Revisiting Ursinus’ lost connection to computer history

Inventors of the ENIAC computer John Mauchly (left) and J. Presper Eckert (right) with the UNIVAC, another computer they designed. Mauchly taught physics at Ursinus in the 1930s. Photo courtesy of the Ursinus College Archives.

Sarah Hojsak

sahojsak@ursinus.edu

As a college with a rich history spanning nearly 150 years, it may come as no surprise that Ursinus has a few urban legends floating around.

We’ve all heard stories of J.D. Salinger’s semester here, but a tale many are unfamiliar with is that of the ENIAC computer – or, as it was first told to me, “Did you know the first computer was invented in Pfahler?”

This, technically speaking, isn’t completely true, but Ursinus’ tie to the invention of one of the first high-speed computing machines is more than just an urban legend. With help from college archivist Carolyn Weigel, I did some digging to find out exactly what it is people are talking about when they mention this mysterious “Pfahler computer.”

The story of the ENIAC, it turns out, is less about the machine than it is about the man behind it. In the 1930s, Pfahler Hall was home to beloved physics professor John Mauchly. When Mauchly arrived at Ursinus in 1933, Ursinus didn’t have a physics department yet, and although students couldn’t major in the subject, Mauchly paid special attention to those who showed a strong interest. According to an article in the 1985 Ursinus Bulletin, “John Mauchly was the physics department.”

Mauchly, who the Ursinus website describes as “an eccentric, brilliant professor of Physics,” began working on his idea for a computer during his time at Ursinus. ENIAC, which stands for “electronic numerical integrator and computer,” was not his first invention, though. Mauchly, according to the Ursinus Bulletin, had previously helped invent four computers, and even had three personal computers at his home.

Mauchly’s original intention was to build a computer that would help with his meteorology research, which would provide him a means of statistical analysis to prove his hypothesis that solar activity directly affected changes in weather. He began this work in Pfahler, and according to the 1946 Alumni Journal, “his frequent burning of midnight oil in the physics laboratory of the Science Building was observed by many students.”

Mauchly left Ursinus for the University of Pennsylvania in 1941, and the onset of World War II took his innovations in a different direction. The prospect of the U.S. entering the war led the government to mobilize science and engineering reasons, anticipating the need for a machine that could decode encrypted messages. The possibility of Mauchly’s computer was now in high demand, and he joined forces with engineer J. Presper Eckert at Penn’s Moore School of Engineering to further develop his ideas. The result was the ENIAC: the world’s first electronic, digital computer.

The ENIAC took the two engineers 30 months to assemble, used over 18,000 vacuum tubes and cost a reported $400,000. The machine weighed 30 tons and took up an entire room, wrapping in a U-shape around three walls. Most importantly, though, it was a thousand times faster than any other computer in existence at the time.

Mauchly’s innovation was ahead of his time. The Ursinus Bulletin stated that “the work which he started at Ursinus was misunderstood by almost everyone on campus.” Even at Penn, Mauchly and Eckert’s work was viewed with skepticism.

In 1946, after months of testing, the ENIAC was presented at a press conference. This was Mauchly and Eckert’s “moment of acclaim,” according to the Ursinus Bulletin. Proving wrong everyone’s doubts, the computer worked, and began solving addition problems at the rate of 5000 per second.

The original machine became property of the U.S. Army and was installed at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

Despite the ENIAC’s success, Mauchly and Eckert were fired by Penn one month after the computer was unveiled, after they refused to sign over all patent rights to the University. Later, the two inventors went into business together, but faced financial problems, patent battles, and others trying to claim credit for their work.

In light of these struggles, the work of John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert was fundamental to the advancement of computer technology.

Computerhistory.org states that in a decade of operation, “ENIAC may have run more calculations than all mankind had done up to that point.”

Mauchly never forgot his Ursinus roots. He resided in nearby Ambler with his wife Kathleen until his death in 1980. In 1977, Ursinus’ then-president Richard Richter presented Mauchly with an honorary doctorate of science at that year’s commencement ceremony.

In a letter to Richter following the ceremony, Mauchly reflected on his time at Ursinus and how the college influenced his work.

“I think it is proper to comment that the history of the first electronic computer does not really start at the Moore School of the University of Pennsylvania; that it was a continuation of what I was beginning to work on and think about at Ursinus College,” he said. “The history of computers should be enriched by more attention to the start at Ursinus.”

Today, parts of the original ENIAC can be found residing in Pfahler Hall, a piece of national technological history returned home.

More information on John Mauchly, and countless other undiscovered bits of Ursinus history, can be found in the College Archives on the second floor of the Myrin Library, accessible by appointment.