J. Presper Eckert & John W. Mauchly

Franklin Chenault Watkins
Ruth Patrick

Eckert and Mauchly were given the Philadelphia Award for developing the ENIAC, the world’s first “large-scale general-purpose electronic computer.” Their story begins in 1941 at the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering. Eckert was pursuing his master’s degree in Electrical Engineering at the school, and was the instructor of a class, titled “Electrical Engineering for Defense Industries.” The class was being offered at the school in conjunction with the U. S. Army, which was seeking young engineers trained in operating communications and electronic weapons systems. Mauchly was enrolled in the course to learn more about engineering, so that he could make a greater contribution to the war effort. He was already an established academic, a professor at Ursinus College who had completed a Ph.D. program at John Hopkins by the age of 24 in the field of molecular spectroscopy. Mauchly had been permitted to enroll directly into the doctoral program after just two years as an undergraduate.

D uring this 10-week long program, Eckert and Mauchly began sharing their ideas about computers and the need for a high-speed computing machine. These brainstorming sessions continued “in classrooms, in labs, and over coffee and sundaes at the old Linton’s restaurant on Market Street.” Together they began working on a computer system designed for general numerical calculations. In 1942 Mauchly drafted a memo that outlined their ideas, and the following year he wrote a formal proposal which was greeted with interest by the Army, due to the computational advantages it might bring, especially in the area of ballistics. A classified military contract was agreed upon, the venture was named Project PX, and, with the army’s grant of approximately $500,000, the development of the ENIAC computer was officially underway on April 9, 1943.

The ENIAC, an acronym for Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, was completed in 1945 after two and a half-years of development, with the assistance of a staff of two hundred. Officially unveiled on February 14, 1946, the ENIAC contained 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighed in at a remarkable 30 tons, covering the entire 15,000 square-foot basement of the Moore School. Controlled by electronic impulses and hundreds of cables, the ENIAC resembled “an old-time telephone switchboard” on a colossal scale. The speed and accuracy of the computer were unmatched, and, most importantly, it was reliable. Mauchly was the brainchild of the ENIAC’s structural design, while Eckert made the theoretical ideas a functioning reality. A brilliant scientist and a brilliant engineer had the creativity and skills which together created the ENIAC.

The “engineering tour de force” that Eckert and Mauchly created revolutionized technology, science, and business, paving the way for the “Information Age” and modern-day computers. Many consider the ENIAC to be the most significant invention of the 20th Century. In the words of Dr. Marvin Wachman, chairman of the Philadelphia Award Board of Trustees when the award was given, “many of the daily endeavors we take for granted today would be unthinkable without computer technology.” He concluded: “It is especially fitting that the Philadelphia community, in which [their] work began, now recognizes their monumental achievement, which in countless ways, affects the lives of virtually everyone on this planet.”

After the development of the ENIAC, Eckert and Mauchly resigned from their positions at the Moore School due to a bitter dispute with the University of Pennsylvania over the patent for the ENIAC; the university believed the profits from the invention belonged to the institution, not to Eckert and Mauchly. They subsequently formed a business in Philadelphia, originally known as the Electronic Controls Company, where they aimed to manufacture computers for sale. Although the company went through a series of mergers and name changes, they became, through their work for this company, co-inventors of the UNIVAC and BINAC, the first commercial computers. Yet their company struggled to compete with better-financed rival companies, which produced commercial computers including the ILLIAC, the Whirlwind, and the MANIAC.

After the purchase of the business by the Rand Corporation in 1950, Mauchly found himself marginalized within the company, due to the secret nature of the company’s military research and their reliance on their own team of researchers. In a plaintive letter to the company that he never sent, Mauchly wrote, “I am unhappy because my usefulness…has become severely circumscribed. An assured income is all very well, but…I have an urge to do things.” In 1959 Mauchly left and formed his own consulting firm, Mauchly Associates, which advised clients on project planning and the uses of computers. Eckert , who remained as a vice president of the company, obtained 87 patents for his various inventions in the course of his lifetime. But it was their role as creators of the ENIAC, the predecessor of all computers, that changed technology forever and made them true visionaries in the eyes of Philadelphia.

Sara Block

Sources: Atsushi Akera and Asaf Goldschimdt, “John W. Mauchly and the Development of the ENIAC Computer,” University of Pennsylvania, http://www.library.upenn.edu/exhibits/rbm/mauchly/; Martin H. Weik, “The ENIAC Story,” Ordnance Ballistic Research Laboratories, http://ftp.arl.army.mil/~mike/comphist/eniac-story.html; “Welcome to the ENIAC Museum,” University of Pennsylvania, http://www.seas.upenn.edu/about-seas/eniac/; “Binary Pioneers,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 28, 2006; “The College That Created the Computer ENIAC,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 14, 1990; “The Electronic Computer’s Inventors,” New York Times, Aug. 1, 1971; Obituary, New York Times, Jan. 9, 1980; Obituary, Philadelphia Inquirer, June 6, 1995; Obituary, New York Times, June 7, 1995; “A Pioneer Keeps His Focus on the Future, Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb. 16, 1981; ”Remains of the Data,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Aug. 31, 2000. The following are collected in Philadelphia Award Records, Series 1 (Minutes), Vol. 3; Series 2 (Recipients and Nominees), Box 7, folder 13: newspaper clippings; Series 4 (Miscellaneous), Box 19, folder 18: recipient lists. Photo: Image courtesy of University of Pennsylvania Archives. Comments: Most of the original ENIAC can be found at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. The ENIAC Museum at the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Pennsylvania displays four of the original forty panels of the ENIAC.