Man vs. Machine

As co-creator of the world’s first general-purpose electronic computer, Gladwyne’s J. Presper Eckert Jr. helped usher in the Information Age. Today, family members recall the quirky, often sad story of a brilliant inventor who could have been so much more.


When Laura’s teacher called the Eckert home in Gladwyne and spoke with her mom, suddenly the rash reaction seemed reasonable. Her father, J. Presper Eckert Jr., was the co-inventor of the world’s first general-purpose electronic computer, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC). And Laura didn’t want to have to look at him at home and in school.

Laura’s first-grade teacher scheduled a conference with the Eckerts because she couldn’t understand why, during tests, their daughter would leave her desk, circle it, rub her head, circle it some more, then return to her seat with an answer. “My mother told the teacher I inherited it,” Laura says now. “It’s what my dad always did. He circled the dining room table at home.”

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Of course, what Eckert and his partner, John W. Mauchly, scratched together at the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Engineering (now the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences)—and the Information Age they initiated with a flick of a switch—has influenced our lives in immeasurable ways. On Feb. 15, 1946, the morning after ENIAC’s unveiling, the Philadelphia Inquirer told of “a new epoch in the history of human thought”—a “mathematical brain that solves the unsolvable” and “wipes out the boundaries hitherto imposed by time upon the limits of mortal thinking.” The next day, the New York Times followed suit, explaining that ENIAC would “rebuild scientific affairs on new foundations.”

It was true. Soon there would be space travel, global financial markets, USA Today, Nintendo, medical imaging and compact discs. Table-top computers, then portables and hand-held models, would replace ENIAC, which took up 1,800 square feet, weighed 30 tons, had 100 feet of panels with 17,468 vacuum tubes, 500,000 soldered joints, 70,000 resistors and 10,000 capacitors—all arranged in a large U-shape.

Who was Eckert, and what has become of his legacy and his machine? Laura’s stepbrother, Chris Eckert, is the only family member to follow in the computer industry. Laura’s mother, Judy, has died. So, for that matter, has Mauchly’s widow and Chris’ brother, John. Laura’s lone direct sibling, Greg, the youngest, prefers privacy.

But privacy hasn’t always been possible, especially after the highly politicized, big-money civil trial in 1973 between Honeywell and Sperry Rand, which led a federal judge to declare ENIAC’s 1964 patent invalid, thus returning its invention to the public domain. The ruling stated that Eckert and Mauchly’s innovations were based on the work of John Vincent Atanasoff, an Iowa State University scientist with whom Mauchly had visited in the early 1940s.

Atanasoff—who died on June 15, 1995, 12 days after Eckert—and graduate student Clifford E. Berry built an electromechanical rotary dynamic storage register. In it, one could add a number to another previously stored as electric charges. The Atanasoff Berry Computer (ABC) was judged “prior art.”

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If history had been different, Eckert and Mauchly’s names might be like Einstein’s, Franklin’s or Da Vinci’s. They might have both been fabulously wealthy. Instead, their story is a strange, sad saga.

“Others had an interest in making sure the patent failed,” explains Chris Eckert, who now lives in Johns Creek, Ga. “If not, numerous companies would’ve had to pay royalties. People still always ask me, ‘Do you realize how wealthy your family could be?’ Yes, but with my father, it had little to do with money, though everyone else thinks it was all about the money.”

ON A WALL IN his second-floor home office in Gladwyne, J. Presper Eckert hung a sign: “To err is human; to really screw up, it takes a computer.”

In the years since his death 13 years ago, the scientific community has increasingly recognized the stature of Eckert and Mauchly’s achievement. More than a decade ago, on the 50th anniversary of the unveiling of ENIAC, Penn—a longtime antagonist in officially crediting Eckert and Mauchly—kicked off a yearlong tribute. If Eckert (who was 76 when he died) and Mauchly (who died 15 years earlier) were living at the time, they would have reaped the reconciliatory benefits. Maybe justice would’ve been served.

“I knew the day he was diagnosed [with leukemia] that he wouldn’t be there,” Judy Eckert said at the time in a rare interview from their Georgian colonial home overlooking Mill Creek, which she shared for almost 33 years with the man she met in a church choir. “He was so enthused he’d be alive to see it—but I knew he wasn’t going to make it. He thought he’d beat everything. You would have to be that kind of a person to build a computer—determined.”

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In the midst of the anniversary, the telephone lines at the Eckerts’ home went dead. Judy no longer had her expert electrician to fix them himself. Then, on Feb. 13, 2003, Judy herself died from cancer of the esophagus. They are buried at Valley Forge Memorial Gardens in King of Prussia.

If Judy had lived another day, it would’ve been Valentine’s Day, her favorite day of the year—and no wonder. Feb. 14, 1946, marks the official birth date of ENIAC, though its story begins in the summer of 1941.

With war a certainty, the U.S. Army needed electrical engineers. So it offered a defense-training course at Penn to teach those skills. Mauchly, an older, nontraditional student, sought the course’s certification. Eckert, a graduate student working on his master’s degree in electrical engineering, was a lab instructor. They took to one another.

Eckert was the inspired engineer who made Mauchly’s ideas a reality. Over late-night sundaes at Linton’s, a 24-hour restaurant in Philadelphia, the two turned a shared interest in counting machines inside out. It occurred to them that an electronic device—using vacuum tubes run at a third of their power, as opposed to anything mechanical—might work.

All of ENIAC’s ancestors at least partly relied on moving mechanical parts, thus limiting compactness, speed and reliability. ENIAC was the first to compute large-scale calculations electronically. Eckert developed the electronic decimal counter, which both stored and calculated numbers, a novel feature along with electronic programmability. Still, it took two days to program a computation requiring 20 seconds to complete.

On April 9, 1943, Eckert’s 24th birthday, the U.S. Army Ordnance Department’s Ballistic Research Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., commissioned the pair, with their Moore School colleagues, to build the ultimate machine—one that could plot the trajectories of war weapons. Penn was given a $150,000 initial budget. ENIAC eventually cost $486,804.22, but Eckert always said it wasn’t about money so much as reliability.

ENIAC did what the Army wanted, making ballistics calculations in less time than it took a projectile to get airborne. Before ENIAC, it took a mechanical calculator 20 hours to plot the flight of a 60-second projectile. ENIAC was 1,000 times faster. It was said to be capable of doing the work of 20,000 people. In one second, it could add a five-digit number 5,000 times.

By the time the classified project was unveiled in 1946, the war was over. Immediately after, there was no love lost between the inventors and Penn. Eckert and Mauchly wanted invention and assignment rights from the university, along with commercial rights. Penn refused and won, based on the premise that it provided the space for the government-paid project, which was a gift to the university. Soon enough, Eckert and Mauchly were fired. They always maintained they were given 10 days to resign—and did.

In 1947, ENIAC was moved to the Aberdeen Proving Ground and installed in a specially designed, air-conditioned building. It remained in use until 1955. Now a historic relic, pieces of ENIAC are scattered in museums all over the country.

Thereafter, the pioneers started the world’s first computer company, the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corp. By 1949, they’d produced a second electronic computer, BINAC, the first to have a complete internal self-checking device. A year later, they sold the company and its patent rights to Remington Rand and later took jobs with the company. In 1951, the pair was responsible for UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Computer), which caught the public’s attention by correctly predicting the outcome of the 1952 presidential election. It was the first computer to successfully handle both numerical and alphabetical information, and also the first with a stored program.

Within 10 years, there were 5,371 computers of all types being used by 500 U.S. firms. By 1955, Remington Rand merged with Sperry to become Sperry Rand. It became the Burroughs Corp. in 1986 and is now the Blue Bell-based Unisys Corp.

Eckert was granted 87 patents in his career—but he was denied the most important one, ENIAC’s. He retired as Burroughs’ vice president in 1989. Twelve years younger than Mauchly, he lived further into the Computer Age’s profitability. He also managed his family’s long-standing and substantial real estate assets.

Mauchly, on the other hand, was forced to work in sales at Sperry Rand. He’d once attended a meeting with communist ties—and in the McCarthyist 1950s, that denied him security clearance. By 1959, he’d resigned, then formed a series of unprofitable consulting businesses. When he died in 1980, he was a relative pauper.

Immediately after his friend’s death, Eckert became reclusive. He refused to discuss computers. Instead, he occupied his mind with other pursuits.

“Judy always said she saw my father cry the hardest when John Mauchly died,” Chris Eckert says. “He figured, as long as John was alive, they could continue the fight. It bothered him not because they lost the patent, but because it was such an injustice.”

IT WASN’T AS IF Eckert and Mauchly weren’t acknowledged for their work. In 1969, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded Eckert the National Medal of Science. In 1972, both men were front-row guests of NASA when Apollo 17 was launched. And in 1973, they were given the prestigious Philadelphia Award—six months before ENIAC’s patent was filched.

Since then, there’s been the 50th anniversary spearheaded by Penn. A state historic site dedication was held Sept. 28, 2006, at 3747 Ridge Ave., the birthplace of the world’s first commercial digital computer, BINAC, outside the Marketplace at East Falls. The Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corp. was located there.

“We all loved Pres and John,” says Jean Bartik, one of ENIAC’s original programmers. “They made us better than we were. I always felt my IQ went up about 50 points when talking to Pres, and John was the most responsive person I ever met. They were brilliant, open, honest and interesting men who were just full of ideas.”

Losing the ENIAC patent was frustrating. But for Laura Eckert, even sadder was watching her father when an idea was so locked in his head that he was unapproachable. “He was a prisoner of his own mind,” Laura’s husband, John Phinney, says.

“It was like he was blind,” Laura adds. “He’d just wave, and say, ‘No, no. I can’t talk now.’ He couldn’t even bathe without paper and a pencil. He’d jump out and say, ‘I’ve got it.’ It’d be a problem he’d been working on for seven months.”

Eckert grew up the only child of one of the region’s most noted real estate developers, John Eckert, a self-made millionaire. A pioneer in pre-stressed concrete and an early Donald Trump, he built up the Jersey Shore before it was in vogue. He paved the way for the railroad, which he needed to deliver building materials and customers to his destination points. Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields were friends. He died in 1956 at 73.

His son traveled the world with private tutors until enrolling at Penn Charter. Down the Shore, he once played hopscotch with a vacationing Albert Einstein. John Eckert was sociable. He was a salesman and a businessman—things his son wasn’t.

At Penn, Eckert met his first wife, Hester Caldwell, a prodigy herself. The family says the two drew logarithms in the sand. “Hester and Pres were America’s first geeks,” Phinney says.

A ballerina who also wrote children’s stories for the early days of KYW Radio, Hester suffered a series of head injuries—the first while on the diving team at Penn—then suffered physical and emotional problems thereafter. Chris was 14 months old when Hester, his mother, committed suicide. A sister of hers, Josephine, a New York model who married a Hollywood producer, had been killed in an auto accident in the early ’60s.

A single parent with two sons, Eckert leased the Gladwyne house, then moved into his parents’ seven-bedroom mansion in Germantown. When his father died, he returned to Gladwyne and shared leftover staff with his mother, Ethel. The children’s nanny was 4-foot-11 Mae Anderson. Sam Jones was the family chauffeur, and Pearl Jones, his wife, helped with cleaning.

Eckert married Judith Ann Rewalt in 1962 at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Gladwyne. They had Laura, then Greg. Both John, the oldest, and Chris, now 56, graduated from Harriton High School. John landed in Vietnam, eventually winning the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. But a lifetime of medical complications followed. He died three years ago.

Of Eckert’s three sons, Chris was the least interested in his father’s scientific obsessions. Now he’s the only one in the computer industry—albeit in sales with AMD (Advanced Micro Devices), Intel’s largest server and desktop competitor. In the early 1980s, Eckert and his son both worked for Unisys. His dad remained surprised by Chris’ interest in the business.

“Marketing was important, but he thought it shouldn’t direct how to build the equipment,” Chris says. “He believed that if you built a good product, it would sell. Sometimes he drove himself crazy to get it exactly right from an engineering standpoint.”

Laura was Eckert’s only daughter. Now 44 and living in Westminster, Mass., where she owns a granite business with her husband, she can attest to her father’s mad-scientist ways. But she says most descriptions and stories of her father are incomplete. He was a genius, of course. But he was also humorous, humble, even “adorable.” At home, her friends met an older, bald man in a bathrobe and slippers. “He was more like a grandfather,” she says. “It could be embarrassing.”

He was in a bathrobe when John Phinney first met him. On his way to Gladwyne, John had dropped a muffler on his 1971 Mercury Capri. Once there, he found Laura’s brother John (a.k.a. “Captain Wires”) welding. Dad had to approve working on the Capri. In his bathrobe, unshaven, he was pacing and pensively stroking his chin.

“I said, ‘Excuse me, I’m John Phinney, Laura’s boyfriend,’” John recalls. “He said, ‘Uh-huh,’ then started walking away. I asked if John could weld my muffler up. He looked up, and said, ‘No!’ Back then, I didn’t take no for an answer. I asked again. He said, ‘No!’ I said I’d be happy to pay him. He said, ‘You don’t understand. It’s not even worth my time to think about it.’”

What Eckert would think about—particularly during sleepless nights—was perfecting speaker systems. Laura would wake up to high-pitched squeals. Hours later, when she’d come down, he’d still be at it. Then he’d ask for help. “He was deaf in one ear,” she says, “so we had to tell him if sound was coming out of this side or that side.”

Eckert was a prankster, Laura says—even on the family’s 70-foot yacht, Miss Laura, which kept the family off the coast of Florida most summers. Once, he and his sons concocted homemade rockets to launch from the deck. “Zillions of people radioed police with reports of UFOs,” Laura says.

There were chemicals in their lives, as well. “One time, he put phosphorus-something-or-other under our shoes so flames sprouted as we walked,” Laura recalls. “My mom panicked, but Dad nonchalantly said, ‘If it was dangerous, it would be labeled ‘not safe for kids.’”

Both brilliant and childlike, Laura’s father was capable of dressing himself, she says, but Judy still labeled his outfits by number. He could never find his shoes.

The few times Eckert minded the children, chaos resulted. “I don’t think he’d ever been to a grocery store,” Laura says. “One time, he bought all prepared foods—Stouffer’s frozen dinners and hundreds of Sara Lee cakes. I kept saying, ‘We’re going to be in trouble.’”

Still, as a patriarch, Eckert was strict and old-fashioned. His children spoke when spoken to. They always obeyed him. Life was an experiment, and at times his children took advantage of it. “He had to test everything,” Laura says. “For a month one summer, we went to an amusement park every weekend with friends. Then, for him, we had to fill out a questionnaire on what we liked best and what we’d do over again.”

Before receiving birthday presents, the children had to tell him their age in binary numbers. At 8, when Laura asked for a dollhouse, he agreed—so he could equip it with electric and quadraphonic sound. When he bought Chris a go-kart, he built a noiseless electric engine. “I could ride it anytime, and I was the only kid in the neighborhood who had reverse,” he says. “Of course, my first inclination was to go fast, but he’d engineered it so it wouldn’t.”

Eckert was always inventing. Among others, he was responsible for card readers like those used in tollbooth sensors, and tape recorders that used metal particle tape. Mauchly, too, had worked on a precursor to the Xerox machine, childproof snap-caps and even the modern-day skateboard. However, both hated the politics and business of invention—the very engines that undid them. Neither was monetarily minded.

John Phinney remembers accompanying Eckert—incognito—to a then-upstart CompUSA. “We were in the technical service area,” he recalls, “and the technician was saying, ‘Did you know the first computer took up a whole room?’ I smiled, and thought, ‘You have no idea who you’re talking to!’ Pres never said who he was.”

They built Phinney’s first computer from scratch. “We plugged it in, pressed it on, and we were counting down the RAM on the screen,” he recalls. “I was amazed, but Pres said, ‘What did you expect?’”

Upon request, Eckert signed the inside case with a black Sharpie: “ENIAC’s great-great grandson, Jan. 5, 1995.”

“Everyone else [who divvied up ENIAC] can say they have the first one—but I have the last one,” Phinney says.

Then there’s Chris Eckert’s story of his final peaceful parting with his father. Up from Atlanta, alone, he was bedside at Bryn Mawr Hospital, smoothing over years of differences. Then, reading from the Bible, he asked his father to wiggle a hand or foot if he could hear him. He did—just like those first flickers inside ENIAC’s vacuum tubes. He died a few minutes later. Chris returned to Gladwyne to tell the others “the angels had come.”

It’s the ending several Christian monks, whom the family had befriended in their father’s pain, had predicted—without computers. “I didn’t know that,” Chris says. “When Laura told me, I got chills up and down my spine.”

Even on his deathbed, Eckert was surrounded by computers—newfangled portables. He talked of writing a book “to tell the real truth,” Chris says. “There just wasn’t time to do it.”

“In some minds, there’s uncertainty,” he adds. “But for those who know the facts, it’s pretty obvious.”


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