Duke University Alumni Magazine

ENIAC: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the World's First Computer

By Scott McCartney '82. Walker and Company, 1999. 262 pages. $23.

s scientific progress made only with pitfalls, personal losses, and twists of fate? Galileo was persecuted for truths about the solar system. Einstein flunked eighth-grade math. The first phone call was made by Bell in an emergency. And such was the birth of the computer industry, full of quirks and contradictions still haunting it today. One of the ironies is that few know the story--a deficiency that Scott McCartney strives to remedy with ENIAC: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the World's

First Computer. Despite the technical subject, McCartney tells a human tale, almost a mystery, with insights into personal motivation and modern culture that will be a good read for just about anyone.

McCartney eases the reader into the story with the largest possible context: the role of computers and the history of pre-computer gadgets. As the story focuses in on ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), it lights on two young men, John Mauchly and Presper Eckert. They come from different places, different cultures, different times. Each struggles as a whiz kid with the weight of promise yet unfulfilled. By the time McCartney tells of their chance meeting, the reader is anticipating greatness yet to come.

Developed during World War II, ENIAC was meant for use as a weapon, intended to quickly compute artillery trajectories. The race to construct the computer is the heart of the story--the luck of wartime funding, the fast idle of minds scrawling on napkins over lunch, the chance memory from childhood that becomes a key idea. McCartney describes the hectic, even chaotic physical and intellectual pace of the builders' lives as they tried to take technology from purely mechanical gadgetry to "thinking" electronics: They "ate, slept, and lived with the machine, devoting their lives to a project that, according to the experts of the day, had little chance of success. They faced technical hurdles like how to wire rings of vacuum tubes to 'count' numbers without making errors or simply burning out. How would the circuit know when to stop? How would it transmit the answer? They faced logical issues like how to get those rings to carry digits if a sum exceeded 10, and how to wire up the process of taking a square root. How, they wondered, could you 'program' the machine? Many said what they were attempting to do was technically impossible; few understood what the new machine might be capable of doing."

And yet, ENIAC was entirely capable. It actually worked--and by making it work, Mauchly and Eckert created an extraordinary new science. In addition, they understood that this was precisely what they'd done. They could see uses for ENIAC for business and government as well as national defense. They could see a day when their room-sized computers would shrink to the size of a desk, and then to the size of a desktop, and then be available to everyone.

What they could not see, unfortunately, was that their own role would be forgotten. For the creation of ENIAC is just the beginning. Once the machine is designed, built, used, and even retired, the book is only half over. What remains is an examination of how history can be created, and created in error. It begins with a seemingly innocent omission, a draft of a report on Mauchly and Eckert's creation that happens to be written by John Von Neumann, largely credited with inventing the computer. This parlays into a historical error that computer scientists are taught and continue to teach about the core ideas behind all modern computers: The current computer architecture is named "Von Neumann architecture," while McCartney argues it was actually developed by Mauchly and Eckert.

Can this have been intentional deception? Picking through this tangled history, the reader will come to understand McCartney's fastidious attention for references--not only who said what, but who said they said it, and when. Dubious accounts and personal egos balloon into wrangling for intellectual property. Ownership and marketing claims, some just on a whim, determine the next machine, and the next, and eventually determine the life or death of the companies that build them, the fledgling computer giants.

The courts are drawn in, and they go first one way, then another. The dream of making easy millions shrivels. The legal system thrashes with this new and bizarre technological subject. Antitrust law prohibits collaboration, when in fact collaboration can help open a design to competition by setting standards so that existing machines can accept new products from new companies. Patents last for seventeen years and can be tied up even longer in court, but in the computer world, the actual inventions are obsolete in as many months. Given such a tangle, the reader begins to wonder how there can be any effective controls at all on the computer industry.

Although McCartney exposes the injustice done to Mauchly and Eckert, he acknowledges that their sacrifice probably worked out best for consumers and the industry as a whole. He does not, however, wrap up the book with a simple conclusion. It's hard to know what's right in a field where, arguably, the most significant plans of the century were passed over as worthless. Hindsight shows us the right guesses, but what is the next right guess in such a crazy business?

It's unfortunate that Mauchly and Eckert's roles in history could not have been understood sooner. But ENIAC's story has only grown in relevance as computers have evolved --that first machine helped shape a revolution in technology, and so helped form a technology-dependent culture. Scott McCartney's book reveals the full dimensions and importance of the world's first computer.

--Barrett E. Koster

Koster M.S. '90 is an assistant professor of computer science and director of computer studies at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Terry Sanford: Politics, Progress, and Outrageous Ambitions

By Howard E. Covington Jr. and Marion A. Ellis. Duke University Press, 1999. 559 pages. $34.95.

erry Sanford always seemed so comfortable with himself, so sure of his charm and likability, so willing to take on a new, untested situation because he expected a positive outcome. Howard E. Covington Jr. and Marion A. Ellis offer clues about how Sanford came by that confidence in Terry Sanford: Politics, Progress, and Outrageous Ambitions, their new carefully researched, detailed biography of the former North Carolina governor, Duke president, and U.S. senator.

But clues, though insightful and sometimes even entertaining, are just what we get from these biographers--no answers or even speculation about the inner James Terry Sanford. We would never expect the sort of psychoanalysis and unspoken inner dialogue that Bob Woodward has tried to legitimize in his writings about powerful politicians. After all, this biography was more than seven years in the works, with cooperation from Sanford and financial support from a host of foundations and individuals. The footnotes reveal a cautious scholarship, based on extensive research. Covington and Ellis are both veteran journalists (and Pulitzer Prize winners) from The Charlotte Observer who shifted to book writing a decade or so ago; not surprisingly, they take a reporter's approach to their story. They don't judge.

And Sanford, who gave the authors extensive interviews and ready access to all his papers, apparently didn't help. In the closest thing to criticism Covington and Ellis offer in the 540-plus pages, they note of Sanford in their introduction: "He was most guarded in talking about life-shaping events--his experiences in combat, his grief over the death of a president, and personal disappointments--though he never simply refused to comment. But revealing personal fears and emotions was something he just did not do."

So the reader is left to consider what motivated and moved Sanford as he composed the varied and fascinating life that won him the governorship in 1960, where he emerged as an innovative educator and social progressive; the presidency of Duke from 1969 to 1986, where his leadership helped put the university among the top ranks nationally; and a seat in the U.S. Senate from 1986 to 1992, where his friends point to his work on Central America and his critics say he never found his way. The ups and downs are all here, as we learn about every chapter of his life, starting with his youth in Laurinburg and ending with a moving account of his stately funeral in Duke Chapel in April 1998.

The rhythm of the telling is a little uneven. At times the viewfinder zooms in tightly, giving us a level of detail about events and people that aren't central to this story. In a chapter on the administration of Governor Luther Hodges, for example, there are pages and pages on the politics of school desegregation in the mid-1950s with nary a mention of Sanford. On the other hand, the years at Duke are crammed mostly into one chapter, "A Tar Heel Blue Devil." The authors are political reporters; they write most comfortably about campaigns and coalitions, about the governor's mansion and the Senate floor. The story of Terry Sanford at Duke is yet to be written.

For the patient reader, though, this is a book rich with drama. Covington and Ellis craft scenes and offer context that show, time and again, how Sanford was willing to take risks and tackle chaotic situations head on. The man who picked up a bullhorn and walked comfortably among angry, volatile students during the Vigil at Duke in 1969 had also not hesitated to walk onto the porch of the North Carolina governor's mansion in 1963 and face a lawn filled with civil rights demonstrators. (The headline in The News & Observer article was "Negroes Boo Gov. at Mansion"; Covington and Ellis write that the crowd "tossed epithets his way.")

Sanford kept that encounter on his terms, as was his habit. He was an improviser, able to think on his feet and willing to try new approaches if his assessment told him the old methods would fail. As governor, he wanted to improve education in North Carolina and, in an incredible coup, managed to get a food tax passed to help fund those improvements. But he knew he could only push the state legislature so far. To fund anti-poverty programs, for example, he turned to the Ford Foundation and others to finance the North Carolina Fund; the Fund's pre-school training programs were a model for HeadStart.

Covington and Ellis are at their best describing these and other accomplishments of Sanford's years as governor, as well as the long road in state politics that led to his election. Their accounts of the civil rights challenges he faced are particularly compelling, with examples of the many small steps Sanford took to keep North Carolina moving away from segregation.

They also offer insights about Sanford's close relationships with many of the state's key figures, including Albert Coates, a law professor who started and ran the Institute of Government in Chapel Hill, and W. Kerr Scott, the crusty governor and U.S. senator (whose Senate campaign Sanford managed). These deep roots helped Sanford "break in line," as Covington and Ellis say, and run for governor as a forty-two-year-old backed by a new coalition of men his own age. He was also a born marketer whose index cards with information about each supporter were a precursor of the modern database-backed campaign machines. Sanford was a master at networking before the word was even invented.

And he loved meeting people, so campaigning was second nature. "He demonstrated a rare ability to focus intently on each person as he moved from one friendly hand to the next," write Covington and Ellis. "This zest for the nitty-gritty of political life was as much a part of him as keen intellect and roaming mind. He was simply at home on the campaign trail."

Sanford was also at home with himself. He gets credit for his creativity, his sense of citizenship, his courage. But what also colored his eight decades was partly innate, a born-with upbeat attitude that kept him looking at the world as a glass half full. Sanford's casual entrance into law school came in a different era, but was an example of this optimism; it consisted of a quick conversation in September with "Miss Lucy," the dean's secretary who knew everyone, but was probably particularly fond of Terry Sanford. He was used to having people say yes, and she did.

Sanford found fun in life, as this biography makes clear again and again. When he was just thirteen, he paid a dollar for a Model T that he and his buddies then fixed up with junkyard parts and used to explore the far reaches of the Scotland County countryside. As governor, he joined his colleagues for a convention in Hawaii and made news back home when his flip-flops kept him out of a dancing establishment that required shoes. (Sanford wasn't fazed; he just promised not to dance and got in the door.) When he was running for Senate and his opponent suggested he was soft on defense spending, Sanford donned an old leather bomber jacket, put his paratrooper ring on his finger, and made sure voters knew he had been a World War II paratrooper (and a decorated one, at that).

He was also proud of his state and enjoyed sharing its wares; one of those given a $30- North Carolina-made, straight-backed wooden rocking chair was President John F. Kennedy. It became a favorite of Kennedy's, who said it made his bad back feel better. And Sanford always enjoyed his time off with his wife, Margaret Rose, and their children, Terry and Betsy, joining them at the beach and later in the mountains, at Hound Ears, where they had a home.

Sanford's life was not without setbacks. After college, he wanted to work for his beloved Boy Scouts (he was an Eagle Scout) but was not hired. The camp he and a friend ran successfully for a year in the North Carolina mountains was wrecked when floods from a hurricane burst a dam. He learned to fly but was rejected by the Army Air Corps because of myopia. His best shot at financial security, a real estate deal, was used to finance his Senate campaign. The law firm he founded in 1993 with former South Carolina governor Robert McNair broke up. And of course he failed in his many attempts to run for president of the United States, and was defeated in his Senate re-election campaign as his health began to fail him. His incredible self-confidence was not always his best guide in decision-making.

Covington and Ellis help us understand Terry Sanford in many ways. And while the authors don't explain what really motivated him, or how he avoided arrogance and selfishness despite his "outrageous ambition," readers of this biography will gain new insights into the history of the South in the mid-twentieth century and into the life of an important figure in that history.

--Ann Pelham

Pelham '74 is publisher of Legal Times, a weekly newspaper on law and lobbying, published from Washington, D.C. She is also a member of Duke Magazine's Editorial Advisory Board.

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