Penn Library

John W. Mauchly and the Development of the ENIAC Computer


Subpoena of Mauchly in case of Honeywell Inc. vs. Sperry-Rand Corp., 6 May 1970.
In October 1973 Judge Earl Larson of the U.S. District Court in Minnesota rendered a decision invalidating the ENIAC patent. But rather than being a clear judgement as to who invented the electronic computer, this decision and the law suit, Honeywell v. Sperry-Rand, have done more to polarize opinions with respect to the varied contributions of many different individuals. In fact, this decision points to some of the limitations of the U.S. patent system with respect to complex technologies. Namely, the U.S. patent system sets forth certain pressures to name a sole inventor when invention itself is a often a highly collaborative process. We hope that this exhibition reveals something of the complexities involved in the process of invention. We hope also that in approaching the fifty-year mark of modern computing, we can recognize the diverse contributions of individuals, regardless of what we individually consider to be its origins.

Mauchly and Eckert receiving the Harry Goode Medal of the American Federation of Information Processing Societies in 1966.
Mauchly had a successful career. Whatever the various turns in his life, he designed and oversaw the development of the first large-scale general purpose electronic computer. He created a start-up venture which he eventually sold at a profit to the company that went on to manufacture his computer. His work as a consultant was also successful. Moreover, Mauchly received academic recognition for his contributions: the Potts Medal of the Franklin Institute in 1949 and the Harry Goode Medal of the American Federation of Information Processing Societies in 1966.

With all these accomplishments behind him, Mauchly retired to the quiet suburb of Ambler, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia. He passed away on 9 January 1980 at the age of seventy-two.

Obituary, New York Times, 10 January 1980, page B-12

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