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“Shooting at People Wasn’t Our Bag”: One of the Inventors of the Computer Speaks

by John Presper Eckert/David Allison and Peter Vogt

Who invented the computer? Like many important technological developments, the invention of the computer cannot rightly be attributed to a single person. It is clear, however, that World War II was crucial to the emergence of the electronic digital computer. The first general-purpose electronic computer was the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, the ENIAC, sponsored by the U.S. Army’s Ballistics Research Laboratory at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland and developed at the the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. The leaders of the project were physicist John W. Mauchly and a young electrical engineer, John Presper Eckert. In this interview, done in 1988 by David Allison and Peter Vogt for the Smithsonian Institution, Eckert described how the war provided “the opportunity”and the money to solve “engineering problems, scientific problems in general”that interested them.

Listen to Audio:

David Allison: So you were interested not in solving a ballistics problem so much—

J. Presper Eckert: No, engineering problems, scientific problems in general, of which the ballistics problem was the convenient problem for which what in show business would have been called, there was an available angel to finance it.

Allison: You knew that even as you were designing it.

Eckert: Oh, sure. Shooting at people wasn’t our bag... Well, our motivation was to build a machine which could take all these great mathematical ideas, which mathematicians and engineers and scientists had dreamed up for generations before we came along, and be able to exploit them and use these great ideas in a reasonable length of time. And, sure, most of these ideas could be done if you had years and years to do the calculations in. But engineers don’t have years and years to do the calculations in, and neither do scientists, in many cases, have years and years to do the calculations in, astronomers perhaps being the one exception up to that point in time.

Allison: So the war gave you an opportunity.

Eckert: Gave us an opportunity for someone who was interested in doing a problem which fit something we would like to do.

Allison: And it gave you money and supplies.

Eckert: Money and interest from people to do it. I personally, I was kind of glad that we didn’t have to be out there shooting at somebody, �cause I don’t think that’s a very profitable thing for society. And I was glad, I was really delighted to be working on something which I thought would have uses other than military uses when the war was over, and which I thought uses would be more important than the war once it was over. The war is important, of course. You can’t be killed in the meanwhile. You have to survive. But once having survived, I thought that this device would survive and then be more important than its original purpose by far, which did turn out to be true.

Source: Development of the ENIAC interviews, Smithsonian Video History Collection, Record Unit 9537, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Washington, DC. Oral history courtesy of Smithsonian Video History Collection, Record Unit 9537, Smithsonian Institution Archives.