Recent news articles described proposal of a computer museum in Philadelphia, where our brave new computer-infested world was born in the basement of the Moore College of Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania.
It’s a grand idea, and an obvious one. I was a journalist in the computer age’s infancy. Unfortunately, I don’t have the memory that my computer has.
It must have been in the early 1950s that I was sent, as a young Evening Bulletin reporter, to a press briefing in an old textile mill at 3747 Ridge Ave., where the Remington typewriter company was going to demonstrate a machine called a UNIVAC, in capital letters, yet.
Not many news-gatherers were there. Making the presentation were John Mauchly and Presper Eckert, the two young fellows from Penn who had devised, for the wartime U. S. Army, a machine that could, in the blink of an eye, calculate ballistic missile trajectories.
That first electronic computer occupied an 1,800-square-foot room at Penn, weighed about 30 tons, and required about 18,000 assorted vacuum tubes. If you remember the days when radios and televisions needed tubes, sign up for Social Security.
The amount of computing it did can be done on your pocket calculator now. The one at that press conference was pretty big, but only needed 5,000 tubes.
Its creators had a contract with the U. S. Census Bureau, and had just been signed up by the Remington Typewriter Co. Its input and output were provided by a Remington electric typewriter fastened down to a desk.
Men from business and technical publications asked questions I mostly didn’t understand, and nodded appreciatively at demonstrations.
When the formal gathering ended, I approached Eckert and asked him how such equipment would affect newspapers; not just in obvious applications for typesetting and printing, but in the writing itself.
For instance, could facts like name, address and details be typed in for routine items like obituaries or armed robbery, and have the computer fill it in the prerecorded sentences?
Eckert had seemed a bit bored during the group questions, but he brightened up and began questioning me about how routine news was written. He talked about the possibilities of the magnetic tape the computers used to convey information. (I learned years later that he invented that tape, and had a patent on it when he was 19.)
I went away with many ideas to ponder. I don’t remember what I wrote for the next day’s paper.
Time went by. About 1980, when I was editor of a local and long-deceased business magazine, I was invited, by UNIVAC if I recall, to a meeting at the William Penn mansion on the Delaware River in Bucks County.
At a dinner under a canopy on the lawn, I found myself seated next to Pres Eckert. I mentioned our encounter some 30 years earlier. He, like I, remembered it vaguely.
We discussed how the computer had drastically changed typesetting, and he laughed when I suggested that his technology had wiped out Gutenberg’s.
I learned later from biographies that Eckert came from a wealthy family; a chauffeur drove him to school at Penn Charter.
As a teenager in the 1930s, he hung out at Philo T. Farnsworth’s workshop on East Mermaid Lane. Farnsworth had created the earliest television technology in 1927.
Eckert died of leukemia in 1995; April 9th, 2019 was his 100th birthday. I wish I could remember more of our conversations.