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The person of the week // The computer

Published Jul. 6, 2006

On Valentine's Day 50 years ago, a U.S. Army general pushed a button and launched the computer era by cranking up a machine called ENIAC. It was the world's first all-electronic, general-purpose computer.

Unlike today's computers that can sit on a desk, this machine was big. Really big. It was 30 tons of black steel, vacuum tubes and wire. It took up a room 30 feet by 50 feet.

Developed to calculate complex artillery trajectory tables, ENIAC had 17,468 vacuum tubes and could store 20 10-digit numbers in its electronic memory.

In contrast, modern personal computers typically have more than 8-million characters of memory. They run up to 1,600 times faster.

This Valentine's Day, the University of Pennsylvania, the place where it all began, will run ENIAC again, for the first time in four decades, as it begins a year-long celebration of the start of the computer era.