Life After the Dinosaurs: ENIAC Couldn't Telephone, Skype, or Text, Search for Pokemon, Make Travel Reservations or Warn of Tornadoes
Programmers Betty Jean Jennings (left) and Fran Bilas (right) operate ENIAC's main control panel at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering. (US Army photo from the archives of the ARL Technical Library, 1945-1947)
No, I haven't really been around since Tyrannosaurus Rex roamed the earth, but sometimes it feels that way — especially when I consider all the changes during my lifetime
A prime example is computers. The first one, the ENIAC, was born eons ago, the year I graduated from high school. I actually managed to get through thirteen years of school (including kindergarten) and four years of college without the help of Google. If I needed to do research, I went to a building called a library, which housed thousands of books, including encyclopedias — tomes which encompassed all the knowledge of the universe — or, at least, all the knowledge up to the publication date of the encyclopedia. The next day it was obsolete.
Kids with wealthy parents owned their own set of encyclopedias, usually purchased from door-to-door salesmen (no Amazon back then). Me, I had to go to the reference room of the local library, armed with pen and notebook, and look up and laboriously copy whatever data was relevant to my project of the moment. Though we could borrow most books from the library once we got a treasured library card, we could not take any books in the reference room out of the building.
When ENIAC, that first computer, made its debut, it was housed in an 1800-square-foot (almost twice the size of my condo) climate-controlled laboratory, used 18,000 vacuum tubes, and weighed almost fifty tons. Compare that to today's smart phone, which weighs a few ounces, fits into a shirt pocket and does everything ENIAC did and so much more. You couldn't take a picture with a fifty-ton computer, for one thing. Nor could it give you driving directions from Boston to San Francisco or anywhere in between, apprise you of traffic conditions along that route, remember where in that crowded garage you parked your car, play music of your choice, access TV shows, put thousands of books at your disposal, remind you of your dentist appointment … (well maybe that last one's not really a plus). The list goes on, but most important, because your smart phone is tiny, it can go everywhere you go, including the bathroom, the classroom, the supermarket, the football game, or the beach.
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