John Mauchly

views updated

John Mauchly

John Mauchly (1907-1980) was the visionary and co-inventor (with J.P. Eckert) of one of the first electronic computers. Though he is not well known and his career was frustrating, Mauchly essentially invented computer science and was the first computer entrepreneur.

Born on August 30, 1907, in Cincinnati, Ohio, John William Mauchly was the son of Sebastian Jacob and Rachel Elizabeth (maiden name, Schidemantel) Mauchly. Mauchly's father, a well-respected physicist who taught on the high school and college levels, did research in electricity and earth currents. The family (which included Mauchly's sister Helen Elizabeth) moved to Chevy Chase, Maryland when Sebastian Mauchly was offered a job with the Carnegie Institute of Washington, to head its Section of Terrestrial Electricity.

Mauchly was interested in science and engineering from an early age. He enjoyed putting things together and taking them apart, and hoped to pursue a career in engineering. In 1925, Mauchly was offered a scholarship to study engineering at Johns Hopkins University's School of Engineering. He soon grew bored with the subject, and transferred to the physics department. Mauchly's intelligence and abilities so impressed those in the department that he was offered a position in the physics doctoral program. Mauchly never finished his undergraduate degree. Instead her earned his Ph.D. in 1932, after writing a dissertation on the carbon monoxide molecule. While still a student, Mauchly married Mary Augusta Walzl on December 30, 1930. They had two sons, James and Sidney.

Saw Need for Computers

After graduation, Mauchly stayed at Johns Hopkins as a research assistant for a year, 1932-33. Some of his work there focused on calculating energy levels of the formalde-hyde spectrum. Because the calculations took a long time to accomplish manually, Mauchly began thinking about the possibilities of automating functions.

In 1933, Mauchly was hired to head the physics department at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania. While this was not a prestigious position for Mauchly, it was the height of the Great Depression, and jobs were scarce. Mauchly was not just the head of the department, he was the only staff member. Because of this situation, Mauchly had many teaching responsibilities that could have severely limited his ability to conduct original research. However, Mauchly was able to find the time for both.

Mauchly's research focused on meteorology, which had come to require complex calculations in recent years. He wanted to find faster ways of doing these calculations. What were called calculators at the time did not work well or fast enough. Mauchly decided to create an electronic apparatus to accomplish this goal, perhaps with vacuum tubes. Since he did not know a lot about the subject, Mauchly decided to learn as much as possible.

In 1940, Mauchly built a small analog computer-like machine. It could do some harmonic analysis of weather data. He used the machine to write a paper on precipitation's quasi-periodicity. But Mauchly wanted to create a better computational device. The following year he visited John V. Atanasoff, a professor at Iowa State University, to study his primitive computer and learn how vacuum tubes were used. Atanasoff had built what he called the ABC (Atanasoff-Berry Computer). Mauchly was disappointed by what he saw because it did not match the ideas he wanted to pursue. Later, this visit would come back to haunt him.

Hired by the University of Pennsylvania

To pursue his goal, Mauchly took a summer class at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania during the summer of 1941. He wanted to learn more about electronics so he could gain a better understanding of the field in order to build something new. Mauchly so impressed faculty members that he was hired as an instructor in electrical engineering.

Mauchly immediately began promoting his computer idea. The school had a contract with United States Army's Ballistics Research Laboratory. Mauchly wrote a paper, "The Use of High Speed Vacuum Tube Devices for Calculating," that explained his idea for building a computer. Though it was rejected at first, this paper was later recognized as one of the best early papers on computers. Mauchly outlined his proposition in a memorandum, and got approval in the early 1940s.

Though Mauchly originally wanted to design a computer for his meteorological research, he modified his proposal to suit the war effort. Extensive calculations were required by the army for their artillery range tables to reflect the new battle conditions and types of weapons used in combat during the Second World War. The tables enabled artillery gunners to aim and fire effectively. Mauchly began working on the computer in 1943, with J.P. Eckert and many other scientists. However, Mauchly was the visionary and driving force behind the idea, while Eckert headed the engineering end. The same year, Mauchly was promoted to assistant professor of electrical engineering.

Invented the ENIAC

Mauchly and Eckert completed the computer in 1946. It was called ENIAC (Electrical Numerical Integrator and Computer), the first general-purpose computer and the first with the capability to modify a stored program. Costing about $400,000 to construct, the ENIAC had 18,000 vacuum tubes, 70,000 resistors, 6,000 switches and 10,000 capacitors. Its 30 panels filled a large room. Though this seems large and cumbersome by contemporary standards, it was revolutionary at the time.

The ENIAC was faster than anything else available, not just for trajectory computations but also for solving partial differential equations. It could complete 5,000 additions in one second, and multiplication in 300 microseconds. The army began using the ENIAC in 1947, and continued to use it through the mid-1950s. Among other things, it was used to provide some of the calculations for the atomic bomb.

Though computers had become practical, the ENIAC had many drawbacks, in addition to its size. It was costly to run, in part because of its huge power requirements. There was no memory and punched cards were the medium of both input and output. Setting switches externally was the only way to input instructions. The ENIAC could only store 20 ten-digit numbers.

Mauchly and Eckert left the University of Pennsylvania the same year the ENIAC made its public debut in a patent dispute. Pennsylvania had recently instituted a policy that all patents applied for by their employees became the property of the university. The inventors wanted to hold on to their patents because Mauchly saw the potential of selling computers to businesses. After the war ended, the pair applied for their patent and started a new company, the Electronic Control Company. It was to design and manufacture electronic digital computing equipment for commercial and science applications.

Formed Own Computer Company

Before they left the University of Pennsylvania, Mauchly and Eckert had already begun work on a new computer, the EDVAC (Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer) as early as 1944. It was supposed to be smaller, faster, and more reliable than the ENIAC because it had fewer vacuum tubes and therefore malfunctioned less frequently than ENIAC. The EDVAC was superior for other reasons as well. Programs could be stored, making it the first computer to have this capability. Work on the EDVAC was not completed until 1951 because of the patent dispute.

Mauchly and Eckert's company was renamed Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corp. in 1947. Mauchly was president of the company. He was responsible for logic design and ran the operation. Mauchly would give talks about computer science to gain government business. He did much to promote the future of computers. Mauchly was instrumental in the establishment of the Eastern Association of Computing Machinery in 1947 and was its second president in 1948. This organization was later renamed the Association for Computing Machinery.

The Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corp. negotiated a contract to provide a binary computer for the Northrop Aircraft Company. It was to be small, airborne, and calculate missile trajectories. Mauchly and Eckert came up with the BINAC in 1949, which was essentially a refined version of their other computers. Faster and cheaper than the ENIAC, it used magnetic tape instead of punched cards, the first computer to do so. As with the EDVAC, computer programs could be stored internally.

While Mauchly's professional life was progressing, his personal life underwent a transformation. Mary Mauchly had drowned while on vacation at the Jersey shore in 1946. On February 7, 1948, Mauchly married Kathleen Rita McNulty, who was a programmer on the ENIAC. They eventually had five children: Sara Elizabeth, Kathleen Ann, John William, Virginia, and Eva. The following year, the main investor in Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corp. died in a plane crash. This resulted in a loss of funds, a severe problem for the already under-funded operation. Despite contracts from companies like AC Nielsen and Prudential Insurance, Mauchly and Eckert were forced to sell their company.

Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corp. was sold to Remington Rand in 1950. Mauchly's company became a division of Rand. Before the buyout, Mauchly and Eckert had been working on a new computer, the UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Computer) for many years. The UNIVAC was officially introduced in 1951. Created for the United States Census, the UNIVAC was the first commercial data processor using magnetic tape and the first widely used commercial computer. Mauchly guided its logic design and aspects of its software. The UNIVAC proved to be a huge financial success. A refined version, the UNIVAC II, came out in 1957.

In 1955, Mauchly became the director of the UNIVAC Applications Research Center, the UNIVAC division of Sperry Rand Corp. (Remington Rand had merged with the Sperry Corp. in 1955). Mauchly was responsible for the development of the C-10 programming code. He left in 1959 after being asked to leave laboratory work for a full-time marketing position. Eckert remained at Sperry Rand, while Mauchly formed his own company, Mauchly Associates, Inc., which focused on computer development. One major accomplishment here was the development of the critical path method (now known as CPM) which scheduled the use of computers. In 1967, Mauchly also set up a consulting organization, Dynatrend.

By the 1970s, some controversy had emerged regarding the ENIAC and UNIVAC patent rights. A battle was waged in court between Sperry Rand and Honeywell. The court ruled that Mauchly and Eckert were not the inventors of electronic digital computers. Atanasoff, the Iowa State University professor Mauchly visited all those years ago, was held to have come up with the idea first. There were accusations that Mauchly stole his idea from Atanasoff. Mauchly spent the rest of his life arguing against this claim in papers and other public forums. This charge lingered for years, even after Mauchly's death. While it was generally agreed that Atanasoff did come up with the first digital computer, most experts believed that this did not detract from Mauchly's accomplishments. If nothing else, Atanasoff's design was for a single machine, not an entire system. Mauchly started an industry.

Mauchly died on January 8, 1980, in Abington, Pennsylvania, during surgery to correct a heart ailment. Though his contributions to the computer industry were relatively unknown because of the circumstances under which he worked, he drew the map for the development of the computer industry as we know it today.

Further Reading

American National Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Cortada, James W., Historical Dictionary of Data Processing, Greenwood Press, 1987.

The Hutchison Dictionary of Computing, Multimedia, and the Internet, Helicon Publishing, Ltd., 1998.

The Hutchison Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Helicon Publishing, Ltd., 1998.

International Biographical Dictionary of Computer Pioneers, edited by J.A.N. Lee, FD, 1995.

McCartney, Scott, ENIAC: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the World's First Computer, Walker and Company, 1999.

Slater, Robert, Portraits in Silicon, The MIT Press, 1987.

World Who's Who in Science: From Antiquity to the Present, Marquis Who's Who, 1968.

Changing Times, August 1990.

Computerworld, January 11, 1999.

Forbes, July 7, 1997.

IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, 1996.

Newsday, May 16, 1995; February 13, 1996.

Time, February 24, 1986; March 29, 1999.

USA Today, September 18, 1997. □