John Presper Eckert Jr

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John Presper Eckert Jr.


American Computer Engineer

J. Presper Eckert was a pioneer of modern computer engineering. He served as the lead designer of the ENIAC, the world's first general purpose electronic digital computer. He founded, along with John W. Mauchly (1907-1980), the nation's first commercial computer company.

John Presper Eckert Jr. was born in 1919 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He attended the William Penn Carter School and received his undergraduate degree in 1941 from Moore School of Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. Immediately after graduation he accepted a position as an instructor at the Moore School and helped teach a government-sponsored course in defense engineering. One of his students was John W. Mauchly, a physicist from nearby Ursinus College who later became Eckert's colleague and fellow instructor.

In 1942 John Mauchly submitted a proposal to the Moore School for the construction of a general-purpose electronic digital computer. The proposal was ignored by the Moore School faculty but was picked up by the nearby Navy Ballistics Research Laboratory. One of the first engineers who Mauchly recruited for his project was J. Presper Eckert. For the next several years Mauchly and Eckert worked feverishly on the design of their electronic computer, the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer). While Mauchly provided the original vision and overall project leadership, Eckert handled most of the actual engineering. Eckert proved himself a brilliant designer, overcoming what had been considered to be an insurmountable barrier to the construction of a useful computer: the unreliability of vacuum tube circuits. Although the ENIAC required almost 18,000 of these fragile glass vacuum tubes, Eckert's inspired engineering and conservative design produced a machine that was remarkably reliable. When it was completed in 1946, the ENIAC was capable of performing 5,000 additions and 300 multiplications a second, an increase of 2-3 orders of magnitude (100-1000 percent) over existing mechanical calculators. The ENIAC played an important role in the war effort and was used for critical feasibility studies of early atomic weapons. Eckert and Mauchly were featured speakers at the famous Moore School lecture series that introduced scientists from around the globe to the principles of electronic computing.

By the end of 1946, however, Eckert and Mauchly had resigned their positions at the Moore School in a dispute over patent rights. Administrators at the Moore School attempted to force the pair to relinquish all rights to the ENIAC, but neither of them was willing to give up the opportunity to capitalize on their invention. Together they founded the Electronic Controls Company and began work on the BINAC mathematical computer for the Northrup Aircraft Company. In 1948 they incorporated their company as the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation (EMCC). Although the EMCC was awarded a major contract from the United States Census Bureau, Eckert and Mauchly found it difficult to raise adequate capital and to obtain security clearance for Mauchly (who in the pre-war period had attended a meeting of a group that, unbeknownst to him, had Communist affiliations). In 1950 they sold the company to Remington Rand (later Sperry Rand), a national manufacturer of tabulating machinery. Remington Rand delivered the first UNIVAC (UNIVersal Automatic Computer) in 1951, and for a time the name UNIVAC was synonymous with computer.

Although Mauchly left Sperry Rand in 1959, Eckert continued on with the company to become an executive. In the years between 1948 and 1966 Eckert was granted 85 patents for various electronic devices. He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1967 and was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1969. He died in 1995 at the age of 76 from complications related to leukemia.