Eckert, J. (John Adam) Presper, Jr.

views updated May 29 2018


(b. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 9 April 1919;

d. Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, 3 June 1995), electrical engineering, computer engineering.

J. Presper Eckert is best known for his role as chief engineer in the project that created the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) at the University of Pennsylvania during World War II. Later he helped establish one of the first American computer companies and oversaw technical development of its first commercial computers.

Upbringing and Education . Eckert was the only child of a prominent Philadelphia real estate developer, John Eckert, and Ethel Hallowell Eckert. His parents valued education highly, and he attended the prestigious private William Penn Charter School. He also traveled extensively with his family both in the United States and abroad, visiting all forty-eight contiguous states, Alaska, and many major foreign cities. He showed a strong interest in electronics from an early age, tinkering with radios and phonographs. In addition to his formal schooling, he worked on electronics projects with staff at the Franklin Institute and at Philo Farnsworth’s television laboratory.

Initially Eckert aspired to study electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), but his father convinced him instead to enroll at the business-orientated Wharton School at the nearby University of Pennsylvania. Eckert was accepted at Wharton in 1937 but found it unsuited to his interests and transferred to the university’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering. Its dean, Harold Pender, had recently been recruited from MIT, and was striving to increase the Moore School’s standing as a national research center. While only a middling student, Eckert continued his self-directed tinkering on the side. He also assisted his electronics professor and mentor, Carl Chambers, with consulting projects. Eckert remembered that Chambers “really indoctrinated me with being as careful as I was in designs. I did some circuit design for him, and he always had me test it for all the variations possible” (Eckstein, 1996, p. 38).

In 1941 Eckert graduated and considered offers from Philco and RCA Laboratories, but elected instead to stay at the Moore School to begin graduate education and serve as a teaching assistant. One of his first assignments was as a laboratory supervisor in a summer course the Moore School was conducting for the military. There he met a colleague who became a lifelong partner, John Mauchly, a physics professor at nearby Ursinus College.

The Development of ENIAC . Mauchly, then thirty-four, and Eckert, twenty-two, spent hours talking about scientific and engineering topics. Both had a fascination with different ways to use the speed of electronic circuits to improve measurement and calculation. Mauchly was soon hired by the Moore School as an instructor, and Eckert became involved in a variety of projects. Most notable was time he spent on a Moore School contract with the MIT Radiation Laboratory for a switching amplifier. He experimented with timing equipment for a moving-target indicator (MTI) and developed a device called a mercury delay line, which used acoustic wave patterns in mercury to store and measure the intervals between signal pulses. He would return to the idea later in his career.

Eckert also worked with the Moore School’s differential analyzer, a specialized piece of equipment used to compute solutions to differential equations. Developed by Vannevar Bush at MIT, the differential analyzer was a complex and intricate analogue device consisting of numerous gears, wheels, and shafts that were carefully selected and adjusted to solve each new problem. Pender had convinced the military to buy one for the Moore School, and even before Pearl Harbor, staff there were cooperating with the U.S. Army’s Ballistics Research Laboratory (BRL) in computing firing tables. Eckert joined a group working with the analyzer and began trying to improve its performance with electronic components. With his assistance, the team added photocells, more than four hundred vacuum tubes, generators, and server motors that dramatically improved both the speed and the performance of the analyzer.

As requirements for more and faster computations grew, staff continued to consider other innovations. In August 1942, Mauchly dictated a memorandum describing an “electronic computor [sic]” that would be more accurate than the differential analyzer and far faster than either it or hand calculating with desktop calculators. The idea grew in part out of ongoing discussions with Eckert about electronic circuits and components. Mauchly submitted the memorandum to the Moore School deans, but they were unimpressed and failed to act on it. Mauchly remained enthusiastic about the idea, however, and brought it up again in discussions with Lieutenant Herman Goldstine, a PhD mathematician who served as the liaison between the BRL and the Moore School. By the spring of 1943, Goldstine was convinced that Mauchly’s idea for an all-electronic computer should be considered seriously. Unfortunately, no one could locate the original memorandum proposing the computer that Mauchly had written six months earlier. It was re-created from notes.

On 9 April 1942, a formal meeting was convened with Mauchly, Eckert, the research director of the Moore School, Goldstine, and the director of the BRL. It was Eckert’s twenty-third birthday. He later remembered that even as the meeting was going on, he and Mauchly were writing the technical appendices backing up the proposal. The plan was approved, and the Moore School soon began Project PX: to design and construct what became known as ENIAC, or Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer. Originally the plan was for a machine containing around five thousand tubes and costing $150,000. Before the project was completed, however, the number of tubes had grown to eighteen thousand and the cost to $400,000. ENIAC would also require seventy thousand resistors, ten thousand capacitors, six thousand switches, and fifteen hundred relays, and would fill a room 9.1 meters (30 feet) wide by 15.2 meters (50 feet) long. The expansion was due to new requirements from the army, which insisted on having a machine that could solve a wide range of problems.

Although Goldstine had convinced the army to support the idea for ENIAC, others were skeptical. Doubts had begun with the Moore School’s own dean. Leading scientists in the National Defense Research Committee, the organization designed to coordinate all university research and development during the war, did not support the idea. Most critics pointed to the growing complexity of the circuitry and the propensity of vacuum tubes to fail. By one naive calculation, if the mean life of a tube was around three thousand hours, then there would be a tube failure every ten minutes.

Making ENIAC work would require engineering genius. Eckert supplied it. While Mauchly had the overall vision for ENIAC and contributed innovations to programming it, Eckert oversaw the detailed hardware design. He specified circuits and wiring plans. He carefully tested each type of tube, and made sure that it would be powered at levels that would give it maximum life. Goldstine later wrote,

Eckert fully understood at the start, as perhaps none of his colleagues did, that the overall success of the project was to depend entirely on a totally new concept of component reliability and on utmost care in setting up criteria for everything from quality of insulation to types of tubes. Eckert’s standards were the highest, his energies almost limitless, his ingenuity remarkable, and his intelligence extraordinary. It was Eckert’s omnipresence that drove everything forward at whatever cost to humans including himself.” (1972, pp. 153–154)

Although designed to meet a wartime emergency, ENIAC was not completed until after the war. It debuted with a formal dedication on 15 February 1946. The army proclaimed it a “new machine that is expected to revolutionize the mathematics of engineering and change many of our industrial design methods” (U.S. War Department). Well before the gala announcement, however, the ENIAC designers knew their machine, while a major step forward, had severe weaknesses. Their view was amplified and extended in the summer of 1944 during several visits from the famous mathematician John von Neumann, who became very interested in the development of computers. With his involvement and support, the ENIAC group won army approval for a new project, PY, to create EDVAC, or an Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer. Two critical innovations underlay the new project. The first was mercury delay lines, which could be used to store numbers in the machine, vastly extending its storage capability. This grew from Eckert’s previous work on mercury storage for the MIT project. The second— made possible by the first—was the simple but fundamental idea of stored programs: the computer’s storage device would be used to hold both the instructions of a program and the numbers on which it operated. The specific originator of this idea is disputed. It is likely that once the possibility of extensive storage became realistic, several of those involved in the discussion conceived it independently. But unquestionably von Neumann’s involvement catalyzed the idea, and he went on to articulate it most clearly in his famous “First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC (1945).” In retrospect, it has become recognized as a foundational document of computer science.

The ENIAC Patent Dispute . Besides considering technical improvements in ENIAC in 1944, Eckert and Mauchly also began thinking seriously about the commercial applications of the work they had been doing. In September 1944 Eckert wrote to his Moore School colleagues that he and Mauchly planned to apply for a patent on the ENIAC. Although some would later claim they had been left out of the application, at the time all agreed that the patent application should be in Eckert’s and Mauchly’s names. The school was also agreeable to the application, but insisted that patent rights be assigned to the university. Eckert and Mauchly balked, saying they should retain the rights. After a bitter fight, the university finally accepted their position, and in March 1945, let the two men retain the rights. But the issue was not over. A year later, soon after ENIAC was dedicated to the public, the Moore School clarified its patent policy and now insisted that any future patent rights of researchers had to come to the university. By this time, with the war over, Eckert and Mauchly were already considering other career possibilities, and the new policy became a determining factor. They both refused to sign and resigned from the university. While both had several job possibilities, they decided they should take a bold step. In March 1946, they established the Electronic Control Company, the first commercial computer company in the United States.

Even after the departure of Eckert and Mauchly from the Moore School, the ENIAC patent dispute lived on. The application was finally filed on 26 June 1947, but the patent, U.S. Patent 3,120,606, was not finally granted until 4 February 1964. At that time, the rights were owned by Sperry Rand, where Eckert then worked. When the company began trying to collect royalties on the patent, some firms, such as International Business Machines (IBM), reached negotiated settlements. Honeywell Corporation, in contrast, decided to challenge the patent, and filed suit in 1967. A trial finally began in 1971, and ran until 13 March 1972. In a dramatic conclusion, Judge Earl R. Larson ruled the ENIAC patent invalid. While he noted many findings, he gave two primary reasons. First he concluded that Mauchly had not conceived his idea independently, but had derived it from knowledge of the work of John V. Atanasoff at Iowa State University. Atanasoff had developed an electronic computing device in the late 1930s, and Mauchly had visited him for four days in June 1941. Although Mauchly argued that this interaction was not the source of his idea, the judge ruled against him. The judge also concluded that there had been substantial public disclosure before the patent was filed. One example was the gala ENIAC announcement in February 1946.

While some believed the judge’s decision rightly accorded Atanasoff credit for his pioneering work, Eckert and Mauchly both thought the ruling robbed them of due recognition for their role in creating ENIAC and launching the American computer industry. Eckert never accepted that Atanasoff should be known as some sort of “forgotten father” of the digital computer.

Creating a Computer Company . In the postwar period, there was little venture capital available to finance start-up companies, and no established market for digital computers. When creating their computer company, Eckert and Mauchly had to start small and continually struggle to finance company operations. Their first customer was the

U.S. Census Bureau, which had received $300,000 from the U.S. Army Ordnance Department to develop a computer. Although some Census Bureau reviewers were lukewarm about the plans of Eckert and Mauchly, the bureau issued a $75,000 contract to the Electronic Control Company in September 1946 to conduct research on mercury delay storage units for computer use. Given that ENIAC had cost $400,000, this was a paltry sum. The expectation was that the project could develop into a larger contract for a full computer. Eckert and Mauchly were now envisioning a general purpose computer that could be used by many organizations, which they would soon call UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Computer).

In December 1947, the two incorporated their company and renamed it the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Company. Funding from the Census Bureau would not keep them afloat, especially as they added employees, so they continually sought new customers. Over the next several years, they succeeded in selling their proposed UNIVAC to the Prudential Life Insurance Company and the ACNielsen Company. They also negotiated a contract for a special purpose computer, the BINAC (Binary Automatic Computer), with the Northrop Aircraft Company. BINAC first ran in February 1949, and was arguably the first successful stored computer in the United States. It was not fully a success, however, as it was delivered more than a year late. Northrop was never able to run the computer reliably once it had been transferred to them.

Building UNIVACs . The company was more successful with UNIVACs. Again, development took longer than expected. The first UNIVAC was released to the Census Bureau on 31 March 1951. Because of delays and cost escalation, Prudential and Nielsen ultimately canceled their contracts. However, other government agencies and private companies bought machines. In all, forty-six UNIVACs were produced. The most famous was serial number 5, which was sold to the Atomic Energy Commission and installed at the University of California Radiation Laboratory. In 1952 the CBS television network used it to predict the outcome of the presidential election between Adlai Stevenson and Dwight Eisenhower. On election night, with only 3.4 million votes counted, the computer predicted a landslide for Eisenhower: forty-three states to only five. The prediction was so lopsided that CBS decided not to air it, but the computer turned out to be close. Eisenhower won by thirty-nine states to nine, with a total of 61.5 million votes cast.

Throughout the development of the UNIVAC, Eckert had been the acknowledged technology leader of his company, inspiring his coworkers. One of them, Herman Lukoff, later remembered “Shift work didn't mean anything to Pres; he worked all shifts. He was there whenever anyone else was, working on the nagging problems of the moment. The only way his poor wife, Hester, got to see him was by coming in during the evening and idly standing by” (1979, p. 101).

Although Eckert and Mauchly had produced the first successful business computer in the United States, they were not themselves successful businessmen. They grossly underestimated both the cost of developing their products and the time required. Their company remained in financial difficulty. The problem was finally solved when the Remington Rand Company, a major producer of office equipment, bought the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Company on 1 February 1950. In 1952 Remington Rand also acquired Engineering Research Associates, another fledgling computer company, and thus became one of the leading computer companies in the United States. Other mergers would follow. It was Remington Rand who successfully negotiated cancellation of the Prudential and ACNielsen contracts, and substantially increased the price of subsequent UNIVACs. In 1955, Remington Rand merged with Sperry Gyroscope to form Sperry Rand, and in 1986, that company joined with Burroughs Corporation to form the Unisys Corporation.

In the mid-1950s, it seemed that Remington Rand was poised to take the lead in the new business of computer development, but the company was unable to turn a profit with computers. Not until the early 1960s did the computer division make money, and by that time, Remington Rand was being overshadowed in the market by rival IBM. Although Sperry Rand remained in IBM’s shadow, it gradually became a successful computer company. In contrast, other firms that entered the business in the 1950s gave up after years of major losses.

Eckert’s Legacy . Mauchly left Remington Rand in 1959 to form a consulting firm, Mauchly Associates. Eckert, however, stayed with the company. He served as director of engineering, 1950–1955; vice president and director of commercial engineering, 1955–1959; vice president and executive assistant to the general manager, 1959–1963; and vice president and technical advisor to the president, 1963–1982.

Eckert published few technical papers during his career. His most important contribution was “A Survey of Digital Computer Memory Systems,” which appeared in the Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers in 1953. In the article he summarized the range of memory devices then being used or explored for use in computer systems. They ranged from vacuum tubes, such as were employed in ENIAC, to ferromagnetic cells, which would form the foundation of magnetic core memories. Eckert gave special attention to delay-line memories, which he had personally pioneered. The article makes clear, however, that he knew other techniques would soon surpass what could be done with delay-line systems.

A better measure of Eckert’s technical expertise is his patents. He was issued ninety during his career: twenty-nine to him personally, ten jointly with Mauchly, and fifty-one jointly with other inventors. The topics ranged from electronic circuits, to memory systems, to printers. Patent 2,629,827, for example, was the first patent Eckert and Mauchly received on the ideas inherent in the mercury delay memory system. Clearly Eckert saw patents as more important to his legacy as an engineer than publications.

Eckert was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1967. In 1968 he was awarded the National Medal of Science “for pioneering and continuing contributions in creating, developing, and improving the highspeed electronic digital computer” (National Science Foundation Internet page). He fully retired in 1989, and died of leukemia in 1995. In 1986, after noting the remarkable progress in computer development over four decades, he penned his own wry epitaph. “The ENIAC was built as a system that has led directly to today’s computers,” he said. “I look back at the scenario and ask you to consider the following question: How would you like to see your life’s work end up on a tenth of a square inch of silicon?” (1986).



“A Survey of Digital Computer Memory Systems.” Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers 41 (October 1953): 1393–1406. Reprinted in IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 20, no. 4 (1998): 15–28.

“The ENIAC.” In A History of Computing in the Twentieth Century, edited by N. Metropolis, J. Howlett, and Gian-Carlo Rota. New York: Academic Press, 1980.

“The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer.” Computer Museum Report 16 (Summer 1986). Available from

Allison, David K. “Transcript of an Interview with J. Presper Eckert.” Development of the ENIAC interviews, Smithsonian Videohistory Collection, Record Unit 9537. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC. Available from


Allison, David K. “The ENIAC.” Bulletin of the Scientific Instrument Society 63 (1999): 15–17.

Brainerd, John G. “Genesis of the ENIAC.” Technology and Culture 17 (1976): 482–488.

Burks, Alice R., and Arthur W. Burks. The First Electronic Computer: The Atanasoff Story. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988. A polemical account that argues the case for Atanasoff as inventor of the computer.

Campbell-Kelly, Martin, and William Aspray. Computer: A History of the Information Machine. New York: Basic, 1996. This overview puts ENIAC in context.

Eckstein, Peter. “J. Presper Eckert.” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 18 (1996): 25–44.

Goldstine, Herman. The Computer from Pascal to von Neumann. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Gray, George. “Univac I: The First Mass-Produced Computer.” Unisys History Newsletter5 (2001).

Lee, J. A. N. “J. Presper Eckert, 1919–1995.” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing17, no. 3 (1995): 3–5.

Lukoff, Herman. From Dits to Bits: A Personal History of the Electronic Computer. Portland, OR: Robotics, 1979. A memoir that gives the flavor of working with Eckert.

McCartney, Scott. ENIAC: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the World’s First Computer. New York: Walker, 1999. A lively journalistic account, but one that should be used with care.

Moore School of Electrical Engineering and United States, Army, Ordnance Dept. A Report on the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer). Philadelphia: Moore School of Engineering, University of Pennsylvania, 1946. This report, part of the documentation of the original ENIAC project, is the best available source on its technical structure, set-up, and operations.

National Science Foundation. “The President’s National Medal of Science: Recipient Details: J. Presper Eckert, Jr.” Available from cfm?recip_id=115.

Norberg, Arthur. Computers and Commerce: A Study of the Technology and Management at Eckert-Mauchly Computer Company, Engineering Research Associates, and Remington Rand, 1946–1957. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005.

Stern, Nancy. From ENIAC to UNIVAC: An Appraisal of the Eckert-Mauchly Computers. Bedford, MA: Digital, 1981.

University Archives and Records Center, University of Pennsylvania. “Guide to the ENIAC Trial Exhibits Master Collection, 1864–1973 [1938–1971 bulk].” Available from This collection at the University of Pennsylvania is the best single source for researching the massive documentation related to the ENIAC patent trial.

U.S. War Department. “Ordnance Department Develops All-Electronic Calculating Machine.” Press release, 15 February 1946. Available from

von Neumann, John. “First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC (1945).” Reprinted in The Origins of Digital Computers: Selected Papers, edited by Brian Randell. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1982.

David K. Allison

John Presper Eckert

views updated Jun 08 2018

John Presper Eckert

Electrical engineer J. Presper Eckert (1919-1995) invented the first general-purpose electronic digital computer, the ENIAC, with John William Mauchly. Further collaboration between the two engineers led to the development of the first commercial digital electronic computer, UNIVAC. Their combined efforts ushered in the commercial computer revolution that continues to change the world in profound ways.

John Presper Eckert, Jr., was born on April 9, 1919, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to John Presper Eckert and Ethel Hallowell Eckert. His father was a self-made millionaire businessman, whose business interests would strongly influence his son's future. Eckert was an only child, and spent much of his youth building radios and other mechanical and electronic gadgets. He wanted to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), but his mother did not want him to move so far away. To keep his son close to home, his father claimed that he could not afford to pay MIT's steep tuition. Therefore, Eckert settled on the Moore Engineering School at the University of Pennsylvania. Upon discovering his father's lie during his freshman year, Eckert became very angry, which had a negative effect on his grades. But he persisted at Moore, earning his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering in 1941 and his master's degree in 1943. On October 28, 1944, Eckert married Hester Caldwell. The couple had two sons, John Presper III and Christopher, before Hester died in 1952. Eckert married Judith A. Rewalt on October 13, 1962 and had two more children, Laura and Gregory.

Eckert was widely regarded as a superb engineer while at the Moore School. However, he could be stubborn, and his work habits were considered odd. As Robert Slater wrote in Portraits in Silicon, "Eckert liked to work things out orally in the presence of someone; it didn't matter whether it was a technician or a night watchman. He was highly nervous and would rarely sit in a chair or stand still while thinking. Often he would crouch on top of a desk or pace back and forth."

Invented First General Purpose Electronic Computer

The first of the four computers that Eckert built with Mauchly was the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer). The ENIAC was comprised of over 10,000 capacitors, 70,000 resistors, and 500,000 soldered connections. Separate wire panels defined each of its programs, which meant that operators had to change its wiring manually by turning dials, changing switches, and moving cables every time they changed to a new program. Adding to its complexity were nearly 18,000 vacuum tubes, any one of which could burn out at any time and stopped a calculation. An expert on electric organs, Eckert thought about this problem carefully. He knew that organs contained many vacuum tubes that could be used over long periods of time without burning out, and found that if he ran the computer's tubes at a low rate of power, they too would last a long time. Eckert also instituted careful standards for the computer's circuits. He designed each one individually and insisted, for the sake of simplicity, that only his circuits be used in all areas of the computer. This enabled everyone who worked on the computer to understand exactly how it worked very quickly, which minimized confusion.

At 80 feet (24 m) long, eight feet (2.4 m) high, and three feet (1 m) deep, the ENIAC occupied a total of 1,800 square feet (167 sq. m) and weighed 30 tons. Although it was enormous, power hungry, and slow compared to the average personal computer of the 1990s, its calculating speed was 1,000 times faster than any mechanical calculator built up to that time. ENIAC could calculate a trajectory for an artillery shell in 30 seconds, while it took a person using a mechanical desk calculator 20 hours to perform the same calculation, with the possibility of error. The ENIAC was a general-purpose computer that could add, subtract, multiply, divide, compare quantities, and extract square roots. It did not become operational until after World War II. The ENIAC passed its first full operational test on December 10, 1945, and was dedicated on February 16, 1946. In August 1947, it was used to solve trajectory problems and compute ballistics tables at the U.S. Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground, and was later engaged in the development of the hydrogen bomb. In 1944, while working as a research associate at the Moore School, Eckert began work with Mauchly on the EDVAC (Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer), greatly advancing the functions of its predecessor. Completed in 1952, EDVAC had an internal memory for storing programs, used only 3,600 vacuum tubes, and took up a mere 490 square feet (45 sq. m).

Developed First Commercial Computer

Shortly before the end of World War II, Eckert and Mauchly, with grudging permission from the Moore School of Engineering, began the long process of patenting the ENIAC. However, subsequent administrators at the Moore School did not like the idea of their employees applying for patents on equipment developed for U.S. government projects. In early 1946, one administrator decided that the Moore School would retain future patents on all projects developed by employees of the school. When asked to sign a form consenting to this, Eckert and Mauchly refused, and resigned in March 1946.

Though IBM had offered Eckert a job and his own lab for developing computers, Mauchly talked him into jointly starting the Electronic Control Company. Their first work, in 1946 and 1947, was with the National Bureau of Standards and the Census Bureau. They developed the specifications for a computer eventually known as the UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Computer)—the Electronic Control Co. took this as its name in 1948. Like most start-up companies developing complex hardware, Eckert and Mauchly ran into their share of financial problems, consistently underestimating the development costs for their computers. To raise money, they signed a contract in the fall of 1947 with the Northrop Aircraft Company to create a small computer for navigating airplanes—the BINAC (Binary Automatic Computer). The BINAC (completed in August 1949) and the UNIVAC were the first computers to employ magnetic tape drives for data storage. Smaller in size and comprised of fewer parts than the ENIAC, both machines had internal memories for storing programs and could be accessed by typewriter keyboards.

Eckert and Mauchly had been kept from bankruptcy by the support of Henry Straus, an executive for the American Totalisator Company, which manufactured the odds-making machines used at race tracks. When Straus was killed in a plane crash in October 1949, Eckert and Mauchly knew they had to sell UNIVAC. The Remington Rand Corporation acquired their company on February 1, 1950. Eckert remained in research to develop the hardware for UNIVAC, while Mauchly devoted his time to developing software applications. The first UNIVAC, delivered to the Census Bureau in March 1951, proved its value in the 1952 presidential election between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson, when it accurately predicted results less than an hour after the polls closed. Eckert and Mauchly's patent on the ENIAC was challenged during an infringement suit between Sperry-Rand (formerly Remington), who now owned the rights to the computer, and Honeywell. On October 19, 1973, the court invalidated the ENIAC patent and asserted that Iowa State University professor John Vincent Atanasoff was the true inventor of the digital electronic computer.

Eckert received his honorary doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1964. He also received 87 patents and numerous awards for his innovations, including the Howard N. Potts and John Scott Medals (both of which he shared with Mauchly). President Lyndon B. Johnson presented him with the National Medal of Science in 1969. Eckert was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1967. He remained with the Remington Rand Corporation through a number of mergers, retiring in 1989. He later served as a consultant to UNISYS and to the Eckert Scientific International Corporation, based in Tokyo, Japan. At the time of his death, Eckert was a resident of Gladwyn, Pennsylvania. He died on June 3, 1995 in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Further Reading

A History of Computing in the Twentieth Century. edited by N.Metropolis, et. al., Academic Press, 1980.

Shurkin, Joel, Engines of the Mind. Pocket Books, 1984.

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

Stern, Nancy. From ENIAC to UNIVAC: An Appraisal of the Eckert-Mauchly Computers. Digital Press, 1981.

New York Times, June 7, 1995. □

Eckert, J. Presper, Jr. 1919–1995 Mauchly, John W. 1907–1980

views updated Jun 08 2018

Eckert, J. Presper, Jr.
19191995 Mauchly, John W.

Computer Designers

The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) fired up its 18,000 vacuum tubes in a large room at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania just after the end of World War II. Its youthful designers, (John) Presper Eckert and John Mauchly, looked on with a mixture of pride and anticipation.

Eckert was the chief engineer of the ENIAC. He developed the idea of a reduced electrical load to increase the reliability of the fragile tubes in the machine. Mauchly, effectively the chief scientist, left the hardware problems to Eckert and kept the more fluid software and logic development for himself. Mauchly convinced his younger colleague of the general utility of a perfected model of the machine that they had built for the U.S. Army to calculate tables for firing artillery more accurately and quickly.

Frustrated by the limitations of that machine, these "Wright Brothers of computing" left the university in a patent dispute, and formed what quickly became the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation. Mauchly convinced organizations as diverse as the U.S. Bureau of the Census, Northrop Aircraft, A.C. Neilson, Prudential, and the newly independent U.S. Air Force, to buy a UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Computer), as Eckert and Mauchly called their universal calculator.

Eckert was essentially a prototypical boy genius engineer. He joined the ENIAC project right out of college. He earned both his bachelor's degree (1941) and master's degree (1943) from the Moore School, and started as chief engineer for ENIAC on his twenty-fourth birthday. He stayed close to electrical engineering his entire career. He was an expert on vacuum tubes and mercury delay line memories early in his career. After the ENIAC, he was the chief engineer of the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation. When Remington Rand bought the company, Eckert stayed on as director of engineering. Remington Rand merged with Sperry to form Sperry-Rand in 1955. Eckert became a vice president and retained that rank until they ironically retired him and the UNIVAC brand name the same year, 1982.

Mauchly was a physicist. He taught for most of the 1930s at Ursinis College near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was interested in modeling the weather and built some crude digital circuits that would have to be part of a machine to do that. He went to a summer program in 1941, sponsored by the Moore School, to learn more about electronic systems. Mauchly hit it off with the staff and was asked to join the school's faculty. This he did. When the U.S. Army developed bottlenecks getting out its firing tables , he suggested an electronic solution. The army funded his suggestion, and he teamed with Eckert to develop the ENIAC.

During the construction of the ENIAC, mathematician John von Neumann (19031957) was brought in to advise the project by Herman H. Goldstine, the army liaison. He facilitated some discussions by Eckert, Mauchly, and other young engineers and scientists who realized ENIAC's shortcomings before it was finished. Von Neumann, in the "Draft Report on the EDVAC," which described a new stored program machine, summarized their discussions. Even though it was only a draft summarizing his own and other people's work, nearly everyone erroneously gave von Neumann complete credit for the insights that led to stored program computers. Von Neumann did nothing to dissuade such beliefs, an omission that embittered both Eckert and Mauchly. When the EDVAC was finally finished in 1951, it, ironically, was put to use by von Neumann to predict the weather.

Mauchly stayed with Eckert until 1959, when he left Sperry-Rand and formed his own consulting firm. While at Sperry-Rand and its predecessors, Mauchly designed logic circuits. Sperry-Rand lost a suit brought in 1968 by Honeywell claiming that John Vincent Atanasoff (19031995) had developed a computer that influenced Mauchly. This obviated previously granted patents. Both Eckert and Mauchly disagreed with the decision, but did not challenge it. As a result, both of them were put on the sidelines and kept from receiving much of the credit for the significant work they had done.

The pair had built a small stored program computer, the BINAC, to raise some money and keep Northrop as a client in the late 1940s. This was the first operational stored program computer in the United States. Therefore, Eckert and Mauchly considered themselves to have designed or suggested ENIAC, the stored program concept, BINAC, and UNIVAC in a little more than five yearsa truly major feat of pioneering.

Some involved at the Moore School may have believed that Eckert and Mauchly claimed too much credit. But the facts are clearwithout Eckert and Mauchly's contributions, the field of computing would have taken significantly longer to develop.

see also Early Computers; Early Pioneers; von Neumann, John.

James E. Tomayko


Lee, J. A. N. Computer Pioneers. Los Alamitos, CA: IEEE Computer Society Press, 1995.

Stern, Nancy. From ENIAC to UNIVAC. Bedford, MA: Digital Press, 1981.

About this article

J. Presper Eckert

All Sources -
Updated Aug 08 2016 About content Print Topic