October 2009 – History

Scanning the Past: A History of Electrical Engineering from the Past
Submitted by Bob Morrison, Editor

Copyright 1996 IEEE. Reprinted with permission from the IEEE publication, “Scanning the Past” which covers a reprint of an article appearing in the Proceedings of the IEEE Vol. 84, No. 3, March 1996.

John G. Brainerd and Project PX (ENIAC)

Fifty years ago this month, the PROCEEDINGS OF THE INSTITUTE OF RADIO ENGINEERS (IRE) included an article by John G. Brainerd on Project PX or ENIAC which had recently been completed at the University of Pennsylvania. The author had served as supervisor of the wartime project and was a professor of electrical engineering at the university. ENIAC was an acronym for Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer and the article characterized it as a “mathematical robot” and “the first all-electronic general purpose computer.” Brainerd mentioned that the machine occupied a 30 x 50 foot room and contained approximately 18,000 electron tubes. He explained that ENIAC had been conceived originally as a machine to solve ballistics equations more quickly and accurately but was now being discussed “in connection with problems which were not even thought of when development began.”

Brainerd was born in Philadelphia, PA, in 1904. He graduated in electrical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania in 1925. He joined the faculty immediately after graduation and later received a doctorate at PennĀ  in 1934. In June 1929, he published a paper on the theory of the four-electrode vacuum tube in the PROCEEDINGS OF THE RADIO ENGINEERS (IRE). He was the author or coauthor of nine additional Proceedings papers between 1932 and 1940, mostly concerning network theory. Also, he was coauthor of a book entitled High Frequency Alternating Current, published in 1931. He served as chairman of a faculty committee appointed to supervise operation of a differential analyzer completed at Penn in 1934 with assistance from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. This was an electromechanical machine similar in design to one constructed earlier at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and used to solve differential equations more efficiently. During 1935-1936, Brainerd served as Assistant State Director of the Power Division of the Public Works Administration.

During World War II, Brainerd and his colleagues at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania employed the differential analyzer in conjunction with a large team of human computers to solve ballistics problems for the Ballistics Research Laboratory of the Army Ordnance Department. In early 1943, John W. Mauchly, who had joined the Moore School faculty in 1941, drafted a brief memorandum proposing construction of a large digital electronic computer. Brainerd endorsed the proposal which was designated as Project PX with funding provided by a research and development contract from the Ordnance Department. Work began in June 1943 with J. Presper Eckert, Jr. as chief engineer, Mauchly as research engineer, and Brainerd as project supervisor. By the end of 1944, approximately 50 people were assigned to the project which was completed by early 1946 at a total cost of about a half million dollars. An official dedication ceremony for ENIAC was held February 15, 1946, and it was then turned over to the Ordnance Department. Brainerd and Thomas K. Sharpless, who had served as a research engineer on the project, were coauthors of a technical paper on the ENIAC published in Electrical Engineering in February 1948. (A reprint of this paper appeared in the PROCEEDINGS OF THE IEEE in September 1984.)

Brainerd later served as School Director of the Moore School of Electrical Engineering from 1954 to 1971. He was elected a Fellow of both the IRE and the American Institute of Electrical Engineers and received the IEEE
Founder’s Medal in 1975. He retired from the University of Pennsylvania in 1975 and served as President of the Society for the History of Technology during 1975-1976. He died in February 1988 at age 83.

A historical symposium celebrating the 50th anniversary of the ENIAC is scheduled to be held at the University of Pennsylvania on May 17-18, 1996.

James E. Brittain
School of History , Technology and Society
Georgia Institute of Technology