Learning Who Really Invented the Computer?

Last month's Wired magazine contained a story and interview with novelist Jane Smiley, whose recent book, The Man Who Invented the Computer, purports to finally reveal the true author of that device. Hint: The answer rhymes with Batanasoff. I have not had a chance to read the book, but based on the interview Smiley, an alumna of and former professor at John Atansoff's own Iowa State, appears to portray him as a wronged genius, exploited by a devious John Mauchly. Our own Evan Koblentz has posted a sharp critique of the book on Amazon, as has, evidently, Mauchly's own son, if Amazon's Real Name service is to be believed. Does anyone else who has read it have more positive views? Granted that based on her bibliography and notes (available on the Amazon preview) she seems to have done limited research, and not to have delved into the Atansoff papers. Granted that we already have a book called Atansoff: Forgotten Father of the Computer. Can we perhaps still draw something useful from this book at the meta-level? Although the question of who invented the computer (and similar priority disputes) is not a particular pressing one among historians of computing these days, it seems to continue to have currency in the wider world - indeed, one of the reviews of the book on Amazon (besides Mauchly's) is aimed primarily at defending the ENIAC's priority claim. How do people with no direct stake (in terms of money, prestige, etc) in the outcome become invested in these questions?


>>> How do people with no direct stake (in terms of money, prestige, etc) in the outcome become invested in these questions?

Because people are attracted to underdog stories. In this case, "people" means a professor at Iowa, who received a Sloan Foundation / Doubleday grant to write a historical biography.

Why they picked a fiction writer for this, and why they approved her choice of historic figures considering her inherent university bias, is beyond me ..... !

Also: my Amazon review might've is probably too blunt. I should have put more time into it vs. just firing it off. Next time...

ceruzzip's picture

Although I swore I would not say any more about this topic, I found an interesting discussion at the Columbia Journalism Review website:
What makes it interesting is that it contains several posts by the children and spouses of the principals of the story--a group of people we have not heard form until now.

Paul Ceruzzi

ceruzzip's picture

Sorry -- apparently the SIGCIS doesn't allow one to post URLs -- probably a wise move. Anyway, if you search for Columbia Journalism Review you will find it, I think. Or send me an e-mail.

Paul Ceruzzi

The URL is
http://www.cjr.org/page_views/number_cruncher.php. It posted for me. Discussion is still raging.

More generally, if you have specific factual errors in the book then please consider posting them here. I have not read it, and do not think there is much scholarly interest at this point in making a case for any single person as "the inventor" of "the computer" when the various incremental steps toward this goal have been so well documented. It's sad that addressing this question, or anything to do with Nazis, seems to be the only way to get a history of computing book noticed by the wider world. Who even knew that "Mauchly-ites" and Atanasoffians still roamed the earth (though the most committed appear to be relatives of the participants).

On the other hand we as a community are well placed to spot and evaluate specific errors of fact and research, of which the book allegedly contains a number.

Thanks for the link to the additional discussion, Tom. The Computer History Museum has a conversation between John Hollar and Jane Smiley scheduled for January 27th, according to their homepage. Hopefully, as with many CHM events, this will be available for all of us to peruse on the web in video form shortly thereafter.

January 13, 2011
Stranger than Truth—Smiley’s The Man Who Invented the Computer

The sections of the Jane Smiley book concerning American computer developments-- the basis for her thesis that Atanasoff was The Man who Invented the Computer--are superficially researched, riddled with factual errors, and totally biased.

Smiley’s thesis is entirely borrowed from previous writers on one side of the issue. It is that John V. Atanasoff, a brilliant scientist at Iowa State (where Smiley taught for more than a decade), invented “the computer,” in the form of a machine later called the ABC. Then his ideas were stolen by Mauchly (“a space case”) who shared them with J. Presper Eckert at Penn. Eckert merely “followed through,” making sure that Mauchly’s designs “were properly executed” in developing the ENIAC computer for the Army during World War II. But Smiley later acknowledges that Eckert was “an inventive dynamo” (p. 144), hardly the sort just to take Mauchly’s ideas and merely execute them. More serious computer historians argue that Eckert, working closely with Mauchly and others, should be seen as the master engineer of the computer age. (e.g., Campbell-Kelly and Aspray, 1996, p. 96)

The American-based portions of Smiley’s book rely overwhelmingly on just three second-hand book treatments. Two are strongly pro-Atanasoff books, one written by Tammara Burton, Atanasoff’s granddaughter, the other by the Iowa journalist Clark Mollenhoff. The third is a pro-ENIAC book by Wall Street Journal reporter Scott McCartney. Smiley also did an interview with a filmmaker (Kirwan Cox) and includes some oral and written contributions by computer scientist John Gustafson, famous for his reconstruction of the ABC. She directly quotes no documents and directly quotes from only two of the dozens of relevant oral histories. For one of her 12 chapters (Chapter 11) she makes 26 references to sources, and all but two of them are to Mollenhoff’s book. She cites only two of the dozen or more relevant articles that have appeared in the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, and only one of these does she quote directly rather than by reference to one of the three books on which she mainly relies.

Smiley is a novelist, and she has written a book with a hero and a villain, and she has constructed her story to justify these characterizations. If, in one of her few sources, she finds contradictory evidence, she simply glides over it. For example, she never reveals that McCartney says flatly, “there was nothing in ENIAC that Atanasoff could point to and identify as a copy of his own work,” and that his book goes on to make that argument. (p. 186) This issue has been the subject of much detailed, item-by-item debate, but Smiley never attempts to acknowledge or to address his position.

For another example, she argues that Atanasoff, “because of his energy, organizational skills, and persistence,” had a long life of “mastering everything he tried” (p. 202). By contrast, Mauchly was “easily distracted” (p. 94) and “never seems to have inspired confidence, wherever he went and whatever the circumstances” (p. 133). If, in one of her few sources, she finds contradictory evidence, she simply glides over it. For example, shortly after the war the Navy gave Atanasoff the responsibility and resources to develop a new, post-ENIAC computer and hired Mauchly as a part-time consultant. After a year, the Navy gave up on the project. McCartney says that Atanasoff’s engineers “never even got as far as designing an architecture for their machine,” that the project “was doomed by poor management” and failed despite being “given a large budget and access to the best consultants”. (pp. 210-211)

Smiley ignores these allegations and just summarizes Atanasoff’s explanation “that he had been short of both personnel and time,” adding that his excuses “made perfect sense” (p. 188). If she had gone beyond her few sources and looked into the Annals, she would have found a telling article by a top assistant on the project, Calvin Mooers. The working engineers, he tells us, welcomed Mauchly’s “advanced technological ideas”. This was especially true, since they were “not getting intellectual support” or “leadership of any credible sort” from Atanasoff, who, when pressed for a decision, would invariably go off on long digression on topics as irrelevant as the health benefits of goats’ milk. (Mooers, 2001, pp. 54, 55, 58)

Atanasoff was undoubtedly an ingenious and accomplished man, as reflected in his design of the ABC. However, when Smiley adopts for her title, The Man Who Invented the Computer, she then finds it difficult to admit any nuances or embarrassing contradictions to his story.

The following list of factual errors is not intended to argue the technical and historical intricacies of the issue of “who invented the computer”--if that is even a sensible question in light of the cumulative character of technology. It is, however, intended to argue that Smiley’s book makes no contribution to that discussion. She has attempted to transform an historical record with varying shades of grey into a sharp contrast between black and white. In the process, she indulges in gross character assassination, leaps to unwarranted conclusions from limited evidence, and imposes a double standard for evaluating Atanasoff and Mauchly. In interviews, Smiley has called her story of computer development “stranger than fiction.” Given the many contradictions and misstatements in her book, it is better seen as “stranger than truth”.

Smiley’s book is especially irresponsible, however, because it does violence not only to this particular episode in history but also to the true nature of technological progress. There are people—like Atanasoff, Mauchly and Eckert--who read and converse widely and purposefully, who draw ideas from a variety of sources and disciplines, and who then build on those ideas to create new products. We do not disparage such people as copycats or thieves. We hail them as inventors.

Peter Eckstein

Error List

The following are nearly four-dozen factual errors in the Smiley book. I have confined this list to the sections on American computer developments, because I am insufficiently versed in British or German computer history to have vetted those sections. I have also not attempted to include here any of the innuendos, non-sequitors and other dubious interpretations in the book. While I have drafted the final version of this list and take responsibility for its accuracy, others have contributed their thoughts, which have been particularly helpful on engineering issues.

p. 23—“Most calculators in the 1930s were analog.” Actually, while there were a very few analog machines—notably Vannevar Bush’s Differential Analyzer and a few copies of it—most calculators then were entirely digital. These included Burroughs bookkeeping machines and the more common desktop calculators, like the Monroe or the Marchant. (Swedin and Ferro, 2005, p. 26)

p. 24—Vannevar Bush “founded the company that was to become Raytheon”. Bush had the idea for its first product and did research for it, but it was founded by Bush’s friend, Laurence K. Marshall. (Scott, 1974, pp. 11-28)

p. 27—Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine “was an analog device designed to solved (sic) polynomial equations.” Actually, it was a digital device aimed at producing mathematical tables. (Williams, 1997, pp. 163, 168)

p. 27—All 20th century computer inventors (except Zuse) “were aware” of Charles Babbage’s work. Yet McCartney, her one major source on ENIAC, states that “Mauchly, indeed most everyone associated with ENIAC in its infancy, had never heard of Babbage and his design.” (p. 64) Eckert once reported that he “was not familiar with Babbage’s work” when he began work on ENIAC. (Eckert, 1977, p. 27) Mauchly also did not recall knowing about Babbage before he began work on computing. (Metropolis and Worlton, 1980)

p. 28 – Aiken’s Mark “was a mechanical switching system”. Actually, it used relays, which were electromechanical--switches operated electrically, not manually. (Williams, 1997, pp. 235-243)

pp. 42—In the ABC, “The vacuum tubes would be arranged inside a processing unit and different arrangements of on and off tubes would stand for different numbers—any number could be represented by a row of on-off vacuum tubes.” Also, p. 48—Atanasoff decided to reserve expensive vacuum tubes “for the operating memory and use capacitors for the storage memory.” Actually, Atanasoff did not store bits in vacuum tubes. As Burks and Burks describe it, he “had chosen capacitors as storage elements because they could communicate directly with vacuum tubes.” The only memory in the addition process was the carry, which was done with a special, higher-speed rotating capacitor drum. (1989, pp. 36, 27)

p. 64—“Solving 29 linear equations with 29 unknowns was still a lengthy process (taking some 30 hours) and required systematic inputs by the human operator, but it could be done.” There is no citation for this assertion. Elsewhere in her book, Gustafson reports that the recreated ABC could not solve anything like 29 equations but only “could do five equations and five unknowns. Beyond five, it would be messed up”. (p. 200)

p. 78—From the McCartney book (she cites p. 36, actually 34-5) she concedes that Mauchly took his students on laboratory field trips, where they were “shown a vacuum tube system for counting cosmic rays”. But, she adds, “there is no evidence that he had a larger system in mind” before meeting Atanasoff. There may not have been such evidence in the three books Smiley consulted, but it exists in other places. The most direct evidence lies in two letters Mauchly wrote shortly before ever meeting Atanasoff and six months before seeing the ABC. In one letter, he describes his hope to construct a computing device “using vacuum tube relays, and yielding mathematically exact, not approximate, results”—in other words, an electronic digital machine. In another letter, he expresses his hope to build “an electronic computing machine” based on the “scaling circuits” used for counting cosmic rays and other pulses. (Mauchly, 1984, pp. 124-5; also quoted in Burks and Burks, 1989, p. 100)

p. 80 – The controversy about Mauchly and Atanasoff is who “should be given credit for the invention of the computer (or, to be precise, the invention of the calculating device that led to the invention of the computer).” Computer historian Michael Williams similarly calls ABC an “electronic calculator”. (Williams, 1997, p. 265) But if Atanasoff only designed a “calculating device,” how does he become The Man Who Invented the Computer?

pp. 81-2 – It is true that Eckert and Mauchly met in 1941 during “a cram course in electronics”, but they were not “assigned to be lab partners,” and Eckert was not “the youngest student in the class.” In fact, Eckert was a one of the instructors, a lab assistant in the course in which physicist Mauchly was a student. (e.g., Shurkin, 1985, p. 100; Eckert, 1977, p. 4)

p. 82—Mauchly added the words “and Computer” to the ENIAC name “after visiting Ames.” Actually, it was Col. Paul Gillon of the Army who added or included the words. (Shurkin, p. 127) Somehow, Smiley places a sinister tone on the timing, but everything was done after Mauchly visited Ames—conceiving the full project, getting Army support, and naming the machine.

p. 89—The Bush Differential Analyzer was making calculations “at Aberdeen”—but another copy of it was doing calculations at Penn for use at Aberdeen.
(Shurkin, 1984, p. 79)

p. 92—Atanasoff “wondered how Mauchly had gotten security clearance to visit him” but the best answer he got by asking around was “the vague supposition that possibly Mauchly had connections, since his father was a Washington, D.C., scientific eminence.” The father was not such an eminence at this time—1943—though he had been up until his death in 1928, a full 15 years earlier.

p. 94 – Because ENIAC “was decimally based, it could only add and subtract, not multiply.” In fact, ENIAC could not only multiply but could also divide and do square roots. (Stern, 1981, p. 50) It is unclear whether the ABC, as Atanasoff designed it, could do any of these things directly. For example, it could divide one number from another through a cumbersome process of repeated subtraction, but it did “not actually produce the quotient of two numbers, as it kept no record of the number of times it performed the repeated subtraction”. (Ceruzzi, 1990, p. 229) ABC certainly did not include the additional features McCartney describes for the ENIAC--“an exponential function, a parabola, and a sine function.” (p. 88)

p. 94 – “Eckert’s idea was that” ENIAC “would be so fast that a binary number system would not improve overall performance and would require an extra piece of input-output hardware”. This is by itself correct, in that the internal processing was in decimal. As Eckert explained to Stern, ENIAC “isn’t strictly a decimal machine. There were many sub-elements . . . that are binary in nature and then could be converted to decimal before they came out of the machine.” The designers were “forced” to use decimal output because they were using IBM punch cards and printers that were decimal. (Eckert, 1977, p. 6) Smiley ignores the fact that ABC had some of the same limitations. While it used binary arithmetic in its internal calculations, it received its data input in decimal punch cards and produced its output in decimal on what Gustafson describes as “odometer-type wheels” that had to be read visually. (Gustafson, 2000, p. 100)

p. 94—Mauchly “came up with the ideas” but was “easily distracted,” while Eckert “followed through, realizing the ideas in the machine and making sure that his (Mauchly’s) designs were properly executed.” Mauchly was indeed partly distracted by a heavy teaching load, which Eckert did not have. But Eckert did far more than simply execute Mauchly’s ideas. Rather, he and his design team produced many ingenious way of making ENIAC work, and Mauchly repeatedly helped not by recalling Atanasoff’s ideas but by helping Eckert in an imaginative way to think through problems. One of Smiley’s few source books calls Eckert “an inventor with drive, quick mechanical touch, and superbly innovative ideas.” (Macrae, 1992, p. 283) As the Army press release announcing the ENIAC put it, Eckert was the “spark plug” of the group. “Not only have the design and construction of the machine been largely his responsibility, but together with Dr. Mauchly he has made many inventions basic to the progress of electronic computing.” (War Department, 1946, p. 4)

p. 94 – “Eckert, it was clear to everyone, depended on Mauchly, but no one knew exactly why, even Mauchly.” Smiley offers no source for this amazing assertion. She cannot possibly know what “no one” knew, but some who did have in fact commented on the historical record. For example, Moore School professor Carl Chambers said of the ENIAC project, “Eckert and Mauchly would be the ones that would work out the kind of changes required. Mauchly would be invaluable in that kind of thinking. . . . As a source of research ideas, he was excellent.” (Chambers, 1977) Smiley’s source seems to be one of the two oral histories she cites directly, that with Irven Travis, a professor at the Moore School who was gone on Navy service from 1941 to 1946, the entire period of the construction of ENIAC. (Travis, 1977) If Smiley had bothered to read Eckert’s oral history in the same set, he might have cleared up the mystery from the grave. He credits Mauchly with devising the key concept of subroutines to handle repetitious operations without requiring repetitious programming and with solving a problem of using the programming system to control the counter mechanisms—but also being willing to join in the soldering work of the central cycling unit when an engineer went suddenly absent. (Eckert, 1977, pp. 26, 28, 31)

p. 95: “ENIAC was not a programmable computer—its switches had to be set and it had to be wired to perform its task,” and rewiring was time-consuming. In fact, setting it up to perform its task was programming, done with plug-in cables rather than hardwiring. What ENIAC lacked was a capacity to store a program—a problem its developers recognized early in the process and began addressing as soon as the original design was “frozen”. When tackling a problem like the calculation of page after page of firing tables, the initial programming time was more than justified by the electronic speed of calculation once the program was set. Even one of the three books Smiley consulted says flatly, “ENIAC was programmable; the Atanasoff was not,” and has a 2 ½ page section headed, “The Women Who Programmed ENIAC”. (McCartney, 1999, p.182)

p. 114—Eckert and Mauchly “had to use parts that were already in existence . . . and at least some ideas that derived from machines that were already familiar to the army”. Some believe that one of the sources of ideas was the Differential Analyzer at the Moore School. Smiley errs, however, in calling it “Irven Travis’ machine at the Moore School” --and later referring to Travis as “the man who had designed an analog ‘analyzer’ on the model of the Bush-Caldwell Analyzer at the Moore School.” (p. 83) and “the inventor of the earlier Moore School analyzer” (p. 131) The only machine actually at the Moore School was an improved version of Vannevar Bush’s Differential Analyzer at MIT that was built after his specifications and with the help of his chief draftsman. (Travis, 1977, p. 2; Shurkin, 1984, p. 78-81). Travis probably supervised the construction (Travis, 1977, p. 3). Travis later thought about ways to make a more-electronic analyzer and wrote proposals to do so, but he never built an actual device. (Burks and Burks, 1989, pp. 182, 186, 188) Incidentally,Smiley is correct that the ENIAC developers obtained good ideas from many sources, but the more she accuses Mauchly of getting all his good ideas from this source or that, the more she weakens her thesis that Atanasoff is the inventor of the computer from whom Mauchly stole his most important ideas.

pp. 115, et al.--Smiley offers three versions of Goldstine’s role in the creation of the “First Draft” on EDVAC paper that bore von Neumann’s name—ghost writer, author, and facilitator. Under von Neumann’s direction, Goldstine “wrote a description of an idea” for the EDVAC. (p. 115) The war was still on “when Goldstine wrote the paper”. (p. 116) There was later discussion of “the ‘First Draft’ document Goldstine had typed up in June 1945” (p. 143) So either Goldstine wrote it, wrote it under von Neumann’s direction, or typed it up (or had it typed up). McCartney—one of the few books on which Smiley bases her account of American developments—says that von Neumann wrote the paper in Los Alamos and sent it “off to Goldstine to be compiled and typed up.” (pp. 117-8)

pp. 115-116 – Smiley says that Eckert “had written a three-page memo in February 1944, describing a system for storing electrical impulses,” but that the “most important contribution” of von Neumann’s subsequent “First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC” was the concept “that the computer could contain a set of instructions in its memory.” But her source, McCartney, makes clear that Eckert’s memo—based on his earlier development of a mercury delay line and “also signed by Mauchly”—included this concept. It not only “described a system that could store electrical pulses” but also proposed that it be used to “replace much of the difficult mechanical programming” being done for ENIAC,” because “instructions would be stored electronically in the memory”. (McCartney, pp. 119-120)

p. 117 – “The purpose of ENIAC was to accomplish what Mauchly had originally proposed—the calculation of artillery trajectories.” In fact, Mauchly originally (August, 1942) proposed a general-purpose electronic machine—one that would use interconnected electronic circuits to “perform a number of multiplications, additions, subtractions, or divisions in sequence, and which can therefore be used for the solution of difference equations,” which would be “one of the chief fields of usefulness”. (Shurkin, 1984, p. 113) The Army did have the pressing problem of calculating trajectories, but it preferred this general capability. After all, it was Colonel Gillon who insisted that the machine be labeled not just “Electronic Numerical Integrator”—which would be especially useful for trajectory work--but also “and Computer”. The first major problem ENIAC tackled was a vastly different one- -calculating the feasibility of a trigger for a hydrogen bomb. (Shurkin, 1984, pp. 160-2)

After p.118—photo caption—she repeats the error (on page 27) that Babbage’s machines were “analog computing devices”. The Analytical Engine was also digital. (Williams, 1997, p. 180)

After p.118—photo caption—“Aiken’s Mark I analog device in use, 1944.” Actually, it was digital. (see, for example, Augarten, 1984, p. 106)

Opposite page 119—photo caption--“von Neumann with EDVAC”. Actually he is standing with the IAS computer. (See the same photo, correctly labeled, in Campbell-Kelly and Aspray, 1996, following p. 150)

p. 125—As a result of the Navy dropping Atanasoff’s computer project in 1946, his “need to know” information request to the Navy “in order to find out the workings of ENIAC became moot. He would not find out this information until years later.” McCartney specifically refutes this allegation, but Smiley repeats it anyway. He points out that in early 1946—before the cancellation of his Navy project--Atanasoff attended a navy conference at which ENIAC “was a prime topic of discussion.” An Atanasoff deputy attended the Moore School Lectures “which were basically a how-to course in the construction of an ENIAC-type computer,” and he later recalled the staff “spending “quite a little time” listening to Mauchly “describe the progress on the ENIAC.” (McCartney, pp. 208-211).

p. 131—Herman Goldstine “put his name on the patent application, but Mauchly and Eckert removed it.” What it says in McCartney’s book—the only one on ENIAC that Smiley ever cites--is that Goldstine listed his name as one of the three developers of ENIAC on an Army press release, not on the patent application, and that this is the document from which Mauchly (not Mauchly and Eckert) edited out Goldstine’s name. (pp.129-130)

p. 132—Stern’s interview with Travis was “for the Charles Babbage Institute”. Actually, it was for her thesis (and later book). CBI didn’t even exist in 1977, when she did the interview, but she did later donate her materials to it.

p. 132 - Eckert only had “earned only a bachelor’s degree” by age 27. He actually earned his master’s degree at age 24. (Who’s Who in America, 1956-1957, Vol. 29, p. 750)

p. 133, p. 182 -- She twice cites a statement about the two men’s characteristics. Once she attributes it to Mauchly’s widow and once to Eckert’s widow. Her source, Burton (p. 160), only cites Kay Mauchly but gives no source.

p. 133--“In general, Mauchly never seems to have inspired confidence, wherever he went and whatever the circumstances.” Mauchly had both supporters and detractors, but “never” is simply false. Eckert, his collaborator and life-long friend, called him a man “brilliant in his ideas” who “inspired people”. (Eckert, 1977, pp. 38, 40) For example, another associate, Isaac Auerbach, called him “a warm human being with an incredibly wide range of interest and achievements.” (Auerbach, 1984, p. 190) Rear Admiral Grace Hopper called him “one of the brightest people I ever met and one of the nicest,” someone who “got the work done” and was “the finest boss anyone ever had.” (Auerbach, 1984, pp. 189-190) Calvin Mooers from the Navy computer project found him “a mentor to many bright young people around him” through “talking to them, inspiring them, (and) listening seriously as they talked about their ideas.” (Mooers, 2001, p. 54)

p. 135—Quotes Kirwan Cox, the film producer —“ENIAC was a hybrid machine—partially ABC, partially Bush Analyzer, and partially ganged calculators.” This is an absurd trivialization of ENIAC. While its developers may have drawn broad ideas from some of these, as well as from digital binary scaling counters, ENIAC was an original working system of its own with dozens of unique innovations or borrowings. These included the decade ring counter, the high-speed multiplier, the master programmer, the divider square rooter, the central cycling unit, the constant transmitter, the accumulator, and the subroutines. Ideas for these, or the parts themselves, were derived from “a wide variety of sources”—including NCR, RCA, IBM and AT&T--and were developed by various members of the ENIAC design team, including Burks, Shaw and Sharpless as well as Eckert and Mauchly. (Stern, 1981, pp. 25-26, 33, 39; Shurkin, 1984, p. 136) If ENIAC was no more than a hybrid of these three machines, what about the other “machines that were already familiar to the army” that Smiley cites on p. 114?

p. 135—Smiley quotes Kirwan Cox to the effect that in moving from ENIAC to EDVAC, its developers improved it “by going back to ABC, to a binary counting system and regenerative memory.” But, if these were two of the most important ideas that Mauchly allegedly stole from the ABC, it is noteworthy that he and Eckert managed to produce ENIAC without them. As for binary counting, Eckert recalled becoming “familiar with the binary system when I was 14 years old” – as well as “the trinary system and any other system you want to talk about”. (Eckert, 1977, p. 5; Eckstein, 1996, p. 32). Mauchly also already understood binary math--as well as binary counting devices. One of his students from Ursinus recalled that “the motivation behind” his experiments with flip-flop circuits “was to develop a device to do arithmetic calculations electronically using binary digits.” (John De Wire; quoted in Mauchly, 1984, p. 120) The two based their later plans for EDVAC not on some memory device based on ABC’s revolving drum but on the mercury delay line--a totally-different regenerative memory device that Eckert had already developed for use in radar before he began work on ENIAC (Stern, pp. 60-1).

p. 135—“According to Gustafson,” the designers of EDVAC “also copied the use of capacitors arranged on a rotating drum.” Actually, EDVAC was built with two methods of storage—Eckert’s “Mercury Acoustic Delay Line” as the main memory type and “Magnetic Drum” as “secondary memory”. (Stern, 1981, pp. 94, 133) Capacitors are devices to temporarily hold an electric charge, but they are not magnetic.

p. 144—When Eckert and Mauchly created their company, their “first machine” was UNIVAC—actually the first machine delivered was BINAC, to which Stern devotes a whole chapter. (Stern,1981, pp. 116-136)

p. 148 – “The weight and toxicity of mercury” used in the delay lines “limited the general usefulness of the UNIVAC, as well as its potential commercial appeal.” She presents no evidence or source for this allegation. The toxicity of mercury was not widely recognized for many years after UNIVAC was created, and the system weighed well over a ton with or without the delay lines. UNIVAC’s appeal was certainly “limited” by its size and expense—but compared to what? It was still the country’s first commercially-sold computer, with some 46 bought by government and business customers. (Smiley, p. 151)

p. 162 -- Mauchly “had run the UNIVAC division until 1959”, but actually he only ran an applications center within it. (Auerbach, 1984, p.189)

pp. 168 and 169—Control Data Corporation “had originally been a company called Engineering Research Associates”, which “went broke and was sold to Remington Rand”. Smiley fails to see the stark contradiction between these two statements in the same paragraph—if CDC had originally been ERA, how did it survive going broke and being sold to RR? In fact, both statements are errors. ERA was a profitable and growing enterprise in 1952 when its president and largest shareholder sold it to RR for 1.7 million dollars (See Worthy, 1987, p. 27). It became a division of RR and then part of its UNIVAC division, and in 1957 Bill Norris led some but not all of its engineers (A Few Good Men from Univac) in leaving and forming CDC.

p. 178—During preparations for the patent trial, Mauchly had lunch with Atanasoff and remarked, “Our lawyers don’t want me to remember anything.” No one today knows what actually was said, but Smiley cites Mollenhoff , p. 130, as her only source. His version was: “Mauchly had mentioned in a half-facetious comment to Atanasoff that his lawyers didn’t ‘want me to remember anything,’ ” and Mauchly later that day criticized the Sperry lawyer’s suggestion “to remember only casually what he could” as “exhibiting a rather casual attitude.” On Smiley’s next page, she picks up the phrase but now throws it at Mauchly: “Atanasoff did not at all share Mauchly’s casual attitude toward the suit.”

p. 181—Smiley alludes to McCartney as Mauchly’s “own biographer.” In fact, Mauchly has never had a biographer. McCartney wrote a book about computers in an effort to determine—without arriving at the answer beforehand—who had invented the computer, and the result was a serious book called ENIAC. It includes biographical sketches of both Eckert and Mauchly—whose first 34 years are covered in only 11 pages--but it is the story of the development of the machine and the controversies around it.

p. 191—Smiley refers to the 1941 summer course at Penn as a course “in computing theory.” Such a course could obviously not be taught for defense training in 1941. It was, as Smiley has already said on p. 81, a course in “electronics”.

p. 197—Alice Burks “worked on ENIAC with Jean Bartik.” Actually, Alice Burks did not work on ENIAC. In her book describes herself as “what was called a ‘computer’ working on firing tables” at Penn (Burks, 2003, p. 19). Bartik, however, was “one of the original programmers” for ENIAC (McCartney, p. 94)

* * *

These errors—and many other biases and innuendoes—demonstrate that Smiley has committed historical malpractice of the highest order. This book should never have been funded (by Sloan), written (by Smiley) or published (by Doubleday).


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