Dig­i­tal dreams

Jane Smi­ley tells the tale of com­puter pi­o­neer John Atana­soff.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - book­world@wash­post.com Sim­son Garfinkel is the author of 14 books, in­clud­ing “Ar­chi­tects of the In­for­ma­tion So­ci­ety: Thirty-Five Years of the Lab­o­ra­tory for Com­puter Sci­ence at MIT.”

THE MAN WHO IN­VENTED THE COM­PUTER The Bi­og­ra­phy of John Atana­soff, Dig­i­tal Pi­o­neer By Jane Smi­ley Dou­ble­day. 246 pp. $25.95

Amer­i­cans have a ro­man­ti­cized idea about the na­ture of in­ven­tion. We see in­ven­tion as a flash of in­sight — a eureka! moment — that strikes af­ter years of care­ful, de­lib­er­ate work. We en­shrine this vi­sion in our his­to­ries, pop­u­lar cul­ture and even the Con­sti­tu­tion, which of­fers pa­tents to in­ven­tors as an in­cen­tive to share their cre­ations with the pub­lic. We cel­e­brate our in­ven­tors, teach­ing our chil­dren about the cre­ators of the light bulb, the air­plane, the ra­dio, the po­lio vac­cine and other trans­for­ma­tive de­vel­op­ments of the mod­ern era. Andyet­mostAmer­i­can­shavenoidea who in­vented the elec­tronic dig­i­tal com­puter— ar­guably the most trans­for­ma­tive leap of all.

Smi­ley, a Pulitzer Prize-win­ning nov­el­ist, ar­gues in this work of non­fic­tion that com­put­er­sowetheir ex­is­tence to a com­bi­na­tion of wartime ne­ces­sity and in­tel­lec­tual cu­rios­ity. It’s widely ac­knowl­edged that the need to crack codes, com­pute ar­tillery ta­bles and even crunch the num­bers for the first atom­icbombpro­vided gov­ern­ments in Eng­land and the United States with the in­cen­tive to mar­shal the man­power and the fi­nan­cial re­sources nec­es­sary to build the first com­put­ers — mas­sive ma­chines that filled rooms and re­quired the same amount of power to run as did a hun­dred house­holds. Smi­ley tells the story of the se­cret ef­forts in Eng­land to build Colos­sus code­crack­ing com­put­ers and of work at the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia to build the ENIAC, a mas­sive ma­chine de­signed to com­pute ar­tillery ta­bles. Colos­sus was a suc­cess, but most of the ma­chines were de­stroyed af­ter the war, and its ex­is­tence was kept se­cret for decades. ENIAC, on the other hand, was widely touted as the world’s first “elec­tronic brain.” Its two in­ven­tors, John Mauchly and J.

Pres­per Eck­ert, went on to cre­ate the world’s first com­puter com­pany.

But the real heart of Smi­ley’s vol­ume is her portrayal of the lives of two sci­en­tists who worked on much smaller ma­chines that they de­signed by them­selves and built with limited means, af­ter which the sci­en­tists were largely for­got­ten: Kon­rad Zuse, who built the world’s first func­tion­ing dig­i­tal com­puter in Nazi Ger­many us­ing dis­carded re­lays, and John Atana­soff, a physics pro­fes­sor at Iowa State Col­lege, who built a tube­based elec­tronic dig­i­tal ma­chine the size of a desk for solv­ing sys­tems of si­mul­ta­ne­ous lin­ear equa­tions.

Smi­ley, an alumna and for­mer fac­ulty mem­ber of the same in­sti­tu­tion, now Iowa State Uni­ver­sity, spends roughly half of her book fol­low­ing all four com­puter projects, as well as Atana­soff ’s post-com­puter con­tri­bu­tions to World War II and the Cold War. Atana­soff had his eureka! moment af­ter a 200-mile drive in De­cem­ber 1937. He had been work­ing for years on ma­chines to help physi­cists per­form the la­bo­ri­ous cal­cu­la­tions re­quired by quan­tum physics. Sud­denly the en­tire de­sign came to him while he was hav­ing din­ner at a res­tau­rant. He sketched his idea on a nap­kin, spent two years de­sign­ing the ma­chine, ob­tained a $650 grant in 1939 to build a pro­to­type, hired a grad­u­ate stu­dent named Clif­ford

Berry and spent the next two years build­ing the con­trap­tion.

Iowa State Col­lege never re­ally un­der­stood the value of what Atana­soff was build­ing and never both­ered to file a patent ap­pli­ca­tion. ButMauchly did. Af­ter a chance meet­ing with Atana­soff, the two cor­re­sponded, and in 1941Mauch­ly­drove­fromPhiladel­phia to Iowa to spend five days with Atana­soff, where­heim­mersed­him­selfinthe de­sign and op­er­a­tion of what is now called the Atana­soff-Berry Com­puter.

Mauchly went back to Philadel­phia, built ENIAC, filed for pa­tents with his part­ner Eck­ert and started a com­pany that­even­tu­ally­be­cameSper­ryRand, a leader of the com­puter in­dus­try in the 1950s and ’60s.

The sec­ond half of Smi­ley’s book fol­lows the 20-year fight over these pa­tents. Smi­ley de­scribes the dirty un­der­belly of in­ven­tion, show­ing how pro­to­types are de­stroyed, how in­ven­tors move on to new projects and how ma­jor patent dis­putes are some­times de­cided by an old let­ter found in a box of pa­pers. In­deed, it was only af­ter Berry’s sus­pi­cious death in a ho­tel room in 1965 — he was found with a plas­tic bag over his head— that Atana­soff, nowa wealthy man, de­voted him­self to us­ing the his­tor­i­cal record of the ma­chine he had built with Berry to in­val­i­date the Mauchly pa­tents. His aim, Smi­ley writes, was to se­cure a place in his­tory for Berry.

A fed­eral judge over­turned those pa­tents be­cause Mauchly had not dis­closed Atana­soff ’s prior work, but Smi­ley fails to make her case that Atana­soff in­vented what we think of as the mod­ern dig­i­tal com­puter. She can’t, be­cause Atana­soff ’s ma­chine was not pro­gram­mable — it was a sin­gle-pur­pose ma­chine. Most read­ers will miss this crit­i­cal de­tail be­cause Smi­ley doesn’t fo­cus on such tech­ni­cal stuff.

To be fair, her his­tory of the dig­i­tal pi­o­neers is one of the most ap­proach­able vol­umes that has been writ­ten about this cru­cial in­ven­tion. She con­vinc­ingly shows that the dig­i­tal revo­lu­tion re­sulted from the ef­forts of many pi­o­neers, in ef­fect dis­prov­ing her the­sis, but also prov­ing the value of her book.

MARK ALLEN MILLER FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

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