Tuesday February 14, 2006

Happy Anniversary, ENIAC

February 2006, marks the 60th anniversary of ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) a 28 ton behemoth able to handle 5000 additions per second — far faster than any device previously invented.

Eniac Today

The ENIAC was the first all-electronic digital computer, a machine of approximately 18,000 vacuum tubes and forty black 8-foot panels. Because the ENIAC project was classified, the programmers were denied access to the machine they were supposed to tame into usefulness until they received their security clearances. As the first programmers, they had no programming manuals or courses, only the logical diagrams to help them figure out how to make the ENIAC work.

They had none of the programming tools of today. Instead, the programmers had to physically program the ballistics program by using the 3000 switches and dozens of cables and digit trays to physically route the data and program pulses through the machine. Therefore, the description for the first programming job might have read: "Requires physical effort, mental creativity, innovative spirit, and a high degree of patience."

On February 15, 1946, the ENIAC Computer was unveiled to the public and press. It ran the ballistics trajectory programmed by the six programmers and captured the world's imagination.

[ from The ENIAC Programmers, WITI Hall of Fame ]

News.com has produced a set of articles and videos commemorating the anniversary of ENIAC, the first all-electronic digital computer. As part of their report, they asked a number of "industry pros" to share memories of their first computers. They also have allowed readers to chime in with their own memories.

In reporting on this story, John Paczkowski of Good Morning Silicon Valley remembered and unearthed a similar retrospective from two years ago. That's how a good meme grows. The stories have been fun to read.

My "first computer" wasn't really mine. It belonged to the High School. In my junior year, I took a half-year programming course entitled Computer Math. Those of us in the class learned about FORTRAN. Our textbook was Kernighan and Plauger, "The Elements of Programming Style". (Great book).

We had two card punch machines in the back of the room; our instructor carried the card decks down to the IBM mainframe and brought back the printouts. We had one class "trip" when we all trooped down to see the computer.

When I went to the University, I started in a double major of CS/Biochem. I used the University mainframes. Again, these were IBMs. There were no class trips to meet the actual hardware.

We had a choice of using "The Computer Center" (hand your program to the men behind the glass wall, get the output later. Were there card punches? I think so.) or a satellite center. I used one of the satellite centers where we'd punch our cards, then feed them into the card reader ourselves. Everyone learned how to clear a jam or stop a runaway job. "Kids these days" don't understand what it feels like to hold your program as a stack of cards in your own two hands. :-)

On the other hand, talking to a senior one night about the 4 boxes of cards in front of him is what convinced me to drop the CS half of the major. Yikes! All Those Cards! (Three years later I learned how easy it is to write a program when the physical aspect is gone. Hundreds or thousands of lines of code, all on screen. No cards to carry... or drop. No problem.)

All through college I wanted a computer, whether an Apple ][ or a Commodore Vic20 or a Sinclair. I audited one class that taught me to program in BASIC on a TRS-80. But I never got a computer of my own. To be honest, I wasn't really sure what I'd do with it. Store recipes? Balance my checkbook?

Then I went off to grad school where I met my hubby who, in March 1983, bought one of the first Sun Microsystems workstations. That was Rich's second "personal" computer; his first was an LSI-11 (microprocessor version of the PDP-11), running RT-11. Whoo hoo. The Sun was considerably different from an Apple ][ or a Commodore! Suddenly, there was no question of "what can I use it for?"

I used the Sun 1 to learn Unix and do the work on my thesis. It became, by extension, my first "personal" computer. I didn't get much use of the graphics capability, however. Rich used the Sun monitor and mouse. I used a text terminal (first an ADM-3A; later, a VT220).

In 1986 I accepted a job with Apple Computer and, shortly thereafter, brought home a loaner Mac II. Since then I've always had a Mac on my desk — IIci, Quadra, PowerMac 7100, beige G3, blue&white G3, and now a G5 (zoom zoom). Rich had a series of Sun workstations until 1996 when I convinced him to try a Mac 7100. Since then, we've been pretty much in sync, hardware-wise.

Happy Anniversary, ENIAC ( in category In The News , SciTech ) - posted at Tue, 14 Feb, 00:19 Pacific | «e»