Penn Library / exhibitions

John W. Mauchly
and the Development of the ENIAC Computer

An Exhibition in the Department of Special Collections
Van Pelt Library, University of Pennsylvania

by Asaf Goldschmidt and Atsushi Akera
Department of History and Sociology of Science
University of Pennsylvania


The opening of this exhibition on Valentine's Day, 1996, also opens The Year of the Computer at Penn, a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the unveiling of the world's first multi-purpose, digital computer at the University of Pennsylvania. That computer, the ENIAC, was designed and built at the Moore School of Engineering as part of the war effort. Like so many other defense-related projects during those stormy years, this one has enjoyed an unusually rich and successful afterlife. It is fitting, therefore, that The Year of the Computer begin with an exhibition that takes a retrospective look at the genius behind the machine: John W. Mauchly.

Based on the Mauchly Papers in the Penn Library's Special Collections, the exhibition brings into focus the career of one of the century's most fertile scientific minds--and also one of its least studied. Mauchly received his PhD in physics from Johns Hopkins during the depths of the Depression. He was fortunate to find employment in a small college outside of Philadelphia, where he worked without funds, colleagues, and graduate students. Mauchly came to Penn to study as well as to take up the slack left by faculty who had enlisted in the service. He wound up, however, in the difficult position of being both on the margins of and at the center of Project X, the code name of the effort that led to the ENIAC. But, his stay at Penn was brief and complicated, ending on a sour note. He went on to have a successful career in developing computer applications outside the context of the academy. Fiercely independent, Mauchly was imaginative and tenacious. His contributions to science and technology were critical ones, and it is our hope that in mounting this exhibition Mauchly's space in the historical record will grow through future research.

Many individuals played important roles in creating this exhibition. Atsushi Akera and Asaf Goldschmidt, doctoral candidates in the Department of the History of Science and Technology at Penn, undertook the formidable task of sorting through the large body of archival evidence to select and write the exhibition. Their thoughtful and balanced story takes a broad view of some of the more contentious issues in Mauchly's career and presents them in historical context. Greg Bear designed and installed the show in the Rosenwald Gallery with care and flair. Jeffrey A. Cohen came to our rescue and skillfully guided us through the process of preparing this on-line version of the exhibition. Support for the exhibition came from the School of Engineering and Applied Science and from the Library. However, it was the timely and generous support of Mrs. Kay Mauchly Antonelli that permitted us to make the Mauchly story available to a broad constituency of scholars and professionals. To her we owe a special thanks.

Michael Ryan
Director of Special Collections

Note: The website has been devised by Jeffrey A. Cohen, using the exhibition text by Asaf Goldschmidt and Atsushi Akera and flatbed scans drawn mainly from among the items chosen for the show.

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