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For a change, not a paean to the computer age--but a fascinating look at its inception. As director of public information of Sperry Univac, Wulforst saw the struggles of the first commercial venture into electronic computers, and they form the climax of the book. Wulforst begins his story during World War II when the need for high-speed ""number crunchers"" to prepare firing tables for artillery provided the impetus for bold ideas. The Army, the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School of Engineering, and the newly-formed National Defense Research Committee under Vannevar Bush worked together to back development of electronic computers as a major advance over the mechanical or electro-mechanical relay devices then in use. These new machines would use vacuum tubes and binary-coded numbers with built-in logic circuits and memories to churn out the data to solve backbreaking simultaneous or differential equations. Inspiration came from academicians like Oswald Veblem, Howard Aikeh, J. Presper Eckert, and John Mauchly. (The latter pair later formed the firm that was acquired by Remington Rand.) The fruit of the Eckert-Mauchly labor was ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), but the war was over before it was ready. Orders were to proceed full speed anyway as a prudent measure against a potential Russian threat. By this time von Neumann, at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, was very much involved in computer design, and when Oppenheimer became the Institute's Director, work on general purpose computers proceeded apace. Wulforst supplies interesting background on European developments during and after the war, along with the account of how a canny James Rand financially rescued Eckert's and Mauchly's firm in time to preside over the birth of UNIVAC. A muted final chapter and epilogue are testimony to the power of big business to become bigger. IBM got into the act, eclipsing UNIVAC. This is fine computer/science/business reporting of an important and exciting episode in computer history--leading right into the story of the computer wars recounted in Robert Sobell's I.B.M.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1982
Publisher: Scribners