ENIAC by Scott McCartney


The Triumph and Tragedies of the World's First Computer
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A fluid history of the achievements and the controversies surrounding the design and building of the world’s first digital computer. While most accounts of the ENIAC (electronic numerical integrator and computer) focus on the number of vacuum tubes or the electricity required to run it, McCartney, a staff writer for the Wall Street Journal, chooses instead to focus on the human element of the story. Unlike other accounts, McCartney gives credit for the computer’s invention wholly to Presper Eckert and John Mauchly. He begins with an excellent abbreviated history of mechanical computers: systems that used punch cards for input and switches and gears to perform calculations. During WWII the US government was funding ideas, no matter how farfetched, that could help the war effort. Of particular use would be a machine that could automatically tabulate firing trajectories for new munitions. Although the initial funding for building the ENIAC was for this single purpose, Eckert and Mauchly realized the huge power computers would have in solving a wide variety of problems, and they designed and built ENIAC (nicknamed MANIAC in times of frustration) with this loftier goal in mind. The second half of McCartney’s account covers the events that took place once ENIAC came to life. Soon after its completion, Mauchly and Eckert left the University of Pennsylvania to form their own computer company. Brilliant at solving problems but less savvy about financial matters, they struggled for years before completing a second-generation machine. The final three chapters deal with the struggle over patent rights to the ENIAC, and the more fundamental issue: were Mauchly and Eckert truly the inventors of the first computer? (Others have tried to claim the title.) McCartney presents a convincing argument that this is the case. A fascinating and insightful account of the two co-inventors of the world’s first computer, written in a succinct style that will capture and sustain the interest of even the least technically sophisticated reader. (10 b&w illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: June 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-8027-1348-3
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Walker
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1999


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