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The history of computing

Genesis of the computer

Flashback looks at the past 50 years in computing, highlighting a different year in chronological order, starting with 1950. First in a series on the first 50 years of computing

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April 2, 1999
Web posted at: 10:22 a.m. EST (1522 GMT)

by Leslie Goff

(IDG) -- In 1950, the computer industry was only 4 years old. But the patterns that would define the new industry already were settling into place: the accelerated rate of change, the entrepreneurial start-ups, the battles between the visionaries and the businessmen, the intense competition to be faster, smaller, cheaper. The activity of the nascent industry of 1950 bore a striking resemblance to today's more mature industry.

Within two short years, Univac would become synonymous with computer the way Kleenex is synonymous with facial tissue. But just as Eckert and Mauchly's company, EMCC, was on the verge of success in 1950, with three customers lined up and development nearly finished, it found itself in trouble. The tale of the fledgling firm's fate contains some details that would reappear many times in the industry. Most notably, the two men were hurt by a lack of business skills. Moreover, they lost their main financial backer in an airplane crash.
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Technology Advances
Claude E. Shannon publishes Programming a Computer for Playing Chess, initiating the long history of chess-playing computers.
The American military begins using computer simulations in its war games.
Bell Laboratories' K. H. Davies builds the first machine able to recognize 10 numbers spoken by a human voice.
Yoshiro NakaMats invents the floppy disk at Tokyo's Imperial University.
Engineering Research Associates delivers the ERA 1101, the first commercially produced computer.
Edmund Berkeley publishes Computers and Automation, the first computer magazine.
The Times
January: President Truman orders development of the hydrogen bomb.
February: Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy begins lobbing charges of communism in the U.S.
June: U.S. declares war on North Korea.
September: Color television introduced in the U.S.
November: Richard Nixon elected U.S. senator from California.
Born in 1950
Mitch Kapor
Clifford Stoll
Steve Wozniak
1.5 million television sets in the U.S.
U.S. military budget: $12 billion
Cost of a 1950 Ford Crestliner: $1,424
Cost of a 1950 Ferrari 166 MM: $10,000
Cost of a movie ticket: 50 cents

As further evidence of the industry's growing influence, Time magazine featured an anthropomorphized computer on a cover, along with the question, "Can man build a superman?" Only four years earlier, the ENIAC (Electrical Numerical Integrator and Calculator), long considered to be the first electronic computer, had been unveiled*. In 1950, a small company in Philadelphia, launched by the ENIAC's inventors -- J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly -- was well on its way toward completing a new, faster computer called the Univac (Universal Automatic Computer). It would use magnetic-tape storage to replace punched data cards and printers to list the content of the tape.

Eckert, named in 1982 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. as the engineer of the century, was clearly the engineering muscle behind the ENIAC and the Univac. But Mauchly was the visionary, the dreamer who in many ways foreshadowed the Silicon Valley visionaries who were to follow 30 years later.

"Mauchly was the kind of guy who thought with his mouth open," says his widow, Kay Mauchly Antonelli, who became one of the world's first computer programmers when she worked on the ENIAC. "He was at the forefront of ideas about machine language. He was a dreamer."

The military drove the development of the earliest computers such as the ENIAC, seeking faster, more accurate ways to perform mathematical and scientific calculations. Mauchly was among the first to see the computer as more than a high-powered calculator. He envisioned general-purpose computers that could be employed to solve a variety of business problems.

But Mauchly was an idea man, not a businessman. After EMCC lost its backer, American Totalisator Vice President Henry Strauss, near the end of 1949, it was forced to court suitors who might acquire the firm.

So in early 1950, it set up a meeting with Thomas Watson Sr., president of IBM. Not long before -- some time in 1949, as the story goes -- Watson had dismissed the notion of computers, asserting that all the world would ever need would be about a dozen of them. By the time Eckert and Mauchly showed up, Watson had changed his mind and already had a competitor to the Univac under development. He turned them down.

The two soon sold EMCC to Remington Rand. By the time Remington Rand absorbed EMCC, Mauchly had been singled out by the government as a communist and was denied security clearance at the building where EMCC was developing the Univac for the U. S. Census Bureau. He resigned his position and took a job in another Remington Rand facility.

"1950 was a bad time for us," Antonelli says. "[Mauchly] had to fight for two years to clear his name, and he was finally cleared. But in the meantime, the company lost all of its contracts. His integrity and name were at stake. And after two years, when he was allowed to go back to EMCC, Remington Rand would not make him president again."

Nevertheless, his legacy lingers as a man whose willingness to dream and ability to inspire helped set the pace and direction for a new industry.

Goff is a regular contributor to Computerworld.

Between 1939 and 1942, Professor John Vincent Atanasoff and graduate student Clifford Berry designed and built the Atanasoff-Berry Computer or ABC at Iowa State University. In 1973, a US judge ruled the ENIAC patent invalid, saying the ideas for it were derived from Atanasoff, and John Atanasoff was named the inventor of the first electronic computer. Back to the second paragraph

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Cast your vote in Computerworld's survey of the most important IT products of the 20th century
First 50 years of computing complete timeline
John Mauchly's widow, Kay Mauchly Antonelli, shares some reflections on his life
1951: Machines on a mission
1951: Women in computing
1952: Univac predicts election, a Q&A with Walter Cronkite

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