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Notes from the Field

Happy Birthday, Eniac

Summer 1996 | Volume 12 |  Issue 1

PHILADELPHIA, PA.: The year 1996 sees two major American industries, cars and computers, celebrating anniversaries. In both cases the date is somewhat arbitrary. As early as 1805 Oliver Evans drove a steampowered vehicle through Philadelphia; as for internal combustion, at least three such cars were successfully operated in 1893 and 1894. The so-called centennial of the American automobile industry turns out to commemorate a more arcane milestone: the first multiple production of a gasolinepowered car, the 1896 Duryea. Similarly, the machine whose golden jubilee is being celebrated, the ENIAC of 1946, is just one of several candidates for the title of the first electronic computer. (See the Winter 1991 “Letters” page for a discussion of ENIAC’s forebears.)

Back in 1946 ENIAC was a newborn babe, and America’s automakers celebrated their fiftieth anniversary. Now those industries are having landmark birthdays again, in a different world.

Regardless of its questionable priority, the University of Pennsylvania, where ENIAC was built, is holding a yearlong birthday party for the computer. The celebration kicked off in February with a re-enactment of the day fifty years ago when the ungainly mass of tubes and wires was first shown to the public. The rest of the year will see a barrage of conferences, convocations, conventions, and symposia sponsored by Penn, the Association for Computing Machinery, and the city of Philadelphia, among others. The Franklin Institute will open a major permanent exhibit on information technology; civic boosters will install interactive kiosks for visitors; and a project “designed to encourage science teachers to use the Internet as an on-line educational resource in the classroom” will be inaugurated. Vice President Al Gore has been named the celebration’s honorary chairman.

Back in 1946, when ENIAC was a newborn babe, the auto industry celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in equally buoyant fashion. Detroit’s production expertise had just played a large part in defeating the Axis, and it was starting to return to civilian production. Continuing wartime restrictions left a ceremonial parade of antique cars looking eerily similar to everyday traffic, but no one doubted that America would soon resume its worldwide dominance. A banquet was held for automotive pioneers, including such familiar names as Ford, Olds, and Nash as well as long-time workers and dealers. Each honoree received an aluminum statuette of surpassing ugliness. Speakers told of how the industry had “enriched the daily life of every man, woman, and child” and upheld “the American tradition of liberty.” The jubilee was capped by a huge gathering in Briggs Stadium that featured a speech by the secretary-general of the United Nations, Trygve Lie.

Amid all the hoopla, though, there were some discordant notes. Labor troubles, muted during the war, were flaring up and would only get worse. Newsweek reported that “only ten” companies remained in the passenger-car business; within a decade that number would be cut in half. Crosley was the first to go, in 1952. The next year KaiserFrazer bought Willys-Overland, and the resulting firm soon stopped making passenger vehicles. In 1954 Packard and Studebaker merged, to limp along for another decade before expiring, while Nash and Hudson combined to form American Motors, which stuck around longer but eventually got swallowed up as well.

The auto industry had seen major technological advances every few years since its founding: the self-starter, the moving assembly line, Synchromesh and then automatic transmissions, hydraulic brakes. There was every reason to believe that this process would continue. But the breakthroughs of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s were mostly along the lines of power windows and automatic headlight dimmers, and America lost its unchallenged technological dominance. Who at the banquet in 1946 would have guessed that five decades later cars named Lexus and Camry would be among the nation’s most popular? And like the auto industry, the city of Detroit was also facing drastic changes. Its population peaked in the 1950 census at more than 1.8 million; forty years later it would barely muster a million, as the cars it had built ultimately made it unnecessary.

Anyone who has ever heard a weather report knows the perils of predicting even a day into the future. The indulgent smile on the face of today’s undergraduate when you say the word mainframe shows how true this is with computers, and every day’s business news provides further illustration. Will the Internet actually become an important educational tool? Probably—but only in the hands of a skillful teacher, as was true with the movies and filmstrips of an earlier age. Will computers continue to change our lives in ways too numerous to count? Of course, but the changes likely won’t be the ones we expect.

No wonder, then, that the “information superhighway” metaphor has become almost as widely used as a “Saturday Night Live” punch line. The phrase can illustrate almost anything relating to computers, with talk of on-ramps, traffic cops, dead batteries, and road kill limited only by the speaker’s imagination and the listener’s patience. That these two most familiar examples of technology influencing history have combined in an instant cliché was perhaps predictable. That they are both celebrating anniversaries this year is coincidental. The extent to which their futures will parallel each other depends on how well today’s leaders can learn from the events they are pausing to look back upon.

For more information on commemorative activities, see the ENIAC 50th Home Page ( ).

NEW YORK, N.Y.: The same year that car makers celebrated their anniversary, 1946, saw another industry milestone: the retirement of Alfred P. Sloan after twenty-three years at the helm of General Motors. During that time he led his company past Ford in sales and revolutionized organization, marketing, and management for all of American business. Equally important, though, were his philanthropic endowments: MIT’s business school and other scholarly establishments, the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. His donations had two goals: to increase our knowledge of science and technology, and to help us make better use of such knowledge. In that spirit, the foundation has embarked upon the most ambitious historical publishing project of recent years.

Several years ago the Sloan Foundation provided almost two dozen grants to writers of books on technical subjects—most, but not all, of them historical. The foundation will not publish the books itself but will leave the authors to find commercial publishers, thus ensuring that the books will be accessible to the average reader. The first book to appear under the program was Richard Rhodes’s Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb (Simon & Schuster). Foundation grants, including one from Sloan, had been critical to the success of Rhodes’s 1986 history of the atomic bomb, and for Dark Sun , which required even more extensive research, a Sloan grant helped finance five years of interviewing participants, poring over archives, and tracking down recently declassified documents spread throughout many countries.

Our own frequent contributor T. A. Heppenheimer is another beneficiary of the foundation’s largess. He first heard of Sloan’s Technology Series in the spring of 1991 from Victor McElheny, a member of the series’ advisory committee. With the prospect of a $100,000 grant, plus $25,000 in expenses, dangling before him, Heppenheimer did not let any grass grow under his feet. He quickly researched and assembled a nineteen-page prospectus for a history of commercial aviation and got two prominent industry friends to endorse it. The proposal got the go-ahead in July 1991—“the easiest hundred thousand dollars I ever made,” says Heppenheimer, in a statement less sweeping than it might appear—and all that remained was to write the book and find a publisher. The result: Turbulent Skies was published by Wiley last August.

One more book in the series has already appeared: Dream Reaper , by Craig Canine (Knopf), the story of a Kansas farmer’s struggles to build and market a new type of combine. (Since the book’s publication John Deere has bought rights to the machine and agreed to develop it.) Another nineteen are in the works. While the opening of the series’ preface (“Technology is the application of science, engineering, and industrial organization …”) may set some historians’ teeth on edge, few will argue with the statement of purpose: “As the century draws to an end, it is hoped that the Series will disclose a past that might provide perspective on the present and inform the future.” Alfred P. Sloan, who devoted much of his life to bringing industry from an age of invention into an age of broadly wielded knowledge, would have understood.


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