Who Really Invented the Computer?
The digital computer is usually credited as the invention of two
professors at the University of Pennsylvania, J.
Presper Eckert and John
Mauchly. Funded by the United States Army, the ENIAC
computer was designed to calculate tables for launching artillery
shells accurately in World War II, but was not completed until after
the war in 1946. Unlike earlier computers that had a fixed purpose,
ENIAC (meaning "Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer")
could be reprogrammed to handle many different purposes. But were
Eckert and Mauchly really the pioneers of today's modern digital
Actually no. The real inventors of the digital computer were physics
Atanasoff and his student Clifford
Berry who created the first digital computer in a laboratory
at Iowa State University. The ABC ("Atanasoff-Berry
Computer") was built in 1939, yet by the time of ENIAC's
introduction to the world, the ABC had been forgotten. What had
happened? World War II broke out and the University of Iowa as well
as Atanasoff and Berry simply didn't realize the power of what they
had created. Atanasoff was called up by the Navy to do physics research,
eventually participating in the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll.
When Atanasoff returned to Iowa state he found that his invention
was gone to make room for other equipmentbecause the ABC was
built piece-by-piece in the laboratory, it was too big to move out
and so it had to be dismantled. Iowa State had decided that a patent
was too expensive and so never filed one. John Atanasoff went on
to gain recognition for a number of inventions involving physics,
but the ABC was mostly forgotten.
In the 1970s there were a handful of companies that saw the great
potential in the electronic computer. Sperry Rand Corporation, which
was formed through a series of mergers and acquisitions including
Computer Corporation, held U.S. Patent 3,120,606
for the digital computer. In 1973, Sperry
Rand sued Honeywell, Inc. and Honeywell reciprocated. Thus began
one of the most important intellectual property cases in history.
During the research for this case, Honeywell found out about John
Atanasoff and the ABC, which became pivotal information. The case
was tried for 7 months after which Judge
Earl R. Larson handed down his decision that stated, among other
things, that the Eckert-Mauchly patent was invalid.
Some people have disputed this finding, arguing that this was a
"legal" finding or a "loophole" or that a lawyer
or a judge simply couldn't understand the complex engineering issues
involved. Here's my take on this.
- Both sides had a lot of time, and access to technical experts,
to make the best case they could.
- So much was at stake, and a huge amount of money was spent to
bring out the truth. Both sides had very significant resources.
If a case with this much at stake could not convince a judge after
seven months, then there is little hope for any IP case.
- Evidence was found and witness verified that John Atanasoff
had attended a conference in Philadelphia where he met John Mauchly
and described his work. He then invited Mauchly out to Iowa where
Mauchly spent several days examining Atanasoff's computer and
many late nights reading Atanasoff's technical specifications.
Letters were produced, signed by Mauchly, that thanked Atanasoff
for his hospitality and for the tour of his amazing invention.
- Mauchly testified at the trial. He admitted that he had met
Atanasoff and eventually admitted that he had examined the ABC
and read its specification.
- Mauchly and Sperry Rand Corporation were challenged to produce
a single piece of evidence that Mauchly or Eckert had written
about or researched digital electronics before Mauchly's meeting
with Atanasoff. The best Mauchly could do was produce a circuit
for a model railway flasher that he claimed was a binary counterit
counted from 0 to 1 and then back to 0.
In fact, it became clear that Mauchly and Eckert attempted to claim
much more credit than they deserved and tried to deny credit to
others. They had actually greatly improved on Atanasoff's original
design. Had Eckert and Mauchly been more humble, had they added
Atanasoff's name to their patent, had they patented their own improvements
instead of the entire invention, they may have given Sperry Rand
the most powerful IP in technology history. Instead the invention
of the computer entered the public domain without restriction, and
the rest is history...
For a good book on the subject, read The
First Electronic Computer: The Atanasoff Story by Alice
R. Burks and Arthur W. Burks.