John Presper Eckert Jr.

John Adam Presper "Pres" Eckert Jr. (April 9, 1919 – June 3, 1995) was an American electrical engineer and computer pioneer. With John Mauchly he invented the first general-purpose electronic digital computer (ENIAC), presented the first course in computing topics (the Moore School Lectures), founded the first commercial computer company (the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation), and designed the first commercial computer in the U.S., the UNIVAC, which incorporated Eckert's invention of the mercury delay line memory.


Eckert was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to a wealthy real estate developer John Eckert and was raised in a large house in Philadelphia's Germantown section. During elementary school, he was driven by chauffeur to William Penn Charter School, and in high school joined the Engineer's Club of Philadelphia and spent afternoons at the electronics laboratory of television inventor Philo Farnsworth in Chestnut Hill. He placed second in the country on the math portion of the College Board examination.

Eckert initially enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School to study business at the encouragement of his parents, but in 1937 transferred to Penn's Moore School of Electrical Engineering. In 1940, at age 21, Eckert applied for his first patent, "Light Modulating Methods and Apparatus". At the Moore School, Eckert participated in research on radar timing, made improvements to the speed and precision of the Moore School's differential analyzer, and in 1941 became a laboratory assistant for a defense training summer course in electronics offered through the Moore School by the United States Department of War.

Dr. John Mauchly, then chairman of the physics department of nearby Ursinus College, was a student in the summer electronics course, and the following fall secured a teaching position at the Moore School. Mauchly's proposal for building an electronic digital computer using vacuum tubes, many times faster and more accurate than the differential analyzer for computing ballistics tables for artillery, caught the interest of the Moore School's Army liaison, Lieutenant Herman Goldstine, and on April 9, 1943 was formally presented in a meeting at Aberdeen Proving Ground to director Colonel Leslie Simon, Oswald Veblen, and others. A contract was awarded for Moore School's construction of the proposed computing machine, which would be named ENIAC, and Eckert was made the project's chief engineer. ENIAC was completed in late 1945 and was unveiled to the public in February, 1946.

Eckert remained with Remington Rand and became an executive within the company. He continued with Remington Rand as it merged with the Burroughs Corporation to become Unisys in 1986. In 1989, Eckert retired from Unisys but continued to act as a consultant for the company. He died of leukemia in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Some computer historians—and Eckert himself—believed that the widely-adopted term "von Neumann architecture" should properly be known as the "Eckert Architecture," since the stored-program concept central to the von Neumann architecture had already been developed at the Moore School by the time von Neumann arrived on the scene in 1944-1945.


Eckert inventions


As a military project, ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer) was top secret. This secrecy became a problem when Eckert was nearly drafted into the army. The government had to step in to keep him at the Moore School, since the draft board had no way of knowing how important his work was for the war effort. After World War II ended, Eckert and Mauchly began to work on EDVAC (Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer), which featured a stored-program memory. They were forced to leave the Moore School to build EDVAC because the University of Pennsylvania insisted on taking over all the patent rights for the computers.


In scientific and engineering terms, Eckert and Mauchly were very successful. Their UNIVAC (Universal Automated Computer) used magnetic tape instead of punch cards, which greatly increased the speed of calculations. However, Eckert and Mauchly were both better scientists than businessmen, and the company they founded, the Eckert-Mauchly Corporation, did not remain independent. It was absorbed by the Remington Rand Corporation, an early competitor with IBM for the computer market. Eckert was a star engineer at Remington Rand until he retired.


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