Saturday, March 2, 2013

ENIAC--Veblen's Role in Early Computers

Oswald Veblen played a key role in the early history of the computer. The need to speed up computations was most keenly felt by the U.S. military. During both World Wars, Veblen spent a portion of his time working for the military at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, overseeing advancements in ballistics calculations needed to improve the accuracy of artillery. The first computers were women, employed during the wars to compute the ballistics tables required for aiming artillery. In World War II, as both guns and targets became more mobile, the complexity of these calculations began to overwhelm the capacities of human calculators, and the need for better computing machines became evident.

It was Veblen's decision in 1943, as chief scientist of the Army Ballistics Research Laboratory in Aberdeen, Maryland during World War II, to fund the development of the first general-purpose electronic computer.

George Dyson, in his book, Turing's Cathedral, describes the critical role Veblen's  judgement and decisive action played in bringing the project to fruition. Listening to a presentation Herman Goldstine was giving to Leslie Simon about the proposal, Veblen, "after listening for a short while to my presentation and teetering on the back legs of his chair brought the chair down with a crash, arose, and said 'Simon, give Goldstine the money.'"

The ENIAC was built at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering in Philadelphia, at a cost of $500,000. The Penn Engineering website describes the result: "Originally announced on February 14, 1946, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), was the first general-purpose electronic computer. Hailed by The New York Times as "an amazing machine which applies electronic speeds for the first time to mathematical tasks hitherto too difficult and cumbersome for solution," the ENIAC was a revolutionary piece of machinery in its day."

Thanks to Steve Kruse for sending me this biography of Herman Goldstein.
Thanks to Bob Wells, who lived in and cared for the Veblen House from 1975-1998, for this link to a fine description of the ENIAC as a magical creation.

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