On Princeton’s “Freedom to Tinker” site, the founder of the ENIAC Programmers Project summarizes 20 years of its research, remembering the “incredible acts of computing innovation during and just after WWII” that “established the foundation of modern computing and programming.”
Commissioned in 1942, and launched in 1946, the ENIAC computer, with its 18,000 vacuum tubes, was the world’s very first modern computer (all-electronic, programmable, and general-purpose). “Key technologists of the time, of course, told the Army that the ENIAC would never work.”
Slashdot reader AmiMoJo quotes Cory Doctorow:
The ENIAC programmers had to invent programming as we know it, working without programming codes (these were invented a few years later for UNIVAC by Betty Holberton): they “broke down the differential calculus ballistics trajectory program” into small steps the computer could handle, then literally wired together the program by affixing cables and flicking the machine’s 3,000 switches in the correct sequences. To capture it all, they created meticulous flowcharts that described the program’s workings.
From the site:
Gunners needed to know what angle to shoot their artillery to hit a target 8 to 10 miles away…. The Army’s Ballistics Research Labs (BRL) located women math graduates from schools nearby [who] worked day and night, six days a week, calculating thousands of ballistics trajectories which were compiled into artillery firing tables and sent to soldiers in the battlefields. It was a tremendous effort. Second, the Army and BRL agreed to commission a highly-experimental machine… [Six] women studied ENIAC’s wiring and logical diagrams and taught themselves how to program it…
After the war, the Army asked all six ENIAC Programmers to continue their work — no solider returning home from the battlefield could program ENIAC… Others made other pivotal contributions: Jean Bartik led the team that converted ENIAC to one of the world’s first stored program computer and her best friend Betty Holberton joined Eckert Mauchly Computer Corporation and wrote critical new programming tools for UNIVAC I, the first commercial computer, including the C-10 instruction code (predecessor to programming languages).
You can still find its original operating manual online. (“Do not open d-c fuse cabinet with the d-c power turned on. This not only exposes a person to voltage differences of around 1500 volts but the person may be burned by flying pieces of molten fuse wire in case a fuse should blow.”)
It performed calculations that helped design the world’s first hydrogen bomb.