Chapter Twelve

Sperry Rand, John Mauchly, and J. Presper Eckert did not go down easily. They took advantage of the limited dissemination of the Minneapolis decision to continue claiming credit for inventing the computer. Possibly they did not understand the details of patent law that destroyed their claim—from the beginning, they seem not to have seen themselves as team members or as the beneficiaries of social networks engaged in a common purpose, but rather as stars and owners who stood to gain fame and fortune. When they claimed ownership of more than a hundred ideas in their 1947 patent application, or when they failed to acknowledge Atanasoff in that same application, they were setting themselves up for an eventual failure that might have been avoided with smarter legal counsel, more scrupulous honesty, or, just possibly, better recordkeeping.

For years, Sperry Rand and Mauchly and Eckert fought a rearguard action to retain the PR rights to the invention, if not the legal rights. One patent lawyer, Sheldon L. Epstein, of Wilmette, Illinois, recalls how difficult it was to get any mention of Atanasoff or the Larson decision into a Smithsonian exhibition on the history of the computer: “In the 1980s, the Smithsonian Institution started work on an exhibit to commemorate the invention of the computer. Because it lacked funds to proceed on its own, the Smithsonian solicited and received computer industry funding. One of the more prominent contributors was Sperry Rand. The Smithsonian Institution took the position that contributions from Sperry Rand and other supporters of Mauchly and Eckert would not influence the content of its exhibit. Nevertheless, the exhibit as originally conceived did not contain any reference to Atanasoff’s inventions or to Judge Larson’s opinion. Instead the Smithsonian Institution credited Eckert and Mauchly with invention of the electronic computer. Atanasoff’s supporters strenuously objected and had some limited success in getting a very small portion of the exhibit allocated to Atanasoff’s inventions. That same problem was to reappear a few years later when PBS produced a program—financed by many of the same contributors—on the invention of computers.”

In 1999, Wall Street Journal writer Scott McCartney took up the cudgels again, this time in the interests of private enterprise. In ENIAC, McCartney maintains that it was Mauchly and Eckert who started their own company, and Mauchly and Eckert who foresaw the computer revolution as we know it. The idea of individual access to inexpensive and powerful machines that would be used for all sorts of things was unimaginable to people like John von Neumann, who thought that computers would be large tools for government agencies, academia, and giant corporations, but limited in their usefulness for the average person. Even though Mauchly and Eckert actually showed no aptitude for private enterprise, McCartney views von Neumann as the real thief, with his attempts to spread the principles behind the computer to anyone who might be interested and thereby spark greater and more powerful inventions. For McCartney, Atanasoff and his claims are just an annoyance to be dispatched with assertions that the judge didn’t know what he was doing and Sperry’s lawyers didn’t either. But Sperry never appealed the decision, and so they must have accepted it. One especially interesting response to McCartney’s book demonstrates the resentment that lingered for a long time., in the reviews of ENIAC, JBartik writes:

Scott struggles hard on the Atanasoff saga. Atanasoff never claimed he invented the computer and nobody ever heard of him until Honeywell dug him up to keep from paying royalties on the ENIAC patent. Much is made of John Mauchly’s memory of his association with Atanasoff as recorded at different times. John suffered from a disease called Hereditary Hemoragic Talengetasin (HHT) [sic] which causes lesions to be formed in the brain and holes in the lungs. One of the interviews was taken shortly after he had had an episode and had been very ill in the hospital. It is no wonder he couldn’t remember incidents then that he could remember when he was in better health.

“JBartik” turns out to be Jean Bartik, whom McCartney acknowledges at the end of his book: “Jean Bartik was a fountain of information and a burst of energy who spurred me on several times during research and writing.” She is pictured in one of the famous photos of ENIAC (identified as Betty Jean Jennings). McCartney also declares that he owes a great deal to Mauchly’s wife, Kathleen Mauchly Antonelli (a good friend of Bartik’s) and to Eckert’s wife, Judy. It is clear from these acknowledgments that what happened to ENIAC and EDVAC gave rise to bitter feelings on both sides of the patent issues. In the 1980s, Alice and Arthur Burks wrote a book supporting Atanasoff and demonstrating the links between the ABC and ENIAC—Arthur, of course, worked on ENIAC and the IAS computer. Alice worked on ENIAC with Jean Bartik. In 2003, Alice Burks returned to the fray with Who Invented the Computer? The customer reviews on give a sample of the passions raised on either side by the dispute of the ENIAC patents.

But Atanasoff was not without his own advocates and promoters. While the trial preparation was going on, in 1970, Isaac Auerbach happened to meet a Bulgarian mathematician named Blagovest Sendov at a conference in London and to mention Atanasoff. Sendov was immediately interested and did some of his own checking into the case. He also wrote to Atanasoff, requesting information about his father, Ivan. Iva Purdy Atanasoff, then visiting John and Alice, put together her memories, and Sendov used this information to find Atanasoff’s relatives in Bulgaria. Atanasoff was invited to return for a visit, and, while there in November 1970, he was awarded the Order of Cyril and Methodius, First Class, for inventing the computer. He was also shown around the city of Sofia and taken to Boyadzhik and the Yambol district, where his father was still remembered.

When the Larson decision was handed down, Atanasoff was just seventy. He was still enormously active on his Maryland farm, busy with his wife, Alice, his three children, and his grandchildren. How busy is apparent from Tammara Burton’s reprint of a letter written by Atanasoff’s mother Iva (now almost a hundred) after she moved to the farm in the mid-1980s: “Vincent … wants me to walk to the gate [about 850 yards] every day even when it is below freezing. Then I have this bell which rings every hour for me to get up and walk around.” Iva comes to rather enjoy her freezing exercise, though one day when there is blowing snow, she persuades Alice to intercede with her son. As for Atanasoff himself, she reports, “One fourth of the time he spends lecturing me about the great necessity of eating less, drinking more, and walking more. The other three-fourths … he spends in the machine shop. All we can hear is screech screech scrunch. I asked him what he was making and he said a boat. I supposed a small pleasure boat but wondered because he does not care for fishing. But he said it would be about as big as a house.”

Atanasoff’s real passion late in his life became language and alphabets. He viewed the Bulgarian version of the Cyrillic alphabet, with thirty-two letters until 1945 and thirty thereafter, as superior to the English alphabet, and when interested groups wanted him to talk about the invention of the computer, he wanted to steer the conversation toward the benefits of reinventing the alphabet (the reader may view this as an eerie evocation of Alan Turing and the purpose of Colossus). He told a Bulgarian newspaper in 1985, “I hear them; I hear the voices and the hearts of the people who pronounce them … I want each letter or each symbol to carry more meanings, to support with full power the alphabet.”

Atanasoff gained more and more recognition for the invention of the computer as the twentieth century progressed (in spite of his omission from the MIT website). He was celebrated at Iowa State in 1974, and he was the subject of a meticulous biography that focused on the relationship between the ABC and ENIAC by Arthur Burks and Alice Rowe Burks, who had worked on ENIAC, in 1989, called The First Electronic Computer: The Atanasoff Story, as well as a biography called Atanasoff: Forgotten Father of the Computer, by Clark Mollenhoff, a writer for the Des Moines Register, in 1988. The Burkses, according to Tammara Burton, had been unaware of the ABC until they wrote an article for The Annals of the History of Computing about ENIAC. They read the transcripts from the trial and wrote, “Atanasoff’s principles for electronic computation played a crucial role in the circuitry of ENIAC and all its successors.” But the Burkses’ book was published by the University of Michigan Press and the Mollenhoff book was published by Iowa State University Press. Burton’s own excellent book, which contains more personal information about Atanasoff, was published in 2006 by the All Bulgarian Foundation and the Center for Research on the Bulgarians.

In 1990, Atanasoff went to the White House and received from George H. W. Bush the 1990 Medal of Technology “for his invention of the electronic digital computer and for contributions toward the development of a technically trained U.S. workforce.” He was also nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics three times during the 1980s, but, according to Burton, since his thirty-five-page paper describing the ABC and other papers concerning the theoretical and technical aspects of the ABC were never published, he was not eligible. Atanasoff died on June 15, 1995.

Many of the questions that McCartney and Bartik attempt to dismiss in ENIAC concerning the ABC were addressed in the 1990s, when a team of computer engineers and graduate students led by John Gustafson rebuilt the ABC, replicating as closely as possible the tools, materials, and construction methods that Atanasoff and Berry had used in the late 1930s. The building of the replica was informative in several ways, according to Gustafson. For one, “The ABC replica took three years to build, the same as it took Atanasoff and Berry. It was hard to get the parts, and a lot of the necessary skill sets don’t exist anymore, such as putting together gear trains and synchronous electric motors. We needed people who were good old-fashioned electronics engineers. The replica cost about $600,000, about the same adjusted for inflation, as it cost when Atanasoff and Berry built it.” And, contradicting a frequent assertion by ENIAC partisans, it did work. Gustafson says, “One of the reasons I built the replica was to see if it worked, and yes, it did work, but not on full size problems (ones with 29 variables)—it could do five equations and five unknowns. Beyond five, it would get messed up in the ‘scratch result,’ that is, writing down the output. [Atanasoff] had to invent a way of storing the intermediate results, and he invented electric arcs zapping holes into paper cards. You could sort of read it back, and it made a mistake in about 1 out of 100,000 holes, which seems like a lot, but in a binary system is not, really.” Gustafson estimates that it would have taken him and his group two years to solve the scratch result (or charring) problem, the same amount of time it probably would have taken Atanasoff and Berry, because it was not only the nature of the card stock that was the difficulty, it was the size and capacity of the card stock—“The computer worked well up to five equations and five variables, but it was another step of difficulty to go from five to six—part of the difficulty rose from the setup of the IBM card, and part was owing to the setup of the switches. The theory of the computer was in terms of groups of five.”

If we survey the history of the invention of the computer, the path by which the instrument on which I am typing came to exist, then we have to say that it was a peculiar and tortured path. Absolutely pivotal to the existence of the computer was the Second World War. From Atanasoff’s point of view, without the Second World War, he would have been in Ames to make sure that his patent application was filed and, possibly, to make sure that the lawyer, Richard Trexler, understood it; he would have found the proper card stock for charring his results; his machine would not have been dismantled and hauled away. From Zuse’s point of view, his machines would not have been bombed into smithereens; he would have filed his patents and secured proper component parts; he would have, perhaps, more easily benefited from the insights and aid of Helmut Schreyer, who might not have left Germany for South America; he would not have had to evacuate Z4 in the mountains where he was stranded for years; he would have had access to computer experts in other nations. From Tommy Flowers’s point of view, he might have taken his vacuum-tube idea and used it to invent a computer, but he also might not have met Alan Turing or Max Newman; the computer he invented would not have been Colossus, but on the other hand, he would not have had to invent it and then destroy it within two years, never referring to it again for decades. From Turing’s point of view, he might have had plenty of good ideas about how the mind works and what a computer would be like, but he would not have met Tommy Flowers and the other engineers who understood how to make something. From John Mauchly’s point of view, he would not have had access to Herman Goldstine or the team of physicists, engineers, and operators that gathered together in Philadelphia to solve the problem of those firing tables, and the money they had access to. From John von Neumann’s point of view, he would not have had his Los Alamos experience, which showed him both what a computer was needed for and how successful (but destructive) collaboration could be, and he would not have met Herman Goldstine on a train platform—von Neumann was not the man to invent the computer, but he was the man to understand its history and its potential. Indeed, von Neumann might never have left Germany. And instead of joining the army, Goldstine might have whiled away many quiet academic years teaching.

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 because Iowa State was a land-grant college, it was far from the mainstream. Because the administration at Iowa State did not understand the significance of the machine in the basement of the physics building, 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. It was Mauchly who in spite of his later testimony was enthusiastic, did know enough to see what Atanasoff had done, was interested enough to pursue it. Other than Clifford Berry and a handful of graduate students, no one else was. Without Mauchly, Atanasoff would have been in the same position as Konrad Zuse and Tommy Flowers—his machine just a rumor or a distant memory.

John Vincent Atanasoff was a lucky man in many ways. He lived to see his hard work and enterprising intelligence vindicated. He spent a long life trying many things and, because of his energy, organizational skills, and persistence, mastering everything he tried. Perhaps Atanasoff would have said that he succeeded in doing something very rare, which is doing what he wanted to do in the way he wanted to do it and discovering that the way he wanted to do it was, indeed, the best way. Kirwan Cox points out that what happened to the ABC also had much to do with Atanasoff’s personality: “Mauchly was the only person to be shown the computer in such detail. Why? Atanasoff had a tendency to focus on something, and then he did it and moved on. Mauchly encountered him just at the moment he was most enthusiastic.” Cox calls him the “lone inventor” type, who explores and invents and then exhausts his interest in a given idea. Money and fame are secondary to passionate curiosity.

The question remains: would the computer as we know it have been invented without Atanasoff? I do not think ENIAC would have been; therefore, the computers that grew out of ENIAC and John von Neumann’s thoughts about ENIAC might not have been invented. When Konrad Zuse found himself in the mountains at the Austrian border and pondered his future testing the fat content of milk at the local dairies, he heard from IBM—they were interested in his ideas—but they might not have been had they not felt the prick of computer development in the United States. It does not seem as though Howard Aiken’s decimal Mark I–IV computers and those similar to it were likely to evolve very quickly into the small, powerful, and handy machines we have; the inventors devoted to analog machines did not believe in electronic machines even when they saw them work. It does not seem likely, therefore, that they would have switched to electronic machines on their own. Tommy Flowers, Max Newman, and Alan Turing knew what electronics could do—it is possible that the computer industry could have blossomed in England rather than the United States, but even aside from the problem of British security concerns after the war (as far in philosophy from von Neumann’s practice of encouraging and even forcing the sharing of information as it is possible to be), Colossus operated on different principles from the American computers designed originally to solve mathematical problems. On the other hand, if the ABC had not been invented, the need to solve very complex mathematical problems, especially those, at first, relating to the invention of the H-bomb, would have pressed mathematicians into some sort of calculating solution. The need was there. It would have been met at some point. But the ABC was invented, and as Kirwan Cox puts it, “The ideas [about computers] Atanasoff had were things that have continued to this day—the machine has been completely surpassed, but the concepts he had have not been surpassed.”

For those of us who aren’t mathematicians, inventors, physicists, or engineers, the history of the invention of the computer is a fascinating look at both human history and human character. There was no inventor of the computer who was not a vivid personality, and no two are alike. It is Alan Turing who has captured the imagination of the culture, perhaps because of his brilliant mind and his tragic death, but Konrad Zuse is at least as idiosyncratic, and his life was even more dramatic. Like Atanasoff, he lived until 1995, long enough to be remembered, and vindicated, too. The most poignant figure, in some ways, may be Tommy Flowers, who remains largely unsung. But perhaps our most problematic character is John von Neumann. Scott McCartney considers him a thief, Norman Macrae and Kati Marton consider him a visionary. Everyone considers him a genius. As for me, von Neumann is the man whose memoirs I would have liked to read, the man at the center of everything, the man of Budapest and the man of Washington, D.C. I would like to know who he thought had invented the computer.

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