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Militant Innovation and the Electronic Computer – Computers and Culture

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Researchers work on ENIAC, one of the first electronic computers. Image from

Despite using our laptops and smartphones every day, how many of us are familiar with their origins? It may surprise some to know that the predecessors of the computers we are familiar with were developed for the sake of war. While computing today is far more sophisticated than that of the past, many of our beloved systems are predicated on developments from these earlier renditions. For example, modern programming languages and artificial intelligence depend on the storage of program instructions as data, an important innovation during the development of the first electronic computers. These early machines were in large part funded to aid in the war effort during World War II.

The Dawn of Electronic Computing

Prior to the existence of sophisticated, electronic computing machines, solving equations was largely done by hand. In fact, the very term “computer” used to be a job title for people who worked on complicated mathematics problems in astronomy, statistics, and other related fields. One common task for these human computers was to calculate ballistic trajectories for artillery and riflery for the military. Devices such as the differential analyzer, a general purpose analog computer that solved differential equations, were used to aid in these ballistic calculations, but they took a long time to finish. “Firing tables” contained thousands of trajectories each and, as Martin Campbell-Kelly notes in his history of the computer, the computation of a single table could take as long as a month to complete even with a large team working on it around the clock.

It was clear to army professionals that the lack of computational technology was a significant obstacle to their war efforts, so it became a goal of the army to find ways to effectively solve this issue. As Walter Isaacson recounts in his book The Inventors, it was Army Lieutenant Herman Goldstein’s “mission to speed up the production of firing tables”, an endeavor that would lead him to computing researchers John Mauchly and John Presper Eckert, Jr. After reading about Mauchly and Eckert’s work, Goldstein helped them secure funding to construct devices to solve complex calculations efficiently. Mauchly and Eckert had been exploring the possibility of building electronic computers, devices that could compute trajectories many times faster than the analog computers in use at the time. The Mauchly-Eckert team, in consultation with eminent mathematician John von Neumann, built ENIAC,an electronic digital computer that could perform 5,000 additions per second. ENIAC became the precursor to modern computers, but it was not a universal computer like the ones we see today. Instead, it was a very efficient, programmable tool to calculate ballistic tables.

War and Innovation

While the early electronic computers were incredible engineering feats in their own right, it is interesting to think about the military’s contribution to their development. The inputs required to construct ENIAC included 18,000 vacuum tubes that cost $400,000 in 1943 dollars, which is nearly $5,000,000 in 2018 dollars. This is a large sum of money for the construction of a single computer, and it is easy to doubt that a computer like ENIAC would have been built at all if not for the US Army.

The electronic computer is just one example of the government financing and leading a technological development. War continues to drive investment and research into new technologies even today. Drone research is constantly progressing as a result of immense military funding, with the Department of Defense budgeting “$6.97 billion for drone-related procurement, research and development, and system-specific construction,” according to the Bard College Center for the Study of the Drone.

In conjunction with drone technology, the US Department of Defense is also exploring applications of artificial intelligence and machine learning. In 2014, then Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Wolf stated that the goal of the DoD was “to exploit all advances in artificial intelligence and autonomy and insert them into DoD’s battle networks.” As China grows their machine learning industry, it will be interesting to see if a big data arms race will evolve akin to the space race from the Cold War era.

A New Paradigm?

It is often said that competition directly encourages groundbreaking research, and war is perhaps the competition with the greatest stakes. War encouraged the rise of electronic computing, but there are limitations in the types of breakthroughs that can be made in this way. The goal of military research funding is often to beat an enemy. How might this affect our ability to act on less adversarial issues such as climate change? There is not a clear human or organizational adversary in the climate debate; rather, there is a collection of responsible parties. This makes it harder to manifest a sense of urgency in the way that wartime hostilities do.

Do we need a tangible adversary to inspire significant investments in technological research? The fact that there was research in computational technologies prior to the military’s involvement would indicate not, but the investment from the military certainly expedited progress. It should be a goal of ours going forward to fund new research in technology for the public good without military necessity.

There are many areas where we can progress research outside of the context of war. For example, the US electorate is very unified on the need for large scale action to mitigate climate change’s harmful effects. According to a 2018 ABC News/Stanford survey conducted by Langer Research Associates, 61% of Americans believe the government should do a “great deal/a lot” about global warming. As the public sentiment begins to pervade the political landscape, we could see massive new investment projects in this area. Specifically, progressive politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders have voiced support for proposals to invest trillions of public dollars into renewable infrastructure and research. In this case, there is a clear push for public investment despite not having a clear connection to warfare.

Open source research projects are another example of how innovation can occur without war. These projects bring together thousands of software developers who simply want to advance the greater good. Programming languages like Python and version control platforms like Github are ubiquitous in our society and benefit the public immensely. These types of projects are not predicated on the need to gain a leg up on an adversary; they were created to solve engineering issues for the benefit of all.

Despite the historic lack of action on climate and abundance of licensed software, they serve as indicators that we may overcome the need for a human adversary to innovate. Even with the prevalence and history of military-funded technologies, support for renewable energy investment and the existence of open source projects show that we can innovate peacefully. We should carry this spirit forward and continue advocating for the public benefit outside of the context of war. Peaceful innovation can be achieved, but only if we continue to pursue it.

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Thanks !

Thanks for sharing this, you are awesome !