Secrets of ENIAC, 2004

The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) was among the very first computers—some say it was the first, though there are competing claims. Built at Penn from 1942 to 1946, its work was the most prosaic imaginable: calculating missile ballistics and later helping with the design of the hydrogen bomb. Looking back from today, with every facet of society permeated by super-fast, ultra-miniaturized, all-but-invisible computers, the ENIAC seems ludicrously clunky and primitive. But this is where it all began.

For someone who came of age in the second half of the computer revolution, the immediately surprising thing about ENIAC is its physicality. It is a machine in the most literal sense, built from huge metal boxes, massive cables, thick copper wires joined by gobs of solder, panels full of dials, bank upon bank of vacuum tubes. Looking again, the second surprise is the beauty and intricacy of its individual parts. A single tube, responsible for just one numeral in a decimal ring counter, contains a thicket of wires, planes, and baffles. If you peer very closely, a microcosm of strange and enigmatic scenes begins to unfold.

These images of ENIAC express the wonder I felt when, as a child, I came to understand what a computer is: not just a calculating machine, but a tool for amplifying imagination, making it possible to weave structures of pure abstract symbols and see them rendered as concrete things, real places. This is pure magic.

On a more personal level, these images commemorate my family's connections to Penn in the mid-20th century, and with the group that developed the ENIAC in particular. Both of my mother's parents and two great uncles did their graduate work at Penn: my grandfather, Ralph Young, in the Economics department (where he later taught), my grandmother, Louise Young, in History, my great uncle, Chick Merwin, in Economics, and his brother, Dick Merwin, in the Moore School of Electrical Engineering, which later spawned the department of Computer and Information Science, on whose faculty I now serve.

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