“ENIAC could do three-dimensional, second-order differential equations. We were calculating trajectory tables for the war effort. In those days the trajectory tables were calculated by hundreds of people operating desk calculators - people who were called computers. So the machine that does that work was called a computer.” J. Presper Eckert in a 1989 interview.
Notice the misspelling of Presper Eckert’s first name.
The famous UNIVAC computer is shown in the background.
John Adam Presper Eckert Jr. – “Pres” to his friends – was born on April 9, 1919, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His father, John Presper Eckert, was a self-made millionaire businessman who had become wealthy in developing real estate. Eckert Jr. attended primary school at the William Penn Charter School to which he was chauffeur-driven and which bore the name of the founder and name giver of the State of Pennsylvania. Eckert was an only child and showed an early interest in electronic and mechanical gadgets. During his high school years he joined the Engineer’s Club of Philadelphia and often spent his spare time playing with electronics. When he wrote the College Board examination for admission to university he was placed second in the country on his math paper.
After high school Eckert wanted to study at the prestigious Massachusetts’ Institute of Technology (MIT) but his mother preferred he stayed closer to home. His father told him a white lie that he could not afford MIT’s high fees and persuaded him to study business at the Wharton’s School of the University of Pennsylvania. In 1937 Eckert switched to Pennsylvania’s famous Moore School of Electrical Engineering – as Penn’s Department of Electrical Engineering was called following an endowment by Alfred Fitler Moore in 1923. At the Moore School he did research on radar timing systems and worked on the Moore School’s differential analyzer. Eckert was a brilliant but restless engineer while at the Moore School, often talking to whoever wanted to serve as his “sounding-board” to clarify his own thinking.
In 1941 Eckert became a laboratory assistant for a summer training course in electronics arranged by the Department of Defence through the Moore School. This is where he met John Mauchly (1). That same year Eckert received his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, followed by his master’s degree in 1943. In October 1944 he got married. Following his wife’s death in 1952, he remarried in 1962. Eckert had two children from his first marriage and also two children from his second marriage.
(1) The meeting between Eckert and Mauchly resulted in the two scientists teaming up. The subsequent career of J. Presper Eckert, including the building of the ENIAC, is closely interwoven with John Mauchly’s and – to avoid repetition – is further described in my article about Mauchly.
John Presper Eckert died of leukaemia in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, on June 3, 1995.
Eckert received numerous awards and honors during his lifetime and only a few can be mentioned here.
Eckert and Mauchly received their first
computer-related award from the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, which
awarded them both the Howard N. Potts Medal “in
recognition of their design and construction of the ENIAC, the first
large-scale, general purpose, digital electronic computer, a machine of great
accuracy which makes feasible the application of mathematics to problems which
hitherto had either to be ignored or else solved in a much more laborious way.”
In 1961 both Eckert and Mauchly were awarded the John Scott Medal for their “First large-scale electronic computer”.
In 1966 Eckert was awarded the Harry M. Goode Memorial Award by the American Federation of Information Processing Societies “For his pioneering contributions to automatic computing by participating in the design and construction of the ENIAC, the world's first all-electronic computer, and of the BINAC and the UNIVAC, and for his continuing work in the design of electronic computing systems.” Mauchly received the same award.
In 1969 Eckert received the U.S. National Medal of Science from President Lyndon B. Johnson “For pioneering and continuing contributions in creating, developing, and improving the high-speed electronic digital computer.”
In 1980 the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) awarded both Eckert and Mauchly the IEEE Computer Society’s Computer Pioneer Award.
In 1994 he was nominated as Fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).
Eckert and Mauchly are jointly portrayed on a stamp issued by Madagascar in 1993. In addition they are both featured on a 1999 Dominica stamp which shows a photo of the ENIAC.
© Wobbe Vegter, 2009