ENIAC at 75: Celebrating the World’s First Supercomputer

By Todd R. Weiss

February 15, 2021

With little fanfare, today’s computer revolution was arguably born and announced through a small, innocuous, two-column story at the bottom of the front page of The New York Times on Feb. 15, 1946.

In that story and others, the previously classified project, ENIAC, formally known as the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer and as the world’s first vacuum tube, all-electronic, programmable supercomputer, was unveiled to the world.

“Electronic Computer Flashes Answers, May Speed Engineering,” declared the headline of the article by reporter T.R. Kennedy, Jr.

That headline turns out to be quite the understatement.

Pictured are three members of the ENIAC team who are programming the system at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where ENIAC was built. Nearly 50 women worked on ENIAC in 1944 alone, and women participated in the all-important programming for the machine throughout its life. Photo provided by the Mauchly family.

Seventy-five years later, ENIAC is being celebrated today on its anniversary as the machine that essentially began the computing power revolution that fuels our computers, smartphones, cars, the internet and a wide range of technologies that run the world’s businesses and industries every day.

Designed by physicist John Mauchly and electrical engineer J. Presper Eckert in Philadelphia, the idea behind ENIAC was proposed in 1942 by Mauchly as an all-electronic calculating machine. In the midst of World War II at that time, the U.S. Army was seeking ways to calculate complex trajectories for missiles and other armaments. Mauchly’s idea and the Army’s needs soon came together and led to ENIAC’s construction. ENIAC was not completed, though, until after the war. Weighing 30 tons and filling a 30-by-50-foot room, it was assembled and operated at the University of Pennsylvania.

‘A Critical Milestone’

Larry Smarr

Larry Smarr, the founding director of National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) and a professor emeritus at the University of California-San Diego, told HPCwire sister pub EnterpriseAI that ENIAC “was a critical milestone on the road to supercomputing. You can safely say it was the first all-vacuum tube supercomputer.”

A previous notable and powerful computer at that time was the Harvard Mark 1, but that machine used electromagnetic relays for its computing, said Smarr. ENIAC’s design called for using almost 18,000 vacuum tubes instead, which resulted in dramatically improved performance, he added. “It certainly was a supercomputer because it was the fastest on the planet at that time, and it ran about 400 FLOPS, or 400 floating point operations per second. To put that into perspective, your smartphone runs about a billion FLOPS. And it doesn’t weigh tons, and doesn’t take up a whole room.”

What really highlighted the machine was its amazing speed, said Smarr. “ENIAC was 1,000 times faster than the Harvard Mark 1,” he said. “That kind of exponential change, it was happening 75 years ago,” said Smarr. “I think that’s important.”

ENIAC was a decimal computer, performing its calculations in decimals before the later move to binary computations, said Smarr. The machine was programmed using a large number of dials and cords on the front. The dials were turned to different settings and the cords were plugged and unplugged from one receptacle to another on the machines, like an old-fashioned telephone operator’s panel.

“Software was still in the future,” said Smarr. “But they programmed it to do incredibly complex problems for the military. It wasn’t a business machine.”

Setting ENIAC apart from all the computers that came before it, including the Mark 1, was that it led the way to today’s supercomputers in multiple ways, said Smarr.

“Most of the supercomputers in the last 75 years have been built to solve very complex physics based problems,” he said. “The idea that you could map equations of physics on to a digital computer built out of whatever the best technology of the day was, ENIAC was more or less the first. You could argue the Mark 1 was as well and there may be a few others that historians could mention, but ENIAC set off the notion that from then on the country would build faster and faster computers until today’s computers are well over a trillion times faster than ENIAC.”

After ENIAC came other huge computer breakthroughs, including transistorized circuits, integrated circuits in silicon, software and more, driving faster and faster performance and possibilities.

ENIAC Inspired Computing Innovations to Come

Professor Thomas Sterling, Indiana University

ENIAC’s useful life was short – it was only used until 1955 – but its impact was large, said Thomas Sterling, a professor of intelligent systems engineering and the director of the AI Computing Systems Laboratory at Indiana University.

“It was a full system that demonstrated the feasibility of vacuum tube technology for digital computing,” said Sterling. “ENIAC was the first proof-of-concept demonstration of digital electronic calculations for real applications. It was a little bit late to have as big an impact as one would have liked in the war, nonetheless, it was used, not just for its original purpose, which was army projectile trajectories, but also by Los Alamos and others in some of the earliest modeling forums for the atomic bomb evolution.”

Pictured is the high-speed multiplier built into ENIAC which performed mathematical operations in parallel with other arithmetic units. Photo provided by the Mauchly family.

ENIAC also inspired, trained and influenced many people to enter the then nascent field of computing, he said. Eckert and Mauchly would go on to create their own computer company which would later become part of Sperry UNIVAC and then part of Unisys.

“The proof-of-concept that ENIAC was allowed Eckert and Mauchly and John von Neumann to intellectually and mentally make the next step [to today’s computing], based on all the technologies that ENIAC provided, improved, demonstrated and used,” said Sterling.

Jim Thompson of Unisys

Jim Thompson, chief engineer at Unisys and vice president of engineering strategy for the company’s ClearPath Forward systems, told EnterpriseAI that although ENIAC started its life as a big, fast trajectory calculator for the Army, improvements were added which later added to its value and power as a computer.

All those rotary switches and patch cords used to program ENIAC eventually inspired concepts and new thinking that later led to creating stored computer programs which would eventually influence and transform computing for science, research, business and more, said Thompson.

“So, they got into that business and [led to] all of that,” he said. “That was really a sea change. ENIAC was there at the beginning … in about the time same timeframe that took us from calculators to computers. That’s a big shift in terms of where we were at.”

Each year Unisys co-sponsors and participates in an ENIAC Day event, which highlights the importance and breadth of the machine’s story.

So influential has ENIAC been since it was created that it changed electrical engineering and birthed new disciplines in the creative arts and sciences and computer science itself, said Thompson. “Everyone’s touched by it,” he said. “Anybody who reads an email.”

Pictured is Kite Sharpless, one of the ENIAC team’s engineers. Photo provided by the Mauchly family.

 

Subscribe to HPCwire's Weekly Update!

Be the most informed person in the room! Stay ahead of the tech trends with industy updates delivered to you every week!

Rockport Networks Launches 300 Gbps Switchless Fabric, Reveals 396-Node Deployment at TACC

October 27, 2021

Rockport Networks emerged from stealth this week with the launch of its 300 Gbps switchless networking architecture focused on the needs of the high-performance computing and the advanced-scale AI market. Early customers Read more…

AWS Adds Gaudi-Powered, ML-Optimized EC2 DL1 Instances, Now in GA

October 27, 2021

As machine learning becomes a dominating use case for local and cloud computing, companies are racing to provide solutions specifically optimized and accelerated for AI applications. Now, Amazon Web Services (AWS) is int Read more…

Fireside Chat with LBNL’s Advanced Quantum Testbed Director

October 26, 2021

Last week, Irfan Siddiqi led a “fireside chat” with a few media and analysts to introduce the Department of Energy’s relatively new Advanced Quantum Testbed (AQT), which is based at Lawrence Berkeley National Labor Read more…

Graphcore Introduces Larger-Than-Ever IPU-Based Pods

October 22, 2021

After launching its second-generation intelligence processing units (IPUs) in 2020, four years after emerging from stealth, Graphcore is now boosting its product line with its largest commercially-available IPU-based sys Read more…

Quantum Chemistry Project to Be Among the First on EuroHPC’s LUMI System

October 22, 2021

Finland’s CSC has just installed the first module of LUMI, a 550-peak petaflops system supported by the European Union’s EuroHPC Joint Undertaking. While LUMI -- pictured in the header -- isn’t slated to complete i Read more…

AWS Solution Channel

Royalty-free stock illustration ID: 577238446

Putting bitrates into perspective

Recently, we talked about the advances NICE DCV has made to push pixels from cloud-hosted desktops or applications over the internet even more efficiently than before. Read more…

Killer Instinct: AMD’s Multi-Chip MI200 GPU Readies for a Major Global Debut

October 21, 2021

AMD’s next-generation supercomputer GPU is on its way – and by all appearances, it’s about to make a name for itself. The AMD Radeon Instinct MI200 GPU (a successor to the MI100) will, over the next year, begin to power three massive systems on three continents: the United States’ exascale Frontier system; the European Union’s pre-exascale LUMI system; and Australia’s petascale Setonix system. Read more…

Rockport Networks Launches 300 Gbps Switchless Fabric, Reveals 396-Node Deployment at TACC

October 27, 2021

Rockport Networks emerged from stealth this week with the launch of its 300 Gbps switchless networking architecture focused on the needs of the high-performance Read more…

AWS Adds Gaudi-Powered, ML-Optimized EC2 DL1 Instances, Now in GA

October 27, 2021

As machine learning becomes a dominating use case for local and cloud computing, companies are racing to provide solutions specifically optimized and accelerate Read more…

Fireside Chat with LBNL’s Advanced Quantum Testbed Director

October 26, 2021

Last week, Irfan Siddiqi led a “fireside chat” with a few media and analysts to introduce the Department of Energy’s relatively new Advanced Quantum Testb Read more…

Killer Instinct: AMD’s Multi-Chip MI200 GPU Readies for a Major Global Debut

October 21, 2021

AMD’s next-generation supercomputer GPU is on its way – and by all appearances, it’s about to make a name for itself. The AMD Radeon Instinct MI200 GPU (a successor to the MI100) will, over the next year, begin to power three massive systems on three continents: the United States’ exascale Frontier system; the European Union’s pre-exascale LUMI system; and Australia’s petascale Setonix system. Read more…

D-Wave Embraces Gate-Based Quantum Computing; Charts Path Forward

October 21, 2021

Earlier this month D-Wave Systems, the quantum computing pioneer that has long championed quantum annealing-based quantum computing (and sometimes taken heat fo Read more…

LLNL Prepares the Water and Power Infrastructure for El Capitan

October 21, 2021

When it’s (ostensibly) ready in early 2023, El Capitan is expected to deliver in excess of two exaflops of peak computing power – around four times the powe Read more…

Intel Reorgs HPC Group, Creates Two ‘Super Compute’ Groups

October 15, 2021

Following on changes made in June that moved Intel’s HPC unit out of the Data Platform Group and into the newly created Accelerated Computing Systems and Graphics (AXG) business unit, led by Raja Koduri, Intel is making further updates to the HPC group and announcing... Read more…

Quantum Workforce – NSTC Report Highlights Need for International Talent

October 13, 2021

Attracting and training the needed quantum workforce to fuel the ongoing quantum information sciences (QIS) revolution is a hot topic these days. Last week, the U.S. National Science and Technology Council issued a report – The Role of International Talent in Quantum Information Science... Read more…

Enter Dojo: Tesla Reveals Design for Modular Supercomputer & D1 Chip

August 20, 2021

Two months ago, Tesla revealed a massive GPU cluster that it said was “roughly the number five supercomputer in the world,” and which was just a precursor to Tesla’s real supercomputing moonshot: the long-rumored, little-detailed Dojo system. Read more…

Esperanto, Silicon in Hand, Champions the Efficiency of Its 1,092-Core RISC-V Chip

August 27, 2021

Esperanto Technologies made waves last December when it announced ET-SoC-1, a new RISC-V-based chip aimed at machine learning that packed nearly 1,100 cores onto a package small enough to fit six times over on a single PCIe card. Now, Esperanto is back, silicon in-hand and taking aim... Read more…

US Closes in on Exascale: Frontier Installation Is Underway

September 29, 2021

At the Advanced Scientific Computing Advisory Committee (ASCAC) meeting, held by Zoom this week (Sept. 29-30), it was revealed that the Frontier supercomputer is currently being installed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The staff at the Oak Ridge Leadership... Read more…

Intel Reorgs HPC Group, Creates Two ‘Super Compute’ Groups

October 15, 2021

Following on changes made in June that moved Intel’s HPC unit out of the Data Platform Group and into the newly created Accelerated Computing Systems and Graphics (AXG) business unit, led by Raja Koduri, Intel is making further updates to the HPC group and announcing... Read more…

Ahead of ‘Dojo,’ Tesla Reveals Its Massive Precursor Supercomputer

June 22, 2021

In spring 2019, Tesla made cryptic reference to a project called Dojo, a “super-powerful training computer” for video data processing. Then, in summer 2020, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted: “Tesla is developing a [neural network] training computer... Read more…

Intel Completes LLVM Adoption; Will End Updates to Classic C/C++ Compilers in Future

August 10, 2021

Intel reported in a blog this week that its adoption of the open source LLVM architecture for Intel’s C/C++ compiler is complete. The transition is part of In Read more…

Hot Chips: Here Come the DPUs and IPUs from Arm, Nvidia and Intel

August 25, 2021

The emergence of data processing units (DPU) and infrastructure processing units (IPU) as potentially important pieces in cloud and datacenter architectures was Read more…

AMD-Xilinx Deal Gains UK, EU Approvals — China’s Decision Still Pending

July 1, 2021

AMD’s planned acquisition of FPGA maker Xilinx is now in the hands of Chinese regulators after needed antitrust approvals for the $35 billion deal were receiv Read more…

Leading Solution Providers

Contributors

Intel Unveils New Node Names; Sapphire Rapids Is Now an ‘Intel 7’ CPU

July 27, 2021

What's a preeminent chip company to do when its process node technology lags the competition by (roughly) one generation, but outmoded naming conventions make i Read more…

HPE Wins $2B GreenLake HPC-as-a-Service Deal with NSA

September 1, 2021

In the heated, oft-contentious, government IT space, HPE has won a massive $2 billion contract to provide HPC and AI services to the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA). Following on the heels of the now-canceled $10 billion JEDI contract (reissued as JWCC) and a $10 billion... Read more…

Quantum Roundup: IBM, Rigetti, Phasecraft, Oxford QC, China, and More

July 13, 2021

IBM yesterday announced a proof for a quantum ML algorithm. A week ago, it unveiled a new topology for its quantum processors. Last Friday, the Technical Univer Read more…

The Latest MLPerf Inference Results: Nvidia GPUs Hold Sway but Here Come CPUs and Intel

September 22, 2021

The latest round of MLPerf inference benchmark (v 1.1) results was released today and Nvidia again dominated, sweeping the top spots in the closed (apples-to-ap Read more…

10nm, 7nm, 5nm…. Should the Chip Nanometer Metric Be Replaced?

June 1, 2020

The biggest cool factor in server chips is the nanometer. AMD beating Intel to a CPU built on a 7nm process node* – with 5nm and 3nm on the way – has been i Read more…

Julia Update: Adoption Keeps Climbing; Is It a Python Challenger?

January 13, 2021

The rapid adoption of Julia, the open source, high level programing language with roots at MIT, shows no sign of slowing according to data from Julialang.org. I Read more…

Frontier to Meet 20MW Exascale Power Target Set by DARPA in 2008

July 14, 2021

After more than a decade of planning, the United States’ first exascale computer, Frontier, is set to arrive at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) later this year. Crossing this “1,000x” horizon required overcoming four major challenges: power demand, reliability, extreme parallelism and data movement. Read more…

D-Wave Embraces Gate-Based Quantum Computing; Charts Path Forward

October 21, 2021

Earlier this month D-Wave Systems, the quantum computing pioneer that has long championed quantum annealing-based quantum computing (and sometimes taken heat fo Read more…

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
HPCwire