|Ann Arbor News, MI
Pioneer helped push revolution
BY ANNE RUETER
News Staff Reporter
Ann Arborite and computing pioneer Arthur Burks is 90 now, but talking about Feb. 14, 1946, the day he showed the nation its first programmable general-purpose electronic computer, still brings excitement to his voice.
"This one is going to add 5,000 numbers in one second,'' Burks told reporters, showing off one unit of the 80-foot-long, 30-ton ENIAC computer, which nearly filled a room at the University of Pennsylvania. He remembers they didn't look up fast enough from their notepads to see the feat.
The fast, accurate machine reporters and guests had come to see helped launch the computer age, Burks and others say. Within a few years, improved successors that also could store programs were developed.
In 1943, Burks, who had come to the University of Pennsylvania two years before as a freshly minted University of Michigan Ph.D. in philosophy, became a key member of the team that designed ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator). It was developed to do extensive calculations needed to create firing and bombing tables that artillery operators used in World War II.
The U.S. Army, which funded the effort, needed a way to do the calculations in seconds instead of days. Human "computers,'' most of them women, who crunched the numbers on mechanical desk calculators couldn't keep up with the demand. For each gun, an operator needed detailed tables to figure out trajectories to hit the targets, based on wind speed, shell weight and other factors.
ENIAC relied on 18,000 vacuum tubes to drastically cut computing time. You can see a piece of ENIAC, with its tube arrays, in a hallway in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Building on U-M's North Campus. Burks, who came back to U-M as a professor in 1946 and helped found computer studies there, had it brought to Ann Arbor.
ENIAC was finished too late to be of use in the war. It had a huge drawback: It took days to manually reprogram for a different task. But the confidence it inspired soon led to next-generation machines. Burks worked briefly on one of those at Princeton University. Eventually, computers were ripe for the commercial market.
Burks and his wife, Alice Burks, have made it their mission to set the record straight about a long, contentious chapter in computer history. John W. Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert, Jr., who had headed the ENIAC project, claimed exclusive rights to the ENIAC patent. But the Burkses want a precursor of ENIAC to get due credit.
From 1935-42 at what is now Iowa State University, John Atanasoff and Clifford Berry designed an automatic digital electronic computer using vacuum tubes like ENIAC, but it could perform only one task: solving simultaneous linear equations. The Burkses have sought to document, in a 1981 article and two books, how this earlier invention influenced Mauchly in the design of ENIAC. Their work came on the heels of a 1973 court decision that ruled in favor of Atanasoff, finding the original ENIAC patent invalid.
Arthur and Alice Burks met at the University of Pennsylvania during the war years - she was one of the human "computers'' ENIAC aimed to replace. At ENIAC's unveiling 60 years ago, she says, "Nobody could have had a notion of what the computer revolution was going to be.''
Arthur Burks says in those days, he knew computers would be important in universities and industry, but didn't foresee the personal computer. He doesn't use one, but Alice Burks does for her writings.
"What I didn't anticipate was the miniaturization that came later,'' he says.
Reporter Anne Rueter can be reached at 734-994-6759 or firstname.lastname@example.org