Inventors of the ENIAC computer John Mauchly (left) and J. Presper Eckert (right) with the UNIVAC, another computer they designed. Mauchly taught physics at Ursinus in the 1930s. Photo courtesy of the Ursinus College Archives.
As a college with a rich history spanning nearly 150 years, it may come as no surprise that Ursinus has a few urban legends floating around.
We’ve all heard stories of J.D. Salinger’s semester here, but a tale many are unfamiliar with is that of the ENIAC computer – or, as it was first told to me, “Did you know the first computer was invented in Mahler?”
This, technically speaking, isn’t completely true, but Ursinus’ tie to the invention of one of the first high-speed computing machines is more than just an urban legend. With help from college archivist Carolyn Wei gel, I did some digging to find out exactly what it is people are talking about when they mention this mysterious “Pfahler computer.”
The story of the ENIAC, it turns out, is less about the machine than it is about the man behind it. In the 1930s, Pfahler Hall was home to beloved physics professor John Mauchly. When Mauchly arrived at Ursinus in 1933, Ursinus didn’t have a physics department yet, and although students couldn’t major in the subject, Mauchly paid special attention to those who showed a strong interest. According to an article in the 1985 Ursinus Bulletin, “John Mauchly was the physics department.”
Mauchly, who the Ursinus website describes as “an eccentric, brilliant professor of Physics,” began working on his idea for a computer during his time at Ursinus. ENIAC, which stands for “electronic numerical integrator and computer,” was not his first invention, though. Mauchly, according to the Ursinus Bulletin, had previously helped invent four computers, and even had three personal computers at his home.
Mauchly’s original intention was to build a computer that would help with his meteorology research, which would provide him a means of statistical analysis to prove his hypothesis that solar activity directly affected changes in weather. He began this work in Pfahler, and according to the 1946 Alumni Journal, “his frequent burning of midnight oil in the physics laboratory of the Science Building was observed by many students.”
Mauchly left Ursinus for the University of Pennsylvania in 1941, and the onset of World War II took his innovations in a different direction. The prospect of the U.S. entering the war led the government to mobilize science and engineering reasons, anticipating the need for a machine that could decode encrypted messages. The possibility of Mauchly’s computer was now in high demand, and he joined forces with engineer J. Presper Eckert at Penn’s Moore School of Engineering to further develop his ideas. The result was the ENIAC: the world’s first electronic, digital computer.
For More Information: – Sarah Hojsak