The Curated History of Data Science, Part 3

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From a small building in Pennsylvania to widespread usage across the world, we track the compelling story of one of the greatest technological innovations in history, setting the stage for the age of data science. Ginette: “I’m Ginette.” Curtis: “And I’m Curtis.” Ginette: “And you are listening to Data Crunch.” Curtis: “A podcast about how data and prediction shape our world.” Ginette: “A Vault Analytics production.” Ginette: “Today our story starts at a business building.” Curtis: “The building is in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Broad and Spring Garden Streets to be precise. Envision the late 1940s.” Ginette: “You see a man absorbed in thought entering the building, and you decide to follow him in.” Curtis: “When you walk through his office, you find some bright engineering minds working on a fairly new startup in town: the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation, or EMCC. It turns out, this is the very first large-scale computer business in the United States.” Ginette: “While this business environment on the surface is vibrant and innovative, behind the scenes, it’s a pressure cooker full of confusion.” Curtis: “The owners, John Mauchly, who you followed into the office, and his business partner, J. Presper Eckert, are talking about something strange that’s been happening: most of their clients had been from the government, and now they’re quietly pulling away from doing business with EMCC without any explanation, which is both alarming and confusing to the business owners. It’d be one thing if the government gave a reason each time it pulled out of a contract, but without one, they have no idea what’s wrong or how to try and fix the situation. It’s like going through several breakups where the only explanation offered is, ‘it’s not you; it’s me.’ “So what’s actually going on here?” Ginette: “The answer is woven into John’s backstory, a backstory that also includes the story of the ENIAC, the very first fully electric general purpose computer. “In John’s earlier career, he was involved with scientific clubs and academia. He started as an engineer and eventually became a professor at the prestigious Moore School of Engineering at UPENN. At one point, he got lucky. He asked essentially this question to the right military person on campus: what if I could build a machine that would significantly reduce your trajectory calculation time for projectiles?” Curtis: “So the military ends up formally accepting his proposal, and John and Presper team up for three years on this top-secret military project to build the ENIAC. “At the time, the ENIAC is really impressive in both size and ability. It weighs about the same as nine adult elephants, which is 27 tons, and it has about 17,500 vacuum tubes, each about the size of your average household light bulb. It has 5,000,000 hand-melted joints. And it’s the size of a small house—about 1,800 square feet. And in today’s dollars, it costs about $7 million. “It’s the very first of its kind. It’s both completely electric and a general purpose machine, meaning you can use it to calculate almost anything as long as you give it the right parameters. The bottom line is that it’s a lot faster than anything before it. It’s 2,400 times faster than human computers, and 1,000 times faster than any other type of machine computer at the time. For example, it took the calculation of a 60-second projectile down from 20 hours to just 30 seconds. To understand the magnitude of this, it's like moving from an average snail’s pace to the average speed of a car on a highway.” Ginette: “Here’s another way to look at this: if you drive your car (the ENIAC) across the country from L.A. to New York City at about 70 miles per hour without stopping, it would take you a little over a day and a half to drive there. In contrast, it’d take a snail (the human computer) without stopping about 11 years.” Curtis: “So it turns out the ENIAC isn’t ready in time f...

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