Lower Merion Historical Society

The Lower Merion Historical Society

« David J. Schmidt Collection

Computer Inventor

by David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life

In a comfortable condo in Rosemont, letters occasionally arrive from people such as Bill Gates – asking favors. There Judith Eckert lives with memories of a man who was her husband for 33 years. J. Presper Eckert, Jr. was a young engineering graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania when World War II started. Most of the world now considers him the man who built the first computer.

He and John W. Mauchly, Ph.D. did that by fulfilling a government contact to build a digital computer called ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), which they unveiled to the world on Valentine’s Day in 1946. The machine had been finished in December 1945; too late to accomplish the tasks it was designed to do.

“He and John were famous from the start,” says Judith Eckert today. “They also were the best of buddies and remained so till the end. Pres gave the eulogy at John’s funeral,” she says. They met because the Army wanted to increase the academic community’s understanding of electronics. “The Army wanted to get these professors up to speed on electronics and Pres begged the dean of the Moore School of Engineering to teach the course. One of the first students was Mauchly, who was teaching at Ursinus College in Collegeville. John and Pres got together and John never went back,” she says.

Legend has it the modern computer was invented during a conversation Mauchly and Eckert had over coffee and fruit sundaes at an all-night Philadelphia restaurant. Eckert has related that he and Mauchly first discussed trying to do complicated computations with mechanical components. “This is silly,” Eckert said they decided. “Wires are cheaper than shafts and ball bearings and gears and things.”

According to Judith, Mauchly was very interested in mathematical formulas for predicting weather. He believed he could analyze the weather and find mathematical patterns that could be used for forecasting. “The problem was that the math was so complex that by the time they did the calculations, the weather had already changed,” she says. The Army was looking for a way to increase the speed by which ballistics tables could be calculated. They were being figured by people who took hours to figure just one table. “The job title for the people doing the computations was ‘computers,’ and that’s where the name of the machine came from,” she says.

Using mechanical calculators, the process could be reduced significantly, but they still weren’t fast enough. So the Army listened when Mauchly and Eckert, combining their skills and genius, came up with what they thought was a way to electronically calculate complex mathematical problems.

“They submitted a proposal to Lieutenant Herman H. Goldstine, who was the Army’s project officer for calculating work which had been farmed out to the Moore School. He had a Ph.D. in mathematics, but according to Judith, lost the first proposal the two had submitted. They had to reconstruct their proposal from the notes taken by Goldstine’s secretary when the Army Ordnance Command expressed interest. The memo describes an Electronic Difference Analyzer that could perform ballistic trajectories in 30 seconds — 14.5 minutes less than the best method the Army had in use.

“Pres (Eckert) and John went to a meeting on Pres’ 24th birthday. The effort would evolve into a $400,000 contract awarded to the Moore School of the University of Pennsylvania from the U.S. Army. That contract created the ‘computer’ and the rest is history.

Although the computer wasn’t finished in time to do the job the Army originally wanted it for, the computer was used for calculations for many projects, including work on the atomic bomb. The ENIAC was the first successful general-purpose electronic computer. “Both Pres and John always considered their work to be to create a machine that could do any complex calculation, not just as a ballistics computer,” she says. While its first calculations were used in the design of atomic weapons and in ballistics work, it was used for many other applications, including the first numerical weather prediction by computer.

One of the early problems, realized by Mauchly and Eckert was that there needed to be some way to store the programs that ran the calculations, but the original machine couldn’t do it. The six-person staff set the machine to solve problems by plugging in cables and setting switches–in effect, rewiring the machine for each new problem to be solved. Punched card equipment handled input and output of numbers. Not only that, the machine was huge. It weighed 30 tons and took up 1800 square feet of floor space. The entire machine contained more than 17,000 vacuum tubes, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors and 6,000 manual switches.

In the fall of 1947, engineers disassembled the ENIAC and moved it from the University of Pennsylvania to the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Aberdeen, Maryland. Portions of the ENIAC were given to the Smithsonian in the early 1960s.

Initially the University of Pennsylvania allowed the two to seek patents from their work, a practice that is common today, but less so in the late 1940s. After originally agreeing, they relented and told the two they must relinquish the right to their work or leave the university. The resigned that day, and the bad feelings continued.

So in 1948 Eckert and Mauchly established a Eckert Mauchly Computer Corp. to manufacture computers. But according to Judith, Eckert wasn’t a businessman and didn’t want to be. “When he originally went to college his mother wouldn’t let him go the MIT, which is where he really wanted to go,” she says. “I think it was partly because he was an only child,” she says.

Eckert had been raised in a privileged environment. His parents were wealthy; his father was a successful real estate investor and for some time worked for American Express. “Because of that they traveled a lot, and we have many pictures of a young Pres with President Garfield and even movie stars,” she says. His father wanted him to follow him into business, and so Eckert was off to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “He lasted there one day. They he went home and told his parents he’d transferred to the Moore School of Engineering,” she says.

So the engineer wanted to keep working with his devices Ð they were more interesting that running a business. “I know that Pres got some help from his father with the business, but he was always more interested in the computers,” she says. But the company began producing what have become the pioneer computers of history. A year after the company was started they introduced BINAC (Binary Automatic Computer), which stored information on magnetic tape rather than on punched cards. Then UNIVAC I (Universal Automatic Computer) was Eckert and Mauchly’s third model and was by far the best known. It was designed to be a commercial computer, and is considered to have started the computer age. Between 1948 and 1966 Eckert received 85 patents, mostly for electronic inventions.

But they eventually sold the company to Remington Rand, Inc., in 1950. Eckert remained in executive positions at his company when it was acquired by and when that firm was, in 1955, merged into the Sperry Rand Corp. (later Unisys Corp.).

Judith met Pres, an accomplished musician when they both sang in a church choir in Mt Airy. Eckert’s first wife had died, and three years later he and Judith married and continued to live in Gladwyne. She is 18 years his junior and they had two children, Laura and Gregory. The family also included Pres’ two children from his first marriage, Chris and John.

For the next three decades Eckert was very sought after as a speaker about the exploding computer frenzy. He remained an executive for the company, in fact retiring for only a day, says Judith. “He decided to retire, and the day after he did I said he would be happier working, because he was going to continue to do what he was already doing Ð he pretty much set his own hours and the couple spend much of their time traveling around the world where he both spoke and was presented with numerous awards.

Dan McGrath was a close friend of Eckert’s son, John. He was continued to be close to the family, and spent many hours with Pres, listening to his stories. He is now organizing Eckert’s papers. “When I first met him, he was just my friend’s father, although I quickly found out he was more than that. I remember coming in the house one day and seeing him lying on the floor with his head under the kitchen sink, fixing the garbage disposal,” he says. “I thought to myself, here is the man who invented the computer and he’s fixing his own garbage disposal.”

Eckert was always interested in equipment and how it worked. “He would buy something and then take it apart to see how it was made. He’d also put them back together and they’d always work,” says Judith.

But there was more to the garbage disposal story, something that perhaps explains how this engineers went beyond the norm, because he didn’t leave things to chance. “He told John to go up in the attic and get a replacement motor for the garbage disposal,” says McGrath. “As we went up the stairs I asked John why they had a spare motor for the garbage disposal. He said there were spare parts for almost everything in the house up there, because his father couldn’t stand machines not working,” he says.

Eckert continued in the public eye, espousing the value of computing until his death in 1995. “He received hundreds of awards, and they were all kept in the attic, many with the mounting screws still taped to the back,” says McGrath. “The only exception was the National Medal of Science awarded to him two years after he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1967.

That medal, presented in 1969 was the sole object in the house that related to his world-changing invention.