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 CharactersSince 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:
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."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?'"
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 FightIn 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.