This Day in Tech History

On This Day . . .

Alas Poor ENIAC, I Knew Him Well

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October 2, 1955:  ENIAC Retired

On this day in 1955 the ENIAC is turned off. Considered the world’s first fully electronic computer, after eleven years of continuous service the ENIAC computer was retired from service. Today, pieces of that computer are in various museums around the United States.

Two pieces of ENIAC currently on display in the Moore School of Engineering and Applied Science

Two pieces of ENIAC currently on display in the Moore School of Engineering and Applied Science

ENIAC (ini.æk; Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer) was the first electronic general-purpose computer. It was Turing-complete, digital, and capable of being reprogrammed to solve a full range of computing problems.

Cpl. Irwin Goldstein (foreground) sets the switches on one of the ENIAC's function tables at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering. (U.S. Army photo)

Cpl. Irwin Goldstein (foreground) sets the switches on one of the ENIAC’s function tables at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering. (U.S. Army photo)

ENIAC was designed to calculate artillery firing tables for the United States Army’s Ballistic Research Laboratory. When ENIAC was announced in 1946 it was heralded in the press as a “Giant Brain”. It had a speed of one thousand times that of electro-mechanical machines. This mathematical power, coupled with general-purpose programmability, excited scientists and industrialists.

Programmers Betty Jean Jennings (left) and Fran Bilas (right) operate ENIAC's main control panel (U.S. Army photo)

Programmers Betty Jean Jennings (left) and Fran Bilas (right) operate ENIAC’s main control panel (U.S. Army photo)

The completed machine was announced to the public the evening of February 14, 1946 and formally dedicated the next day at the University of Pennsylvania, having cost almost $500,000 (approximately $5,900,000 today). It was formally accepted by the U.S. Army Ordnance Corps in July 1946.

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ENIAC was conceived and designed by John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert of the University of Pennsylvania. The team of design engineers assisting the development included Robert F. Shaw (function tables), Jeffrey Chuan Chu (divider/square-rooter), Thomas Kite Sharpless (master programmer), Arthur Burks (multiplier), Harry Huskey (reader/printer) and Jack Davis (accumulators

John Mauchly and Presper Eckert

John Mauchly and Presper Eckert

EPSON scanner image

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Regarding the heading, “Alas Poor ENIAC . . .” which has nothing to do with ENIAC.

It is from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, 1602. Often misquoted for some reason as ‘Alas poor Yorick, I knew him well’. It is a meditation on the fragility of life.

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Hamlet says this in a graveyard as he looks at the skull of Yorick, a court jester he had known as a child, and grieves for him. In this complex speech, which is one of the best known in all dramatic works, Hamlet goes on to consider the fate of us all when he compares the skull to those still living: “let her paint [her face] an inch thick, to this favour [state] she must come”

As a child Hamlet found the jester Yorick amusing and entertaining. They used to play and frolic in an intimate but innocent way. Now that Yorick is a stinking corpse the memory of touching him seems revolting and makes Hamlet feel ill.

HAMLET:

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at it.

Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar?

Not one now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen?

Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let
her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must
come; make her laugh at that.

Mel Gibson as Hamlet

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