Happy Birthday, ENIAC

The world’s first computer turns 65 today, no matter what Iowa says

It’s hard to imagine, sitting here in front of my Mac desktop, next to a digital phone, a few feet from an iBook, a cell phone in my pocket, the awesome Scrabble Flash in my backpack, not to mention all of the analog stuff piled in my office—most if not all of whose manufacturing included a computer (or many of them)—my face neatly shaved thanks to a 5-blade Schick whose mere existence would be impossible save for a computer, all this the day after a computer named Watson beat the hell out of the all-time world champ on Jeopardy! …  It’s hard to imagine that the origins of pretty much everything in my space, with the exception of the air I’m breathing (wait … computer controlled A/C), can be traced back to the Philadelphia-birthed ENIAC, the world’s first computer.

Sixty-five years ago today—not yesterday as, er, someone errantly reported in the current issue of Philadelphia—the 30-ton ENIAC was unveiled at Penn by its inventors, John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert. But, as I describe in that article, Iowa has, over the years, emerged to try to claim our title as Birthplace of the Computer, an argument set forth (poorly) in the 2010 book The Man Who Invented the Computer by Jane Smiley, a Pulitzer-prize winning fictionist … from Iowa, naturally.

Prior to my article, save for a mostly local group of Mauchly descendants, Philadelphia and its civic leaders were mute on the subject, content to let those corn-fed Iowans steal our digital thunder. But recently, the momentum has begun to shift. Last week, City Council, led by Councilman Bill Green, declared February 15th “Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer (ENIAC) Day”, a resolution replete with language like “whereas”, “shall”, and “therefore” (you can read the whole thing here).

On Thursday, Mayor Michael Nutter, via a very statement-like statement from his press office, told me: “Philadelphia is a city of firsts. We have the first public school, first hospital, first medical and law schools, first library and the first zoo. Now, we are recognizing that the first computer, ENIAC, was created in our city. Philadelphians are very proud of our firsts, and we’re delighted to count the computer on that list.”

The next day, “ENIAC” apparently saw the need to defend itself and began to Twitter, albeit in binary code. (Don’t worry, you can translate here.) The 65-year old machine has indicated that it cannot compute Lady Gaga but does enjoy Arcade Fire. ENIAC also corrected the whole date-of-birth issue.

Then yesterday, Marty Moss-Coane dedicated an entire hour of her WHYY show Radio Times to the subject of ENIAC. It was a pretty sleepy conversation about vacuum tubes and the like, until author Jane Smiley was brave (or dumb) enough to make an appearance (via phone). Smiley confessed that she really approached this supposed work of nonfiction more as a novelist and tried to blame her publisher for some of her missteps. Then Marty gave her a nice little smack. (You can hear the whole thing here.)

So, the gloves are off, Iowa. And we’re Philadelphia. And if you don’t understand what that means, just click this link.

Happy birthday, ENIAC! Or, should I say: 0100100001100001011100000111000001111001001000000110001001101001011100100

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