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Technology and Culture 41.4 (2000) 825-826

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Book Review

ENIAC: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the World's First Computer

ENIAC: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the World's First Computer. By Scott McCartney. New York: Walker, 1999. Pp. viii+262; illustrations, notes/references, bibliography, index. $23.

Scott McCartney's book on ENIAC focuses on the human side of that development rather than the technical, which historians have already described. He argues that Presper Eckert and John Mauchly invented the first computer and should have a place alongside computer-industry giants. The ENIAC provided the "spark" from which the computer industry grew. "Many played a role in the development of the computer, but Eckert and Mauchly were the ones who ultimately put it all together" (p. 227). McCartney specifically defines a computer as a digital, general-purpose, programmable, electronic machine; thus, other contenders for "first" computer fall out of contention.

The title hints that the book is not a biography of Eckert and Mauchly but rather a biography of the early years in the life of the computer. The "tragedies" of the title may belong to Eckert and Mauchly, but McCartney extends the "triumphs" to the computer industry as a whole. He starts with a standard brief history, based on secondary sources, of computing and calculating machines including devices of Pascal, Leibniz, Babbage, Hollerith, Bush, Stibitz, and Aiken. While all of these devices provided great advances, none of them was digital, electronic, and programmable, and thus they were not computers in the modern sense, according to McCartney. The first computer had to be programmable, which McCartney defines as the inclusion of "if-then" statement and subroutine capability.

McCartney dedicates lengthy sections to the controversy over who should receive credit as the inventor of the first computer. His writing on the 1970s patent battle provides a counterweight to the work of Alice and Arthur Burks, proponents of John Atanasoff. McCartney's interpretation of the court decision argues that it was not really about Eckert and Mauchly vs. Atanasoff but about breaking up a monopoly of Sperry Rand (which had bought Eckert and Mauchly's company, and thus the ENIAC patent). The computer industry "triumphed" in the court battle because it allowed open competition in the industry. While McCartney focuses too much on the question of "who was first," he does provide a lively picture of the context in which the computer developed, a context that included the progress of the Allies in World War II and their spur to the design team. [End Page 825]

The book also gives a sense of the people behind the ENIAC, with enticing stories about Eckert, Mauchly, and others involved. The "humanizing" of Eckert and Mauchly--the result of using previously unused personal correspondence from the two men--may be McCartney's main contribution to academic work in the field. At one point, he describes an instance in which Eckert acquired some mice, starved them for a few days, and then put different kinds of wire in their cages. The "least appetizing brand" was used in ENIAC (p. 76). The greatest "tragedy" for Eckert and Mauchly was that they were "lousy marketers and poor businessmen" (p. 7). The first commercial computer company, founded by Eckert and Mauchly, focused on technical considerations, not business strategies, and it failed to give them financial success. McCartney also describes some interesting dynamics among Moore School administrators, engineers, and scientists (who included John Von Neumann after the war), arguing that Eckert and Mauchly were pushed aside because they were "tinkerers" not "thinkers" (p. 115).

McCartney is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and this is not an academic monograph. The structure is chronological, little scientific or technical background is required, and the book would work well in an undergraduate course for students from various disciplines. The sources McCartney employed include institutional archives and interviews as well as the personal papers of Eckert and Mauchly (some still hidden away in an attic rather than an archive), and he uses them well. He complements his text...


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