ENIAC, the first electronic programmable computer (i.e., a building sized pocket calculator) was patented just short of five years before I was born. From the application:
"...With the advent of everyday use of elaborate calculations, speed has become paramount to such a high degree that there is no machine on the market today capable of satisfying the full demand of modern computational methods. The most advanced machines have greatly reduced the time required for arriving at solutions to problems which might have required months or days by older procedures. This advance, however, is not adequate for many problems encountered in modern scientific work and the present invention is intended to reduce to seconds such lengthy computations..."
The monster was switched on in fall of that year. It was the prototype for all computers that followed later, including the one you are reading this on.
From the ENIAC patent (No. 3,120,606), filed 26 June 1947.
As I was taking my first breath, having been pulled into the world with forceps after a 72 hour labor, the phrase "rock and roll" was still three months into the future. The computer as we know it today did not exist, although ENIAC, the keyboard-less and monitor-less prototype, was almost five years old.
By February 1949, when the ENIAC completed the computation for Project Chore, an Ordnance Corps contract with the University of Chicago, operating difficulties had been reduced to a minimum. Running times were longer, down times shorter and reduced in number. The Chore contract and others completed during this period proved the ENIAC's worth. Other machines, among them the Bush differential analyzer and the Bell relay calculator, would have required a prohibitive length of time to complete the problems that were assigned to the ENIAC, and the latter was much faster than any digital system then in existence.
Before ENIAC, a computer was a human being whose job it was to do arithmetic. Electronic computers were completely unknown to most people outside science and the military before the 1952 election, which is what brought computers into the public's awareness. From USA Today's In '52, huge computer called Univac changed election night:
The ENIAC led the computer field during the period 1949 through 1952 when it served as the main computation workhorse for the solution of the scientific problems of the Nation. It surpassed all other existing computers put together whenever it came to problems involving a large number of arithmetic operations. It was the major instrument for the computation of all ballistic tables for the U.S. Army and Air Force.
In addition to ballistics, the ENIAC's field of application included weather prediction, atomic-energy calculations, cosmic-ray studies, thermal ignition, random-number studies, wind-tunnel design, and other scientific uses. It is recalled that no electronic computers were being applied to commercial problems until about 1951.
EDVAC and ORDVAC, both faster than ENIAC, began to share the Computing Laboratory's work load with the ENIAC in 1953.
In a few hours on Nov. 4, 1952, Univac altered politics, changed the world's perception of computers and upended the tech industry's status quo. Along the way, it embarrassed CBS long before Dan Rather could do that all by himself.
Computers were the stuff of science fiction and wide-eyed articles about "electric brains." Few people had actually seen one. Only a handful had been built, among them the first computer, ENIAC, created by J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1940s.
In summer 1952, a Remington Rand executive approached CBS News chief Sig Mickelson and said the Univac might be able to plot early election-night returns against past voting patterns and spit out a predicted winner. Mickelson and anchor Walter Cronkite thought the claim was a load of baloney but figured it would at least be entertaining to try it on the air.
On election night, the 16,000-pound Univac remained at its home in Philadelphia. In the TV studio, CBS set up a fake computer -- a panel embedded with blinking Christmas lights and a teletype machine. Cronkite sat next to it. Correspondent Charles Collingwood and a camera crew set up in front of the real Univac.
By 8:30 p.m. ET -- long before news organizations of the era knew national election outcomes -- Univac spit out a startling prediction. It said Eisenhower would get 438 electoral votes to Stevenson's 93 -- a landslide victory. Because every poll had said the race would be tight, CBS didn't believe the computer and refused to air the prediction.
Under pressure, Woodbury rejigged the algorithms. Univac then gave Eisenhower 8-to-7 odds over Stevenson. At 9:15 p.m., Cronkite reported that on the air. But Woodbury kept working and found he'd made a mistake. He ran the numbers again and got the original results -- an Eisenhower landslide.
Late that night, as actual results came in, CBS realized Univac had been right. Embarrassed, Collingwood came back on the air and confessed to millions of viewers that Univac had predicted the results hours earlier.
In fact, the official count ended up being 442 electoral votes for Eisenhower and 89 for Stevenson. Univac had been off by less than 1%. It had missed the popular vote results by only 3%. Considering that the Univac had 5,000 vacuum tubes that did 1,000 calculations per second, that's pretty impressive. A musical Hallmark card has more computing power.
My interest in these monsters started with a 16mm film a grade school teacher showed about these "electronic brains." It told of ENIAC, the story of the election the year I was born, and showed a technician shutting one down for debugging. "Imagine," the narrator said, attempting to emphasize how accurate these devices were, "if the teacher would kill you every time you got a question wrong!"
I was hooked.
In 1964, my family went to Texas on vacation to see what I remember as "the World's fair". Google, however, tells me that the World's fair was in New York that year. Whatever this exposition was, it was there that I met my first computer, and played my first computer "game."
The game was "States and Capitols," and I wished that they had one of these things in my school. This was a lot more fun than a paper and pencil test!
They had the thing hooked up to a loom, and they had monitors with primitive light pens. You could create a design for a cloth bookmark, and the computer/loom combination would weave a bookmark with your design!
It was the coolest thing I had ever seen in my life. "I want one!" I said. My dad just laughed. The thought that a human, let alone a middle class family, could own a computer was as outrageous as the thought of a device that could cook food with radio waves, or a device that would save TV shows for later viewing.
However, I did manage to build a computer of sorts from plans out of a Popular Electronics magazine. This "computer" was actually an electric slide rule, made out of couple of pieces of wood, a battery, a switch, two potentiometers and a dial. It actually worked, although you weren't going to plot any moon shots with it.
Yes, I was quite the nerd, reading science fiction, building electronics, and using a slide rule. By the time I was ready to graduate high school, though, I had sworn off of electronics. Discrete components were out, integrated circuts were in, and I didn't see the fun in them. I mean, hooking the leads from an amplifier circut to a speaker and a battery and a jack wasn't all that demanding. I decided that rather than engineering, when I got to college I would study art.
In 1969 I was a junior in high school and worked at a drive-in theater. That was the year Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their trip to the moon. Of course, the news kept showing the computers, and the papers kept talking about them.
I wanted one. I wanted to go to the moon, too.
I took my little Panasonic portable TV to work, and my boss freaked out. Movie theater people hated television.
"Sorry, George," I told him, "but the first moon landing is only going to happen once. We're incredibly privileged to be alive right now. You can fire me and I'll go home, or I can watch it here. But I'm watching it!"
George relented. We only had one carload of people that night; everyone was obviously at home watching the moon landing. As the lander was touching down, the lone carload's occupants came in to the concession stand. "Is there a TV in here anywhere?"
We all watched the moon landing; me, George, the other kids who worked there, and our lone carload of customers, on my little twelve inch black and white TV set. That's one small step for Neil, one giant leap for a young nerd watching it on TV at work.
By 1972 I was in the US Air Force as a driver, working on the flight line in the Aerospace Ground Equipment (AGE) unit. One cold, snowy night a half hour from the swing shift's quitting time, a call came in for two air conditioners way over on the other side of the base. My tractor had a top speed of about ten miles per hour - I was looking forward to a beer, and here I had to drag these damned air conditioners out. I was going to be working late. Hell!
A half an hour or so later I arrived at the facility, swearing, with air conditioners in tow. To my amazement there were two guys standing outside in the snow waiting for me.
"What the fuck do you need a God damned air conditioner in the snow for? I demanded.
"Oh, man," one replied excitedly, "this is so cool. You have to see it!" These guys were bouncing around like kids at a birthday party. One showed me around as the other hooked up the hoses from the air conditioners and turned them on.
Inside was what looked like a library. Every room was filled with rows and rows of what appeared to be bookshelves. However, instead of books, these shelves held printed circuit boards. There must have been thousands of them. I was duly impressed, and had nerdily forgotten about the beer I had wanted so badly.
"Cool. But what is it for?" I asked.
"Ahh," he said, "come in here," and led me to yet another room. This room was huge, and had little in it that I recognized. It was straight out of a science fiction movie, only less corny looking.
"Ok," I replied stupidly, "what is it?"
"It's a C5 simulator! Come on inside!"
And inside the contraption was the cockpit of a C-5A cargo plane, at the time the largest aircraft in the world. We had several C5s there at Dover, which was, of course, why they needed a C5 simulator. And two SUV sized air conditioners to cool the contraption's circuitry.
It was identical to a C5 cockpit, right down to the bolts and carpets. The only difference was that the windows were ground glass rather than clear, for projecting images on.
They let me "fly" it. It was incredible! It sat on hydraulics, so when you accelerated, it felt like acceleration. Likewise banking, diving, etc. You could even crash the thing! This was even cooler than the other computer I had seen back when I was 12.
Again, I lusted after a computer of my own.
In 1974, the first PC (or "microcomputer") was introduced, and I missed it. It was the Altair, with switches on the front for input, lights for output, and 256 bytes of memory. That's right kids, not gigabytes, not megabytes, not even kilobytes. Bytes. It was nothing more than a toy for nerds, having no practical use whatever. So it was probably a good thing that I was in Thailand at the time or I would have probably blown the three months' pay on one.
Some couple of years later I met my first privately owned computer: a "pong" game a friend had. Yawn. Yes, Pong was as mindlessly boring in 1978 as it is in 2005.
By 1982 I had gotten out of the Air Force, gone through college, been married for six years, and was living in Florida and working at Disney World. There I met even more computers, mainframes all. I never got closer than eyeshot, but that was closer than most people ever got. These computers controlled the amusement park's rides, animatronics, and just about everything else.
By then, the Commodore Pet had come out, and the Apple, and the TI-99A, and a few other makes. I wanted one badly, but didn't have the money. Finally, Britain's Sir Clive Sinclair did what Apple later claimed to do - made a computer "for the rest of us." Unlike Apples' "rest of us" which was "those of us normal, non-nerds only with a boatload of money," the Sinclair was affordable. Only a hundred bucks! ...which was still a lot of money to me at the time, but I could scrape it together.
I learned to program in BASIC. I then proceeded to learn how to program it in machine code, since its 1 MHz chip that also powered everything about the cheap device was simply too slow for the games I wanted to play. I had to design and write the games myself, since there really weren't any that I could find.
A year later, I got another computer, this one in color! It was a Radio Shack MC-10. I fiddled around with it and figured out how to hack its text-only display into graphics with software, and sold a few copies of the graphics program.
We moved back to Illinois with our new baby, where I parlayed my knowledge of computers into a paying job. I still work there today, writing programs, writing reports, and helping clueless users. I still have my soldering iron despite swearing off of it (and still use it), and I build my own computers now. The baby's younger sister just turned 18, and the wife is now an ex.
The computer sitting on the desk here in my apartment is several orders of magnitude more powerful than that first computer I saw at the exposition in 1964, and even orders of magnitude faster than the computers that calculated the moon shot trajectories. It was worth the wait!
Do you remember your first computer?