February 15

Worlds First Computer Day


You thought you heard the rumble of a mail-delivery truck outside — a suspicion soon confirmed by a scuff and thump on your porch and the ring of your doorbell.

Funny.  You don’t remember having placed an order.

When you check through the fish-eye peephole, you literally can’t see anything.

The driver has left a tall, flat rectangular package, leaning precariously in the entryway.  As you carefully open the door, it’s almost like another door starts to fall into your home.

You catch it, maneuver the package inside.

At first you think the delivery must be a mistake, but you read your name and address on the shipping label.  The return address lists a company named ENIAC.  The initials seem familiar, but you can’t yet place them.

On a whim, you stick your head out the front door and check the street.   Several houses down, you see a white delivery van with ENIAC stenciled on the side in blue letters.  A driver carries a similar, door-shaped box to that household, balances the package on the porch, rings the bell, then mechanically returns to his vehicle.

On either side of you and across the street, your neighbors have a similar package leaning against their front doors.

Now your curiosity is piqued.  You lower the box to the floor.  The depth of the door-shaped box is only about four inches.  You run your fingers beneath the top flap to break the glued seal, then reach inside to remove a bar of insulating Styrofoam.

As you begin to slide the main item from the box, you remember what the initials stand for.  Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer.  This was the official name for the machine that newspapers in 1946 had dubbed the “Giant Brain.”  It was among the first programmable, general-purpose computers — a grouping of panels, circuits, and wires that covered vast stretches of wall space at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering.

Annually, the University celebrates ENIAC Day, or “World’s First Computer Day,” on February 15.

A single panel of ENIAC would be about the size of the item packaged in the box you’re now opening.  (But, of course, the functionally of the original machine, in today’s advanced technology, could be reproduced on a microchip — or on a simple cell phone app.)

The item you pull from the box isn’t an ENIAC panel.  It’s a flat, smooth rectangle, metallic on the bottom, and glass on top.  At first you think it is a door-length mirror, because you see your reflection in it.

You lift the mirror, and position it vertically against the wall.

Your reflection is wearing the same clothes as you, the same black-framed glasses and mussed hair.

But you wonder — how can you actually be looking at it, if your reflection’s eyes are closed?

You play the pantomime mirror game, waving your hands.  The reflection also waves its hands, but there’s a strobe effect to the motion.  You do an awkward dance, which your reflection copies and does not improve upon.  You step out of the frame and back in.  The reflection, its eyes still closed, follows suit.

It can’t be a mirror.  The only solution is that this is some kind of oversized tablet, programmed to project your life-sized image, to follow your movements.

But how had the device been programmed in advance?

Are there photo-sensors on the bevel?  Hidden microphones and speakers?

As you lean closer to inspect the device, the reflection opens its eyes.

The eyes are the correct color, but they appear soulless.  The reflection doesn’t blink.

You feel your mouth curling into an ironic smile, then realize your facial muscles haven’t budged.  The reflection is smiling.

“Welcome to the Great Brain,” your reflection says, its mouth moving in a close match to the formed syllables.  It.  He.  Sounds exactly like you.

“In celebration of World’s First Computer Day, we announce: The World’s First You Day”

You can practically hear the trademark symbol in the mimicked voice.

“Congratulations.”  Your doppelganger’s eyes finally blink; an approximation of soul rushes into them. “You are now obsolete.”

An image of other cardboard boxes fills your fading mind — dominoes tipping over in turn as lives blink out, as digital souls blink open.