August 5, 2004

Secrets of ENIAC

by Nick Montfort · , 12:50 pm

From the series Secrets of ENIAC, by Benjamin Pierce Yesterday I went to the opening reception for Secrets of ENIAC, photographs by Benjamin Pierce, a professor of computer and information science here at Penn. The photographs are extreme close-ups, details of macros, showing a strange industrial landscape within the vacuum tubes of this early computer. They’re now exhibited in Penn’s Levine Hall, home of the CIS department. They can also be seen online.

A special treat was getting to go into the usually-inaccessible shrine called the ENIAC Museum, look at four of the 40 ENIAC consoles from all sides, and up close, and hear from curator Paul Shaffer. The history of computing, and how to assign credit for general-purpose computing, is complex, but ENIAC was the first machine to be able to do a conditional branch (an if statement). The capability wasn’t there from the start; someone (it’s not clear who, but it almost certainly was one of the women who regularly programmed the machine) figured out that a cable carrying a numerical output could be plugged into a control input, so that the program would only continue running on the next console if the output was nonzero. There’s much more to to say, but I’ll point to Penn Special Collections’s nice site to accompany the 1996 exhibit of ENIAC co-creator John W. Mauchly’s papers. In 1996, incidentally, then-Vice-President Al Gore came by for ENIAC’s 50th birthday celebration and flipped on Penn’s remnant of the ENIAC, which counted from 46 to 96.

3 Responses to “Secrets of ENIAC”

  1. Hideous Pursuit Says:
    Wearable ENIAC Wiki
    Wearable hotspot detector Secrets of ENIAC exhibit [via] SIGGRAPH 2004 Wiki is growing rapidly [via] CyberFashion III at SIGGRAPH Wednesday. This changes everything Responsive Environments and Ubiquitous Presence [via] torrentocracy [via]…

  2. nick Says:

    Sometimes the secrets are hidden in plain view: The March 1996 issue of Penn Printout, which is online in PDF and in HTML, contains a host of articles, e.g., Michael Ryan on the Maulchy exhibit that I mentioned and Mitch Marcus and Atsushi Akera on ENIAC’s (untapped) ability to do parallel processing.

  3. nick Says:

    As part of Penn’s Women in Computing Series, I went to a special event today with Jean Bartik and Kay Mauchly Antonelli, who programmed the ENIAC about 60 years ago, and Kathryn Kleiman, who made a short documentary about the ENIAC programmers, The Computers: The Untold Story of the Remarkable Women who Programmed the ENIAC. There was a great discussion, with Bartik and Mauchly Antonelli recounting how they figured out their programming task (not allowed to actually see the ENIAC at first, they had to do so using block diagrams) and describing the parallel processing ability, and the difficulties with it, that were mentioned in that previously linked article.

Powered by WordPress