Penn Library

John W. Mauchly and the Development of the ENIAC Computer

Life on the Margins, 1932-1941


Letter to Mauchly from John A. Fleming, acting director, Dept. of Research on Terrestrial Magnetism, Carnegie Institution of Washington, 16 April 1932. (click to expand to 281k)
Mauchly's career was interrupted by the Great Depression. While university faculty as a whole did not suffer the fate of the blue-collar work force, newly-minted academics had a difficult time finding appointments during the early 1930s. Mauchly had received his Ph.D. from one of the most prestigious institutions in the world. Yet, his field of study--molecular spectroscopy--was one that belonged to a previous wave of scientific interest. During the 1930s, nuclear physics increasingly became the hot topic for research, which absorbed many of the new positions opening up in leading physics departments. Mauchly approached several research institutions but was turned down by all of them, including the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C., the place where his father had worked.
Mauchly eventually accepted a professorship in physics at Ursinus College, a small, liberal arts college located in the outskirts of Philadelphia. There he taught introductory physics courses, including some involving experimental techniques. However, the circumstances at Ursinus did not suit the research interests to which he had been so thoroughly conditioned. Physics itself was changing, and by the 1930s the leading laboratories in the country were equipped with accelerators, spectrometers, and other instruments beyond the resources of many state universities, let alone an individual professor working at a liberal arts college. The main lines of research in physics remained closed to Mauchly, much as many lines of investigation were closed to researchers living in third-world countries, who had no access to expensive equipment.
Post card showing "New Science Building, Ursinus College." (click to expand to 55k)



"Pin-wheel calculator, simplified circular slide-rule," copyrighted by Mauchly, 1934. (click to expand to 95k)

But much as the best papers in mathematics and theoretical physics eventually emerged from countries like India, it is important to view Mauchly's efforts at Ursinus as part of a strategy for conducting research within the limited resources available to him. Among his efforts were attempts to develop analog electronic instruments suitable for specific lines of research. Mauchly also discovered a wealth of meteorological data, which by the 1930s were being collected from field stations located all around the globe. Such data were available in tabular form and were transportable to an isolated researcher. Their analysis, however, required extensive calculations. Mauchly actually sought more generally to improve calculating instruments, thinking as much about the needs of his students as his own research. This preoccupation with making calculations quicker and easier led Mauchly towards electronic calculating machines.

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