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How the world’s first computer was rescued from the scrap heap

November 25th, 2014 |  Published in General Technology




25 November 2014 – Interesting piece from Wired magazine this week:

“Eccentric billionaires are tough to impress, so their minions must always think big when handed vague assignments. Ross Perot’s staffers did just that in 2006, when their boss declared that he wanted to decorate his Plano, Texas, headquarters with relics from computing history. Aware that a few measly Apple I’s and Altair 880’s wouldn’t be enough to satisfy a former presidential candidate, Perot’s people decided to acquire a more singular prize: a big chunk of ENIAC, the “Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer.”

The ENIAC was a 27-ton, 1,800-square-foot bundle of vacuum tubes and diodes that was arguably the world’s first true computer. The hardware that Perot’s team diligently unearthed and lovingly refurbished is now accessible to the general public for the first time, back at the same Army base where it almost rotted into oblivion.

And I say “true” computer in the sense of the world’s first general purpose computer. During World War II the British had developed “Colossus” which was absolutely essential to breaking the Nazi Enigma code and was classified during and after WWII. So ENIAC was therefore regarded worldwide as the world’s first general purpose computer. Everyone who went to school before 1996 was taught that ENIAC was the world’s first GP computer. Information about Colossus was first declassified in 1975, but it wasn’t until 1996 (not coincidentally 50 years after WWII ended) that enough about it was declassified for the general public to realize it was in fact the first GP computer.

Colossus was the first of the electronic digital machines with programability, albeit limited by modern standards. It had no internally stored programs. To set it up for a new task, the operator had to set up plugs and switches to alter the wiring. Colossus was not a general-purpose machine, being designed for a specific cryptanalytic task involving counting and Boolean operations. A Colossus computer was thus not a fully general Turing complete machine.

Gregory P. Bufithis, Esq.
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