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T h e C O M P A S S

From Vacuum Tubes to Microchips: ENIAC’s 50th Birthday Marks Digital Revolution

By Barbara Beck When Penn researchers unveiled ENIAC—a roomful of vacuum tubes and other components assembled into the first electronic computer—shortly after World War II, the world yawned.

Experts predicted then that the United States might eventually need no more than six of the huge computers, mainly to chart tides and to perform other such repetitive, mind-numbing tasks.

Those experts were proven wrong, of course, by the computer revolution launched 50 years ago at 33rd and Walnut Streets. But in the 1940s, even the most- farsighted scientists did not foresee the extent to which computers would domi- nate practically every facet of modern society.

Children's toys now contain more computing power than ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) did, and giant supercomputers are able to take users into another world—the imaginary realm of virtual reality.

Computer chips are in such unexpected tools as the kitchen blender and the carpen- ter’s level. There is no escaping their influence.

So it is not surprising that during the next 12 months, thousands of people will descend on campus to celebrate ENIAC’s 50th anniversary. And there is no better institution to celebrate it than Penn, the birthplace of ENIAC and the first univer- sity to offer a course in computer science in 1946.

“Technological change is impacting virtually every aspect of life around the globe,” said Penn President Judith Rodin. “The ENIAC celebration will provide opportunities for academics, students, business leaders and Philadelphia visitors to stimulate new ideas about how comput- ers can and should change our lives in the 21st century.”

Vice President Al Gore is the Honor- ary Chairman of the ENIAC 50th celebration, which will spread from Penn

Photo courtesy of the University Archives

The original ENIAC weighed 30 tons and filled a room the size of a small gymnasium.

and Philadelphia to other major computing centers around the world.

Fifty years to the day—Feb. 14, 1996—after ENIAC was first turned on, the original will be switched on during a press conference to be held near the current site of the ENIAC museum in the School of Engineering and Science (SEAS). The event will also be seen at the city’s Con- vention Center via a remote broadcast.

The ENIAC simulation, however, will be scaled down a bit. The original ENIAC was an imposing machine at 30 tons. Its 40 modular memory and processing units, each housed in a nine-foot-high black metal cabinet with dials, wires and indica- tor lights, filled a room the size of a small gymnasium. Its 18,000 vacuum tubes radi- ated so much heat that industrial cooling fans were needed to keep its circuitry from melting.

Another major anniversary marker is the ENIAC History Project, which will focus on the historical research and com- memoration of the early developments in computing.

“While parts of our project will cer-

tainly focus on the ENIAC, we hope also to take a broader view of the wider range of the developments in the computing field in the past 50 years,” said Atsushi Akera, a graduate student in the history and sociolo- gy of science, who is helping direct the history project as part of his doctoral study.

In addition to a commemorative sym- posium, the project will include a 12-panel exhibit on the career of John W. Mauchly, who co-invented ENIAC with J. Presper Eckert. The exhibit is scheduled to be shown during the spring semester in Van Pelt Library’s Special Collections display area on the sixth floor.

Anticipating the spirit of the celebra- tion, SEAS scientists are producing an “ENIAC-on-a-chip” for distribution to visitors who attend various anniversary events. The chip—designed by Dr. Jan Van der Spiegel, associate professor of electri- cal engineering, and a group of Penn electrical-engineering undergraduates— will emulate the basic functions of the original ENIAC.

The University also will recreate (continued on next page)


ALMANAC September 5, 1995

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