't teaching Physics 101 to pre-med students he was writing papers on the effect of solar activity on rainfall patterns. His sticking point, however, was that the mathematical analysis required to support his theories required a better, faster calculating machine than he had ever encountered.

Believing electronics to be the answer after a visit to Iowa to see the pioneering work of John Atanasoff, in 1941 Mauchly enrolled in a U.S. War Department- sponsored "defense training in electronics" course at Penn, where he met Pres Eckert, a recent graduate from the Penn electronics department. Together they discussed the possibility of designing an electronic calculating machine, which culminated in Mauchly's proposal for defense funding, "The Use of High-Speed Vacuum Tube Devices for Calculation." The government bit on the concept, needing faster calculators to calculate ballistic missile trajectories, and in 1943 Mauchly and Eckert began work on the ENIAC -- the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer.

As they built the 30-ton behemoth, they had to figure out not only how to coordinate the activities of 18,000 vacuum tubes, but they had to find wire that rats would not eat. Ultimately ENIAC was used for 8 years on hydrogen bomb problems and calculation of Russian weather patterns.

Next, Mauchly and Eckert began to work on the EDVAC (Electronic Discrete Variable Computer), a stored-program machine, but mathematician John von Neumann grabbed the reins of the project and Mauchly and Eckert got into a dispute with Penn over the ownership of their designs; so in 1948 Mauchly and Eckert formed their own company, the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, to commercialize computers. They built the UNIVAC I, which they sold to such firms as Prudential and A.C. Nielsen (as well as the U.S. Census Bureau) for a price of $150,000 each, but they were cash poor and sold out to Remington Rand, the typewriting company, in 1950, which in turn sold out to Sperry in 1955.

Having demonstrated that there was a market for large-frame computers, their much better financed competitor, IBM, began to pour its resources into the opportunity, eclipsing the success of Mauchly and Eckert's UNIVAC. Mauchly and Eckert, however, had shown the world that electricity could be used to solve mathematical problems and produced the first commercial electronic digital computer.

Mauchly died on January 8, 1980.


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