He Invented The Computer, Frankly!
Round the corner of a newly opened exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C., and you’ll see a photograph of a young man named John V. Atanasoff. Below it is a much smaller photo of John Mauchly.
For decades it would have been the other way around-if you saw Atanasoff’s picture at all. Atanasoff invented the modern computer, but it took a 1973 court ruling and years of campaigning by his family and others to gain him recognition as a founding father of the information age.
Atanasoff’s rise plays like a Hollywood script. It’s the tale of a ray of inspiration, fueled with a little bourbon in an Illinois bar, that created the computer; a liberal dose of misplaced trust; and millions in lost royalties.
It’s also the tale of a genius inventor whose brainstorm eventually worked its way into everyone’s life. It’s almost impossible to imagine present-day money management, stock trading and banking without computers.
Atanasoff, a theoretical physicist, taught at Iowa State College (now Iowa State University), in Ames. In the late 1930s he began thinking about ways to simplify the myriad computations necessary for his research. Breakthroughs in electronics, such as the invention of the vacuum tube and condenser in the 20th century, offered professionals like Atanasoff the opportunity to discover new ways to compute faster and more accurately.
He got hung up on a basic problem: How do you get the machine to remember what it has already done? A long, aimless drive from Iowa to Illinois ended in a bar and led to an inspiration. Through electronics, he used a base-two binary format-which uses the digits 1 and 0 as its basis. In 1939 Atanasoff, along with graduate student Clifford Berry, devised a machine that satisfied the four basic precepts of computing. It had input and output. It held data that could be modified. It had a memory. And it worked.
In 1941 Atanasoff welcomed a visit from John Mauchly, an instructor at Ursinus College, in Pennsylvania, who had an interest in computers. Exactly what happened while Mauchly stayed with Atanasoff became the core of a lawsuit filed 26 years later. Did Mauchly examine the kitchen-table-size machine as it sat in a basement room on the Iowa campus? Did he take detailed notes? Did he use what he saw and learned as the basis for his own ENIAC (electronic numerical integrator and computer) system, which for years was credited as the first modern computer?
Mauchly said “no.” His widow, Kathleen, to this day defends his work. Mauchly still rates a place in history for the contributions he made with the ENIAC, the computer that helped scientists make the atomic bomb.
But in 1973 a federal court ruled that Mauchly’s 1946 patents were invalid. It said Atanasoff’s work preceded Mauchly’s by more than a year and that under patent law Atanasoff’s could be considered the first computer.
Ironically, a computer maker, not Atanasoff, filed the suit. Honeywell had tired of paying patent royalties to Sperry Rand, which had purchased the rights from Mauchly and co-inventor J. Presper Eckert. By the time the lawsuit was filed Atanasoff, distracted by his World War 11 defense work and by a lack of research funding to take his invention further, had already moved on to wealth and success inventing automatic packaging equipment. The inventor hadn’t even realized how much his computer and Mauchly’s ENIAC had in common until near the beginning of the trial in 1967.
Atanasoff got virtually nothing from the verdict-not even the public recognition he thought would be his. As late as the mid 1980s Encyclopaedia Britannica still referred to Atanasoff as a mathematician and physicist who “constructed what some regard as a prototype of an electromechanical digital computer.” But by 1990 the words “what some regard as” had been dropped.
Atanasoff is now 86 years old. He and his wife, Alice, who acts as his spokeswoman now that his health is poor, credit much of Atanasoff’s recognition to Clark Molienhoff, an Iowa journalist and Washington and Lee University professor, who championed Atanasoff’s cause in his book, Atanasoff.- Forgotten Father of the Computer (Iowa State University Press).
A native of Hamilton, N.Y., Atanasoff has called a rambling, wooded farm near Frederick, Md., his home for the last 26 years. The contemporary, concrete-walled house he designed is striking in its simplicity. Seated in his favorite chair beneath huge glass-paneled overlooks, he has a breathtaking view of the countryside.
Almost daily, he gets letters and cards from well-wishers around the world. Although the debate about his and Mauchly’s work continues in professional circles, the rest of the world appears to have settled the matter in Atanasoff’s favor-a little late, but still appreciated.
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