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Review of ENIAC: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the World’s First Computer by Scott McCartney

Yesterday I had the pleasure of finishing ENIAC: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the World’s First Computer. The book is excellently written, and after a brief overview of earlier computing machines (including the lost work of Charles Babbage, analog computers, punch card calculators, and so on) focuses on the design of of the Electronic Numerial Integrator and Computer in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by John Mauchly and Pres Eckert.


ENIAC is told in mostly chronological order, and focuses and five main battles

1. The attempt to fund the construction of ENIAC
2. The attempt to build ENIAC
3. The attempt by Eckert and Machuly to commercialize ENIAC
4. The battle for credit of ENIAC
5. The ENIAC patent lawsuit

Two books I read about Bell Labs, Life in the Crown Jewel and Crystal Fire, also go through the first three steps of Columbus and the transister, respectively. However, it is the post-ENIAC battles which make this book especailly fascinating.

The battle for credit is largely against John von Neumaann. Most of the initial confusion comes from the “First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC,” which Dr. von Neumann wrote with himself as the sole author. (EDVAC was designed to be an improved version of ENIAC.) Because of wartime censorship, von Neumann’s first draft, which was meant only for internal review, was shared with other labs but the offical report, which was formal, was classified and thus not shared. Ultimately, von Neumann did not invent the computer, but was perhaps the pioneer of computer science that is distinct from electrical engineering.

The second battle was oddly personal for me, because the company that eventually acquired ENIAC has been a patent troll for decades. After ENIAC, Eckert and Mauchly went on to found their own company, which was acquired by Sperry to form Sperry Univac. Sperry Univac was involved in shady patent litigation that slowed down the progress of computing greatly, and threatened to do so thru the 1980s. The same company, now named Unisys tried to do the same thing by patenting the gif graphics format on the world wide web.

ENIAC is an excellent work, and goes behind the scenes in the struggle to build the worlds first modern computer.

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