Historical Markers
Commercial Digital Computer Birthplace Historical Marker
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Commercial Digital Computer Birthplace

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
3747 Ridge Ave., Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
September 28, 2006

Behind the Marker

Howard Hathaway Aikens didn't think very much of J. Presper Eckert, Jr. and John Mauchly's plan to build electronic computers for a commercial market. And as the renowned inventor of the groundbreaking Harvard Mark I electromechanical computer in 1944, Aikens' opinion on such matters was important to military buyers. Based on the capabilities of computers in 1948, he argued that aside from the federal government's need for five or six machines there was no market for computers.

Inventors J. Presper Eckert and J.W. Mauchly work on the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC)
J. Presper Eckert and J.W. Mauchly working on the Electronic Numerical Integrator...
By the next year, however, scientists, engineers and economists were actively discussing the usefulness of electronic computers in scientific and business applications. At a February 1949 meeting of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, computer specialists eagerly dreamed of the day when computers would tune television sets, control manufacturing processes, fly airplanes and forecast the weather. Later that summer, a group of physicists meeting in Los Angeles imagined using a computer to answer questions about the motion of electrons. Economists wanted computers to predict how consumers' demands would change with reduced supply.

The need for high-speed computers to help solve large and complex problems was not lost on Eckert and Mauchly, who had developed the world's first electronic computer at the University of Pennsylvania during World War II. Since they had unveiled their markerENIAC in December 1945, numerous companies had inquired about renting the computer. Embroiled in an ongoing patent dispute with the University over ENIAC, Eckert and Mauchly had resigned from Penn in March 1946 and started the Electronic Controls Corporation in an office at 1215 Walnut St. in downtown Philadelphia. Shortly thereafter they had drafted a brief business prospectus, "Outline of Plans for Development of Electronic Computers," which identified "scientific laboratories, universities and research foundations, industrial research and engineering laboratories, the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Weather Bureau, other government agencies" as possible users of a "multi-purpose rapid computing machine of moderate cost."

J. Presper Eckert, Jr., co-designer and James R. Weiner, chief engineer, look over the new portable "electronic brain."
Co-designer J. Presper Eckert, Jr. and chief engineer James R. Weiner look over...
ENIAC had been a marked improvement over the differential analyzers and electromechanical computers then in use, but it had many shortcomings. A computer that could recall commonly used programs would require fewer technicians and be far easier to use. Agreeing that their next computer should be programmable and have memory, they sought the help of leading scientists, including Princeton mathematician John von Neumann, who conceptualized the benefits of a stored program computer.

Only a month after Eckert and Mauchly resigned from Penn, the federal government signed an agreement with the University to build a programmable computer called EDVAC (Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Calculator), based on Eckert and Mauchly's designs. While the Penn team worked on EDVAC, Electronic Controls Corporation in April 1946 received a crucial $300,000 contract from the U.S. Census Bureau. The partners immediately began designing a prototype programmable computer with enough memory to handle business and scientific uses. Since electronic computers "think" in a binary numeration system, the "0" and "1" corresponding to the on/off position of electric switches in a computer, Eckert and Mauchly decided that their new computer would use digital numbers rather than the traditional decimal characters used by ENIAC. (Penn's EDVAC computer also used a binary numbering system.)

After reorganizing as the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation in 1948, the partners assembled their first Binary Automatic Computer (BINAC) at the company's Ridge Avenue workshop. Bought in 1949 by the Northrop Aircraft Company, BINAC had a 1,024-word memory and user-friendly input devices, but it failed to work consistently.

J. Presper Eckert is shown demonstrating the UNIVAC mainframe computer that he helped design.
J. Presper Eckert demonstrates the UNIVAC mainframe computer that he helped...
At the same time that Eckert and Mauchly were building BINAC, they were also developing a second, more sophisticated, reliable and user-friendly computer called UNIVAC (short for Universal Automatic Computer), which could recall data from memory. It also featured an input device modeled on a typewriter keyboard, an innovation suggested by pioneering computer scientist Grace Murray Hopper, who joined the Eckert-Mauchly Corporation in 1949. Hopper believed that computers should be easy to use and program. A former math professor at Vassar and lieutenant in the Navy WAVES during World War II, Hopper had outlined the fundamental operating principles of computing machines while working with the Aiken at Harvard University on the Mark 1.
Computer Operators Tabulating the 1954 Census with a UNIVAC Computer. At the computer instrument panel are (front to back) Clydia Beeps, Maxine C. Warner, and the Deputy Director of the Bureau of Census, A. Ross Echler
Computer operators tabulating the 1954 Census with a UNIVAC Computer, October...

Eckert-Mauchly delivered the first UNIVAC I to the Federal Census Bureau on June 14, 1951. Favorable reviews soon induced other government agencies and companies to install their own UNIVAC systems. Commercial users were especially impressed by UNIVAC's use of data tapes, another major Eckert-Mauchly innovation, rather than bulky punched cards. In 1952, UNIVAC received a publicity boost when it appeared on CBS's television coverage of the Presidential election. Though the New York Times called the computer "more of a nuisance than a help," it did humble doubtful pundits when it successfully predicted Eisenhower's victory within 3 percent of his total 33 million votes.

The Eckert-Mauchly Computer Company quickly sold forty-six UNIVACs to various government, military and civilian buyers, but budget overruns forced the partners to sell to the Remington Rand Corporation in February 1950. In the years that followed, Remington Rand's UNIVAC division, with Eckert serving as vice president, set the standard for commercial computer quality. In the mid-1950s, mathematician Grace Hopper developed Flow-matic for the UNIVAC II Data-Automation System, an English language pseudo-code, and pioneering programming language that laid the foundation for the development of Common Business-Oriented Language (COBOL), which helped revolutionize computer coding in the 1960s.

Gradually, however, IBM and other competitors used improved transistors, integrated circuits, and other innovations to overcome Remington Rand's early dominance. The last UNIVAC I was retired from operation until 1970. An original UNIVAC I, the system that inaugurated the digital era, can be seen at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
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