If John Mauchly was a superhero …

… he would have been called DATAMAN! What he did with data (collecting, creating, analyzing, and saving) certainly required skills that are beyond the typical human.  To provide a little background, Mauchly was the co-inventer of the first computer, ENIAC, which was developed here at the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Engineering in 1946.  His co-inventor, J. Prosper Eckert, and he continued to work together on other computer related projects, including the first commercial computer, the EDVAC.

When I started working on this massive collection (approximately 500 linear feet of material), I was baffled by the sheer volume and types of data that Mauchly collected and saved.  But as I get to know Mauchly, I understand, more and more, why he was such a data pack-rat!  It is just how his brain worked and how he learned — and it how his brain ALWAYS worked and how he ALWAYS learned.

boys-quizMay I introduce you to DataBoy, DataMan’s early persona?  It turns out that as early as age 10, Mauchly was actively collecting data and recording it in a nice, standardized format.  What did DataBoy collect information on at age 10?  Why, his friends’ likes and dislikes, of course!  I have not found that Mauchly analyzed any of this data, so  I did a quick and incomplete analysis:  Douglas Fairbanks and Marguerite Clarke were the clear winners in the favorite actor and actress categories; ice cream was the favorite dessert, followed by pineapple, brown betty, and pie; and blue was the favorite color.  One snarky ten-year-old listed flirting as his favorite sport and kissing as his favorite game!  Scandalous!

In addition to learning all this outstanding information about a group of ten to eleven-year-olds in Chevy Chase, Maryland in 1918, we have evidence of  Mauchly’s delightfully charming methodology to ensure that the same questions were asked of each kid.  Both boys and girls filled out the data request in separate sections of the notebook (they are ten, after all), and in a happy coincidence, Mauchly and “his girl” both identified each other as their special person.

diary_1diary2Things only became more structured for DataBoy in his high school years. The collection includes a couple of Mauchly’s diaries in which he records a great deal of data:  when he went to sleep, when he awoke, the number of hours he slept, and where and how he spent his evenings.  I was entertained and awed by his discipline, but I was thunderstruck when I discovered that he had used his data to prove his mother wrong in an argument about his staying out too late too many evenings.  Not only does he present his argument in “The Somerset Affair,” but he provides supplements to the data!

special_attentionsBy college at Johns Hopkins University, DataBoy was evolving into DataMan, if for no other reason than the subject of his data; in this case:  “Girls to whom I have given special attentions!”  Not only does he record the lady’s name, but also the number of times and the reason for giving the ladies his special attentions (with a numeric code)!  Don’t worry, he defined the code: 1. Because I wanted to; 2. Because I thought she wanted me to; 3. Both of the above; and 4. Because I wanted to see what would happen.

So, after learning about Mauchly’s love of data as a boy, is it really surprising that he collected and saved boxes and boxes (and boxes) of weather data?  That he kept more than fifty boxes of scholarly (and not-so-scholarly) journals? That he recorded from whom he received Christmas gifts and if and how those gifts were reciprocated each year?  No, it is not surprising and that is why archival collections, and especially collections as rich as Mauchly’s, are so amazing–no one piece of paper tells the whole story, but taken as a whole … oh, what a delightful tale this collection tells!

Keep an eye out for more posts on Mauchly … every box presents another fascinating picture of who this man was and how he was able to create the first computer!

8 thoughts on “If John Mauchly was a superhero …

  1. I loved reading this! You are quite right about the man. It is great that you have the chance to explore all of this. Sincerely, Gini Mauchly

  2. It is fascinating how a stack of data can paint a picture of a man’s life and the society in which he lived. Looking forward to updates.

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