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In 1946, the massive Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, or ENIAC, boasted a calculation speed of 5,000 addition problems each second. The 30-ton machine relied on over 17,000 vacuum tubes to perform mathematical calculations. Today’s average laptop or desktop computer, by comparison, can perform 100 million instructions per second––and without a single vacuum tube. The revolution in computing has transformed the world, and nitrogen plays an important role in creating high-tech electronics.

During World War II, a physicist named John Mauchly teamed up with the U.S. Army to produce an all-electronic calculator. The result was ENIAC, and in a single decade, the computer ran as many calculations as mankind had performed in its entire history. ENIAC relied on a network of vacuum tubs and circuit connectors, which poured electricity into the system.

Just a few decades later, computing technology looked completely different: for the 50-year anniversary of ENIAC, a team recreated the 30-ton, room-sized computer on a single integrated circuit chip which could be held in the palm of the hand.

One key to this massive leap in technology has to do with the manufacture of transistors, circuit boards, and other electronic parts. Since the days of ENIAC, computer manufacturers realized that nitrogen gas makes it easier to produce precise electronic products.

The nitrogen serves three purposes: it helps maintain the perfect temperature and atmosphere when manufacturing electronics, because it is less prone to pressure fluctuations than regular air. Nitrogen also creates precise lines during soldering, reducing surface tension and guaranteeing a sharper finish. And finally, nitrogen gas prevents oxidation. When exposed to oxygen, electronic manufacturing suffers. Oxygen weakens the soldering process and can harm the metals used in the manufacturing processes.

Nitrogen plays an important role in creating the powerful computers and electronic devices that define our world today. Similarly, nitrogen also improves the way we drive. By filling car tires with nitrogen gas rather than compressed air, drivers eliminate the problem of oxidation inside their tires––the same issue that can harm electronics manufacturing. And just like nitrogen makes electronics stronger, it improves car handling, gas mileage, and safety when driving.

Nitrogen may be as old as the universe, but it still plays surprising roles in new, cutting-edge technologies.

Post Author: Genevieve Carlton Ph.D.

Ph.D. - Research Historian from Northwestern University. A writer and researcher she has published pieces for Ranker, Stacker and Atlas Obscura. She has published a nonfiction history book with the University of Chicago Press and a number of scholarly articles with top journals.

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