What a 1940’s Computer Can Teach Us About Online Success

Last week I made a silly purchase. I bought a 60 year old vacuum tube. But really, what I bought, was a story. A story of how to think about technology – how it is changing our lives – and how we should focus our online efforts to ensure we get:

All the BENEFITS and none of the SACRIFICES.

The tube I bought was supposedly used in the ENIAC, one of the world’s first electronic computers. If the story is true, it was one of 17,468 tubes in the 680 square foot machine built in the 1940’s. Honestly, I don’t care if the story is true.

I care about what the ENIAC can teach us about how to approach online business today. The ENIAC reminds me of the following:

  • Technology itself is not the goal.
    It is simply a means to an end. In the case of the ENIAC, it was designed to calculate artillery firing tables for the U.S. Army’s Ballistic Research Laboratory. Technology in our lives, thankfully, has more peaceful goals. Technology itself is not the goal – technology enables.
  • Technology changes.
    When a business is built on a particular technology, other elements are now tethered to something that will become obsolete, likely before other business goals do. That’s a dangerous pairing, especially when flexibility is needed to act nimbly in a competitive and changing market.
  • Technology is beautiful.
    The ENIAC was a marvel in its day, which was from the early 1940s to 1955. To own an artifact of this machine links me to the effort of hundreds, if not thousands of people who worked to create this machine. But it links me to an entire history of technology. From the 680 square foot ENIAC, right up to the iPhone in my pocket. They are connected.
  • Technology is a story.
    This single tube is bigger than the iPhone, and each have their own stories to tell… yet they are part of a larger story of our culture as well. A story of  specific people, at a specific time, with specific needs. Each product that ends up helping or hurting us has its roots in the human condition, and in its creation, becomes a part of us, as much as we become a part of it.
  • Technology should be embraced.
    Technology pushes us further, past boundaries that have limited previous generations. Perhaps your day is spent cursing the machine. But I would bet somewhere along the way, there was a machine that helped you too. Or a piece of software. Or something that we hardly even think of as technology. It is all around us.

So how the heck does this all come back to the day-to-day reality of a modern media company? Easy:

  • Leverage technology where you can, but NEVER lose site of the real goal: helping your customers and your industry. I don’t care what role you have in any particular company, this is your only goal.
  • Don’t box yourself in to tightly into a single corner – technology changes too fast, and every time it does, your business is given either an opportunity, or a risk.
  • Don’t treat technology like it’s an obligation, or something merely practical, like a stapler. Technology enables business, find new ways to leverage it. Ensure that others in the company hear your feedback on how it can help your business grow.
  • Make it a part of your story.

Thank you little ENIAC tube.

The ENIAC in action

Programming it to add 2 + 2

One of these cables is misplaced, but which one?

And you thought your cell phone was complicated…

Part of the ENIAC today. I love how they put it next to the tree.

Best friends forever.


  1. Keep that tube safe. If you have any documentation on it, keep that safe as well. Do you know if the tube malfunctioned and had to be replaced? The lampblack buildup on the side of the glass indicates this might be the case, though some carbon buildup was normal. Tubes had short lifespans and had to be replaced regularly. Any drug store when I was a kid had a tube tester where Dad could see what tubes he had to replace. Early computers used lotsa tubes and were in a constant state of repair. 

  2. Kris: thanks. The person I bought it from didn’t have any documentation. Years ago, he was given access to remaining pieces of the computer in a basement by a professor friend, I believe. There was so much of it, they were allowed to take a small souvenir. But since it was a friend thing, there was no proof. I thought it was a good story, and worth the small price I paid for the tube. 

    For my main stereo (which isn’t setup now), it is all tube gear – the preamplifier and amplifiers. There is still a thriving tube market in the audiophile world. 

    They even remake some of the most desirable classic tubes. I have these in one of my amps:



  3. There is a period between the time something is ceasing to be “still useful” and when it becomes an antique when it is just trash. “Yeah, this was Eniac but it’s just junk now. Take a piece, go ahead.” Later on it takes on the cachet of a sliver from the True Cross. 

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