Conserving ENIAC (aka Project CLEANIAC)

August 24, 2011

Pre-program interns Vicki Chisholm (left) and Jess Walthew painstakingly cleaning components of ENIAC, the first general-purpose electronic computer.

One of the responsibilities of the conservation department is to provide advice and consultation on conservation matters for colleagues, the university community and the general public.  The University Community often produces some interesting queries, like the time the ICA wanted to know how to prevent pest problems when exhibiting artworks made of chocolate.  Most recently, it was an email from Helen Anderson, Senior Director of Computing and Educational Technology Services (CETS) at Penn Engineering.  She wanted to know if we could recommend someone to do a condition report of ENIAC.  I’d known that ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer; the first general-purpose electronic computer) had been developed at Penn and was on exhibit nearby but I’d never gone to see it.

It turned out that the ENIAC components at Penn were on loan from the Smithsonian Institution and the owners wanted an updated description of the artifact’s current condition.  This was not something Penn Engineering was equipped for but is a common requirement for artifacts loaned from one museum to another.  I was intrigued and offered our services to do a basic condition report.

Conservators Nina Owczarek (left) and Julie Lawson get up close and personal with ENIAC

As luck would have it, I couldn’t go on the day we’d selected for the visit but my colleagues Julie Lawson and Nina Owczarek took our pre-program interns, Jessica Walthew, Vicki Chisholm, and Elizabeth Kovich along to help out and get experience with a different sort of artifact than those they’d seen in our Museum.  It may seem counterintuitive, but modern materials like ENIAC (dating to 1946) can be much more problematic for conservators than things that are thousands of years old.  Archaeological artifacts are the products of a sort of Darwinian selection: many kinds of materials don’t survive in the archaeological record because they deteriorate completely in use or burial.  Plastics and many metals generally are much more ephemeral.

Our conservators found that Penn’s ENIAC had some issues that needed addressing: it was dusty, rusty, and had suffered some water damage (not surprising, since some accounts say the pieces were rescued from the dump at the Aberdeen Proving Ground).  After some consultation with the conservators at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Conservator Julie Lawson supervised interns Jess Walthew and Vicki Chisholm in cleaning and stabilization of this relic of the earliest Computer Age.

Examining ENIAC's innards, aided by a LED flashlight

Fun fact: As of 1997, a square chip of silicon measuring 0.25 inches (8 mm) on a side holds the same capacity as the ENIAC, which occupied a large room.  See Jan Van Der Spiegel (1996-03). “ENIAC-on-a-Chip”. PENNPRINTOUT.