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ENIAC in Action: Making and Remaking the Modern Computer

Thomas Haigh, Mark Priestley, and Crispin Rope
MIT Press
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The Basic Library List Committee suggests that undergraduate mathematics libraries consider this book for acquisition.

[Reviewed by
Charles Ashbacher
, on

We all owe a debt to the people that preceded us in our profession. In the area of computing and the use of computers in mathematics we are standing on the shoulders of multi-dimensional giants. Many of those dimensions are filled by the people that created and programed ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), almost certainly the first programmable electronic computer. They not only built something new but they put down many of the principles that are used in programming today such as subroutines and stored programs.

One of the most amusing points that truly describes the origin of the phrase “hard-wired” is that some of the data tables and programs were literally stored in swappable panels that were put in when that data or code was needed. The people were literally inventing almost everything as they went along, driving the improvements in component quality that were necessary to make the machine reliable.

This is a fascinating historical recollection of the struggles, setbacks and triumphs inherent in the ENIAC project. The authors also give credit where credit is due, specifically to the women who were so critical to the success of the project. The first six professional programmers were all women. It is in no way an exaggeration to say that if you see a picture of the ENIAC that includes a man and a woman, the man is a prop and the woman is running the thing.

Born in the time of World War II and wisely continued after the war ended, the ENIAC project was a seed project where the government truly did something right. It was a struggle to create and debug both the hardware and software, but modern societies could not operate without the consequences of what was accomplished. 

Charles Ashbacher splits his time between consulting with industry in projects involving math and computers, and teaching college classes. In his spare time, he reads about these things and helps his daughter in her lawn care business.

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