The Origin of Electronic Binary Computation

Thomas F. Deahl

    This page is much to short to recount all the exciting moments during a career in the field of information science. In my case it was less empirical science than applied systems. I would not deny that we information system engineers had our experimental moments. Indeed, I worked shoulder to shoulder with the folks who brought you the Y2K problem ... and proud of it. 

     One anecdote that may be of interest is the origin of the idea for electronic binary computation, the fundamental building block of today's computers... 

    I had the good fortune to know John Mauchly who with J. Presper Eckert invented the general purpose electronic digital computer. Mauchly had a long standing interest in weather forecasting. He was certain that long-range prediction of weather conditions could be done if he could calculate the interaction of enough variables fast enough. In the 1930s, while a professor of physics at Ursinus College, he wondered if some sort of electronic calculator could be devised that would give him the speed he needed.
    One Saturday, while shopping for screw-type house electrical fuses, he encountered a new fuse product by either Westinghouse or General Electric-I can't remember which. At any rate, when an electrical circuit had blown, a tiny neon lamp across the top of the fuse would light. The purpose was to help you find the blown fuse. Mauchly had an epiphany. He observed that this new fuse signaled whatever state the circuit was in. Current was either flowing or not. The neon lamp was either on or off. Zero or one. He bought a gross of these fuses and took them back to his laboratory where he built a circuit that could calculate sums by screwing and unscrewing fuses. The rest, as they say, is history.

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