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Thought Leadership

War, Passion & the Origin of Computer Societies

Written By Ritika Trikha | May 27, 2015

Every computer scientist knows the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). With over 160,000 members collectively worldwide, ACM and the IEEE Computer Society are the largest catalyst for bringing together the most enthusiastic, determined and intelligent minds devoted to advancing computing technology.
But how did such computer science organizations emerge? Tracing the origins of today’s largest computing organizations reveals a fascinating story of passion for a new trade at the culmination of WWII.
How it All Began
It was 1946, and pressure was high in advancing technology in the face of warfare. A team of scientists at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering in Pennsylvania introduced the world to the very first powerful, multipurpose digital computer: the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer). It was originally designed for the army to calculate artillery firing tables with 1,000 times more power and speed than traditional machines.
As early as the 1930s and even after the war ended in 1945, the national department of defense depended on mathematicians, engineers and scientists to keep improving technology for not only weaponry but also logistics, communications and intelligence in labs across the nation.
As a result of the war, the demand for more mathematicians, statisticians and engineers to iterate on such computing devices spiked dramatically. Look at the spike in demand for mathematicians and statisticians between 1938 and 1954:

Mathematicians Demand Growth (1)
Because of the covert wartime operations, many of the inventions and advancements remained behind closed lab doors. It wasn’t until February of 1946 that the ENIAC was introduced to the world in the press, often referred to as the “Giant Brain.” Intrigued by automatic computing, researchers saw the potential value of computers for other other areas as well.  For scientists, this was a massively powerful machine with immeasurable potential of computing. Just think, unlike any other existing machine,  it could solve 5,000 addition problems in 1 second.
There was so much more to explore, understand and scientifically test. It signified the birth of a brand new field. It quickly became an exciting topic of imagination and discussion for industrialists across the nation.
The Origin of IEEE’s Early Computer Societies

It was in ENIAC’s same birth year and city where the first computing committee of IEEE began: The Computing Device Committee (CDC). At this time, the IEEE was still split as two, rival societies: American Institute of Electronic Engineers (AIEE) and Institute of Radio Engineers (IRE). Both formed their own committees dedicated to understanding the new field of computing.
For instance, one mission of the IRE’s new technical committee on electronic computers was to standardize the glossary of the emerging field of computer science. It sounds mundane to us now, but someone had to come up with uniform names for brand new concepts. One hot debate was what to call the increased speed of switching circuits.  It was almost going to be called “Babbage,” most likely after Charles Babbage, a father of the computer. Ultimately, they voted on the term “nanosecond.”
The founding members of these committees were some of the most forward-looking minds behind early computing inventions:

The interest in computing grew swiftly and in 1951, IRE decided to establish a paid membership based group (like ACM): Professional Group of Electronic Computers (PGEC). It grew from about 1,100 paid members in 1954 to over 8,800 paid members at the end of the decade. Eventually, the different computing committees joined forces to create one giant Computer Group and later Computer Society.

Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 10.02.10 AM
The Origin of ACM

As the ENIAC sparked an uptick in gatherings to discuss digital computing, one pivotal convention was the Symposium on Large-Scale Digital Calculating Machinery in January 1947. Over 300 technical experts from universities, industry and government met at Harvard University to watch technical paper presentations and a demonstration of the Mark I Calculator.
It was at this symposium where computer pioneer Samuel H. Caldwell first expressed a need for a dedicated association solely for people interested in computing machinery. Sure, there were computing committees as arms of larger related organizations (e.g. AIEE’s CDC), but there needed to be a better way for interested computing experts to exchange ideas, publish official journals and tackle challenges across these organizations.
By summertime, there was modest support around the idea and a “Notice on Organization of the Eastern Association for Computing Machinery” was sent to anyone who might be interested in computers. Just like the founding members of the first computing committee at AIEE, ACM’s founding council were also accomplished computing pioneers:

  • R.V.D. Campbell worked on the Harvard Mark I-IV.
  • John Mauchly co-designed the first general purpose computer and first commercial computer.
  • T. K. Sharpless contributed to the design of the high-speed multiplier.

On September 15, 1947, about 48 people met at Columbia University and formally voted on starting the association and elected a board. At the first meeting, TK Sharpless talked about the Pilot model of the Edvac, a stored program computer. In the following meeting that same year, they covered 13 technical papers in one meeting! And, this time, over 300 people joined in.
Because interest was catching on in the community, by 1948, they decided to drop the “eastern” in the name and expand the association. Both the membership and the value of the association grow pretty rapidly early on.  Membership just about doubled between 1949 and 1951. Even though prices increased to support expansion from $1 annually in 1947 to $10 annually in 1961, more people kept joining. In fact, some notable founding members, like Sharpless and Concordia, belonged to both ACM and IEEE’s Computer Society.
Growth in Numbers of ACM (1)


A Passionate Pursuit by Forward Thinkers: Edmund Berkeley & Charles Concordia  
You’d think the biggest champions of the ACM & IEEE Computer Society would be the leaders who invented the first electronic automatic computers, like the ENIAC or Atanasoff–Berry Computer, right? Well, you’d be wrong.
Although many of the early fathers of automatic computing machinery played integral roles as presiders and council members of ACM and IEEE Computer Society, the early champions and heavy lifters of both computing societies weren’t early industry or government inventors of the modern automatic computing machine. They were admirers and researchers, who passionately believed in the significance of these computing advancements.
Dr. Charles Concordia Led the AIEE’s CDC

At the time of AIEE’s inception of its first computer committee, Dr. Charles Concordia was a prominent electrical engineer. He was an early computer user rather than an inventor. His work in electrical engineering at General Electric laboratory frequently required the use of the differential analyser (an analog computer), which was housed at the Moore School of Engineering.
Here, he was exposed to a lot of the new electronic computing devices, including the ENIAC, and saw something with incredible potential. As an active member of the AIEE, he knew there needed to be a more concerted effort in understanding and advancing the future of computing. And so, without any background or experience in building early computers, he boldly presided as the chairman of the CDC and pulled other computer pioneers, like John Grist Brainerd, who famously worked on the ENIAC project, to form the first computing committee in 1946.
It’s interesting that someone who specialized in detecting cracks in railroads, designing generators and advising on a pump hydro storage project would lead a committee entirely dedicated to exploring automatic computing, like the ENIAC. Computer science was too new for him to definitively know what impact computing would have on his field of electrical engineering.
Edmund Berkeley: The Man Behind ACM

Edmund Berkeley is cited by multiple people (here and here) as the sole person who originated the ACM. While Berkeley was an expert in early computers, first by working on the Mark II during WWII, and then by working on the computerization of Prudential Insurance Company, he wasn’t an early modern computer inventor at the time. Rather, he was a passionate writer, editor and publisher of computing as it relates to society and education. Later on, he created an educational toy, Simon, that taught people more about coding.
He diligently worked to connect with interested parties across groups from different regions and laboriously did all of the secretary work that no one else wanted to do for 6 years without pay. Berkeley manually mimeographed documents to members as the founding secretary.
What propelled him to work so hard in creating ACM as the sole driver? Berkeley was highly vocal about computing as a means to understand fundamental problems of the world. He wanted to advance technology so that it could touch everyone’s lives positively. This required a free flow of information…something that the war prevented thus far and this association helped facilitate further.

“I read somewhere that the Soviets thought people ought to be taught about computers based on what 20-30 experts have to say. That’s stupid. What ought to be taught about computers is a result of looking at the world and seeing what needs to be taught about computers….I think what the ACM should concentrate on is making a list of the nine most important problems in the world. And then if they have the time left over, publish junk that only 50 people can understand.”

The Lasting Legacy of Passion in Computer Science for the Greater Good

During a time when computer science wasn’t even an accepted discipline, the creation of ACM and IEEE’s early computer groups offered a haven of bountiful access to exciting resources, ideas and inspiration from people at the forefront of this brand new science.
Created by passionate believers and eventually led by pioneers of the early computing history, these organizations were responsible for turning the mysterious, complex and wartime computer mainframes into an educational discipline.
Early on, ACM and IEEE’s Computer Society’s primary activity was to arrange national meetings and publish journals that helped connect the world with leading experts who helped cement computer science as an educational discipline. Until these associations were formally created, there was no easy way to reach academics or researchers across the nation who are working on solving similar problems or to even learn more about computer science.
The tradition has lived on today as software engineers, academics and students from all over the world still convene at ACM and IEEE to challenge themselves in solving the world’s toughest problems. Both have committees that help shape today’s computer science education, research and innovative advancements of software computer technology of the future.

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