John Presper Eckert Although today’s subject is American engineer and inventor John Presper Eckert

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John Presper Eckert

Although today’s subject is American engineer and inventor John Presper 

Eckert (April 9, 1919 – June 3, 1995), the story is more about the invention 

of the “first” computer. Part of the controversy over who first built a 

computer depends upon the definition of “computer” is used. Blaise Pascal 

and Gottfried Leibniz invented mechanical calculating machines during the 



 century. Charles Babbage is generally credited with having conceived the 

first digital computer. His Analytical Engine was a mechanical device designed to combine basic 

arithmetic operations with decisions based on its own computations. Unfortunately, he was unable to 

complete the engine he envisioned. In 1936 Alan Turing proposed the idea of a machine capable of 

processing equations without human involvement. At the beginning of 1943, while working on 

breaking the German’s secret Enigma Code, Turing and other cryptographers constructed an electronic 

machine, the Colossus, to decode the German cipher. One might make a claim for Colossus as the 

earliest working programmable electronic computer, even though it was a special purpose instrument, 

suitable only for a limited number of tasks.

J. Presper Eckert was born in Philadelphia, the only son of a prominent real estate developer. At the 

William Penn Charter School, he was recognized for his exceptional mathematical abilities and his 

electronic ingenuity. In 1937 Eckert entered the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the 

University of Pennsylvania, where he received a B.S. and M.S. in electrical engineering. He was such 

an engineering genius that he was given a post teaching electronics at the school soon after his 

graduation. At this time the Moore School was deeply involved in research to aid the war efforts. John 

William Mauchly was one of Eckert’s students in a training course in electronics. The former held a 

doctorate in physics from John Hopkins University. Mauchly accepted a position as an instructor at the 

Moore School, where he and Eckert became close friends and spent many hours discussing their mutual 

interest in designing and constructing computers. 

The Moore School did research using early forms of computers, including a Bush differential analyzer

designed by Vannevar Bush and his colleagues at MIT. The machine was a general-purpose analog 

computer, driven by electric motors, which was used to solve problems involving differential equations. 

Copies of the analyzer were widely employed in the war effort, especially in creating firing and 

bombing tables. The analyzer consisted of replaceable shafts, gears, wheels, handles, electric motors, 

and disks; and it required much manual work to set it up. Eckert and Mauchly had ideas on how to 

construct a better computer. When their proposal for the design of a computer resulted in a $400,000 

contract from the Army, they collaborated on the construction of the Electronic Integrator and 

Computer (ENIAC), a general-purpose computer. 

Completed in February 1946, the ENIAC contained some 18,000 vacuum tubes and measured about 8 

feet in height and 80 feet in length. It was more than 1000 times faster than its electromechanical 

predecessors and could perform up to 5,000 additions per second. Although the war was over by the 

time the ENIAC was operational, John von Neumann used it while working on top-secret problems 

associated with the development of nuclear weapons. When the University of Pennsylvania asked 

Eckert and Mauchly to sign over the ENIAC patent, they refused and in October 1946 left to form their 

own computer company. They received an order from Northrop Aircraft Company to build the Binary 

Automatic Computer (BINAC). The National Bureau of Standards contracted with them to build the 

Universal Automatic Computer (UNIVAC), the first computer produced for commercial use in the 

United States. 

In 1950 Remington Rand Corporation acquired the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation and the 

rights to the ENIAC patent. Eckert remained with the firm and became an executive of the corporation 

when it merged with the Burroughs Corporation to become Unisys. Mauchly left the company to form 

Mauchly Associates of which he was president from 1959 to 1965, when he became chairman of the 

board. In 1966 Eckert and Mauchly shared the Harry M. Goode Memorial Award given by the 

Computer Society for their “pioneering contributions to automatic computing by participating in the 

design and construction of the ENIAC, the world’s first all-electronic computer, and of the BINAC and 

the UNIVAC …” Mauchly felt it was a shame that he was best known for the invention of a computer 

when he had also invented the skateboard, which he considered an equally revolutionary tool. Mauchly 

died in Ambler, Pennsylvania at age 72. Eckert died of complications relating to leukemia in Bryn 

Mawr, Pennsylvania at age 76.

Eckert and Mauchly’s story is incomplete without mentioning the Atanasoff controversy over priority 

and purported “piracy.” In the mid 1930s Iowa State mathematician and physicist John Vincent 

Atanasoff concluded that the computational devices existing at the time were too slow and inaccurate 

for his purposes. With the assistance of his graduate student Clifford Berry, Atanasoff designed and 

constructed the Atanasoff Berry Computer (ABC) in 1939. Compared to today’s computers it was slow 

and had a miniscule memory. It was the first data processing machine to employ ideas such as the 

binary system, separate memory and computing functions, internal clock control, and the use of circuits 

for logical addition and subtraction. Because of wartime demands, Atanasoff was never able to get a 

patent for his invention. It was stored in the basement of the physics building and cannibalized for parts 

for other projects without Atanasoff’s knowledge. 

In 1940 Atanasoff met Mauchly, described his computer, and unwisely agreed to show it to his new 

acquaintance. Mauchly spent several days at Atanasoff’s home where the inventor extensively briefed 

his guest about the computer and demonstrated it for his visitor. He even allowed Mauchly to leave 

with papers describing its design. Many of Atanasoff’s ideas were used in the design of ENIAC, leading 

to charges of piracy to be leveled against Mauchly. A long trial ensued and finally on October 19, 1973 

Atanasoff was given the recognition and credit he deserved. In his ruling Federal Judge Earl R. Larson 

specified that “Eckert and Mauchly did not themselves first invent the automatic electronic computer, 

but instead derived that subject matter from Dr. John Vincent Atanasoff.” The judge declared the 

ENIAC patent of Eckert and Mauchly to be invalid. The duo disputed the finding throughout their lives. 

In 1990 President George H. Bush acknowledged Atanasoff’s pioneering work in computers by 

awarding him the National Medal of Technology.

Quotation of the Day:

 I have always taken the position that there is enough credit for everyone in 

the invention and development of the electronic computer.” – John V. Atanasoff

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