The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) was the first electronic digital computer, completed in 1946 for the United States military. It was used to compute information for a variety of military tasks until 1955, when it was retired in favor of other, more advanced devices. ENIAC is regarded as one of the forefathers of the modern personal computer, and represents a huge engineering and mathematics accomplishment. Pieces of ENIAC can be seen on display in various museums all over the United States.
In 1943, the military awarded a contract to John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert of the University of Pennsylvania. The two were contracted to build a device which could be used to calculate artillery tables for the military. After three years of work, the end product was revealed on 14 February 1946. Although it was initially designed to work on artillery tables, ENIAC's first major project was calculations related to the development of the hydrogen bomb.
The first iteration of ENIAC was a far cry from modern computers. It ran on a decimal, rather than a binary, system and took up 1,800 square feet (167 square meters) of floorspace with 42 separate panels. The intense heat generated by ENIAC required it to be run in a climate controlled room, and the vacuum tubes failed rather frequently. It had to be manually set when a program needed to be run, and it had no stored memory. Input and output were achieved through punch cards.
Although ENIAC may seem primitive to modern computer users, it was a substantial achievement. The history of the people who worked on ENIAC also demonstrates the egalitarian nature of the computer engineering field. Women worked side by side with men, and were primarily responsible for the daily running of ENIAC. Female programmers also developed improvements to ENIAC, and were honored in 1997 by the Women in Technology Hall of Fame. During an era when many women struggled for equal positions in the work place, the hard working ENIAC crew was an anomaly.
Reforms and improvements continued to be made to ENIAC until it was finally retired. Many of these reforms played a role in the development of later computers, such as internal memory and the use of binary representation rather than decimals. While the processing power of a modern computer is enclosed in a much small space than the room-sized ENIAC, it deserves an important place in history for the computer engineering which it inspired.