A medal awarded for one of the most significant technological advancements in the last century is among the most intriguing lots offered in Heritage Auctions’ Americana & Political Auction February 22-23 in Dallas, Texas.
The John Scott Medal Awarded to John Presper Eckert Jr. in 1961 “For The Invention Of The First Large Scale Electronic Computer” Known as the ENIAC carries a pre-auction estimate: $10,000+, but there is a very real chance the return at auction could far exceed that total.
The copper medal, with a 102-mm diameter and bearing the seal of the city of Philadelphia, is given by the city to “the most deserving” men and women whose inventions have contributed in some outstanding way “to the comfort, welfare and happiness” of mankind. The first medal was issued in 1822.
“Computers are such an integral part of our everyday lives, at home, at work, in our cars … everywhere,” Heritage Auctions Americana Director Tom Slater said. “The importance and value of computers that evolved from Eckert’s invention can not be overstated.”
The ENIAC not only was the first large-scale computer, but also the first reprogrammable general-use computer.
The reverse of the medal, which was shared by Eckert and John Mauchley, his partner in the development of the computer, reads: “The John Scott Medal – To The Most Deserving” with engraved text at center surrounded by laurel branches: “J. Presper Eckert Jr, BSEE, MSEE/ For The Invention Of The First/ Large Scale Electronic Computer./ June 16, 1961.” It is enclosed in a custom leather case that measures 5 by 5-1/2 by 1 inch, with “John Scott Medal/ J. Presper Eckert, Jr.” embossed in gold on the top. This medal comes from the collection of Eric C. Caren, whose collecting interests ranged from newspapers to posters to broadsides to manuscripts and eyewitness letters.
J. Presper “Pres” Eckert was born in 1915 in Philadelphia. His high school interest in engineering earned him invitations into the laboratory of television inventor Philo Farnsworth, and eventually convinced him to switch his major at the University of Pennsylvania from business to engineering. He earned his first patent at 21, and three years later was awarded a contract to develop a computing machine using (then)-fast vacuum tubes. The ENIAC was completed two years later, in 1945, and unveiled for the public the following year.
Eckert and Mauchley started their own company, the Electronic Control Company, in 1946, and three years later built the Binary Automatic Computer (BINAC), which featured the first stored-program (magnetic tape) in the United States. They received an order from the National Bureau of Standards to build the UNIVAC, the first of which was bought and dedicated March 31, 1951, by the United States Census Bureau. The UNIVAC was the first American computer designed for business and administrative use.
The notoriety of the machine and the potential of computer technology got a considerable boost when Eckert’s company teamed up with CBS News to predict the outcome of the 1952 Presidential election. Despite polls showing Adlai Stevenson as the race’s leader, the UNIVAC predicted Dwight Eisenhower would win a lopsided victory. The projection was dismissed by skeptics, but ultimately proved to be accurate.
Other winners of the John Scott Medal include such scientific luminaries as Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, the Wright Brothers and Jonas Salk.