Forgot your password?
typodupeerror

The Computer and the Skateboard 157

Posted by timothy
from the looks-like-colonel-sanders dept.
Lots of people and institutions have apparently good claims on the invention of the digital computer, and many more when that's reduced to just a broader definition of "computer." Few, though, have a better claim to what we think of as a digital computer than John Mauchly. Not as famous as Turing or von Neuman, and with his name no longer on any current computers, it's likely you've never heard of Mauchly (rhymes with "broccoli") -- but you almost certainly have heard of his most famous machine, and the first general-purpose large-scale electronic computer: the ENIAC. Filmmaker Paul David sorted through decades of newsreel footage, old videotape from the vaults at UNISYS and photo archives, and shot hours of new interviews with many of the people who watched and participated in Mauchly's quest. The result is a documentary film which lets the players tell their own stories: it's put together so smoothly that no omniscient narrator appears, or needs to. If you're interested in the history of computing, technology in general, or even World War II, The Computer and the Skateboard is engrossing. (Read on for more.)

The skateboard?

The Computer part of the title is easy: though there are a lot of computers and proto-computers mentioned in the film, the one at its core is the ENIAC, or Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, the number-crunching roomful of glowing tubes and toggle switches built at the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School of Electrical Engineering in 1944.

So where does the skateboard come in? One clue to the title is flashed on-screen at the beginning of the film, an intriguing snippet from the ill-fated Omni magazine, which asserts that both the computer and the skateboard are artifacts which "accidentally dispose a culture toward anarchy." While that's a intriguing, enigmatic idea, there's another more concrete reason why he put "skateboard" in the title.

Though it's recounted only skeptically by the film's living subjects, there's a story that Mauchly invented the skateboard -- wheels mounted on a plank, as classroom apparatus rather than recreational transport -- and this claim is part of what inspired the film. David says that he "began research for this documentary around 1995 when a longtime friend mentioned casually that his granddad built the first computer. A couple of weeks later he told me that he also constructed the first skateboard. The computer thing was kind of impressive but the skateboard --that's really something." Mauchly certainly wasn't riding halfpipes, but in an alternate universe, he'd probably be a good candidate.

Mauchly didn't create the ENIAC on his own, of course: academic collaborator and eventual business partner J. Presper Eckert (his name contributed half the name of their Mauchly-Eckert Computer Co.) was an electronic genius in his own right, and would be worthy of a documentary all to himself. An enthusiastic corps of programmers, engineers and others helped, too, as did generous Army funding for the project -- but the ENIAC's conception belongs to Mauchly.

Cast of Characters

Since he began researching the film in 1995, David managed to meet with many of the key participants in the history of ENIAC, and each of them fills in some of the story.

  • Joe Chapline, technical writer, Eckert-Mauchly Co. Chapline calls ENIAC "The second miracle of Philadelphia," and muses aloud whether the electronic computer or the forging of the United States Constitution has had the greatest impact. Chapline played a key role early in the development of what would become ENIAC by introducing the Army to his inventor friend Mauchly, and then later by writing the ENIAC's specification document (all from diagrams, and according to Chapline in a single burst of intellectual clarity) which allowed programmers to exploit its potential.

  • John Mauchly's widowed wife Kay Mauchly. Kay Mauchly (introduced on-screen only as "programmer") is one of the stars of the film, describing matter-of-factly in several of the interview segments the steps which led her husband from early investigations in meteorology to the creation of ENIAC and the machines that followed. Mrs. Mauchly is no outsider looking in: she was one of the handful of women recruited by the to work on the Army's differential analyzer, soon to be supplanted by Mauchly's electronic analyzer. Once Mauchly and his brainchild became involved, she became one of the machine's first programmers, and this is how she met her eventual husband.

  • Through the miracle of videotape, John Mauchly himself. Though Mauchly died more than 20 years ago, he's represented in the film with clips taken from a 1977 videotaped interview, as well as in newsreel footage from decades before.

  • Mitchell Marcus, professor of artificial intelligence at Penn. Mitchell is one of the few subjects in the film who did not participate in ENIAC's creation, but his lucid explanations of Mauchly's machine architecture is a welcome addition.

  • A number of other Mauchly friends and associates who tell stories about Mauchly's enthusiastic shepherding of his years-long project.

A timeline twisted by war.

John Mauchly's research into weather patterns in the 1930s required some of his students (he was teaching at Ursinus College) to tediously enter logged weather data by hand, an error-prone process under the best of circumstances. Kay Mauchly describes the key insight that led to the development of the digital computer:

"He ran into a problem, and that was the students who were copying the data didn't always copy what they saw, and if they were using an adding machine they didn't always copy down the exact answers they got, they sometimes reversed the numbers and so on. So he thought, 'Gee there must be some way we can develop some kind of a computing machine' -- well, he didn't call it a computing machine -- 'but any kind of a machine where there would not be so much operator intervention.'

"At the same time, there were some of his student friends who had been students with him at Ursinus College, who had gone into nuclear physics. They were in the process of counting cosmic rays, which occur about one million per second. How were they doing this? They were doing this by little electronic counters which they made themselves, using electronic tubes. So John went to several of their laboratories and observed this going on, and his feeling was 'Hey, if you can count cosmic rays, then you can count anything. It doesn't make any difference what you put into the machine.'"

This insight led him to construct his own counting devices at Ursinus, also using vacuum tubes. On video, Mauchly recounts his thoughts:

"If you can count, [if you can] distinguish pulses which are occurring at rates which are sometimes as close together as a millionth of second ... If you can keep track of these things, it seemed obvious to me that those same abilities of vacuum tube circuits could be used for just the mere act of computation. Generate your own pulses your own way, not have them necessarily become the result of some measurement of nature's cosmic rays or nature's nuclear experiments. Just generate your pulses on purpose to represent numbers. and then you get these counting circuits, or scaling circuits as they called them, to operate on these numbers, get them to multiply and divide as well as add and subtract. Why not? And nobody had any answers to that 'Why not?'"
In the summer of 1941, Mauchly took an electronics course at University of Pennsylvania, which is where he met J. Presper Eckert, who was in charge of his electronics laboratory course. Because Mauchly had already learned on his own many of the things taught in the course, he and Eckert found themselves free to spend most of their class time talking computers and tinkering. The Moore School offered Mauchly a teaching position after that summer, and he accepted.

Like many other colleges and universities, the University of Pennsylvania shifted focus in the early 40s from pure academics to the war effort. An Army team from the Aberdeen Proving Grounds moved in to take over Penn's Differential Analyzer in June 1942, and things began to speed up. The Differential Analyzer was a huge mechanical calculator which the Army was using to do trajectory calculations, one by tedious one.

Kay Mauchly recounts: "When Mauchly saw what the Army was using the differential analyzer for, he thought 'Oh my goodness, that's the sort of thing they could use for my computer, if they could ever get it built."

Prompted by his friend (and then-boarder) Joe Chapline, in 1942 Mauchly proposed applying his expertise with electronics to speed up the calculations being done by the Army -- an analyzer built with tubes would be far faster than any mechanically operated one. The proposal was accepted by Lt. Herman Goldstine, who headed the Aberdeen team. Mauchly and Eckert set to work, and the result was the ENIAC, a massively parallel computer that could manipulate numbers faster than any alternatives then available.

Patent Fight

In 1946, the war over, the Army decided to publicize their electronic marvel, and institutions all over the world began to inquire whether they could build ENIACs of their own -- and the Moore school was suddenly famous. Looking beyond academic uses, the University of Pennsylvania saw the commercial possibilities of electronic computers. Irven Travis, a professor who had returned from his wartime service in the Navy to resume his position overseeing all patents at the University, pressed the two to sign over the commercial patent rights.

Given 10 days to sign away their rights to commercial production of similar machines, Eckert and Mauchly balked. The Moore school fired the pair -- and though they had no jobs to go to, they soon created jobs by forming their own company in a building on Philadelphia's Walnut street. Eckert and Mauchly's decision to go off on their own ended up clearing much of the department, because many of the brightest faculty decided to go with them. Even with uncertain prospects, they knew that Mauchly and Eckert were onto something.

Professor Mitchell describes the firing and subsequent departmental losses as "as fundamental error that we're still recovering from." The details of this fight are reason enough to seek out this movie for their insight into the value (and difficulty) of preserving the rights to one's own work.

The rest of the story.

The company that the two stubborn Penn professors founded was called Electronic Controls Company, and in 1948 renamed Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation (EMCC). Among other things, the company introduced the world's first magnetic (rather than punchcard) computer storage. No matter how innovate, though, business was thin -- not surprising in a world where digital computers were still more curiosity than necessity -- and was sold in 1950 to Remington-Rand. Rather than ENIAC, the machines the company made now were called UNIVAC.

Mauchly left the company to form yet another (Mauchly Associates), and to head two more companies (Dynatrend and Marketrend) before his death after surgery in 1980.

This isn't Wargames.

The Computer and the Skateboard is not a fancy movie in content or presentation. The story is laid out plainly, not padded with teases -- the drama is mostly in the background. The actual actors may not be universally humble, but they seem too down-to-earth to make a big deal about contributing to the Allies' victory in World War II, or changing nearly every aspect of the modern world.

There also aren't many special effects, outside of a funky sci-fi sounding background audio track; transitions between scenes are simple, and most of the interviews are quite static; the viewer is left to interpret the subjects' words on his own, with no Leonard Nimoy intoning conclusions or trying to smooth together different aspects of the narrative. David is obviously limited in parts by the quality of the original sources he was able to track down (especially the audio), and it's to his credit that he let these segments stand, because they add historical glances which might otherwise remain locked in company vaults.

The style and subject matter taken together mean that (no surprise) this film has a niche audience. I doubt my sister would much enjoy it, but my electrical-engineer father sure got a kick out of it. Watching this movie is like watching an intelligent professor tell a story without overtelling it -- your concentration will be rewarded.


The film is available for institutional viewing at $295 and at a lower price for home video. The title is also available in university libraries and repertory video stores. Readers interested in the ENIAC's history may also want to look at this excellent collection of documents available from IBM, one of the many good online resources available.

This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

The Computer and the Skateboard

Comments Filter:
  • It sounds neat, and I'm sure my dad would get a kick out of it too. But how do we get a copy?
  • by 1155 (538047) on Wednesday April 24, 2002 @06:36PM (#3405369) Homepage
    Next on dateline:

    Tony Hawk rolling an eniac on the worlds largest skateboard.
  • at least the skateboard anyway, this [msu.edu] article disputes that... Otherwise, great review, though I wish there was a link to somewhere else that has screenshots or more info on the documentary itself. (perhaps a link to order it?)
    • And as far as the digital computer part goes, the work at Bletchley Park [bletchleypark.org.uk] gets too little praise, because it was conducted during World War II under conditions of extreme secrecy. They did, however, use a computer to crack the "unbreakable" Enigma code, enabling many victories for the Allies.

      They're running low on funding, by the way, and it's a great museum--you should consider helping [bletchleypark.org.uk].

      Jouster
    • Kid's have been nailing rollerskate wheels onto boards for... probably as long as there have been rollerskates. My father talked about doing this when he was a kid in the thirties. I don't think he had any illusion that it was original, even at the time.

      On the other hand, making the jump from counting to calculating with tubes is beautiful, even if he was one of several men who invented the computer at different times and places.
  • When will it be available for free on the internet? oh wait, nobody is supposed to know about that....

  • by edrugtrader (442064) on Wednesday April 24, 2002 @06:40PM (#3405404) Homepage
    maybe if you mispronounce broccoli as broccly...
  • Not the first (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward
    I don't know which is more distressing; the assumption that nobodies knows about the ENIAC or the failure to mention the Atanasof Berry Computer, which was where Eckert and Mauchly got the idea.
    • Re:Not the first (Score:4, Informative)

      by Desperado (23084) on Wednesday April 24, 2002 @07:09PM (#3405617)
      Here is a link [iastate.edu] to info on the Atanasoff-Berry computer. I believe they have finally gotten the credit they deserve for their invention even though most people still think it was Eckert and Mauchly.
      • Re: the Atanasoff-Berry Computer at Iowa State University

        I believe they have finally gotten the credit they deserve for their invention even though most people still think it was Eckert and Mauchly.

        This is correct--the ABC was acknowledged as the first digital computer over the ENIAC. Significantly, this acnoledgement came from a federal court in 1972 in a case about... wait for it... patents on certain aspects of electronic computing. The so-called "ENIAC patents" were bought from Eckert and Mauchly by Sperry Rand. Other computer makers, specifically Honeywell in this case, were willing to go to any expense to overturn the validity of the patents. As it happened, the ruling was favorable, with the judge concluding that the ENIAC patents were based directly on prior art by Atanasoff et al.

        Sperry Rand's computer division has grown over the years to form... Unisys, the GIF patent people.

        More info about the case here [ameslab.gov]

        --Tom

    • Re:Not the first (Score:3, Insightful)

      by iocat (572367)
      Atanasof made some digital circuits, but he just plain missed the boat on creating a programmable computer. His machine could only do one thing, thus it fails the test of being a general purpose computer. When will you people from Iowa give it up?

      My favorite answer to who invented the computer comes from a guy at the computer history museum (www.computerhistory.org): "no one."

      -Chris

      • When will you people from Iowa give it up?

        You do realize that the Atanasoff-Berry Computer is the *only* major computer technology advancement made in the state of Iowa *ever*? (We're not counting Gateway [gateway.com], 'cuz they chickened out (no pun intended).)

        Us geeks from Iowa have to have *something* to be proud of! :-)
        • > the *only* major computer technology advancement made in the state of Iowa *ever*?


          Gee, it sure would be cool if I could stick a piece of paper in a machine and have it come out another machine anywhere else in the world . . . hey, maybe it could use the phone lines somehow . . . .oh, wait! It's already done.


          One guess as to which university gets a royalty on every fax machine . . .


          hawk, a Nevadan who spent a few years in iowa, and whose exile has moved to Pennsylvania

          • Can't have been too original an idea, as the concept of telefax was invented about 150 years ago, while you were still busy getting da land orf dee injuns (or vice versa).

            Kiwaiti

      • Re:Not the first (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Bryan Andersen (16514)
        May not have been general purpose, but it was the first use of digital logic, drum memory, capacitor based memory (think DRAM), paper IO, bit serial processing, and parallel computing.
    • Re:Not the first (Score:2, Interesting)

      by straddle (173066)
      I think the filmakers here are damaging their own credibility by not acknowledging the work of John Vincent Atanasoff. If they don't choose to recognize Atanasoff's computer as the first "digital" computer, that is their choice as historians. But to ignore his work only discredits their own.

      The ENIAC inventors have stated on numerous occasions that Atanasoff's work was instrumental in the development of the ENIAC. When historians choose to ignore Atanasoff in favor of the more "sexy" ENIAC story, they are simply burying the truth.

      As much as I would like to see Atanasoff recognized as the true creator, I don't want to take anything away from Eckert and Mauchly. The people who discover new ways of using existing technology are just as important to the story as those who created the technology in the first place. A great technology that goes unused is irrelevant.
  • Almost without exception, your reviews kick ass. They're informed, well-written, and -- so help me god, this is the most important part -- they don't try to glom onto some larger issue for the sake of a dubious news hook (i.e., everything ever penned by Jon Katz).

    Please, keep cranking 'em out (just so long as they don't make you plug "Revolution OS" again. *g*).

  • I saw this movie... (Score:3, Informative)

    by ElCagado (575762) on Wednesday April 24, 2002 @06:44PM (#3405449)
    and it is really fantastic!! The backbone of the film is commentary by Mauchly's widow Kay, who was hired as a young mathematician to do calculations on the brand new ENIAC and fell in love with its inventor. One of the original "Women of the ENIAC "--the world's first computer programmers --she shares her lucid understanding of computer history along with intimate biographical anecdotes to provide an insider's picture of the the project's genesis and progression. Excellent film! I highly reccommend it!
  • by Anonymous Coward
    The actual definition of computer is by no means clear. One of my lecturers measured early computers by three critera:
    Conditial-branch
    Stored program
    ...and er, something else. It was a few years ago you know.

    Anyway, if my memory serves, ENIAC required physical reprogramming (i.e. with wires), it wasn't the kind of machine you could load a program into from punch cards or tape.

    Similarly early machines like Babbage Diffenetial Engine, Bombes, Collusses et al, wern't 'proper' computers either. The earliest by that measure would be the Manchester Mark I although the slightly later Cambridge EDSAC was much more useful from a practical stand-point.

    AC.
    • by Anonymous Coward
      IIRC, the most widely accepted definition of a computer is:

      (1) Can be made to perform multiple actions (ie add & subtract)

      (2) Store data and instructions on the same medium
      NOTE: all definitions I have read or heard of refer that the storage medium must have the ability to be unlimited. (does this mean no computer can be created?, I generally disregard this note)

      (3) To be able to execute indefinately

      While there may be more, secondary, requirements, These three are the major ones as far as been mass-published and accepted by the academic communities.
  • The Real Story (Score:3, Insightful)

    by chaoticset (574254) on Wednesday April 24, 2002 @06:49PM (#3405499) Homepage
    Why no mention of Konrad Zuse's Z4 [epemag.com]? Perhaps a cover-up?

    "Like on the X-Files. ROSWELL STYLE!"

  • by Anonymous Coward
    The Computer and the Skateboard
    Posted by timothy on Wednesday April 24, @22:30
    from the looks-like-colonel-sanders dept.
    Lots of people and institutions have apparently good claims on the invention of the digital computer, and many more when that's reduced to just a broader definition of "computer." Few though have a better claim to what we think of as a digital computer than John Mauchly. Not as famous as Turing or von Neuman, and with his name no longer on any current computers, it's likely you've never heard of Mauchly (rhymes with "broccoli") -- but you almost certainly have heard of his most famous machine, and the first general-purpose large-scale electronic computer: the ENIAC. Filmmaker Paul David sorted through decades of newsreel footage, old videotape from the vaults at UNISYS and photo archives, and shot hours of new interviews with many of the people who watched and participated in Mauchly's quest. The result is a documentary film which lets the players tell their own stories: it's put together so smoothly that no omniscient narrator appears, or needs to. If you're interested in the history of computing, technology in general, or even World War II, The Computer and the Skateboard is engrossing. (Read on for more.)

    The skateboard?
    The Computer part of the title is easy: though there are a lot of computers and proto-computers mentioned in the film, the one at its core is the ENIAC, or Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, the number-crunching roomful of glowing tubes and toggle switches built at the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School of Electrical Engineering in 1944.
    So where does the skateboard come in? One clue to the title is flashed on-screen at the beginning of the film, an intriguing snippet from the ill-fated Omni magazine, which asserts that both the computer and the skateboard are artifacts which "accidentally dispose a culture toward anarchy." While that's a intriguing, enigmatic idea, there's another more concrete reason why he put "skateboard" in the title.

    Though it's recounted only skeptically by the film's living subjects, there's a story that Mauchly invented the skateboard -- wheels mounted on a plank, as classroom apparatus rather than recreational transport -- and this claim is part of what inspired the film. David says that he "began research for this documentary around 1995 when a longtime friend mentioned casually that his granddad built the first computer. A couple of weeks later he told me that he also constructed the first skateboard. The computer thing was kind of impressive but the skateboard --that's really something." Mauchly certainly wasn't riding halfpipes, but in an alternate universe, he'd probably be a good candidate.

    Mauchly didn't create the ENIAC on his own, of course: academic collaborator and eventual business partner J. Presper Eckert (his name contributed half the name of their Mauchly-Eckert Computer Co.) was an electronic genius in his own right, and would be worthy of a documentary all to himself. An enthusiastic corps of programmers, engineers and others helped, too, as did generous Army funding for the project -- but the ENIAC's conception belongs to Mauchly.

    Cast of Characters
    Since he began researching the film in 1995, David managed to meet with many of the key participants in the history of ENIAC, and each of them fills in some of the story.

    Joe Chapline, technical writer, Eckert-Mauchly Co. Chapline calls ENIAC "The second miracle of Philadelphia," and muses aloud whether the electronic computer or the forging of the United States Constitution has had the greatest impact. Chapline played a key role early in the development of what would become ENIAC by introducing the Army to his inventor friend Mauchly, and then later by writing the ENIAC's specification document (all from diagrams, and according to Chapline in a single burst of intellectual clarity) which allowed programmers to exploit its potential.

    John Mauchly's widowed wife Kay Mauchly. Kay Mauchly (introduced on-screen only as "programmer") is one of the stars of the film, describing matter-of-factly in several of the interview segments the steps which led her husband from early investigations in meteorology to the creation of ENIAC and the machines that followed. Mrs. Mauchly is no outsider looking in: she was one of the handful of women recruited by the to work on the Army's differential analyzer, soon to be supplanted by Mauchly's electronic analyzer. Once Mauchly and his brainchild became involved, she became one of the machine's first programmers, and this is how she met her eventual husband.

    Through the miracle of videotape, John Mauchly himself. Though Mauchly died more than 20 years ago, he's represented in the film with clips taken from a 1977 videotaped interview, as well as in newsreel footage from decades before.

    Mitchell Marcus, professor of artificial intelligence at Penn. Mitchell is one of the few subjects in the film who did not participate in its creation, but his lucid explanations of Mauchly's machine architecture is a welcome addition.

    A number of other Mauchly friends and associates who tell stories about Mauchly's enthusiastic shepherding of his years-long project.
    A timeline twisted by war.
    John Mauchly's research into weather patterns in the 1930s required some of his students (he was teaching at Ursinus College) to tediously enter logged weather data by hand, an error-prone process under the best of circumstances. Kay Mauchly describes the key insight that led to the development of the digital computer:

    "He ran into a problem, and that was the students who were copying the data didn't always copy what they saw, and if they were using an adding machine they didn't always copy down the exact answers they got, they sometimes reversed the numbers and so on. So he thought, 'Gee there must be some way we can develop some kind of a computing machine' -- well, he didn't call it a computing machine -- 'but any kind of a machine where there would not be so much operator intervention.'
    "At the same time, there were some of his student friends who had been students with him at Ursinus College, who had gone into nuclear physics. They were in the process of counting cosmic rays, which occur about one million per second. How were they doing this? They were doing this by little electronic counters which they made themselves, using electronic tubes. So John went to several of their laboratories and observed this going on, and his feeling was 'Hey, if you can count cosmic rays, then you can count anything. It doesn't make any difference what you put into the machine.'"

    This insight led him to construct his own counting devices at Ursinus, also using vacuum tubes. On video, Mauchly recounts his thoughts:

    "If you can count, [if you can] distinguish pulses which are occurring at rates which are sometimes as close together as a millionth of second ... If you can keep track of these things, it seemed obvious to me that those same abilities of vacuum tube circuits could be used for just the mere act of computation. Generate your own pulses your own way, not have them necessarily have them become the result of some measurement of nature's cosmic rays or nature's nuclear experiments. Just generate your pulses on purpose to represent numbers. and then you get these counting circuits, or scaling circuits as they called them, to operate on these numbers, get them to multiply and divide as well as add and subtract. Why not? And nobody had any answers to that 'Why not?'"
    In the summer of 1941, Mauchly took an electronics course at University of Pennsylvania, which is where he met J. Presper Eckert, who was in charge of his electronics laboratory course. Because Mauchly had already learned on his own many of the things taught in the course, he and Eckert found themselves free to spend most of their class time talking computers and tinkering. The Moore School offered Mauchly a teaching position after that summer, and he accepted.
    Like many other colleges and universities, the University of Pennsylvania shifted focus in the early 40s from pure academics to the war effort. An Army team from the Aberdeen Proving Grounds moved in to take over Penn's Differential Analyzer in June 1942, and things began to speed up. The Differential Analyzer was a huge mechanical calculator which the Army was using to do trajectory calculations, one by tedious one.

    Kay Mauchly recounts: "When Mauchly saw what the Army was using the differential analyzer for, he thought 'Oh my goodness, that's the sort of thing they could use for my computer, if they could ever get it built."

    Prompted by his friend (and then-boarder) Joe Chapline, in 1942 Mauchly proposed applying his expertise with electronics to speed up the calculations being done by the Army -- an analyzer built with tubes would be far faster than any mechanically operated one. The proposal was accepted by Lt. Herman Goldstine, who headed the Aberdeen team. Mauchly and Eckert set to work, and the result was the ENIAC, a massively parallel computer that could manipulate numbers faster than any alternatives then available.

    Patent Fight
    In 1946, the war over, the Army decided to publicize their electronic marvel, and institutions all over the world began to inquire whether they could build ENIACs of their own -- and the Moore school was suddenly famous. Looking beyond academic uses, the University of Pennsylvania saw the commercial possibilities of electronic computers. Irven Travis, a professor who had returned from his wartime service in the Navy to resume his position overseeing all patents at the University, pressed the two to sign over the commercial patent rights.
    Given 10 days to sign away their rights to commercial production of similar machines, Eckert and Mauchly balked. The Moore school fired the pair -- and though they had no jobs to go to, they soon created jobs by forming their own company in a building on Philadelphia's Walnut street. Eckert and Mauchly's decision to go off on their own ended up clearing much of the department, because many of the brightest faculty decided to go with them. Even with uncertain prospects, they knew that Mauchly and Eckert were onto something.

    Professor Mitchell describes the firing and subsequent departmental losses as "as fundamental error that we're still recovering from." The details of this fight are reason enough to seek out this movie for their insight into the value (and difficulty) of preserving the rights to one's own work.

    The rest of the story.
    The company that the two stubborn Penn professors founded was called Electronic Controls Company, and in 1948 renamed Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation (EMCC). Among other things, the company introduced the world's first magnetic (rather than punchcard) computer storage. No matter how innovate, though, business was thin -- not surprising in a world where digital computers were still more curiosity than necessity -- and was sold in 1950 to Remington-Rand. Rather than ENIAC, the machines the company made now were called UNIVAC.
    Mauchly left the company to form yet another (Mauchly Associates), and to head two more companies (Dynatrend and Marketrend) before his death after surgery in 1980.

    This isn't Wargames.
    The Computer and the Skateboard is not a fancy movie in content or presentation. The story is laid out plainly, not padded with teases -- the drama is mostly in the background. The actual actors may not be universally humble, but they seem too down-to-earth to make a big deal about contributing to the Allies' victory in World War II, or changing nearly every aspect of the modern world.
    There also aren't many special effects, outside of a funky sci-fi sounding background audio track; transitions between scenes are simple, and most of the interviews are quite static; the viewer is left to interpret the subjects' words on his own, with no Leonard Nimoy intoning conclusions or trying to smooth together different aspects of the narrative. David is obviously limited in parts by the quality of the original sources he was able to track down (especially the audio), and it's to his credit that he let these segments stand, because they add historical glances which might otherwise remain locked in company vaults.

    The style and subject matter taken together mean that (no surprise) this film has a niche audience. I doubt my sister would much enjoy it, but my electrical-engineer father sure got a kick out of it. Watching this movie is like watching an intelligent professor tell a story without overtelling it -- your concentration will be rewarded.

    The film is available for institutional viewing at $295 and at a lower price for home video. The title is also available in university libraries and repertory video stores. Readers interested in the ENIAC's history may also want to look at this excellent collection of documents available from IBM, one of the many good online resources available.
  • really it all started with a liitle game called guess what the germans are saying

    fly over find out what the weather is then PROGRAM your computer to crack the code

    now thats a computer
    http://www.bletchleypark.org.uk/ [bletchleypark.org.uk]
    bad website but donate there

    picture [pro.gov.uk]

    http://www.retrobeep.com [retrobeep.com]

    have fun but really dont forget where it all came from

    regards

    john jones

  • Few though have a better claim to what we think of as a digital computer than John Mauchly.

    Does that mean he passed the reverse turing test?
  • This is BS. (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Though its parent company did its darndest to fool the American public (and apparently timothy) into thinking that the ENIAC was the "first general-purpose large-scale electronic computer", it wasn't, not by a long shot. That honor goes to John Atanasoff and the University of Iowa, whose computer design was essentially ripped off and were subsequently pooh-poohed by Univac.

    Also, ENIAC was hardly "large scale".

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Americans can't quite get to grips with the fact that they didn't invent the first computer,
    its a shame but its true, and it seems they will try what they can to twist the real facts with "editing".

    Next they will claim they invented the Enigma code breaking machine and they won the World Cup as well as think that Vietnam was a successful military mission

    yeah mod away, just cos you disagree doesn't mean im wrong
    • by hawk (1151)
      As a military mission, Vietnam *was* a success. We achieved *exactly* what we were trying to do, right until we walked away--and when the enemy didn't want us to awlk away, but wanted to kill us instead, we bombed them into submission.


      The problem wasn't military failure, but that what we set out to do was just plain dumb: hold this imaginary line, chase them back across when they come across, but don't go over it to end thing (that might annoy them).


      It's beyond me what could *possibly* be achieved in such a manner--the long-term cease fire of Korea seems to be the absolute best case outcome.


      The real tragedy of vietnam is that by any rational military measure it was a success :(


      World Cup? Why worry about that when we have the Superbowl every year :) [Oh, and for those preparing to whine about the label "World Series": It does not, nor has it ever, mean "world championship". _The World_ was the newspaper that sponsered a series of games between the champions of the two major baseball leagues so that it could get exclusive coverage rights and sell newspapers. The title of the series survived the newspaper's demise . . .]


      hawk

  • by mtgstuber (457457) on Wednesday April 24, 2002 @07:26PM (#3405629)
    There was a legal dispute between Atanasof and Mauchly over who held claim to "the first fully electronic computer." My father was a junior lawyer on the case. Atanasof won, though my dad is firmly convinced he shouldn't have. The crux of the issue was over which machine was "fully electronic." The Atanasof machine used spinning cylinders with pins for memory. As I understand it, the physical position of the pin determined its state. The Mauchly machine used vaccuum tubes for memory. I suppose it amounts to so much legal hairsplitting, given that modern disk drives have spinning disks in which we "reposition" magnetic particles, but in this case were talking about storage, not memory. My dad still has his file on the case, unfortunately it's 300 miles away so I can't scan in anything and post it.
    • The line between "storage" and "memory" is pretty
      thin. The differences between DRAM and hard drives
      are basically access speed and persistence, and while
      they're important, neither is essential. I mean, ask
      yourself what would happen if main memory became
      persistent (I think there was a /. article about this
      recently), or if hard drives became as fast as DRAM.

      Interesting stuff you post though. I take it
      your father was on Mauchly's team?
      • On the Amiga I remember mounting a drive in RAM that would survive a soft reset. Now what do you call that - memory or storage?
        • I like the model of the "storage hierarchy",
          which organizes storage according to its distance/
          latency from the CPU. Registers, L1, L2, L3 if
          present, main memory, disk. This model seems to
          fit pretty well with the way a modern virtual
          memory system organizes the world.
    • "used spinning cylinders with pins for memory"

      The pins were contacts for the capacitors that stored the bits. This was early _DRAM_. The capacitors bled down. One RPM was the refresh/read/write cycle. The physical positions of the pins only determined the location in memory and not the state.
    • Please, make sure your fathers documents don't become a 'lost' bit of technical history. Get them safely enshrined, or at least the content on the net.
    • by hawk (1151)
      That's not even close to correct :)


      Calculation was electronic. There wee indeed spinning cylinders--with capacitors. On display in Atanasoff (two F's!) Hall are a tube module and a memory drum. I want to say that one's original, while the other is a replica.


      The machine was binary, another first.


      Anyway, you can find all you wnated to know and then some at


      http://www.cs.iastate.edu/jva/jva-archive.shtml


      Quite often the losing lawyers and clients believe the case was wrongly decided (not that *I* ever had that happen :), but among those qualified to have a technical opinion, there isn't much dispute. Many of the "innovations" of the ENIAC were taken straight from the ABC.


      I do mean "taken from"--they came to the campus, met with the folks who were left, read what schematics existed (there were never schematics for the whole thing), and built the ENIAC.


      Finally, there are now two replicas of the ABC that were built a few years ago: one permanently at the Smithsonian, and the other on tour. One of them was actually fired up to run a program. You can find replica information on that page as well. Among the things to find is that they relied on photographs that happened to exist to figute out the wiring and circuits, and old university purchasing records--and found thatthey were still able to order some of the same exotic parts from the same places.


      Why a replica? It seems the thing was cannibalized for parts for other projects after it served its purpose.


      hawk

  • by NickRob (575331)
    So we have to pay money for this video... at university libraries? Something doesn't add up.
  • and muses aloud whether the electronic computer or the forging of the United States Constitution has had the greatest impact.

    Man, that has to be a joke. The constitution of the US revolutionized the concept of freedom throughout the world. It's hard to imagine how long it would have taken to get where we are if we hadn't had a "virgin land" to try the Great Experiment in self-government by the people.

    On the othe hand, the computer is certainly a significant invention, but with very few exceptions, there is almost nothing we can't do without computers by going back to index cards in filing cabinets. [there are certainly notable exceptions, like weather predictions, certain areas of scientific research, etc]. Computers have certainly made lives more efficient, but it's hard to argue that they have revolutionized anything.

    I think it's worth noting that the atomic bomb was created totally without computers (although they did have some primitive calculating machines. Again, efficiency, not necessity).

    • I'm thinking we got into space with their help. I'm thinking we built some skyscrapers that we might not have built, and some other types of machines. We've executed at least one mathematical proof by exhaustive cases that I imagine we could not have managed without them. I'm thinking too that Quake 3 would be damn hard to play with paper and pencil.

      Of course, since they execute instructions and implement algorithms, we generally have to be able to describe a situation, which means we have some idea how to solve it. This often means it could be done another way. But that's like saying the wheel lets us move stuff from A to B and we could've done that without it. Which is true, but not a useful statement. The real thing that computers do is let us do many things more easily, which is true of many machines that we have created (which is all a computer really is until they get true intelligence from one).

      And worldwide, I suppose it is debatable at this point which has the greatest impact... the US Constitution (which is probably a bit over-rated) or the Computer (similarly so). Given 200 or 300 years, I think the answer will clearly be on the Computer's (and its descendants) side.

      Of course, I'd need a really powerful computer to do any kind of accurate projection.... *grin*
      • I'm thinking too that Quake 3 would be damn hard to play with paper and pencil.

        Meh.. it's called paintball. This real-life version lacks some of physics, gibs (hopefully) and purty graphics of the original. But the frame rate and ping is awesome!

      • The Skyscapers, Quake and the buildings are not the point. Neither is "computer as a machine helped us do things faster".

        I believe computers and hence computer science has fundamentally changed the way we think about things. Our understanding about number, formulae, math, logic, limitation of logic, solvability of problems, information, security of information, storage, archival and dissemination of information, working of the mind, have all been influenced by the machine you see on your desk.

        The engineered machine by itself is not the beauty - but the science it inspires is. Think steam engine - Nothing more than coal, a cylinder, a piston and water. But the puzzlement asto why it is not efficient lead to the discovery of thermodynamics, entropy, energy, gas laws, boltzmann equations, the first true definition of time, quantum theory, quantum mechanics and the only existing explanation of the universe (however imprecise it might be). The cylinder and piston is not the point - the science it inspired is.

        I could rant and rave and go on and on. But somehow I feel uncomfortable when people see a computer and think - "nothing more than a machine to get and the net and see some p0rn"

        -Dracken
        • I believe computers and hence computer science has fundamentally changed the way we think about things.

          I concur. Though I think this comment in general can apply to any material display of ingenuity. Any tool we create, we do so to expand our capability, sometimes far more than we imagine. The incremented capability then allows us to consider more complex problems and unveils new areas of inquiry. The computer is not alone in that.

          The cylinder and piston is not the point - the science it inspired is.

          Whereas I appreciate the sentiment, to some extent you equally miss the point. The science is important, but science without an implementation has never fed the hungry, put a roof over anyone's head, nor has it given man more capability. That is dependent on the implementation which in this case is the computer.

          The computer IS just a glorified adding machine, and it only does things we could (in a longer time and with great pains) do ourselves without it. However, as a glorified adding machine, it lets us attack larger problems (and more complex ones) faster, thus opening new questions to consideration and allowing us to attack problems formerly beyond attack due to their raw size and the mortality of man. The computer is a tool, and only a tool. But tools *are* significant, as they are the multipliers that we affix to the human intelligence and capability we bear.
    • I'd argue that it was the French revolution that enabled the idea of personal freedom.

      Computers, OTOH, have changed nearly everyone's lives (whether they know it or not) regardless of the nature of their opressor^H^H^H^H^H^H government
      • I'd argue that it was the French revolution that enabled the idea of personal freedom.

        The French Revolution was in 1789, 2 years after the US constitution was ratified. The two years is not a coincidence. If I'm not mistaken (and I might be, my history is a little dusty), the F.R. came about as a direct result of being inspired by the US constitution, and of course the early writings of the Founding Fathers. That's not to say that there weren't others in Europe who were influential as well, but the reality of it all happening in the US gave the spark to a number of other governments.

        It's one thing to write about Democracy and self-government, it's another thing to put it into practice with all the enormous challenges that go along with doing something that's never been done before.

    • Man, that has to be a joke. The constitution of the US revolutionized the concept of freedom throughout the world. It's hard to imagine how long it would have taken to get where we are if we hadn't had a "virgin land" to try the Great Experiment in self-government by the people.

      you're right, the computer is more important...
    • Man, that has to be a joke. The constitution of the US revolutionized the concept of freedom throughout the world. It's hard to imagine how long it would have taken to get where we are if we hadn't had a "virgin land" to try the Great Experiment in self-government by the people.

      The US claim to have 'innovated' democracy is a usurpation of microsoftian proportions.

      The idea of government by/for/of the people was taken from the natives of North America. Some say that the design of the US government was taken from the Iroquois confederation (but europeanized changes were make that introduced some fundamental flaws).

      In the concept of many native cultures, a leader spoke for his people, as opposed to deciding for them. The concept of a leader having the inherent right (whether given via God or vote) to make all decisions for 'his' people is a european one. The presumptin that a leader would (without some structural encouragement) alway decide based on what was best for the country (as opposed to best for him(her) self) is especially european. Even in native cultures where a leader was chosen by some sort of inheritance system, there were many checks and balances that prevented abuse -- not the least of which was that a leader could be removed by a simple majority vote.

    • Technically, the US constition wasn't all that revolutionary at all. It was essentially a synthesis of previous democratic experiments (mentioned by other replies) mixed with the Philosophers of John Locke (or need we forget, "Life, Liberty, and Property"). At best, the Constitution might be described as a "proof of concept" document, derived from the various contractarian Philosophers (Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, etc).

      In fact, the US has been democratic _long_ before the revolution took place, which is why the transition to democracy was so easy in the US. All the states had been governing themselves democraticly for hundreds of years. Don't forget, colonists first started showing up in the new world in the 1500-1600's, and the revolution didn't take place until the late 1700's. Furthermore, the first Constitution (the Articles of Confederation) failed miserably.

      Lets take this further. If you look at virtually every other "Democratic" country in the world, they don't run their country anything like the way the US does it. Instead of this wacky US Presidential system, most countries tend to use Parlimentary systems, which in turn are prone to having higher turnout, better ability to implement policy, quicker response times, higher stability, and are generally agreed to be a better system.

      The only reason to think that the US Constitution is such a great thing is because you are a US citizen and have been raised under the myths that this is the greatest country on the planet. Not to be belittling, but every country has those myths. Everyone has their claim to fame, and use it to claim that they're the best people on the Earth. That's also not to say that everything your country tells you is just a lie to increase your patriotism, some of it may be true. Just don't swallow it whole. Be critical of everything, and determine what you believe for yourself.

      As for the influence of computers? They have, for a fact, revolutionized data collection, number crunching, and communication. Never before could you get the daily newspaper from anywhere in the world the very day that the paper came out. It was never possible to create virtually uncrackable encrypted messages in real time, and transmit them across the globe. Never before was it possible for a camera to look at your face and determine if you were likely to be a criminal. This is all in just a few years.

      So...what's more important? A synthesis of existing concepts that came about as a second attempt and was never successful again any place else in the world? Or a magic box that has radicalized how life operates the world over?
      • >Instead of this wacky US Presidential system,
        >most countries tend to use Parlimentary systems,


        Depends upon continent, now doesn't it? Does *anyplace* in the americas besides Canada[1] use a parliamentary system.


        >which in turn are prone to having higher turnout,


        Grossly overrated. I'd rather the uninformed stay away from th polls.


        >better ability to implement policy, quicker
        >response times,


        You say that like those are good things. Having seen those, we *deliberately* set up the system to avoid them.


        >higher stability,


        huh? I'd have to see a definition of stability that qualifies.


        >and are generally agreed to be a better system.


        By those who prefer them. They terrify us for the reasons that you call "adavantages" . . .


        Finally, we are *not* a democracy, and our founders considered it a dirty word. We are a republic (albeit a democratic republic), and will fight to keep it that way. It is the principle of government by consent of the governed that is important, not the particular implementation.


        hawk

        • [1] Insert obligatory "51st state" or "not a real country" or "Royalist traitor" joke here.


          :)


          hawk

          • [1] Insert obligatory "51st state" or "not a real country" or "Royalist traitor" joke here.

            :)

            First off, congratulations on holding off (longer than I did) on the grading of the papers that I predict are currently stacked on the "visitor" chair in your office. :-)

            Secondly, what part of Canada would you really want to have in the US anyway? OK, so B.C. might be worth something, but anything else? Alberta would end up being just as much a PITA as Montana and Wyoming currently are, and we already have a full complement of boring flat states, so Manitoba and Saskatchewan are out. The Maritime provinces are basically Appalachia with a (pretty, I'll admit) coastline, Quebec is over-run with people who speak French, and that leaves you with Ontario. Do we have any takers for a bankrupt, boring, grid-locked province filled with former Nortel employees? Didn't think so.

            So let's *not* joke about making Canada our 51st state; if we really wanted it that badly, we surely would have tried harder back in 1812. :-)

            • >First off, congratulations on holding off (longer than I did) on the grading of the papers that I
              > predict are currently stacked on the "visitor" chair in your office. :-)


              Who me? No, there are not 40 business law term papers on the visitor's chair; There's about 25 next to it, and 15 more on my desk :)


              >Secondly, what part of Canada would you really want to have in the US anyway?


              Yikes, I didn't wan tot go *that* far! My only interest in annexing any of Canda would be for them to force a weakening of the central goverment as part of the deal . . . we have enough bad beer of our own without making it easier for theirs to come down . . .


              Yes, we should count ourselves fortunate that transoceanic messages were slow in 1815 and that noone in Paris knew that there were no longer *any* British armed forces in North America :)


              hawk

        • >>Instead of this wacky US Presidential system,
          >>most countries tend to use Parlimentary >>systems,

          >Depends upon continent, now doesn't it? Does >*anyplace* in the americas besides Canada[1] use >a parliamentary system.

          Wrong. Most economically advanced countries do use parliamentary systems. Most economically developing countries tend not to be democratic. This hemisphere is full of poor countries with constituions based roughly on the American one, where democracy is tenative at best.

          Canada uses a form of the British parliamentary system which itself is NOT the most common form of parliament. Parliamentary systems tend to elect via proportional represenation. GB, Canada (I assume AU-NZ too, bicbw) elect parliaments - like the US - on the basis of single member districts. This structural difference tends to make the political systems have less parties and favors conservative political forces.

          >>which in turn are prone to having higher >>turnout,

          >Grossly overrated. I'd rather the uninformed >stay away from th polls.

          Just the answer that an anti-democrat would give.
          Yet somehow all these "uninformed" voters produce
          governments which solve all kinds of social problems that bedevil american politics. Kinda makes ya wonder...

          >>better ability to implement policy, quicker
          >>response times,

          >You say that like those are good things. Having >seen those, we *deliberately* set up the system >to avoid them.

          That is absolutely true, though don't say "we". The planter/merchant elites of early colonial America, did it, and I think they may have had their own interests at heart, rather than ours (I take that back - not "ours", "mine", I don't know what your interest is, but I have my suspicions)

          The type of government the founding dudes set up is one that systematically favors those who don't want goverment action. Slaveowners who don't want their slaves freed, people who don't want their wealth redistributed, polluters who don't want their business regulated. IE, everyone who is opposed to more democracy.

          >Finally, we are *not* a democracy, and our >founders considered it a dirty word. We are a >republic (albeit a democratic republic), and >will fight to keep it that way. It is the >principle of government by consent of the >governed that is important, not the particular >implementation.

          Absolutely. The founding dudes did not want democracy, they wanted "fake democracy"! The notion that a "republic" is somehow a good thing
          comes from the founders admiration for ancient Rome. Now there's a society we should emulate,
          slavery, imperial expansion, etc.

          You know when American political debate will have truly advanced when conservatives actually become embarassed to argue this sort of anti-democratic tripe in public.
      • The analysis of the constitution is spot on
        and the pecularities of American "democracy"
        are another bullseye.

        The famous (and rather conservative) political
        scientist Samuel Huntington long ago suggested
        the American system of government recapitulated
        the political equilibrium of the pre-English Civil War England (ie 1640's). IE, our vaunted separation of powers reproduces the complex and somewhat dysfunctional standoff between the monarchy/court, the country gentry and parliament.

        Huntington's thesis was that the colonies were politically allied with the "country" faction of English politics and hence reproduced and idealized form of how these reactionary nobles wanted government to work. Not a democracy really as much as an oligopoly composed of a weak monarchy and a strong, dispered, nobility.
        So much for the Constituion being a revolutionary document, and it ain't terribly democratic neither.

        Anyway, my vote is for the computer.
    • I think it's worth noting that the atomic bomb was created totally without computers (although they did have some primitive calculating machines. Again, efficiency, not necessity).


      Newer processers are essentially made by copmuters with slower processers, right? Then..

      Shouldn't you mention that only a computer is capable of making a Much faster computer than the computer that made it? :)
    • The constitution of the US revolutionized the concept of freedom throughout the world.

      Do they teach you this stuff at school? Do you not teach you anything about before the founding of the USA, or about other countries?

      I don't want to sound demeaning, but Americans who say these things just sound ignorant. Please find out a bit about other countries and their history.
    • Without the constitution, the computer may have been invented but nobody would have one except political powers, so it wouldn't be a very great invention.
  • Well, technically, neither does the EENIAC, but the best intrumental band ever [astroman.com] did a kick-ass song called "Theme from EEVIAC" (Embedded Electronic Variably Integrated Astro Console), which is probably one of their best. If you think you'd like "sci-fi surf rock" (as I usually describe it), check it out.
  • as some of the other posters have pointed out...
    just as there's more to a computer than a collection of tubes that can preform numerical calculations there's more to a skateboard than nailing four wheels to a 2x4. refer: http://www.exploratorium.edu/skateboarding/skatede sign.html
    for more details...
    or come watch me and da boys shread a pool, for some first hand demonstrations.
  • Check out the book "ENIAC" by Scott McCartney (ISBN 0802713483), published in 1999. He covers the entire story in detail, from the early beginnings, to the Sperry vs. Honeywell patent suit, to the differences between ENIAC and Atanasoff's machine. McCartney, in fact, mentions viewing 12 hours of videotape of Mauchly made by Esther Carr. I would imagine this is the same footage Paul David used.
  • Did anyone else read the headline and first think of Y.T.'s most excellent plank?
  • This one [force9.co.uk] doesn't appear in a lot of older comp sci books, because the UK kept it secret for a long (very long) time. But it predates ENIAC. Now we're back to definitions of "computer". Make it wide enough, and Bababage wins (by a healthy margin)

    BugBear
  • by Get Behind the Mule (61986) on Thursday April 25, 2002 @08:34AM (#3408225)
    There seems to be a strong element of national pride that goes into ideas about who invented the computer, and where. It's a bit like Cold War-era disagreement between the US and the USSR about who invented airplanes.

    I grew up in the US, where everybody swears up and down that the ENIAC was the first computer.

    I've lived for a long time in Germany, where everybody swears up and down that computers were invented by Konrad Zuse.

    And I've met Brits who swear up and down that the first computers were built in Manchester (maybe one of you wants to fill in the story here, eh mates?).

    The common element in all this is that most people have only ever heard the heroic story about their own nation; and when confronted with one of the other legends, they conclude that the other guys are jingoistic, Orwellian distorters of history, and completely out of their minds.
    • >It's a bit like Cold War-era disagreement between
      >the US and the USSR about who invented airplanes.


      Nothing goes *that* far. According to official histories, the USSR invented *everything* before *everyone* else--and they manufactured the documents to prove it.


      hawk

  • There have been planks with wheels under them forever but that does not yet constitute for a skateboard. Skateboard is (or at least when invented it was) a plank with a roller skate nailed underneath it. The claim for the invention presented ihere is only a sign of the times: skateboarding has again gained popularity and now everyone wants to jump the bandwagon.
    • the skateboard is only a biograpical sideline to
      help illustrate john mauchly's character.

      the one he used was (as you described) a plank
      with roller skate wheels nailed underneath it.

We have a equal opportunity Calculus class -- it's fully integrated.

Working...