SEATTLE, Wash. – To figure out where we are going, it helps to know a bit about where we began.
Much of us know that our everyday content is being consumed via digital resources, but fewer still, even in the tech-savy Emerald City, know where that irreplacable item that is the computer even came from.
Fortunately for us, award-winning author Jane Smiley’s biography provides some of the answers with her latest project, The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer.
DoubleDay, 2010, $25.95 (U.S.C.)
Smiley tells the little-known story of John Vincent Atanasoff, a physics professor at Iowa State College [later Iowa State University] who, out of his desire to create a machine to perform time-consuming mathmatical calculations, which at the time could only be done by hand.
According to the introduction, Atanasoff drew up what would become the very first computer “in a roadhouse in Rock Island, Illinois [in December 1937]…he jotted his notes on a cocktail napkin.”
The road to immortality is long and is often pock-marked by failure. Obscurity is but a blink away. It can be difficult for us to fathom now, but the computer, just like every other great invention, was once an uncertain enterprise. Such a reality followes Atansoff throughout Smiley’s account.
All of those who contributed to the advancement of computer technology then, as today, faced the same obsticle. “…[they’re] ideas were so advanced that [they] had to prove they were worth something to people who did not really understand them.”
Althought Smiley’s book is largely about Atanasoff, other key innovators are woven into the story’s fabric as well. Alan Turing, Konrad Zuse, John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert. All are inner-woven into the fabric that is the genesis of the digital age.
The historical backdrop alone makes this book a worthwhile read. The story skyrockets from the troubled Great Depression, to the uncertainty of World War II, to the chaos of the Cold War years, where computer science is finally hit the mainstream.
Though it is widely accepted that these events helped to advance the young science, Smiley also shows how they hindered computer development. What much of these early computer scientists worked on during both World War II and much of the Cold War, they were forbidden to talk about.
For example, much of Alan Turing’s work at the super-secret Bletchley Park, on the code-breaking machine Colossus, wasn’t fully declassified until the year 2000.
Much of what went on during the Cold War is only now being declassified, some sixty to thirty years later. But until everything is declassified, one can only wonder what discoveries this period has yet to reveal.
Another interesting tid-bit found at the conclusion of the book, deals with the invention of the computer itself. The question; which one came first?
This is especially critical in an age of electronic content.
For years, John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert claimed their computer, the ENIAC ( or Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), came first. Later in his life, Atansoff challenged this claim, arguing that he and is associate, Clifford Berry, were the ones to create the first working computer; a machine later dubbed ABC, (or Atanasoff-Berry Computer).
The entire conflict ended up where these usually do, in court. In Minneapolis, from 1971 to 1974, lawyers who represented Honeywell/CDC on behalf of Atansoff wanted to prove “sine qua non” or “without, which not.” According to Smiley, “…without Atanasoff, Berry and the ABC, Mauchly could not himself have come up with the ideas that led to ENIAC.”
The entire case hinged on a visit by Mauchly in June 1941 to Atanasoff’s home in Ames, Iowa. Where, for several days, Mauchly was given unhindered access to the inner-workings, mechanisms, and designs of the working ABC machine. Some of these updated and tweaked features where later incorporated into the more-advanced ENIAC.
In an era of high-profile court cases dealing with who-invented-what-first, from Microsoft to Facebook to Google and even Apple, Inc., I would argue that these cases paled in comparison to the intensity, personality, and pure drama this first technology patent case must have encompassed.
According to Smiley, the entire case as well as the enssuing result, is the result of U.S. Patent Law.
Mauchly might have had better luck in another country. Because he had to file his patent applications in the United States, he had to deal with a “first-to-invent” system (as opposed to a “first-to-file” system). In the U.S. system, invention is seen as both conception and “reduction to practice” – that is…making something. In order to get a patent, an inventor can’t just think something up, and he also can’t just make something – he must do both. Once the invention is made, however, the date of the invention is considered to be the date of conception rather than the date of filing. As a result, a patent application filed later can supersede one filed earlier if the inventor can prove both conception and diligence…But the United States is the only country that uses such a standard. In any other country in the world, Atanasoff would have entirely lost his chance to claim the ideas behind the computer [since both Iowa State and his patent lawyer at the time, Richard Trexler,] failed to file his application, and Mauchly would have been awarded the patent.
Smiley also argues that, if Mauchly would have simply creidited Atanasoff in the first place, his day in court might have been avoided altogether.
If he [Mauchly] and his lawyer had submitted material acknowledging and documenting what he had learned from Atanasoff in June 1941, as they were required to do, the patent examiner would have considered the claim in light of that material and determined if Atanasoff’s machine qualified as prior art. The fact that he did not do so left him open to having the patent abrogated for what is called inequitable conduct.
Even so with the high-stakes drama of this case, Smiley refuses to take sides. Unlike most writers, she credits both Atanasoff, Mauchly and Eckert in bringing the computer to the masses.
The computer I am typing on came to me in a certain way. The seed was planted and its shoot was cultivated by John Vincent Atanasoff and Clifford Berry, but…Iowa State…was far from the mainstream. Because the administration at Iowa State [at the time] did not understand the significance of the machine…, John Mauchly was as essential to my computer as Atanasoff was – it was Mauchly who transplanted the shoot from the basement nursery to the luxurious greenhouse of the Moore School. I was Mauchly who in spite of his later testimony was enthusiastic, did know enough to see what Atanasoff had done, [and] was interested enough to pursue it.
In other words, the “frenemies” who so often make up the complex tapestry that is scientific and corporate America, are here to say. Steve Jobs needs Bill Gates, and vice versa. Apple Inc. and Microsoft need Google, IBM, and Facebook. They are seperated by creed, ambition and corporate culture, and at the same time, irreversably interdependent.
As content becomes digitalized, as computers will continue to play a larger role in our lives, it helps to know a bit about how it all got started. For computer beginners and experts alike, “The Man Who Invented the Computer” is a great place to start.