John Adam Presper Eckert Jr. (called Pres) was born in Philadelphia on April 9, 1919, to John Presper Eckert and Ethel Hallowell Eckert. His father was the rich real estate developer and self-made millionaire John Eckert. Eckert Jr. was an only child and was raised in a large house in Philadelphia’s Germantown section.
But Pres was more than just a child who had been driven to the prestigious William Penn Charter School by a chauffeur. He was a genius in his own right. As early as five-year-olds he was sketching radios and speakers. At age twelve, he won a Philadelphia science fair with a water-filled tub and a sailboat that he could control with a steering wheel hooked to magnets laid at the bottom of a homemade pond. This invention was patterned after an amusement he had seen in a park in Paris, and it was so sophisticated, that it had a rheostat, which could control electric current to the magnets, enabling him to drop one boat and pick up another for maneuvering in the four-by-six-foot pond. At age fourteen, he replaced a vexatious battery-powered intercom system in one of his father’s high-rise apartment buildings with an electrical system. He built radios and phonograph amplifiers, and earned pocket money installing sound systems for schools, nightclubs and special events. He even was hired by West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Merion to build a music system that masked the unnerving sound of gas burners in the nearby crematorium.
Young Eckert with his mother and the famous actor Douglas Fairbanks
In high school, he spent afternoons hanging out in the Chestnut Hill research laboratory of Philo Taylor Farnsworth, who had demonstrated a working model of a television system in 1927. On the math portion of the College Board examination, Pres was placed second in the country. He wanted to go to the center of USA scientific research—Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and was easily accepted. But his mother couldn’t bear the thought of her only child leaving home, and his father wanted him to attend business school, so they enrolled Pres at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. Feigning tight finances because of the depression, they even required Pres to live at home and commute to the downtown campus.
Bored in business classes, Pres soon tried to transfer to the physics department, but no spaces were available. Finally he decided to transfer to Moore School of Electrical Engineering of the University of Pennsylvania, where he enrolled in 1937.
At Moore School, Eckert distinguished himself as a bright young man but not an outstanding student. He was a perfectionist, like his father, orderly and hard driving. But he was not very diligent when it came to classes that bored him, and his grades suffered. Eckert made a name for himself in other ways, as well. At one dance, he created the Osculometer—a machine he claimed measured the intensity, the passion, of a kiss. Couples would grab handles wired to the Osculometer, and an array of ten light bulbs progressively lit up when the pair kissed, completing the electric circuit. What the engineers knew—and their dates didn’t, was that if you got your lips wet enough, hands sweaty enough, and held the kiss long enough, you could get all ten bulbs to light up. Then a loudspeaker atop the device would proclaim: “WAH! WAH! WAHHHH!”.
In 1940, still only twenty-one years old, Pres applied for his first patent, which was granted two years later (USA patent number 2283545). It was called Light Modulating Methods and Apparatus (see the patent), and amounted to a motion-picture sound system. The machine was never sold, however.
Pres persisted at Moore School, earning his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering in 1941 and his master’s degree in 1943. He was widely regarded as a superb engineer while at the Moore. However, he could be stubborn, and his work habits were considered odd. He was highly nervous and would rarely sit in a chair or stand still while thinking. Often he would crouch on top of a desk or pace back and forth.
John Mauchly and Pres first met in 1942, when the Army asked University of Pennsylvania to have a class of scientists to help the war effort. Eckert was the teacher in this class and Mauchly was a student. Though they had different upbringings and were twelve years apart in age, John Mauchly and Pres Eckert became fast friends, wired together by a shared enthusiasm for creating devices. They had amazingly similar childhood interests. Both were fascinated by electricity and wiring, and both had rigged up the same kind of boyhood toys and gimmicks. Eckert was a man more interested in doing than teaching, and prescribed lab exercises bored him. Mauchly knew exactly what he wanted to work on, and saw little value in simple experiments of a caliber he might have assigned to his Ursinus students. Much of the lab time Eckert and Mauchly were assigned to spend together was actually spent talking about different ideas-including computing machines. The final result result of these talks will be the creation of the first large electronic computer in the world—ENIAC
After the WWII and creation of ENIAC, IBM had offered Eckert a job and his own lab for developing computers, but Mauchly talked him into jointly starting a new company—Electronic Control Company. Their first work, in 1946 and 1947, was with the National Bureau of Standards and the Census Bureau. They developed the specifications for a computer eventually known as the UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Computer) in 1948. Like most start-up companies developing complex hardware, Eckert and Mauchly ran into their share of financial problems, consistently underestimating the development costs for their computers. To raise money, they signed a contract in the fall of 1947 with the Northrop Aircraft Company to create a small computer for navigating airplanes—the BINAC (Binary Automatic Computer). The BINAC (completed in August 1949) and the UNIVAC were the first computers to employ magnetic tape drives for data storage. Smaller in size and comprised of fewer parts than the ENIAC, both machines had internal memories for storing programs and could be accessed by typewriter keyboards.
Eckert and Mauchly had been kept from bankruptcy by the support of Henry Straus, an executive for the American Totalisator Company, which manufactured the odds-making machines used at race tracks. When Straus was killed in a plane crash in October 1949, Eckert and Mauchly knew they had to sell UNIVAC. The Remington Rand Corporation acquired their company on February 1, 1950. Eckert remained in research to develop the hardware for UNIVAC, while Mauchly devoted his time to developing software applications. In contrast to Mauchly, Pres succeeded in Sperry Rand, in 1959 he even became vice-president and assistant to General Manager. The first UNIVAC, delivered to the Census Bureau in March 1951, proved its value in the 1952 presidential election between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson, when it accurately predicted results less than an hour after the polls closed. Eckert and Mauchly’s patent on the ENIAC was challenged during an infringement suit between Sperry-Rand (formerly Remington), who now owned the rights to the computer, and Honeywell. On October 19, 1973, the court invalidated the ENIAC patent and asserted that Iowa State University professor John Vincent Atanasoff was the true inventor of the digital electronic computer.
On October 28, 1944, Eckert married to Hester Caldwell. The couple had two sons, John Presper III and Christopher, before Hester died in 1952. Ten years later, on October 13, 1962, Eckert married to Judith A. Rewalt and he had two more children, Laura and Gregory.
Mauchly and Eckert (in the middle) receiving the Harry Goode Medal of the American Federation of Information Processing Societies in 1966
Eckert received his honorary doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1964. After his first patent in 1942, he also received 87 patents and numerous awards for his innovations, including the Howard N. Potts and John Scott Medals (both of which he shared with Mauchly). President Lyndon B. Johnson presented him with the National Medal of Science in 1969. Eckert was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1967. He remained with the Remington Rand Corporation through a number of mergers, retiring in 1989. He later served as a consultant to UNISYS and to the Eckert Scientific International Corporation, based in Tokyo, Japan.
John Presper Eckert died on June 3, 1995 in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.