Posted in coding history, computer history, early computing, women and computing

ENIAC: The First U.S. Computer and How Women Made It Work

ENIAC 6People — young and old — enjoy learning about the first computer in the United States, ENIAC, booted up in 1946. Every 21st Century learner needs to know about this amazing machine and the story of the first programmers.

A few weeks ago I visited Philadelphia and had a special opportunity to visit ENIAC. This huge, old-fashioned computer is owned by the Smithsonian Institution  (read this article), but parts of it are still housed in a building at the University of Pennsylvania, almost exactly where it was originally set up. ENIAC could be  programmed to do extensive calculations much faster than humans could calculate.

The letters in ENIAC stand for Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer.                            

Eniac 4ENIAC was conceived and created in the middle of the 1940s by John Mauchly, PhD and J. Presper Eckert, Jr., and it began working as a bona-fide computer in 1946.

Interestingly, a small group of women mathematicians figured out how to use it and how to program it, and they also performed troubleshooting duties. Before ENIAC the Army recruited these women to serve as “human computers” during the World War II. They collaborated on a top-secret project, working day and night to figure out extensive calculations for ballistic tables for the weapons used in Europe and the Pacific war theaters. After the war a fair number of the women stayed on to work on ENIAC.

Eniac 2I’ll write another post with more details about these women, but to get started learning more about them you might want to read a September 2014 Fortune magazine article, Walter Isaacson on the Women of ENIAC.

A Few Facts About ENIAC

  • It was 100 feet long.
  • It had 17,468 vacuum tubes (kind of like the old television tubes).
  • It was 10 feet high and 3 feet deep.
  • It contained 6,000 switches
  • The vacuum tubes attracted flying insects.
  • It did not have stored memory.  Each calculation was the result of setting switches, knobs and dials, and the result would come out on punch cards.


2 thoughts on “ENIAC: The First U.S. Computer and How Women Made It Work

  1. Reblogged this on Media! Tech! Parenting! and commented:

    It all began with a woman.

    I am reading Walter Issacson’s book, The Innovators. What is interesting is that his book begins by describing the work of Lady Ada Lovelace, who was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron. Ada Lovelace is the mind that first imagined and even wrote a bout the possibilities of computers and programming way back in the 1840’s. Naturally the technical abilities and the tools were not available when she came up with her vision of programming, but almost everything subsequent to her work is based on the foundation she created.

    The March 2015 post that I’ve reblogged below is about the women who figured out how to program one of the first computers, ENIAC., right after World War II.

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