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Thomas Haigh & Mark Priestley Digital Dialogue at MITH | February 18, 2016

Working on ENIAC: The Lost Labors of the Information Age


  1. On February 18th, MITH co-sponsored a highly successful and heavily-attended talk with the Human-Computer Interaction Lab (HCIL) with scholars Thomas Haigh and Mark Priestley. The talk was based on research conducted for their newly-published book ENIAC In Action: Making and Remaking the Modern Computer, which uncovers histories about computer operations labor that have been obscured under the weight of major inventors and breakthroughs, but which are still crucial to our full understanding of computing history.
  2. Haigh started off by introducing the book, which he noted was very full of archival documents and images to supplement the text, and referred to it as an 'in-depth technologically-involved reconstruction of programming practice.' He also noted that by focusing so specifically on the ENIAC as a singular technological artifact, they were able to get broader in scope on questions on time scale and the type of questions they were asking. He then launched into what he called 'the conventional history of computing' - a history of 'Firsts.'
  3. While the depiction of Turing in The Imitation Game didn't quite get certain things right, books like The Innovators (especially its subtitle) stretch the truth in terms of how they depict early programmers as 'teams of superheroes.'
  4. Haigh then went into his first section - 'ENIAC Life Story' - an overview of the ENIAC machine, starting in 1945. He posited that ENIAC was was a herald for other major innovations that succeeded it.
  5. The next section of Haigh's talk - 'Building ENIAC' - described the circumstances of the machine's design and build at Moore School of Electrical Engineering at UPenn. The initiators of ENIAC were John W. Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert. The sponsor was the Ordance Department, for which the uses of ENIAC had to do with military concerns.
  6. Other people with major roles on the ENIAC team: T. Kite Sharpless, Arthur Burks, Robert Shaw, Joseph Chedaker, Chuan Chu, and Frank Mural (Engineering Team); Harold Pender, John Grist Rainerd, Isabelle Jay and Marjorie Santa Maria (Moore School of Electrical Engineering of the University of Pennsylvania); Hans Rademacher (UPenn), and Herman Goldstine, Paul Gillon, Leland Cunningham, Derek Lehmer and Haskell (Ballistic Research Laboratory).
  7. From here, Haigh moved on to describe the machine's architecture, technical and storage specifications, procurement challenges, and its physical constrcution. He elaborated more about the roles of women and craftsmen in ENIAC's development, including a production team of 34 workers and 50 confirmed 'ENIAC Women' in 1944 alone.