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