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
April 2, 1999
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.
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.
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