Wilkes on ENIAC, a personal view – 1947

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My previous blog drew attention to a paper written by Maurice Wilkes in 1949 in which he discussed issues about ‘programming’. Brian, our volunteer archivist showed me a magazine published two years earlier in 1947 in which Wilkes wrote an article about the famous US ENIAC computer.

‘Electronic Engineering’ was a monthly British publication costing 2 shillings (10p), which incorporated electronics, television and short wave radio articles and advertisements.

‘Computing’ as a separate subject of study, was often deeply hidden within developments in the field of electronics and so Wilkes’ article shared a place in the publication alongside articles including; ‘A modern vibration measurement laboratory’, ‘The design of tuned transformers’ and ‘A transmission measuring set for 0.1 to 11 c/s’.

To emphasise the point, Wilkes never uses the word ‘computer’ in his article. The ‘C’ in ENIAC he refers to as standing for ‘Computor’ not ‘Computer’ as you might find if you Google ENIAC. The term ‘computor’ was in fact a reference to a person that computes, and ENIAC was replacing the need for human computation. So I wonder when the term ‘computer’ first appears?

Electronic Engineering is a fascinating read and snapshot of the time. As Wilkes describes the intimate details of the ENIAC ‘electronic brain’, the magazine offers the readers a view of the new BBC transmission to help them tune their television sets and later advertises the job of ‘technical assistant’ at £6 per week ‘according to experience’. But don’t apply, I hear they have filled the post.

Wilkes’ article was based upon a personal visit he made to the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, to study the machine and he explores in detail the operation of ENIAC, including the numerical units and programming. He includes a circuit diagram of the ‘flip flop’ so essential to the function of counting and a contrast to the plastic flip flops found on the BOBCAT that we blogged about earlier.

Discussing the use of ENIAC to support numerical analysis, he remarks that; ‘machines of even greater power now in development, will undoubtedly have a far-reaching effect on this type of research.’ I wonder if he had dared to imagine such a design and the prospect of a new machine called EDSAC becoming a reality at Cambridge University a few years later?

We reproduce the article in full here, (as a PDF) from Electronic Engineering, ‘fresh’ from our archive, courtesy of Brian our archivist. Sit back and wind back to 1947 and imagine the excitement Maurice Wilkes must have felt as he visited the home of ENIAC and explored this one manifestation of the birth of computing.


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