On February 15*, 1946, dozens of the nation’s top scientific minds enjoyed a lobster bisque and filet mignon dinner at Houston Hall. After dessert, they walked to the School of Engineering, where Penn brains John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert introduced them to the 30-ton ENIAC: a bleeping, blinking beast of digital computation. Its creators demonstrated how ENIAC could calculate the trajectory of a shell in less time than it would take for said shell to reach its target. There was, no doubt, applause and awe. Eleven days later, Time magazine gushed, “Its nimble electrons can add two numbers of ten digits in 1/5,000th of a second.” And thus the computer was born, giving this city bragging rights as the birthplace of not just freedom, democracy and the American way, but also the iPhone sitting in your pocket 65 years later.
But a growing group of Iowans, perhaps miffed that their state is best known for a not particularly nutritious vegetable, would have you believe that it was their Midwestern home that begat this world-changing technology. In October, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and former Iowa State University professor Jane Smiley published The Man Who Invented the Computer. In it, she vilifies Mauchly and argues that he stole the intellectual property of ISU physicist John Atanasoff, who had developed a computing device of his own, the Atanasoff-Berry Computer, in the late ’30s.
Not so, says Berwyn computer engineer Bill Mauchly, son of John and founder of EniAction, an online movement to preserve his father’s — and our city’s — legacy. “It was a calculator, not a computer,” he says of Atanasoff’s contraption.
Although there were undeniable similarities (the use of electronic tubes, for example), “ENIAC didn’t copy it at all,” Mauchly declares. Whereas the Atanasoff-Berry couldn’t handle large numbers or be programmed — not to mention that it never even became fully functional — ENIAC was completely programmable, and was even used by the military to design hydrogen bombs. In other words, if you’re going to give Atanasoff credit, you might as well credit the 4,500-year-old Sumerian abacus, too.
But more alarming than Iowa’s attempt to claim our history is the lack of defense from the city and Penn. Thus far, our civic leaders’ collective response has been, well, nil — and indeed, our city seems perfectly content to let this momentous, revolutionary accomplishment go largely uncelebrated. To wit: While a few pieces of ENIAC sit in some room at Penn, the remainder of surviving pieces lay in some storage room.
Think about it: Say something nasty about the Eagles, and you’ll get an earful from Ed Rendell. Declare New York City our superior in some minor respect, and watch the furor unfold. But the genesis of the computer? Eh, go ahead and take it.
And so, allow us to present a modest proposal: We recently sent letters to Mayor Nutter, the City Rep, members of City Council and Penn president Amy Gutmann, asking them to declare February 15th ENIAC Day — and make it clear to those punks in Iowa that we won’t be pushed around.
“We should be proud,” Mauchly says, but “they’re scraping the glory from us.”
Only if we let them.
* Note: I originally reported that the public unveiling of ENIAC occurred on February 14, 1946. This date was based on numerous press accounts, including one from CNN about Al Gore’s February 14, 1996 speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the world’s first computer.
Well, it seems that the guy who invented the internet was wrong, as was I, not to mention the many thousands of other inaccurate articles, websites, and books. Some research this weekend at Temple’s Urban Archives yielded a February 15, 1946 Bulletin article that states: "A 30-ton electronic brain that can ‘think’ a million times faster than Einstein is being unveiled formally by its inventors today …"
Bill Mauchly, son of inventor John, explains the discrepancy: "I believe the press were given a preview on Feb 1 but were told they could not print it until the 15th. The story they were given was that the announcement was the 14th, so that is what they printed."
So you can feel free to celebrate true love on the 14th and the 65th anniversary of the world’s first computer one day later.