Penn Library

John W. Mauchly and the Development of the ENIAC Computer

College Years, 1925-1932

In the twentieth century college education in the United States has become a rite of passage, a way for youths to make the transition into adulthood. It represents a time of departure away from home, often to a place calculated to be not too convenient for one's parents. Mauchly entered Johns Hopkins as an undergraduate in the Electrical Engineering program, based on the stipulations of his scholarship.

Home, however, had become a more troubled place. During one of his scientific voyages--sometime before 1925--S.J. Mauchly had contracted a chronic illness. Unwilling to let go of his scientific work, Mauchly's father continued to work excessive hours, which only made his condition worse. Between 1925 and 1928, Mauchly received postcards from the New Jersey shore, where his family went to help father's convalescence.

J. W. Mauchly, advertisement for tutoring services, n.d. (click to expand to 28k)

Announcement of Lecture by Mauchly on "Albert Einstein and Relativity," n.d. (click to expand to 55k)
Torn between the material pleasures of life and the prestige of his father's intellectual career, Mauchly nevertheless found himself increasingly drawn towards the latter. During his freshman year, Mauchly complained to his father about the General Engineering course, which attempted to provide a more theoretical foundation for engineering. By the end of his second year Mauchly began to feel that engineering was too mundane. In 1927 he made use of a special provision that allowed outstanding students to enroll directly in a Ph.D. program before completing their undergraduate degrees and transferred to the graduate physics program of the university.

Mauchly's father passed away around Christmas in 1928. On the very envelope that carried one of his mother's urgent letters, Mauchly scribbled some notes from his studies. Perhaps a turn to his work was a way of coping with his fears of loss. A series of scholarships permitted Mauchly to continue with his studies after his father's death. Mauchly submitted his dissertation on "The Third Positive Group of Carbon Monoxide Bands" to the faculty of Johns Hopkins University in 1932.

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