ENIAC Was First, Right?

Well, no. Many of us who went to school and have degrees in various computer related fields instantly think of ENIAC as the first “computer”, but we’re all wrong. We know some of you are already familiar with the Atanasoff-Berry computer, and we are too… now. However, when we learned about it, it was long after our school lessons were over, and it felt like learning Santa wasn’t real, or the pilgrims didn’t really have a fancy dinner with the native Americans. [Jane Smiley] is releasing a book telling the whole story, and it should be fairly interesting. She gave an interview with Wired about the book. In the interview she talks about how fascinating the story is and even addresses [Alan Turing]’s role.

46 thoughts on “ENIAC Was First, Right?

  1. Yes, the Babbage Analytical Engine was the “first”, and no, they never buit a working model while he was alive. I do believe that a musiume or numversity in England had built one in 2006 or so though.

  2. @nah!: Almost, the z1 was a mechanical device so it doesn’t qualify as a computer. The Zuse z3 (1941) was the first “real” computer but didn’t get credit because it was not a universal Turing machine…although I just read that in 1998 someone found out that it is with a few workarounds.

    That story stroke me first in 1999 when I was in the US (I am from Germany) and was told that the Eniac was the first computer. In Europe we learn it is the Z3….I guess both is right in a way and it depends on how you define “computer”

  3. There’s also the Colossus machines from WWII in Bletchley Park that were “programmable” in some senses, the details of which were only declassified in 2007. I read a book on it. Many of the people who worked on them couldn’t talk about it up to the day they died because of how long Britain kept it a secret.

  4. you have to define your terms. the atanasoff-berry computer was not programmable, the z3 was not fully electronic, etc. it’s meaningless to say x was the first “computer” because that could mean anything.

  5. This was decided in court in favor of Atanasoff, even with the legal might of the Sperry-Rand Corp against him. Mauchley took many of ideas used in the ABC after visiting the lab in Iowa. Look out for an earlier book “Atanasoff: forgotten father of the computer” that covers this same story. I did a review of it over a decade ago for HiR ezine.

  6. I would not call the abacus a computer; merely a memory aid for computations. I would not classify it as a computational machine as I would the Babbage engine and modern silicon processors. I can’t comment re: antikythera mechanism since I don’t know anything about it.

    However, what about all the other books on this topic?

    Also, @razor: what book is that? It’s not the one mentioned in this article.

    “The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer”

  7. Go Clones!

    I thought that “the lawsuit” was between Honeywell and Sperry-Rand, with Sperry-Rand demanding royalty payments from Honeywell, and Honeywell basically responding that the Sperry-Rand patents were fraudulent since the ABC computer was prior art. I don’t know if Atanasoff actually benefited from the suit, other than the bragging rights of being first.

  8. I heard the first electronic computer was made by a german (Konrad Zuse), but it’s hard to tell because each country claims one of theirs invented it, and I’m sure in russia they will tell you a russian pioneered it and in britain they maintain it was a brit and czechoslovakia they will tell you it’s a chech..

  9. so, i’m guessing that only computers built by ‘humans’ count.. because there were advanced computers involved in genetic programming/design which were used in the population of this muddyrock we call Earth.

  10. The Z3 was turing complete.

    Zuse talked a lot to von Braun,
    who after the war talked a lot to Berry.

    Guess that’s just coincidence and we’ll never know the truth, now the main players are dead.

    How is it that everybody can publish “history” books without a basic fact check?

  11. Amongst programmers it is generally acknowledged that the Manchester University Small Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM) or ‘baby’ was the first fully programmable digital electronic stored-program computer to be operational. As such it was the first computer in the modern

    The key development was that the program was stored entirely within electonic memory and could be changed under program control.


    has more details. Quoting the site:

    “The first program to run successfully, on June 21st 1948, was to determine the highest factor of a number. The number chosen was quite small, but within days they had built up to trying the program on 2^18, and the correct answer was found in 52 minutes, involving about 2.1 million instructions with about 3½ million store accesses.”

    Afficionados of retro computing might also like to check out:


    though, note that the machine depicted is a modern replica not the original.

    While Turing was not directly involved in the construction of the SSEM parts of one of the original Collossus machines are understood to have unofficially found their way into the baby.

    ENIAC, Collosus, the Zuse Z3 and the ABC were not fully programmable computers.

  12. I would have to say that the first computer as we all think of computers was the Manchester Baby and the EDSAC
    The Z3 lacked a conditional branch.
    The ABC was not programmable it was single purpose.
    And so on. Each lacked something part of what it takes to be a real computer.
    The Manchester Baby was the first to put it all together.
    Then was that EVERY one of those machines where all part of the making the first computer. In other words the computer has many fathers.

  13. @all
    The Colossus built by Turing was indeed programmable. It had to be to be, to match the continuing changes in the code that the Nazis were using at the time. And it did change, slowly. By the end of the war, and with the help of the code books recovered from the one U-boat that was recovered relatively intact, they did confirm that the code was in fact the same-thing that was broken and badly. But the Poles did succeed in one area, they provided an actual machine that the Allies copied to provide, ah, food for the Bletchley Park gang. Well maybe not copied, but they did work out how it worked.

  14. The human brain is the first computer. God created it, I heard.

    It does some fucked up and scary things sometimes, but it is quite advanced.

    Name another machine that can hold a consciousness or ‘soul’?


  15. ENIAC (Electronic Numeric Integrator And Calculator) is electronic machine was desinged by Dr. John W. Mauchly nad Dr. J. Presper Eckert. It was built form 18000 vacuum tubes, and 700000 resistor. Its power consuming capacity was 5000000 kilowalt. It was set up on 1800 square feet of flor space. ENIAC operated on punch card, which were the input/output device had one multiplier, one divider/square rooter and twenty adder. It was a very fast machine compared to the eariler elecromechanical machine. It could add two numbers in 200 microsecond and multication of two numbers in 2800 microsecond.

  16. NickColossus was the first computer to integrate the three vital abilities for the first time – digital, programmable, electronic. And it came out when it was needed, in 1944. ENIAC didn’t arrive ubtil 1945, after V.E. Day.

  17. Colossus was built by Tommy Flowers and his team in North West London, in 1943. It was the first programmable digital computer. It moved to Bletchley Park in January 1944 and was vital in the Allied war efforts. Colossus Mk2 was built a few months later that year. Tommy Flowers previously built the Heath Robinson, but it only highlighted the need for a new technology, as mechanical machines were too slow. It didn’t have any memory, or storage space for programs, so it had to be left on at all times. The Manchester Baby was the first stored-program digital computer, built in 1948, and was a spiritual successor to Colossus. The reason why people didn’t know about Colossus, was because the UK government ordered all code breaking machines to be destroyed as soon as the war was over, and no staff were ever allowed to discuss it until 2007.

  18. Turing Machine was actually the first computer invented in the year 1936 by Alan Turing to break German’s Enigma Code during World War II, and he is also known as the father of Modern Computer.

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