How Computers Work: Part 4

The year was 1946- the world was busy with its new, “Can’t we all just get along?” campaign, the United States military was busy building, among other things, the most technologically advanced computational devices the world had ever seen, and the weather seemed, in general, more pleasant than usual. The answer to the first questions is by in large, “No, we can’t all just get along.” The part about the weather turned out to be nothing more than a statistical anomaly. Which leaves the part about constructing computers unexplored. Put your thinking caps on as we prepare to examine this topic in an objective and historically accurate manner.

In order to make this machine sound more like a cute, furry animal and less like a cold blooded killing machine, the people who came up with the idea in the first place decided to call it “Eniac.” While this name sounds somewhat cute and furry, its meaning comes from an old Czechoslovakian phrase that roughly translates to “factory workers with steel shells who attempt to enslave humanity.” The United States built Eniac after identifying a need to calculate the trajectories for their long range thermonuclear weapons.

Once constructed, the military also discovered they could use Eniac to beat the Russians at their own game: tic-tac-toe. After months of tedious programming, the system consistently advised players to always go first and pick the center square. Future versions of Eniac were enhanced to play the game show variations of tic-tac-toe such as “Tic Tac Dough” and “Hollywood Squares.” Some of the general pointers for these games generated by Eniac included, “Caution: Wink Martindale is a robot” and, “Agreeing to appear on Hollywood Squares automatically makes you a loser.”

The heart of the Eniac consisted of thousands of small vacuum tubes that were used to store information while calculations were being performed. While bulky and unreliable compared to the technology available today, these vacuum tubes were a critical component for Eniac to function properly. When a vacuum tube malfunctioned, one of the operators had to locate and replace the tube with a fresh new one. This maintenance consumed quite a bit of the operators time and, by in large, kept them from their favorite activity involving day dreaming of a future where all enemies of the United States could be destroyed with a push of a button.

The process quickly became tiresome and the military eventually hired low paid foreigners to change out the malfunctioning tubes at night. In the meantime, the men and women who built Eniac could focus on the next objective of deciding on the color of the buttons that would be used to fire the missiles their computer was helping aim all around the world. In the end they chose red.

This system created somewhat of a security issue when the mathematicians and computational theorist came into work one day and noticed the 200 ton computer was missing. Naturally the cleaning staff was accused of walking off with the system after everyone else had gone home for the evening. These individuals continually proclaimed their innocence in their native language, which really didn’t do anything to help their cause. In fact, it made them look like raving lunatics-exactly the type of individuals who would steal a state of the art computer. Eventually they were cleared of any and all wrong doing after a complete audit of all the militaries computational devices located the lost piece of equipment. For reasons that have never been completely explained, Eniac was accidentally placed in a seldomly used supply closet.

One rather critical issue with the Eniac computer involved error handling. This system was constructed long before traditional computer screens with the ability to turn completely blue had been invented. To put this time frame into perspective, the top computer scientists of the day were just beginning to coin the phrase “an unknown error has occurred at location 57EE:009B.” Despite incredible advances in the field of computers, much of the behavior of the Eniac system is to this day not completely understood. For example, when an error occurred in a program, the system would calmly and confidently instruct the Navy to launch every long range missile at the five richest kings of Prussia.

Eniac represented a monumental investment in time and money for the United States. Fortunately, World War II was, for the most part, an “away” war that left our nations infrastructure intact. While most other countries in the world were busy rebuilding roads and buildings, we were able to get a head start on the computer craze. Eniac blazed the path for modern day computers. Most importantly, it started an entirely new belief that given enough time every sufficiently powerful computer will eventually do everything in its power once its operators have let their guards down to take over the planet and enslave humanity.