Number Cruncher

A new biography vindicates a forgotten innovator

The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer | By Jane Smiley | Doubleday | 256 pages, $25.95

In The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer, Jane Smiley explores the origin story of a tool so ubiquitous that it can at times feel inevitable. As computers get smaller, faster, and ever more disposable, they seem to develop exponentially on their own. It is sometimes easy to forget that computers have not always existed, did not evolve alongside humanity in some parallel virulent strain. As this book reminds us, the first computer developed in the 1930s was a simple calculator: the means to an end. One wonders what the original pioneers of this technology would think, seventy-odd years later, of Facebook, YouTube, and (gasp) Chatroulette.

Smiley’s book focuses on the work of a thirty-four-year-old physics professor at Iowa State College. John Atanasoff was patient with his students, teaching them quantum mechanics with a kind of Socratic method. But he was impatient with the limitations of the current methods of calculation. “By the 1930s, solving mathematical equations with large numbers of variables was becoming a serious obstacle to progress not only in education and science, but also in industry, government, and the military,” Smiley writes. Atanasoff, with his knack for practical solutions, was up to the task: in one telling anecdote, the young inventor rigged up an electric laundry-wringer so it could shell his family’s soybean crops.

Atanasoff experimented with several different hypothetical calculating machines until inspiration struck one night at a tavern, and he scribbled the outlines of a new concept on a cocktail napkin. His idea was to fabricate a closed system in which “capacitors and vacuum tubes would charge one another, in a feedback loop,” Smiley writes. “What is especially intriguing, and even moving, about Atanasoff’s story is that the machine he was trying to create was intended to mimic the brain—it was to be a self-organizing system….” Atanasoff made many false starts before he transformed theory into reality, and that circuitous transformation is at the heart of Smiley’s book.

Smiley also weaves in a “gallery of odd ducks”—the other engineers and physicists working on concurrent (and sometimes collaborative) computer projects. There’s the Princeton mathematician Alan Turing, perhaps the most famous of these absent-minded professors. Konrad Zuse, working alone in Berlin, built a computer prototype so big that it took up almost the entirety of his parents’ apartment. The young and ambitious physicist John Mauchly serves as the book’s villain. After listening to Atanasoff describe his early experiments, and studying a prototype he had constructed in 1941, Mauchly (in Smiley’s account of events) secretly built upon those innovations for his own work.

In 1946, Mauchly unveiled ENIAC, which was later hailed as the world’s first digital computer. Atanasoff only then learned that his employer, Iowa State College, had never filed the patent applications for his own ideas of the late 1930s and early 1940s, so he had no way to defend his intellectual property. Meanwhile, the computer revolution rolled on and left him behind. Decades later, in 1973, a long-fought patent case did give Atanasoff credit for having invented the first automatic electronic computer (called the Atanasoff-Berry Computer or ABC). Still, he never got the acclaim he deserved from his colleagues, let alone from the public.

As a piece of history, this is an important book; one man’s story that has not yet been adequately told. It is not, however, a breezy read: don’t expect the emotional weight and glimmering sentences of Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. Too often, what drives The Man Who Invented the Computer is the chronology of events, rather than a particular theme, or the arc of a character’s development. Smiley does a good job of explaining the particulars of the various prototypes, and who did what, when. But the story could stand to lose some of the dry details in favor of a smoother narrative. A book with such a technical topic must be infused with, and shaped by, the excitement of discovery.

Judging by her notes and bibliography, Smiley relied heavily on previously published material, which makes her task difficult. In addition, since Atanasoff’s achievements were not widely recognized in his lifetime, he was seldom interviewed. His technical achievements were recorded, as were his legal battles with his peers, but these do not tell us much about the essence of the man, who died in 1995. The tavern episode, in which Atanasoff has an epiphany over his bourbon and soda and hastily sketches out the first computer, is cited everywhere in the book’s promotional materials. It’s a great scene—but the book could have used a lot more of them.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner Tags: , , , ,