John Presper Eckert: a computer pioneer

Jody loves technology so he wanted to share some information about John Presper Eckert.

Computers have become one of the most important technological advances for our time thanks to some special individuals…

John Presper Eckert was born on April 9, 1919 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He attended the William Penn Charter School, graduating in 1937. He then entered the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania and graduated in 1941. Eckert was an outstanding electrical engineering student and was given a post as an instructor at the Moore School soon after his graduation.

The Moore School was involved with research directed towards the war effort. Eckert taught a defense course and one of his students was John Mauchly, who was twelve years older than Eckert. Mauchly was already an established academic who taught physics. He signed up for Eckert’s defense training course as a way to contribute to the war effort. Both men were interested in the development of computers and discussed their ideas frequently.

Eckert moved on to undertake other military work at the Moore School. He was involved with work on ultraviolet light. He helped develop the means to measure metal fatigue. Later he developed a method for measuring small magnetic fields for use in detecting marine mines. From there he moved on to work on the electronics of radar and target location. His devices played a decisive part in weaponry and were considered to be of the highest priority.

Eckert and Mauchly collaborated again in May of 1943 on a secret US Military project to construct the Electronic Integrator and Computer (ENIAC/E-knee-ac). Eckert had almost completed his Masters Degree and was appointed chief engineer on the project with the specific task of designing the electronic circuits. The project was aimed at helping win World War ll. The ENIAC was 10 feet tall, occupied 1,000 square feet of floor space, and weighed more that 30 tons. The ENIAC used more than 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors, 6,000 switches, and 18,000 vacuum tubes.

One of the major problems Eckert had to solve was how a machine with 18,000 valves could function when the valves were unreliable. Ninety percent of ENIAC’s downtime was attributed to locating and replacing burnt-out tubes. Approximately 19,000 vacuum tubes were replaced every year, averaging 50 tubes a day. Eventually Eckert achieved a lifetime of 2500 hours for each individual valve, which made the operation of the computer viable.

Completed in February of 1946, the ENIAC was the first general-purpose electronic digital computer. The creators of the ENIAC, Eckert and Mauchly, had no idea at the time that they were about to change the way the world operated. The machine was more than 1000 times faster than its electromechanical predecessors and could execute up to 5000 additions per second, which was astounding at the time. The mathematician John von Neumann used the ENIAC to solve complicated partial differential equations in his work on atomic weapons at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The ENIAC is still located at the University of Pennsylvania, where it can be seen by special arrangement.

Eckert and Mauchly left the Moore School in October of 1946. Together they started up the Electronic Control Company and received an order from Northrop Aircraft Company to build the Binary Automatic Computer (BINAC). One of the major advances of BINAC was that data was stored on magnetic tape instead of punched cards.

The Electronic Control Company became the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation and it received an order from the National Bureau of Standards to build the Universal Automatic Computer (UNIVAC). The UNIVAC was the first computer to be produced commercially in the United States with 46 UNIVACs being built. One of the UNIVAC’s major advances was an ability to handle both numerical and alphabetical information with equal success.

Between 1948 and 1966 Eckert took out patents on 85 inventions, most electronic in nature. He received many awards for his pioneering work in computers including the Harry M. Goode Memorial Award from the Computer Society. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1967 and was awarded the US National Medal of Science in 1969.