ENIAC. FIRST GENERATION COMPUTER.

ENIAC, in full Electronic Numerical
Integrator and Computer, the first
programmable general-purpose
electronic digital computer, built during
World War II by the United States. In the
United States, government funding
during the war went to a project led by
John Mauchly, J. Presper Eckert, Jr., and
their colleagues at the Moore School of
Electrical Engineering at the University of
Pennsylvania; their objective was an all-
electronic computer. Under contract to
the army and under the direction of
Herman Goldstine, work began in early
1943 on ENIAC. The next year,
mathematician John von Neumann—
already on full-time leave from the
Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS), in
Princeton, N.J., for various government
research projects (including the
Manhattan Project)—began frequent
consultations with the group.
ENIAC was something less than the
dream of a universal computer. Designed
for the specific purpose of computing
values for artillery range tables, it lacked
some features that would have made it a
more generally useful machine. It used
plugboards for communicating
instructions to the machine; this had the
advantage that, once the instructions
were thus “programmed,” the machine
ran at electronic speed. Instructions read
from a card reader or other slow
mechanical device would not have been
able to keep up with the all-electronic
ENIAC. The disadvantage was that it took
days to rewire the machine for each new
problem. This was such a liability that
only with some generosity could it be
called programmable.
Nevertheless, ENIAC was the most
powerful calculating device built to date.
It was the first programmable general-
purpose electronic digital computer. Like
Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine
(from the 19th century) and the British
World War II computer Colossus, it had
conditional branching—that is, it had the
ability to execute different instructions
or to alter the order of execution of
instructions based on the value of some
data. (For instance, IF X>5 THEN GO TO
LINE 23.) This gave ENIAC a lot of
flexibility and meant that, while it was
built for a specific purpose, it could be
used for a wider range of problems.
ENIAC was enormous. It occupied the 50-
by-30-foot (15-by-9-metre) basement of
the Moore School, where its 40 panels
were arranged, U-shaped, along three
walls. Each of the units was about 2 feet
wide by 2 feet deep by 8 feet high (0.6
metre by 0.6 metre by 2.4 metres). With
approximately 18,000 vacuum tubes,
70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors,
6,000 switches, and 1,500 relays, it was
easily the most complex electronic
system theretofore built. ENIAC ran
continuously (in part to extend tube life),
generating 150 kilowatts of heat, and
could execute up to 5,000 additions per
second, several orders of magnitude
faster than its electromechanical
predecessors. It and subsequent
computers employing vacuum tubes are
known as first-generation computers.
(With 1,500 mechanical relays, ENIAC was
still transitional to later, fully electronic
computers.)
Completed by February 1946, ENIAC had
cost the government $400,000, and the
war it was designed to help win was
over. Its first task was doing calculations
for the construction of a hydrogen
bomb. A portion of the machine is on
exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution in
Washington, D.C.

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