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ENIAC hits 50

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.

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.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first computer, a 30-ton monster called the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer or 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 wonderous feat of counting to 5,000 in a second.

ENIAC has been mothballed for 40 years at the Smithsonian but will be turned on today by Vice President Al Gore in a ceremony at the University of Pennsylvania, where ENIAC was developed. Gore's appearance marks the beginning of a series of events sponsored by Penn and the Association for Computing Machinery, the oldest computer professional organization, to commemorate ENIAC's history-changing birthday. When Gore presses the button, ENIAC is supposed to count from 46 to 96. Lights are expected to blink, but experts say they can't be sure that it will run.

Other events scheduled to celebrate ENIAC include the release of a stamp called "The Birth of Computing" and the Garry Kasparov vs. Deep Blue chess matches that resulted in a 1-to-1 tie earlier this week.

ENIAC was designed by the U.S. Army to automate the process of making fast and accurate artillery calculations during World War II. It filled a 30-by-50-foot room and used 174 kilowatts per second--enough power for a typical home for more than a week. It could store 20 10-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.

But 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.

Unisys, AT&T, SAP America, and Bell Atlantic are the cosponsors of the celebratory dinner to be held in ENIAC's honor tonight in Philadelphia.