ENIAC, the Triumphs and Tragedies of the World's First Computer
John Mauchly and Presper Eckert designed and built the first digital, electronic computer. The story of their three-year race to create the legendary ENIAC and their three-decade struggle to gain credit for it has never been told and is a compelling tale of brilliance and misfortune. Mauchly and Eckert met by chance in 1941 at the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School of Engineering. They soon developed a revolutionary vision: to use electricity as a means of computing - in other words, to make electricity "think." Ignored by their colleagues, in early 1943 they were fortuitously discovered and funded by the U.S. Army, itself in urgent need of a machine that could quickly calculate ballistic missile trajectories in wartime Europe and Africa.
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It is hard to imagine today, when there is literally a computer in each pocket in a form of a smartphone, that digital computers are a relatively recent development in the course of human history. They have more than anything else in the past fifty years changed the way we live and communicate with each other, the way we entertain ourselves, and have touched almost every aspect of our lives in ways that we have increasingly come to take for granted. And yet it is ironic that almost no one would be able to tell you who invented the computer. This is in a marked contrast with many other technological inventions that have changed the modern civilization. Almost any kid could tell you who invented the steam engine, the cotton gin, the automobile, the telephone, the airplane, the light bulb or the radio. For better or for worse, all of those inventions have particular name or two associated with them. Unfortunately, because of the series of historical misfortunes, the true inventors of the first functioning digital computer ENIAC are hardly household names. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly were the minds behind this WWII seminal effort, and even had the patent to the computer to their credit for a while, but due to a series of historic misfortunes and legal wrangling lost that piece of prestige.
This book goes a long way towards righting that wrong. It is well researched and replete with details of the effort that led to the construction of ENIAC, with many interesting and amusing anecdotes. It paints a very humane and sympathetic picture of Eckert and Mauchly, all with their characteristic human foibles and weaknesses. And yet, Scott McCartney is not entirely opposed to the fact that no single individual ultimately benefited from the invention of the computer. To him at least this was the reason why the huge advances in computer industry were possible in such a short span of time.
Ultimately, this is a very readable and enjoyable book, with a lot of important historical insight.