Chapter Nine

By the spring of 1947, Mauchly and Eckert had not yet filed the ENIAC patents, which their original agreement with the University of Pennsylvania had given them rights to. That April, they met with von Neumann, Goldstine, Dean Prender of the Moore School, and Irven Travis, the man who had first declared the new, more restrictive patent policy. Ostensibly, the meeting was to discuss potential EDVAC patents; von Neumann brought a lawyer with him. It was at this meeting that the university and Mauchly and Eckert learned for the first time that von Neumann, according to Scott McCartney, “had met with the Pentagon legal department about the patent situation, and had filed an Army War Patent Form himself” on the basis of the “First Draft” document Goldstine had typed up in June 1945. The fact that hundreds of people had read the document constituted publication, as far as the army was concerned, and so the ideas in the document could not be patented. McCartney maintains that this argument on the part of the army was a surprise to von Neumann and Goldstine as well as to Mauchly and Eckert, but, given von Neumann’s connections and his habit of being “five blocks” ahead of the competition, it seems unlikely that his lawyer would not have informed him of this possibility before the meeting. The meeting served to spur Mauchly and Eckert’s own patenting efforts, and they filed their paperwork at the end of June 1947. According to McCartney, “The application was broad and unfocused and it attempted to make more than one hundred claims covering the computing waterfront.” Crucially for the future of computing, Eckert and Mauchly assigned the patent rights they claimed not to themselves, personally, but to their company, in order to lure potential investors and contracts.

Mauchly’s job was to manage the company and to find financing and contracts. Eckert’s was to oversee the building of their first machine, now dubbed UNIVAC (for UNIVersal Automatic Computer). By December 1947, the company had thirty-six employees, including several engineers and other technicians who had followed Mauchly and Eckert (or had been lured by them) out of the Moore School. Another was Grace Murray Hopper, who had worked for Aiken at MIT and later developed COBOL, the first data processing language that worked like English. Company culture was energetic and exciting—Eckert was an inventive dynamo who showed up late every morning, sometimes six or seven days a week, and worked until late in the evening. But without Goldstine’s discipline, Eckert’s ideas were not focused on building his machine in a progressive and productive manner—he tinkered with every part and redid everyone’s designs. And he did not care for disagreement. McCartney characterizes the engineering side of the company as a “dictatorship,” but it was a chaotic dictatorship, which turned out to be a bad form of organization, since the contracts Mauchly was procuring were fixed-price contracts, as if the products were ready, although they were only in development. Even though working on UNIVAC was exciting, cost overruns meant that contracts could not be fulfilled in a timely manner, and new projects had to be added in order to pay for old projects. Eventually, UNIVAC cost $900,000 to develop, though the contracts were worth only $270,000. Eckert and Mauchly were incapable of being frugal, and nothing in their experience at the Moore School had trained them to attempt such a thing. They were accustomed to both the stimulation and the chaos that large teams of inventors generated, but having always been administered, they did not themselves know how to administer. The number of employees crept upward, and at one point engineers were encouraged to purchase stock in the company for $5,000 just to keep the company afloat.

In the meantime, von Neumann took Goldstine and Arthur Burks to Princeton to work on a computer for the Institute for Advanced Study (though Burks left within a few months for a teaching job at the University of Michigan). In the book Colossus by Jack Copeland, photograph 50 is a picture of John von Neumann, standing beside the Princeton IAS computer. The picture is undated, but the IAS computer began to operate in the summer of 1951 and was officially operational on June 10, 1952. Along the bottom of the wall of hardware runs a row of shiny metal cylinders, their ends pointing upward at about a forty-five-degree angle (fifteen are visible in the photo). These cylinders are Williams tubes, and they constituted the memory of the IAS computer.

At this point, von Neumann had been organizing his computer project for at least seven years. Back in the summer of 1946, when Atanasoff was told that the navy computer project was off, he was not told why, but part of the reason was that in late 1945, the very well connected John von Neumann had entertained letters of interest from the University of Chicago and MIT, with further feelers from Harvard and Columbia. Von Neumann was drawn to Princeton even though, as the letter from Norbert Wiener of MIT (soon to get in trouble with Dr. Jefferson) predicted, the problem that would plague the development of the IAS computer was that at “the Princestitute [the Institute for Advanced Studies] … you are going to run into a situation where you will need a lab at your fingertips, and labs don’t grow in ivory towers.” Von Neumann got something that he considered more important from the Institute for Advance Study—$100,000 for development (equivalent to $1 million today), with another $200,000 readily available. Even $300,000 would not be enough, though, so von Neumann approached both the army and the navy. Something that von Neumann understood (and that, of course, Atanasoff had also understood) was the computing difficulties of solving nonlinear partial differential equations. But if Atanasoff, writing his dissertation on the dielectric constant of helium in 1930, was forced to grapple with the vast tedium of his equations, von Neumann, overseeing the mathematical side of the Manhattan Project, understood the difficulty even more sharply because he had a greater experience with what the military wanted to do with such equations. Though the equations he had worked out for the detonation of Fat Man and Little Boy were done to the best of the Manhattan Project’s mathematical ability, they did not prove as predictive as the army and air force had hoped they would. And von Neumann was also interested in the applicability of such equations to weather patterns and forecasting.

And so, in late 1945 and into 1946, von Neumann wooed both the army and the navy—to the navy, he promised analysis of explosions in water, weather prediction, and even weather control. According to Norman Macrae, von Neumann did not hesitate to threaten the navy with the idea of Josef Stalin using computer-driven weather control to launch a new ice age in North America (though there was no reason to believe that the Soviets were developing a computer and nothing of the sort has since come to light). The army and the navy both kicked in funds for von Neumann’s computer, and the navy ended Atanasoff’s computer project. To his credit, though, von Neumann understood that the army and the navy had to agree to the same terms in their contracts, so that the project would not be subject to cost cutting by one branch or the other, and he also insisted that the intellectual property that might come out of the project would neither be made top secret nor be patented, thereby ensuring that other projects could also emerge from the IAS project. He seems to have understood all along the implications of the fact that he would be building upon ENIAC, upon the “First Draft,” and upon EDVAC, that he would be recruiting to Princeton at least Goldstine and Burks, and that he would make use of his connections with Manchester through Max Newman, and through him to F. C. Williams and Thomas Kilburn. It is quite possible that he understood the relationship between Atanasoff’s ideas and what he intended to do, but there is no evidence for it one way or another, other than the fact that he did have conversations with Atanasoff at the NOL.

At Princeton, von Neumann, Goldstine, and, to some extent, Arthur Burks wrote the papers that codified and described the ideas about computer memory that von Neumann had introduced in the “First Draft.” According to Macrae, von Neumann described the ideas, Goldstine and Burks wrote them up, and von Neumann then rewrote them. The final draft was up to Goldstine, but it carried von Neumann’s name.

Von Neumann wanted Eckert as his engineer for the Princeton project. Eckert turned him down, according to McCartney, because he remained loyal to Mauchly and, according to Macrae, because he wanted to patent his inventions and profit from them. But Eckert and von Neumann also had a history of conflict, which might have played a part in Eckert’s decision. Von Neumann did not approach Atanasoff, although it’s hard to avoid the thought that his conversation with Atanasoff at the NOL constituted something of a job interview. Atanasoff found von Neumann congenial—but then, so did almost everyone else. At any rate, the team von Neumann set up did not include Atanasoff. Kirwan Cox maintains that Atanasoff was known at Iowa State for being abrupt and hard to get along with—he had a disconcerting habit of turning away in the middle of conversations: “People thought he was walking away in anger, but he was just finished with the conversation in his own mind. He was tough on people.” It may be that von Neumann recognized that Atanasoff was not a team player and that in any project Atanasoff might be involved in, he would insist on calling the shots.

The memory system Eckert was developing was, in the eyes of John von Neumann, one of UNIVAC’s main drawbacks. This system, called a mercury delay line, owed something to Eckert’s radar experience. The UNIVAC mercury delay line required an array of horizontal cylinders filled with liquid mercury through which electrical impulses could travel rather slowly. The memory worked by recycling the electrical impulses through the mercury over and over, using quartz transducers.1 Mercury delay line memories had an advantage in that the acoustic conductivity of quartz and mercury were about the same, but they also had serious drawbacks—the architecture of each cylinder was very particular and they were easy to damage. The word “unwieldy” doesn’t even begin to describe a mercury delay line memory—for UNIVAC, the memory required its own room, in which stood seven memory units, each composed of eighteen columns of mercury. This room could store 15,120 bits of memory (equivalent to 1,890 bytes, or not quite 2 kilobytes, although bytes and bits of memory were not standardized at the time—in the UNIVAC I, a byte was 7 bits, not 8). Added to that was the weight and the toxicity of mercury, which in itself limited the general usefulness of the UNIVAC, as well as its potential commercial appeal. And the UNIVAC was a decimal machine, making it even more unwieldy.

When von Neumann, Goldstine, and Burks began on the IAS computer, von Neumann asked RCA (nearby in Philadelphia) to develop a tube that could be used for memory storage. They did, calling their product the Selectron, but the tubes took too long to develop—they were expensive and complicated—so by the end of 1948 von Neumann had decided to adopt Williams tubes.

Another issue von Neumann and his team addressed was that of translation. Just as Atanasoff had realized in 1939 that not every mathematician was comfortable with base-two numbers, and so the results put out by the ABC were automatically translated into decimal numbers, von Neumann realized that the more powerful and useful a computer might become, the more essential a translating mechanism for input and output would be. And von Neumann wanted his computer to do more than solve math problems—he also wanted it to be able to use language (like Colossus, which could decipher a code more easily than it could perform a large multiplication problem—and we will never know whether von Neumann’s friends on the Colossus project ever chatted with him about what they had done). Unable to get Eckert, von Neumann hired an engineer named Julian Bigelow to put together the IAS computer, thinking that the project would take ten people about three years.

But von Neumann could not work with Bigelow, who, he felt, tended to go down blind alleys, trying things without a good sense ahead of time of how those ideas would work. And Norbert Wiener turned out to be correct about the lack of receptivity at the IAS toward the computer project. It was housed in a boiler room and then an outbuilding, and even then there were complaints about it from the other scholars. Work that was farmed out went to corporations that didn’t know what was really wanted. Von Neumann himself was an ideas man, not a technology man (though when his wife declared that he could not handle a screwdriver, she added that he was good at fixing zippers). Adding to these difficulties, after January 1950, once Truman gave the go-ahead, von Neumann was hard at work on the hydrogen bomb, work that accelerated through 1950, when Edward Teller’s first ideas were proven wrong, and into 1951, when Teller and Stanislaw Ulam came up with an idea that worked. Through both these phases of H-bomb development, the IAS computer did produce necessary calculations, especially after James Pomerene was installed to replace Bigelow. One can only wonder how the construction of the computer would have gone if John Vincent Atanasoff had been allowed to bring his exceptional improvisational talents to it—but perhaps from their conversations, von Neumann understood that in addition to being difficult to work with, Atanasoff had an even greater claim to the computer concepts von Neumann wanted to utilize than Mauchly and Eckert did, and, having experienced what he considered to be Mauchly and Eckert’s greed, he did not want to risk that possibility again.

In 1948, a member of Mauchly and Eckert’s business team, George Eltgroth, a patent attorney, was approached by a racetrack owner about using computers to break the monopoly of the American Totalizer Company over bookmaking at American racetracks. Eltgroth saw his chance and went to American Totalizer itself. He found a willing partner in Henry Straus, vice president of the tote company—Straus oversaw the investment of $550,000 into UNIVAC—a $62,000 loan and $488,000 for 40 percent of the company stock. But Mauchly’s payroll continued to expand—by 1949, there were 134 employees—while the contracts kept contracting. At one time, Mauchly had orders for six UNIVACs, but he had received only $150,000 apiece for the machines, and UNIVAC was still not completed. And then, in November 1949, Henry Straus was killed in a plane crash, and American Totalizer asked for their investment back—now worth $432,000. Eckert and Mauchly then approached IBM. Thomas J. Watson, Sr., later said that he wasn’t impressed by Mauchly, but it also turned out that, according to IBM lawyers, antitrust laws forbade IBM from acquiring UNIVAC.

In early 1950, Mauchly and Eckert’s company was denied security clearance and therefore banned from accepting top-secret military contracts—a significant portion of those available to private industry. The reasons for the denial of clearance were a mix of anti-Communist paranoia (a member of the engineering team had supported Henry Wallace; Mauchly himself had signed a petition in 1946 supporting civilian control of nuclear energy) and general suspicion—army intelligence asked the FBI to investigate the drowning of Mary Mauchly, which it did, exonerating Mauchly. A few weeks after the denial of security clearance, Remington Rand bought the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation. They paid off the debt to American Totalizer and gave Eckert and Mauchly $100,000 for the remaining 60 percent of the stock, which included the ENIAC patents. The two principals also got a guaranteed $18,000 per year salary and 5 percent of the yearly profits for eight years, should any profits accrue. Thirteen months later, UNIVAC was finally working.

The first UNIVAC, which had been assembled on the second floor of the Eckert-Mauchly building, an old knitting factory, weighed 29,000 pounds and covered 380 square feet of floor space. It used 5,200 vacuum tubes (less than a third of the number in ENIAC) and consumed 125 kilowatts of electricity (as much as 1,250 100-watt lightbulbs, about 16 percent less than ENIAC). The mercury delay line memory was made up of large horizontal cylinders containing liquid mercury that circulated acoustic vibrations representing stored instructions and other data. The external memory, or ROM, was stored on either magnetic tape or punch cards.

Some difficulties with the manufacture of the first UNIVAC arose almost at once—the Eckert-Mauchly building was not air-conditioned and could get so hot in a Philadelphia summer that tar from the roof would melt onto the computer through the ceiling. In fact, no thought had been given to the computer’s environment—holes were cut in the walls for summer ventilation that then made the vast room impossible to heat in the winter. And, a serious drawback for a commercial venture, the machine could not be delivered—it was too complex and delicate to be quickly disassembled. At any rate, Mauchly (and Remington Rand) wanted to use the first one for demonstrations only in order to gain more contracts.

But eventually, forty-six UNIVAC I computers were manufactured, sold, and delivered to such companies as Metropolitan Life Insurance, Westinghouse, and U.S. Steel, as well as to government agencies: the Army Map Service (one of the original contracts), the Pentagon, and the Census Bureau (though this one stayed at company headquarters and was operated there). Although Mauchly had charged only $159,000 for the computer in the first contracts, the price eventually rose by almost a factor of 10. UNIVAC I gave way to UNIVAC II in 1958.

In 1951, like Mauchly and Eckert, Atanasoff decided to go into private enterprise, but unlike them, he first mastered the basic principles of accounting (which took him three days) and of business law (about a month). He wrote his own articles of incorporation and lured some of his fellow researchers away from the NOL. The plan was to offer testing services, especially to the military—the cold war meant that there were lots of military contracts, and they were lucrative. He set up his offices in Frederick, Maryland, which he chose after studying the weather patterns in the Washington, D.C., area and deciding that, should there be an atomic attack, Frederick would be outside of the radiation plume, and therefore somewhat safer than his first location of choice, Rockville. In Frederick, he had his corporate headquarters built and equipped with what he considered to be the best supplies for protecting and cleaning the building in the event of an attack—a neoprene-coated roof, sheets of plywood to protect the windows, and boxes of Tide detergent for spraying on the building.

With his usual confidence and frugality, Atanasoff used his own savings as capital for his business, along with investments of those who would be working with him. According to Tammara Burton, the company, which operated on military contracts, was always solvent and never had to borrow money. Atanasoff now focused on his company and deliberately ignored what was going on in the world of computers. The testing Atanasoff’s company performed ranged from determining how a projectile might approach and strike an airplane in flight to figuring out how best to drop leaflets on a populated area as a form of psychological warfare (the army gave him this contract during the Korean War). Though the company was successful, entrepreneurial life was taxing in some ways—Atanasoff later recalled, “I have a great deal of affection for the men who are associated with me and we generally understood each other pretty well, but nevertheless they regarded me as a kind of a harsh director, always attempting to advance the work at all times of the day and night … I found this discipline severe.”

In February 1951 the first Ferranti-manufactured Mark I, the computer developed at the University of Manchester, was delivered to the new university computer lab. According to Andrew Hodges (and this is important for the development of the computer as we know it), “In many ways, [because of Turing’s lack of interest in the project], the Computing Laboratory remained as secret as Hut 8,” restricting the public relations potential, and therefore sales, of the Manchester computer. EDVAC and UNIVAC dominated the news.

In March of the same year, Alan Turing was elected to the Royal Society, but then, in January 1952, Turing met a young man named Arnold Murray. Turing was now almost forty, Murray was nineteen. Turing cultivated the acquaintance, and Murray bragged about it to a friend. The unfortunate result was that the friend broke into Turing’s house outside of Manchester and stole some of Turing’s possessions. Murray managed to get some of the things back from the friend, but by this time, Turing had already reported the burglary. His report alerted the police, who, upon uncovering an illegal homosexual relationship between Turing and Murray, arrested Alan Turing under the draconian Labouchere Amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 (Section 11), which stated that “any male person who, in public or private, commits any act of gross indecency with another male person shall be guilty of a misdemeanour, and being convicted thereof shall be liable at the discretion of the court to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour,” the same law that had been used to prosecute Oscar Wilde.

In his usual unashamed fashion, Turing detailed the nature of his relationship to Murray (he had never been ashamed of his homosexuality, nor had he ever shown caution in expressing himself on any subject). In early April 1952, Turing was convicted of “gross indecency” and given a choice between a year in prison and a year of drug therapy designed to inhibit his sexual desires—a course of estrogen shots (chemical castration). Although such a conviction meant, in the cold war atmosphere of the 1950s, that Turing could no longer work for the British government. His friends felt that he was unrepentant about what had happened—under security surveillance (which he knew about), Turing went to Norway, where he had heard that there were venues for all-male dancing. The letters he wrote to his friends were often bemused and, apparently, lighthearted, though not uniformly so. In a 2009 article in the Daily Mail discussing what sort of posthumous honors Turing might receive for his intelligence work during World War II, Geoffrey Wansell points out that the estrogen “transformed his body. The man who had run a marathon in 2 hours and 46 minutes—when the world record was 2 hours and 25 minutes—was reduced to a shadow of his former self. ‘They’ve given me breasts,’ he was reported to have said to a friend, describing the shameful process as ‘horrible’ and ‘humiliating.’ ”

Through 1952 and 1953, Turing engaged in more travel and more work on his theories of brain as machine/machine as brain. And then, on June 8, 1954, Alan Turing was found by his housekeeper, dead of cyanide poisoning in his house in Manchester, a half-eaten apple by his bedside (he customarily ate an apple before going to bed). There was no suicide note.

Turing’s mother never believed that he had committed suicide—she thought that he had died accidentally, as a result of a careless chemistry experiment. Others pointed out that as a convicted homosexual who liked to travel abroad and make contact with young men, he was seen by the British security services as not only a risk, but a growing risk, since the cold war was escalating quickly. Turing was highly knowledgeable about Colossus and all sorts of other state secrets, and now he was a convicted but unrepentant homosexual who was associated with King’s College, which, along with Trinity College, was considered to be a hotbed of Soviet spies (Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who had defected to the Soviet Union in 1951, had been at Trinity College in the thirties and were also homosexuals). Some people continue even in 2010 to feel that he was assassinated, with a “suicide” staged by British security. Or perhaps they had simply invited him to commit suicide. Friends remembered Turing wondering aloud about methods for committing suicide—they thought at the time that he was merely engaging in one of his frequent thought experiments. Others have suggested that, thanks to his gross indecency conviction and to his unorthodox ideas, Turing was at the end of his career and knew it. In any event, he died in obscurity, thirty years before either his role in World War II cryptanalysis or his role in the invention of the computer would emerge.

1. A computer engineer in England suggested using a delay line with the cylinders filled with gin.

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