The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer
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From one of our most acclaimed novelists, a David-and-Goliath biography for the digital age.
One night in the late 1930s, in a bar on the Illinois–Iowa border, John Vincent Atanasoff, a professor of physics at Iowa State University, after a frustrating day performing tedious mathematical calculations in his lab, hit on the idea that the binary number system and electronic switches, combined with an array of capacitors on a moving drum to serve as memory, could yield a computing machine that would make his life and the lives of other similarly burdened scientists easier. Then he went back and built the machine. It worked. The whole world changed.
Why don’t we know the name of John Atanasoff as well as we know those of Alan Turing and John von Neumann? Because he never patented the device, and because the developers of the far-better-known ENIAC almost certainly stole critical ideas from him. But in 1973 a court declared that the patent on that Sperry Rand device was invalid, opening the intellectual property gates to the computer revolution.
Jane Smiley tells the quintessentially American story of the child of immigrants John Atanasoff with technical clarity and narrative drive, making the race to develop digital computing as gripping as a real-life techno-thriller.
hand. The machine itself he left in the basement of the physics building. Chapter Six The John Vincent Atanasoff who worked at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory for the next seven years, through the war and then on several projects afterward, was the same man who had made his self-confident, energetic, innovative, and sometimes abrasive way through school, college, graduate school, and a successful teaching career. He worked unceasingly and impressed everyone who knew him, but he did not
immediately that though it worked, it was not fast enough, and he began on an improved version in February 1944. He was told that the machine had to be installed at Bletchley and functioning by the first of June, the planned date for the invasion of Normandy by the Allied forces. He succeeded. According to Jack Copeland, “Despite the fact that no such machine had previously been attempted, the computer was in working order almost straight away and ready to begin its fast-paced attack on the
across to one another.” Concerning logic circuits, Atanasoff was honest about the fact that he did not perfectly visualize how the logic circuits would work. He imagined a black box, with input from two memory units—“the box would then yield the correct results on output terminals.” Although he did not envision the contents of the box specifically, he did understand that “since I was going to use condensers, why then I supposed the innards would be electrical in character, and I was well aware
not to say where he thought Mauchly had gotten his ideas, but to help Honeywell’s prior-use case against the ENIAC patents. According to Teller, the scientists at Los Alamos, thanks to the von Neumann connection, had made use of ENIAC for calculations concerning the feasibility of the hydrogen bomb in late 1945 and early 1946. The calculations were not especially accurate, but accurate enough to show Teller where he was in error and to suggest which direction he might go in when development of
II era, when hitting a target with a missile was a challenge involving a lot of trial and error. The intimidating and blackboard-filling math for this problem may be the source of the expression “it’s not rocket science,” since rocket science of this sort really is difficult. As an asteroid moves through the solar system, it accelerates under the gravitational forces of the sun, planets, and other masses. Thus, the second derivative of the position (its acceleration) relates to the position by