Pulitzer Prize-Winning Novelist Tells the Tale of the World’s First Computer | Magazine

Monday, November 22, 2010

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Novelist Tells the Tale of the World’s First Computer | Magazine

who invented the computer? For anyone who has made a pilgrimage to the University of Pennsylvania and seen the shrine to the ENIAC, the answer may seem obvious: John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert Jr., who led Penn’s engineering team in the 1940s. As it says on the plaque, the giant machine made of 17,468 vacuum tubes was the “first electronic large-scale, general-purpose digital computer.” But notice all the qualifying adjectives. Does this mean there was a smaller digital computer that actually came first?

Yes, it does. And that computer was invented by John Vincent Atanasoff, who, with his partner Clifford Berry, started assembling the machine in the basement of the physics building at Iowa State University in the late 1930s. (It was finished in 1942.) Atanasoff, a physicist by training, was on the engineering faculty. Berry was a graduate student. Their computer, which was the size of a large desk, could do laborious mathematical calculations electronically using vacuum tubes to perform its logical operations. Now called the ABC (for Atanasoff-Berry computer), it was little known at the time. But it was admired by a small circle of brilliant inventors who were working on the problem of massive calculation, including John von Neumann at the Institute for Advanced Study and the engineers working on the ENIAC in Philadelphia.1

This fall, the unsung physicist is getting some of the credit he deserves from an unlikely author: Jane Smiley, the American novelist whose pastoral melodrama A Thousand Acres won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. She was captivated by the story and characters, “not for technical reasons as much as for narrative and psychological reasons.” In The Man Who Invented the Computer, she paints a portrait of a prickly, relentless engineering savant who got hooked on the problem of automatic computation while working on his dissertation in quantum mechanics, which required tedious calculations. After building his computer, he went on to tackle a series of unrelated challenges during the early years of the cold war, including measuring the effects of nuclear test explosions. He founded his own firm, received several patents, and died wealthy and respected. But Atanasoff’s greatest work, the first digital computer, was forgotten until the late 1960s, when a legal battle broke out over the patents that the ENIAC project leaders had filed on basic computing concepts.

In the course of the bruising litigation between the Sperry Rand Corporation, which had purchased the ENIAC patents, and Honeywell, which wanted to break them, it was proven that the ENIAC team stole key ideas from Atanasoff. The patents were declared invalid by a federal judge. But Atanasoff’s achievement never became widely known or celebrated.

Although he remained largely forgotten on both coasts, the legal case made Atanasoff something of a hero in Iowa. At Iowa State, where Smiley studied and taught for more than two decades, she met someone who plays a minor, ignominious role in her tale: a professor who told her that, as a graduate student, he had been the one to dismantle and throw away the prototype of some strange calculating device that had been left behind in the basement of the physics building. The first digital computer was lost. “He ultimately went on to become the head of the computer science department,” Smiley says, “and he told me that destroying that computer was one of the great regrets of his life.” It is out of such personal twists and ironies—a novelist’s materials—that Smiley builds her tale, capturing both Atanasoff’s genius and, at the same time, the forces of chance that influence invention.

Wired: As a writer, most of your career has been dedicated to the novel. Why did you take on this biography?

Jane Smiley: I was asked by an editor to consider writing something about an American inventor. I asked him if he knew who invented the computer. He said he didn’t. In that case, I told him, I should write a book about John Vincent Atanasoff.

Wired: We think of the ENIAC as the first computer. But what did the team that built it copy from Atanasoff?

Smiley: In 1937, Atanasoff came up with four principles that were new: electronic logic circuits that would function by turning on and off; binary enumeration; the use of capacitors, which were needed as a kind of memory; and digital operations, which used counting to perform calculations. The calculating machines of that time were like elaborate slide rules that used measurements to compute results, but Atanasoff, who was trained as a quantum physicist, understood that this would be very unwieldy for large numbers. He didn’t want to measure, he wanted to count.

Wired: Atanasoff introduced the concept of digital calculation? Nobody else had considered this approach?

Smiley: Konrad Zuse, in Berlin, also did. Zuse built his first computer, the Z1, in his parents’ apartment. But he never got to patent it, and he never got to have his ideas influence computing, because he was so far outside the mainstream, working in isolation in Nazi Germany.

Wired: Didn’t Alan Turing, the great British mathematician, give the definitive description of a computer that proceeded by discrete steps?

Smiley: Turing was mainly a theoretician. He worked for the British government during the Second World War on the great code-breaking machine Colossus. But this also remained relatively unknown, because Churchill was obsessed with keeping it secret and ordered all the machines destroyed.

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