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Bits of History

Who Invented The Computer? The Legal Battle That Changed Computing History. Alice Rowe Burks. 463 pp. Prometheus Books, 2002. $35.

In the mid-1930s, a professor of physics and mathematics at Iowa State College named John Vincent Atanasoff began work on a machine capable of solving complex sets of linear algebraic equations. In doing so, he and his graduate-student assistant Clifford Berry explored many of the techniques and technologies that later became widely adopted in electronic computing: the use of binary arithmetic based on logical rather than counting principles; periodically regenerating rotating drum memory; the separation of memory and arithmetic units; the automatic coordination of operations through a centralized "clock." Although the Atanasoff-Berry Computer (ABC) was never fully completed, and Atanasoff himself soon moved on to other projects, the ABC nevertheless represented a pioneering milestone in the development of the modern computer.

Just how pioneering a milestone it was has been a subject of considerable controversy, however. Overshadowed by larger, more visible wartime computing projects such as the ENIAC, the accomplishments of Atanasoff and Berry went largely unnoticed for decades, even within the electronic computing community. In fact, information about their work on the ABC did not become widely available until Atanasoff found himself at the center of a high-profile legal dispute involving patent rights to the electronic computer (Berry had earlier committed suicide).

click for full image and caption
In this 1941 photograph

At stake in the case was the Sperry Rand Corporation's claim to patent rights (based on work done on the ENIAC machine by John W. Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert) and millions of dollars in potential licensing fees; at the heart of a legal challenge by rival computer manufacturer Honeywell, Inc., was a 1941 visit that Mauchly made to Iowa to observe Atanasoff's progress on the ABC. Suddenly the question of who invented the computer became more than merely academic, and in 1973 Federal District Judge Earl Larson delivered a surprising decision: The true inventor of the computer was Atanasoff, not Mauchly and Eckert. (Why only Atanosoff, and not also Berry, is a question that has never been satisfactorily addressed.)

Despite Judge Larson's decision, Atanasoff remains a relatively obscure and controversial figure, even within the history of computing literature. In this book Alice Rowe Burks attempts to restore Atanasoff to what she believes to be his proper role as the inventor of the modern computer. Making extensive use of transcripts of the trial, as well as many other published sources and firsthand reminiscences (including those of her husband, Arthur Burks, who was one of the principal designers of the ENIAC), she defends Judge Larson's decision and argues that Atanasoff deserves credit not only for developing the first true electronic computer, but also, through his influence on John Mauchly, for having an "immediate and enduring" effect on the subsequent history of computing. Although she stops short of accusing Mauchly outright of stealing Atanasoff's ideas (albeit just barely), she strongly implies that Mauchly and others (including most professional historians of computing) have deliberately denied Atanasoff his true role as the father of modern electronic computing.

Burks makes a convincing case that Atanasoff has been unfairly disregarded in much of the literature on the history of computing. She also clearly reveals that Sperry Rand's attempt to patent the electronic computer was both misguided and mishandled. For various reasons, including but not confined to Atanasoff's claims to priority, the case was doomed to failure from the very beginning.

The problem with Burks's book, however, is that it provides a convincing (and at times overly detailed) answer to what is fundamentally the wrong question. Although it might sometimes be legally necessary to identify a single inventor of a particular technology to determine patentability, debates about who was first rarely serve a useful role in understanding the historical development of technology. As Michael Williams suggests in a recent volume edited by Raśl Rojas and Ulf Hashagen called The First Computers (note the crucial use of the plural), any particular claim to priority of invention must necessarily be heavily qualified: If you add enough adjectives, you can always claim your own favorite. Atanasoff's ABC machine was the first computer as Burks defines the computer, but there are other plausible definitions of what constitutes a "true" computer, and therefore other defensible answers to the question of who was first. Ironically enough, in her zeal to redress the wrongs done to Atanasoff, Burks defines the history of computing solely in terms of the ABC and the ENIAC, and she therefore fails to acknowledge the contributions (and claims to priority) of other pioneering machines, such as the Colossus and the Zuse Z3.

Although Burks provides some new and useful information about the contributions of Atanasoff, it is difficult to recommend this book to anyone but the most dedicated scholar of the history of computing. In its single-minded focus on the question of priority it loses sight of the bigger issues. It is also marred by its polemical tone and the author's obvious contempt for John Mauchly. The book is overly long to begin with, and almost half of its more than 400 pages are devoted to elaborate descriptions of the author's squabbles with other historians. The general reader would better served by a broader and more balanced book such as Computer: A History of the Information Machine, by Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray (1996), which considers the many developments—technological, economic, scientific and social—that have contributed to the shaping of the modern computer.—Nathan Ensmenger, History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania

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