Sixty-eight years ago this month, construction began quietly on ENIAC, the first electronic computer that was built for the U.S. Army to speed up the calculation of ordnance trajectories for soldiers in wartime.
Almost three years later, in February 1946, it was finally completed and was announced to the world in a three-page press release from the U.S. War Department, titled "FUTURE."
From the press release: "A new machine that is expected to revolutionize the mathematics of engineering and change many of our industrial design methods was announced today." Called ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), the machine was touted as "the first all-electronic general purpose computer ever developed."
With that news, the birth of modern electronic computing had begun with a huge impetus, eventually evolving into the powerful computers and technologies used in the enterprise today.
Slideshow: Computer History: The First 2,000 Years
"It really mattered, not because it gave us the architecture that we use today, but because it showed the way and allowed the idea of programming to be discovered," says Mitch Marcus, a professor in the Computer and Information Science Department at the University of Pennsylvania, where ENIAC was built.
What made ENIAC so important is that its co-inventors, John W. Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert, knew they were on to something much bigger than simply building a machine that could quickly figure ordnance trajectories, Marcus says.
"Eckert and Mauchly rapidly understood that computers had a commercial application," he says. "They saw the potential business use for such machines."
So the two men, who worked in the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the college, quickly left Penn when ENIAC was completed and went into business together as The Eckert Mauchly Computer Corp. to market and build similar machines for corporate use. Unfortunately, they quickly ran into a road block with their game-changing invention.
"They were very good engineers but not very good businessmen, so that did not work out financially," Marcus says. They sold the company to Remington Rand, which later became Sperry Rand, and it was brought into the company's UNIVAC division. But the two men didn't give up on their work. Eckert stayed with UNIVAC and Mauchly worked there before heading out on his own later as a consultant.
"They understood the ubiquitous nature of computers in ways that no one else did at the time," Marcus says. "That was Mauchly's vision."
ENIAC was quite an accomplishment back then and continues to inspire new technologies today, Marcus says.
"It really was a proof of concept project to show that a general-purpose, high speed electronic machine could successfully be built," he says. "The fact that it could do 2,000 addition processes per second was a very big deal. Before that there had been computers built out of relays that could do only five adds per second."
ENIAC may have started the electronic computer revolution, but it was a very different machine physically from what we use today to run our IT infrastructures.
ENIAC itself was very large — it filled a 30-by-50 foot room, weighed some 30 tons and incorporated about l8,000 vacuum tubes in its design and construction. It was built from 40 panels that were arranged in a U-shape.
"No one had ever built anything with this many tubes," Marcus says. "That level was beyond anything that people thought was possible."
Other key differences from computers of today were that ENIAC didn't include or run any stored programs and it also wasn't a binary machine using just zeroes and ones. Instead, it was run by entering normal arithmetic, Marcus says.
Yet it inspired so many improvements that we find in computers and other technologies today.
"The folks who designed it went on to design and do major work on the instructions sets of modern computers," Marcus says. "And the female programmers who ran ENIAC developed the use of subroutines that we still have today."
ENIAC even inspired the ways in which future computers would be programmed, according to Marcus. "The people who designed ENIAC were electrical engineers and designed it from an electrical perspective. But the women who programmed it dragged it away from that way of thinking and they invented the modern view of programming."
The programmers were all women because the men were away fighting in the war, according to Marcus. Those women were actually called "computors," which was the term given to anyone who worked with an adding machine in the early 1940s.
"The smartest of those women were recruited to be programmers for ENIAC," Marcus says. "The original idea was that scientists would program the machine and it turned out that the scientists found programming to be hard and that the women mastered it. The thing that ENIAC replaced was a room full of folks doing ballistics calculations, all women with undergraduate degrees in mathematics."
The importance of all of this can't be overstated, Marcus says. The roots of ENIAC are in today's servers, mobile devices, enterprise applications, PCs and laptops, the Internet and just about every IT process used in business and personal computing.
"ENIAC was absolutely seminal," he says. "When it was announced it was like 'giant brains hit the world.' The fact that this machine could calculate the trajectory of an artillery round faster than the round itself would actually travel to its target was astounding."
The importance of ENIAC was that it was built for a specific purpose for the war, but was seen as a springboard for so much more by visionaries who saw its potential.
"That was the beginning of what grabbed people's attention," Marcus says. "Certainly the people who built it then became drivers for the commercialization of computers. Everybody else thought computers were only useful for figuring out scientific tables like logarithms tables and ordnance calculations."
And that's when Eckert and Mauchly realized what it all meant. "It turned out that people thought this work was what computers were for, but after you printed such tables out once, you didn't ever need another one," Marcus says. "These guys knew better from the beginning and they really understood that."
Todd R. Weiss covers Enterprise Applications, SaaS, CRM, and Cloud Computing for CIO.com. Follow Todd on Twitter @TechManTalking. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Todd at firstname.lastname@example.org You can also join Todd in the "CIO Forum" group on LinkedIn.com to talk with CIOs and IT managers about the things that keep them up at night.