Relic from Computer History

The M
The M

Sitting on my mantle is a bronze letter M. This M has been in my family as long as I can remember. When I was growing up I didn’t think about where it had come from. I knew it stood for our family name of Mann. Later on I learned the story of the M from my parents.  As it turns out, this particular bronze M is a relic from a bygone era of computer history.

I grew up in the 1950s just outside of Philadelphia, a block north of the city limits. This was an Irish-Catholic neighborhood. Our neighbors all had 9 or 10 kids. Dads worked and moms stayed home. It was a fun time and place to grow up as there were kids to play with everywhere.

Our neighbors to the right of our house were the Williams (we always referred to them as the Williamses). The father worked in construction. He was the one who gave my father the M. The M came from a building that his company was demolishing. For many years that’s all I knew about the M.

Eckert-Mauchly building
Eckert-Mauchly building

When I was older I asked my parents for more details about the origin of the M. The M came from the lettering over the entrance to the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation building, which stood at 3747 Ridge Avenue in Philadelphia in the early 1950s. I have only been able to find one picture of this building. It is low resolution and the lettering is not clear, but certainly the M in my possession looks similar to the M of Mauchly on the building.

During and after the Second World War there was a massive stimulus to science and technology. In England Alan Turing and colleagues developed the “Colossus” computer at Bletchley Park that was used to decode German transmissions encrypted with the Enigma machine. There is little doubt that the intelligence gathered through this effort was instrumental in the Allies’ winning the war.  Sadly, Turing’s reward was prosecution and persecution for his homosexuality that led to suicide with a cyanide-laced apple — one of the most ignominious events in the history of humanity.

Mauchly, Eckert, and UNIVAC
Mauchly, Eckert, and UNIVAC

In America, at the end of the war, John Mauchly and Prosper Eckert joined forces at the Moore School of Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania to develop the ENIAC computer. Mauchly was what today we would call a “software” guy, and Ecklert was the “hardware” guy. Their computer was as big as a house and contained thousands of vacuum tubes.  It worked, though of course its processing power was infinitesimal compared with what we carry around in our pockets nowadays.  After doing computing work for the Army at Penn, Mauchly and Eckert decided to form their own company.   This decision was due to an issue still familiar today: dispute over intellectual property rights with the university. In 1946 they formed the first commercial computer corporation. Originally called The Electronic Controls Corporation, the name was changed to Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation (EMCC) in 1948. The company developed several computers that were sold mostly to government agencies such as the Census Bureau.   Of these computers the most famous was UNIVAC. UNIVAC was used to predict (successfully) the presidential election results on TV in 1952. Although we take this use of computers for granted now, at the time this was an amazing feat.  Grace Hopper, the computer pioneer who only recently has been getting the recognition she deserves worked at the EMCC. She went on to develop the first computer language compiler.  Unfortunately the EMCC lost government funding due to suspicions that they had hired “communist-leaning” engineers (this was the McCarthy era), and the company was taken over in 1950 by the Remington Rand corporation, which at the time made typewriters.  Eckert stayed on at Remington Rand (later Sperry, now Unisys), while Mauchly became a consultant.  You can see both of them in all their glorious 1950s nerdiness in this YouTube video.

Marker at the site of EMCC
Marker at the site of EMCC

At some point in the early 1950s the original building was demolished. I have been unable to determine the exact year. And from that building, as far as I know, only the M sitting on my mantle remains.

About mannd

I am a retired cardiac electrophysiologist who has worked both in private practice in Louisville, Kentucky and as a Professor of Medicine at the University of Colorado in Denver. I am interested not only in medicine, but also in computer programming, music, science fiction, fantasy, 30s pulp literature, and a whole lot more.

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