Of Mice and ENIAC

Mice huddled under a log

We all know the computer mice that we use for moving the cursor about the screen. However, there was a time when actual furry mice were employed in computer planning.

In the 1940s, real mice helped with wire selection for ENIAC, generally considered the first practical, working digital computer.

ENIAC’s home was the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Electronics, in a building that was also home to numerous mice. The resident mice enjoyed chewing wire insulation which would bring computer operations to a stop. What could be done?

Someone came up with the idea of the mouse test. The idea was to figure out which wire insulation was least liked by the mice. To determine this, samples of available wires were placed in a box together with some of the resident mice. Only wires the mice did not eat were used for ENIAC.

This information came from an interview with J. Presper Eckert, one of the co-developers of ENIAC. On the more serious side, Eckert talked about what it was like to have his life’s work placed on a microprocessor chip, less than a tenth of a square inch.

Black and white photo of the ENIAC computer
ENIAC (Public Domain)

The serious, the humorous, along with insights into people involved with ENIAC are revealed in the 1989 interview. The interview was conducted by Alexander Randall 5th and published in Computerworld for ENIAC’s 60th anniversary.

Q&A: A lost interview with ENIAC co-inventor J. Presper Eckert. Computerworld, February 14, 2006.

 

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