On Valentine's Day 50 years ago, a U.S. Army general pushed a button, and the western world began its love affair with computers.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the first computer, a 30-ton monster called the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC). When General Gladeon Barnes flipped its switch at the University of Pennsylvania, the machine revved up its 17,468 vacuum tubes and performed the wondrous feat of counting to 5,000 in one second.
ENIAC has been mothballed for 40 years at the Smithsonian but was turned on this week by Vice President Al Gore in a ceremony at the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School of Engineering, where ENIAC was developed. No one was sure that the machine would still run, but sure enough two rows of blinking lights counted up to 46, and then to 96.
Although Gore was greeted by protesters of the recently passed Telecom Bill, who carried signs criticizing the government's alleged interference in the online industry, during his speech, Gore attributed the birth of the computer industry to the government's first investment in ENIAC.
"Government has supplied the initial flicker, and individuals and companies have provided the creativity and innovation that kindled that spark into a blaze of progress and productivity that's the envy of the world," said Gore as part of his prepared address at Penn.
Herman Goldstine, one of the last surviving members of the team who built ENIAC, said he was happy to see his invention live again this week but was even more amazed by the new world that it gave life to.
"It's absolutely incredible. Nothing is believable when you look inside a computer today. It's like I was in a different world," Goldstine told a Reuters reporter.
ENIAC was designed during World War II by the U.S. Army-led team that included Goldstine; his wife, programmer Adele Goldstine; physicist John Mauchly; and engineer J. Prosper Echkert. It was designed to automate the process of making fast and accurate artillery calculations, a job that was done on paper before ENIAC.
ENIAC's significance was obvious to many as early as its calculation. Even though World War II was over by the time ENIAC was finished, observers at the University of Pennsylvania event 50 years ago recognized its significance for science, industry, and business.
"Leaders who saw the device in action for the first time heralded it as a tool with which to begin to rebuild scientific affairs on new foundations," reported the New York Times after the Valentine's Day event in 1946.
The machine filled a 30-by-50-foot room and used 174 kilowatts per second--enough power for a typical home for more than a week--and its vacuum tubes needed constant replacement. It could store 20 ten-digit numbers in its memory, and it cost roughly $450,000. In contrast, a modern PC costs less than $3,000 and can calculate 70 million numbers in a second. The average handheld calculator now offers more computing power than ENIAC.
Although ENIAC has been preceded by a variety of counting machines, going to back to Charles Babbage's "difference engine" in the early 1800s, ENIAC was the first all-electronic machine that could be programmed to perform a variety of tasks. And it introduced two key concepts: the "if" statement and the idea of storing programs in a computer's memory.
Other events scheduled to celebrate ENIAC's birthday this week include the release of a stamp called "The Birth of Computing" and the Garry Kasparov vs. Deep Blue chess tournament.