Big Brains

Over an entrance gate at Philadelphia’s University of Pennsylvania is the inscription ‘We will find a way, or we will make one;’ that’s the English translation of a quotation from the Roman general Hannibal, who would neither be turned back by enemies nor terrestrial boundaries in pursuit of his goals. [For all those Ivy League intellectual showoffs, however, the Penn inscription is actually in the original Latin ‘Inveniemus viam aut faciemus.’]

And so the inscription remains, since it inspired the great Benjamin Franklin, who founded the university in 1740, and it has continued to inspire work at the university since.

There’s a very big room in an engineering building on the University of Pennsylvania campus that houses an artifact. And, as is frequently the case with so many tools built for war, its most significant and lasting contributions have been toward peaceful purposes.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

In the 1930s and into the first years of the Second World War, it became very clear the military desperately needed more of what would now be called computing power to better complete the increasingly complex tasks of using even the contemporary technology of war.

To illustrate the importance and challenge of accurate calculations in wartime, just imagine, if you will, the number of computations it would take to fire a weapon at a target. Now, imagine how many it would take if the target were moving. Imagine if the weapon itself was moving. Imagine if the motion of both weapon and target were irregular. A concrete example? One ship firing at another, both making evasive movements in a rough ocean with lots of wind.

So, in response to these sorts of challenges, military engineers built what is widely thought of today as the world’s first super-computer, ENIAC [Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer].

The machine itself is huge; it literally takes up every inch of a very large room about the size of a fair-scale lecture hall. ENIAC was programmed by physically connecting cables between ports in the machine’s exterior structure. Programmers rolled heavy rubberized cables on large wheeled carts around the room and plugged them in as directed by sheets on a clipboard.  New problem? Better give it a little time. New sheet, new alignment of cables.

Still, ENIAC was thought of as a marvel, as it was a huge improvement over what preceded it. Many subsequent calculating machines followed ENIAC, each with greater capacities and higher levels of computing power. Before long, there were ‘supercomputers’ developed at other American universities, and some in several other countries as well. A contemporary forecast by a highly regarded engineer supposed that, one day, there might be a powerful computer in nearly every country on the globe.

That’s one computer per country; this brave forecast was just slightly under the actual global penetration of computers, which currently stands just under 2 billion.

I guess, though, we can’t be too hard on the original forecaster. Economic, industrial and technical conditions have changed just that radically since the late 1940s. Even your phone, much less your computer, is faster, easier to obtain and use, has more computing power and capacity than ENIAC did, and all at a fraction of the cost.

This distance between prediction and reality is nothing new, of course. As our societies continue to progress and evolve, as we push forward with new things, both found and made, we will continue to outstrip projections of those who must live in the hard and limited reality of the present day.

2 thoughts on “Big Brains

  1. Inveniemus viam aut faciemus; We will find a way, or we will make one. Thanks for that, Brent. It reminds me of a day, before I became a citizen, standing in Providence, RI two decades ago, and looking at three bridges in view spanning rivers, and other bodies of water. At that moment, an insight sprang into mind — this is what America is all about, looking beyond to the other side and then throwing up a bridge to get there ; Inveniemus viam aut faciemus. I love America.

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