Recreation of 1940s programming wins Tony Sale computer conservation award

A project that enables today's digital generation to understand computer interfaces used by 1940s programmers, and salutes the key role played by that decade’s female technicians, has won the 2016 Tony Sale Award for computer conservation.

The reconstruction of part of the US-based ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer) electronic computer system at Heinz-Nixdorf Museums Forum in Paderborn, Germany, uses a combination of original components combined with contemporary technology to represent a scaled-down recreation of two of the original ENIAC's accumulator units.

The interactive exhibit is designed to allow visitors to try their hand at ENIAC programming and to better understand the complexities faced by its original operators 70 years ago.

ENIAC differed from other early computers in that rather than using punch cards or paper tape, it was programmed by plugging cables and setting knobs – a physical skillset quite different from those deployed today, explained Heinz-Nixdorf Museums Forum director and restoration team leader Dr Jochen Viehoff: “The reconstruction of part of the huge 1940s computer has the look and feel of the original, but has been simplified to make it readily understood and even ‘programmable’ by non-specialists.”

ENIAC was among the earliest electronic general-purpose computers and first entered operations at the University of Pennsylvania in February 1946. Its superior computational power (compared to electro-mechanical computers), coupled with general-purpose programmability, making it suitable for both scientific and industrial applications, caused it to be dubbed a ‘Giant Brain’ by the media of the time. The winning project is based on four components from an original ENIAC system on loan from the Smithsonian Institute.

“We didn't want to just recreate an exhibit that showed what the ENIAC did when in operation,” explained Johannes Blobel of the Paderborn University Department of Computer Science, responsible for the project's software programming. “We wanted to go one step further by creating an installation that enables museum visitors to actually experience handling this machine.”

The ENIAC exhibit also highlights the critical role played by female programmers in the system’s success, Blobel adds: “We've seen archive photos of ENIAC’s female operators plugging in the programming cables and wanted to provide a way for visitors to understand what it was they were doing.”

ENIAC’s female programmers determined how to input ENIAC programs and were recruited from students at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. Visitors can handle the same kinds of cables and knob settings to enable the Heinz-Nixdorf Museums Forum’s ENIAC reconstruction to perform basic calculations.

The ENIAC exhibit is on display six days a week at the museum, so has to be reliable and robust – more than can be said for the original ENIAC, which had a tendency to blow some of its valves after short periods of running.

“There was no question of having a ‘fully functioning’ version of ENIAC – it was too complex for most of today’s computer specialists to understand – so there was much debate among the project team as to what to include and what to exclude from the original system’s full functionality,” Blobel explains. “We didn't want it to be so simple that visitors found engagement disappointing, while on the other hand we didn’t want them to be scared of touching it.”

Although based on an Arduino platform with software written in C, the Heinz-Nixdorf Museums Forum ENIAC exhibit strives to remain faithful to the original by using as many authentic materials and other components as possible in its construction.

“Interest in computer heritage has grown considerably since the Heinz Nixdorf Museum Forum opened 20 years ago,” said Dr Viehoff. “Back in 1996 an interest in computers was still regarded as rather nerdy. Now everyone has to face the facts of digital change. Increasing parts of society have to come to terms with how digitalisation is shaping our lives. A better understanding of how we came into this position, through better knowledge of the history of computer development, is key.”

Viehoff added: “I would like to see computational thinking to basic educational skills, alongside reading, writing and arithmetic. Computer history forms a key part of that process. An appreciation of computer heritage is also a great way to catch the attention of young people.”

The Tony Sale Award for computer conservation is organised by the Computer Conservation Society.

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