Of Note: The Moore School Lectures 1946

How long do you keep your old course notes? Consider the unlikely resurrection of a canvas notebook assembled by Orin P. Gard, recapitulating the summer 1946 “Moore
School Lectures”—the first computer science course ever held.

The notebook was uncovered in 2000 by Paul Gard, Orin’s son: “I grew up in Dayton, Ohio, where my father worked on ballistics as a physicist, at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. Dad was a quiet, thoughtful, analytical man who took notes wherever he went. My mom, Lavurn, tried to get Dad to sort through his papers and throw most of them away, but he just wouldn’t do it.”

After his father’s death, Paul discovered the notes and gave them to Dr. Joseph Bordogna, former Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Penn. As Bordogna recalls, “I knew Paul Gard for many years through my work in educational outreach. He was a science teacher, and to me K-12 teachers are the most important people in society.”

ENIAC—the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer—was developed by Moore School faculty members John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert under a 1943 contract with the U.S. Army. The Army urgently needed to speed ballistics calculations. It was built under total secrecy and completed (despite continual skepticism concerning its need or viability) only after the war’s end. Its public unveiling came in an article in The New York Times on February 14, 1946—a rare scientific valentine. ENIAC holds a significant place in history as the “first large-scale electronic general-purpose digital computer.”

According to Moore faculty member Carl Chambers in “Memories of 1946 Computer Course,” then Dean Pender, in the spring of 1946, “discussed with me his concern at the number of requests for scholars from various institutions to be … visiting scholars … at the Moore School …. I proposed that I conduct a … course somewhat like that which we had offered in 1941 when John Mauchly and Arthur Burkes were among the students.”

What resulted was the “Course in Theory and Techniques for Design of Electronic Digital Computers.” In addition to Eckert and Mauchly, instructors included the Moore School faculty, plus visitors from the Ballistic Research Laboratory, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (notably John von Neumann), the University of Manchester, Harvard, and the U.S. Navy.

Nor were those attending the course your average “students.” Rather, they numbered established academics, physicists and mathematicians, from MIT, the Naval Research Lab, General Electric, the Bureau of Standards, Bell Labs, the War Department and the Army Security Agency.

Gard took more than 200 pages of highly detailed notes, filling the pages with equations and matrices—all in a clear, readable hand. Mauchly made clear, Gard noted, that the “Purpose of course was to instruct and give background for design of new machines, not to learn operation of any machine already built.” Later, Gard added that ENIAC’s designers advised that “no two identical machines should be built,” since they were intended as experimental devices.

Bordogna emphasizes the unique place of the course in the histories of both computing and The Moore School. “Not only did The Moore School conceive, design, implement, and operate the world’s first all electronic, large-scale, general-purpose, digital computer,” he explains, “it also gave the first computer science course. It was really one holistic thing—not just a series of lectures, but a description of the creation of the ENIAC and of the new base it had established for moving forward in computation.”

“Most people know about ENIAC, but hardly anybody knows about this course. It’s equally important in the history of the School as a follow-up to the hardware and software and program beginnings of the machine itself—a follow-up of transfer of new knowledge to the community,” Bordogna continues.

“If you look at the responsibility that society gives to universities, it is to create knowledge, integrate it and transfer it through its graduates and scholarly papers. All three of these things were done with this computer, in an educational research setting, and it was shared openly and broadly with the community.”

Credit: Penn Engineering Magazine, “Of Note: The Moore School Lectures 1946,” by Derek Davis.

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