IN MY VIEW: Do we care who invented the computer?

Jan. 1, 2011
The story of the man and his arch-rivals who claim to have invented the "computer" has just been revived-for the fourth or fifth time.

The story of the man and his arch-rivals who claim to have invented the "computer" has just been revived—for the fourth or fifth time. This new book should have been left to expire gracefully with a generous tip of the editorial hat to Iowa State professor John Atanasoff and his several biographers and others. So I was astonished to see a review in the New York Times of the most recent offering in this arena, entitled The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer.

I'm sorry to take the wind out of the author Jane Smiley's sails, but this is a case of "been there, done that." If the biographer had anything new to add to the collection of books, articles, videos, scholarly papers, etc., on the conception and gestation of the computer, it may be that the new book would be worth reading. As it stands, the book barely covers its complex subject in just over 200 dry and boring pages.

And the "computer" is a one-of-a-kind nonworking prototype model that has long since been consigned to the basement of the engineering department at Iowa State. However, a quick Amazon search found at least six books on Atanasoff and his computer. Most of the books are out print but can be obtained easily through one of Amazon's used book affiliates. But why bother?

The ABC—the Atanasoff-Berry Computer (Clifford Berry was a colleague of Atanasoff)—was not a programmable general-purpose digital computer as we know it today. Rather, it was designed for one application: the solution of partial differential equations...definitely not a trivial problem.

The definitive word on the genesis of the computer lies within the pages of a book published in 2003: Who Invented the Computer? The Legal Battle That Changed Computing History, by Alice Rowe Burks. Even this book is not without controversies, some within its pages and some without.

For example, in the Amazon reader reviews of the Alice Rowe Burks book, there appears to be a long-standing feud between the Burks (who are brother and sister) and one Jean J. Bartik. Ms. Bartik was one of the original programmers for the ENIAC machine developed by John Mauchly and Presper Eckert. The responses are quite vitriolic—I'm not going to get into the feud in this column, but you can look up the reader responses after the author has his say. It's all rather academic and does not resolve the differences between the authors.

Suffice it to say, Jane Smiley does not get into the Burks/Bartik battles. But this book remains a dull piece of work. Ms. Smiley does not have the technical chops to dig into the Atanasoff controversies, so she beats around the bush rather too frequently. In an earlier bestseller entitled Moo, she handled the animal science aspects with aplomb, possibly since that is her academic area. But math and computer science are just a little beyond her expository skills.

For reasons that are not immediately obvious, the book also contains some 20 pages of appendices devoted to explanations of the math of simultaneous equations, logic gates, and ordinary and partial differential equations, as compiled by John Gustafson, PhD, who is a professor at Iowa State.

I also do not understand why Ms. Smiley felt that it was necessary to rewrite the story of John Atanasoff at this time. Essentially, the story of Atanasoff and the ABC came to an end in 1973 when a judge declared the ENIAC patents to be invalid. None of the parties to that action tried to appeal the decision or to file further actions. It seems that none of the parties felt that additional legal action would be of any benefit. The judge's ruling totaled 420 pages, so perhaps the involved parties were worn out by this contemporary version of a never-ending Dickensian litigation.

John Atanasoff died in 1995 in Frederick, MD, but the question of the computer's parentage lives on.

About the Author

Jeffrey Bairstow | Contributing Editor

Jeffrey Bairstow is a Contributing Editor for Laser Focus World; he previously served as Group Editorial Director.

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