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What do you know about ENIAC?

November 20, 2018

What do you know about ENIAC?

This post is also available in : Spanish

ENIAC, the story of the giant hardware that became legend

Although the history of computer science is not too long, it also contains its own milestones.

If we focus on hardware development, one of them is in the creation of one of the best-known computers in history, built during the 1940s and still quite popular today.

ENIAC was one of the first computers in history and its technical development and its dimensions, as well as some anecdotes about it, have turned it into a hardware legend. Do you want to know it a little better?

What is ENIAC?

What is ENIAC? ENIAC, an acronym for Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer, was the largest computer of its time, created in 1943 at the University of Pennsylvania by engineers John Presper Eckert and John William Mauchly, and programmed by Betty Snyder Holberton, Jean Jennings Bartik, Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum and Frances Bilas Spence.

Since its creation was projected in the years when the United States was immersed in World War II, its initial purpose was the calculation of artillery tables (essentially, projectile trajectories) for the U.S. Army Ballistics Research Laboratory. Its operation was completely digital, unlike the other computers of the time, which used to follow analogical processes. It is considered to be the first general-purpose, all-digital computer ever created (the German Z1, developed in the 1930s by Konrad Zuse, had been the first general-purpose computer, but had analogue parts).

To read and write data, punched cards were used and their programming was carried out through a very complex networking cables.

Some facts that have turned ENIAC into a legend

– It was called the “mechanical brain”

What is ENIAC? In July 1946 and before an unusual fact of the press, ENIAC was presented to the public and baptized by the media as “mechanical brain”. Some people also called it “electronic Einstein”.

– Its dimensions were unpublished for the time

We’re talking about probably the largest computer ever built. In fact, it took 30 months to build it. It occupied an area of 167 square meters, weighed 27 tons, measured 2.4 meters high and had 70,000 resistors, 17,468 vacuum tubes, 10,000 capacitors, 7,200 crystal diodes, 1,500 relays and five million welds.

– It was one of the first computers to use binary language

Leaving the decimal system behind and multiplying its speed, it is possible that this was ENIAC’s greatest contribution to the history of computing. Thus, it worked in such a way that when an electric switch was open it was equivalent to 1 and when it was closed it was equivalent to 0.

– It wasn’t easy to program

Their operators had to use more than 6,000 switches, so each software modification required weeks of work only on its introduction.

– It was very delicate

What is ENIAC? ENIAC operated using thermionic valves (vacuum tubes), which were frequently damaged. It is estimated that it could not operate for more than 10 minutes without one of them being damaged, and each breakdown meant investing more time in locating and repairing it.

However, the times when most breakdowns were caused were when the machine was turned on and off, so it was decided not to turn off the machine, which led to a reduction in the frequency of breakdowns to an average of one every two days.

– It had enormous power for the time

Compared to the power of today’s computers it may sound ridiculous, but ENIAC was able to perform 5000 sums or 300 multiplications in one second, which was quite a milestone at the time. Legend has it that throughout its years of operation it performed more mathematical calculations than all of Humanity as a whole had done up to that time.

– It was a machine that left its mark

Its colossal dimensions and the limitations of the time made ENIAC noticeable in its surroundings every time it was used. For example, the temperature of the room in which it was housed increased to 50ºC and its consumption (160 kw) caused blackouts in the city of Philadelphia, next to the one it was located, when it came into operation.

– ENIAC inspired John Von Neumann

In 1944 the famous mathematician and physicist John Von Neumann, considered by many as the “father of the modern computer” (together with Alan Turing), worked in the ENIAC environment, writing the article “First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC”, which dealt with the design of a computer with stored programs and in which the concept of “Architecture of Von Neumann” was introduced for the first time.

– ENIAC was deactivated on October 2, 1955

Due to the rapid advance of computing (to which ENIAC itself had contributed decisively), the computer was deactivated forever on that date, but not before leaving almost a decade of work in fields such as atomic energy, cosmic rays or, of course, ballistics.

Stories such as ENIAC remind us that it has not been easy to get to the point of development where we are now. Apparently as simple as a mobile phone or laptop may seem, devices are the result of the work of many people who, over decades, have strived to take computing one step further.

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One comment
  1. […] At that time, Von Neumann was already considered an absolute eminence and had earned the reputation of being a scientist of exceptional talent, to the point of awakening admiration among all his colleagues. In that context, he met Herman Goldstine, who told him about his work at ENIAC. […]

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