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The ENIAC, the Verb "to program" and the Emergence of Digital Computers

IP.com Disclosure Number: IPCOM000129917D
Original Publication Date: 1996-Apr-30
Included in the Prior Art Database: 2005-Oct-07
Document File: 10 page(s) / 39K

Publishing Venue

Software Patent Institute

Related People

DAVID ALAN GRIER: AUTHOR [+2]

Abstract

The verb ";to program"; is perhaps the sole surviving legacy of the ENIAC. It is a surprising legacy because the ENIAC, as originally conceived, did not support programs stored in memory and the ENIAC control mechanism, identified as ";a program,"; was very different from the computer programs we use today. The concept of the stored program was not even invented until the last year of the ENIAC's development.

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THIS DOCUMENT IS AN APPROXIMATE REPRESENTATION OF THE ORIGINAL.

Copyright ©; 1996 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

The ENIAC, the Verb "to program" and the Emergence of Digital Computers

DAVID ALAN GRIER

This paper examines the verb "to program" in the context of the ENMC development to see what light it can shed on the development of the concept, both for the ENMC and for subsequent stored program computers.

Introduction

The verb "to program" is perhaps the sole surviving legacy of the ENIAC. It is a surprising legacy because the ENIAC, as originally conceived, did not support programs stored in memory and the ENIAC control mechanism, identified as "a program," was very different from the computer programs we use today. The concept of the stored program was not even invented until the last year of the ENIAC's development.

The ENIAC legacy is made more surprising by the fact that the verb "to program" is never mentioned in the first paper to define the concept of the stored program, John von Neumann's 1945 paper the "Draft Report on EDVAC" [29]. Taken together, these two facts might be viewed as nothing more than a quaint curiosity: an obsolete verb was appropriated by a new invention and saved from becoming an instant anachronism. But such is not the case.

The verb "to program" is at the heart of the process that transformed the digital electronic computer from a laboratory experiment to an important scientific and business tool. The way in which the term "program" came to acquire its modern meaning reveals the political difficulties faced by the ENIAC developers in the months that followed the completion of their machine.

The ENIAC itself was the first political difficulty, as some of the researchers saw it as a machine born out of time. It became operational just as its developers began to appreciate and to understand stored memory programs and serial machines. To these researchers, the stored program concept was so important and so powerful that they wanted to put aside their old work, represented by the ENIAC, and to begin work on new machines. They quickly discovered that they could not abandon their old ideas as soon as they wished because they had made large intellectual investments in the old technology. They needed to exploit those investments in order to explain their new ideas to the scientists and engineers who would develop the successors to the ENIAC. It was during this education process that the word "program" was transformed from its ENIAC concept to the modern notion of a coded instruction list, stored in memory.

A second political difficulty is revealed by the fact that the ENIAC developers employed the term "program" to describe the operation of the ENIAC and not a more common term from mathematics. The researchers had a grand vision for their machine.

It was capable of more than simply speeding calculations. It would change the nature of...