Chapter Eleven

Before the death of Clifford Berry, Atanasoff had been reluctant to involve himself in the patent dispute between Sperry Rand on one side and Honeywell and Control Data on the other because the only thing in it for him was recognition, and that was uncertain because as far as the courts were concerned, it meant returning to a question that had already been decided in favor of Sperry Rand and it meant abrogating patents that had long been in dispute and then issued by the U.S. Patent Office. The case therefore involved at least an implicit challenge to the patenting process itself. For that reason, Honeywell and CDC had a small advantage in the fact that the case would be tried in Minneapolis rather than in Washington, D.C. But all the lawyers for Honeywell and CDC knew it was an uphill fight, and Atanasoff did too, because he had studied patent law with his usual energy in the course of his business ventures.

Once he was engaged, Atanasoff took his customary pedagogical position and tested the lawyers to see if he could count on them to understand the ideas behind the ABC. But there was more to it—it was as if he could only participate wholeheartedly if he could thoroughly understand a process and a system. He had to learn everything he could about it in order to get it into his mind and go forward—just as he had taught himself to drive the family Ford at age twelve by learning everything he could about how the automobile worked and how to fix it if something went wrong. And so he used the lawyers to learn what he needed to know. Probably they privately considered the old man a pest.

Atanasoff made a list of witnesses to be interviewed and deposed. On the list were those whom he remembered as having been around during the construction of the machine and during Mauchly’s visit to Ames—notably absent, and profoundly missed, of course, was Clifford Berry. Prominent on the list was Robert Mather, a professor at Berkeley who had worked on the computer with Berry as an undergraduate at Iowa State. But Mather, who had not been around for Mauchly’s visit, told Call and Kirkpatrick, “I just wasn’t sophisticated enough to particularly notice who [people who visited the machine] were.” He also said, “You see, Cliff did most of … the more complicated things, the more routine things were turned over to me. I was soldering the wires to brushes and the terminal board to the binary-to-decimal converter.” An interesting addendum to this quotation from Mollenhoff’s book is the observation by John Gustafson that “I’m not sure we could have reconstructed the ABC without Mather’s input. He was proud of the fine job he had done of wiring the machine neatly, and it was one reason he took those sharp black-and-white photos of the computer. I’m not sure we have a single photo of the original ABC that was not taken by Mather.”

A more productive interview was conducted with Sam Legvold. Though he had never talked to Atanasoff about the computer, he had been very good friends with Clifford Berry. He also had both a strong interest in the ABC and an excellent memory. A new graduate student in the fall of 1939, Legvold remembered the pre-ABC prototype in considerable detail—he had seen it operate, and he also remembered many things Berry had told him about how it worked and how it was constructed. He remembered, too, visits by experts—a representative from the Rockefeller Foundation and a man from MIT and the NDRC. He also remembered Mauchly, and in some detail.

Legvold, about twenty-two at the time of Mauchly’s visit, remembered going to lunch with the thirty-three-year-old Ursinus professor and finding him “a rather delightful fellow, pretty bright and stimulating.” He remembered him “being in there with his shirtsleeves rolled up, pitching in to help do some things on the computer as we sat and talked about it.” In the course of his own work, Legvold passed through the computer room quite frequently. He remembered that Mauchly had been around for three days—“more than just a drop-in-for-an-afternoon-kind of thing.” He also remembered that Mauchly had taken “a sharp interest” in the ABC; the discussions among Berry, Atanasoff, and Mauchly had been “free and open,” and he had seemed to understand the principles behind the machine.

Once Charles Call (who was representing Honeywell) had finished with Legvold, it was time for Allen Kirkpatrick, who was representing Control Data, to interview Mauchly. Kirkpatrick was canny and unrevealing in his questioning, and Mauchly, though under oath, seemed naive, or guileless, in his answers. (Scott McCartney says his memory was bad because he was in poor health.) He acknowledged that he had written to Atanasoff in the six months after his visit to Ames, and that his letters had been enthusiastic. He acknowledged that he had asked Atanasoff about building “an Atanasoff calculator” at the Moore School, but he became confused (or “flustered” as Mollenhoff says) when asked to explain the questions in his letter a little more clearly (neither his memory nor his records were as good as those of Atanasoff and his associates). When shown the October letter, he said, “The center portion of this letter indicates that I was probing whether there would be any objection to using some of his [Atanasoff’s] ideas. This is not quite as strong as saying that I had a strong desire to, but at that point, on September 30, 1941, I think the letter makes it clear that I was still seeking a good way of implementing an electronic calculator, and this is the same interest which I displayed with respect to many other ideas with respect to computation, such as those which I saw at the World’s Fair in 1939.”

Kirkpatrick asked Mauchly questions designed to get him to elaborate on his replies, which he did, without challenging him or giving away the fact that the Honeywell and CDC lawyers had plenty of documentation that contradicted Mauchly’s testimony almost completely. In the meantime, Charles Call took a deposition from Lura Atanasoff in Boulder, where she was now living. Even though the lawyers had been somewhat nervous about how her divorce would influence how she would report events in Ames, she was clear, concise, and in complete agreement with Atanasoff’s version of Mauchly’s visit.

The lawyers for Honeywell and CDC were exceptionally thorough, and they had plenty of information to work with. The lawyers for Sperry Rand were less fortunate. One day in mid-November 1967, Atanasoff answered the phone. John Mauchly was on the other end of the line. He said that he would like to see Atanasoff and proposed that he come to Atanasoff’s Maryland farm with one of the Sperry lawyers, to discuss the case. Atanasoff was suspicious enough by this time to ask his wife, Alice, to listen in on the extension and take notes. Atanasoff did not immediately agree to the meeting—he called the Honeywell/CDC lawyers and reported Mauchly’s proposal. Once Atanasoff indicated that he would not reveal what he knew about the case, or what the Honeywell/CDC strategy was, it was decided that a meeting might be informative. It was.

When he called again to set up an appointment for bringing the Sperry lawyer, a man named Lawrence B. Dodds, to Maryland, Mauchly and Atanasoff chatted rather cordially. Mauchly explained to Atanasoff that Dodds was representing Sperry Rand in a case against Control Data and Honeywell, thus revealing to Atanasoff that neither he nor Dodds knew of Atanasoff’s central position in the case Honeywell and Control Data were preparing. Mauchly’s attitude indicated that he had no idea that Atanasoff might be his antagonist in the patent dispute. His immediate reason for calling Atanasoff was that he had been subpoenaed in the patent dispute and had discovered old letters to Atanasoff that he had forgotten in the course of twenty-six years. He had also given a deposition. By this time, Atanasoff had read Mauchly’s deposition, but he didn’t reveal this, just suggested that he would try to get hold of it. In his deposition, Mauchly told Atanasoff, he had said a few things that might make Atanasoff “mad,” for example “that when you got into administrative work you lost interest in computers.” Atanasoff said, “Maybe I did seem to.” Mauchly was surprised that Jean Berry appeared on the list of witnesses, but not Clifford Berry. Then Mauchly speculated that Berry had died recently, since he had seen Berry’s letter to R. K. Richards describing the ABC and stating that only Mauchly had seen the ABC “in full.” Hadn’t Caldwell seen it? suggested Mauchly, referring to Samuel Caldwell of MIT, who had been asked to make an evaluation of the ABC for grant purposes. Atanasoff told him that no, Caldwell had never had the same detailed access that Mauchly had had. Mauchly then complained about Allen Kirkpatrick, the lawyer who had deposed him, who, he thought, “had practically accused me of plagiarizing everything I’ve done.”

Mauchly arrived for his visit on the morning of December 16, 1967. Dodds appeared an hour later. Mauchly’s manner revealed that he still did not understand Atanasoff’s position in the case, and Atanasoff remained reticent. When Dodds arrived, Atanasoff was straightforward about what information he would give the Sperry lawyer—he would speak generally, but not specifically, about his deposition, and his position on Mauchly’s visit would be clear. “Dr. Mauchly came to Ames on approximately June 15, 1941. He spent considerable time with the machine; he understood it fully, and in substantially every detail. If you don’t like it, that is just too bad, because those were the facts.”

Mauchly observed, “You are taking a very positive posture which I cannot take. Your memory is better than mine.”

Gradually in the course of their conversation, it seemed to dawn on Dodds and Mauchly that Atanasoff was not as uninformed about the case as they had thought he was. Finally there was a revealing exchange:

Mauchly: “Do you contend that I read the book?” (meaning the thirty-five-page description of the ABC)

Atanasoff (after hemming and hawing): “However, the answer is yes, and you also asked me if you could take a copy home with you. I denied the request, and so you did not take the copy away.”

Dodds: “Will you treat us as well as our opponents?”

Atanasoff: “I do not see why I should place you and your opponents on the same footing. It is obviously to your advantage to prove that there was no development of a computing machine at Ames, Iowa. Your opponents contend the contrary and my interests must lie in that direction.”

Dodds then asked if anyone else “now alive” had read the manuscript and Atanasoff pointed out that it had gone to various agencies in hopes of funding. Then Atanasoff remarked that he had read the 827 patent that summer—“The 827 patent almost exactly described my own apparatus and its specifications.” Then Mauchly had to be shown the 827 patent (which Atanasoff had a copy of), since he did not remember which one it was. Dodds and Atanasoff sparred a bit about the language of the 827 patent, Dodds saying that the patent didn’t mention “regenerative memory” and Atanasoff pointing out that what was described—“interaction of logic circuits in the computing elements”—was his idea. Dodds acknowledged that this was so. Mauchly kept quiet.

Alice served lunch. As they got up to go to the table, Atanasoff remarked that the Honeywell/CDC lawyer had encouraged him to find every document and potential witness and remember every detail. Mauchly replied, “Our lawyers don’t want me to remember anything.”

Sometime later, Atanasoff could not help exclaiming, “Mr. Dodds, in the face of the facts, how do you expect to win this case?”

Dodds, irritated, replied, “You don’t know anything about how federal judges are likely to act. They may decide the question upon their own impulse instead of fact, law, or reason.” Mauchly and Dodds, it seems, could not help revealing themselves to Atanasoff. Atanasoff, on the other hand, did not reveal that Mauchly and Dodds’s assumption that there had been no witnesses to Mauchly’s work on the computer was wrong. Throughout the interview, Mauchly retained his strange presumption that he and Atanasoff were on the same side. Once Dodds left, Mauchly even remarked that Sperry was paying him a healthy consulting fee for his work on the case and suggested that Atanasoff might try to get the same sort of arrangement, and then he reiterated what he had said before, that the Sperry lawyers had advised him to remember his Ames trip as vaguely as possible. Throughout the rest of the afternoon (Mauchly was not inclined to depart), Mauchly continued to reveal details of the case, things he had seen, bits of advice he had received, royalties he had gotten for the patents, how he had gotten them, what he had done with the money. He showed a friendly interest in Atanasoff’s own career (and evident prosperity), and Atanasoff was left with the feeling “that Dr. Mauchly was genuinely pleased to find that he had not entirely deprived me of living substance.”

Atanasoff did not at all share Mauchly’s casual attitude toward the suit—like Jean Berry, he had become convinced that there had been foul play in Clifford Berry’s death, and he even persuaded the Honeywell/ CDC lawyers to send a lawyer along with him back up to New York to look into the case. As usual, Atanasoff devoted himself to finding out everything he could, to thinking it through, and to persuading those in charge to see things his way. He did, in fact, talk to the detective in charge of investigating the case into reopening it—he did not think the levels of alcohol and medicines in Berry’s blood (they were low) and the way that he had died (quietly, his arms at his sides) added up to a realistic case for suffocation by plastic bag. He was convincing enough for the immediate investigator, but not enough for his superior, and the case was not reopened. Atanasoff remained uncertain, at least publicly, about the cause of Berry’s death—in subsequent interviews, it was clear that he could see both sides of the issue. Jean Berry was always certain that her husband had been murdered—he was the person who had the clearest information both about what the ABC was and how it worked, and how much time Mauchly had spent with the machine, what he had done, and what Berry himself had told him.

Each of the Honeywell/CDC witnesses had something different to offer: Sam Legvold had seen Mauchly around the computer in the basement of the physics building; Lura Atanasoff had seen him in her home, with the copy of the description of the ABC in his hands, and pens, and bond paper, with his light on late into the night; R. K. Richards had Berry’s clearly stated correspondence on the issues under question. And then, Atanasoff offered to have several technicians in his Maryland machine shop take the thirty-five-page written description of the machine and build a complete demonstration model. Alice Atanasoff went shopping for the exact outmoded parts that they would need (though the proper 1940-vintage vacuum tubes were hard to find). It was agreed that Atanasoff himself would neither oversee the construction nor participate, just to demonstrate that the description was enough of a blueprint. When it was built, in the summer of 1968, it worked beautifully and did everything Atanasoff said it would. Atanasoff himself was so pleased with it that he built another one for himself.

Data gathering and record gathering continued through 1968, with the Honeywell lawyers and the CDC lawyers seeking out every document and witness. The Sperry lawyers were not as industrious, and neither was Mauchly—when he appeared for discovery in October 1968, he had only a few papers with him, all, he said, that he could come up with. The Honeywell/CDC lawyers had to remind him that he was legally bound to search out everything that he could find. They questioned him for three days, most particularly about three separate issues—what were the precise concepts he had thought up on his own before his December 1940 discussion with Atanasoff at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, what had he done and learned in his June trip to Ames, and what had he intended to say in his correspondence with Atanasoff after his visit. Mauchly could hardly remember anything, and he remarked over and over that he had a bad memory. The lawyers could not tell whether he actually could not remember anything or whether he was following instructions from Sperry lawyers. He repeated that he had not used any of Atanasoff’s ideas and that the ABC was “an incomplete machine” and “would not do” what it was intended to do. At least that much he remembered. He did not seem to realize that he was contradicting himself.

Atanasoff’s deposition, which began eleven days after Mauchly was finished, was the exact opposite of Mauchly’s in many ways—he had plenty of evidence that he had thought about and tried out various concepts before and after his revelation of December 1937, including grant proposals. He also had a clear memory of his own thinking, and of events surrounding Mauchly’s visit (a memory that was corroborated by his witnesses). He was so organized that the lawyers could suggest only very small ways to shape his testimony to make it more forceful or more clear—he had an excellent grasp not only of what he had done with the ABC, but also of what he was doing in the case.

When Mauchly returned for a second session of questioning in April 1968, he brought a large stash of documents that he had managed to uncover. Unfortunately, they had the effect of supporting Atanasoff’s contentions, not his own—whether or not Mauchly now remembered that the ABC worked, he had written enthusiastically to friends in 1941 that the computer could “perform all kinds of mathematical feats.” Charles Call read the documents while another lawyer deposed Mauchly. Call then told the other lawyer what he found in the documents, and, using this information, the other lawyer challenged Mauchly’s testimony. Mauchly thereupon modified his testimony. As his own biographer remarks, “He made a huge mistake by obfuscating the facts of his Iowa visit.” In ENIAC, McCartney tries to make a case for Mauchly having had ideas about a computing device before he went to Ames—according to a colleague, he invented a “little computing device … [that] used neon tubes as trigger circuits. And he’d done some simple arithmetic work on the desk setup, using those triggers.” But this is a defense of Mauchly that Mauchly did not make for himself, possibly because, according to Mollenhoff, his device was a single neon tube mounted on the lid of a Quaker Oats box that turned on and off.

In some ways, John Mauchly remains the most mysterious and contradictory figure of all of our computer innovators. There is no evidence that he was coldly calculating in any sense of the word. His efforts in every direction seem to have been expansive, impulsive, and inclusive rather than cool and directed. When J. Presper Eckert’s second wife remarked that Mauchly could not have put together ENIAC without Eckert, but that Eckert would not have thought of it without Mauchly, she was portraying Mauchly as a certain type of genius—a disorganized dreamer full of inspiration that comes from nowhere. However, everyone, including those who knew him through Atanasoff, remarked on his sociable nature and his aptitude for conversation, and so the evidence is that his ideas did come from somewhere—from others, if only in embryonic form. This, too, accords with certain theories of creativity (most particularly those delineated by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers)— that “genius” is a social phenomenon, that ideas grow out of human intercourse, that certain communities produce a wealth of talent because of certain mores of interaction. One such habit, Kati Marton would say, was the way Jews in Budapest of the 1920s loved to linger in cafés, smoking and talking—perhaps the world in which John von Neumann came to believe that some ideas should not be possessed and patented by individuals. Mauchly was a connector extraordinaire—every story about him attests to that; in each description of him, even when he begins by asserting something (for example that he remembers nothing of a particular event) he soon comes round to remembering it much in the way his interlocutor does. As Atanasoff discovered in December 1940, Mauchly was by nature an enthusiast, and in 1941, when his colleagues at Iowa State were skeptical of his computer, the very person Atanasoff needed to support his own confidence in his machine was an enthusiast who seemed at least somewhat knowledgeable.

Atanasoff seems not at all like Mauchly—he was well organized and well directed above all things. As a “problem finder,” he had a special talent for formulating specific questions that required solution—as at Bikini Atoll, for example—and then using available materials to come up with the best available solution, if not necessarily the ideal one. But like Mauchly, his talents thrived on social interaction—as he taught his students, he learned from them; as he directed their work, he came up with ideas for his own. His quest for the computer grew out of his understanding of a general need belonging to his community of mathematicians, physicists, and engineers. He was stimulated by everything from the slide rule he got from his father as a boy to methods of house construction he employed in retirement. What had already been discovered and invented served Atanasoff as a springboard to other things. At the same time, he was good at progressing from level to level—at learning from Charles Babbage’s unfortunate experience not to try to invent the universal machine before you have gotten the specific one to work. Atanasoff was Mauchly and Eckert rolled into one—he had grand mathematical ideas and he had specific engineering ideas. He understood what both kinds meant and he understood how the two fit together. And then he was blessed with a perfectly congenial partner, Clifford Berry, whose building process was smooth, thoughtful, and efficient. Like Atanasoff, it did not occur to Berry to try a zillion things at once or to drop one project and begin another before the first was completed.

Sperry had one advantage at the trial, the considerable one of the reluctance of courts to overturn patents already granted. But Honeywell and CDC had one, too—Mauchly was required to prove a negative, to prove that he had not been influenced by the time he had spent in Ames, and to prove that he was neither lying about his memories nor simply failing to remember things that he had thought and done. McCartney maintains that the case “boiled down to one scientist’s words against the other,” but in fact many of the words the Honeywell and CDC lawyers were using against Mauchly were his own. And the Honeywell lawyers went about their case in an Atanasoffish way—exhaustively. They put all their documents together in electronic legal files, which gave them excellent organization and ready access. They seemed to realize, as the Sperry lawyers did not, just how useful computers could be.

The Honeywell and CDC lawyers also understood that they had to supply expert witnesses for the trial who could explain to the judge, Earl R. Larson, what the issues at stake were—how computers worked, how the ideas in the ABC were linked to ENIAC. Larson had an excellent reputation as a scrupulous judge whose opinions were rarely appealed and even more rarely overturned. He intended to preserve this reputation in what he soon came to understand was one of the most important intellectual property cases of the twentieth century. He knew that he had plenty to learn and that he had to take the time to learn it. The Honeywell/CDC lawyers hired Isaac Auerbach Associates (the same Isaac Auerbach who had asked Mauchly at the panel Call witnessed about his visit to Iowa State), and Auerbach supplied him with three computer experts who had worked on both ENIAC and EDVAC. The witnesses had several jobs: corroborating and explaining Atanasoff’s testimony to the judge; informing the judge of the relevant history of the computer; reading and explaining the thirty-five-page report on the ABC; corroborating that the model newly constructed from the old plans was as it was said to be; and ultimately tracing connections from ABC to ENIAC and EDVAC.

The trial in Minneapolis began on June 1, 1971.

The question of whether the ABC had existed and the question of whether Mauchly pirated Atanasoff’s ideas for ENIAC were separate though related. What Mauchly and Eckert had fallen prey to with von Neumann and Goldstine’s 101-page publication of the ideas that led to EDVAC was a question of prior art—in typing up and sending out under von Neumann’s name the ideas underlying EDVAC, Goldstine established them as prior art to any claims that Mauchly and Eckert might make to the same ideas (von Neumann’s biographer, Norman Macrae, sees this as von Neumann’s intentional attempt to preempt the patenting of the ideas underlying the computer). If Atanasoff’s thirty-five-page description of the ABC had had the same sort of distribution as von Neumann’s paper (at least two hundred copies), then it would have stood as prior art. But Atanasoff had made only five copies on the assumption that because Iowa State was planning to patent the machine, it was dangerous to make more copies.

Much of the case, especially Atanasoff’s testimony, revolved around the question of what ideas he had come up with and how he had come up with them. Because of this, the first part of his testimony was autobiographical—Attorney Henry Halladay questioned him about his childhood and his education in a detailed manner intended to delineate the steps by which he came to a set of concepts so unusual and innovative that other geniuses had not been able to come up with them, including Mauchly. Atanasoff obliged—yes, his fascination with his father’s slide rule had driven all other, more common passions like baseball out of his mind; yes, he had read his father’s books on engineering and his mother’s books on algebra, not because he was required to, but because he enjoyed them. His education at the University of Florida and the University of Wisconsin and Iowa State showed that he was a more-than-exemplary student (and chimed nicely with Judge Larson’s own career at another land-grant university, the University of Minnesota).

Atanasoff was not the first to testify—Sam Legvold and others set the stage, so when Halladay brought Atanasoff’s testimony around to the subject of his years at Iowa State, it was easy to see that his teaching career in the thirties, and the evidence of not only his own work, but also the work of his students (one piece of evidence was the titles of papers his students had written under his tutelage) showed that he had thought through computing ideas for a long time and in more than one way. This history prepared the way for Atanasoff’s clearly remembered and detailed recollection of that night in the Rock Island tavern in December 1937.

Halladay pressed him on two ideas, regenerative memory and logic circuits. Of the first he said, “I’m thinking about the condensers for memory units, and about the fact that the condensers would regenerate their own state so their state would not change with time. If they were in a plus state, for instance, they would stay in a plus state; or if they were in the negative state, they would stay in the negative state. They would not blink off to zero. Or if you used two positive charges, they would retain their individual identity and would not leak across to one another.”

Concerning logic circuits, Atanasoff was honest about the fact that he did not perfectly visualize how the logic circuits would work. He imagined a black box, with input from two memory units—“the box would then yield the correct results on output terminals.” Although he did not envision the contents of the box specifically, he did understand that “since I was going to use condensers, why then I supposed the innards would be electrical in character, and I was well aware that the electrical entities which would be as suitable for such a purpose were vacuum tubes.” He explained that “condenser” was an archaic term for “capacitor.” Atanasoff then described how for the next fifteen months, he worked out these two ideas on paper: the idea for the regenerative memory was fairly simple; what was to be in the black box was much more difficult, but he worked that out for both a binary number system and a decimal number system. When he compared the two, it was evident that the decimal system would be too unwieldy. He declared that he had clarified his ideas by March 24, 1939, when he submitted his two-page grant application, asking for funds. Although the letter was short, it was detailed, describing the three sorts of problems Atanasoff expected his calculator to be able to solve (electrical circuit analysis, approximate solution of differential equations, and multiple correlation). His machine would be able to solve these sorts of problems for many more variables than was then practical with mechanical calculators. The letter also described previous efforts he had made to solve these sorts of problems using already invented methods. He asked for and was granted $650 (some $7,800 in 2010 funds). All of his papers were in order and were presented to the court.

On the second day of testimony, more papers were presented. In fact, so many papers were presented—letters, notes, papers, diagrams, drawings—that Atanasoff began to weary of the tedium of court procedure, which meant putting descriptions of every piece of evidence introduced into the record. He was pleased, however, with the Des Moines Tribune article from January 15, 1941 (see this page). The importance of the article for the case was clear—the ABC was not a piece of junk that barely functioned, as Mauchly had gotten in the habit of saying.

The next item on the agenda was Atanasoff’s version of Mauchly’s visit. He was equally detailed. Mauchly had arrived on Friday evening. Over the weekend, they had visited the computer several times and talked about it constantly—with only one small break, during which they spoke of Mauchly’s interest in meteorology. Mauchly had carried around the green-covered thirty-five-page description of the computer. Atanasoff had seen him reading it, and he and Atanasoff had discussed some of the things in the booklet that Mauchly wanted to understand. Atanasoff had explained the binary number system to Mauchly, though he was unsure how clearly the Philadelphian had grasped it. To Atanasoff, Mauchly had seemed eager to understand the ABC:

“He seemed to follow in detail our explanations and expressed joy at the results, at the fact that these vacuum tubes would actually compute. He was shown addition and subtraction and multiplication and he was also shown the process of punching cards but we only had one unit in operation during his visit and we weren’t prepared to punch all of the thirty ‘Abaci’ simultaneously and no effort was made to fill the entire machine. He was shown the operation of converting base-ten cards to base-two numbers on the system, then the rest of the controls which we planned for the machine to make it operable in regard to solutions of simultaneous linear equations … We discussed logic elements in considerable length with Dr. Mauchly.” Halladay also introduced as evidence a letter Mauchly had written to a friend on June 28, 1941, only a few days after returning to Philadelphia. The third paragraph included the following: “Immediately after commencement here, I went out to Iowa State University to see the computing device which a friend of mine is constructing there. His machine, now nearing completion, is electronic in operation, and will solve within a very few minutes any system of linear equations involving no more than thirty variables. It can be adapted to do the job of the Bush Differential Analyzer more rapidly than the Bush machine does, and it costs a lot less.” The Sperry lawyer tried to get this letter excluded on the grounds that it was hearsay, but the judge allowed it.

Even though the court procedures were tedious, Atanasoff’s answers were so detailed and self-reinforcing, since he rarely contradicted himself or seemed confused, that when the Sperry lawyer cross-examined, both on technical issues and concerning his relations with John Mauchly, he succeeded only in bolstering Honeywell’s case by giving Atanasoff the opportunity of adding more to the record. At one point, the lawyer asserted that Atanasoff had referred to Eckert as “a high-powered electronics expert.” Atanasoff coolly denied this and said that he had no knowledge of Eckert’s skills. The lawyer asked him why he hadn’t progressed with the naval computer when he was at the NOL. Ignorant of von Neumann’s funding machinations, Atanasoff replied that he had been short of both personnel and time—the navy had promised to relieve him of his ordnance responsibilities but had failed to do so. His reply made perfect sense.

When Atanasoff was finished testifying—seven days of direct examination and three days of cross-examination—he had made the best case he could that Mauchly had not only visited the ABC, but he had given every evidence of understanding the principles underlying Atanasoff’s theory of computing, as well as how he had realized these ideas in a piece of machinery.

One of the star witnesses for Honeywell, who testified at the end of August, was Edward Teller. His job was not to say where he thought Mauchly had gotten his ideas, but to help Honeywell’s prior-use case against the ENIAC patents. According to Teller, the scientists at Los Alamos, thanks to the von Neumann connection, had made use of ENIAC for calculations concerning the feasibility of the hydrogen bomb in late 1945 and early 1946. The calculations were not especially accurate, but accurate enough to show Teller where he was in error and to suggest which direction he might go in when development of the H-bomb was resumed in 1949. The use of ENIAC for these calculations, and their significance as prior use, had not been employed in the previous trial that resulted in Sperry being awarded its patent. Its significance was in the fact that Mauchly and Eckert had not bothered to write up their patent application until August 1947, two and a half years after the machine was employed for the H-bomb calculations. It was a similar argument to the one that had been made about the EDVAC patents after the dissemination of von Neumann’s 101-page “First Draft.” Prior use was the second string to Honeywell’s bow.

John Mauchly did not testify until November 1971. The Sperry lawyers had already discovered that Mauchly’s depositions were easily challenged: such assertions as the one that he had spent only an hour and a half with the computer, or that he had not seen it running, or that he had not seen it with the cover off were so easily disproved that Mauchly’s story had changed from deposition to deposition. The Honeywell lawyers knew how to press him because he had already given them plenty of ammunition.

However, the Sperry lawyers did what they could to establish Mauchly’s credentials—like Atanasoff, he told his life story. Like Atanasoff, he outlined what he had done before ENIAC that might have pointed to his computer ideas. Then Halladay cross-examined him. Judge Larson had prohibited witnesses from hearing the testimony of earlier witnesses, so Mauchly did not know what Legvold, Atanasoff, Lura Atanasoff, and others had said about his visit (though he had read their depositions). Throughout his testimony, he persisted in denigrating the ABC and forgetting what was in the thirty-five-page description of the machine. Then Halladay began to cross-examine him, and Mauchly’s inability to remember fairly elementary aspects of his earlier inventions (such as whether his Harmonic Analyzer was mechanical or electronic) worked against him. He could not come up with any drawings or ideas he had made prior to meeting Atanasoff. He could call no witnesses who remembered talking to him about such devices, and he could not point to having invented a digital device—his Harmonic Analyzer was analog. He talked about having discussed electronic computing in his classes at Ursinus but could recall no student who could attest to these discussions. The only papers or notes he had about electronic computing were dated after he met Atanasoff in December 1940 or after he had been to Ames.

One of the most striking pieces of evidence that Halladay introduced was a paper Mauchly had written in August 1941, two months after seeing the ABC, in which Mauchly had stated “computing machines may be conveniently classified as either analog or impulse types,” appending a footnote that read, “I am indebted to Dr J. V. Atanasoff of Iowa State College for the classification and terminology here explained.”

At one point, Halladay showed Mauchly the thirty-five-page report, which the Ames people remembered him studying. Mauchly said that he had not read it very carefully, because he was not interested in the machine it described. Halladay pushed him, and he became resentful but finally admitted, in a roundabout way, that Atanasoff had told him that he could not take it back to Philadelphia, and so he must have asked to do so. Throughout the cross-examination, Mauchly quibbled and resisted, but Halladay did eventually establish several points—that after the twenty- to thirty-minute December meeting in Philadelphia, Mauchly had understood that Atanasoff was building a calculator based on different principles from the Bush Analyzer and that if he came to Ames, he could see it and Atanasoff would tell him about it. Concerning the June visit, Halladay established that Mauchly had been there for five days, that he had discussed the computer for many hours with both Atanasoff and Berry, that he had seen the ABC operate and read the report, that he had expressed enthusiasm for and understanding of the ABC and Atanasoff’s ideas after returning to Philadelphia, and that he had asked Atanasoff if he could use some of his ideas in a calculator of his own. It was also established that after he got back to Philadelphia, he had changed his career path and enrolled in the summer course in computing theory, where he met Eckert.

In Mauchly’s defense, Scott McCartney reports that at the time of the trial, Mauchly was suffering from an illness that damaged his memory. I think we can also infer that Mauchly looked back at the ABC through the lens of ENIAC. There is no disagreement that ENIAC was a more complex and powerful computer than the ABC, and that it also owed some of its design and construction to the Bush Analyzer at the Moore School that had been designed by Irven Travis before he left for the navy. ENIAC was intended to perform a war-related function and had to be put together as quickly as possible, which was why EDVAC was designed—to finally realize the most advanced computing concepts without the pressures of speed or limited funding. There is also no disagreement that J. Presper Eckert and the others who worked on ENIAC contributed to the development of a sophisticated machine that was in some ways advanced (and in some ways not) compared to the ABC. What the Honeywell lawyers endeavored to show was a “sine qua non” or “without which not”—that without Atanasoff, Berry, and the ABC, Mauchly could not himself have come up with the ideas that led to ENIAC. Nothing Mauchly could or could not remember proved that he could have, whereas all of the Honeywell/CDC evidence showed that Atanasoff had done so.

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, more or less, 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 (or put into practice), 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. It was pretty clear from the testimony that Atanasoff had been diligent in conceiving the computer and in “reducing it to practice.” 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 when Iowa State and Richard Trexler failed to file his application, and Mauchly would have been awarded the patent.

In this regard, it is also important to note that Mauchly could have avoided patent problems if he had been more careful, as GE lawyer George Eltgroth understood. If he and his lawyers 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 his claims in light of that material and determined if Atanasoff’s machine (and his thirty-five-page report) 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. But Mauchly and Eckert, possibly hyperaware of the commercial possibilities of the computer (for which McCartney, a writer for the Wall Street Journal, specially praises them) were loath to give any credit to others—when they filed their patent, it covered more than a hundred different concepts, even though they were part of a large group working on the machine and Mauchly was also consulting Atanasoff from time to time on technical details of the ABC. It may be that when von Neumann was himself chatting up Atanasoff at the NOL, in late 1945, he was not only getting the benefit of Atanasoff’s ideas, he was also coming to understand that the computer as it existed in 1945 could not be owned by one or two men and was figuring out how to make sure that it would not be. It may also be that it was von Neumann’s insufficient credit to Mauchly and Eckert in his “First Draft” that put them in a possessive frame of mind when they were writing up their own application.

At any rate, the Sperry Rand defense of having Mauchly forget as much as possible was the best the Sperry lawyers could come up with. It was certainly one that was congenial to Mauchly, however well it was or was not designed to work, and he stuck to it. Another irony of the case, which Charles Call communicated to Kirwan Cox, was that if Sperry had offered to share the patents for the same fee as they asked from IBM ($10 million), Honeywell would not have gone to court; but Sperry asked for $250 million before the publication of R. K. Richards’s book, and then $20 million afterward. Twenty million dollars was still too high for Honeywell, and so they went to court.

The challenge to Sperry Rand’s patents was lengthy and involved. According to Clark Mollenhoff, it “consumed over 135 days or parts of days.” A total of seventy-seven witnesses had given oral testimony, and an additional eighty witnesses were presented through deposition transcripts. Honeywell had introduced 25,686 exhibits to be marked by the court; and lawyers for Sperry Rand and its subsidiary, Illinois Scientific Development (ISD), had directed the court’s attention to another 6,968 exhibits … The highly complicated trial transcripts stretched to over 20,667 pages.” Honeywell’s brief, filed in September 1972, was five hundred pages long. The key claim in the brief was not that Atanasoff had invented ENIAC, but “that there is no difference between what Mauchly learned from Atanasoff in June 1941, and what Eckert and Mauchly were later to claim to have invented alone.” The Honeywell brief went on to point out that even if the ABC had not worked, under U.S. patent law “one cannot claim a conception derived from another as his ‘original’ invention, even though he may have built the first device based upon that conception.” The Sperry brief, filed in August, rested its case on the fact that Sperry had already been awarded the ENIAC patents and that Atanasoff had not invented ENIAC, and that Mauchly had done a few electronic projects before meeting Atanasoff.

In April 1973, Judge Larson sent copies of his proposed decision to both the Sperry lawyers and the Honeywell lawyers, asking for their responses. It was clear from the proposed decision that Larson was leaning toward abrogating the Sperry patents, but also that he was giving the Sperry lawyers one last chance to make their case. They could not make it. In October, Larson decided in favor of Honeywell, in no uncertain terms. He stated, “Between 1937 and 1942, Atanasoff, then a professor of physics and mathematics at Iowa State College, Ames, Iowa, developed and built an automatic electronic digital computer for solving large systems of simultaneous linear equations.” He then went on to describe the steps by which Atanasoff solidified this claim—for example, it was enough that the breadboard prototype worked and was the subject of further funding. The ABC did not have to work perfectly at the time of Mauchly’s visit in order to have established that Atanasoff’s ideas were valid, that they were his ideas, and that he communicated them to Mauchly sufficiently so that Mauchly could build on them. Larson stated that “as a result of this visit, the discussions of Mauchly with Atanasoff and Berry, the demonstrations, and the review of the manuscript, Mauchly derived from ABC ‘the invention of the automatic electronic digital computer’ claimed in the ENIAC patent.”

Larson also addressed the issue of who had invented ENIAC. He found that “work on the ENIAC was a group or team effort and that inventive contributions were made by Sharpless, Burks, Shaw, and others,” but that since these people had not asserted their claims in a proper manner, Honeywell could not use these claims to abrogate the patents.

On the same day that Judge Larson gave his decision, Archibald Cox was fired as special Watergate prosecutor, and Larson’s decision was lost in the news shuffle of Watergate. But in spite of the wishes of those involved, the decision was in fact a technical matter, of interest to computer geeks and corporate lawyers, not the public at large. Computers themselves were still seen as room-sized, specialized pieces of machinery, not accessible to the average person. The importance of Judge Larson’s decision would not really be clear until the computer companies had acted on it. The result was as John von Neumann had suspected—once the ideas became common property, innovation blossomed, and the computer revolution took hold.

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