Can you imagine today without the General Purpose Computer? Not sure what that is perhaps? The General Purpose Computer process basic operations like that we learn in arithmetic; adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing.

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Inventor of the General Purpose Computer

J. Presper Eckert – Inventor of the General Purpose Computer

Enjoy your Smart Phone as you surf the web, deposit checks and communicate with the world. It is much more convenient that carrying out these transactions on a bulky desktop, don’t you agree? Actually, the last few years has seen a move away from the common desktop and toward laptops, tablets and mini’s. The very first computer could not be carried with you, nor would it fit on a desktop. One of the first computers was the ENIAC and it weighed in at more than 30 tons, contained over 17,000 vacuum tubes and everyone thought that it was wonderful too!

Early Life

J. Presper Eckert was co-inventor of the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) which was not the very first computer, but it was the first electronic device that was designed to perform general, all-purpose computations. John Adam Presper Eckert Jr. was born on April 9, 1919 in Philadelphia ,Pennsylvania. His father was a wealthy real estate developer and the family lived in the German town section of Philadelphia. J. Presper Eckert was driven to William Penn Charter School by a chauffeur. Once he reached high school, be joined the Engineer’s Club of Philadelphia and spent his afternoons with the inventor of the television, Philo Farnsworth. They spent most afternoons working together in the electronic laboratory at Chestnut Hill. Eckert placed second in the nation on the math section of the College Board exam. His parents encouraged him to enroll in business school so he enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. In 1937 he transferred over to Penn’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering. When he was only 21 years old he applied for his very first patent. It was for a device he called the “Light Modulating Methods and Apparatus.” While Eckert was at the Moore School he participated in conducting research on radar timing. He also made several improvements to the school’s differential analyzer. And during the summer of 1941 he was assistant teacher in the Moore School. He worked with student in Engineering Science and Management War Training (ESMWT) which was being offered to the school by the US Department of War.

Invention of the First General Purpose Computer

Eckert and Mauchly built four computers together the first of which was the ENIAC. It was comprised of more than 70,000 resistors, 500,000 soldered connections and 10,000 capacitors. It had a different wire panel for each of the programs so every time an operator decided to change programs they had to do it manually by moving cables, turning dials or changing switches. The computer had over 18,000 vacuum tubes and it could be frustrating if one of them burnt out because it would completely shut down the machine until it was replaced. Eckert spent significant time studying the vacuum tubes and discovered that if they were operated at a lower rate of power they would last a much longer time. He also set up careful standards for the circuits used by the computer. This relieved much confusion as people understood more quickly how it worked.

The ENIAC took up nearly 2,000 square feet and weighed right at 30 tons. And even though it was terribly slow when compared to our modern computer speeds, it was about 1,000 times faster than any of the mechanical calculators used during that era. A person might need 20 hours to calculate the trajectory of an artillery shell whereas the ENIAC could do so in 30 seconds. It was a general purpose computer that performed basic operations like adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing. It could also extract square roots. The ENIAC was used to solve trajectory problems for the US Army after 1947 and later was used during the development of the hydrogen bomb. Eckert later began to work with Mauchly on the EDVAC (Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer) which had an internal memory which could be used to store programs and was much smaller. It took up less than 500 square feet.

First Commercial Computer

Patent issues with the ENIAC drove Eckert away from the Moore School of Engineering. He was offered a job at IBM but Eckert decided to work with Mauchly and they ended up starting the Electronic Control Company. Through working with the Census Bureau, they developed a computer that would be known as the UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Computer). They soon signed a contract with the Northrop Aircraft Company to develop small computers that could be used to navigate airplanes. The Remington Rand Corporation bought the UNIVAC from Eckert and his inventor friend, Mauchly.

Awards and Recognition

Eckert was granted an honorary doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. He received 87 patents during his lifetime. He also received many awards including the John Scotts Medal and the Howard N. Potts award. President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded him with the National Medal of Science and he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering. He remained at Remington Rand Corporation until he retired in 1989.